Posts Tagged With: Box Sets

The Undertaker And His Pals… THE COFFIN JOE COLLECTION Reviewed

Strange World Of Jose Mojica Marins.jpgDVD. Region 2. Anchor Bay UK. 18.

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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“A Pile Of Shit Out Of Somebody’s Ass”… BRONX WARRIORS reviewed

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DVD. RO. Shameless. 15.

Having failed to sign Enzo Castellari to direct his projected Dawn Of The Dead cash-in Zombi 2 (whatever became of that one?), indefatigable spaghetti exploitation producer Fabrizio De Angelis managed to bag his man for this delirious 1982 concoction (by prolific scripters Dardano Sacchetti & Elisa Briganti) of Escape From New York (from which Castellari also adopted John Carpenter’s penchant for daftly-named characters), Mad Max and The Warriors, sprinkled with quotations from a hatful of other schlock standbys and even A Clockwork Orange… precisely the kind of cartoon actioner at which Castellari has always excelled. The result was “the film that established video rental as a major entertainment activity…” (in the U.S.) “… a true action classic” in the words of Video Home Entertainment scribe John Hayward. It obviously made a big impression on one video store clerk… Quentin Tarantino, who still (rightly) acknowledges Castellari as the superior film maker.

In 1990 the forces of law and order have given up on the The Bronx, where a kaleidoscope of feuding gangs vie for territory and influence. Meanwhile the evil Manhattan Corporation formulates its plans for the redevelopment of the beleaguered New York borough… plans that amount to gentrification by genocide. Ann (Castellari’s real life daughter Stefania Girolami), troubled daughter of the Corporation’s president (played by her actual Uncle Enio… getting all this?) seeks refuge from her dysfunctional family (an upmarket gang in its own right) in this daunting no-man’s land and hooks up with hulking Stallone-clone Trash (Mark Gregory, on his way from being a gym bunny to becoming a waiter), a guy whose pectorals make Dolly Parton look positively flat chested. “Nothing is worse than this hell-hole” he warns Ann in the… er, rugged way he has of announcing such things.

Nevertheless, love flowers among the ruins of The Bronx, where Trash’s gang The Riders (instantly recognisable by the luminous plastic skulls mounted on the front of their bikes) fight endless turf wars with their rivals. I’m reminded of a much earlier Castellari film, 1972’s The Mighty Hector (co-scripted by Lucio Fulci) in which he restaged Homer’s Iliad, believe it or not, as a contemporary gangster flick … check that one out if you get the chance.

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Anyway, these Bronx gangs include a squadron of roller-skating Rollerball refugees led by one “Golem” (a pony-tailed Luigi  Montefiori), a detachment of dorky droog wannabes, a New Age traveller convoy named The Zombies, a bad ass tap dancing (!) troupe and Fred Williamson (“The Ogre”)’s Tigers, appropriately enough a pack of blackspolitation brothers plus one ballsy, whiplash-wielding honky super-bitch (Betty Dessy as “Witch”.) There’s a particularly hilarious moment, in a picture bursting at the seams with them, where delegates from all the gangs settle down on Fred’s leopard-skin couches to listen to a piano recital from Ann, her sweet music soothing their savage breasts.

But the fragile truce is soon under threat. An agent provocateur  is encouraging and exploiting divisions, striving to stir up conflict between the clans. Trash dismisses the threat, eloquently (“Ah, it’s just be a pile of shit out of somebody’s ass”)  but the Manhattan Corporation, pursuing their ambitious and murderous slum clearance programme, have employed the megalomaniacal Hammer (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad, the late Vic Morow), to set the gangs at each other’s throats. Can anyone foil these sinister machinations? Well, if anyone can … Trash can!

In his efforts to do so, though, he’s thwarted by ambitious factions in his own ranks, principally ambitious lieutenant Ice, playing the Harry Dean Stanton role from EFNY. Ice conspires, through the medium of surgically-booted gimp Hot Dog (Christopher Connelly)’s CB rig, with Ogre, unaware that Hot Dog is working for Hammer, if not exactly in his pay  …  “Don’t you ever  talk to me like that!” snaps Hammer when Hot Dog raises the subject of financial remuneration (Hm, reminds me of a few magazine editors I know.)

Hammer’s having an equally tough time with his boss. “If you don’t have the girl by 11 o’clock tonight”, rages the president: “I’ll have your head !” (Oops – Morrow’s next – and last – screen appearance would be in Twilight Zone – The Movie). Hammer responds by sending in the cavalry, armed with flamethrowers, as a final solution to the gang problem. “I’m Hammer – the exterminator!” he rants. “You’re the biggest bastard in the world” retorts Trash. “He’s doing this just so he can get his sadistic rocks off” observes Ogre, coolly lighting his big cigar from an arc of flame aimed in his direction, before sitting down on his leopard-trim throne to enjoy a good smoke as his kingdom crumbles around him… made in the shade or what?

“Let the enemy have no survivors this day … horsemen … horsemen! “ raves Hammer, playing up the fascistic overtones in a manner reminiscent of Castellari’s own potrayal of Mussolini in The Winds Of War. “Hammer is God !” he modestly declares, before Trash pulls him down off his perch and drags him out of town behind his bike, Western-style.

Western Style

From its ludicrous title sequence to this totally arbitary ending, Bronx Warriors is an unalloyed action film delight. Never mind that, thematically, it’s just a comic-book retread of Enzo’s usual gonzoid vision, best displayed in his 1976 masterpiece Keoma… witness the shared sympathetic treatment of society’s maginals, likewise the undercurrent of heroic homeroticism, as when Trash mercifully breaks the neck of a tortured lieutenant while hugging him to those pulsating pecs. I don’t want to pursue this angle too far but it does state on IMDB that Gregory “beat off 2000 other hopefuls for the role of Trash”…. wow, I wonder how many cameras Castellari would have to deploy simultaneously to capture that kind of action!

Nobody ever put it better than that eminent Castellarologist, Quentin Tarantino, to wit: “He’s a hack, but a hack who really knows what he’s doing … you’re in good hands, and you’ll have great fun.” Additional helping hands here include ace cinematographer Sergio Salvati, production designer Massimo Lentini and editor Gianfranco Amicucci. Walter Rizzati’s score is rather more coherent than the one for his notable other credit, Fulci’s House By The Cemetery (though I guess. if you’re reading a blog entitled House Of Freudstein, that you probably already knew that…)

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The Shameless DVD edition presents Bronx Warriors in all its anamorphic glory, revealing Castellari to be far more of a film-maker than you’d suspect on the evidence of previously released pan-and-scan travesties (I’m old enough to remember seeing these things in double bills at my local flea-pit when they first came out, over … shit, over thirty years ago!) Bonus materials comprise a Castellari introduction to the picture, an optional smart Alec “Fact Track” courtesy of Paul Alaoui, trailers and alternative credits sequence, plus the 25 minute featurette Warriors, Barbarians and Basterds, in which Castellari and Amicucci spill the fava beans on how to get more bang for your buck with multiple camera set-ups, slow motion, trick pans and by intercutting genuine Bronx exteriors with Italian lots and locations. Castrellari talks about employing the Hell’s Angels, how his friendship with middle weight boxing legend Rocky (Somebody Up There Likes Me) Graziano facilitated the Bronx shoot and, inevitably, the Tarantino connection.

Alternatively, if you think you’re man enough, you cold opt for the “Bronx Warriors Trilogy” steelbox, which also includes the 1983 sequel Escape From The Bronx (“Henry Silva was a nice guy…” opines Castellari in Warriors, Barbarians and Basterds: “… always talking about women and sex!”) and The New Barbarians (also 1983), with which Castellari opened a whole new can of  Italian post-Atomic worms.

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Socket To Me, Baby… Looking Back On THE BLIND DEAD

“The Templars in De Ossorio’s films are the perfect embodiment of fascism, because they are both soldiers and priests.”

– Lucio Fulci in conversation with the author.

Allo Darlin'...

“Allo, darlin’…”

The Order Of The Poor Knights Of Christ And The Temple Of Solomon (The Templars to thee and me) was founded by one Hugues de Payens in 1118, with the mission statement of protecting pilgrims in The First Crusade, and they quickly evolved into a kind of medieval SAS (“‘the Militia of Christ”). Although each Templar Knight took a Benedictine vow of personal poverty, the organisation itself grew massively rich on donations from various religiously inclined groups and individuals. Meanwhile in The Holy Land, the Knights were being exposed to various strands of Jewish, Muslim and Gnostic mysticism… reputedly they even had links with the legendary Hashishim or Order Of Assassins. Whatever, they were said to have absorbed all manner of esoteric knowledge and, on a more secular level, used their increasing riches to become involved in what was essentially  the birth of international banking. Due to their connections with the Cathar heretics of Languedoc, it was even suspected that these knights were intent on setting up their own theocratic state in that region of France. Certainly, King Philip IV thought they were getting too big for their military boots, a decision presumably influenced by the fact that he owed them a fistful of francs. In 1307 Philip arrested, tortured and executed all the Templars he could lay his hands on and put pressure on The Pope to disown the Order, which was official disbanded by Clement V in 1312. History is written by the victors and the devil worshipping atrocities claimed by Philip to justify his actions are best taken with a pinch of salt. The Templars have remained active, if nowhere else, in the annals of conspiracy theory, which detects their dark hand at work everywhere, shaping the course of human destiny on behalf of a secretive, sinister elite. A lively literary and now cinematic sub-genre flourishes, enriching (if not The Order) the likes of Dan Brown and Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, 2006).

Of more interest to Freudstein followers is the cycle of Spanish movies detailing the darker side of the Templar story, spearheaded by a quartet of classic horror flicks from Amando De Ossorio (and collected in a spanky Blue Underground DVD box set which you might still be able to pick up if you hunt around a bit.) De Ossorio was born in Galicia anytime between 1918 and 1925 (accounts vary… strangely, he was also reported as deceased several times before actually breathing his last in Madrid on 13.01.01) and earned his living from shorts, documentaries and industrial films before making his feature debut with the paella western Tomb Of The Pistolero in 1964. Jack Taylor once told me that horror films, with their attendant hordes of damsels in distress, were one of the few ways of expressing anything vaguely sexual in the buttoned-down, uptight milieu of Franco’s Spain. De Ossorio’s first credit in this genre was the sexy (Anita Ekberg starring) vampire effort Malenka in 1969. Night Of The Sorcerers (1974) is a ludicrously schlocky leopard cult / zombie epic whose purported African setting (actually a park in Madrid) provided the perfect pretext for plentiful sub-National Geographic female nudity and The Loreley’s Grasp (1974, a particularly busy year for our man) was based on an old Germanic myth about a beautiful siren luring sailors to their deaths on The Rhine. Most profitably though, De Ossorio returned to certain Galician local legends that had haunted his childhood, those of the terrifying Templars. Whether he personally added the element of blindness to these scary stories is a moot point.

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Ossorio’s La Noche Del Terror Ciego / Tombs of the Blind Dead  (1971) reveals that instead of Templars rescuing maidens, the maidens need rescuing from them when, having been initiated into sinister occult practices during their stint crusading around The Holy Land, they return to 13th Century Spain with a drastically revised take on knightly chivalry. The Templars ride into town, select the juiciest local nubiles, throw them over their saddles and ride back to their clubhouse, where the girls are crucified and slashed by the swords of jousting knights, whose colleagues stand around looking on sternly, with their arms folded, looking for all the world as though they about to break into a rendition of “Templar rap”. Instead, they dive in on the unfortunate victims’ punctured boobs, gulp down their blood and hack out their hearts before messily gobbling them down. These shenanigans are supposed to secure eternal life for the Templars, but party-pooping villagers break up their revels to string the naughty knights up so that crows can peck out their eyes. A know-it-all historian in “the present day” (i.e. early ‘70s Spain) tells  protagonists Roger (César Burner) and Betty (Lone Fleming) all about it and predicts the vengeful return of the Templars. To nobody’s great surprise – and the delight of gore-hounds everywhere – this is precisely what happens.

Sexually confused Virginia (María Elena Arpón / “Helen Harp”) jumps off a train after her girlfriend Betty (Fleming) starts flirting with hunky Roger  and camps down in a derelict Templar monastery, where her crop top and hot pants are enough to raise the dead (did the trick for me too, actually!) Centuries of decomposition have reduced the Templars to skeletons, but they’re still pretty sprightly  and – despite the tufty little beards growing out of their jawbones  and their dusty duffel-coats, which make them look like trad jazz-loving CND activists – they’re certainly not pacifists! Scrambling out of those tombs in the banks of fog that always roll down during this sort of thing, they ride around on their skeletal horses in slow motion (to the accompaniment of Anton Garcia Abril’s spell-binding score, which mixes mumbling monks, tolling bells and the echoing of horses’ hoof beats and would become one of of the most memorable features of the ongoing Templar series), using their supersensitive hearing to locate fresh victims. After snuffing a couple of cuties who were reckless enough to wander into their cemetery territory, the Templars hijack a train and put its passengers to the sword – cue the oft-censored shot of a babe in arms being soaked in its mother’s blood.

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That’s about it as far as plot is concerned and there are some passages that do drag a bit, but these are mitigated by the chuckles to be had at the the early ‘70s fashions on display and, a propos of nothing in particular, De Ossorio tosses in a soft focus flashback to sixth-form sapphic shenanigans. There’s an equally gratuitous rape scene, though the perpetrator immediately meets a well deserved messy fate at the boney hands of the censorious Templars. The suspicion lingers that De Ossorio didn’t get all the footage he wanted, on account of budgetary or scheduling problems, or whatever… certain plot threads remain undeveloped, for instance the suggestion that Templar victims can return from the dead to transmit their contagion to others. This Romeroesque touch is never embroidered in the film nor indeed anywhere else in the subsequent Templar series. It also has to be said that the film’s final shots are oddly chosen and anti-climactic…

Return Of Evil D

… though they did leave the door open for  the Templars’ sophomore outing, El Ataque De Los Muertos Sin Ojos / Return of the Evil Dead (1973). The revisionist opening of this one displays a cavalier attitude towards the Templars rulebook, as vengeful villagers with flaming torches, rather than ravenous ravens, put out the eyeballs of Spain’s coolest ghouls. “Do you think you will find your way back without eyes?” they are taunted. No problem, actually and their mummified remains are soon gatecrashing an ill-advised “modern day” festive re-enactment of their dastardly deeds, with predictably drastic results. After the Templars have taken time out to punish an adulterous coupling (the girl’s escape attempt climaxes in the shocking revelation of a zombie horse to a disbelieving switchboard operator) and massacre the festival revellers, not to mention some incongruous “comic” sequences involving the lazy governor and his improper relationship with his housemaid, the balance of the picture unfolds with the rescued girl from the initial attack cooped up among a squabbling bunch of characters (including Lone Fleming from Tombs) besieged in a church (making De Ossorio’s constant denials that he was influenced by George Romero sound a bit feeble). In a direct lift from Night Of The Living Dead, one guy makes a run for his car and ends up as the centre-piece of Templar barbecue. Corrupt mayor Fernando Sancho trues to ensure his own escape by decoying the Blind Dead with a defenceless tiny tot (boo! hiss!) and there’s a well-sustained, suspenseful sequence in which Murdo (the mandatory gibbering village loon) loses his head over a girl, quite literally, leading her through an underground series of passage-ways, only to be greeted by sword-wielding undead Knights at the other end. Finally the Templars petrify and crumble in the morning sunlight, hunky Tony Kendall leading what’s left of the human characters between their desiccated husks to freedom, in a tense “resolution” reminiscent of that to Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Le Monde

Our favourite visually challenged, deceased dudes notched up their hat-trick of screen appearances in El Buque Maldito (also 1974, aka Ghost Galleon / Horror Of The Zombies). Unfortunately this is the weakest entry in the series by a long  chalk or, shall we say, several fathoms, despite an enthusiastic endorsement from late Cramps front man and trash movie connoisseur Lux Interior. Ossorio is on the record as attributing the Templars’ slow motion movements to “a displacement in the space / time continuum”. Perhaps this would explain why they turn up in Ghost Galleon, sleeping in their coffins on board… well, on board a ghost galleon, which has apparently been sailing the seven seas since the 16th Century, stuffed with their ill-gotten loot and accompanied by a perpetual pea-soup fog. You can bet your ass that when the ghost galleon’s course is crossed by a smaller boat packed with drug-crazed, bikini-clad, lesbian glamour models (De Ossorio also throws in the now mandatory recreational rape scene) the puritanical Knights are soon out of their coffins, waving their swords and slaughtering swingers left, right and centre. From their point of view this is made easier by the fact that although they’re moving as slowly as ever, their potential victims have pretty much nowhere to run except elsewhere on the galleon. The downside though, from the viewers’ perspective, comprises a completely static “plot” and the conspicuous absence of those slow-motion skeletal horse-rides that worked so well in the previous two instalments. Jack Taylor and the last surviving bimbo model have the brain wave of driving the Templars back into their coffins with fire then slinging them overboard. At this point the eyes of the horned skull which the Templars worship start glowing red and their vessel (laughably rendered by a model that will have all Spinal Tap fans thinking “Stonehenge!”) bursts into flame. The two survivors  struggle to the shore and collapse on the beach, only to find themselves surrounded by the clutching deadsters. The freeze frame closing shot suggests that there’s no stopping the Templars though, in truth, this substandard effort suggested they were washed up in every sense of the term.

Seagulls copy

After their living death on an ocean wave, the Templars took to the sea so well that they spend 1975’s La Noche De Las Gaviotas / Night Of The Seagulls bumming around the beach, brandishing buckets and spades, holding bloody beach barbecues in honour of a Lovecraftian fish-god (OK, so I was kidding about the buckets and spades). Only briefly do we get atmospheric shots of them riding their horses through the surf, and far too sparing use is made of Anton Garcia Abril’s Templar theme, one of the series’ trump cards (here largely supplanted by irritating tinkly incidental muzak). Otherwise, thankfully, it’s back to Templar basics. In the pre-titles sequence Medieval honeymooners are sacrificed to the Deadites’ grotesque amphibian gargoyle god. In “modern times”, Dr Henry Stein and his wife Jean (Victor Petit and Maria Kosti) arrive to take over their new practice, whose regulars are rural retards from central casting. Everybody fears the coming of darkness, especially Teddy, De Ossorio’s gooniest village loon yet (“Teddy’s afraid … they always beat teddy!”), though relatively sympathetically treated. The doc and his wife eavesdrop on an eerie torch lit beach procession, unaware that it’s intended to placate the Templars with the sacrifice of a virgin, who’s been taken away from her wailing family by black-shawled old biddies.

The Steins make friends with one pretty village girl called Lucy, whose own number soon comes up in the lottery for virginal sacrifices. Henry frees her, prompting a Templar siege of his home. With Lucy out of the picture, Henry matter-of-factly tells his wife: “It’s obvious that they need another victim for their ceremonial rites … and it looks like they’ve chosen you!” That’s some bedside manner you’ve got there, doc… After the expected atmospheric horse-back chase, the Steins upturn and smash the Blind Dead’s idol at which point The Templars return, visibly crumbling, to their coffins, for a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, though Seagulls is undoubtedly a better note for them to bow out on than Ghost Galleon.

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La cruz del diablo 2

The aforementioned Blue Underground box set, comprising these four films (and plentiful bonus material), is touted as the  complete Blind Dead saga, but a truly complete account of The Templars’ horror film exploits would also have to include John Gilling’s directorial swan song, The Devil’s Cross (1975), in which they populate the troubled protagonist’s dreams. Readers might recall my interview with Paul Naschy, in which he complained bitterly that Gilling had hijacked this picture from him.

Unfortunately we must also account for one of Jesus Franco’s sloppier offerings, in which he tried to jump the Templar bandwagon approximately a decade after it had stopped rolling. The Internet Movie Data Base identifies Franco’s Mansion Of The Living Dead as a 1985 production, though I’m more inclined to trust the bad film boffins from Severin, who put it out on DVD in 2006 and claim it as a 1983 effort. Admittedly Franco’s fractured filmography (in which films are typically re-edited and ransacked to be combined with footage from other, completely unconnected efforts, even unto porno editions) lends itself to precisely such confusion. It could also be reasonably suggested that, sorry Jess, with films of this calibre… nobody really gives a toss! MOTLD “boasts” similar production values (OK, the cinematography is actually quite nice in this one, even if that zoom lens is as overworked as ever) and plot mechanics (down to the “comic relief” peeping Tom character) to Franco’s insufferable “video nasty” (one of three) Bloody Moon, which was shot in 1982.

Allegedly based on a novel by one D. Khunne (one of Franco’s many pseudonyms) the story, such as it is, kicks off with four topless waitresses of varying attractiveness (including Franco’s muse Lina Romay / “Candy Coster) arriving from Munich at a luxury holiday resort in the Canary Isles, with the primary intention of getting shagged by as many men as possible ( “The Sadean Woman” according to Jesus Franco!) Unfortunately there are no other guests, male or otherwise, and equally mysteriously, the hotel seems to be staffed by just one guy, the mean and moody Carlos Savonarola (“Robert Foster” / Antonio Mayans). Undaunted, our hot pants wearing “lovelies” quickly pair up for some hot’n’heavy (though never, at least in the Severin release, quite crossing over into hard core territory) girl-on-girl lovin’. “This vacation is gonna be unbelievable” predicts Candy as her lover laps away at her… truer than she knows! Needless to say, Carlos is soon grabbing himself a piece of the sweaty action, though he hastily breaks off from another spot of cunnilingus with the observation “My God – it’s 4 o’clock…. I’ve got to go and feed a sick woman” (change your douche, darling!) Turns out he’s actually got to go and torment his rather butch-looking wife Mabel (Mabel Escano) with some food which she can’t reach from the corner of the room in which he’s chained her up.

Just in case the girls haven’t twigged yet that something rather rum is going on, their next sunbathing session is rudely interrupted by a near miss with a flying meat cleaver. “Who would want to murder four hotties like us?” asks one of them, indignantly. Who indeed? A fan of good acting? Their efforts to crack this mystery involve wandering around the hotel corridors endlessly in various states of undress. Is that a shadow, a tuft of hair or something more sinister protruding from between Candy’s ample cheeks at one point? (“Emergency delivery of toilet paper, please, to the mansion of the living dead!”)  When the girls finally tire of those corridors, they stroll off separately to the island’s nearest dilapidated church, which turns out to be Templar HQ… and yes, the mouldy monks are well up for chastising some promiscuous females.

Jess's Mansion

Now, Amando De Ossorio really made an effort to get his Blind Dead dudes looking like mummified corpses, but Franco’s budget obviously only extended to a few white sheets, a couple of joke shop skull masks and, because there weren’t enough of those to go around, a bottle of calamine lotion to splash on the faces of the other ghouls. Though not looking too impressive, these guys wax eloquent about their unholy intentions… “Our brother Savonarola has brought another sinner to the court of the Cathars, the saintly men with white robes and black hearts” (Ooh-er) …“I propose that she is put to death while she enjoys carnal sin, so that her desirable body many join the ranks of Satan’s servers… she will receive the mark of the accursed semen”. Sounds like a plan.  The unfortunate victim is stripped of her sparkly hot pants and enthusiastically raped and stabbed by the Templars, whose legs don’t seem to have suffered any discernible decomposition over the Centuries (their todgers still up to the job, too!) “Bless you and damn you…” intones the top Templar: “Enjoy the mortal sin… may your sins never be forgiven!” I bet he says that to all the girls…

Candy discovers Mabel, still chained to the table, and learns of the sadistic way in which Carlo has been treating her. “We work in a topless bar… we’re waitresses showing off our boobs!” is her helpful opening conversational gambit, and she further advises the hapless captive that this career option is very  “in” at the moment. It’s probably at this point that Mabel decides to eat the rat poison which her husband has thoughtfully left for her. None of this seems to dampen Candy’s ardour for Carlo, who announces that he’s one of the Templars and has recognised her as a reincarnation of the Princess Irina (an ongoing character in Franco’s tangled mythos) who had cursed the Cathars while they were burning her at the stake, condemning them to an eternity of living death. You crisp the chick, you gotta pay the price…

I won’t give away the ending, because a) I don’t want to spoil it for you and b) it made absolutely no sense whatever to me. Severin present Mansion Of The Living Dead in a lush 2.35:1 transfer, enhanced for wide screen, which is probably better than it deserves. English subtitles compliment the Spanish language soundtrack and as bonus material you get a featurette, The House That Jess Built, in which Franco and faithful cohort Candy / Lina are interviewed and the director attempts to explain the theological underpinning of his work. Luis Bunuel he ain’t… I’d usually give a film like this the dreaded “for completists only” but the aforementioned Internet Movie Data Base suggests that even completists give it a miss! A nod’s as good as a wink to…

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