Posts Tagged With: Box Sets

You Never Can Tell What Will Walk Out Of The Fog… Indicator’s COLUMBIA NOIR #1 Box Reviewed

Foch & Wright’s brush with The Uncanny saves the world for Democracy…

BD. Indicator. Region B. 12.

ESCAPE IN THE FOG (Budd Boetticher, 1945)
THE UNDERCOVER MAN (Joseph H Lewis, 1949)
DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (Richard Quine, 1954)
5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (Phil Karlson, 1955)
THE GARMENT JUNGLE (Vincent Sherman and Robert Aldrich, 1957)
THE LINEUP (Don Siegel, 1958)

Indicator’s characteristically lush inaugural trawl through Columbia’s Noir and Noirish output makes for an eclectic and immersive box set experience.

Escape In The Fog (directed by Budd Boetticher before he carved out a comfortable niche for himself in Western territory) is a “B” movie in the truest sense of the term, a second feature clocking in at scarcely more than an hour and consequently rattling along at a fair old lick so that Boetticher and writer Aubrey Wisberg can pack their tale of WWII espionage with nasty Nazis, snappy guys, sexy dames tied up in cellars, dirty double crosses and a surprise supernatural element…. all this plus a “blink and you’ll miss her” appearance by the young Shelley Winters.

The MacGuffin that drives this one along is an unspecified “special plan” to end hostilities early (and just four months after Boetticher’s film hit American cinemas, the Enola Gay released its payload over Hiroshima) but the plot turns on the ineffable moment in which recuperating army nurse Eileen Carr (Nina Foch), out for an insomniac stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge, witnesses Barry Malcolm (Willian Wright) being duffed up by some German agents, which turns out to be a (very fortuitous) premonition of something which hasn’t happened yet. As an inquisitive cop tells her: “You never can tell what will walk out of the fog”. What never emerges from that nebulous bridge, however, is any attempt at an explanation for this rum turn of events, which all the participants just seem to take in their stride. Perhaps we’re meant to infer that Divine Providence really was rooting for the Allies or maybe Boetticher was just copping himself a bit of the then-voguish “inner sanctum” action (a mystery series that has continued to exert its influence as recently and controversially as in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, 2002). EITF’s moody meditation on death and destiny, played out in San Francisco, might even have been on Hitchcock’s mind when he shot Vertigo in that city, 13 years later…

Nina Foch fanciers are further served in this box by the Dutch actress’s appearance in The Undercover Man. Here she’s Judith, devoted wife of dedicated IRS agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford), who’s aiming to bring down Chicago’s “Big Fellow”, after all else has failed, by establishing tax evasion. Although the film never makes this explicit (beyond its vague prologue paean to the unsung heroes of crime cracking), the allusion to the real life and crime story of a certain Alphonse Capone is unmistakable. The principle obstacle to Warren and his tenacious team (below) getting at the truth, of course, is the understandable reluctance of those involved in the numbers, protection and various other rackets to break their silence but ultimately it’s a plucky little granny from the old country who speaks up to settle the crime lord’s hash.

The characterisations in Lewis’s morality play are perhaps more cut and dried, black and white, than is customary in this genre, but the art direction of Walter Holscher, Burnett Guffey’s compositions and low angle photography, plus the slick montages of editor Al Clark, are all out of the Classic Noir playbook. Just who is that “undercover man”, though? Warren whips his warrant card out and starts waving it around at the drop of a hat. Maybe the title character is actually “The Big Fellow”, who conducts his nefarious activities so clandestinely that we never get to see him or even hear his real name.

Glenn Ford played Frank Warren-type roles more times than Posh Spice has had hot dinners but in Drive A Crooked Road (co-written with director Quine by Blake Edwards) we find Mickey Rooney trying to bust out of his goofy nice guy straightjacket and succeeding admirably in the role of Eddie Shannon, a short arsed nobody of a car mechanic who just happens to drive like the clappers. Identifying him as the guy they need to beat police roadblocks after the bank heist they’re planning, cynical hipsters Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy) and Harold Baker (Jack Kelly) lure the hapless schmuck into their scheme, using sexy Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster) as the bait in their honey trap. When Babs’ conscience starts troubling her, murderous complications arise. Owing much to the plot of Robert Siodmak’s seminal The Killers (1946), DACR emerges as a strong slice of Noir in its own right and gets an enthusiastic introduction here from Martin Scorsese…

… presumably the director of Casino (1995) is also well aware of 5 Against The House. Phil Karlson’s heist movie features the oldest college students seen on cinema screens until Grease (hang on, they’re Korean War veterans studying on the G.I. Bill… still looking a bit to old to fit even that chronology though, if you ask me) including hunky Al Mercer (Guy Madison), his post traumatic stress-disordered former comrade in arms Brick (Brian Keith) and smart alec Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), who comes up with the whimsical student wheeze of robbing a casino, just for the fun of it and returning the money. What could possibly go wrong? Enough, potentially, for Al to pull out but he tags along anyway so he can marry his girl Kay (Kim Novak, on the verge of the big time) in Reno. Unfortunately the increasingly deranged Brick won’t stand for anybody punking out and he has no intention of returning any money. Bang bang goes Al and Kay’s honeymoon…

The ensemble acting in this one is pretty strong, though the constant would-be wise cracks from debutant screen-writer Stirling Silliphant quickly wear out their welcome. Never mind (as we’ll shortly see), Silliphant went on to pen some sterling stuff. Kerwin Mathews also gets his first big screen credit, after an anonymous earlier 1955 appearance in Fred Sears’ Cell 2455, Death Row, a thinly veiled dramatisation of the notorious Caryl Chessman / “Red Light Bandit” case. Watch out for a pre-“Cannon” William Conrad too, handling the money in that casino.

Kerwin Mathews is back as Alan Mitchell (above left), another Korean War vet, in The Garment Jungle, returning to take his place in the family fashion business but finding it scarcely less of a battlefield. His father Walter (Lee J. Cobb) has become embroiled with the mob (personified by Richard Boone’s aptly named Artie Ravidge) in an attempt to keep the union out of his shop and takes an eternity to figure out that this attempted cure is actually way more harmful than the perceived illness. He doesn’t seem unduly concerned about union supporting employees being roughed up, organiser Tulio Renata (Robert Loggia) being murdered, nor even his partner / best mate dying in an elevator “accident” but Alan eventually… finally… opens his eyes and takes on the hoods while simultaneously romancing Renata’s widow Theresa (the silver screen’s sexist scouser Sicilian, Gia Scala). This is another forceful effort, with exactly the level of performances you’d expect from such a standout cast. The script was adapted by Harry Kleiner from newspaper articles in which Lester Velie documented the real life struggles of sweatshop workers. As detailed by Tony Rayns in a bonus featurette, Robert Aldrich shot much of the picture but left it to be completed by Vincent Sherman when his desire to emphasise the Jewish experience in Manhattan’s rag trade was thwarted… by producer Harry Cohn (go figure!) As evidenced by the poster below, Columbia would ultimately take a very different tack in the marketing of the film…

Indicator save the best till last on this set, with the great Don Siegel’s The Lineup, on which the aforementioned Stirling Silliphant proved that he had developed into a film writing force to be reckoned with. The action kicks off at San Francisco International Airport, where an apparently bog standard luggage theft escalates into a shootout that leaves a cop and a taxi driver dead. The police discover that a statuette in the purloined case contains heroin, but recognising that its owner is an unwitting dupe, release it back to him, with an innocuous powder substituted for the skag, while they wait to see who tries to pick it up. Enter the intense Dancer (Eli Wallach), his cynical handler Julian (Robert Keith) and their alcoholic driver, collecting from their unwitting mules until they discover that a cute little girl has used all the dope secreted in her dolly as face powder for it, at which point the brown stuff really hits the fan…

As amply demonstrated here (and Anthony Hopkins, please take note) it’s not necessary to chew on the scenery when playing a psychopath. Wallach’s portrayal of the madness simmering away just below his character’s stone cold surface is masterly stuff and when he finally does blow… oh boy!

As underlined in a short accompanying video essay, Siegel’s film makes exemplary use of its locations (many still standing, some of them long gone). But again, why is it called The Lineup? There is a police lineup in it (more than one, actually) but also plenty more noteworthy stuff, including a climactic car chase that (even without the participation of Mickey Rooney) makes for truly thrilling stuff and predates the more celebrated one in Bullitt by a full decade.

All six films are handsomely presented here, for the first time on UK Blu-ray (with The Undercover Man and Drive a Crooked Road making their world Blu-ray premieres). This set also boasts a 120-page book, and is strictly limited to 6,000 numbered units. There are audio commentaries from the likes of Pamela Hutchinson, Tony Rayns, Nick Pinkerton and David Jenkins. On The Lineup you get a choice of two commentary tracks (or why not spoil yourself and listen to both), one courtesy of legendary crime writer James Ellroy with the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller and a more recent one featuring film historian David Del Valle and author / screenwriter C Courtney Joyner. Supporting the main feature on each disc you’ll find apposite bonus materials such as Boetticher’s The Fleet That Came To Stay, compiled from original combat footage captured during the Battle of Okinawa and released shortly after Escape in the Fog; Joseph H Lewis’s 1945 short Man on a Bus, a PR job for the fledgling state of Israel starring Walter Brennan, Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman and yes, Lassie. There are also archival interviews of various vintage with Kim Novak, Robert Loggia and Mickey Rooney (also a brief bit of publicity puff in which Rooney watches an earlier bit of publicity puff, featuring his childhood self, with a couple of his Columbia pals!) Director and Noir buff Christopher Nolan delivers a quickfire appreciation of the genre. You also get three half hour episodes of the early fifties radio series The Lineup: The Case Of Frankie And Joyce, The Candy Store Murder (written by Blake Edwards) and The Harrowing Haggada Handball Case (co-written by Edwards and Richard Quine).

The expected Image galleries and trailers are present and correct but what really puts the cherry on this cake is that Indicator have taken it as the pretext to trot out a bunch of their Three Stooges acquisitions from the Columbia vault, each amusingly reflecting the subject matter of the main feature whose disc they share. Titles are You Nazty Spy (1940), Higher Than A Kite (1943), Rip, Sew And Stitch and Tricky Dicks (both 1953), Income Tax Sappy (1954) and the decidedly odd (atypically so) Sweet And Hot (1958). Plenty there for fans of Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp and, er, Joe.

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Towers Opens Fire… Indicator’s FU MANCHU CYCLE, 1965-1969 BD Box Set Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. 15

“God save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula”. The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, 1968.

Now that everything pre-Millennial is being rigorously combed through for possible retrospective violations of an ever tightening political correctness code, with particular reference to actors playing characters of a different racial heritage from their own (i.e. acting), it’s an “interesting” time for Indicator to release a characteristically epic BD box set devoted to five Fu Manchu films produced in the ‘60s by the notorious Harry Allan Towers and starring Christopher Lee as the “Devil Doctor / Yellow Peril incarnate”… that’s “interesting” as in the old Chinese curse: “May you live through interesting times” (am I, as an occidental dude, even allowed to reference that one anymore?)

First things first… the fourteen Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer (1983-1959, aka Arthur Sarsfield Ward, but known to his Mum, when he was growing up in Birmingham, as Arthur Henry Ward) are unashamedly Sinophobic, cashing in on contemporary (well, it’s never really gone away) hysteria over “The Yellow Peril” swamping Western, Christian, capitalist culture. The books are enthusiastically anti-Semitic, into the rotten bargain, but early comic strip, radio and film adaptations emphasised the Sinophobia, reaching a peak with MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1931), in which Boris Karloff (an actor who did have Asian heritage) as the title character, orders his minions to enslave white men and rape their women. Charles Brabin’s film was so “screamingly racist” (in the words of Christopher Frayling during a bonus interview here) that it was pulled from distribution after official complaints by the Chinese government and VHS copies were being cut as late as the 1980’s. During WWII the American State Department ordered Republic Pictures to shoot no more FM serials after Dreams of Fu Manchu (1940) for fear of offending China, then an ally against imperial Japan.

The series produced by Harry Allan Towers (above), though, are an entirely different kettle of koi carp. For one thing, after the author died (of… get this… Asian Flu) that inveterate adaptor of vintage literature bought the character rights rather than the story rights for the Fu Manchu novels from Rohmer’s widow, saving himself a savvy packet and simultaneously divesting his series of the novels’ racist baggage by penning new stories under his trusty “Peter Welbeck” non de plume. Here, the Doc is less of a ranting maniac and more of a Chinese nationalist, honourable after his own fashion and certainly (until a certain Spaniard got his busy hands on him) a man of his word (even if most of the words he speaks concern his ambitions for world domination, exceeded only by his desire for revenge on his ongoing nemesis… Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir Dennis Nayland Smith). Then there’s Christopher Lee, who obviously brings real physical presence and gravitas to the title role. Lee had already played orientals to impressive effect in two 1961 efforts, Hammer’s Terror of the Tongs (1961) and Rialto Film’s Edgar Wallace adaptation The Devil’s Daffodil, directed by Akos Rathonvi. Lee’s Fu Manchu is no Benny Hill “Cooky Boy” caricature, more a Blofeld-like supervillain. The influence of the early Bond films is unmistakable, though instead of 007, Fu’s up against Rohmer’s answer to Holmes and Watson, in the shape of Smith and his loyal companion Dr Petrie (played in all of these films by Howard Marion-Crawford). The series’ other ever present is Tsai Chin as the Doc’s daughter Lin Tang, an inscrutable chip off the fiendish old block.

With Don Sharp (“a lovely, make-do-and-mend director” in the words of assistant Ray Andrew) calling the shots, ably assisted by equally dependable DP Ernest Steward, inaugural entry The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) also benefits from a castload of such krimi regulars (the film is a UK / West German co-production) as Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor and Walter Rilla alongside seasoned British pros like James Robertson Justice (“You can’t leave the museum littered with dead Chinese!”) Dublin doubles for London and indeed the Chinese courtyard where we find Nayland Smith (played by Nigel Green) attending the judicial decapitation, for “crimes beyond number” of the title character. Not for the last time in this series, reports of the Doc’s demise would turn out to have been seriously exaggerated…

Back in “London”, Nayland Smith is bored with his desk job, thirsting for action. He tells his friend Petrie of his nagging doubt that Fu Manchu is still alive and of course he is, having substituted a brain washed doppelgänger for himself on the chopping block. As you do. Before you can say “Evil plan to take over the World”, not entirely inconspicuous Burmese dacoits in martial arts outfits are kidnapping scientists and strangling people with Tibetan prayer scarves all over the capital. Fu’s got himself a Limehouse cellar HQ, very handy for drowning his enemies and leaving them floating around in the Thames. Dr Muller (Rilla) is forced to help the villain synthesise a deadly biotoxin from the black hill poppy (ironic stuff, considering the history of the Opium Wars) when Fu kidnaps his daughter Maria (Dor). Karl Jannsen (Fuchsberger) collaborates with our boys to try and save the Mullers but soon Fu is demonstrating the power of his dreaded lurgy by wiping out the population of seaside town Fleetwick, trailered in one of the ominous radio broadcasts he seems to favour. Meanwhile Lin Tang tops Myrna Loy’s Fah Lo See in Mask of Fu Manchu for sheer unabashed sadism, though she is frequently pulled up by her iron-disciplined father, a firm believer in the adage that violence is a tool rather than a toy. The explosive conclusion in Tibet is a little abruptly arrived at and concluded but by the time Fu Manchu has uttered his soon to become familiar threat that the world will hear from him again (and it usually does), all but the most demanding viewers will consider themselves well served by this satisfying Saturday matinee type romp.

Douglas Wilmer replaces Nigel Green as Nayland Smith in Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) another ripping yarn shot partly in Dublin but mostly studio bound, played out in the dungeons where Fu has made his new HQ and keeps his collection of kidnapped / hypnotised eminent scientists’ daughters. Their dads are thus obliged to chip in with their expertise on his project to build a sonic death ray which, after a decoy threat to Windsor castle, disintegrates a British battleship at sea. Westminster Abbey, stuffed with world leaders, is next on the Doc’s hit list but the BBC collaborate on blocking his deadly radio waves and the French foreign legion join an attack on his base, which blows up after Fu cranks the power too high, over the objections of his technical advisor Burt Kwouk. The UK film industry’s most prolific Chinese thesp is joined by familiar British character actors (e.g. Rupert Davis) and this being another co-production with West Germany, a further krimi contingent in the shape of Heinz Drache and Joseph Furst.

With Sharp otherwise occupied on IRA thriller The Violent Enemy and Towers’ Rocket to the Moon, Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967) was directed by the similarly stalwart Jeremy Summers. Reflecting developments in the ongoing Bond franchise, this one’s a bit more self-consciously modern, edgy, violent and gimmicky than its predecessors. Seeking the leadership of international organised crime (represented by Horst Frank as an oddly accented American racketeer), Fu comes up with his most fiendish plan yet, to weaken world wide law enforcement by either bumping off or discrediting its major practitioners. Wilmer’s Nayland Smith is kidnapped and replaced with a surgically engineered, brainwashed ringer who promptly strangles his maid and is sentenced to death. With the real Assistant Commissioner out of commission, his associates (principally Peter Karsten’s Kurt) have to do most of the sleuthing and foiling. Maria Rohm, Towers’ long time companion, adorns the proceedings as Shanghai dive chanteuse Ingrid, though she’s actually lip-synching to the voice of Samantha Jones.

Received critical wisdom has it that after the solid “Hammer-looking” Face, this series declined markedly with each successive entry and it’s been suggested that Towers spent progressively more of each film’s budget on wining and dining himself and favoured members of his cast and crew. In point of fact, the first three entries are roughly comparable in quality and Vengeance, shot partly in Ireland but also at the Shaw Brothers’ studios in Hong Kong, arguably tops the claustrophobic Brides in terms of production values, scenic locations and thrills / spills. Summers was initially signed up to make another three Fu Manchu epics for the producer but when contractual undertakings clashed, Towers had an oven baked (maybe half-baked) alternative ready to go. Depending on your cinematic tastes, its arguable that the rot really set in with Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)… what’s indisputable is that the series now took a sexadelic swerve into a completely parallel universe, the unparalleled universe of Spanish cult director extraordinary, Jess Franco. Towers had already called Franco in to rescue The Face of Eve (1968) when Summers left that one uncompleted. Did dear old Jess ever really rescue a picture? He’s certainly finished off more than a few. Whatever, with him safely ensconced in the Fu Manchu directing seat, this series would never be quite the same again. Blood… is unrecognisable as the work of the director who made e.g. Succubus, the same year. Despite some sub-Bava lighting effects and signature shots of scantily clad women suspended in chains, there are no pretensions to auteurism here, just Jess taking the money (surreptitiously spending much of it shooting scenes for several other movies he’s got in development) and running. Though “Peter Welbeck” remains the writer of record (and Towers was no doubt happy to pay himself for writing it), this one bears the unmistakable stamp of a thousand other Franco screenplays jotted down on the back of a fag packet. One of Daniel White’s more listless scores does nothing to help.

Now based in some Amazon ruins, Fu has resynthesised an ancient Inca poison that will be administered to world leaders via the kisses of beautiful women whom he has kidnapped and brain washed (this one was released in The States, to general indifference, as Kiss and Kill, increasing suspicion that the Fu Manchu brand was losing its box office allure). Nayland Smith (now played by Richard Robin Hood Greene), having copped a mouthful of poison, is incapacitated and unseen for most of the picture (though he re-emerges with a blazing machine gun during its alleged climax). In another wage-bill cutting move Lee’s Fu, having set all this dastardly shit in motion, also disappears for much of its running time. Lin Tang is brought so far to the fore that she’s even seen sitting on Fu’s throne at one point (she’s following her father’s footsteps, she’s following her dear old Dad!) Nor does he discourage her from enjoying the whipping of captives, as he did in the first film. Shirley Eaton apparently never knew that she’d been cut into this one from footage shot for The Girl from Rio (another Franco / Towers Rohmer adaptation released in 1969) so she never got paid for it. Maria Rohm and Franco himself pop up in the cast and during the protracted absence of Lee and Greene from the screen, much of the narrative centres on the oafish antics of bandit Sancho Lopez, another questionable racist stereotype played by Ricardo Palacios (who looks like a refugee from a bad Spaghetti western, though he actually appeared in some of the very best ones). Marion-Crawford’s Dr Petrie is present and correct but he’s been reduced to a bumbling comic relief character, hacking his way through the Brazilian jungle in search of a nice cup of tea. When he does occasionally show, Lee brings something less than 100% conviction to the delivery of his lines, but with doozies like: “Let him wait like an ant on an anvil!”, who can blame him?

The world did hear from Lee’s Fu Manchu one more time, in Castle of Fu Manchu, but it’s anyone’s guess if they knew WTF he was on about. Scrabbled together with finance from the UK, West Germany, Italy, Spain, Lichtenstein and Turkey (anywhere but The States, which Towers was studiously avoiding while he waited out a vice charge) this one was largely filmed in Istanbul. As ever, Franco demonstrates skilful deployment of his “more bang for your buck” locations, but narrative wise this one makes its wobbly predecessor look like The Magnificent Ambersons. The general idea is that Dr Fu has cracked the formula for freezing large expanses of water instantaneously, threatening world shipping routes. He demonstrates this by freezing “the tropical waters of the South Atlantic” (er… are you sure about that, Doc?), something conveyed to the viewer by stock footage copped from Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958). Elsewhere he causes a massive dam to burst, rendered by further footage theft, this time from Ralph Thomas’s 1957 effort Campbell’s Kingdom. At least Burt Kwouk’s scenes have been pinched from an earlier entry in the Fu Manchu series, if not one that Franco himself directed. The active ingredient in Fu’s ocean-freezing formula is (what else?) opium (is there nothing that stuff can’t do?) and to secure a sufficient supply of it, the Doc goes into partnership with Turkish dope mogul Omar Pashu (Jose Manuel Martin) whose evil henchwoman is played by a Fez-wearing Rosalba Neri (we don’t see enough of her but hey, can you ever really see enough of Rosalba Neri?) It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Nayland Smith (Richard Greene again) ultimately thwarts these megalomaniacal shenanigans. This time the mandatory closing promise / thereat that the world would see Fu Manchu again rings hollow. Despite planning for a sixth entry, Harry Alan Towers decided that Jess Franco had singlehandedly achieved what nobody else ever managed… to kill off Fu Manchu (though no doubt the penny-pinching producer himself had a significant hand in the Doc’s untimely demise).

Could the world’s cinemas feasibly hear from Fu Manchu again in these more “woke” times? One imagines some kind of major revamp would be in order. As a pragmatic jobbing actor, Burt Kwouk was always cool regarding his appearances in this and similar fare. Tsai Chin later said that she felt she’d let her race down by appearing in the Fu Manchu flicks, though no doubt if an occidental actress had played her character, that would now be seriously frowned upon as well. You can’t win, really… just ask that perennially underachieving would be world dominator, Dr Fu Manchu. No matter… his cinematic crusade to rehabilitate the international prestige of Chinese would be achieved (and then some), scant years later, by a certain Bruce Lee.

All films have been handsomely restored from 4K scans of the original negatives. The first three are international BD premieres, the Franco films making their first UK appearances on blu here. Each film is introduced by the BFI’s Vic Pratt. Audio commentaries come courtesy of Stephen Jones / Kim Newman, David Flint / Adrian Smith and Jonathan Rigby. There are archival audio interviews with Don Sharp, Ernest Steward and Jeremy Summers, video ones with Lee (including with the Guardian’s David Robinson and a short piece from the Dublin location of Face), also AD Anthony Waye and clapper loader Ray Andrew on their never-a-dull-moment experiences working for the late Harry Alan Towers. There’s also an entertaining experience with the man himself, who owns up to a “confused” love life (apparently his long-standing partner Maria Rohm sanctioned or disallowed his one night stands on the basis of the proposed conquest’s star sign!) The wonderful Rosalba Neri (below) also talks enthusiastically about working with Franco, whom she remembers as “a genius”.

Kim Newman reflects on Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, Jonathan Rigby on Christopher Lee’s early career, Stephen Thrower on the Franco / Towers collaborations and Christopher Frayling outlines the whole “yellow peril” controversy attaching to Fu Manchu on screen. Two silent Stoll Picture shorts from 1923/4, starring H. Agar Lyons as the Doc – The Fiery Hand and (renewed topicality, here) The Coughing Horror – also included here as extras, illustrate just how far back the arguably dishonourable tradition extends (and each is presented with an optional new score by the band Peninsula). If you need the mood lightening a bit after that little lot, this set also includes Jeremy Summer’s Children’s Film Foundation short The Ghost of Monk’s Island… what, no Sammy’s Super T-shirt?!? You do get the requisite shedload of trailers, TV spots, alternative credits and titles, image galleries plus Super 8 presentations and colour test footage of Lee and Tsai Chin from Blood of Fu Manchu. The limited (to 6,000 numbered units) edition also packs an exclusive 120-page book with a new essay on these films by Tim Lucas, appraisals of the eventful lives and careers of Sax Rohmer and Harry Alan Towers, an examination of the work of Fu Manchu creator, new writing on The Ghost of Monk’s Island Stoll Pictures’ silent Fu Manchu serials, archival newspaper articles, pressbook extracts, contemporary critical responses and full film credits, also an exclusive double-sided poster and five replica production stills.

Phew, did I leave anything out?

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The Holy Mountebank? Alejandro Jodorowsky’s PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART Reviewed.

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“Tell me about your mother…”

As contained in Arrow’s limited edition BD Box Set The Alejandro Jodorowsky Collection. Region B. 18.

Whenever the manifold personal qualities of the extraordinary Alejandro Jodorowsky are discussed, modesty and humility are conspicuous by their absence. True to form, El Jodo opens this documentary presentation of Psychomagic (the therapeutic method he has evolved through his life and films) by comparing / contrasting himself to / with Sigmund Freud. Whereas Psychoanalysis is a talking cure that bans touching, he tell us, Psychomagic is an active cure to which physical contact is fundamental. No doubt Jodorowsky is a sufficiently cultured man to realise that he is here revisiting the schism that eventually sundered Freud from one of his longest serving, ablest and most fondly regarded lieutenants, Sandor Ferenczi (1873-1933).

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“Cheer up, Sigi and gimme a cuddle…” Ferenczi and Freud in 1917.

Reasoning that at some level, all of his patients were (or perceived themselves to be) insufficiently loved, Ferenczi began to believe that their analyses could be more readily expedited with the judicious application of kisses, hugs and caresses. Horrified by the implications of this for Transference (the process by which the client reveals important clues about their relationships with significant others by visiting them upon the blank canvas of the emotionally remote analyst), not to mention the potential ethical pitfalls (nobody was worrying about Coronavirus in those days), Freud cried foul. No doubt his prosthetic jaw would have dropped and his ubiquitous cigar fallen to the floor if he had lived to see where Jodorowsky has taken Ferenczi’s heresy.

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The Holy Mountain, 1973

As well as one-on-one and group massage sessions (in such case studies as those entitled “Brothers Competing For Mother’s Love” and “A Man Abused By His Father, On The Verge Of Suicide”), AJ’s prescriptions include theatrical (and often public) ritual. The abused guy on the verge of suicide, for example, is buried alive (with provision made for him to breathe) while vultures pull apart carcasses laid on his grave. Dug up and “reborn”, he attaches a picture of the abusing parent to a balloon and lets it float away.

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“An Australian In Paris, Angry Against His Family” is seen smashing pumpkins (hey, that would be a good name for a band, right?) on the streets of France’s capital while screaming: “Why won’t you listen to me?”, then mails the pieces to his unsupportive family in Oz. “A Mexican Woman Whose Fiancé Committed Suicide On The Eve Of Their Wedding” (by jumping out of their window in her presence) goes through a funeral ceremony for her wedding dress then jumps out of a plane (El Jodo generously allows her the use of a parachute). “A 47 Year Old Man Who Wants To Stop Stuttering” feels like a child so AJ lets him loose in a Disney-style kids’ park wearing a sailor suit and silly hat (a concerned mother hustles her daughter away from him). Then Jod takes him to a church and squeezes his bollocks, telling him:  “In this Holy place I will pass Manly energy on to you… because I am The Father Archetype!”

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As if all this wasn’t enough,  the guy is then painted gold and sent to walk down the street in his skivvies… and yes, he finally stops stuttering. “An 88 Year Old Woman In Deep Depression” probably isn’t up to some of the energetic and bold stuff described above but does seem to benefit from pouring water on the roots of a massive tree every day. In “Coming Out Of The Closet” an actual closet is burned during a gay wedding ceremony and during “The Walk Of The Dead In Mexico City, 2011”, participants chant “Psychomagic against violence!” to protest casualties of the country’s drug wars. In the section “Birth Massage”, a young woman frightened of bearing children is given therapeutic massages by a pair of Psychomagic practitioners and is later shown proudly displaying a beautiful baby bump. “A Couple In Crisis” decide to separate, but on amicable rather than antagonistic terms.

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All of the episodes are illustrated with apposite clips from Jodorowsky’s films and intercut with his sage pronouncements, delivered in front of a corny “psychedelic” background. Their titles are presumably intended to evoke such classic Freud case studies as “The Wolf Man” and “The Rat Man”, though “Is Menstruation A Problem?” (in which El Jodo advises a cellist to daub her instrument with period blood) is more reminiscent, at least to this viewer, of the cod Krafft-Ebing in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex * But Were Afraid To Ask (1972).

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Jodorowsky claims that the shortcomings of classical psychoanalysis “obliged” him to create Psychomagic, a name that (given his cooky reputation) offers hostages to wise cracking fortune. He cites the Tarot, rather than any conventional therapeutic discipline, as the foundation of his method, which blends a frisson of Ferencszi, a jolt of Janov and perhaps a soupcon of snake oil. El Jodo is a charismatic individual and although we see apprenticed Psychomagic practitioners applying his ideas at various points in this film, one wonder how the discipline will fare when he’s gone. Innumerable studies have proven that those in therapy benefit from human company and attention, also (yes, Sandor) from tactile comfort. Jodorowsky has always been an expert manipulator of emotion (a manifestly cool and together lady who accompanied me to The Scala to watch Santa Sangre was reduced to tears during the scene of the elephant’s death) and some of the case studies here are genuinely moving, though I can’t entirely dismiss the suspicion that some of the patients just might be shills. Then I think I’m just being an insensitive heel…

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The thing that troubled me most about Psychomagic, A Healing Art, was the section in which AJ’s helping a cancer sufferer come to terms with her illness and prognosis… fair enough, but entitling this episode “Can Cancer Be Cured?”, in an age of rising quackery (tied in with conspiracy theories, the “post truth” media landscape, Gwyneth Paltrow’s vaginal candles, et al ) seems, to me anyway, to be a seriously questionable move.

Health warning. Embrace Psychomagic. With caution.

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Chippings From A Monument… Indicator’s JOHN FORD AT COLUMBIA Box Set Reviewed.

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BD. Indicator. Region B. PG.
Limited edition box set of 6,000 numbered units.

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING (1935) UK BD premiere.
THE LONG GRAY LINE (1955) World BD premiere.
GIDEON’S DAY (1958) UK BD premiere.
THE LAST HURRAH (1958) UK BD premiere.

The pictures John Ford made on loan (from RKO, Fox, Argosy, wherever) at Columbia (over quite a period of time) are often considered minor, even aberrant fixtures in his monumental legacy but this Indicator box reveals consistent auteurist preoccupations alongside many incidental bits of fun.

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Given what he achieved in The Searchers just a year later, it’s intriguing to learn that Ford initially baulked at shooting The Long Gray Line in CinemaScope. Adding insult to injury, the picture was subsequently released States side in black and white… and cut! Such is the fate of “minor” films, even those of major directors. But this biopic of West Point stalwart Marty Maher (played by Tyrone Power), from “straight off the boat” eejit to pally audiences with President Eisenhower is thematically much of a piece with the recognised classics of the Ford canon… humour, humanity, sadness, stoicism, mortality, compassion… the passing parade of life and death.

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While not as outright anti as e.g. Jack Garfein’s The Strange One, The Long Gray Line evidences shadings of ambivalence towards the military and notions of patriotism, tradition and the like. A more personally felt battle, against the anti-Mick stuff, is only lightly touched upon here…

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… but more pointedly in The Last Hurrah, a story of old school paternalistic American politics (if, indeed, such a thing ever existed) being supplanted  by plastic personalities and PR spin (I was watching this one on the very day that the current occupant of the White House suggested shooting up disinfectant as a cure for Coronavirus).  The giants are leaving the stage here, and what screen presence could be more gigantic than that of Spencer Tracy as Frank Skeffington, standing for re-election as mayor of “a New England town”? Ranged against him are the vested interests of old money WASPs, represented by Basil Rathbone and John Carradine, the latter a J. Jonah Jameson type newspaper proprietor who harbours a historical grudge on account of an ancient run in with Skeffington’s mother. Ford himself wasn’t above pursuing such vendettas, as Donald Sinden has related in his memoirs concerning the making of Mogambo (1953).

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In our more cynical times, it’s easy to get snotty about sentiment verging on sentimentality but (just as with Spielberg, who learned so much from Ford) you see the big emotional punches coming, you know how much contrivance went into them and they still get you every time (even when, for instance,  Skeffington’s very last hurrah is signalled by some ripe old over acting from Jeffrey Hunter as his nephew…)

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The other two titles here are regarded as the real departures from “orthodoxy” but you don’t have to poke too far into them to find familiar Fordian concerns and anyway, the ways in which they do differ from more canonical material make for some of the most interesting and entertaining viewing on this set. Gideon’s Day (Gideon Of Scotland Yard in the States and released in the same year as The Last Hurrah) is a very English affair, adapted from the novel by John Creasey, written by T.E.B. Clarke (who also penned, among so many others, the Ealing classics Hue And Cry, Passport To Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Lavender Hill Mob), shot by David Lean’s favourite DP, Freddie Young and starring the redoubtable Jack Hawkins, whom Ford described as the best actor he ever worked with (what John Wayne thought of this is not recorded). For all its Englishness, that country’s upper classes don’t get away without the expected kicking. The story is pretty much “what it says on the tin” and beyond that I’m not going to say too much, as I’m meditating a separate posting devoted to this (and another) film.

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The Whole Town’s Talking is the earliest and probably most atypical of this bunch. Milquetoast office clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) yearns hopelessly for sassy Wilhelmina (Jean Arthur) until he is mistaken for public enemy number one “Killer” Manion (Edward G. Robinson) with predictably riotous consequences. Robinson had of course established his crime kingpin credentials beyond debate in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) but proves here, if such proof were needed, his dramatic range (Robinson had already essayed a dual role in Archie Mayo’s distinctly odd The Man With Two Faces, the previous year) … kudos to for DP Joe August for split screen process shots, some of which have you wondering: “Hang on, how did they do that?”

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Nobody ever stole the show or so much as  a scene from Edward G. Robinson (let alone two Edward G. Robinsons) but Jean Arthur holds her own against both in the kind of feisty female role that provided the model for Daria Nicolodi’s performance as Gianna Brezzi in Deep Red (1975). Ford, having given Arthur her screen debut in Cameo Kirby (1923), here established her in the persona that would see her through several subsequent screwball comedies for Frank Capra.

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Extras on this box set

THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING

  • 4K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • Cymbaline (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • Sheldon Hall on ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ (2020): new appreciation by the film historian
  • Pamela Hutchinson on Jean Arthur (2020): a look at the life and career of the acclaimed actor
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Farran Smith Nehme, an extract from the W R Burnett’s Jail Breaker, Edward G Robinson on The Whole Town’s Talking, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
  • UK premiere on Blu-ray

THE LONG GRAY LINE

  • 4K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • Audio commentary with film historians Diana Drumm, Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme
  • Living and Dead (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘The Long Gray Line’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • The Red, White and Blue Line (1955): rare promotional film, featuring the principal cast of The Long Gray Line
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Nick Pinkerton, archival interviews with John Ford, Maureen O’Hara on The Long Gray Line, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Anthony Nield on The Red, White and Blue Line, and film credits
  • World premiere on Blu-ray

GIDEON’S DAY

  • 4K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • Alternative feature presentation with the US Gideon of Scotland Yard titles
  • Audio commentary with film historian Charles Barr (2020)
  • Milk and Sugar (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘Gideon’s Day’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • John Ford’s London (2020): new appreciation by Adrian Wootton, Chief Executive of Film London
  • Interview with Elaine Schreyeck (2020): the continuity supervisor recollects her work on the set
  • John Ford and Lindsay Anderson at the NFT (1957): rare silent footage of Ford visiting London’s National Film Theatre during the production of Gideon’s Day
  • Original UK theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Robert Murphy, an interview with producer Michael Killanin, Jack Hawkins on Gideon’s Day, Lindsay Anderson on John Ford, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
  • UK premiere on Blu-ray

THE LAST HURRAH

  • 2K restoration
  • Original mono audio
  • True Blue (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
  • Leonard Maltin on ‘The Last Hurrah’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
  • Super 8 version: original cut-down home cinema presentation
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
  • New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Imogen Sarah Smith, John Ford on Spencer Tracy and The Last Hurrah, screenwriter Frank S Nugent on John Ford, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
  • UK premiere on Blu-ray.

Pity they couldn’t find room for the notoriously icky Sex Hygiene, the VD awareness film that Ford made for the US armed forces in 1942.

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The Long Gray Line’s Betsy Palmer is probably best remembered by our regular readers for her appearance in another film…

 

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Thrilling To Gilling … Swashbuckling Matinee Madness On INDICATOR’S FIFTH HAMMER BD BOX SET

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Hammer Volume 5: Death & Deceit.
BD. Indicator. Region B. 12.

VISA TO CANTON (Michael Carreras, 1961) World BD premiere.
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (John Gilling, 1962) UK BD premiere.
THE SCARLET BLADE (John Gilling, 1963) World BD premiere.
THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR (John Gilling, 1965) World BD premiere.

Although he’s better remembered for his Hammer Horror credits (notably the superior 1966 brace The Reptile and Plague Of The Zombies, less notably for the following year’s lack-lustre The Mummy’s Shroud or 1961’s The Shadow Of The Cat… though the latter is regarded as something of an underrated gem by Hammer aficionados) John Gilling directed a similar amount of Hammer’s swashbuckling adventure yarns (stirring tales of derring-do for boys of all ages), including the lion’s share of this latest limited edition Hammer box from Indicator, which easily maintains the high standards set by its predecessors.

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… and we’ll just gloss gently over Gilling’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952)

It’s received wisdom, in certain quarters, that Hammer kept the UK film industry afloat during the 1960s with its “lavish productions”, but anything more rigorous than a cursory squint at these films themselves  (never mind the cheese-paring anecdotes related in the supplementary materials here) reveals a modus operandi not too far removed from that of Jess Franco himself, with stock footage of crowd and battle scenes cheerfully filched from other pictures.

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Notoriously, the sea dogs in Gilling’s The Pirates Of Blood River (and I guess the clue was right there in that title) don’t even have a ship from which to fly their Jolly Roger, unless you count the stock footage galleon floating around under the film’s titles or a conspicuous model thereof, briefly glimpsed later in the picture. Instead, the dubiously accented Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee, fresh off of Bava’s Hercules In The Haunted World but, four years after Dracula, still billed beneath Kerwin Mathews and TV actor Glenn Corbett) leads his posse of pretty and not so pretty boys through waterways populated by ravenous piranhas (for the purposes of the story) and (in real life) raw human sewage! Tall, dark and gruesome, Lee managed to keep his head above the scum line but if you study the relevant sequences diligently, you might be able to work out the precise moment at which Oliver Reed (as LaRoche’s sidekick Brocaire) contracted an eye infection.

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The Pirates of Poo Pond…

By all accounts Gilling was a martinet with little interest in endearing himself to his actors and about as much regard for Health & Safety as the people who put that cladding on Grenfell Tower. In The Scarlet (Crimson, States-side) Blade, we learn, only the threat of a walk out by the crew dissuaded him from staging a hanging stunt in such a way that the actor involved was in very real peril of asphyxiation. It’s interesting to see Michael Ripper (generously basted in Bisto as gypsy Pablo) in that film, “riding a horse” (but quite clearly not) against a blatant back projection, having witnessed another thespian coming an equestrian cropper under Gilling’s direction. Ripper, incidentally, gets much meatier roles in many of these adventure yarns than he could ever have hoped for in Hammer’s more celebrated Gothic Horrors… he’s also great as knife throwing Pirate Mack (get it?) in Blood River.

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While he was never going to be voted humanitarian of the year by his collaborators, Gilling was that rarest of commodities in early ’60s British Cinema, a writer / director and one with a real knack for moral ambivalence and character development. In POBR Mathews’ Jonathan Standing finds his good standing in an island community of stuffy Huguenots seriously undermined when his affair with another man’s wife is discovered. She tries to elude her shame by running into a piranha infested river (with predictable results) while he’s sentenced by a jury of elders (chaired by his emotionally torn father) to a spell in a particularly brutish labour camp. Liberated from this hell hole by those pirates, Standing throws his lot in with them, on condition that they treat the rest of the islanders (including a pre-pubescent Dennis Waterman) with clemency. When they laughingly renege on this undertaking, Standing has to reconsider his position all over again…

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Hammer never saddled up for any ostensible oaters but Pirates and its companion pieces are clearly crypto-Westerns. The obvious literary model, meanwhile, is the story of Coriolanus, as evoked by Shakespeare via Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s The Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans. Gilling continues to plunder this palimpsest with further not so simple minded thrills and spills in the aforementioned Scarlet Blade, wherein Olly Reed’s Roundhead Capt. Tom Sylvester oscillates between careerism (masquerading as the call of duty and devotion to Lionel Jeffries’ Col. Judd) and lust (masquerading as love) for Judd’s Royalist sympathising daughter Clare (June Thorburn) who secretly supports the fifth column activities of the Zorro-like title character, Edward Beverley, played by Jack Hedley. Maybe if I’d opened my pitch for a Hedley interview with this one rather than the scarlet blades he encountered in lucio fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), I might have got somewhere…

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The film is simple-mindedly pro-Cavalier and freighted with anachronisms and inaccuracies but Gilling is clearly less interested in such stuff than he is in individual conscience and its attendant dilemmas. In distinct contrast to Reed’s character’s death in Pirates (“Ooh mama”, indeed!) Sylvester’s character contradictions ultimately explode in one of the the most scenery-chewing death scenes ever committed to celluloid.

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There’s more of the same in The Brigand Of Kandahar, with half-caste (as he would have been referred to in those days) British officer Case (Ronald Lewis) again falling from grace on account of an illicit affair (his peers disapproval here compounded by considerations of class and the taboo of miscegenation). He takes up arms against the British Empire with the dreaded Eli Khan (Reed getting to wear the boot blacking on his face this time) before the latter’s duplicity and casual cruelty make for second thoughts… further complicated bt the erotic attentions of Yvonne Romain’s “Ratina” (!?) Stay tuned for a “lust in the dust” styled denoument and plenty of other stuff subsequently lampooned in Carry On Up The Khyber (1968).

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Gilling went on to direct episodes of such iconic ITC television series as The Saint, The Champions and Department S and… after relocating to Spain (where he died in 1984), Cross Of The Devil, (1975)… a semi-canonical entry in the Blind Dead / Templars cycle.

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Michael Carreras’s Visa To Canton (“Passport To China” for the American market) is a significantly less sophisticated proposition than any of the above, in fact you could comfortably dismiss it as a pale Bond knock off… until you check your dates! Ian Fleming’s greatest creation first saw the light of the silver screen in Terence Young’s Dr. No, two years after Richard Basehart’s Don Benton used his Far East travel agency as a front to foil some fiendish Oriental insurgency (Hammer’s track record in this area doesn’t hold up well to PC scrutiny… Anthony Bushell’s Terror Of The Tongs was made back to back with Visa To Canton but Red Communism was clearly supplanting inscrutable supervillains as the “Yellow Peril”), wooing the dangerously glamorous Lisa Gastoni while doing so. It would be overstepping the mark to claim 007 as a Benton clone (Visa To Canton looks like it’s striving to set up a few sequels but presumably those were deemed surplus to requirement after international audiences had bonded with Bond) but the music’s another matter and it’s here that David Huckvale’s diverting bonus discourses on the OSTs to the films in this box proves most telling, pointing out the influence on Monty Norman’s 007 theme from the ostinatos that Edwin Astley (Pete Townshend’s father-in-law, BTW) fashioned for Visa To Canton.

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As on Indicator’s previous Hammer sets, this one is stuffed with extras. Horror author Stephen Laws provides well informed but pleasantly fannish introductions to each film, female critics profile their leading actresses (here it’s Josephine Botting on June Thornburn, Melanie Williams on Yvonne Romain and Virginie Sélavy on Lisa Gastoni, while Kat Ellinger handles  Marla Landi (great to learn that she became Lady Dashwood after marrying Sir Francis, whose namesake ancestor founded the Hellfire Club!) Audio commentaries come courtesy of Vic Pratt, Kevin Lyons and (for Pirates) screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. You get the expected trailers, image galleries all and the “Collectors Booklet” stuff I never set eyes on.

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Strewn among the remaining extras, we find such treats as Stephen Laws interviewing Andrew Keir (who found Quatermass And The Pit director Roy Ward Baker about as likeable as everybody else here found John Gilling) at Manchester’s Festival Of Fantastic Films in 1993; Jonathan Rigby’s extensive personal reminiscences of top Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster; appraisals of Gilling from Kim Newman and Neil Sinyard,  the latter likening him to Val Lewton, no less. Yes, We Have No Piranhas is an exhaustive video essay on Pirates of Blood River’s censorship travails, with split screen comparisons detailing every excised piranha bite. We also learn that the BBFC (whose John Trevelyan remembered TPOBR as the only film he ever busted down from an ‘X’ certificate to a ‘U’) insisted on the volume of whip cracks being reduced!

The Gilling stuff has been beautifully remastered and Visa To Canton looks OK. This is another cracking box set limited to 6,000 numbered units, so what are you waiting for? Grab yourself a piece of the action, right now…

 

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It’s Hammer (Horror) Time! Indicator’s HAMMER VOLUME FOUR: FACES OF FEAR Box Reviewed

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BD. Indicator. Region Free. 15.

Indicators limited (to 6,000 numbered units) edition Hammer Volume Four: Faces Of Fear box set trawls through that legendary studio’s repertoire in similarly promiscuous style to its three predecessors, yielding four UK Blu-ray premieres. First up is possibly the most undervalued jewel in Hammer’s Gothic crown, Terence Fisher’s The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958). Although it’s generally acknowledged that, in the previous Universal cycle, James Whale outdid even the splendours of his Frankenstein (1931) when he made The Bride Of Frankenstein in 1935, Fisher’s second Frankenstein flick tends to get undeservedly short shrift relative to the big break through picture he helmed for Hammer, The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957).

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TROF takes up exactly where the original left off in 1860, as the Baron (Peter Cushing) is led out to his assignation with the guillotine. His deformed assistant Carl having greased the executioner’s palm, the attending priest affords the Baron more solace than he could possibly have imagined by going under the blade in his place. Three years later, Dr Stein has relocated to Carlsbrück, where he’s maintaining a very successful medical practice. His lucrative work on the town’s neurotic young ladies and their matchmaking mothers underwrites his free clinic for this burg’s unwashed social marginals who in, their turn keep the Baron in body parts for his sophomore crack at creating a new creature. Carl will be repaid by having his superfine mind relocated to a more salubrious body (that of Michael Gwynne) and everybody will be happy ever after. That’s the idea, anyway…

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Ambitious young doctor Hans Kleve (Francis “future voice of Captain Scarlet” Mathews) is Klever enough to figure out the doc’s true identity and volunteers to assist him. As the alternative is to be turned in to the police, “Doctor Stein” graciously accepts this kind offer. The big operation turns out successfully but the intervention of well-off do gooder Margaret (Eunice Gayson) sparks off an unfortunate sequence of events resulting in the handsome young creature degenerating physically and turning cannibal (!) The hoity-toity local medical board aren’t best pleased with these developments, but their response pales into insignificance compared to the reaction of the unwashed paupers / unwitting organ donors, leading to a twist ending which sets up the Baron nicely for the rest of the series as a proper self made man.

 

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Did I mention the fab cameos from Michael Ripper and Lionel Jeffries?

Among the expected plethora of extras attending this 4K restoration there’s that cracking trailer with Cushing’s baron ‘fessing up to his escape from Madame Guillotine and his plans for new outrages. In the featurette Back from the Dead Jonathan Rigby, Alan Barnes and Kevin Lyons devote their collective attention to the film. The consensus emerges that Eunice Gayson’s character was a bit of a waste of screen space. Pamela Hutchinson makes the pro-Eunice case in her featurette then Kat Ellinger gets the casting vote in a visual essay directed by Dima Ballin. I don’t know if Kat’s the first critic to discern a connection between Cushing’s Frankenstein and Dennis Price’s character in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949), but the comparison is very well drawn.

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There are two audio commentaries from duos of genre pundits, Marcus Hearn / Jonathan Rigby and Kim Newman / Stephen Jones. David Huckvale (author of Hammer Film Scores And The Musical Avant Garde) dissects Salzedo’s score and you get 12 soundless minutes of on-set outtakes plus the 8 minute long Super 8 presentation and image gallery. As with all the other films on this set, there’s a trailer with optional audio commentary (in this case by Joe Dante). There’ll also be a limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet including a new Marcus Hearn essay and Kieran Foster on Hammer’s unrealised Tales of Frankenstein TV series, Jimmy Sangster on The Revenge of Frankenstein, a selection of promotional materials, an overview of contemporary reviews and comprehensive film credits.

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At the point in my life where it was beginning to dawn on me that Horror Films might actually be worth writing about rather than just casually consuming, Mario Bava, Roger Corman and Terence Fisher were generally regarded as the holy trinity of auteurs among Horror directors in the critical texts I started reading. Producer Val Lewton was afforded similar status. Subsequent waves of pro and fanzine publications have only boosted Bava’s credentials but these days Corman is more highly regarded for the talent he brought along rather than his own directorial efforts and Lewton has just about disappeared off the radar which Fisher vacated long ago.

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Wolf Mankowitz seemed to have precious little respect for Fisher even in 1960, when he was called upon to impart an air of “respectability” to the director’s The Two Faces Of Dr Jekyll. His screenplay, freighted with throwaway Freud and Nietzsche, displays similarly scant regard for Robert Louis Stevenson (and to make it unanimous, Hammer deny Stevenson a writing credit for a classic  story that had slipped into the public domain), introducing a new character, Paul Allen (Christoper Lee) who turns an infernal triangle (also involving Dawn Addams as the doc’s flighty wife) into a right raunchy rectangle.

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Paul Massie takes on the title role(s), tweedy and dull in a joke shop beard (Hammer make up maestro Roy Ashton sparing every expense) as Dr J, clean shaven, wild eyed and overacting furiously as Paul Allen gives Mr H. a guided tour of the most vanilla debauchery London has to offer. Composer Monty Norman (yes, the Bond guy) and DP Jack Asher impart the requisitely lush sound and visuals (beautifully rendered in this HD remaster) to keep a golden era Hammer romp rattling along. By the close of proceedings Dr J is confronted with the real life fall out from his abstract philosophical theories about “authentic” manhood. This one would make an interesting double bill with Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Miss Osbourne (1981), which wrestles with similar ethical concerns and takes similar liberties with the narrative of RLS’s venerable yarn.

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Bonus wise you get an audio commentary with film historians Josephine Botting and Jonathan Rigby, the latter also popping up alongside his usual cohorts in the overview featurette Identity Crisis. Academic Laura Mayne profiles Dawn Addams and we get the additional benefit of a fan’s audio interview with Paul Massie (who reassures his interlocutor that the sex films in his films were actually staged) and an archive interview with Wolf Mankowitz. In Mauve Decadence, David Huckvale supplements his discussion of Monty Norman’s score with observations on the film’s colour schemes. Plus all the expected stuff and the booklet will feature a new essay by Kat Ellinger, a selection of promotional materials, an overview of contemporary reviews and full film credits.

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Not wanting to be typecast as… well, tall, dark and gruesome, Christopher Lee declined the lead role(s) in TTFODJ in favour of one that prefigures several he subsequently took in certain of Jess Franco’s better budgeted De Sade adaptations a decade or so later… and of course in 1971 he took the “Jekyll / Hyde” (actually Marlowe / Blake) roles in Stephen Weeks’ even looser Amicus adaptation I, Monster. So go figure.

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Lee wasn’t the only one worried about flogging the goose that laid the golden egg to death, either. Michael Carreras and the other Hammer bigwigs were more worried about that than I clearly am about mixing metaphors and for Taste Of Fear (1961), Jimmy Sangster was tasked with writing an hommage to a French film that was released in 1955 and whose influence, though apparently rapidly eclipsed by Hammer’s more overtly explosive efforts, subsequently pervaded some of Hitchcock’s finest screen achievements (notably Vertigo and Psycho) and later the gialli with which it has, on numerous occasions, been associated in this blog. I’m talking, of course, about Henri George Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (below). Underlining this attempted shift in style Taste Of Fear, directed in 1961 by Seth Holt (heading up only his second feature film) was shot in moody monochrome (rather than Fisher’s favoured gaudy colour schemes) by Douglas Slocombe.

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Wheelchair bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) visits her estranged father’s cliff top mansion in the South of France, only to be told that he’s away. So why does what appears to be his corpse (below) keep turning up in the conservatory, swimming pool and elsewhere? Looks like her step mother Jane (Ann Todd) and the family doctor Pierre Gerrard Lee again) are attempting to gaslight Penny out of her inheritance. Luckily Ann’s hunky chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis) seems to be rooting for our girl… but there are plenty of twists to come.

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Nearly 60 years after its initial release, Taste Of Fear remains an effective shocker, from its gloomy opening to the satisfying poetic irony of its conclusion, with twists piling upon twists along the way. You’ve got to give Holt, Sangster and co credit for something fresh because the template of Les Diaboliques had not, at this point, been thrashed into the ground by so many late ’60s and subsequent gialli (most of them written by Ernesto Gastaldi). Don’t get me wrong, I love those pictures but Clouzot’s original remains superior to them and indeed Taste Of Fear, because… well, I think it’s something to do with the fact that its protagonists are struggling to survive in a drab, unforgiving environment, as opposed to the louche playboys and girls who came later. Does that make me sound “classist”? I’m not sure that’s even a real word…

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Together with two presentations of the main feature (including the US version Scream Of Fear) we’re treated to a particularly bumper slate of supplementary materials on this disc including a commentary track from Kevin Lyons, who joins Jonathan Rigby and Alan Barnes in the featurette Body Horror. Expect lots of anecdotes about director Holt having to contend with Strasberg’s formidable mother on set. Melanie Williams profiles Ann Todd and there are not one but two (one video, one audio) interviews with Jimmy Sangster. Joining Jimmy in the British Entertainment History Project archive, Douglas Slocombe talks about working for Hammer and Steven Spielberg and camera operator Desmond Davis and assistant sound editor John Crome chip in with their reminiscenses.  You get the Super 8 version of Scream of Fear and the booklet will contain an essay by Marcus Hearn, Jimmy Sangster on the film, an archival on-set report, selection of promotional materials and an overview of contemporary reviews.

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The Damned (1962… “These Are The Damned” in the US) would fit just as comfortably (or uncomfortably) on any other Hammer box. This eclectic effort could have been (and at various points was) hyped as both juvenile delinquency and sci-fi saga, the latter slant enhanced no end by its more than passing resemblance to Wolf Rilla’s Village Of The Damned (1960 and pictured below, mainly because it’s such a groovy graphic!)

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Middle-aged yank Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) sails into Weymouth and begins his holiday by falling foul of a honey trap involving attractive young Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and run by her brother (Oliver Reed, who appears briefly in Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll and was last seen ripping off seaside tourists on this blog in Michael Winner’s The System). Beaten up by King’s “Teddy Boys” (clearly a gang of actual Rockers, drilled by King in a foreshadowing of Alex’s handling of his droogs in A Clockwork Orange), Wells continues his pursuit of Joan and by various clumsy script contrivances the dramatis personae find themselves in a secret base on an island where irradiated children are being prepared for a post-Apocalyptic future…

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A likely story, with awkward characterisations exacerbated by some conspicuous miscasting, The Damned is nevertheless well worth watching due to the profusion of challenging ideas throws out by Joseph Losey (several of whose films have been recently released by Indicator). On the lam from McCarythyite witch hunting (and originally pencilled in to direct Hammer’s X – The Unknown, 1956, until its Commie-phobic star Dean Jagger objected and Leslie Norman replaced him), Losey was always fascinated by the power dynamics between social groupings, be they biker gangs or deep state bigwigs dictating the fates of nations. He’d studied with  Bertolt Brecht so maybe we can give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that if the characterisations and miscastings in this film have an alienating effect, they were supposed to. Maybe.

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This one will also be accompanied by an exclusive 36-page booklet comprising a new essay by Richard Combs, Losey’s reminiscences, the US pressbook, contemporary reviews and all the rest of it. The 2K restoration is presented in two 96-minute versions, as either The Damned or These Are the Damned. Rigby, Barnes, Lyons and in this case Nick Riddle present an overview of the film and there’s a commentary track courtesy of Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. You get alternative appraisals from Neil Sinyard and I Q HunterFilm plus an interview with filmmaker Gavrik Losey, son of the director and always an acute analyst of his father’s work. Film historian Lindsay Hallam profiles Viveca Lindfors. There are interviews with first time screen writer Evan Jones, brought in by Losey to  improve the screenplay (so God knows what kind of shape it was originally in) and camera operator Anthony Heller. Possibly the most engaging interviews of all are with grown up radioactive munchkins David Palmer, Kit Williams and Christopher Witty, who all seem to have developed juvenile crushes on Shirley Anne Field (and why on Earth wouldn’t they?), who is also interviewed. Here at THOF we’ve never knowingly spurned an opportunity to run a picture of SAF looking lurvely and why should this posting be any different?

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The Undertaker And His Pals… THE COFFIN JOE COLLECTION Reviewed

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Apparently there’s been something or other going on in Brazil… a legalistic coup in which a progressive President with a huge popular mandate has been deposed on a cooked up charge and replaced by neo-liberal goons? Nah… if that had happened, you’d have seen or heard about it on the news or read about it in the paper, right? It certainly wouldn’t have been relegated to journalistic limbo while our media worked themselves into a froth about some stupid sporting events… would it?

Anyway, in our ongoing quest to be topical, we thought it was time to check out  ABUK’s blockbusting Coffin Joe Collection, an admirably ambitious box set comprising 5 discs, 9 films, 754 minutes (over twelve and a half hours!) of bravura Brazilian bonkersness from the undisputed top dog of favela fear flicks, Ze De Caixao himself. After a couple of marathon sessions digesting that little lot, I staggered out of the screening theatre here at The House Of Freudstein, my brain totally fried, an enthusiastic convert to the cult of Coffin Joe, whom the back cover of this box justifiably declares “a horror icon so full of sadism, immorality and brutality that he would undoubtedly make even Jigsaw squirm and send Jason running to Mommy” (they forgot to mention that he makes Seed look like a total twat but then, so does The Brady Bunch!)

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As evidenced in this box, Joe first came to the attention of an astonished world in 1964’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (A Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma). The film opens with a demented gypsy crone haranguing us and threatening that if we don’t leave the theatre (or presumably, by extension, eject the disc) we’ll fall victim to the aforementioned soul snatching when the big and little hands meet up at the top of the clock. Having shelled out for this box, you’re unlikely to be put off so early in the proceedings… well, you can’t say you weren’t warned! While the gypsy’s words are still reverberating in our ears, CJ himself appropriates centre screen to start ranting the kind of doggerel (“What is life? It is the beginning of death! What is death? It is the end of life! What is existence? It is the continuity of blood! What is blood? It is the reason to exist!”) that you’ll be hearing over and over again before you’ve worked your way through this box. Our man’s a sinister grave digger who scandalises the townspeople with his wild appearance (top-hat, cape, long curly fingernails), aggressive behaviour (after casually glassing an unfortunate dude during a punch up in his local, he announces that he’ll charge double for burying anybody that he has personally killed) and flagrant disregard for religious observances… chided by his wife for not sticking to the “fish on Friday” rule that will be familiar to our older Catholic readers, he declares his determination to have meat for dinner “even if it means that I have to eat human flesh!” It’s this total inability to keep things in perspective and mount a proportionate response to life’s little setbacks that both defines Joe’s character and brings about his downfall. Most significantly, when he and his wife find it difficult to conceive a child, Joe might consider changing his diet, changing his underpants, scrutinising her menstrual cycle or seeking medical advice. Admittedly IVF research wasn’t too advanced in Brazil during the mid-60s but this really can’t excuse Joe’s subsequent antics…

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… he chloroforms Lenita (Mrs De Caixao, played by Valeria Vasquez), ties her up and empties a bucket of tarantulas over her. Even in Brazil, circa 1964, forensic science is up to detecting that there was something suspicious about  this death, but the coroner’s attempt to write a damning post mortem report is thwarted by CJ gouging his eyes out, soaking him in some flammable liquid and torching him. Keen to restart the quest for an heir, Joe takes a shine to his best friend’s girl Terezinha (Magda Mei) and after bashing matey’s brains out he starts wooing her in earnest… well, he rapes her anyway. The traumatised Terezinha promptly hangs herself, which really sends Joe off the deep end (“You have doomed my blood line to extinction!”) Defying further warnings from that old gypsy bint, he starts desecrating cemeteries and challenging God to put an end to his rampage. On the night of the Day of the Dead, after he’s been menaced by a preposterous prop owl and hallucinated his own funeral cortege, not to mention vengeful visitations by his victims, the deity duly obliges with a thunderbolt to bring matters to a distinctly anti-climactic conclusion.

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The fondness for Universal’s classic horror cycle suggested by endless, Bela Lugosi like close-ups of Joe’s eyes every time he’s about to kill somebody in AMITYS is amplified by the opening to its sequel This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (Esta Noite Encarnarei No Teu Cadaver)… a caption announces that the action of this film will pick up exactly where its predecessor left off and we’re treated to a generous recap of Joe’s closing moments before some of the most brain-jarringly psychedelic (even in black and white) titles ever committed to celluloid… well, this picture was made in 1967, after all. Predictably, Joe was only stunned by that lightening bolt and has now taken up residence in a new town, at the expense of whose “ignorant” and “inferior” inhabitants he intends to pursue his ill-defined, sub-Nietzscianian mission. Indeed, he intends to make them “cry tears of blood!” Business as usual, then… well, not quite: this time out Joe can call on the services of a deformed, Igor-like henchman named Bruno (Jose Lobo), with whose assistance he renews his search for the perfect mother to his “superior” child but now employing ruthlessly efficient, almost industrialised methods. Sundry local lovelies are abducted and incarcerated in some kind of underground dormitory, where Joe torments them with assorted creepy crawlies, including the inevitable tarantulas… and these are real spiders, none of your pipe cleaner crap like the ones in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (Jeez, and people will try and tell you that it was heavy going on a Werner Herzog set!) When the caged cuties complain about their treatment, Joe insists that it’s “not sadism, my dears… but science!” Those who flinch from this insect ordeal are derided as “cowards!” and “fools!” while Joe variously showers them with acid, hands them over to Bruno to be used as sexual playthings and consigns them to a snake pit so that he can enjoy their death throes while canoodling with the “lucky” winner of his bizarre selection procedure. After this there are worrying signs of some kind of plot congealing around the character of a colonel who hires a circus strongman to carry out a hit on Joe but that doesn’t really go anywhere and thankfully we’re soon back to full-on delirium as Joe again defies God to show his hand and is rewarded, as the already variable b/w film stock lurches alarmingly into gaudy technicolour, with an audacious albeit cheapskate rendition of the torments of the damned in Hell.

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This gives Joe momentary pause for thought but he’s soon up to his tricks again, only to drown in a swamp while trying to evade a lynch mob that’s been drummed up by that colonel. Aye caramba! In addition to his Universal fetish, TNIPYC demonstrated that Marins was responsive to more contemporary horror trends, Joe’s arrival in town having more than a touch of Spaghetti Western about it.

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The following year’s The Strange World Of Coffin Joe suggests furthermore that Marins was aware of and enthused by those Amicus portmanteau jobbies, comprising as it does three macabre tales for the price of one. Unfortunately, after delivering the mandatory unhinged opening soliloquy, CJ does not pop up as a Crypt Keeper-type linking character connecting the various vignettes… a seriously wasted opportunity! Story 1, “The Dollmaker”, concerns an old toy maker whose dolls are renowned for their life-like eyes… when his beautiful daughters are threatened by a loutish gang of would-be rapists, we learn the source of his raw materials in the biggest non-surprise twist ending of all time. The second instalment, “Obsession” (a necrophilic take on the Cinderella story) works better and the closer – “Ideology” – best of all: Marins plays a variant on his Ze De Caixao character, now a professor debating his own oddball philosophy of human instincts with a scientific rival on some TV chat show. They agree to differ and indeed, things are so cordial that Ze invites his debating adversary and wife round for dinner, where they are forced to witness, then subjected to all manner of unspeakable tortures, by means of which they are reduced to brutish ghouls, neatly proving our man’s views about the primacy of instinct over rationality and morality. One imagines that this picture played the U.S. grindhouse circuit at some point… its throwaway mix of sadism and philosophy certainly seems to have influenced the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s The Wizard Of Gore (1970) and Joel Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks aka The Incredible Torture Show (1976) and you could probably make a case for it being the godfather of the dreaded “torture porn” genre (though we shouldn’t hold that against Marins). TSWOCJ also boasts an absolutely corking toe-tapper of a title song, extolling the merits of its eponymous anti-hero.

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Fumetti adaptation of The Strange World Of Coffin Joe

Back in 1970, Marins was still jumping bandwagons with the drugsploitation epic Awakening Of The Beast, his characteristically cheap and cheerless attempt to grab a slice of the Easy Rider action. Here a bunch of mental health professionals (including Marins) debate a series of cautionary drug tales, all of them climaxing in some form of sexual degeneracy, all of them played out for our lip-smacking disapproval. We are introduced to a stoner who gets off on washing women’s underwear, a coke snorting producer who deflowers aspiring starlets on his casting couch, a suburban housewife whose own appreciation of “the magic powder” is best enhanced by watching a black servant bang the arse off her daughter (there is even a suggestion at one point that their pet dog is going to get in on the act!)… even more bizarrely, a love’n’peace espousing schoolgirl visits a hippy commune and, after a couple of token tokes on a “reefer”, is apparently abused with a thick tree branch by a Charles Manson type!

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The second half of the picture concerns a controlled experiment in which willing guinea pigs are dosed with acid after a screening of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. Just as in that film, there’s an abrupt switch from b/w to colour as every psychedelic trick in the book is trotted out to depict their various trips, all of which feature the menacing figure of Ze De Caixao… the perfect recipe for an unprecedented bummer, one would have thought. Finally it is revealed that none of the participants actually dropped acid, a placebo having been administered instead. What all of this seems to prove is that there’s a little bit of Coffin Joe inside all of us… well fuck me! Ze himself seems to have been eschewing the hallucinogens in favour of cramming doughnuts during 1970, looking distinctly overfed as he delivers his customary diatribe before the titles of this one. Later Marins, debating with those mental health professionals, reminds them not to mistake him for his celluloid alter ego: “He stayed in the graveyard tonight!” Despite the penny-pinching circumstances in which his films are churned out, such narrative devices testify to a Post-modern intelligence at work approximately two decades before Wes Craven had his nightmare, before even that malevolent moggy troubled the murderous mind of Lucio Fulci…

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… the comparison with Fulci’s Cat In The Brain / Nightmare Concert is even more apt in the light of Marins’ Hallucinations Of A Deranged Mind (Delirious De Um Anormal, 1978) in which Marins is called on to counsel and cure a psychotherapist who has become obsessed with the idea that Coffin Joe has chosen his wife to bear him a superior son. Marins does a creditable job of demonstrating that Joe only exists as a fictional character, though this being a horror film, the proceedings have to conclude with a predictable “or is he?” caveat. Like Fulci’s film, HOADM contains about ten minutes of original material, the balance comprising a mix and mis-matched muddle of footage (colour, tinted and b/w) culled from other films in this set. Fascinating as all this undoubtedly is to semiologically-inclined film critics, it also ensures that the flick is probably the least entertaining one in the box, though it does contain one of the greatest lines of dialogue I’ve recently encountered: Marins becomes unwell while dining out with a bunch of psychiatrists but allays their concern for his well being with the reassuring observation: “Don’t worry, it’s only the effects of a heart attack!” Well, that’s OK then…

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Having already argued elsewhere (possibly while seriously pissed) that Marins deserves to be taken at least as seriously as Jodorowsky, I’m going to pitch my praise even higher and suggest that The End Of Man (Finis Hominis, 1964) deserves serious comparison with Luis Bunuel… here a mysterious derelict (the director himself) emerges naked from the sea and strolls into town making gnomic pronouncements and generally acting like Jesus… saving adulteresses from their enraged relatives, thwarting would-be child molesters, healing cripples, apparently bringing people back from the dead… you know the kind of thing. Hippies and free-loveniks adopt Finis Hominis (as he is dubbed by a priest) as their guru and, when his fame and influence spread, commercial interests attempt to recruit him to their own agendas. The film climaxes with Marins’ messiah delivering his definitive statement to a waiting world. If the fact that the venue for his platitude-laden sermon is a rubbish dump rather than any Mount does not alert you to this film’s satiric intention, the closing scene will… having said his piece, Finis Hominis calmly strolls back to the mental institution from which he has absconded, where his keepers are patiently awaiting his return. Brilliant!

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Marins is back in his Coffin Joe persona (albeit sporting a bowler rather than the more familiar top hat) for 1967’s Strange Hostel Of Naked Pleasures (A Estranha Hospedaria Dos Prazeres, 1967) which demonstrates the continuing influence exerted over him by the Amicus legacy: hippy no-goodniks and corrupt representatives of straight society rub shoulders (and other bits) in the eponymous establishment, getting their sinful rocks off until the not exactly unpredictable twist revelation that their host is none other than… put it this way, the shadow of Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors looms large here.

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Hellish Flesh (Inferno Carnal, 1977) deviates entirely from the Ze mythos, Marins instead essaying the role of a workaholic scientist whose alienated wife conspires with his best friend (her lover) to attack him with acid and set fire to him so that they can abscond with his money. It takes them scant months to blow that, at which point the crippled doc makes the extraordinary declaration that he has forgiven his erring spouse and will take her back. If you think that’s unfeasible, wait till you catch the mind-boggling (and completely senseless) twist that caps off this overblown melodrama.

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As if all that weren’t enough to leave you stunned and gibbering, the final disc in this set contains The Strange World Of Mojica Marins, a 2001 documentary profile of the great man (by Andre Barcinski and Ivan Finotti) that achieved what none of his own prolific output ever came close to achieving, a special prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Barcinski and Finotti capture Marins at home in his modest apartment and hanging out on the mean streets of his home town, reminiscing about his upbringing in, literally, a series of cinemas and his consequent fixation on film. His mother reveals that little Jose was born on Friday the 13th, his bodyguard Satan (!) declares that the director is really a nice bloke (cut to footage of Marins and Satan at a bullfight, laughing their asses off as the matador gets gored). We also learn that the Coffin Joe character emerged from his creator’s nightmares and that JJS is a mentally unstable, amphetamine-fuelled workaholic who really does put his actresses through the kind of auditions that are probably outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. He and his crew are proud of the fact that they kept working during tough economic times by cranking out porn, especially proud that they authored Brazil’s first hard-core cinematic encounter between a dedicated actress and a dog… if all of this seems just too bizarre, bear in mind that the host of a Brazilian answer to CrimeWatch was arraigned for arranging murders to provide content for his programme!

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All of the films are presented in full-screen format, some of them with dodgy sound and / or careless subtitles and at least one of them has a brief outburst of the kind of picture disturbance you only get when mastering from video tape… it is, therefore, a tad disingenuous for the pack to claim “each disc boasts digitally enhanced picture and sound” although, bearing in mind that nobody has ever taken Marins’ stuff seriously enough to archive it properly, the second part of ABUK’s pack boast, declaring this box to be “the definitive celebration” of Marins’ oeuvre, is undoubtedly true and looks likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The art-work on the box cover is quite beautiful, albeit sufficiently understated (surprisingly so when you considering that its subject matter is maniacs, topless girls, living corpses, skulls and bats!) for the box to run the risk of disappearing into the shelves. Make sure you hunt it down, anyway. Essential stuff for any horror fan whose horizons stretch further than the latest remake / reboot of Hollywood product which probably wasn’t any good in the first place.

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Jodrophenia… THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY Box Set Reviewed

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DVD. Region 1. Anchor Bay. Unrated.

There is a particularly florid and debilitating ( only eight features and ten shorts completed in fifty years) psychiatric condition, characterised by sexual mania…

“Imagine Superman with a woman… his ejaculate is so great it would explode her brain and eat through the building!”

… body dysmorphia…

“Most directors make films with their eyes… I make films with my testicles!”

… and associated delusions of grandeur…

“Godard has only one testicle, whereas I have three!”

This is the condition to which medical science has given the name… Jodrophenia.

Now assembled alienists will be able pore over much of the cinematic evidence in the most celebrated case history, collected by Anchor Bay in a R1 DVD box set. Made possible when Jodorowsky patched up his long running differences with financier Allen Klein (who famously had a hand in the break up of The Beatles), this cornucopia of Jodsploitation comprises various interesting rarities but its appeal resides chiefly in supplying, at long last, definitive editions (in the correct aspect ratios, minus the prurient pixillations that marred the Japanese editions that were for so long the best available ones) of the ultimate cult movie El Topo (1970) and its 1973 follow up, The Holy Mountain.

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El Topo, which kick-started the whole Midnight Movie phenomenon after an enthusiastic endorsement from the acid-addled John Lennon (that’s two Beatles references down, one to go, pop pickers) is the everyday story of a gun slinger who goes by that name (and is played by the director himself), who abandons his son in the desert to take up with some femme fatale. She encourages him to prove his love for her by fighting a series of duels with four mystically-inclined martial arts masters. Three of those are satisfactorily dispatched but when the fourth pre-empts El Topo by topping himself and the woman runs off with a lesbian, it’s too much for our hero and he descends into madness. Given shelter and worshipped by a cave-dwelling bunch of cripples and amputees, El Topo vows to facilitate their social rehabilitation by digging a tunnel that will enable them to surface in the nearest town. To finance this, he shaves his head and, together with his new midget girlfriend, performs street theatre for the people of the town, which is run by a puritanical, Russian roulette playing religious cult (so far… what the fuck?) Mission accomplished (with the aid of his abandoned son, who has meanwhile grown up into a pistol packin’ monk) El Topo watches as the intolerant townspeople shoot down the incoming cripples. After his own vengeful gun spree, El Topo lays down his arms and immolates himself in the manner of a Buddhist monk protesting the Vietnam War. Like… cor baby, that’s really free!

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To enhance your appreciation of this ultimate cinematic trip (Jodorowsky insists that cinema, deployed properly, should be more mind altering than LSD) the director supplies a commentary track in Spanish (with English subtitles) where he claims El Topo “was inspired by rabbis, by Zorro, by Elvis Presley” and on a more banal level, admits that it was shot on the sets of The Wild Bunch (other sources insist it was Jerry Thorpe’s Day Of The Evil Gun, 1968.) He explains that the film was broken down into chapters (based, with characteristic modesty, on sections of The Bible) so that it could be passed off as a collection of shorts, because restrictive practices in the Mexican film industry prevented him from openly directing a feature. When it was released, he complains… “People literally waned to kill me! Critics literally vomited on me!” Well, fuck them if they can’t take a cosmic joke. Me, I can’t find fault with any movie that boasts lines of dialogue like “We are all hideously deformed due to constant incest!”

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Although somewhat overshadowed by its predecessor, The Holy Mountain is, if anything, even wilder stuff. After Jod himself (as “The Alchemist”) has presided over some weird ritual involving two blondes, when the Spanish conquest of Mexico has been re-enacted by frogs and lizards, following a prolonged meditation on the image of Christ… the plot kicks off in earnest and things start getting really wiggy!  “The Thief” (Hector Salinas) makes his way to The Alchemist’s tarot-decorated inner sanctum and, to begin his spiritual purification, a woman tattooed in kabbalistic symbols washes his arse for him… Jodorowsky claims on the commentary track that George Harrison was keen to play The Thief’s part but wimped out on account of this scene. We can only conjecture what George made of the sequence in which one of The Thief’s jobbies is melted in a casserole dish while The Alchemist intones “You are excrement… you can convert yourself into gold.”

The Thief is joined by seven of the richest and most powerful people in the world (all identified by their astrological characteristics and introduced with potty potted biographies) who have renounced all their worldly goods in return for a shot at the one thing money can’t buy… immortality! Together they will storm The Holy Mountain and supplant the nine immortals who direct human affairs from its summit…

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After plenty more bizarre preparations they scale that Holy Mountain but there’s a predictable twist at the conclusion of their endeavours. “Farewell to immortality… reality awaits us!” pronounces The Alchemist, and everybody seems improbably satisfied with this outcome. But do the aspirant immortals return to normal life as better people than they previously were? More importantly, did Jodorowsky ever get that casserole dish clean again? In case I ever get invited around for dinner, you understand…

The inclusion of El Topo and The Holy Mountain will probably provide sufficient motivation for many people to splash out on this box. One could quibble about some of the other contents, but Louis Mouchet’s feature length documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky (1994) also constitutes essential viewing. At the onset Jodorowsky pronounces himself unable to provide an answer to the question “Who are you?”, so it’s a good job that admirers like Peter Gabriel (who admits that the Genesis album and show The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway were greatly influenced by El Jodo… a major non-surprise) and collaborators such as Marcel Marceau (with whom Jodorowsky invented the “caged man” mime, as popularised by David Bowie) and legendary comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud (“Jodorowsky’s brain works like three thousand crazy computers!”) are along for the ride.

We learn how Jodorowsky, a Chilean of Russian descent, founded the Panic Theatre after becoming disenchanted with Surrealism (Andre Breton disapproved of Jod’s massive porn collection); of the difficult circumstances under which he was obliged to make The Rainbow Thief (1990); and of his abortive big  screen adaptation of Dune, in which Salvador Dali would have played The Emperor, with an OST supplied by Magma and The Pink Floyd.

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When Jodorowsky does manage to get a fix on himself, he characterises himself as “not a mystic… I’m a gambler, somebody who plays games.” It’s disorientating and disarming to hear the man who made his name via films that are simply loaded with self-consciously metaphysical trappings, declaring categorically  “It’s all bollocks… enlightenment doesn’t exist!” This is, however, in tune with what happens in both El Topo and The Holy Mountain, in which protagonists ultimately renounce their self-seeking inner journeys in favour of taking action in the material world. Jodorowsky believes the world is sick (no shit!) and with characteristic modestly, the medicine he prescribes is viewings of his films! On a more practical and immediate level, we see him conducting one of his regular group therapy sessions, into which Mouchet is drawn from behind his camera and from which he seems to derive great benefit…. compelling stuff. Jodorowsky remains the magus / guru / charlatan / visionary / hyperbolic fantabulist / shaman / con man / contradiction that we always knew he was, but Mouchet establishes beyond doubt that effective method resides within the conspicuous madness of King Jod.

I could quibble over some of the other stuff on this set… OK, so finally we get to see Jod’s 1968 feature debut Fando Y Lis (an unsatisfying b/w dry run for El Topo) and, improbably, his 1957 mime-flavoured short La Cravate (which was previously believed lost) but I doubt that too many purchasers of this box will return for too many repeat viewings of those.

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One third of the box is taken up with soundtrack CDs of El Topo and The Holy mountain, guaranteed to clear any dance floor between here and Santiago. Ideally, those could have been jettisoned in favour of a definitive edition of Santa Sangre (1989) and any edition at all of  The Rainbow Thief, which at the time this box was released seemed to have disappeared off the face of the Earth. Still, that’s just my opinion, and as Jodorowsky insists: “Everybody shits faeces and opinions… you must ignore them” (note to the reader: Don’t, under any circumstances, ignore my opinions, alright?) As well as the R1 box reviewed here, there’s an identical R2 set from Tartan which boasts nicer packaging but, due to the vagaries of internet shopping,  would actually have cost me significantly more than the Anchor Bay version.

The Sons Of El Topo has been announced as many times as the closing instalment in Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy. When this box first emerged, Jodorowsky’s next announced, believe-it-when-you-see-it project was King Shot, which would have starred (gulp!) David Hess and Marilyn Manson, whose wedding to Dita Von Teese was apparently conducted by the reverend Jod himself (and turns out to have been as ill-starred as most of his pictures.) Still crazy after all these years, Jodorowsky’s most recent completed feature, Endless Poetry, drew predictable rave reviews at Cannes earlier this year.

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The Night Evelyn Came Back In A Pawn Film: Arrow’s KILLER DAMES Box Reviewed

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Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Regions A&B / 1&2. Arrow. 18.

Arrow’s tasty “Killer Dames” limited edition box set collates a giallo brace from the  elusive Emilio P. Miraglia… 1971’s The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave and the following year’s The Red Queen Kills 7 Times. The mysterious Miraglia never returned to the Italian whodunnit genre thereafter… indeed, he managed only one more movie, the spagwest Joe Dakota (1972) before concluding a directorial career that had begun five scant years previously, after an apprenticeship that included assisting Carlo Lizzani, Steno and a certain Lucio Fulci. In both of the films under consideration here he cross fertilises familiar giallo tropes (high fashion, slick “modern” settings and the louche lifestyles of affluent swingers) with elements from the earlier Italian gothique cycle (cobwebbed castles and dank dungeons, inheritances and family curses, closeted mad characters, bats in the belfry and ghosts.) Incorporating any kind of supernatural element can be the kiss of death for a giallo… see, for instance (come to think of it, don’t bother) Mario Colucci’s Something Creeping In The Dark (1971) or Giuseppe Bennati’s The Killer Reserved 9 Seats (1974)… though Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths In The Cat’s Eye, (1973) just about pulls it off. Thankfully Miraglia handles his ghoulies with similar aplomb and also packs Evelyn with lashings of the old ultra-violence and kinky sex a-g0-go… hardly surprising when you consider that writer Massimo Felisatti later penned Andrea Binachi’s deliciously grubby Edwige Fenech vehicle Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975.)

Django The Bastard and Crimes Of The Black Cat alumnus “Anthony Steffen” (Antonio De Teffe) was the son of a Brazilian diplomat, which (sort of) makes him ideal casting for the role of depraved English aristocrat Lord Alan Cunningham, who shares Hugo Stiglitz’s questionable sexual predilections from Night Of A Thousand Cats not to mention his lurid Austin Powers wardrobe and woodentop levels of thespian attainment.409b834edd73e414becf1d4d43904c1b.jpg

This guy haunts the swinging night spots of an England that has never existed outside the imagination of Emilio Miraglia, cruising for dolly birds. They’ve got to be red heads, mind you, and to check that they’re not cheating him with wigs, he makes a point of tugging sharply on their tresses. Any gold digging ginger bint not sufficiently discouraged by this suggestion of sadism (not to mention Steffen’s collection of cheese cravats) is taken to his country pile, encouraged to try on leather thigh boots, then soundly thrashed with a bull whip before His Lordship succumbs to convulsions and unconsciousness. Lord C’s politically incorrect attitude towards the fairer sex can apparently be traced back to the infidelity of his dead wife Evelyn (rendered by endless flash back shots of her running around bare-assed in slow motion, to the accompaniment of a Bruno Nicolai theme that vaguely recalls the famous one his mate Ennio Morricone furnished for Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker!) Round about this point it starts dawning on the astonished viewer that Lord Cunningham is actually being presented as a sympathetic character… yes, you’re expected to start rooting for this loopy libertine! Ah well, it was 1971… and of course his antics make it very easy for him to be framed for murder.

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Evelyn’s brother Albert (Roberto Maldera) who works as groundsman at the mansion, is blackmailing his employer about the apparent disappearance of all these girls. The noble nut case is on the verge of branding one such unfortunate pick up when a surprise appearance by Evelyn, notably decomposing, causes him to throw a particularly epic mong attack. His psychiatrist (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) urges him to quit the mansion and try to get over Evelyn before he goes totally off his rocker (hm, that particular stallion has already departed the paddock, methinks…)

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Slimy cousin George (“Rod Murdock” = Enzo Tarascio), a sexually ambiguous weekend hippy who’s next in line to inherit the family fortune (worth keeping an eye on, then) prescribes a recreational visit to London’s Krazy Kat club, a joint that panders to every psychedelic, swinging cliche in the book. Here Lord C. witnesses a hysterical strip routine by flame haired floozy Suzy (Erika Blanc), who exits arse-first from a coffin to shake her considerable booty in alarming fashion. Blanc complains in a bonus interview on this set that she was given no terpsichorean direction and had to make up her routine on the fly (should have received a credit for choreography… and probably an Oscar!) This scene is lent an extra level of surreality by the fact that its instrumental acid rock accompaniment clearly has no connection whatsoever with what is being played by the strip club house band, whose singer can be seen (but not heard) wailing away animatedly. His Lordship gets Suzy home and subjects her to the usual indignities. After her apparent disappearance, he causally drops Albert another wad of hush money.

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Never one to let a little brush with psychosis cramp his social style, Lord C throws a kicking garden party at the mansion, with another groovy beat combo entertaining the guests. Here he meets, is impressed by and instantly proposes to Gladys (Marina Malfatti.) Although slimy George will be permanently disinherited by this development, he seems to be all in favour of the match if it will sort out his cousin’s mental problems (perhaps he isn’t so slimy after all?) In fact, unwelcome reappearances by dead Evelyn, further fiendish twists, a series of double crosses and shocking revelations (not to mention a pile of corpses) ensue. Miraglia just about manages to restrain himself from throwing the kitchen sink into this overheated mix , but when all the surviving participants adjourn around His Lordship’s swimming pool for a climactic punch-up, the giallo gods have contrived to fill it with sulphuric acid(!)

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The Night Evelyn Came Out Of The Grave did so well at the box office (as The Night She Rose From The Tomb, States-side…) that Miraglia was immediately required to knock out a follow up along similar lines and for all the haste with which it was put together, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (The Lady In Red Kills Seven Times to U.S. punters, who were offered “blood corn” to nibble during both of these films) emerges as a more than adequate successor, another ghastly goulash of horror, supernatural and sleazy sex elements unfolding in an ersatz foreign location with liberal plot pinchings from Jayne Eyre, lashings of J&B product placement shots, another groovy Nicolai score and another elusive Evelyn. If TNECOOTG is a cheap and cheerful reimagining of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, this one actually predates the Scream franchise! Another improbable but hugely entertaining saga, TRQK7T kicks off in “Castle Wildenbruch” (an impressive, for real Bavarian fortress) with two little  sisters asking their granddad (Rudolf Schündler) about a particularly lurid painting that hangs on one of its walls. He happily fills them in on the family curse… having been stabbed six times by her sister, the mythical “Red Queen” came back from the grave to return the favour, slaughtering six others into the bargain.

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This grisly event has apparently been repeated every hundred years, with the next repeat pencilled in for 1972. As “luck” would have it, by then one of the sisters (Kitty) has grown up in the most delightful way, in the shape of giallo stalwart and all-round luscious babe Barbara Bouchet. The other (Evelyn) has allegedly decamped to The United States, though a flashback reveals her dying after a teenage punch up with Kitty led to her falling into the castle moat. Kitty’s sister-in-law, Francesca (Malfatti again) was a witness to this apparent accidental homicide (helped Kitty hide Evelyn’s body in the castle crypt) and has been a conspirator in the cover up ever since. A slobbering greebo dope fiend has his suspicions though, and in another echo of TNECOOTG, he starts blackmailing Kitty .

The first 20th Century victim of the Wildenbruch curse is poor old granddad, who suffers some kind of thrombo after a red cloaked female appears in his bed room. No doubt the casual observer could mistakenly chalk that down to natural causes, but before long folks at the couture house where Kitty works as a photographer (cue much gratuitous female flesh) are being bumped off in a variety of grisly, er, fashions. This kind of establishment has always been a hotbed of depravity in giallo land, and TRQK7T doesn’t disappoint. The rarely clothed models who populate this one (including, among their number, a young Sybil Danning ) are a bitchy, manipulative bunch, intent on doing each other down and shagging their way to the top. In effect this means getting into the pants of fast-rising agency executive Martin Hoffmann (Ugo Pagliai, who would later wash up in Al Festa’s totally bonkers Fatal Frames, 1996), a guy whose wife currently resides in a booby hatch. He’s now an item with Kitty, but the girls don’t rate her as much of an obstacle: “Little Kitty’s so uptight, she isn’t exactly burning up the short and curls” observes Lulu (Danning), sensitively.

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It’s hardly surprising that she’s she’s uptight, given the escalating mortality rate at the agency. First to go is its chief executive Hans, stabbed to death by the Red Queen in a local park while out dogging with Lulu. There had been bad blood between him and Martin, who now inherits his job  and the mantel of chief suspect. Suspicions are hardly allayed when Elizabeth (Martin’s basket case wife) is sprung from the funny farm, only to be impaled on its security fence by The Red Queen. Another agency employee is stabbed in the back of a props van, the junkie blackmailer is dragged to his death by a car apparently driven by Her Majesty… and so it goes on.

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Bouchet looks fab throughout, wide-eyed and wide mouthed, divinely decked out and constantly under threat of becoming unlucky seven. She gets sexually assaulted when that junkie blackmailer adds rape to his repertoire and also gets sliced up a treat in a great psychedelic dream sequence, reminiscent of similar ones in  Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks At Midnight and Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (not to mention Murder Rock.) Before the blackmailer’s death, Kitty learns that this campaign of persecution against her is being orchestrated by somebody else. Various other developments prompt her to go looking for corpses in the castle crypt, where she is soon menaced by rats and rising water levels, cue further emoting from the lovely BB. The film’s climax turns on revelations about Evelyn’s identity and exactly what happened on the day Kitty’s sister allegedly shuffled off her mortal coil in the cast moat… all of which is about as credible as the plot of TNECOOTG (i.e. not very)  but it remains a treat to see this rare giallo finally available in a beautiful UK edition.

One of the hobby horses with which I currently attempt to bore people to death is the issue of whether certain films of a certain vintage look any better, or (let be whispered) possibly worse on Blu-ray than on DVD. Sometimes with all those extra pixels all you gain is grain, with the option to smear equally unappealing DNR doodads all over it. Are the contents of this box set sufficiently better looking than NoShame’s impressive Italian DVD release from about ten years ago to justify their purchase? In a word… yes, in no small measure due to the lush cinematography of Gastone De Giovanni (Evelyn) and Alberto Spagnoli (Red Queen.) Kudos also to art / costume director Lorenzo Baraldi, who pulls off a low budget miracle in the staging of the second film’s watery finale.

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Baraldi’s reminiscences feature prominently on the bonus materials for this set, alongside interviews with Erika Blanc (growing  old disgracefully… she’s clearly pleasantly crackers), Sybil Danning (looking good and projecting an imposing presence) and Marino Mase, plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it micro-interview with Bouchet. Each of the films gets amusing and informative commentary tracks (the Jones / Newman team taking The Red Queen, while Evelyn is handled by Troy Howarth, who emerges as an unapologetic bum lover.) Stephen Thrower contributes sage observations on each of them. Of course you get the expected trailers, there’s an alternative “count down” title sequence for TRQK7T  and one of those reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx. Some of this stuff already appeared on the NoShame box. What you don’t get from that is the collectable Red Queen action figure but hey, nobody’s perfect and there’s ample compensation in the form of a limited edition 60-page booklet containing new writing on the film by James Blackford, Kat Ellinger, Leonard Jacobs and one of my favourite bloggers, Rachael Nisbet.

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Though claiming that his contribution to these films was essentially to distract viewers from their insubstantial contents, Baraldi speaks highly of Miraglia and confirms that the director’s disappearance from the scene (which Thrower wonders about in his corresponding piece) was the result of an unfortunately early demise… another manifestation of the Wildenbruch curse? Whatever, Miraglia’s extant gialli, while not quite hitting the genre heights scaled by Bava, Argento, Fulci and Martino, show immense promise and it’s deeply regrettable that his premature passing robbed us of the opportunity to see how this particular talent might have developed. As it is, Arrow’s Killer Dames box serves as an ample memorial to his cruelly truncated legacy.

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The night Barbara met Bob Freudstein…

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A Final Flash Of Optimism For The Human Race… FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE reviewed

Flash & Dale

“… daftly named Everyman in a fruity costume”?!?

DVD. Region Free. Delta. “U”.

Episodes

  • The Purple Death
  • Freezing Torture
  • Walking Bombs
  • The Destroying Ray
  • The Palace Of Terror
  • Flaming Death
  • The Land Of Death
  • The Fiery Abyss
  • The Pool Of Death
  • The Death Mist
  • Stark Treachery
  • Doom Of The Dictator

A typical product of my regular delvings through the thrift shops of Dunwich, this obscure box set release fits all “12 Dynamic Chapters” of Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe onto three discs. Eagle eyed viewers will notice that the serial’s actual title appears to be Space Soldiers Conquer The Universe and that the Space Soldiers in question are those of Ming’s army. Obviously the penny belatedly dropped with somebody that this wasn’t exactly a) striking the desired patriotic tone, or even b) what actually happens.

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Originally conceived as competition for National Newspapers’ Buck Rogers strip, King Features’ Yale graduate polo player-turned-space jockey Flash Gordon (as inked by Alex Raymond and ghost written by Don Moore) became a byword for economy and elegance, massively influential on DC’s later Superman and Batman characters. Flash’s serial adaptation made it to the silver screen in 1936 and just to emphasise how far the imitator had outstripped the avatar, when Buck first boldly ventured into cliff-hanging chapter play, a full three years later, he was played by the same Larry “Buster” Crabbe who had already portrayed Flash in two serials.

Mr Gordon’s mortal nemesis, in print and on celluloid, was of course one Ming The Merciless. Although his authoritarian, militarist and expansionist policies are an obvious expression of contemporary unease in the liberal democracies at the rise of fascism and spectre of potential gas attacks from the skies, Ming’s manifestly oriental appearance and even the name of his home planet might seem like a quaint (or obnoxiously bigoted) Hollywood throwback to Sax Rohmer from the perspective of a Europe bedevilled by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, but this is no awkward anachronism. Consider the arguments of modern historians who contend that the beginning of WWII should be backdated to 1931, when Japan’s bombing of China was followed by an orgy of torture, rape and murder… and of course when America was finally attacked, it was by Hirohito’s imperial airforce (an aerial assault repaid with considerable interest less than five years later.)

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“Enough with the Sieg Heil-ing already, Zarkov!”

The eponymous first Flash Gordon serial (directed by Frederick Stephani) is, perhaps predictably, the best. When Earth is threatened by collision with the erratically orbiting planet Mongo, world leaders take the logical step of dispatching a polo-playing Yale graduate and his motley mates to land on and scope out this new world. What they discover is an impressively imagined (and reasonably well executed) alien environment (even if Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson’s Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, was destined to be overshadowed by Brian Blessed’s barnstorming histrionics, 44 years later) plus a turbulent political situation in which the planet’s rightful ruler Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) has been supplanted by evil emperor and would-be conqueror of the universe, Ming (Max Middleton.) As an hors d’oeuvre, he wants to conquer FG’s sexy girlfriend Dale Arden (Jean Rogers.) In addition to fending off his unwanted advances, Dale’s obliged to keep a watchful eye on Ming’s slinky daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), who has her own designs on Flash. Just to make things even more complicated, Barin is carrying a secret torch for Aura. A whole constellation of worlds colliding there… who knew that saving the universe would turn out be such a soap operatic business? Luckily Dr Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) is left free to concentrate on countering Ming’s arsenal of fiendish futuristic weaponry by virtue of the fact that absolutely nobody wants to fuck him

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“Oh yeah? You’ve had worse…”

It’s pretty much the same story in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (1938), aside from a change of venue prompted by the contemporary Red Planet vogue that was sparked by Orson Welles’ notorious War Of The Worlds radio broadcast earlier that year. This time Ming is assisted in his nefarious schemes (which include the stripping of Nitrogen from Earth’s atmosphere) by Azura (Beatrice Roberts), an evil Martian Queen with the Circe-like power to turn rebellious subjects into Clay People. These memorable creations (and the equally memorable musical theme that accompanies their appearances) are among the redeeming features of a sequel that, in the directorial hands of Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill, generally lacks the pazzaz of its predecessor. On the plus side, Barin finally hooks up with Aura after a (thankfully uncompleted) fight to the death with Flash. After whipping off his mask and explaining his motivation, he’s immediately forgiven by FG, who obviously figures that all’s fair in love and interplanetary war.

Beebe and Ray Taylor co-directed this, the third serial, in 1940. By now there had been so much frantic shuffling between Earth, Mongo and Mars that energies were flagging and diminishing returns had inevitably set in. For instance the Rock Men, an obvious attempt to emulate the weirdness of the Clay People, fall pretty flat despite their Twin Peaks-like habit of talking backwards. Not even an upgraded Dale (Carol Hughes replacing Jean Rogers) could pep things up significantly. The action kicks off with deadly dust from outer space spreading the dreaded “purple death” (“yellow peril”, anyone?) across Earth… and no prizes for guessing who’s behind that. Flash and co head for Mongo to assist Barin in his bid to wrest control of Mongo from Ming. Zarkov devises an antidote to the purple death, ingredients for which must be gathered on the ice planet of Frigea, cue a blizzard of footage culled from the 1930 feature White Hell Of Pitz Palu. Furthermore FGCTU, like its predecessors, relies heavily on sets and props from contemporary Universal productions… much of the first two was shot in Dr Frankenstein’s various castles, labs and dungeons and here the costumes worn in Barin’s tree principality of Arborea seem to have borrowed from some kind of Robin Hood epic (see below.) Elsewhere the gang are kitted out in quasi-militaristic costumes from some kind of Ruritanian romance.

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No sooner has the purple death been thwarted than Ming starts coming up with a head spinning plethora of WMDs, seemingly one per episode, with which to keep Zarkov on his toes. The counter measures he comes up with frequently need to be lugged across glaciers, magnetic deserts, etc, and personally delivered by Flash until Ming is definitively (and apparently permanently) defeated.

Herein lies the most charming aspect of FGCTU… its pantomime depiction of totalitarianism, the hokey nature of its WMDs and its reassuring insistence (eagerly swallowed by its frightened audiences) that any maniac willing to use them could be foiled by a simple sock on the jaw from a daftly named Everyman in a fruity costume. The industrialisation of murder represented by The Holocaust and the nuclear denouement to WWII were shortly to consign such optimism to the dustbin of history. Childhood’s end.

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