Posts Tagged With: Michele Soavi

Serving God With Biochemistry Since 1981… ABSURD Arrives On Blu-Ray

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BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

What can I possibly tell you about “Peter Newton” / Joe D’Amato’s Absurd that you don’t already know or can’t easily glean from Seduction Of The Gullible: The Curious History Of The UK’s “Video Nasty” Panic? OK, if you haven’t got a copy of that to hand (and if not, why not?!?) I’ll try to get you up to speed. On account of its Medusa VHS release, Absurd became alphabetically the first of the “nasties” and was also one of the last, in the sense that along with 38 other titles, it stayed on the DPP’s proscribed list until that throwback to The Spanish Inquisition was discontinued. Plotwise, it unfolds as equal parts Halloween remake and half-assed sort of sequel / sort of not, to D’Amato’s other “nasty” Anthropophagous Beast (1980), though it manages the improbable feat of being an even worse film than that. Luigi Montefiori’s monstrous dude boasts a much better complexion here than in Anthropophagous and doesn’t actually eat anybody (he even resists the urge to consume his own intestines when they spill out, yet again, at the start of this one) though he does hang Michele Soavi’s juvenile delinquent upside down from a tree, bake Annie Bell’s bonce in an oven and penetrate the heads of various other dudes with axes, black’n’deckers and bandsaws. All of this is on account of a genetic mutation (a scientifically induced one, it is darkly hinted) that has also, as (bad) luck would have it, rendered him virtually indestructible, as Father Edmund Purdom explains to the sceptical cops, their scepticism scarcely mitigated by the priest’s announcement that he serves God “with biochemistry rather than ritual.” Katya Berger, who spends most of the film screwed to some fiendish orthopedic device, ultimately rises from it (begging certain obvious questions that D’Amato clearly can’t be arsed answering) to prove that when it comes to challenging the alleged indestructibility of hulking home invaders, eye pokings and decapitation trump biochemistry every time!

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88’s Absurd Blu-ray represents the first legitimate UK release of this title – and its first appearance on disc in this country – since the “nasties” witch hunt receded. It’s uncut and looks better than it probably deserves, the graininess that plagues many such 2K upgrades of films from its era contained within acceptable parameters. You get a commentary track from The Hysteria Continues (Teenage Wasteland author and Richard Osman soundalike Justin Kerswell with his pals) which makes for reasonably diverting stuff, if not quite as amusing as their Pieces commentary (these guys are fast becoming the “go to” crew for Edmund Purdom movies!) Their audio track is slightly out of synch with the visuals, too, which gets a bit jarring when they’re talking about specific shots.

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In addition, you get the expected reversible sleeve options and a nifty little insert which contains amusing capsule reviews of the DPP’s least favourite 39 titles by Calum Waddell. Best of all are two interview feauturettes, each about a quarter of an hour long, with Montefiori (aka George Eastman) and Soavi, both looking significantly greyer than you probably remember them. Montefiori, who still presents an imposing physical presence, generates plenty of tantalising trivia for pasta paura buffs, including how he took on the Anthropophagous role because he was keen to visit Greece… only for all of his scenes to be shot in Rome… and how he was originally slated to direct Stagefright (1987) until he was distracted by problems with a restaurant he had just opened (!) and the project devolved to Soavi. Big George, who is endearingly modest and self-deprecating throughout, concedes that Soavi did a much better job than he could have hoped to. He also makes some fascinating and frank observations on the character and career (“He preferred staying in the lower league where he could have more control over everything”) of Joe D’Amato, whom he clearly loved dearly. He reiterates the story that D’Amato’s fatal heart attack was brought on by the disappearance of several cans of footage, a sad but also apposite ending to a life consumed by film. Soavi obviously worships the memory of D’Amato too, recalling his first impression of him as “a little man with a smirk and a cigarette… it was love at first sight!” Elsewhere in the interview, he celebrates D’Amato’s role as an incubator of young talent such as his and contends that “everything said about him is probably all true and all false… a very complex and incomprehensible person… for me, a genius… one of the greatest cinema masters of all time!” Perversely enough, after enduring another screening of Absurd, I’m inclined to agree!

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Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hampstead Smiles On A Murderer… My Breakfast With JOE D’AMATO

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The incredible Joe D’Amato with his business partner, Donatella Donati.

This account of a “most unusual dining adventure” (to paraphrase Faces Of Death) was originally filed in the aftermath of Eurofest ’95, held in Hampstead on 7th October that year. Thanks are due to the organisers. Both of them.

Aristide Massaccesi, Michael Wotruba, Tom Salina, John Bird, Michael Holloway, Alexandre Borsky, Hugo Clevers, Pierre Bernard, Peter Newton, Federico Slonisco, Richard Franks, David Hills, O. J Clarke, Jim Black, Dirk Frey, Philippe Fromont, John Newman, Robert Hall, Steve Benson, Kent Bruno, Kevin Mancuso, Peter Mancuso, John Larson, Alex Carver, Dario Donati, James Burke, Joan Russell, Jeiro Alvarez, Robert Yip, Hsu Hsien, Boy Tan Bien, Young Sean-Bean Lui, Chang Lee Sun, and most (in)famously, Joe D’Amato (Jeez, I’ve nearly used up my entire word allocation already!): many names, all of which (and more) can be linked to one face. It’s a grizzly, tanned visage, trimmed with silver stubble. The nose is Roman, the eyes are lively, and the mouth is flashing a smile that reminds me of that shark in “Mac The Knife” as its owner emerges from the lift into the lobby of his Knightsbridge hotel to clasp my hand in one of his own disproportionately large mitts and wish me “Buongiorno”. This is the Sunday morning after the busy Saturday before (D’Amato has spent the previous day lapping up the adulation of Britain’s gore-hounds and sexual deviates at the stonkingly successful Eurofest ‘95 in Hampstead; yesterday evening he was wined and dined at a bash held in his (and fellow star-guest Catriona MacColl’s) honour; and his companion, Donatella Donati, has spent the weekend shopping ‘til she dropped). Now, over our breakfast, we’re going to discuss the films that have made many people lose theirs. Eyebrows have already been raised at the spectacle of Joe on his hands and knees, unfolding and signing several of my quads from his Black Emanuelle series, but for the repectable diners of Knightsbridge far, far worse is to come…

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Indeed, my opening gambit concerning the impact of AIDS on the hard-core porn scene having caused much choking on kippers and rustling of Daily Telegraphs among our genteel fellow fast-breakers, I opt to follow up by enquiring about a somewhat less contentious aspect of the D’Amato oeuvre, his stint as camera operator for Jean-Luc Godard. “I worked on Godard’s Le Mepris,  an adaptation of a book by Alberto Moravia”, he recalls: “Godard is  really a genius, no doubt about it”. He’s certainly regarded as a “worthy”, Art-house director, whereas D’Amato’s own approach has always been ruthlessly commercial. “Yeah, that’s true…”, he concedes: “… myself, I have absolutely no interest in being an artist”.

This candid self-assessment has been borne out by D’Amato’s recent return to hard-core porn, cranking out an unlikely series depicting the sex lives of such historical, legendary and fictitious figures as Aladdin, Tarzan, Hamlet, Marco Polo and Al Capone (you get the impression that he’s waiting for Mother Theresa to pop her saintly clogs and pass into history, so he can begin detailing her covert participation in anal sex orgies). “We don’t have much of a film industry in Italy these days, unfortunately”, he explains: “So it’s purely a business decision to go back to hard-core. The market for these films is very big in The United States  and all over Europe… apart from Britain, of course! (laughs) Everywhere else in Europe, people are terribly interested in these movies”. I assure him that we Britons are equally fascinated by the hitherto-undisclosed raunchy antics of these esteemed personages, but the powers that be over here take an unenlightened view of such things.

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D’Amato’s prolific, commercially driven career has frequently led to him being compared with two directors in particular – Jesus Franco and Roger Corman. How does he feel about these comparisons? “It’s OK, I don’t mind these comparisons at all”, he reveals: “I like Jess Franco, he’s just like me in many ways. I’ve never met him, but I know his work” (indeed, he supervised the assembly of a Franco anthology culled from De Sade’s Juliette, Midnight Party and Shining Sex for the Italian market). “For sure, Corman is better than the two of us put together”, he admits. Corman, of course, is famed for his knack of knocking up a film out of nothing in a couple of days, and D’Amato once made the fascinating remark that he doesn’t set much store by a lot of pre-production, feeling that this “flying by the seat of your pants” approach sharpens his spontaneity and creativity. “Yeah, yeah, this is true. If you have everything organised, then you are obliged to shoot that way, but when I come to a place and nothing is ready, I use my fantasy to come up with something and for me this is better, gives more feeling”. Isn’t it risky, though? “Usually we have everything that we need, but I’ve had so much experience I can usually resolve any problem that arises”.

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D’Amato actually made a film for Corman, La Rivolta Delle Gladiatrici aka The Arena, in 1973. “The film is credited to Steve Carver, but was just a supervisor, sent over by Roger Corman. I directed the picture, then it was sent over to The States and edited by Joe Dante”.  His involvement in muscle-man pictures goes much further back than that, though, featuring as he does in certain filmographies as a contributor to Mario Bava’s 1961 Gothic Peplum Hercules In The Centre Of The Earth. Understandably, given the sheer volume of films he’s worked on over the years, D’Amato isn’t sure: “We made so many pictures in that period, about ‘Ercole’, you know, mythological films… Peplums, yeah, and for sure I remember that I worked with Bava, but I can’t remember if it was on that movie. Eugenio, the father of Mario Bava, had a small company that made the credit sequences for the movies and I worked with him, maybe an 85 year-old man then, but I learned so much from him, then later I worked my way though the various jobs, loading the film, and so on until I became a director myself. At one time I was assistant cameraman to the younger Bava, Mario. Mario was… perhaps not a genius, but like his father, a man who knew absolutely everything there was to know about making a movie… he was a craftsman… and in the same way, I’ve worked my way up through all the steps in the industry, and now I can do any job it takes to make a film”.

Again like Mario Bava, D’Amato progressed from cinematography to directing, and another parallel is that their directorial careers both had obscure beginnings, because each in their early days directed several pictures that were credited to other people. In D’Amato’s case, as is usual, there was a sound commercial reason for this: “At the same time as I started directing, I was still working as a Director of Photography, and I wanted to keep that work up, because it was my bread and butter. But a director like, let’s say Alberto De Martino… ” (for whom D’Amato shot The Tempter, The Killer Is On The Phone, The New Mafia Boss, etc) “… would not be happy to have another director working on his film, you know?” This, of course, was the origin of our Joe’s pseudonym addiction…

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“When I first started directing I made three movies, and the credit was going to ‘Dick Spitfire’ or whoever, because I wanted to keep cinematography as my main job, then Death Smiles On A Murderer came out under my real name, Aristide Massaccesi, because I had decided at that point that I wanted to pursue this career in directing. Then there was a period in Italy where East European directors were in vogue, so I called myself ‘Michael Wotruba’ for a while (laughs), purely as a marketing move. Later it seemed that all the successful American directors – Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma – so we tried to find a name that would make people think of an Italian-American director, and we saw the name ‘D’Amato’ on a sexy calendar, so that was it. It was the same thing recently when I made Chinese Kama Sutra, because in Italy movies like The Red Lantern were making a fortune. So I made this movie in the Philippines in 1993, I took a Chinese name, (Chang Lee Sun) and nobody knew that it was me, and when newspapers reviewed the film they said it was OK, ‘too hard’, perhaps, but they warned their readers that the movie wasn’t really Chinese… they said it was Japanese!” D’Amato is particularly tickled by this anecdote, his laughter segueing into an attack of smoker’s cough (the dapperly dressed director is seldom seen without a fag seemingly surgically attached to his lower lip). Presumably just to see how far he could take this gag, Coughin’ Joe credited the same year’s Sex And Chinese Food to Young Sean-Bean Lui (!)

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The first film which our hero owned up to, the aforementioned Death Smiles On A Murderer (1973), was confusingly plotted and more visually stylised than would often later be the case (“I was trying to evoke a certain atmosphere in that film”). It starred the late, great Klaus Kinski, an actor with a reputation for being difficult, but D’Amato disagrees: “For sure he was crazy and yes, not very normal, but he was very professional and would do exactly what you wanted him to do, so to work with him was in fact very nice. We had a good feeling when we worked, it was fantastic for me, though I know some people had a problem with him, because he was crazy…”

Still on the subject of “not very normal” folk, D’Amato shot second unit footage on Lucio Fulci’s White Fang (1973) and some eighteen years later would produce the great goremeister’s Door To Silence. “We also worked together many times over the years, when I was a cameraman…”, D’Amato remembers: “Fulci is nice, really very nice. Maybe he acts the part of ‘the character’ a little, but it is just a part he plays, he’s not really mad, you know… he’s a regular man, and very professional to work with”. D’Amato concedes that Fulci wasn’t too pleased over the alterations he had made to the film and its soundtrack. “Maybe it’s my fault. You saw the movie… when I read the story I liked it very, very much but when I watched the results it seemed a little static to me, so I went back to Louisiana where it was made and tried to shoot a small amount of stuff, just some bullshit that would make the film a little more pacey, you know. I changed the first soundtrack… we spent a fortune on the soundtrack because we used the best jazz band in Italy, but jazz is not to everybody’s taste, so I changed the first part of the music to something a bit more modern”. Fulci was also peeved that the film went out credited to H. Simon Kittay, and one might have thought that his name already had sufficient cult following to sell a film without the benefit of a pseudonym, but D’Amato insists: “Just before this, Fulci had made a couple of shit movies which didn’t do too well in foreign territories, so we thought it was better to use the other name from a sales point of view, you know?”

“Umberto Lenzi is also very professional, another nice guy” opines D’Amato, who produced Lenzi’s Ghosthouse and Hitcher In The Dark. Donatella, who has just joined us at the table, pulls a face that indicates a marked difference of opinion on this score. “Well, Fulci’s mind is much better than Lenzi’s… ” her companion continues: “… though as directors, they’re pretty much as good as each other”.

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One long-time collaboration which D’Amato remains unreservedly enthusiastic about is the one he’s enjoyed with Laura Gemser, the striking Eurasian actress who occupies pole position in his pantheon of sex / horror cross-over stars. Indeed, he’s keen to churn out another batch of Gemser bonk-fests, “… but the man who is now her lover doesn’t like her doing sex scenes. As a favour to me she has appeared  in several small roles in my recent films, because we are good friends, but she doesn’t really want to be an actress anymore”.

I ask him about the history of their association, and he tells me: “Laura made the first Black Emanuelle film with Adalberto Albertini, and the producers of that movie wanted to put her under contract to make ten movies. They were looking for a young director to do the movies, so I went to Holland, where she lived, to make this contract with her. We had this good feeling because she was very friendly, so we began the collaboration. The first movie I made with her was Andrea’s Complex (aka Voto Di Castita – BF), with Jacques Dufilho and a lot of Italian actors, a story about a guy who likes to watch people having sex, which is something that often happens in my movies (laughs). Then I made Laura’s second ‘Black Emanuelle’ movie – we made five of those, altogether”.

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I put it to D’Amato that his Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals (1977) in many ways anticipates Ruggero Deodato’s more celebrated / vilified Cannibal Holocaust from a few years later, and he shrugs a modest assent. D’Amato, like Deodato, has been dogged through the years by stupid rumours about real cannibalism, “snuff movies” and the like, but whereas Deodato has only suffered this shit on account of Cannibal Holocaust, several D’Amato pictures have been scrutinised under the moral microscopes of morons. Blue Holocaust (aka Beyond The Darkness), 1979’s heart-warming, heart-munching saga of a necrophile taxidermist, attracted accusations that a human cadaver had been mutilated in one of its scenes; the South American “snuff” loops unearthed by Gemser’s investigative reporter during Emanuelle In America looked a little too realistic for comfort to some people; and the unforgettable scene from Anthropophagous Beast, in which Luigi Montefiori aka George Eastman scoffs down a skinned rabbit, masquerading unconvincingly as a newly-aborted foetus, has even been screened on News At Ten as “a clip from a snuff movie”!

“Mad, absolutely mad!” declares an understandably peeved D’Amato “Because it was just a rabbit, you know – from the butcher’s shop! And Blue Holocaust was only a movie – we had cow intestines next to the girl, and we shot from an angle that made it look as though they were being pulled out of her body… so no dead body! It’s so funny that people in other countries believe we Italians are really killing people and putting their corpses in our films!” (laughs)

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“As for Emanuelle In America, we shot the ‘snuff’ scenes in 35mm, later we scratched the negative and printed it in 8mm, then blew it up again to make it look realistic… just bullshit, it’s only a movie, you know? I don’t why people would think this stuff is real”. Did he know that David Cronenberg was allegedly inspired to make Videodrome after seeing Emanuelle In America? “Yeah, I heard that…” laughs D’Amato: “Maybe I should ask Cronenberg for some money!”(Laughs) Sorry Joe, I don’t think Videodrome actually made any money…

In the piece I wrote for Dark Side #42 about the many mysteries associated with Giannetto De Rossi, one of the enigmas I pondered (and offered some cynical explanations for) was the fact that this special FX ace appears on the credits of Emanuelle In America only as boom operator, but D’Amato offers a perfectly prosaic explanation for this rum turn of events: “De Rossi certainly did the effects… there must have been a mistake, a mis-translation in the credits of the English-language version”.

Returning to Montefiori’s raw rabbit repast… how did he feel about eating that and all those animal guts at the end of Anthropophagous? Didn’t he ever say “Oh no, Aristide, I can’t do it!”? “Montefiori just takes a bite…”, laughs his mentor: “… he doesn’t eat it really. When he was supposed to be eating the intestines of that cow, he just ran his mouth over it, that’s all!” (laughs)

Most people just see Montefiori as a big, brooding heavy (“Yeah, just put him in a mask and he’s the monster”) but he acts, writes, directs… so he must be a pretty bright guy, no? “No!” guffaws D’Amato, finding this suggestion particularly hysterical. “No, he’s not very intelligent, believe me!” “He’s a good writer” chips in the horrified Donatella, diplomatically.

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“Montefiori has made many movies with me”, D’Amato continues. “He’s a good guy to work with. I produced his directing debut Regenerator, a nice film. He was supposed to direct 2020 Texas Gladiators, but after five days he lost confidence and I stepped in to finish the movie. He wrote a very good script for another film I made about people after the atom war, Endgame and it’s a nice story, with the duel between these two people”.

I put it to D’Amato that Endgame  is one of the best movies in a pretty dire genre, the Italian post-apocalypse cycle, and point out that it and another entry in that cycle, Lucio Fulci’s Rome 2030: Fighter Centurions, were shamelessly ripped off by Paul-Michael Glaser’s big-budget Arnie vehicle, The Running Man. “Sure, I know what you mean”, he replies: “It could be, because I made a movie called Sharks – Deep Blood in The States with Raf Donati, a friend of mine who worked in Martin Scorsese’s archives. He told me that Scorsese has a big library of Italian movies and that sometimes when Scorsese shoots a movie, he calls Raf and asks for something by Vittorio Cottofavi, Riccardo Freda, or Mario Bava, because he wants to screen these movies before he makes his, he wants to achieve the same shot or lighting effect or something as in one of these movies”.

I’m not sure if Martin Scorsese has ever cribbed any plot-points from a Montefiori script, but further evidence for Donatella’s high estimate of the big lug’s writing prowess is provided by the bang-up job he did on the script of Stagefright, providing a solid platform from which Michele Soavi could launch his impressive feature directing debut.

Was D’Amato aware, from Soavi’s days as a bit-part player and assistant in his own films, that this protégé would go on to make it as a respected genre director in his own right? “Sure, and it was me who actually persuaded him that I should produce Stagefright for him rather than the other way… Michele had worked as my assistant on many movies. Before that he was an actor, he was obsessed with being the new James Dean, had his haircut like James Dean and everything (laughs). I gave him his first opportunity to shot some scenes, on 2020 Texas Gladiators, and now for me, he is the best Italian director of these movies, better even than Argento and Fulci, who I would put in third place. He likes to do horror movies more than any other type, but mainly he just wants to make movies. This is very important because some people in Italy just want to be a director, I mean they want to sit there giving orders and looking important, but Michele truly loves movies, he works very hard, he will do anything… he’s just fantastic! Dellamorte Dellamore is a very good movie, and yes, I would love to work with Michele again. It might happen in the future”.

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Although, with Stagefright, D’Amato produced what is arguably the last great giallo, he has never directed a thriller of this type himself. “This is just because I never found a script that was really good” he explains, before elaborating: “ Maybe it’s a little complicated to do such a movie, with a low budget it’s much easier to do some gore effects. To make suspense you need time, you need to think, you need to do many shots and it’s much easier to make impact in a horror movie with blood. In Rome right now we have people very interested to do a classic horror move, not like Nightmare On Elm Street with all these expensive effects, but with the monsters, and I called Montefiori about making another movie, like Anthropophagous or something like this, where the scares would come totally from the dark, the creaking of the door, the use of sound to scare the audience, because I really believe the time is right for this kind of movie”.

A glimmer of optimism there that the current poor state of genre film-making in Italy might be about to pick up? “I don’t believe there is any future, unfortunately”, he demures:  “because now there is just Berlusconi and Cecchi Gori who own all the theatres, and it’s cheaper for them to buy a movie from the United States, any bullshit, really American bad movie, than to produce an Italian one, you can put them in the theatres and then show them on TV for $50,000 – $100,000.” I mention that English fans of Italian exploitation films find it hard to understand how there were so many being made in the ‘80s, and now – nothing! “Yeah, I know!” sighs D’Amato, and the interview winds down on an appropriately down-beat note.

As he signs some bits and pieces for me, we chat about this and that, including the fact that William Berger’s children featured in the cast of Absurd. D’Amato tells me that he worked as DP on many of the late star’s films, and regards him as “a fantastic actor and a very nice person”. “Didn’t Berger live in a hippy commune at one point?”, I ask. “I can’t believe that… he seemed like a really normal person!” frowns D’Amato, momentarily looking for all the world like a scandalised bourgeois… then he’s off, no doubt meditating his latest historical hard-core thrash. Hey Joe, didn’t Prince Albert have a pierced cock? Gotta be some possibilities there… and I did hear that Florence Nightingale was a bit of a goer!

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One of the calmer moments from Joe’s notorious Blue Holocaust…

 

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Stork And Slash… The Shameless BD Of Michele Soavi’s THE SECT Reviewed

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The Sect. BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Shameless’s UK disc debut of Michele Soavi’s 1991 effort The Sect (in both DVD and BD formats) follows hot on the hooves of the similar service they recently rendered to Soavi’s The Church (1989.) In my review of that one, elsewhere on this site, I recanted my long-held conviction that its many splendid visual set pieces could not compensate for a narrative that oscillates between risible and non-existent. On relection, this verdict was difficult to square with my oft-professed love for the likes of Inferno, The Beyond and City Of The Living Dead. I’ve performed a similar critical volte face after watching The Sect on Blu-ray, though it’s probably the lesser of the two films Soavi directed with Dario Argento as producer. Both of them kick in like gangbusters, only to lose momentum as bravura visuals alternate with wilfully obscure exposition through their overlong running time (The Sect clocks in just shy of two hours) en route to unsatisfying denouements. No accident, perhaps, that this one was released in the US as The Devil’s Daughter, possibly with the baffling conclusion to Hammer’s To The Devil A Daughter (1976) in mind.

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If anything, The Sect’s opening is even stronger than that of The Church, slapping the viewer upside his/her head with a 1-2 sucker punch. First we witness the end of the ’60s dream as members of a Californian hippy colony are slaughtered at the behest of Damon (Church alumnus Tomas Arana), a wild-eyed mystic with a penchant for discerning profundities in the lyrics of classic rock songs (remind you of anyone?) before crossing Continents and decades to “present day” Frankfurt, where John Morghen blows his own brains out in a metro station after police discover that he’s been taking the words of the Tony Basil song Stop That Man (“He’s getting away with my heart in his hand”) rather too literally. Reassuring stuff, given that Morghen (the perennial super-masochist / martyr of pasta paura cinema) died such a disappointing death in The Church.

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Frankfurt magistrate John Ford (just one of several, vaguely irritating, buffish character names) issues doomy pronouncements about the activities of sinister Satanic outfits. He’s particularly concerned about “The notorious Faceless Sect operating in the US during the ’70s”, a  cult founded by the mysterious Moebius Kelly. The briefly glimpsed Ford is played by Donald O’Brien, who’s certainly got form in this field, having run a Kito cult in his role as Doctor Butcher M.D. in the Marino Girolami film of that title.

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Before we can work out what the hell is going on, elementary schoolteacher Miriam (Kelly Curtis, Jamie Lee’s prettier big sister) runs over a jay-walking hobo (Moebius Kelly himself, played by Herbert Lom) and takes him back to her place to recuperate. The old geezer’s got a funny way of showing his gratitude – he bungs a dung beetle up Miriam’s nose while she’s asleep and Celtic imagery begins to invade her dreams, which apparently signifies that she’s now ripe to be knocked up with the devil’s spawn. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that many of the people around her are conniving at precisely this aim. Shades of Val Lewton and Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943)…

… and indeed, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) whose demonic insemination scene was restaged at the climax of The Church. This time out the titular sect contrive to get Miriam raped by a stork that jumps out of the submerged well in her basement… a submerged basement well of which she was previously unaware … did I already mention that this film’s plotting isn’t exactly its strong point?

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Just as The Church proceeded  from a vague Dario Argento diktat (“My brief to Michele was to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany beginning a new Middle Ages”), so Argento stipulated certain of The Sect’s salient imagery, including the Satanists’ full moon face ripping ceremony which (with the aid of Pino Donaggio’s spellbinding main theme) works rather well, plus some stuff that really doesn’t, e.g. the ongoing shenanigans concerning a kind of anti-Shroud Of Turin which, we learn, smothers some people but brings others (whom you’d prefer to be dead) back to life. What I really want to know about this flying snot rag, though, is… does it smell of death? And one of its victims, Kathryn, is ideally placed to comment on this, played as she is by Maria Angela Giordano of Burial Ground infamy.

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Struggling to impose some of his own identity amid all of this Argentiana, Soavi seems more intent on stuffing every available frame with arcane symbolism and cryptic allusions than he is with pulling all of these disparate strands of material together in a way that makes some kind of narrative sense. At one point he offers us a channel-hopping bunny which tunes into footage of the director himself doing conjuring tricks on TV! You’ll like it… but not a lot!

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“Who hid the remote in the cellar?”

It would be unfair to dismiss Kelly Curtis as just another sorry sibling recruited by the spaghetti exploitation industry solely on account of kid sister Jamie Lee’s scream queen exploits (in much the same way that Italian producers made a minor star out of Tisa Farrow and even attempted to do so with Neil Connery, before he forsook international espionage and returned to working as a milkman)… she already had a decent acting pedigree quite independently of JLC, who was born the same year that Kelly appeared as a little girl in Mom and Dad’s The Vikings (1958.) Plus, she’s actually rather good, here, ably personifying the anxieties suffered by pregnant women in a film that deals with such concerns rather more subtly than e.g. Alien (1979) or Humanoids From The Deep (1980), if considerably less so than Polanski’s picture. No doubt Herbert Lom later pleaded ignorance of any violent scenes that take place in The Sect…

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Having moaned in my review of The Church that I was only sent the DVD version, I’m happy to report that they sent me The Sect on Blu-ray and it looks just great. Given the two audio options available, I chose the Italian language one (with English subtitles) because it’s in 5.1 Surround. The mix proved strangely unadventurous and I didn’t notice any significant benefit until the outbreak of Pino Donaggio’s gorgeous main theme during the moon lit face removal ceremony… that one always gets the hairs standing up on the back of my neck to an extent only bettered by Fabio Frizzi’s Voci Dall Nulla at the climax of The Beyond.

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Extras include trailers for this and other Shameless releases plus the continuation of the Soavi interview from their Church disc, this instalment entitled Beauty And Terror.” Hardly surprisingly, he talks up his collaborations with the likes of Argento and Terry Gilliam but it’s gratifying to hear the director acknowledging his debts to Fulci and D’Amato (“This man had an energy not human!”), too. His “compare and contrast” reports on the various directors’ personalities, working methods and the atmospheres on their respective sets are most enlightening. Soavi also reveals that Tarantino offered him the direction of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), which he now regrets turning down.

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Given her grisly former glories, it’s interesting to hear Soavi detailing the way in which the demise of Maria Angela Giordano’s character was cut, having been deemed too gruesome. We also learn that the Sergio Stivaletti special effect by which a bug climbs up Kelly’s nose was shot with a camera that was formally Mario Bava’s.

The Sect is an uneven film, no question, but it’s probably better than anything Argento himself has managed since 1987 and only a terminally hard-to-please pasta paura buff could fail to find something to enjoy herein, if only the first screen teaming (ish… they don’t actually share a scene) of Italian Horror’s “Mr & Mrs Most Mutilated”, Morghen and Giordano. Perhaps some sinister Satanists can arrange for him to impregnate her… or perhaps even they would find the probable results of that coupling just too daunting to contemplate!

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Altared States… Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH and Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH Reviewed

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The Church. DVD. Region 2. Shameless. 18.

The Witch. BD. Region B. Universal. 15.

The wheels grind slowly here at The House Of Freudstein. Maybe it’s something to do with that split in the space / time continuum we’ve got going on down in the basement… one minute a badly dubbed Italian brat is running away from a shambling mosaic of putrescent human flesh, the next he’s popping up in a fin-de-siecle parallel universe. Makes my fucking head spin, I don’t mind telling you! Anyway, the wheels grind slowly…

… case in point, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a film released in 2015. When I interviewed Harvey Fenton at Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival that year, for a piece which ultimately appeared in Dark Side magazine, he raved to me about this film, citing scenes such as the one in which a child dies in the throes of religious ecstasy

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and enthusing about its possessed goat. “What… better than the possessed goat in Drag Me to Hell?” I asked. “Better than that!”, he assured me. So I promised him I’d watch it. A year went by and finding myself on the winning team at Mayhem 2016’s Flinterrogation quiz (yeah, I do bang on rather a lot about this but what you going to do about it?) I grabbed a couple of BDs as my share of the winners’ swag bag, one of them being The Witch. A month or so after that I finally watched it… and now I’ve got my shit together sufficiently to review it!

The final poke that stirred me from my default state of inertia was the arrival on my in tray of Michele Soavi’s The Church (1981), debuting on UK disc courtesy of Shameless. The striking parallels between the two films strongly suggested to me that they should be considered together. I mean, both of them offer a simplistic, Manichaeist world view in which the principal characters’ loss of faith is precipitated by and / or precipitates an inexorable paradigm shift into a new and malign reality… the other stuff they share in common being caprine capers (or, if you will, hircine horrors) by which the ram Black Phillip eviscerates Ralph Ineson in Eggers’ picture and (a much smarter day’s work, in my estimation) a Rosemary’s Baby reject bonks the beautiful Barbara Cupisti in the bowels of a cathedral crypt during Soavi’s… Country File was never like this!

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Eggers’ New-England Folk Tale (as the film’s subtitle has it) plays out in the 1630s and concerns a family of Puritans (the ever excellent Ineson as patriarch William, Kate Dickie as his wife Catherine and Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, the oldest of several children) who leave their settlement on account of some obscure doctrinal dispute and set up in a small holding in the wilderness, throwing themselves on the bounty and mercy of God…

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… but darker Gods are at work in the woods.

When their infant son is abducted (and a murky, impressionistic Blair Witch-style sequence suggests that he is indeed ritually sacrificed by some hovel-dwelling hag) the family turns in on itself amid mutual suspicions of Satanic involvement. Thomasin becomes prime suspect after searching secretly in the woods, with her brother, for the missing baby but returning alone. Suspicions are not exactly allayed when the boy reappears, only to die in the aforementioned religious ecstasy. As paranoia peaks, recrimination turns into physical confrontation. Black Phillip lends a hand (hoof?) in the ensuing bloody carnage which leaves just one family member standing and ready to throw in their lot with The Dark Side for a truly delirious conclusion.

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The above makes The Witch sound like a pedal-to-the-metal Evil Deadalike but in fact it’s a suspenseful, satisfying, slow burn of a movie with ravishing cinematography (courtesy of Jarin Blaschke) and sound design. Hats off to Harvey (though for me, Black Phillip’s not a patch on the possessed goat in Drag Me To Hell.) You keep expecting a rational explanation or at least an upturn in the family’s miserable fortunes until the penny finally drops, the shock realisation that this just ain’t gonna happen… reminded me of the point in Blow Up where you twig that the mystery is never going to be solved… of watching Match Of The Day pundits acknowledging, long after everybody else had sussed it, that Leicester City were not going to blow their 2015-16 title challenge… and going to bed on the 9th of November when it was obvious that Trump was going to win, while the TV talking heads were still blathering about how Hillary’s best wards were yet to be counted and she was going to turn it around.

Writer / director Eggers plundered the archives of 17th Century witchcraft testimony to mount The Witch as a realistic story and the events in it are real, if only in the minds of its religiously fanatical participants. “Buddha says…” as we were so helpfully reminded in the title sequence to every episode of Monkey: “… that with our thoughts we make the world.” The paranoid Puritan mindset made The USA and the ongoing story of how it, in turn, makes over The World in its own image is, one suspects, going to take a significant twist or two over the next couple of years. One also suspects that we will see, over a similar period, Ms Taylor-Joy emerging as “the new Christina Ricci”…

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Anya Taylor-Joy, emerging as “the new Christina Ricci”… yesterday.

Universal’s BD edition of The Witch looks and sounds quiet beautiful and comes with the bonus of Digital HD Ultraviolet, though I’m too much of a Luddite to have anything more than the vaguest of ideas what that actually means… not such a technophobe thought that I don’t feel justified in having a moan about the clunky interface and slow response of the menus on this disc, problems I’ve encountered on various other Universal releases. It’s a bit short on supplementary features too, boasting precisely… none…. not a sausage… barer than William and Catherine’s family food cupboard!

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Shameless’s Soavi disc is somewhat better apportioned in terms of extras. Alongside the mandatory clutch of trailers for the label’s other releases, you get the featurette Cathedral Of Fear in which the director (still looking cool, if a touch grey and grizzled around the edges) talks about his sophomore feature effort and how it emerged from the remnants of Lamberto Bava’s abandoned Demons 3. He acknowledges that Argento was a generous producer who scrupulously avoided stepping on his toes, while admitting that he found  it difficult to see The Church and his follow-up effort The Sect (1991) marketed as “Argento productions.” Soavi also concedes that he, Argento and Franco Ferrini struggled to come up with an effective ending (no foolin’) and remembers trying to coax the enigmatic smile required for the film’s closing shot out of Asia Argento, whom he describes as “handsome, attractive and talentish.” “Now everyone has gone their own way…” concludes MS “… but it was a very beautiful period of my life.” Nice.

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And what of The Church itself? On its release, almost (cripes!) thirty years ago, I reviewed the film with something less than whole-hearted enthusiasm… “style over substance” was the burden of my complaint against it. With hindsight and in the light of my previous championing of such comparably amorphous entities as Argento’s Inferno and Fulci’s The Beyond, that verdict does seem rather a perverse one. It was arrived at in the context of my expectations following Soavi’s stunning directorial debut Stagefright (1987), a cracking giallo (arguably the last worthwhile offering in that genre) that packed more than its fair share of visual flair but proceeded, nevertheless, along the ruthlessly logical lines of Luigi Montefiori’s script and producer Joe D’Amato’s commercial demands. At this remove, having very much enjoyed this Shameless release, I’m more inclined to celebrate Soavi’s wayward pictorial sense than to question it, especially in view of the Pasta Paura drought that we’ve suffered in recent decades.

The Church couldn’t be further removed from ruthless logic, opening with a posse of Teutonic Knights galloping through a lush forest at daybreak to the accompaniment of Keith Emerson’s infernal fugue (the film’s score, by Emerson, Philip Glass and Goblin – which at this point was effectively Fabio Pignatelli – is one aspect of The Church with which I’ve never had any issues). Acting on a hot tip-off from an over acting village idiot (Gianfranco De Grassi, “Curlie” from Aldo Lado’s notorious Night Train Murders), the knights storm the cave HQ of some devil worshipping peasants and put them to the sword.

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This sequence features a memorable cross-shaped P-O-V shot through a knight’s helmet visor, suggesting again a world shaped by a narrow world view. After the witches have been buried in a communal grave and the site marked with a huge cross, an epic steadicam shot brings us to the present day and to the cathedral which has been erected on this spot, where one of the presiding prelates is spaghetti splatter legend and Stagefright alumnus Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen.

Yuppie dark ages buff Tomas Arana arrives at the church to assist Barbara Cupisti (another Stagefright alumnus and Soavi’s real life main squeeze while this movie was being made) in the restoration of a demonic mural (shades of Pupi Avati’s masterly The House With Laughing Windows), while scowling Father Feodor Chaliapin (Name Of The Rose, Inferno) sermonises endlessly about the ever-present threat of demons. Apparently the ghosts of those Teutonic knights are also hanging around the place, because somebody in the foley department is working overtime banging coconut shells together to render the signature hoof tattoos of their spectral mounts. Arana, who has already displaced a marked tendency towards flakiness with his preference for the perusal of medieval inscriptions over the charms of Cupisti, is possessed by evil spirits while prying into the basement pit of souls. We know that he’s possessed because he stops combing his hair, sits at a typewriter endlessly tapping out the legend “666” (yes, we’ve seen The Shining too) and starts foaming at the mouth over Asia Argento’s ankle socks. More spectacularly, Arana is later seen in a telephone box – not changing into a superhero costume, as you might think, but tearing out his own heart and offering the still pumping organ to a boiling blood-red sky.

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When the church warden skewers himself to the basement cross with a pneumatic drill he activates an intricate system of cogs and levers (just think of Howard Hawks’ Land Of The Pharaohs, and if you haven’t seen that try the board game “Mousetrap”) that seal our hapless protagonists (now including a party of school children, models and fashion photographers on a location shoot, and assorted tourists) off from the outside world. In connection with this the characters explicitly reference Fulcanelli, whose “Mysteries of The Cathedrals” tome also inspired Pupi Avatis’ The Arcane Enchanter, 1996 (though it was Avati himself who subsequently told me that Fulcanelli was a mythical rather than historical figure.)

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At this point the plot, which was already as creaky as one of those Medieval ratchet devices, flies out of the stained glass window as the increasingly bemused looking participants are left to wander around the cathedral confines, rapidly losing their marbles. Antonella Vitale, who for most of the film has little to do except flounce around looking gorgeous, is nearly squeezed to death by a wedding dress she’s modelling at one point, but the fact that Argento can manage such an arch comment on the state of his relationship with this actress can only have encouraged the above mentioned doubts about the authorship of La Chiesa. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that the only other memorable scene involving La Vitale (a ludicrous one in which she pulls her face off) has been crudely cribbed from Poltergeist, a film on which producer Stephen Spielberg reputedly called more shots than nominal director Tobe Hooper.

Soavi swears that Argento was no back seat director but here has been charged with cooking up something from an Argento outline so half-baked that it could probably induce listeria poisoning (“My brief to Michele was to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany beginning a new Middle Ages.”) The viewer will have to make up his / her own mind about the exact working relationship between director Soavi and the man who “presented” his second and third feature films.

Elsewhere a castor mounted demon is wheeled in to spirit a girl off into a cloister; two bikers tunnel their way out of the church, only to discover that the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train; an old buffer’s face literally rings a bell after his wife has decapitated him (off camera, regrettably, likewise the eagerly awaited demise of John Morghen) and a risible rubber fish monster leaps out of the font to clamp its latex jaws around an unfortunate bystander’s head. Stivaletti’s attempted show stopper is an Archimboldo demon head that finally bursts through the floor of the cathedral and reminded me of nothing so much as the climax to Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass And The Pit.

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The mounting confusion is hardly mitigated by the fact that various characters don’t let their deaths discourage them from returning to participate further in the escalating surreal shenanigans and in a heart warming cast reunion where they witness Arana (now in full Devil Rides Out billy-goat drag) and Cupisti restaging the devil impregnation scene from a certain Roman Polanski movie… and then that unconvincing coda.

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He’s so horny… horny, horny, horny…

The Shameless DVD looks OK but the music and sound effects seem to have been mixed kinda low. I wish they’d included a 5.1 audio option (when I saw La Chiesa in Rome on the big screen with a nice sound system, it proved to be a pretty immersive experience.) In fact I’d really like to have seen their (near) simultaneous Blu-ray release but you know what they say… bloggers can’t be choosers!

This release also comes with reversible sleeve options and for once I prefer the “newly commissioned art work” to the “classic” imagery on the flip… though I’m not sure they would have gotten away with it back in the heyday of the Video Packaging Review Committee… those pesky kids!

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