Posts Tagged With: Luigi Cozzi

Yellow Telly: Italy’s Hitchcock Opens THE DOOR INTO DARKNESS

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DVD. Region Free. Dragon Film Entertainment. Unrated.

Over the years, Dario Argento has blown hot and cold over the “Italian Hitchcock” label that’s so often attached to him (and frankly, the worst of his post-Opera output makes comparisons with Ed Wood seem more appropriate) but his high media profile in Italy is largely down to four hour-long TV movies that he presented under the “La Porta Sul Buio” banner on RAI (the Italian equivalent of the BBC) in 1973, a clear attempt to emulate Universal’s iconic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, which ran between 1957 and 1962 in The States (and syndicated world-wide).

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The enormous domestic viewing figures (in the region of 30 million) racked up by Argento’s mini-series are often contextualised with the observation that Italy only had two TV channels (RAI Uno and Rai Due) at the time, but in fact the playing field was even more uneven than that, as Rai Due had only recently started broadcasting and still couldn’t be picked up by more than 50% of the Italian population.

The captive audience digesting their Cena in front of the first episode on a September evening in 1973 were greeted by the spectacle of Argento, in a fetching ’70s pullover, fretting over his dead car. Aldo Reggiani (one of the doctors in Four Flies On Grey Velvet) and Laura Belli offer him a lift and after a desultory bit of conversation (Argento compliments them on the cuteness of their baby) our master of ceremonies alights and waves them off into the first episode…

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“The Neighbour”

That young couple are off to spend their first night in the seaside apartment that will be their new home. It seems improbable that Belli’s character would put up with this ramshackle property, sight unseen. Even more so that Reggiani could sit up to watch a Frankenstein film when much has already been made of the fact that the apartment’s electricity is off. As for the killer upstairs, who goes out to dig a grave for his wife, whom he’s just drowned in the bath, oblivious to what the new neighbours might think of such shenanigans… well!

Despite the deficiencies in Luigi Cozzi’s script, his competent direction keeps this zero budget variation on Rear Window (whose themes Cozzi would expand into the rather excellent giallo The Killer Must Kill Again later in the same year) just about watchable, right up to a climax that’s taken straight out of the Edgar Allan Poe playbook. For anyone who didn’t spot the Hitchcock allusion, the killer is played by Spagwest heavy Mimmo Palmara (who also supervised the series’ post production sound-synching), conspicuously greyed up to look like Raymond Burr.

Il Vicino Di Casa was the second episode shot and originally planned as the broadcast follow-up to its predecessor in the shooting schedule…

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… but at the last minute this order was reversed. Argento wrote and edited The Tram utilising the pseudonym “Sirio Bernadotte”, because after three theatrical features it was felt that TV directing might be construed as a retrograde step in his career. “Sirio” introduces this episode with a bit of inconsequential waffle and by bringing on Commisioner Giordani (Enzo Cerusico, who would star in Argento’s non-giallo feature Five Days In Milan the same year). The mystery facing this guy is how a woman could be stabbed to death and stuffed under the seat of a busy tram without anybody noticing. To crack it, the obsessively finger-snapping cop restages that fatal tram ride with the participation of as many of her fellow passengers as the police can trace. The solution isn’t that hard to work out (and with it, the killer’s identity) but Argento’s polished direction of The Tram makes for a more consistently engaging ride than Il Vicino Di Casa, right up to a half-assed ending which pays lip service to the suggestion that white collar criminals regularly commit worse crimes and get away with them, a theme explored with more conviction and clarity by, among others, Aldo Lado in any number of his films.

RAI’s ambivalence about the whole project, in which their desire for new cutting edge material rubbed up against their conservative instincts, is nowhere better illustrated than in their veto of any depiction of knives in the climactic stalking of Giordani’s girlfriend Giulia played by Paola Tedesco (whose blonde locks in this one make her a bit of a Barbara Bouchet looky-likey)… so instead she’s stalked with a (presumably more politically correct) meat hook! If this character’s name hasn’t already clued you in, the whole episode is an expansion of a scene cut from the screenplay for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Likewise…

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… the third episode (whose introductory section, in which Argento quizzes a fat cop about the most colourful cases he’s ever conducted, suggests it was originally conceived as the series closer) is a stripped down version of plot and themes from the recently wrapped Four Flies On Grey Velvet. Argento rewarded his long-term assistant Roberto Pariante with the direction of The Eye Witness but the dailies apparently revealed that he had been promoted beyond his competence and after a few days Argento enlisted Cozzi (his co-writer on this section) to reshoot Pariante’s existing footage while he handled the remaining scenes. In the finished article (still officially credited to Pariante), Liz Taylor clone Marilù Tolo (with whom Argento promptly embarked upon a two-year affair) is driving home late one night when a stabbed woman staggers out in front of her car. Our heroine calls the cops but by the time they arrive, there is no sign of the corpse. Is Marilù losing the plot or is somebody (maybe her apparently devoted husband?) trying to drive her bonkers? Anyone who’s seen Four Flies On Grey Velvet will have little difficulty in supplying the answer…

RAI insider Mario Foglietti (who co-wrote Four Flies with Argento and Cozzi) was given a rare chance to direct on the final  episode to be broadcast, which he co-wrote with Marcella Elsberger…

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The Doll

This one kicks off with a dangerous schizo absconding from a medical unit, all rendered via the nutcase’s POV. In fact throughout, Foglietti deploys techniques from Argento’s bag of visual tricks in the service of a bloodless thriller (the murder of genre icon Erika Blanc in an iconic fashion house setting plays out as a disappointingly stylised, anaemic affair) that runs more on existential angst than violence. This depressing giallo tendency would reach its nadir in Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo the following year and anyone who’s ever suffered through that one will break out in a cold sweat when they clock the presence here of its star Robert Hoffman, stalking Mara Venier with apparent psychotic intent, though you’d have to be pretty slow on the uptake not to spot the climactic narrative switcheroo coming. I particularly cherished the deployment of police resources in this episode, i.e. the chief investigating officer is driven up and down the high street observing pedestrians in the hope that he’ll spot his quarry!

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Giorgio Gaslini scores all the episodes with Morricone-esque suspenseful flurries and for the main series theme, stabbing, Emersonesque piano passages. Each instalment is passably presented (the original elements having long disappeared) on this 2004 double disc set from German outfit Dragon. Interviews with Luigi Cozzi give the background to the series and introduce each episode individually. For the authentic experience, he requests that the viewer watch La Porta Sul Buio in black and white, as broadcast, rather than colour (as shot and presented here).

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Possibly conceived as a goodbye to the giallo (before the failure of Argento’s projected breakout feature Five Days In Milan sent him back to the genre, with Deep Red and Tenebrae to come), La Porta Sul Buio is a historically interesting but compromised affair, part of whose historical interest resides in the very compromises that it had to make. Its episodes are a lot more watchable (on every level barring that of kitschy trash) than the vignettes Argento (and Lamberto Bava) contributed to RAI’s short-lived (October 1987 to January ’88) TV game show Giallo.

Devised and hosted by veteran presenter Enzo Tortora (coming back after his acquittal in a notorious drugs case) and broadcast in a much more heterogeneous and competitive, post-Berlusconi Italian TV environment, Giallo was an indigestible concoction of game show (contestants had to guess the killer) and chat show (a surviving clip shows Dario interviewing a tangibly listless post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd), with glamorous hostesses thrown in for good measure but regrettably no sign of Dusty Bin.

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No “Sirio Bernadotte” subterfuge, this time out, for a director whose career after Opera would consist of nothing but retrograde steps…

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Making The Cyclops Cry… CONTAMINATION reviewed

Blu-ray (A/B) – DVD (1/2) combo. Arrow. 15

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“Who you calling a toaster oven, Earthling?!?”

An abandoned boat drifts down the Hudson river, bearing a fresh consignment of pulsating  green pods from Mars. When they ripen, they burst open and and shower any Earthlings reckless enough to be in their vicinity with acid. As if that weren’t nasty enough, this is nasty Martian acid which reduces the investigating coast guards to exploding showers of offal, lovingly filmed in super-slow motion by director Luigi Cozzi. The human race responds swiftly and before you can say “chest burster” every Italian in New York is on the case. Dr Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) takes control: “I’m a colonel, directly responsible to the President, Special Division Five”, she barks: “… put Emergency Plan Seven into effect.” Stella enlists the services of Police Lieutenant Arris (Marino Mase), the sole survivor of that Marie Celeste massacre, and also Hubbard (Ian McCulloch), an astronaut who was laughed out of NASA when he returned from the first manned Mars probe claiming that his colleague Hamilton was killed by pulsating Martian pods. Holmes finds this guy residing in alcoholic squalor, but galvanises him into action with some catty reflections on his virility, to wit: “In this state, you couldn’t even get it up with a crane!” (What a ball-breaker!)

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Hubbard repeats his story and this time gets a more sympathetic hearing. The accompanying flashback sequence – depicting his ordeal in a cave at the Martian pole – is gripping stuff, comparing very favourably to the corresponding scene in Alien when you consider the films’ respective budgets. One of Goblin’s most atmospheric, throbbing scores does no harm either. Holmes, Hubbard and Arris trace the pods to a waterfront warehouse, where a cop who knocks on the door is unceremoniously shot through the head. SWAT dudes storm the place, but the warehousemen duck any awkward questions by the simple expedient of exploding in slow motion. Stella theorises, straight off the top of her head, that the pods are to be placed in the Big Apple’s sewer system, where they will incubate and blow up a large section of the city. “National security is at stake” she warns: “… and possibly even more than that!”

Our intrepid threesome fly off to Columbia, to be greeted by the expected outbreak of stock footage. Villainous locals smuggle pods into Stella’s bathroom while she’s taking a shower, but the boys rescue her, setting the scene for the climactic confrontation on a coffee plantation that has been turned over to the cultivation of pods (check out the pod incubation unit and ponder whether you’ve seen that room before… maybe at the climax of Argento’s Inferno? Perhaps also as the setting of the most notorious moment in Andrea Bianchi’s Nights Of Terror?) The operation is run by Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch), the supposedly dead astronaut, his will directed by the dreaded Alien Cyclops (“… it’s slimy, slithering appearance more than made up for by the fact that it has all the mobility of a toaster oven”, to invoke the memorable contemporary description in Fangoria magazine.)

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The Cyclops mesmerises Arris with its throbbing yellow eye then sucks him into its gaping maw. Stella’s next on the menu but Old Mother Hubbard, despite undergoing another Mars flashback (makes a nice change from all those ’Nam flashbacks) shoots the cyclops in the eye, which for some reason causes Hamilton to burst into flames. The army turns up on cue to round up the Martian minions and close down the plantation but unfortunately that’s not the end of the story – back in NYC (right outside The Twin Towers, uncomfortably enough) pods are ripening in sidewalk garbage piles. One of them bursts as the credits roll.

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Although gore wasn’t exactly unknown in Italian horror cinema before the late ’70s, the succession of ever more graphically violent American box office smashes in that period prompted a veritable tsunami of spaghetti splatter… happy days! Contamination is a textbook demonstration of the sheer vitality, seat-of-their-pants inventiveness and shameless dollar chasing exhibited by Italian movie mavens during what was destined to become the final throw of exploitation all’Italiana. As that non-sequitur title suggests, the film was originally conceived as a cash-in on The China Syndrome (1979) but when Alien (1979) burst its way through John Hurt’s chest and into the hearts of movie goers around the world, producers Claudio Mancini and Ugo Valenti enthusiastically jumped the biomorphic bandwagon, their rapidly rehashed property being touted, variously, as Alien Contamination, Alien 2 and Alien Arrives On Earth (good job they weren’t crass enough to pit Alien against Predator, huh?) until Fox’s lawyers had their say. Neither unfazed by this nor discouraged by such recent examples of Italian sci-fi as Lugi Cozzi’s 1978 howler Starcrash, they enlisted Cozzi to throw together an energetically eclectic conflation of Alien, Quatermass, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Invaders From Mars and, striking a patriotic note, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979.)  Having starred in that and Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980), Ian McCulloch was along for the ride modelling a proto-Trump hairdon’t and doing his best bargain basement Bond bit (Mancini, perhaps fancying himself as a stem of Broccoli, being determined to cram a sub-006-and-a- 1/2 element into this cut price concoction.)

Precisely such relentless trend chasing is the subject of bonus featurette The Sincerest Form Of Flattery: A Critical Analysis Of Tne Italian Cash-in, in which Maitland McDonagh and Chris “Temple Of Schlock” Poggiali expound upon the filoni theory of Italian making, whereby generic streams are drained until they run dry… an entertaining examination of its subject, though it mysteriously peters out itself while Poggiali is in mid flight. Other extras include a rabidly enthusiastic commentary track from current Fango editor Chris Alexander, who’s fiercely keen to defend Contamination from its detractors while simultaneously acknowledging the schlocky nature of the whole proceedings (*). There’s the expected trailer. The director’s career is profiled in Luigi Cozzi Vs Lewis Coates and Sound Of The Cyclops showcases Goblin member Maurizio Guarini with emphasis on his score for this film. Both Notes On Science Fiction Cinema (an archive Cozzi interview combined with some valuable behind-the-scenes footage) and a nifty graphic novel appeared in a previous Blue Underground DVD release.

Best of all is the 15.11.14 Q&A session from the Abertoir Horror Festival, Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Moderated by Ewan Cant in front of a receptive audience, Cozzi and McCulloch are on good form and the whole thing is a hoot. Particularly memorable are McCulloch’s electrified reaction to the director’s assertions about how much money Contamination took (might one infer that it was a different story when his royalty cheques were being discussed?) and then the star starts wondering aloud about why, precisely, some of Contamination’s scenes had to be shot in Columbia, of all places. When Cozzi doesn’t exactly go out of his way to dissuade McCulloch from this line of speculation, the latter’s astonishment is palpable… Priceless stuff!

After some early misfires Arrow, have got this Blu-ray mastering malarky well and truly licked… you could quibble that some of the film’s early outdoor shots look a tad grainy but they’ve resisted the temptation to sink the picture in DNR fudging and Contamination will probably never look better than this. And it’s impossible to sign off here without commenting on the fact that this former “video nasty” is now deemed fit for consumption by 15 year olds. “National security at stake”? Pah…

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“Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”

(*) Alexander beats himself up about his inability to put a name to the cameoing face of Carlo De Mejo, son of Alida Valli and a familiar face from any amount of pasta paura epics… as these things often do, this prompted me to google what De Mejo had been up to recently. Sadly, prominent among this list was dying. He took to his grave the secret of what the f*ck the climax to Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead (1980) actually meant.

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