Posts Tagged With: Severin

Randall (Deceased) & Schlock Work … INVADERS OF THE LOST GOLD Reviewed

BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

Although he worked on the sound of Werner Herzog’s Arthouse milestone Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972) and produced (also appearing in) the great Mario Bava’s Four Times That Night (1971), Dick Randall (known to his Mom as Irving Reuben) is best remembered for putting together a succession of schlock classics like Around The World With Nothing On (1963), The Wild, Wild World Of Jayne Mansfield (1968), The Bogeyman And The French Murders (1972), Frankenstein’s Castle Of Freaks (1974), Queen Of Sex (1977), Joseph Velasaco’s chop socky-meets-mad science epic The Clones Of Bruce Lee (1980) and Juan Piquer Simon’s jaw-dropping Spanish giallo Pieces (1982) until a stroke felled him in London during 1996. When the box office impact of Raiders Of The Lost Ark became apparent (like a Spielberg / Lucas collaboration was going to flop!) Randall and former Happy Days writer Bill James rattled off a treatment based on the ongoing urban (jungle?) legend of Yamashita’s gold (i.e. purloined bullion stashed in some remote cave by a Japanese general during WWII). Nor did it take much longer than that for Randall to assemble a cast of fading stars / young hopefuls… and to direct them, how about Alan Birkinshaw (Confessions Of A Sex Maniac, 1974… Killer’s Moon, 1978)? Yeah, he’d do. Fly ’em all out to the Filipino sets and locations of Apocalypse Now, leave them to goof around with a camera for a few weeks, eh voila… Invaders Of The Lost Gold, aka Greed (on account of the film’s familiar, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre-styled plot mechanics) and Horror / Cannibal Safari (presumably in an attempt to consolidate its appeal to die hard Laura Gemser fans).

Gemser, looking rather fine in (and of course out of) army fatigues and a pith helmet, spends most of her brief jungle sojourn competing with Glynis Barber (fresh from the Blake’s 7 quarry as a last minute replacement for Britt Ekland, who bailed when the budget dipped and her fee with it) for the attentions of Stuart Whitman, looking well past his sell-by date (Christ knows what a fanny magnet he must have been in his prime!) When not working out imaginative new product placement wheezes on behalf of J&B Whisky, Whitman’s pursuing some kind of ongoing feud with Edmund Purdom. Action men Woody Strode and Harold “Odd Job” Sakata are along for the ride (such as it is). When Purdom told Sakata and his old army buddy that their commanding officer had died, the latter committed hard kiri (Purdom sat reading a magazine while he did it). Sakata signed up for the gold hunt, which on the surface seems like a smarter response but ultimately proves just as fatal, as the expedition members are variously whittled down via snake bites, crocodile attacks, clumsy falls, spiky booby traps and (in Laura’s case)… your guess is as good as mine. At least Gemser gets in a good skinny dip before succumbing to whatever the fuck it is that kills her, but this time there’s no voyeuristic, cigarette smoking chimp (a la Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals) to testify to what happened. One thing is clear… somebody’s aiming to keep all that loot for themselves.

With head hunting tribesmen, grisly eviscerations, shoot outs, bar room brawls and endless scenes of exotic Filipino dancers strutting their collective stuff, this one’s a shew in for the shelf of any self-respecting trash collector. If you move fast enough, you’ll get a slip case which reveals what the principal sleeve art doesn’t, i.e. an artist’s impression of Gemser’s boobs. Put your hand on your heart and tell me that this prospect doesn’t stir your loins. Kindly keep your hand offa your loins, though, while I’m talking to you…

Bonus material comprise two featurettes. The first is an interview with director and Mel Collins lookalike Birkinshaw (above), a self-deprecating and rather endearing fellow with plenty of tales to tell about his cast, the extraordinary Dick Randall and the production of Invaders. His main beef seems to be about its poverty stricken post production, which afforded him no opportunities to fix the poorly filmed croc attack, the mystifying demise of Gemser’s character or, for example, the weedy fight scene in which Strode and Sakata become embroiled… handbags at ten paces doesn’t begin to cover it! That’s followed by out takes from Mark Hartley’s Tagalogsploitation documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010), featuring further Birkinshaw revelations and an astonishing audience with his producer’s widow, Corliss Randall… wow, what a woman! No wonder her husband featured her in so few films, I can see how he was keen to keep her to himself!

In an age where we’ve learned to live with lavish Al Adamson and Andy Milligan anthologies, what price a Dick Randall box set? Dave… Carl… we’re looking at you!

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Gent Lee Does It… A First Bite At Severin’s “THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE” COLLECTION.

BD. Severin. Unrated. Region free (apart from Crypt Of The Vampire… Region A)

Long before his death in 2015, Christopher Lee had become a leading contender for the mantle of “Greatest Living Englishman”. In the early ’60s though, even after his dynamic impact in Hammer’s Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (58) and The Mummy (59), the British film industry didn’t know quiet what to do with him, if not cover him in scars and stitches or wrap him up in bandages. Even exposed as his handsome self in Dracula, the half-Italian (and intimidatingly tall) Lee was considered too “exotic” to be a British leading man, He didn’t even make it to second billing in a series of subsequent productions which often starred his pal Peter Cushing but whose credits privileged the names of e.g. André Morell, Anton Diffring, Paul Massie and Hazel Court (Lee’s Curse co-star) over his own. In response, like some young 18th Century gentleman embarking on a European Grand Tour to complete his English Aristo credentials, he undertook a series of EuroHorror assignments, many of them now collected and celebrated in yet another epic Severin box set (just when you thought your groaning shelves could take no more), The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection. I’m currently penning a larger piece on Lee’s Euro credits that you’ll soon be able to read (should you wish to) in a certain esteemed Horror organ, but couldn’t let this splendid release go unmarked in these pages.

While Lee’s Bava brace, his turns as non PC krimi orientals and his bemused dalliances with Jess Franco have been extensively covered elsewhere, over these 9 discs the Sevsters focus on some of the less heralded but no less significant outings on Lee’s Satanic rite of Europassage. Things kick off entertainingly enough with Warren Keifer’s Castle Of The Living Dead (Italy / France, 1964) in which the great man plays the emaciated Count Drago… the Gunther Von Hagens of his day. Never satisfied with the amount of plastinated people and animals adorning his gothic pile, the Count welcomes an itinerant troupe of comedy performers (including sexy Gaia Germani and a young Philippe Leroy) to Castle Drago, engineers the “accidental” death of one of them and sets about petrifying the rest with the aid of sinister side-kick Mirko Valentin. The shades of Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti hang heavily over the proceedings but equally obvious is the debt owed to Roger Corman’s Poe cycle (even though Keifer had to do without the candy coloured cinematography to which Rog – and by this point Bava – had access). Indeed, Corman’s Masque Of The Red Death was released earlier the same year. Watch out for Donald Sutherland in the dual roles of the buffoonish Sergeant Paul and a gnarly old witch…. and yes, Warren Keifer did exist (why would Sutherland name his son after an imaginary person?) and did direct this picture, Italian film scholar Roberto Curti authoritatively quashing the claims made for other film makers (including Michael Reeves, who was still learning the ropes on this one) during an informative featurette.

Giuseppe Vegezzi’s Challenge The Devil aka Katarsis is a whole other bubbling kettle of ketamine, with the most laughable collection of hipster kids (notably Giorgio Ardisson) outside of Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster seeking a night of thrills in a dilapidated castle (where else?) and discovering Lee in gnarly old dude make up, claiming to have sold his soul to The Devil (though there are plentiful hints that he might actually be Old Nick himself). As the plastic beatniks navigate a succession of heav-y symbolic scenes in the castle’s cellars, it becomes apparent that the collective influence of Freda, Bava and Margheriti has been displaced here by the presiding spirit of Ed Wood Jr and the biggest challenge to The Devil might well be unravelling Vegezzi’s original vision from the series of re-edits and added footage with which panicking producers sought to save their investment. Presumably they kept all of Lee’s footage… all ten minutes of it. If Vegezzi had made a bunch of these things, all existing in multiple alternative versions, he might well have one day merited a box as sumptuous as Severin’s recent Al Adamson Masterpiece Collection, but instead he jumped out of a high window after the film’s star Lilli Parker rejected his romantic overtures, survived that and retired to Piacenza and a life of eccentric left wing activism (as related in another Curti featurette, which includes interview footage with the elusive Vegezzi himself).

Things take an upturn in quality with Crypt Of The Vampire (aka Crypt Of Horror, 1964), originally intended for Antonio Margheriti but ultimately handled (and very capably, too) by Camillo Mastrocinque (who also directed Barbara Steele in An Angel for Satan, 1966). Lee racks up significantly more screen time too as Count Ludwig Karnstein, who spends most of it fretting (in his own voice, for once) over daughter Laura (Adriana Ambesi), whom he fears is the threatened reincarnation of witchy ancestor Ciro (wot, no “Carmilla”?), seeking vengeance for her execution (conveyed via a nifty, Black Sunday-esque flashback). The Count calls in bibliographer Friedrich Klauss (José Campos) to scour the Karnstein archives and find a likeness of the witch, but what they eventually turn up takes everybody by surprise… It’s obvious that this Italo-Spanish production is trying to keep up with Hammer (the Iberian side of the enterprise is represented by “Hispamer films”!) but it ends up actually anticipating the turn that Carreras and co subsequently took for Sheridan Le Fanu, though the sapphic relationship between Laura and her pal Ljuba (Ursula Davis) crackles along in understated style, as opposed to all the heaving bosoms that bedeck Hammer’s Karnstein trilogy. Ah well, can’t have everything…

Lee gets a yet meatier role in West German-French-Italian co-production Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace (1962), which reunites him with Hammer legend Terence Fisher, who had directed him (as Sir Henry B) in Hammer’s Hound Of The Baskervilles three years earlier. Here Lee’s promoted to the titula Tec (which must have come as some consolation for the conspicuous false nose he’s required to wear) in an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Valley Of Fear, whose screenplay came courtesy of Universal veteran Curt Siodmak. The film’s an interesting amalgam of Fisher’s style and contemporary West German production / post production values. Its titles sequence, for example, must be one of the most boring ever committed to celluloid. No worries, though, things pick up as Lee’s Holmes (played like the prickly git that Doyle actually wrote… not much of a stretch for CL, by some accounts) dedicates himself (with the assistance of the ever dependable Thorley Walters’ Doctor Watson) to keeping Cleopatra’s necklace out of the clutches of Professor Moriarty (whose name seems to have grown an extra syllable here). Hans Shönker’s “Napoleon of Crime” might seem a tad underplayed for those brought up on the histrionics of Andrew Scott but works just fine here. The production’s apparently troubled circumstances thankfully don’t read on screen but to Lee’s ongoing chagrin, the rub (as it so often did) lies in the dub.

While he was still trying to establish himself back in Blighty, Lee was already sufficiently highly regarded in Europe for producers to shell out for one or two days of his box office-boosting presence. This series of nice little earners reached its cushy conclusion in the milieu of TV drama. For the 1971-2 Polish series Theatre Macabre (Film Polski’s adaptations of various dark literary classics, with episodes directed by the likes of Andrzejs Wajda and Zulawski) all that was required of him was to turn up at Columbia’s Wardour Street studio for a couple of days and film wraparound sequences (with director Ben Kadish) in the gallows humour style of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Boris Karloff’s Thriller. I vividly recall seeing a handful of these, randomly scattered through Granada TV’s graveyard slot at various points in the ‘70s and am looking forward to checking out all 24 surviving episodes (of 26) over discs 5 and 6 of the Severin set.

Aside from that Polish series, the only colour production among the main features is Krimi kingpin Harald Reinl’s The Torture Chamber Of Dr. Sadism (1967). Also known as Die Schlangengrube Und Das Pendel and (for its UK theatrical release) Blood Demon, this West German production gets off to a lively start with the execution of “Count Regula” (guess who) for the blood sacrifices of twelve village maidens, by which he had hoped to secure eternal life. First, a spiked metal mask is hammered onto his face (Bava’s Black Sunday continuing to cast its long shadow over Eurohorror) then he’s torn limb-from-limb by galloping horses. 35 years later, Roger Mont Elise (Lex “Tarzan” Barker) turns up in town, seeking clues to his obscure family history. He soon wishes he hadn’t bothered, as he and his new love interest Baroness Lilian von Brabant (Natalie Wood look alike and Mrs Reinl, Karin Dor) are drawn into a plot to revive the Count, for whom the Baroness will make an ideal 13th victim in pursuit of his undying quest, conducted in an underground lair whose interior design owes much to Hieronymus Bosch. Meanwhile reckless Roger gets the full on “Pit and the Pendulum” treatment. All of this no doubt sounds distinctly sepulchral, but the overall tone is that of an enjoyably upbeat adventure romp, enhanced by the James Last-like score of Peter Thomas, possibly the most inappropriate musical accompaniment to a horror film since the closing moments of Erle C. Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls (1932).

Disc 8, dubbed Relics From The Crypt, is a glorious grab bag of Lee-themed odds and sods, including a first release of any description for Horror!!!, the recently unearthed 20 minute Swiss TV documentary from 1964 which includes interviews with CL, his erstwhile co-star and next door neighbour Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Roy Ashton and Roger Corman, also boasting behind-the-scenes footage from The Gorgon and Masque Of The Red Death. Lee Remembers Karloff in Behind The Mask, a new edit of the Ian Rough documentary left unfinished in 1991. In another featurette, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, assistant director Tonino Valerii and film historian Fabio Melelli discuss the making of Crypt Of The Vampire. Colin Grimshaw interviews Lee in 1975 and from 10 years later there’s an audio interview by David Del Valle, accompanied by DDV’s video introduction and stills from his archive. Lee’s baritone vocal stylings are aired in video clips for his duets with Gary Curtis and we are also privy to his rapturously received appearance and Q/A session at University College, Dublin in 2011. The venerable Horror star discusses To The Devil A Daughter and Theatre Of Blood, among others, in outtakes from David Gregory’s 2001 interview sessions with him to promote the Blue Underground releases of those films. As if all this weren’t enough, we accompany Gregory’s co-honcho Carl Daft on a visit to the renowned critic Alan Frank, who I’d like to think of as Carl’s second favourite grizzled genre pundit.

The discs are scattered with the expected profusion of trailers, galleries and interviews, e.g. with legendary producer Paul Maslansky, Karin Dor (audio only) and Giorgio Ardisson. Grilled in 2009 and just before his death in 2014, the engaging Giorgio comes across as quite a character and has plenty of amusing anecdotes to relate. There are audio commentaries from the ubiquitous Kat Ellinger and the dynamic duos of Nathaniel Thompson / Troy Howarth and Kim Newman / Barry Forshaw. The films look more gorgeous than you had any right to expect B movies of this vintage to look, in 2K scans from their negatives (or a fine-grain 35mm master print in the case of Crypt Of The Vampire)… apart from Castle Of The Living Dead and Torture Chamber Of Dr. Sadism, which were scanned in 4K! TTCODS also comes with a restoration slideshow, not to mention not one but two Super 8 digest versions. The whole package is beautifully boxed and comes with Jonathan Rigby’s extensively researched and handsomely illustrated booklet, which you might well enjoy while listening to disc 9 (Angelo Lavagnino’s OST for Castle Of The Living Dead) and enjoying a glass of virgin’s blood… hm, probably better make that a full blooded red wine, eh?

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Boy Meets Girl In The Dreamtime… Nic Roeg’s WALKABOUT Reviewed

BD. Second Sight. Region B. 12.

A disturbed businessman (John Meillon) drives his schoolgirl daughter (Jenny Agutter) and her kid brother (Luc Roeg) deep into the Australian outback and attempts to shoot them before torching their car and blowing his brains out. The children set off on a desperate trek across the pitiless landscape in search of a way home. Just when it seems that they’ll be consumed by the environment, they encounter an Aboriginal youth (David Gulpilil) undergoing the walkabout rite of passage to manhood. Despite the initial communication problems, he shows them how to scrape a living from the land and an affectionate bond develops between the three of them but this short lived idyll takes a darker turn when the youth attempts to incorporate romantic courtship into his walkabout bucket list…

Frank Zappa notoriously likened “writing about music” to “dancing about architecture”. If that’s a valid comparison (and personally I regard it as the opening of a discussion rather than the definitive last word FZ probably intended it to be) then no doubt “film” could comfortably be slotted into his equation in place of “music”. It’s difficult to see how a hack scribbler such as myself could put food on the table (short of chasing kangeroos around with a boomerang) if I conceded the essential pointlessness of writing about films. Equally difficult, however, for words to do justice to the beauty, mystery and profundity that pulsates in every frame of Nic Roeg’s breathtaking Walkabout (1971). A sentence would be too much, a multi volume tome not nearly enough…

Luckily Nic Roeg never needed many words to make monumental statements, as evidenced by his DP credits, for Corman, Truffaut… even an enjoyably lightweight bit of froth like Dick Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966) looks… well, quite extraordinary as lensed by him. And then there was Performance, which he co-directed (with Donald Cammell) and shot in 1970 while still trying to get Walkabout off the ground.

The surprisingly good performances Roeg gets from 2/3 of his pricipal players here (a fine performance from Jenny Agutter should come as no surprise to anyone… with the sole exception of Danny Boyle, interviewed on this disc) casts doubt on any conjecture that he stuck to the visuals on Performance while leaving Cammell to handle the cast. Agutter (in her bonus interview) is keen to emphasise the lengths to which the director went to make her feel comfortable, though it remains interesting to speculate on what Roeg took from Cammell and vice versa (the paucity and compromised nature of the latter’s subsequent output certainly doesn’t help)… even on the extent to which Roeg’s elliptical edits evolved from Warner’s insistence that Mick Jagger be moved forward in the running time of Performance.

Topping off John Barry’s sumptuous score, the sound design of Walkabout is (like that of Performance and the later entries in Roeg’s golden period) just revelatory and the interpolations of material as diverse as e.g. Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley and A. E. Houseman’s Blue Remembered Hills are nothing short of inspired.

It’s the visuals, though, as evidenced all too well in this beautiful new 4K restoration, that constitute Walkabout’s trump card. In his introduction to the film, Roeg enthuses about the spareness of Edward Bond’s script (adapted from the novel by “James Vance Marshall” = Donald Payne) and clearly he’s more concerned with the epic canvas of the outback (Roeg was still serving as his own DP, Mario Bava like, on Walkabout) and Aboriginal perceptions of time, all the better to convey the theme that recurs again and again throughout his oeuvre – the pitiless magnificence of Nature and its sublime indifference regarding the continuation of our psychic identity / physical integrity.

A film as wonderful as this demands some pretty heroic extras and predictably, those Severin boys rise to the occasion, supplying absorbing interviews with producer Si Litvinoff, Agutter and Roeg Jr. The co-stars are reunited with the director at a Q&A from the BFI in 2011. Luc and David Thompson provide the optional commentary track and there’s also a Severin interview with Danny Boyle, the one in which he expresses his puzzling reservations about Agutter’s performance but also ventures the opinion that short of Powell and Pressburger, there is no British filmmaker of comparable stature to Nic Roeg. Well, Hitchcock springs readily to mind (or as readily as such a portly gentleman could spring anywhere) but apart from that notable omission, Boyle might well have a point.

If you get your skates on and buy one of the first 3,000 copies, you’ll also get three books: Payne’s source novel, a facsimile copy of the original 65 page First Draft Script (with preface by Daniel Bird) and a third featuring new essays by Bird, Sophie Monks Kaufman and Simon Abrams… none of them big Frank Zappa fans, I imagine.

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Phantasmagorical Indonesia… SATAN’S SLAVE Reviewed

BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

Not to be confused with Norman J. Warren’s identically titled 1976 effort or Joko Anwar’s 2017 remake Satan’s Slaves, this is the milestone Horror effort that Sisworo Gautama Putra directed in 1982, freaking out a whole generation of young Indonesian viewers and outraging the country’s conservative religious establishment. Two years earlier, of course, Sisworo had authored that astonishing pastiche of the Italian cannibal film tradition, Primitif aka Savage Terror (under which title it appeared on the “Section 3” appendix to the “video nasties” list).

Pendabdi Setan (to give this film its original Bahasan title) takes a more eclectic approach, grafting elements from the (then recent) likes of Phantasm, Salem’s Lot and (briefly) Zombie Flesh Eaters (all 1979 offerings) and any amount of Chinese vampire / ghost films onto its fokeloric and mythological story stock.

Fachrul Rozy plays young Tomi Munarto, the Michael Baldwin surrogate from Coscarelli’s film. When his Mom dies unexpectedly, he notices a mysterious woman (Ruth Pelupessi) smirking at her funeral. Islamic piety dictates a quiet period of dignified mourning to help guide Mom’s soul to its heavenly destination, but Tomi’s more interested in having fun on his motor scooter, sister Rita (Siska Widowati) attends louche disco parties with her cousin Herman (Simon Cader) and their Dad (W.D. Mochtar) is too focussed on the family business to correct their errant ways. Rita compounds her sins with her rude treatment of the family’s faithful, ailing retainer Karto (H.I.M. Damsyik), who dares to question the appropriateness of her lifestyle at this time. The Munartos aren’t exactly the world’s most diligent Muslims then and as we are reminded throughout the film, the faithless are particularly vulnerable to the attentions of The Devil.

In a blatant pinch from Salem’s Lot, Mom turns up at Tomi’s window and he communes with her bug eyed spirit in the garden, witnessed by his sister (“You’ve been acting weird, the last few days” she tells him.) He also dreams that he’s being ritually murdered in a cellar by what appears to be an Indonesian chapter of the Templars. A friend who recently lost his own Mon urges Tomi to visit a psychic (further shades of Phantasm), another vaguely sinister and enigmatic woman who warns him that his family are the focus of evil and he should protect himself with black magic. A local Imam advises him that it would be a better idea to improve his practice of Islam but of course Tomi gives more credence to that sinister fortune teller, developing his occult studies by meditating and reading magazines (including Issue 21 of Dez Skinn’s Halls of Horror!)

Satan does eventually turn up in the shape of Darmina, sent to keep house by a domestic agency but instantly recognisable to Tomi as the the smirking woman from Mom’s funeral. As spooky occurrences in the house accelerate, Dad relents and calls in a shaman to exorcise the evil presence but after the usual indoor gales and furniture upheavals, the shaman comes off second best in an encounter with a chandelier.

With the atmosphere around the Munarto household becoming ever heavier, Karto discovers a satanic shrine in Darmina’s quarters and shortly afterwards is found hanged… Herman gets wiped out in a traffic accident… and still the family won’t mend their irreligious ways! Ultimately Darmina leads a gaggle of goggle-eyed deadites (Mom, Karto, Herman) to attack the Munartos (things get a bit Scoody Doo-esque around here), only for a deputation of Imams to turn up outside the house, chanting Islamic prayers until the zombies crumble to dust, while Darmina herself  bursts into flames.

A voice over urges fidelity to Islam and indeed, the closing shots depict the family as model Muslims, visiting the mosque regularly and now apparently happy. So the film makers get to have their cake and eat it, moralising while indulging all sorts of profane stuff. Indeed, in the final shot, saved as they are  supposed to be, the family clock another mysterious dark haired woman watching them, testifying to ongoing tensions in Indonesian society between religious orthodoxy, primeval paganism and the Modernising influence of soft / hard Western power, the continuing relevance of which is evidenced in the extras here…

In “Satan’s Box Office”, producer Gope T. Samtani staunchly maintains that Satan’s Slave is an entirely original production that didn’t borrow anything from anywhere. Sure thing… inIndonesian Atmosphere“, screenwriter Imam Tantowi is significantly more candid about the film’s obvious, er, influences. “Satan’s Slave Obsession” is an audio interview (because of Covid-19) with remake director Joko Anwar, who confesses that he saw the original when he was eight (!) and that “it scarred me for my lifetime”. In case you didn’t get his point, we’re also treated to his 2016 shorts Jenny and Don’t Blink, which he shot to convince (successfully) Rapi Films that he was the man to direct the Satan’s Slave remake for which he’d been intensively lobbying.

Severin have scanned this one from the original negative, doing full justice to the splendid cinematography of F.E.S. Tarigan. Special mention also to  Gusti Anom’s atmospheric score, which recalls Popol Vuh when it’s not reflecting Philip Glass.

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“Mr Foot Knows All About Eating Human Flesh”… THE BEAST MUST DIE, Buffed Up Into A Spanky New Severin BD.

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

Those Severin guys don’t muck about or go in for half measures. Having already released a pretty good looking BD of Paul Annett’s The Beast Must Die (1974) as part of their totally cool Amicus box set, as soon as they got wind of a better looking alternative they acquired the rites and have now released it in a stonking stand alone edition. Severin’s previous rendering was an amalgam of (censored for TV broadcast) HD telecine with inserted scans from an uncut 16mm print. This one is based on a 35mm pre-print element, recently discovered in France and newly scanned / restored to pristine condition by Studio Canal. Needless to say, Annett’s country mansion whodunnit / hi tech blacksploitation survivalist werewolf hunting epic now looks like the proverbial mutt’s nuts.

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(My money was on Paul Foot but WTF do I know?)

Concluding their legendary run of Horror pictures (only Hammer outdid them in UK terms), Amicus came up with a grab bag of exploitable elements and as if that wasn’t enough, topped them off with a ludicrous gimmick (the truly hysterical “Werewolf Break”) blatantly filched from William Castle’s Homicidal (1961). Improbably, the result is a pants-pissingly entertaining concoction that still stands up 46 years after the event.

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A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse…

Calvin Lockhart stars as thrusting industrialist Tom Newcliffe (equal parts Shaft, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Count Zaroff) who’s invited a few guests around to his impressive pile for an ostensibly civilised weekend in the country. Unfortunately the croquet and canapés are regularly interrupted by bouts of hunt the loup garou. Tom has always wanted to top off his collection of hunting trophies with one of those and as all of his guests have been, er, dogged by rumours of lycanthropy, ONE of them MUST be a werewolf, right? (Makes no sense whatsoever but let him have his fun).

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As he waits for the full moon to bring out the hairs on the guilty party’s knuckles, we are invited to ponder the lupine credentials of those assembled, prior to taking our punt, come that Werewolf Break, ushered in by the sepulchral tones of Valentine Dyall. There’s Supertramp refugee and one shot cannibal (“You have been doing your research!”) Paul Foot (Tom Chadbon)… boring Jan (Michael Gambon)… patrician Bennington (Charles Gray)… sexy posh bird Davina (Ciara Madden)… and even Tom’s own missus, Caroline (Marlene Clark). It’s a strong cast, keeping its collective face admirably straight amid all this unfolding piffle, which werewolf researcher Dr Christopher Lundgren (Peter Cushing) compounds with a few fascinating new wrinkles on lycanthropic lore (bet you never knew that silver will only kill one of these beasties when there’s Wolfbane pollen in the air, huh?)… not forgetting Anton Diffring as Newcliffe’s surveillance supremo.

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If you can’t extract a riotous evening of viewing pleasure from the contents of this disc, you’re probably reading the wrong Blog. Among the bonus features, some of which will be familar from that earlier Amicus box and other releases, you’ll find the late Paul Annett’s amusing audio commentary, moderated by Jonathan Sothcott; archival interview with Annett; audio essay by Troy Howarth concerning the history of cinematic variations on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None; audio reminiscences of The Beast Must Die from Amicus’s Milton Subotsky (interviewed by Phil Nutman) and Max J Rosenberg (in conversation with Jonathan Sothcott); and if you aren’t sufficiently excited by the Original Theatrical Trailer, you get the option to run it again with a (necessarily short) commentary from Kim Newman & David Flint.

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Stay on the moors, dear readers and beware the moon…

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Giving Jess Enough Rope… Ennui & Ecstasy In Franco’s CRIES OF PLEASURE.

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“Martina’s getting out of the insane asylum. She’s a schizophrenic… a nymphomaniac… you’ll like her!”

Since the boy Freudstein’s Zine debut, various critical consensuses have mutated in a way that nobody could possibly have predicted. Terence Fisher, for example, has been unceremoniously dumped from the pantheon of Great Horror Directors, while lavish box sets and coffee table tomes are now devoted to the formerly despised likes of Andy Milligan, Al Adamson and Jess Franco. In fact the inexorable rise of Franco from pariah to fanzine favourite to filmmaker worthy of serious critical attention probably encapsulates this change (slide?) in popular and academic taste more neatly than anything else I’ve witnessed in the 35 years or so that I’ve been writing about this stuff.

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Severin continue their stalwart contributions to this alarming cultural phenomenon with a spanky new BD edition of JF’s 1982 effort Cries Of Pleasure (“Gemidos De Placer”), beautifully scanned in 4k from the original negative. Plot wise, there’s nothing much new going on here (stop me if you’ve heard this before but Antonio Mayans, Lina Romay and another couple of uninhibited floozies, plus an idiot savant flamenco guitarist, repair to an architectural folly on the Costa Del Sol for an interminable bonkathon, involving but not restricted to the inevitable Emmanuelle-patented wicker furniture) but the real novelty is in this one Franco attempts to emulate (sort of) Hitchcock’s experiment in Rope (1948) by constructing his picture as a collage of a very few long, long takes.

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While this has the upside of eliminating some of the noodling passages and messier edits that disfigure certain other Franco productions, long passages of people having it off present their own challenges to the viewer’s attention span… especially when the sex is so palpably faked. The one brief glimpse we get of Mayans’ stauner (thanks to Rachael Dunnett for that one) is decidedly more Limp Bizkit than Led Zeppelin. Portrait_de_Sade.jpgTo ward off impending ennui, Franco manages to introduce significant plot twists at just about the right moments. Although the film’s titles suggest that this is an adaptation of De Sade (just for a change, eh Jess?) and there are nods throughout to the passionate philosophy of Donatien Alphonse François (“We belong to the chosen ones, to whom everything is allowed” … “Isn’t that wonderful, Julia? The throbbing and trembling pussy of somebody who’s about to die!”), Cries Of Pleasure is actually something more of a kinked-up take on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s überinfluential Les Diaboliques (1955). Although Mayans intrigues with various permutations of the lady libertines against each other… let’s just say that things might not work out exactly how he planned.

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Franco’s frequently favoured DP Juan Soler doubles up here as a retarded handyman / guitarist who wanders in and out of the unfolding orgies, to which he often supplies a musical accompaniment (reminding me of certain scenes from Oshima’s Ai No Corrida… now there’s a truly Sadean film). This guy probably never ever learned to read or write so well, but he can play his guitar just like ringing a bell… remind you of anybody? The elitist, murderous swingers treat him with the contempt they consider appropriate, but we are privy to his internal monologues, including his memories of previous unspeakable atrocities, which makes for an interesting narrative device. An unreliable witness, he is abandoned by the surviving characters (“They’re strange people”, he ventures) as they head off in search of “unlimited debauchery”. Well, I ask you… are there any high profile precedents for a corpse (bearing signs of sexual trauma) turning up in somebody’s swimming pool without the owner of said pool facing serious legal consequences? Actually, now you mention it…

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A tasty array of special features includes Stephen Thrower visiting various exotic Franco Locations in Portugal (and clearly having the time of his life), Donald Farmer’s 1993 video interview with Lina and (mostly) Jess, plus Thrower’s characteristically engaging discourse on the director’s time with Golden Films and Cries Of Pleasure in particular. All of these run over as continuing featurettes on Severin’s companion release, Franco’s Night Of Open Sex (1983, below).

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Blood & Brown Fur… WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY Reviewed.

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

The question is not “Who is the murderer?”… but “Who is the werewolf?” (The challenge thrown down to viewers during the legendary “Werewolf break” in Paul Annett’s The Beast Must Die,  1974).

Before it found a particularly convivial setting in the early-mid ’70s thrillers of Sergio Martino, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi’s obsession with the Whodunnit plotting of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) was expressed via some unlikely outlets, none more unlikely than Lycanthropus, directed by Paolo (The Day The Sky Exploded) Heusch (as “Richard Benson”) in 1961.

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Despite a dodgy discharge from his previous employers, Doctor Julian Olcott (Carl Schell) takes up a new position at a reform school for bad girls, supposedly located somewhere in England (though the locations are conspicuously Italian). Fortuitously (for the real culprit) his arrival coincides with a spate of slayings in which various residents and staff members are messily bumped off, for which Dr Jules naturally becomes the prime suspect, ahead even of philandering pedagogue and blackmail victim Sir Alfred Whiteman (Maurice Marsac) and general dogsbody Walter (“Allan Collins” / Luciano Pigozzi, whose resemblance to Peter Lorre always puts him in the frame). Striking up an alliance (not to mention a romantic entanglement) with boot camp babe Priscilla (Barabara Lass, who was nearing the end of her marriage to Roman Polanski during the making of this picture), the doc sets about the task of unearthing the actual killer’s identity (and their shaggy dog back story, into the bargain…)

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While the transformation scenes are handled with simple efficiency, they’re not the main point of interest here. Lycanthropus is clearly cut from the same cloth in which the incipient giallo genre was being fashioned. The milieu of intriguing young minxes and their corrupt custodians in a claustrophobic setting rings a bell or two with Mario Bava’s seminal 1964 effort Blood And Black Lace (and is it just me, or does Barbara Lass bear an incidental resemblance to Leticia Roman from Bava’s earlier The Girl Who Knew Too Much?)

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Antonio Margheriti’s The Miniskirt Murders (1968) also rehashes several elements from Heusch’s films, not least the presence of “Collins” / Pigozzi and Lycanthropus’s giallo legacy stretches far further than that… tracking shots of night time chases through the woods and compositions of female victims reclining in stretches of water had me wondering if this is one of the films screened by Argento before he got cracking on Phenomena (1985).

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Renato Del Frate’s crisp b/w cinematography is well served throughout in this new 2k scan from archival elements. Special features include an interview with the great Gastaldi, a David Del Valle-moderated commentary track from Curt Lowens (who plays Director Swift in the movie), trailers, and the alternative US titles… commercially inspired by any amount of contemporary werewolf flicks, Lycanthropus went out as Werewolf In A Girls’ Dormitory States-side, with a terrible tacked-on opening song (“The Ghoul In School”) that is clearly attempting to invoke the spirit of AIP’s I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957). My early bird copy contained a mini-repro of the original promotional photo-comic and a bonus CD of Armando Trovajoli’s OST. Nice!

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He’s Coming To Get You, Barbara… BYLETH Reviewed

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Don’t remember seeing Udo Kier in this one, but there you go…

BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

When the Duke Lionello (Mark Damon) and his sister Barbara (Claudia Gravy, who appeared in some Jess Franco pictures but, as far as I know, never in any adaptations of the works of Robert Browning) were growing up on their family’s ancestral Lazio pile, they were such loving siblings that they play-acted getting married when they were older. Ah, cute. Barbara, as you would expect, grew out of this whimsical little fantasy… Lionello never quite managed to do so. When Barbara returns from a spell in Venice, her brother is overjoyed but she harshes Lionello’s mellow big time by announcing that she’s now hitched to Giordano (Aldo Bufo Landi). A big girl’s blouse in a frilly shirt, Lionello goes into angsting overdrive, moping around his castle, spying on the bonking couples with which it seems to be littered and enjoying his own odd assignations with prostitutes (very odd… he can’t seem to rise to the occasion with any woman who isn’t Barbara). He even hides in Barbara’s wardrobe, caressing her petticoats while he watches her and Giordano gittin’ it on through the keyhole,

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Unfortunately a series of the women Lionello spies on and / or fails to satisfy start turning up dead, somebody having stabbed them in their throats with a three pronged knife. But who is that somebody? A handy dandy priest (Antonio Anelli) turns up to advise the police that such a weapon is traditionally handled by Byleth, the Demon of Incest, throwing in bonus biographical information about Byleth’s demonic cohorts , Astorath, Baphomet, Belphegor and so on…

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In the rare moments that the screen isn’t filled with copulating couples, director Leopoldo Savona (better known for such endearingly titled Spaghetti Westerns as God Will Forgive My Pistol, Apocalypse Joe and Pistol Packin’ Preacher… also as the original director of what emerged as Mario Bava’s The Vikings knock-off, Knives Of The Avenger) and one shot co-writer Norbert Blake (anyone smell a pseudonym?) attempt to mix giallo elements into an already overcrowded supernatural-gothic-costume-melodrama-romance mish-mash and fail to pull it off because apart from the obvious suspect, no plausible red herring is even offered. Barbara finally (and a tad arbitrarily) succunbs to Lionello’s advances. We don’t actually see her doing so or him killing her, but it seems both of these things happened, ushering in a misfiring demonic wrap up.

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The demon Byleth, apparently.

Of the two films that most readily occur to me, right off the top of my head, as comparators, I like this one a whole lot better than Alfredo Rizzo’s The Bloodsucker Leads The Dance (1975) but it’s not a patch on Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles On A Murderer (1973). Byleth is a rather minor effort, but the spaghetti exploitation cognoscenti will want to check out this interesting rarity from 1972. Severin’s 2K restoration has been sourced from an uncut (but somewhat damaged) German negative (as “Trio Der Lust”) with optional German or Italian sound and English subs. No extras.

Next!

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Hate Island… Bruno Mattei’s ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD Reviewed.

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DVD. Region 1. Intervision (Severin). Unrated.

Former crud film cohort Claudio Fragasso having struck out for relative respectability with the likes of the Palermo-Milano movies, the indefatigable Bruno Mattei hitched his star to those of producer Gianni Paolucci and writer Antonio Tentori (a duo which would resurface to discouraging effect in 2012 on Argento’s Dracula In 3-D). The first fruits of their partnership, 2006’s  The Jail: A Women’s Hell is a predictably wild and thoroughly non-PC WIP effort, but things took a quantum leap into the cinematic trashosphere with a brace of zombie flicks that Mattei would shoot back-to-back (possibly simultaneously) in 2006… Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies: The Beginning, fitting titles to close out the illustrious CV and indeed, life of the last pasta splatter man standing.

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IOTLD (which borrows its name from the working title of what would become Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters) kicks off with an 18th Century prologue, in which conquistadores and priests are attempting to bury plague victims in a cave (or is it a church?) on a Caribbean island, hindered by the fact that native voodoo rites are returning many of them from the dead as flesh-eating zombies, which necessitates the pre-titles sequence of Fulci’s seminal flick being replayed no less than three times. While the zombies are tucking into those priests, the conquistadores emerge only to discover that their town has been torched (conspicuously rendered by stock footage) and adding insult to injury, they are attacked by (what were the odds on this?) a passing band of vampire pirates (just in case you can’t spot where that idea came from, IOTLD is a “La Perla Nera Production”)…. some days you just wish you hadn’t bothered getting out of bed, right?

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In “the present day”, a down-on-their-luck team of treasure hunters happen upon this unchartered island, which just appears out of the fog. Lucky for them, the pirates’ treasure is still stashed here. Not so luckily, the place is still crawling with zombies (possibly also vampires and / or pirates, though things now move along at such an incomprehensible lick, it’s difficult to tell). Captain Kirk (!) played by Ronald Russo, refuses his crew’s pleas to radio for help (you keep thinking that he’s going to be outed as some kind of zombie sympathiser in a boffo plot twist, but it never happens… he just made a stupid decision for no apparent reason) and when most of the crew leave for a reccy of the island, zombies invade the boat and the engineer blows it up by pushing the red button apparently installed to do precisely that (like the levers in an old Universal flicks that could always be relied on to level Baron Frankenstein’s castle, when required.)

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Mark (played by astonishing George Galloway looky-likey Gary King Roberts), an obvious Night Of The Living Dead enthusiast, teases Sharon (Yvette Yson) that the first zombie they see (in a jungle graveyard) is “coming to get her” and of course it is. Tao (Miguel Franco) piles into the deadster with his best kung fu moves but the result is a predictable Shaolin 0, Voodoo 1. Sprinkled amid the regular anthropophagous attacks via which our happy treasure hunters are gradually whittled down, there’s the discovery of treasure chests and dusty grimoires which add to the ever proliferating theories competing with each other to explain wtf happened on the island, the novel spectacle of a zombie’s arm being regenerated after it’s been shot off, a throwaway reference to Olga Karlatos’ eye popping demise in Zombie Flesh Eaters, casks of wine which contains maggots and which makes those foolish enough to drink it hallucinate vividly (e.g. a reworking of the bar tender scene from The Shining)… there’s the Dawn Of The Dead-patented conceit, already recycled in Zombie Creeping Flesh, whereby reckless showboating when surrounded by ravenous zombies only gets you eaten and, in lieu of ZCF’s “soft shoe shuffle in a tutu” non-sequitur, treasure hunting Snoopy (Jim Gaines) is waylaid by a seductive flamenco dancing zombie… or is she a vampire? Dunno, give up… throw in a spot of The Fog, a reminder of Mrs Bates in her swivel chair and there you have it.

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After the remaining hallucinating crew members have all killed each other, sole survivor Sharon puts out to sea in a home-made raft but is declared DOA by the helicopter medics who recover her… only she isn’t, the final shot revealing her to be a zombie or a vampire pirate or fuck-knows-what. Of course all of that (plus any remaining scraps of sanity) fly out of the window as the story picks up in Mattei’s perversely titled Zombies: The Beginning. Those seeking further enlightenment (but destined for deeper confusion) should click here… and may God have mercy on your soul!

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Severin’s Carl Daft assures me that Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies: The Beginning have been gutted and recut by producer Paolucci into an “all new” motion picture experience. The mind fair boggles…

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When Italian FX Aces Turn Director… WAX MASK / KILLER CROCODILE 1 & 2 Reviewed.

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Wax Mask. BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.
Killer Crocodile / Killer Crocodile 2. BD. Severin. Region A. Unrated.

By the early 1980s Italy ruled the ‘B’ movie waves, churning out over three hundred titles per year to fuel an insatiable international appetite for horror, action and exploitation all’Italiana… a Roman empire the extent of which Trajan himself could scarcely have dreamed. By the end of that decade, however, the Italian film landscape was as bleak as any depicted in the post-Apocalyptic epics that constituted its final filone

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It doesn’t take an Edward Gibbon to trace the causes of this spectacular fall from grace. Tightening censorship in key European markets meant that enevelope-pushing outrages like Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982) were now out of the question. Along with the consequent blanding out of Italian genre efforts, there was increased leisure buck competition from the deregulation of domestic TV under Silvio Berlusconi and increasing incursions into exploitive subject matter by the US Majors whose budgets Spaghetti exploitation mavens could never hope to match.  Dardano Sacchetti, who wrote more films than anybody else during the industry’s most lucrative years, identifies the short-term thinking and profit-taking priorities of Italian producers as a crucially detrimental factor. If they’d invested instead of constantly cutting budgets, by this account, pasta paura could have become as big a deal as the spaghetti western… and Sacchetti didn’t shy away from identifying the poster boy for this myopic modus operandi as Fabrizio De Angelis, for whom he and Lucio Fulci collaborated on several low budget classics in the late ’70s, early ’80s. “De Angelis was an amiable man but a terrible producer, always ready to sacrifice even the best things about a movie just to save a few bucks”, Sacchetti told me. “He’s a cheap-skate…” chipped in Fred Williamson, alluding to FDA’s later tactic of ditching seasoned pro directors like Fulci and Enzo Castellari to direct his own pictures (as “Larry Ludman”):  “…. it has nothing to do with creativity. He doesn’t want to pay people to do something he thinks he can do, but that doesn’t mean he can do it well“. When I interviewed De Angelis, he defended himself from such charges as follows: “I’ve always given other directors bigger budgets than I give myself. I pay as much as anybody else and many of the people who complained came back to work for me again, so I can’t be that bad”.

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Sure enough, Sacchetti was back on board (as “David Parker Jr”) to co-write Killer Crocodile (1989)… not that it took much writing, emerging as a transposition of a certain Stephen Spielberg film (and ultimately Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, if you want to get pedantic about it) from Amity Island to the swamps of the Dominican Republic. Just in case anybody missed the Jaws allusions (or the fact that this whole film is one big Jaws allusion), Riz Ortolani’s score reverberates with all the obvious John Williams pinches.

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Environmentalist Kevin (Anthony… son of Richard… Crenna) and his crew discover that the Dominican waterways are clogged with something way worse than plastic bags and bottles. Irresponsible radioactive dumping, facilitated by a corrupt local Judge (Hollywood heavyweight Van Johnson in one of his final screen credits) has produced the eponymous super-sized saurian, impressively rendered (when you consider the likely budget) by Italy’s FX supremo Giannetto De Rossi, despite his words to the contrary (“It’s a laughing stock!”) in one of the bonus featurettes on this set. Editor Vincenzo Tomassi completes a quartet of holdovers from the gory, glory days of Lucio Fulci.

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With all that talent on hand and everything De Angelis had osmosed from his proximity to the likes of Fulci and Castellari (whose brother Enio Girolami steals the show as Captain Ahab-like crocodile hunter Joe), it’s no surprise that Killer Crocodile emerges as an efficient, satisfying piece of throwaway entertainment, smoothly shot by Federico Del Zoppo in the American TV movie style that was becoming increasingly prevalent at this time. If all that sounds a bit too blandly slick for your tastes, rest assured (and here comes the SPOILER ALERT!) that De Angelis winds things up (things notably including the title creature’s leathery ol’ head) with a revival of the classic “outboard motor” gag from Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980), another picture he produced back in the golden age… but what kind of egg is that hatching on the banks of the bayou?

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Laser focussed on the bottom line, FDA arranged the simultaneous shooting of Killer Crocodile 2 (1990) and detailed its direction to Giannetto De Rossi. History doesn’t record whether he was instructed to “make it snappy” but presumably De Rossi got the job on the grounds that he could be paid even less than the producer would pay “Larry Ludman”! Otherwise the crew’s pretty much the same (Giovanni Bergamini replaces Del Zoppo as DP) and so is the story. Corrupt corporate types are still dumping radioactive waste in that river, still with the connivance of scumbag politicians, one of whom is planning to open a leisure complex on a particularly hideously polluted stretch. Investigative journalist Liza (“Debra Karr”, would you believe?) is on the case but it’s not a particularly compelling one. Looks like they didn’t shoot enough footage of the crocodile to fall back on before it was definitively destroyed at the end of Part 1. There’s a great bit where it crashes through the side of a hut to snack on some low level bad dudes but such moments are few and far between. De Rossi is obliged to pad things out with a bunch of flashbacks to the original’s “greatest hits” and mucho over-baked exposition, though admittedly Ms Karr does look distractingly good, wandering around the jungle in a wet sports bra after her guide tried to rape her and was promptly eaten by the croc. Kevin and Joe arrive halfway through the picture to try and rescue her but blink and you’ll miss Joe. Having delivered the brazen line: “We’ve got to get a bigger boat”, Kevin is left to contrive the coup de gras, in the absence of any handy outboard motors, via a fistful of dynamite.

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Killer Crocodile 2 doesn’t really live up to its predecessor (how many sequels do?) but I was glad to be reacquainted with this brace, my VHS copies of which (sourced from German satellite channels) disappeared many moons ago down the ravenous collecting maw of leathery old Darrell Buxton. Severin present the films with their customary panache and  a slew of of tasty extras, notably Naomi Holwill’s fine feature length De Rossi doc The Prince Of Plasma, featuring contributions from the man himself, plus collaborators Luigi Cozzi, Massimo Vanni and Zombi 2 poster boy Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, also pundits Allan Bryce, Rachael Nisbet and Russ Hunter. In his standalone interview featurette, De Rossi is engagingly self deprecating regarding his work on these films. DP Federico Del Zoppo also has his say. The recollections of Anthony Crenna (now identifying as Richard Anthony Crenna) chime with those of many a non-Italian actor regarding his bemusement at being required to act sans direct sound and the virtually non-existent Health & Safety culture. Pietro Genuardi develops this theme further, claiming that a local drowned when operating the croc maquette underwater before detailing his own colourful experiences on location and attempting to return to Rome from it. You also get trailers and a few deleted sequences from the sequel. Nice.

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Wax Mask (1997), although it evolved into another (and rather more effective) FX-man-turned-director effort, was originally conceived as an attempt to revive the flagging Italian Horror tradition via another means, i.e. by assembling the dream team of Dario Argento (producing), Lucio Fulci (directing) and that man Sacchetti, writing (the latter has some very interesting things to say about the genesis of this project and the motivations behind it in our interview elsewhere on this blog). Of course Sacchetti was subsequently sacked (and replaced by Daniele Stroppa) when his proposed Mummy vehicle failed to find favour with Argento, whose enthusiasm for all things Gaston Leroux (below, left) at this point (which would attain its abysmal fruition in DA’s Phantom Of The Opera, 1997) re-routed the project in the direction of Leroux’s Waxwork Museum Mystery and its various cinematic offshoots. Tragically, after putting much work into that, Fulci died shortly before shooting was due to commence. Having been turned down by Fulci’s preferred successor, Claudio Fragasso (who collaborated with Lucio on the certifiably insane Zombi 3, 1988), Argento promoted long time FX man Sergio Stivaletti to make his directorial debut, resulting in the artefact under consideration here.

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Reflecting its convoluted origins, Wax Mask incorporates various strands of the Italian Horror / Thriller tradition, notably Gothic and Giallo, emerging as an attempt (no doubt Argento’s) to propel the two geriatric genres over the line into the 21st Century. Its action commences in Paris at the beginning of the 20th (“31st. December 1900” says the caption, but surely that’s a mistake?) where a little girl witnesses her parents being butchered by a masked figure with a robotic hand. Years later, two bravos partying in a Roman brothel strike a bet about whether one of them is brave enough to spend a night in a spooky wax museum (shades of Antonio Margheriti’s Danse Macabra). The designated dude duly dies of fright when confronted with a Medusa tableau. Was he the world’s biggest girl’s blouse or did something altogether more sinister occur? While we’re pondering that one, Sonia Lafont (Romina Mondello) turns up at the wax museum looking for a job and becomes obsessed with the contents of proprietor Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein)’s gloves. Turns out she was the little girl who survived the film’s brutal prologue… how sensitive of Volkoff, after taking her on, to open a new display which recreates that crime in suspiciously accurate detail. And why do the new wax figures always look so much like people who’ve recently disappeared from the streets?

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Wax Mask looks quite ravishing due in no small part, one imagines, to the participation of Fulci stalwarts Sergio Salvati (DP) and Massimo Antonello Geleng (production design). Maurizio Abeni’s lush music vindicates the decision to go with an orchestral score rather than Simonetti-style synth rock and the surround sound option on this disc will give your home cinema setup quite a workout. As you’d expect from a Stivaletti film (and with the sterling support of the ill-fated Benoit Lestang) the FX are pretty impressive and the director continues to explore the possibilities of CGI, which he’d first tackled in Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), not least with the startling eruption of a Terminator-like animated death’s head figure during the film’s denouement.

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The question inevitably arises (as it previously did with the likes of Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi) as to how much of the film Stivaletti actually directed, considering that Argento spent so much time on set (and apparently Hossein, a director in his own right, wasn’t exactly backwards in coming forward with advice). It’s a question that’s thoroughly addressed in this edition’s plentiful bonus materials, interviews with several of the creative principals throwing much light on Wax Mask’s protean progress from the drawing board to the screen and providing fascinating insights into the proverbial “personal and professional differences” with which the Italian film scene is freighted. Argento talks of how his attitude towards Fulci developed from mistrust into “love” and opines that if he had lived, Wax Mask secondo Fulci would have been “wild”.  Anyone who was puzzled by Alan Jones’s critical volte face on Fulci after the early ’80s will find Jones’s comments here interesting. We also get some clues as to what a Fulci-directed Wax Mask might have looked like and Stivaletti rues the stick he got from the ol’ Goremeister’s fans (and allegedly his daughter Antonella) for coming up with something different. Not, perhaps, the most reasonable of criticisms. There’s also a trio of “behind the scenes” featurettes that you might have seen on previous DVD editions. If not, all the better.

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Two interesting facts about Robert Hossein (above) emerge from the supplementary materials assembled here. Firstly, that he actually appeared in productions of Pigalle’s legendary Theatre Du Grand Guignol and also that he is (at least by Argento’s reckoning) a total fanny magnet! David Gregory moderates a commentary track from Stivaletti and his son Michelangelo, who’s there to help Dad out with his English and point out his own, intra-uterine film debut.

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I’d dispute Severin’s billing of Wax Mask as “the last great Italian gore film of the 20th Century” but it’s a consistently watchable and entertaining one and the compelling extras on this disc, constituting a revelatory delight for the cognoscenti of pasta paura, turn it into an indispensible purchase. My copy came with a bonus CD of Abeni’s OST.

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The two FX men-turned-directors are pictured below during their triumphant recent appearances at Manchester’s ever wonderful Festival Of Fantastic Films.

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