Posts Tagged With: Nucleus

Murder Most Fowl… The Nucleus Gang Go To Work On Giulio Questi’s DEATH LAID AN EGG.

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BD. Nucleus. Region B. 18.

Like its companion piece in Nucleus’s “European Cult Cinema Collection”, Lady Frankenstein, Giulio Questi’s Death Laid An Egg (1968) concerns itself with the shenanigans of mad scientists. In the feudal set up of Mel Welles’ film the aristocratic protagonists own their serfs and servants, using them as experimental and sexual fodder under a Romantic patina of paternalism and progress. (*) Death Laid An Egg, in contrast, is set firmly in our own immiserated age, where rampaging technological advance connives at the neo-liberal free-for-all by which everybody’s free to, er, scramble for profit and frankly, fuck anyone who can’t keep up (well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs!)

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Sunny side down…

Marco (Jean-Louis) Trintignant is the manager of a cutting-edge egg hatchery where automation has allowed most of the workforce to be laid off. The surplus help hang around outside, throwing insults and the occasional blunt object, much to the chagrin of Marco’s perfectly groomed, soulless wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). But are these luddites responsible for all of the sabotage that’s been going on at the plant? Marco is seemingly a model employee of The Association (a simultaneously menacing and ridiculous marketing board whose obsession with eggs surpasses even that of Edith Massie in Pink Flamingos) but secretly he harbours serious doubts about the way the job, society and his life are heading. When the plant’s resident GMF boffin manages to hatch a clutch of giant, headless, wingless birds, to the obvious delight of just about everyone else in the cast, Mario goes all eggs over uneasy and beats these avian atrocities to death with a wrench. His simmering discontent further manifests itself in the clandestine affair he’s conducting with Anna’s ditzy blonde cousin Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin, the Baby Spice of her day, from Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles On A Murderer)… oh yeah, he also seems to have a penchant for butchering prostitutes in cheap motels. Slimy-slick ad man Mondaini (Jean Sobieski) is keeping tabs on Marco’s murderous side-line while pursuing a parallel affair with Gabrielle and planning a grab for Anna’s money… what could possibly go wrong?

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What the pluck?

Compounding  the complexity of its plot twists (co-authored as ever by Questi’s trusty collaborator Franco Arcalli), the film is shot in oblique style with little regard for conventional cinematic grammar. Questi’s camera will focus on. e.g. Trintignant’s back while he’s delivering a line or float off to concentrate on some insignificant visual detail as the action unfolds. The avant-garde OST from Bruno Maderna and Arcalli’s radical editing further exacerbate the viewer’s disorientation… at one point Arcalli folds what looks like an episode from J.G. Ballard’s Crash (a novel that wouldn’t be published for another five years, BTW) into a routine drive taken by Marco and Gabrielle.

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The black gloves donned by Marco before his assignations with those hookers are also strangely prescient pre-echos of the turn that the giallo genre would take with Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). But is Death Laid An Egg (as often claimed) a giallo? It’s more properly understood as a deconstruction of that genre, akin to how Questi exploded the spaghetti western with his feature debut If You Live, Shoot! aka Django, Kill! the previous year, in the process clueing Alessandro Jodorowsky into the mystical potential of the genre (and there are moments in Santa Sangre which suggest that El Jodo wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with Death Laid An Egg, either).

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Corrado Farina, one suspects, was also taking notes (check out the subliminal advertising imagery)… and don’t start me on David (insert expletive) Lynch! Elsewhere Questi seems to be cocking a snook at Antonio (“This is how you make an anti-giallo, Michelangelo… stick it in your family albumen!”)

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How more Post-modern can you get on the giallo’s ass than by deploying the whole serial kill stabbing match itself as a red herring? If DLAE isn’t, after all, a giallo in the as-yet-nonexistent Argento mould (I suppose it would be fair to characterise it as the Mario Bava tendency… or one of the Mario Bava tendencies… in 1968) then it certainly has affinities with Romolo Guerrieri’s contemporary thriller The Sweet Body Of Deborah and its bonk-busting descendants directed by Umberto Lenzi (in one of which, 1969’s So Sweet… So Perverse, Trintignant would also star).

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Giulio Questi… the real “terrorist of the genres”?

However you generify Death Laid An Egg, it’s a mesmerising work of Art. Craig Ledbetter was sufficiently mesmerised to devote a special issue of his seminal European Trash Cinema fanzine to it, reproduced here among the bonus materials along with CL’s thanks to Nucleus for finally bringing Questi’s 104 minute director’s cut to light… looking as beautiful as we have come to expect from this label, scanned as it is in HD from the original negatives with the “new” footage inserted from an Italian archival print. You get the truncated (91 minute) cut as well, of course, plus another Jones / Newman commentary track, featurettes (the BFI’s James Blackford on Questi’s work and radical politics… soundtrack collector extraordinary / DJ / Alassandro Alessandroni collaborator Lovely Jon on Bruno Maderna), an archive interview with the director himself (who passed away in 2014) during which he observes that movie-making is now within everybody’s grasp, if not access to major distribution networks, still hung up on the chicken farming model), a short appraisal from Italian critic Antonio Bruschini and another interesting insight into the cuts demanded by the BBFC for the film’s UK theatrical release (as A Curious Way To Love), alongside all the other stuff you’d expect.

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Not quite the lubricious girl-on-girl fest its UK distributors would have had you believe…

The restored 14 minutes reveal a whole new character, Renato Romano’s Luigi, whose role in the overall scheme of things is wide open to interpretation. It also amplifies a suggestion that remains in the shorter cut, regarding the European Union (which was really taking off in its current incarnation round about the time this film was made) and its role as a principal driver of austerity, increasing income disparities, declining public services and terms & conditions for working people, war as a tool for prising open new markets… the full neo-liberal, er, yoke under which we’ve been labouring for the last half Century or so. As such, DLAE comes a useful corrective for the baffling rose-tinted nostalgia for the EU currently sweeping the nation. The film predicts GM food and anticipates the coming tsunami of technological advance that’s going to wash away so many more jobs… talk about chickens coming home to roost! In addition to all these valuable services, Questi proves that avant-garde dialectical materialism in the cinema doesn’t have to be as simultaneously pleased with itself and downright dull as Godard and his ilk.

Pending the arrival from left field of some unexpected and unexpectedly astonishing release from another label, this is going to be the undisputed Disc Of 2018… clucking brilliant!

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(*) An early draft of this posting contained a line that ended: “… progress and enlightened paternalism derailed by the Cotten character’s hubris and the overweening impertinence of Rosalba Neri’s overheated clitoris”. Having penned that, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.

You’re welcome.

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Do You Like Pina Colada? LADY FRANKENSTEIN Restored on Nucleus BD.

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BD. Nucleus. Region B. 15.

Legend has it that a woman once took out a Lonely Hearts ad, seeking “a man with the brain of Leonard Cohen and the body of Iggy Pop”. An assignation was duly arranged and when she arrived at the predetermined rendezvous, who should be there waiting for her, but… Leonard Cohen and Iggy Pop! And no doubt a fun time was had by all. It’s an apocryphal story which I rather wish was true (Cohen himself attested to its veracity)… it certainly packs a better punch line than Rupert Hine’s Escape (The Pina Colada Song).

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“If you’re not into yoga / If you have half a brain…”

In Mel Welles’ Lady Frankenstein 1971, Rosalba Neri’s title character (who also answers to the name of Tania) has a similar vision of her dream man, radical ideas about how to  transform him into fleshy reality and the family know-how required to pull it off. She transplants the brilliant brain of her father’s homely looking, crippled assistant Charles (Paul Muller, from a million Jess Franco flicks) into the hunky body of the family’s retarded servant Tom (Marino Masé) to make “the kind of man (she) could really love!” Tom’s contribution to the plan is entirely involuntary (Charles smothers him with a pillow while Lady F is astride him… more on this later) but Charles himself is an all-too-willing participant (in my favourite line, he informs Tania, while she’s preparing to transplant his brain into Tom, that she “can’t change (her) mind”!) The operation proves a resounding success and scarcely hours after its completion, Charles-in-Tom is giving her Ladyship a vigorous seeing too.

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Unfortunately, they’re not left to enjoy their erotic idyll for long. Tanya’s illustrious father (Joseph Cotten, inaugurating an Italian run that would also see him starring in Mario Bava’s Baron Blood, 1972 and Umberto Lenzi’s Syndicate Sadists, 1975) has already been killed by one of his less successful creations and now that monster (Peter Whiteman in a crude Carlo Rambaldi make up job that makes his head look like a septic bell end) is on the rampage in the local countryside, offing the grave-diggers (including career Eurocreep Herbert Fux) who resurrected its various bodily parts, interrupting moments of al-fresco coitus and throwing random naked chicks into rivers… he’s kind to children, though. The ineffectual investigations of Police Chief Harris (Mickey Hargitay) leading nowhere, a crowd of firebrand and pitchfork-clutching yokels is soon besieging Castle Frankenstein, none of which stops Lady F and her toy-boy creation from fornicating away happily as the flames gather all around them, until our over sexed anti-heroine gets her just desserts in an unexpected and rather abrupt denouement.

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Ever since James Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), various members of that cursed clan have been seeking to mate their monsters. Udo Kier’s Baron (who could also call on the services of Carlo Rambaldi) had something like this in mind for his “zarmbies” in the Morrissey / Margheriti Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) but couldn’t resist molesting them himself (with hil-arious consequences!) Rosalba Neri’s Tania Frankenstein  beat Udo to it by two years and never, er, made any bones about the ultimate amorous aim of her surgical exploits. Billed, as she was in many of her Italian productions as Sara / Sarah Bay (on the grounds that this would allegedly put more bums on domestic cinema seats… but who in their right mind wouldn’t want to watch her, under any name?), Neri proves here, as she did in Joe D’Amato / Luigi’s Full Moon Of The Virgins (1973) that she could, when given a role to get her teeth into, be so much more than “the poor man’s Edwige Fenech”.

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“Behind every great man…”

Nucleus’ Marc Morris and Jake West are themselves Frankenstein figures, in their own kind of way… men on an obsessive mission to bring you beautiful uncut restorations of films that have, since VHS / “video nasty” / fanzine days, only been available in the UK as shortened theatrical prints and crummy looking, similarly incomplete, nth generation video dubs. I recall watching Lady Frankenstein in (I think) 16mm during a memorable Manchester Fantastic Films Society all-niter entitled Terror Among The Tombs in the late ’80s (actually I don’t remember very much at all about that night, throughout which inadvisable quantities of Wild Turkey were quaffed). But here we are in 2018. Sceptics said it couldn’t be done… moralists said it shouldn’t... now here it is, Lady Frankenstein as a gorgeous looking limited edition in Nucleus’ “European Cult Cinema Collection”…

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This lush-looking 2k scan from the original negative shows exactly how much bang Welles and his DP Riccardo Pallottini got for their buck from Castello Piccolomini, Balsorano. When confined to De Paolis studio… well, Masé will have recognised that staircase set when he encountered it again, suitably redressed, in Lugi Cozzi’s Contamination (1980). Sharp-eyed viewers might also remember it from films as diverse in quality as Argento’s Inferno (also 1980) and Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (1981).

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Amid the bonus materials on offer here you get the predictable selection of trailers, TV and radio spots, home video sleeves and image galleries… all well and good, but whereas some distributors would leave it at that, Nucleus pile on the goodies. New World’s theatrical cut, reduced to 84 minutes so that Roger Corman could slot it onto more double bills, has been as lovingly restored as the 99 minute Director’s Cut. There’s an audio commentary from Alan Jones and Kim Newman, a reproduction of the contemporary Photo Novel that appeared in Italy’s Bigfilm magazine and three excellent featurettes. The Truth About Lady Frankenstein is a 2007 German TV Special featuring interviews with director Welles, star Neri and Herbert Fux, who reacts to his first ever viewing of the film. We learn more about the astonishing life and career of Mel Welles from his posthumous contribution to Piecing Together Lady Frankenstein, an all new doc presented by Julian Grainger. The Lady and The Orgy is a short but revelatory investigation of Welles’ activities in Australia, where he (under the guise of “Satan’s Prime Minister”) presented Lady Frankenstein as the centre piece of a multi-media grand guignol “Spook Show” review.

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I particularly enjoyed the breakdown of the BBFC’s demands for cuts to the film’s 1972 theatrical run in the UK. The chopping off of Monster #1’s arm had to go and two scenes juxtaposing death with sexual desire were cut to the bone, namely the film’s frenzied, fiery finale and Tom’s fatal coupling with Lady F. The latter, which the BBFC have now sanctioned in all its gaudy glory, is one of the kinkiest set-ups in exploitation film history, with Tom’s death throes pushing Her Ladyship over the orgasmic edge while Charles, busy suffocating Tom, can scarcely conceal his jealous torment over the unfolding spectacle. (*) Amazing stuff in an astounding release that could have been a shoe-in for our “Top Disc Of 2018” accolade, were it not for the fact that its companion piece in that Cult Cinema Collection, Giulio Questi’s 1968 anti-giallo Death Laid An Egg (review coming to these pages imminently) is, improbably, even better!

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(*) The BBFC, often accused of applying double standards for the industry big boys and small-fry exploitation distributors, have played admirably fair in this regard. Twenty-four years after their exposure to Lady Frankenstein, The Board insisted on diluting Famke Janssen’s comparably mantis-like take on the mating game in the Bond flick Goldeneye.

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When You Get To The Door, Tell Them JESUS Sent You… Two FRANCO Monster Mash-Ups On Nucleus Blu-Ray

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THE DEMONS

THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN

BD. Region B. Nucleus. 18.

Just as you were bracing yourself for their long-trailered restorations of Giulio Questi’s surrealistic giallo Death Laid An Egg (1968) and Mel Welles’ Lady Frankenstein (1971), the boffins from Nucleus outflank you with a couple of unexpected corkers from Jesus Franco. The Demons and The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein (shot virtually simultaneously in 1973) were branded “Category 3 Nasties” back in the days of home video witch-hunting, i.e recommended for confiscation rather than prosecution (which had more than a little to do with some of their Go Video label mates and the backfiring publicity stunts of Go honcho Des Dolan). Even if you did manage to cop an eyeful of those releases before they were whisked off and incinerated, you’d have been watching versions that were significantly cut down in terms of both running time and original screen ratio. Now here they both are, on Marc and Jake’s exciting new European Cult Cinema Collection imprint, in beautiful Blu-ray editions, with the BBFC’s stamp of approval… nicely priced, too. Honestly, the times we live in… (“Taxi!” – L. Fulci.)

For the first of these titles, producer Robert De Nesle detailed Franco to come up with a rip-off of Ken Russell’s recent success de scandale The Devils (1971) but instead of duplicating the contrived hysteria of that wearying effort, JF grabbed the nearest camera (without taking too long, I suspect, labouring over a script) and quickly knocked out a genuinely delirious and characteristically wilful concoction of De Sade, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, also roping (see what I did there?) Hanging Judge Jeffries (whom Christopher Lee had already portrayed in  Franco’s The Bloody Judge, 1970) into a rapidly overheating narrative stew.

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Although The Demons bears superficial comparison to Russell’s flick and (probably more so) Michael Armstong’s Mark Of The Devil (1970), in both of those witch-hunting is presented in its proper historical perspective as an oppressive manifestation of patriarchal power politics, whereas Freda steers closer to Mario Bava’s Mask Of Satan, 1960 (in philosophical if not so much in cinematographical terms) by presenting a for-real maleficent witch (outrageously warty face and all) who’s burned at the stake and decrees that her daughters will extract vengeance upon her tormentors and executioners Justice Jeffries (intense Iranian Cihangir Gaffari / “John Foster”) and Lady De Winter (Karin Field), plus their henchman Thomas Renfield (Alberto Dalbės).

Of those two daughters, Kathleen (Anne Libert, the producer’s real life squeeze) continues in her mother’s witchy ways whereas Margaret (“Britt Nichols” = Carmen Yazalde) tries the path of virtue but finds it (in true Sadean fashion) so thankless that she eventually decides “what the hey?” and gets down with the black arts, but not before she’s been visited by the ghost of her mum and shagged by Satan (depicted in disappointingly human form). Before you can say “lights out by 10 o’clock… candles out by 11”, masturbating nuns are vying for space on your screen with racked and flogged wretches, as Margaret exposes the hypocrisy of the lustful inquisitors and ultimately reduces them to skeletal remains with her patented “kiss of death”… all of this to a mind-blowing acid rock soundtrack. You get both the extended, 118 minute French cut (with optional English subs) and the 88 minute English “export” edit on this disc.

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Although Franco slips a character named De Quincey into The Demons, he’s on the record as protesting that he couldn’t understand artists and creators who took drugs to enhancing their imaginations, claiming that he would benefit from a drug that actually quietened his down. If he ever discovered such a thing, he obviously skipped several doses during the conception and making of The Erotic Rites Of Frankenstein, which suggests nothing so much as an animated fumetto (the kind of gloriously lurid, sexy and violent comic book that flourished in Italy during the ’70s).

This one kicks off with Melisa The Fabulous Bird Woman (Libert) and her side-kick Caronte (Franco regular Luis Barboo) raiding the lab of Dr Frankenstein (Dennis Price… yes, Dennis Price from all those classic Ealing comedies). Melissa is blind, talks in bird screetches and has bits of a ratty old green feather boa stuck haphazardly onto her impressive anatomy but “nobody is better…”  by her own reckoning “… at discerning the order of human flesh”. Well, whatever that means, she proves a dab hand at monster-jacking and once she’s savaged the Doc’s body to shreds (several characters refer to this, though there’s no visual evidence of it having occurred during several subsequent scenes in which his corpse is briefly reanimated) and Caronte has stabbed his assistant Morpho (a JF cameo), they lug the silver-painted Karloffalike (played by body builder Fernando Bilbao) back to Cagliostro’s picturesque seaside castle, where said charismatic mesmerist plans to mate it with a perfect female he’s constructing from the best bits of various unfortunate ladies, to produce a new master race (an ambition shared by Udo Kier in the Morrissey / Margheriti Flesh For Frankenstein and the dates are so close together that it’s a moot point as to who, if anybody, copied whom). “The new race will be called Pantos” (yeah, whatever…)

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As Cagliostro, Howard Vernon makes up for the disappointingly short screen time allocated to him in The Demons. He doesn’t exactly chew the scenery, just stands there in his kaftan looking (extremely) intense while Franco zooms in and out of his blood-shot eyes. He orders the silver monster to kidnap the comely Madame Orloff (Britt Nichols again) then orders her head to be lopped off for the amusement of the zombies and mutants (and at least one Vulcan) who appear to inhabit his basement. Do these guys know how to party or what? When Frankenstein’s daughter Vera (Beatriz Savón) infiltrates Caglistro’s castle in search of vengeance she ends up tied to Caronte and lashed by the monster until one of them (Caronte) falls onto poisoned spikes. Vera, brainwashed by Cagliostro, assists him in the reanimation of his female zarmby and the gruesome twosome are about to get it on when an intervention by Frankenstein’s colleague Dr Seward (Alberto Dalbės) and Inspector Tanner (“Daniel White”) puts a spanner in Cagliostro’s evil masterplan. He’s last seen driving a coach and horses into the sea, confident that he will be reincarnated to continue his evil work. Whether there’s any way back for Dr Frankenstein after his gob-smacking dissolution by sulphuric acid is another question entirely …

Alongside the 74 minute French cut (with the option of English audio) on this disc, you also get the 85 minute Spanish release version (optional English subs) which omits some of the saucier stuff, clothes characters who were seen naked a la France and “boasts” filler footage of a gypsy named Esmerelda(!) wandering around in the woods looking mystically inspired, this character played by Franco’s most recent discovery, a certain Lina Romay.

Franco’s extensive and wildly variable oeuvre makes him a director whose films (not to mention his life) I sometimes find it more agreeable to read about than to watch. Ian Caunce regularly wrote engagingly and entertainingly about the director (as, indeed, about everything else he ever turned his pen to) in my all time favourite fanzine, Absurd.

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More recently Tim Lucas has laboured unflinchingly at the Franco coal face and of course Stephen Thrower has performed the same critical miracles for JF as he has rendered unto Lucio Fulci. Thrower supplies supplementary analyses on both of these discs that are every bit as compelling and informative as you would expect… for example, anybody labouring under the misapprehension that the dirtiest trick ever played on the world by an Argentinian footballer was Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal will be disabused of any such notion when they learn that Hėctor Yazalde was responsible, after marrying “Britt Nichols”, for this stunning actress’s subsequent disappearance from the exploitation movie scene… what a miserable old Hector!

Thrower suggests, with some justification, that this brace of pacey and exploitive titles constitute an ideal introduction to Franco for the uninitiated who might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Your journey through a thousand Franco films might usefully starts with this couple of steps but beware… there’s plenty in the old boy’s filmography that will tax your attention span a lot more rigorously than this. As a rough indicator of the sheer volume of material that awaits you (with predictable consequences for quality control), in the same year that Franco authored these two little gems he was also responsible for A Virgin Among The Living Dead, Lovers Of Devil’s Island, The Secret Diary Of A Nymphomaniac, Eugénie, Inside A Dark Mirror, The Mystery Of The Dead Castle, Tender And Perverse Emanuelle, The Sinister Eyes Of Dr. Orloff  and the unfinished Relax Baby.

My favourite moment from these hugely enjoyable discs occurs during the bonus interview with Franco on The Demons where the director disavows any interest in sado-masochism and claims that there’s a negligible amount of such imagery in his films. His interviewer, David Gregory, is audibly, understandably and almost tangibly nonplussed.

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Back To The House Of Pain: A Second Look At David Gregory’s LOST SOUL Documentary…

… albeit a very short one.

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BD. Regions A/B/C. Severin. Unrated.

No, the Severin release of Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau (2014) hasn’t given me cause to reconsider the enthusiastic endorsement I gave it elsewhere on this blog, it’s just that I’ve now had the opportunity to view the bonus features common to both this and the Nucleus releases and thought that, while possibly interested in hearing about them, you might be more likely to read this than go back to the original review in hope of an update.

Plenty of extras here to keep you out of mischief, kicking off with lengthy interview out takes from Richard Stanley and other contributors that give you the chance to second guess Gregory’s edit. Then Stanley talks us through a gallery of Graham Humphrey’s original conceptual art, providing plentiful further hints as to the film that might have been. In the audio featurette Barbara Steele Recalls Moreau, Barbara Steele er, recalls her brief stint on the still-Stanley directed Dr Moreau and sharing fags with a “Rangatang.” In Boar Man Diary manimal extra Neil Young goes all Jackanory on the patio, reading from his on set-diaries. Most interesting revelation? Rob Morrow was acting up “… because he’s a cunt!” (on a set where there was, by all accounts, no shortage of lady parts.) David hunts for Moreau’s compound in Cairns, Australia with the aid of eminent botanists in The hunt For The Compound and, of course, you get a trailer.

There’s an archive interview with John Frankenheimer, in which he claims that H G Wells would have liked his picture better than Erle Kenton’ celebrated 1932 version of Dr Moreau (hmmm…) and, while attempting to pour oil on the troubled waters of his working relationship with Brando and Kilmer, takes time out for a verbal swipe at Stanley. Stanley returns the compliment (and expresses himself freely on the subject of Val Kilmer, too) in the featurette The Beast Of Morbido (a 2014 festival in Puebla, Mexico 2014 where Stan Winston protegé Bruce Spaulding Fuller made the renegade director up as a beast man.) Stanley’s verdict on Marlon Brando is more nuanced… apparently Marlon had been in The Business and suffered its obnoxiousness so long that he developed a rosy-tinted view of the world outside it whereas Stanley insists (before leading the festival attendees in a spirited recitation of The Law) that the world is populated with hyenas and you’re better off living in seclusion on top of The Cathars’ mountain. Amen to that…

There are further Severin editions of this film available, the most covetable of all, I guess, being the Special 3-disc House Of Pain Edition, which also features Die Insel Der Verschollenen (Island of the Lost), a recently discovered 1921 German adaptation of Wells’ classic yarn…  the “H.G. Wells On Film” featurette, featuring expert Sylvia Hardy… Richard Stanley on Wells and a bonus audio CD in which Stanley Reads “The Island Of Dr. Moreau”… maybe I’ll be reviewing that one for you, one of these days.

Am I not a man?

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The House Of Pains In The Arse… LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014) Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Nucleus. 15

“For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” Mark 8:36

On 10.11.(18)71, on the shores of  Lake Tanganyika, the Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley locates the missing missionary  David Livingstone, (allegedly) addressing him with the celebrated words: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Stanley is almost as well remembered for his efforts to discover the source of the Nile but a discreet veil is often drawn over his collaboration in the “development” of the Congo Basin (i.e. ruthless genocide of countless Congolese) under the auspices of King Leopold II of the Belgians. Stanley becomes a Knight of The British Empire in 1899.

Published in 1896, The Island of Doctor Moreau is H. G. Wells’ dark tale of accelerated evolution, a stark warning about naked science untrammeld by human scruple or social responsibility and uncomfortable pre-echo of what eugenic science would “achieve” in the 1930s.

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In 1899 Wells falls out with his friend Joseph Conrad, believing that Heart Of Darkness, the latter’s novella of imperialist excess, had been ripped off of The Island of Doctor Moreau with ivory trader Kurtz standing in for Moreau. Others have identified Belgian soldier Leon Rom and his brutal modus operandi in The Congo as “inspiration” for the character of Kurtz.

In 1924, Creationist B. H. Shadduck ridicules the idea of human evolution in a tract entitled Jocko-Homo Heavenbound.

Erle C. Kenton’s original (and still greatest) adaptation of Wells’ cautionary tale, Island Of Lost Souls (1932), features chilling performances from Charles Laughton as the Doc and Bela Lugosi as “Sayer of The Law” (not to mention the Panther Woman, Kathleen Burke’s unforgettable incarnation of forbidden allure.)

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In 1938, at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, Josef Mengele’s genetics research earns him a cum laude doctorate in medicine in 1938. Five years later he is appointed “Chief Physician” to the Romany population of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dieter Laser’s move from separating conjoined twins to sewing separate people together in The Human Centipede (2009) reflects just one of Mengele’s unwelcome “contributions” to medical science.

In 1977 Don Taylor’s Island Of Dr. Moreau features a predictably solid performance from Burt Lancaster in the Moreau role but is otherwise a reasonably engaging action yarn with little philosophical substance. In the same year, on the flip side of their Mongoloid single on Stiff Records, Devo issue Jocko Homo in support of their “de-evolution” schtick. Lugosi’s most memorable line from Erle Kenton’s film – “Are we not Men?”-  is repeated throughout the track.

Francis Ford Coppola’s overblown Apocalypse Now (1979) filters Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness through the dark lens of the Vietnam War. Kurtz, now a renegade U.S. Colonel, is played by Marlon Brando.
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In 1996, Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s great grandson, up-and-coming horror director Richard Stanley, begins shooting his dream project for New Line, a vision of Dr Moreau intended to more accurately reflect his own take on the Wells novel than was managed in Don Taylor’s version or such schlocky variants as Eddie Romero’s Twilight People (1972) or Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980.) In an example of de-evolution that would gladden the hearts of Devo, Doctor Moreau is to be played… Marlon Brando.

Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls, which preceded by a short head actual Nazi atrocities more awful than anything he or Wells could ever have imagined, is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, in fact – to paraphrase Brian Clough – it might just possibly be “in The Top One.” How to top that? By putting a visionary but unproven maverick talent (still living down a plagiarism charge relating to his debut feature Hardware) in to bat against monstrously massive star egos, ever changing production demands from a studio in the throes of an identity crisis and, just to make things interesting, extreme (bordering on Biblical) weather?  It was always likely that Richard Stanley’s stint directing The Island Of Dr Moreau wouldn’t end well, but how very badly it ended has become the stuff of legend…

… and now the subject of a fascinating documentary. David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau (2014) rehearses the already well-known facts (Stanley was sacked after something like three days, failed to take the plane ride home that New Line booked for him and went native, subsequently turning up on set, mischief in mind, under cover of an extra’s bestial costume) but piles on the detail in compiling its post mortem report of an impossible cinematic hybrid running out of control then expiring via the gonzo surgical slices of movie executives (“Monkey Men all, in business suits.”)

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As with Wells’ source material itself, of course, alternative versions of the truth are possible and it has to be said that Gregory gives most of his screen time over to Stanley himself and those sympathetic to his cause, notably conceptual artist Graham Humphreys, actress Fairuza Balk and fangirl journo Kier-La Janisse… it’s also patently clear that Gregory himself is very much in Stanley’s camp, though he’s careful to present as balanced a picture as possible. The suggestion is acknowledged, for example, that Stanley just wasn’t temperamentally up to handling such a unit and although John Frankenheimer (Stanley’s martinet replacement) and Brando are dead (who could possibly claim to know what the latter really thought, anyway?) and Val Kilmer presumably unapproachable, Gregory doesn’t shy away from presenting hostile witnesses. Of the two New Line execs ultimately responsible for TIODM, Stanley’s champion Mike De Luca is conspicuously and eloquently absent while his opposite number Bob Shaye is given free rein to vent the misgivings he entertained about Stanley from day one. Having interviewed Richard Stanley (though regrettably he failed to greet me with the words “Bob Freudstein, I presume!”) and found him to be every bit as otherworldly as reputed, I’m tickled that Shaye chose to seize, as irrefutable evidence of his irredeemable oddball status, upon the guy’s four sugar coffees … God knows what Shaye would make of the diabetes-inducing brews favoured here at The House Of Freudstein!

After nearly losing his pet project to Roman Polanski on the eve of shooting, Stanley made a personal pitch to Brando, backed up with ritual magick performed by a sympathetic adept. When his magus fell ill, though, Stanley’s felt his grip on the production beginning to wane and the eyes of the hyenas on his hotel wallpaper staring at him… more prosaically, male lead Kilmer was, by all accounts, conducting himself on the set like a complete prick.

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Having granted us story board glimpses of the film that might have been, Gregory details the debacle that ultimately unfolded, depicting a Hollywood location shoot (this one in Cairns, Australia) as something scarcely less hubristic than a mad scientist’s lab or some white supremacist’s twisted imperial wet dream… nobody is killed but more than one career is dealt a mortal blow. Whatever onset mischief Stanley might have surreptitiously wrought to undermine Frankenheimer becomes a moot point in the face of the film’s stars’ antics… Kilmer strutting around like an insufferable self-perceived ubermensch, the Zen-like Brando puncturing the production’s pretensions and, via his promotion of court jester Nelson (Ratman) de La Rosa, inventing Mini-Me into the bargain!

Frankenheimer duly delivered his compromised sack of cinematic goods to the suits, who expressed themselves relieved that it was (by their calculations) going to lose them less money than if Stanley had continued at its helm… and the critics commenced to rave, their brickbats ranging from “train wreck” to “worst film ever made.” Perhaps “Twilight Of The Idols” would have been a more apposite jibe…

Meanwhile Stanley dwells on in splendid, Moreau like isolation atop Mount  Montségur in the Ariège department of southwestern France, where the Cathars (who had their own very definite ideas about the integral status of the human body) took their crackpot, heroic final stand in 1244. It’s possible that Stanley is more comfortable anyway as a cult foot note than he could ever be operating among the bland conformity of low-fat latte Hollywood… who knows, had the dice been loaded differently or the runes cast more assiduously in his favour, he could have become as big a player as that other misfit maverick, Tarantino… could have been a contender (now who said that?) Gregory, who has distributed Stanley’s earlier films, collaborated with him on 2011 portmanteau effort The Theatre Bizarre and seems to have conceived this doc at least partly as a comeback launcher, might well believe that such a move is still potentially on and again… who knows?

The once and future horror Hotshot’s thematic concerns certainly aren’t showing any signs of receding into irrelevance. This year alone, the US National Institute of Health announced that it was considering the funding of “chimera” research projects intended to generate organs from human / animal hybrids and it was recently announced that a human baby has been conceived with genetic material from three parents.

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“The Horror! The Horror!”

Note: The DVD screener I was sent for the purposes of this review comprised only the main feature. When Lost Soul hits the shelves (approximately the same time as I type these words) it will boast a raft of attractive extras, making this winning Nucleus release an even more essential purchase.

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