Posts Tagged With: Shameless

An Ideal Place To Kill… OASIS OF FEAR Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

The sad news of Ray Lovelock’s death, following so fast on the passing of Umberto Lenzi, has prompted us to dust off the HOF archives and take a retrospective look at one of their collaborations, the 1971 giallo Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere (“An Ideal Place To Kill”) aka Dirty Pictures… can’t help thinking that Shameless missed a trick there by releasing the “rebuild edition” under consideration here (which reinstates footage previously believed to be lost) under the title Oasis Of Fear.

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Umberto Lenzi… what can I say that you couldn’t possibly work out for yourself by reading the interview with him elsewhere on this Blog? Although several of my questions seemed to irritate him to distraction (which was far from my intention), he did seem genuinely pleased at my suggestion that his early gialli with Carroll Baker had exerted an influence over such subsequent Hollywood bonkbusters as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.

Lenzi wanted Baker to star in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere too, but other commitments obliged him to substitute Irene Papas for her in the role of patrician swinger Barbara Slater. Personally, I find Papas better suited than Baker to this kind of film (delivering a performance here that is studded with subtleties) and Lucio Fulci, for one, seems to have agreed with me, casting her as the priest’s mother who nurses a deadly secret in the following year’s miraculous Don’t Torture A Duckling (and yes, we’ll finally get round to reviewing the Arrow Blu-ray of that when we get a breather from all the other stuff that’s currently clogging up our in-tray).

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Another, er, somewhat less obvious bit of casting in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere has Latin lovely Ornella Muti playing the decadent Dane Ingrid Sjoman. She and her ostentatiously British (check out that Union Jack-et!) hippy boyfriend Dick Butler (Lovelock, who was indeed half-English) have been financing a heady slice of la dolce vita for themselves by flogging those “dirty pictures” to sex-starved, red-blooded Italian dudes. These loose-livin’ free-loveniks are understandably dismayed to find their smut supply running out, jeopardising their selfless mission to “spread the gospel of sexual freedom to darkest Italy”. Ingrid’s a game girl though, and more than happy to pose for some home-made porn. Not long after they hit on this expedient, however, our anti-heroes are busted by kill-joy cops and ordered to leave the country.

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While they’re attempting to do so they run out of gas and try to siphon some off in a plush villa on the edge of town. Attractive but older and uptight owner Barbara is naturally pissed off on discovering these uninvited guests in her garage but something about the free-wheeling kids seems to pique her interest and she unexpectedly invites them to stay the night. This being the swinging ’70s, after all concerned have necked enough booze and gotten to know each other, various sexual permutations play out (Muti, in only her second or possibly third screen credit, delegated her nude scenes to a suitably sumptuous body double). Dirty Dick is suitably tickled by this outcome and teases Barbara that she’s risking some kind of Manson massacre by inviting footloose hippies into her home and bed. As it happens, somebody is getting into deep shit but things are not entirely what they seem and the pay off will play out with predictable giallo unpredictability (well, the resolution might have surprised contemporary viewers, though seasoned pasta paura fanciers probably won’t have too much trouble, at this remove, working out what’s going on).

The commercial imperative to try to cop a bit of the Easy Rider action dictates a conclusion which doesn’t amount to very much but there is plenty of period kitsch to cherish and Lenzi effectively embroiders that staple theme of Italian exploitation cinema which indicts the respectable bourgeoisie as more morally reprehensible than the social dregs whom they despise and exploit.

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The late, great Ray Lovelock built a screen career on ambiguity… he’s sexually ambiguous as Evan in his screen debut, Giulio Questi’s startling Django Kill! (Se Sei Vivo, Spara, 1967)… in Jorge Grau’s legendary zombie-stomper Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974) he’s a cynical hustler turned archetypal English hero (right down to being named “George”)…  he’s a lily-livered kidnapper with qualms, who just might save the ransomed girl in Lenzi’s Almost Human (1974, a busy year for our Ray)… he’s not quite the man we thought he was in the following year’s Autopsy, that most macabre of gialli from Armando Crispino… there’s more sexual ambiguity from him as the only heterosexual man on the planet who couldn’t manage an erection for Edwige Fenech in Marino Girolami‘s The Virgin Wife (“La Moglie Vergine”, 1975)… in Ruggero Deodato’s Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man (“Uomini Si Nasce Poliziotti Si Muore”,  1976) he and Marc Porel play cops whose disregard for the rule-book makes them virtually indistinguishable from the criminals against whom they’re supposed to be protecting society… in Franco Prosperi’s Meet This Man And Die from the same year, Ray’s a cop going deep, deep undercover.. and in Prosperi’s 1978 effort La Settima Donna (“The Seventh Woman”) aka Terror and Last House On The Beach (no question for guessing which Wes Craven film supplies the “inspiration” for that one) he poses as “the voice of reason” in a gang of bank-robbers brutalising the young women among whom they’re hiding out, although he’s obviously orchestrating and relishing the various outrages. The mystery in Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984) turns on Lovelock’s character, who he is and what he might or might not have done…

This ambiguous, chameleon-like aspect made Lovelock an ideal actor for giallo and it’s regrettable that he only essayed a handful of roles in that genre. Still, the C.V. he left behind (and he was working in features and TV as late as last year) is impressive enough as it stands.

Rest in peace, Ray. Adios, Umberto…

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SUSPIRIA At Mayhem 2017. It’s In 4K… On A Big Screen… And It’s A F**king Giallo, Alright?!?

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Suspiria, 1977. Directed by Dario ArgentoProduced by Claudio Argento and Salvatore Argento. Story by Daria NicoldiScreenplay by Dario Argento and Daria NicolodiCinematography by Luciano TovoliEdited by Franco Fraticelli. Production Design by Giuseppe Bassan. Musiby Goblin. SFX by Germano Natali. Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Rudolf Schündler, Udo Kier, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett.

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… you wait forty years for a 4k restoration of Suspiria then two turn up at the same time! Over in The States, Synapse’s Don May has been struggling manfully with his for something like a tenth of that period but CultFilms have stealthily beaten him to the punch with their European release of TLE’s take on the most visually beautiful of all Horror Films. Before either of them had aired in public there was much internet discussion and comparing of screen grabs with the intention of establishing which version would prove most successful in correcting the technical errors (too fiendishly complicated to go into here) that have marred previous releases. May’s strongest hand all along has been that Luciano Tovoli, the film’s cinematographer, has supervised his Suspiria… then again the CultFilms / TLE rendering was overseen by Dario Argento himself, who’s presumably entitled to a view on how the film should look and sound.

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Ultimately we’ll all have to pay our money / take our choice and as long as each version is only viewable in its own territory, one of the first things we Europeans (semi-detached and otherwise) will have to go on is this October and November’s Cultfilms UK mini-tour.  After its premiere at the BFI during the London Film Festival on 06/10/17, the TLE Suspiria rolled into Nottingham on the 14th October for a centrepiece Saturday late night screening at the Broadway Cinema’s peerless Mayhem Film Fest (full Festival report now active on this Blog).

Kudos to Festival co-curators Chris Cooke (who had previously told me that presenting such a restoration was a personal dream come true) and Steve Sheil, who introduced “Argento’s masterpiece” by asking how many audience members had never seen the film before. As it happened, a significant proportion of the audience admitted to being “Suspiria virgins”…

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… and what a way to lose their cherries! If the Synapse version is going to look any better than this, we’ve surely got to be talking infinitesimal degrees of cinematic lusciousness. Miraculously, considering the extent of the repairs that were reportedly needed, not a hair nor a scratch now sullies the candy coloured phantasmagoria of Argento’s vision. As for those much called-for corrections to the film’s pallet… suffice to say, you’ll feel an overpowering urge to lean into the screen and lick the marzipan walls of the Tanz Akademie, hopefully grabbing a kiss from Jessica Harper before returning to your seat and getting beaten up by the ushers.

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Soundwise, the film (not least Goblin’s celebrated score) is every bit as loud and frantic as you knew it was going to be… if a little flat. Was there something up with The Broadway’s speakers? Nope, various films of varying quality (none better than Suspiria) made effective use of the venue’s surround sound speakers throughout the Festival. Is it just that Suspiria was conceived, reasonably enough, without reference to the state of audio technology 40 year’s hence? Was there a problem with the relevant elements? With the sonic aspect of this restoration? With my ears? Will the Synapse jobby sound a little punchier? Watch (or should I say listen to?) this space…

Don’t get me wrong… it doesn’t sound crappy, it’s just not quite the outright audio assault for which Suspiria is famed. No matter, I didn’t begrudge one iota of the expense required to get me home after leaving this particular late, late show with those virgins’ applause ringing in my ears. They now knew what they’d been missing and I was reminded, after years of video / DVD / BD over-familiarity, that Suspiria is quite possibly The Greatest Horror Film Ever Made. I don’t imagine too many visitors of this Blog are going to give me to much of an argument on that one.

Now for the contentious bit…

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What constitutes a giallo?  Various definitions have been offered. From the get-go we’ll dismiss the philistine broad stroke one that encompasses virtually any Italian exploitation picture. We’re talking here about those thrillers, descended in equal parts from the yellow (“giallo”) covered paper backs published by Mondadori and co, German krimis and Hitchcock, whose rule book was developed by Mario Bava during the ’60s and upgraded by Argento throughout the following decade.

So if we were to have a, er, stab, at definition, it would look something like this. A  killer is at large (usually in an urban Italian setting) and the viewer is challenged to work out his / her identity. His / her motivation can be madness, sexual sadism, an inheritance… it scarcely matters (and the motives revealed, even in some of the genre’s classier entries, are frequently risible nonsense) because the style and severity with which the crimes are perpetrated and filmed are more important than who is killing whom and why. Subjective shots from the killer’s point of view will keep you guessing, anyway, as flashy visuals continue to be prioritised over narrative coherence. The cops generally take a powder in these films, leaving the sleuthing to some obsessive amateur who, more often than not, has half-glimpsed an all important clue but is struggling to make sense of it. Just in case this recipe isn’t already sufficiently un-PC, among the bloodily dispatched victims we will typically find a disproportionate compliment of attractive young women.

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You don’t have to honour every one of these rules to qualify as a giallo. Michele Soavi’s Stagefright (1987) throws the whodunnit element right out of the window (we’re aware of the killer’s identity even before he inaugurates the movie’s sequence of killings) yet is frequently cited as one of the genre’s last great entries. Some gialli do admit cops, e.g.  Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters (tellingly also known as The Police Require Assistance, 1974), Sergio Martino’s Suspicious Death Of A Minor (1975) and Alberto De Martino’s Strange Shadows In An Empty Room / Blazing Magnum (1976). Some of the grubbier gialli substitute smut for style (most notoriously in Mario Landi’s unpalatable Giallo In Venice, 1979) and setting their events outside of the Italian urban milieu has not discounted Lucio Fulci’s Lizard In A Womans Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972), Umberto Lenzi’s totally barmy Eyeball (1975) or just about all of Sergio Martino’s powerful entries in the genre… so why should its Bavarian setting disqualify Suspiria, a film which in every other way adheres to the genre’s golden rules?!?

So it’s not contentious at all, actually… It’s a no-brainer. It makes no difference that the question “Who’s the killer?” is answered with a shrieked “Witch!” I always get slagged off for arguing this and no doubt will be again, but if it looks like a giallo, struts like a giallo and cuts its way through its victims like a giallo, then it’s probably a giallo… and Suspiria is a giallo. Yes, it’s a turbo charged giallo with heavy Horror overtones, supernatural schtick and cinematic style to burn. But hey, let’s try not to hold that against it, eh?

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It’s TORSO… Only More So! Sergio Martino’s Seminal Giallo / Slasher Crossover Epic On Shameless Blu-Ray

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Sweeping the table of eyeless doll heads, you sit down and loosen your black-on-red (or is it red-on-black?) ‘kerchief. Ignoring the banging on the door of the room in which you’ve incarcerated the sexy art student, you peel the polythene wrapper from your copy of Shameless’s new Torso Blu-ray, take out the sleeve and reverse it because the alternative design is going to look so much better on your shelf, extract the disc, feed it into your BD player and settle back in anticipation…

19399797_561431237579683_1018641091339927587_n.jpgFaced with the problem of replacing talismanic female lead Edwige Fenech (who was probably knocking out a sexy comedy or two at the time) for 1973’s I Corpi Presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale (“The Corpses Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence”), Sergio Martino made a virtue of necessity by casting Derbyshire dolly bird Suzy Kendall, who had become something of a giallo icon herself since starring in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Here Martino and stalwart scripter Ernesto Gastaldi cut back on the frenetic over-plotting and globe-trotting of their previous collaborations to render their most Argentoesque effort yet… stylishly shot yet boiled down to its brutal, basic ingredients, this is something like the quintessential giallo. Distributed, retitled (as “Torso”)  and marginally recut by Joseph Brenner for the American grindhouse circuit, the film’s pared down focus on psychosexual violence twitched the death nerves of American film goers who were about to embrace Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

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Much has been made of the connection between gialli and the subsequent American slasher cycle… by reducing things to a simple-minded body count mechanism and concentrating on predominantly attractive, sexually active female victims, Torso probably deserves as much credit (if that’s the appropriate word) for this cultural exchange as Bava’s Bay Of Blood (1971), whose plot is more easily recognisable in the first couple of Friday The 13th movies.

After a kinky photo shoot involving doll mutilation (?!?) has played out under the titles, we are introduced to Kendall’s character Jane. She’s studying Renaissance Art at Perugia University, whose student body for the Academic Year 1973-4 seems to consist exclusively of refugees from America’s Next Top Model. Before they’ve learned to distinguish their Perugino from their pudende, however, the girls start getting strangled and carved up by a balaclava clad assassin. Cristina / Conchita Airoldi (as Carol) is offed in even more memorable style than she was in Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971).

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After a pot-fuelled heavy petting session with two hippies turns sour (as is so often the case), she wanders off into the foggy woods (like you invariably do on such occasions) and ends up strangled, stabbed and drowned in a muddy swamp. Sex and drugs, then killed in a forest? You couldn’t imagine a clearer template for the stalk’n’slash cycles “have sex and die!” rule, could you? Brenner astutely recognised the significance of this death scene, bumping it up in the running order so it played under the film’s titles, to the accompaniment of a howling fuzz guitar riff (imported from Bruno Nicolai’s score for the contemporary Leon Klimovsky flick, Night Of The Walking Dead.)

The only lead the police have is the killer’s preference for red and black scarves as strangulation aids. Martino manages a little in-joke by casting Ernesto Colli (one of the several assassins in Mrs Wardh) as the campus scarf vendor who attempts to blackmail the killer, only to be squashed under the latter’s car (after all, “death is the best keeper of secrets…”) Meanwhile sweet Danni (Tina Aumont), in best Bird With The Crystal Plumage style, is struggling to recall the half-glimpsed clue that’s tormenting her… did she see her obsessive wannabe boyfriend wearing a black-on-red patterned scarf or a red-on-black patterned scarf at the time of the first killing? Her uncle Nino is quite sure of one thing… that Danni and her sexy pals should try to take their minds off things by spending a weekend at his remote, cliff-side manner in the country. Uh-oh…

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The lecherous villagers are suitably impressed when all this tantalising totty rolls up. Sample comment: ” “Cor… look at all those knockers!” (Yeah Einstein, two per girl… though admittedly that might change when – to paraphrase the marketing for Shameless’s original DVD release – “the whores meet the saws!”) Katia (Angela Corvello) and Ursula (Carla Brait from Giulio Carnimeo’s Why These Strange Drops Of Blood On The Body Of Jennifer?, 1972) are having a hot and heavy lesbian fling so it’s no surprise when they go the way of all sinful flesh, where they’re sadly soon joined by the lovely Danni.

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Because Jane arrived separately and retired to bed early with a sprained ankle, the maniac is initially oblivious to her as she eaves-drops, horrified, on the sawing up of her pals into handily disposable portions of sexy student. The killer boasts an impressive array of cutting tools, but it’s not clear whether his armoury includes a strange vice (yuk, yuk!) Our anguished heroine impotently watches the townspeople below and tries to alert them to her predicament by reflecting the sun off a mirror, but no dice. All she manages to do is reveal her presence to the killer, after which she spends about half an hour playing hide and seek around the house’s ornate fittings and among the butchered remnants of her pals… a fetishistic expansion of one brief, tense scene in Bird With The Crystal Plumage where the killer lays siege to Kendall’s apartment… yep, she’s in a locked room and only a psychotic maniac has the key! All the windows are (in)conveniently barred against burglars… cue the “through the keyhole” shots that Martino so obviously loved in BWTCP and with which he litters all of his gialli.

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But who is the killer? No giallo epic would be complete without the expected massed ranks of suspects. Doctor Roberto (crime-slime mainstay Luc Meranda) spends a lot of time loitering menacingly for no apparent reason… art lecturer Professor Franz (John Richardson, who’s been gracing spaghetti exploitation flicks since Bava’s Black Sunday in 1960) seems unnecessarily obsessed with the correct way to depict the gory martyrdom of Saint Sebastian… brooding student Stefano (Roberto Bisacco) has been stalking Daniela and attempts to throttle a prostitute who laughs when he fails to rise to the occasion…

… even kindly Uncle Nino (Carlo Alighiero) is an incestuously inclined voyeur… and maybe we should be worrying about the peeping tom milkman (“Ernie”, by any chance?) who seems to have emigrated from the set of one of Martino’s “sexy comedies”. Just about all of these guys seem to sport one of those racy little red / black neckerchiefs, too. All is finally resolved with the mandatory ludicrous psychosexual revelation…

 – SPOILER ALERT! –

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 “… just stupid dolls of flesh and blood!’ howls the culprit (calm down, calm down!), flashing back to the unfortunate (and hilariously rendered) childhood incident in which his kid brother went arse over tit off a cliff after a game of doctor’s and nurses went horribly wrong.

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Incidentally, the final confrontation between the characters who turn out to be killer and hero respectively is a full-on punch-up that wouldn’t be out of place at kicking-out time in a Glasgow hostelry and very much suggests the influence of the contemporary kung fu craze. When I interviewed Martino he declared his “absolute favourite moment” from all his films to be “the sequence at the end of Torso, in which Suzy Kendall is locked in the room, being stalked by the killer. I think that I was very successful in generating a lot of suspense there” Not half, matey! Edwige Fenech… who needs her?

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So what have we learned from Sergio Martino’s Torso? That some crazy-as-batshit dude carved up a bunch of art students because he thought that women were dolls… but why did he think that the appropriate response to dolls was to carve them up in the first place? Hm… Sergio, is it too late for a Torso 2? I, for one, would certainly buy a ticket to see that.

Picture wise, it’s the old Blu-ray trade-off between enhancing the subtlety of (Giancarlo Ferrando’s) cinematography while exacerbating the grain in a film that’s almost 45 years old. I’m more inclined to believe that my tumbler of J&B is half full rather than half empty on this occasion, especially as a lot of effort has clearly been put into rectifying the print damage that has marred previous releases. This Shameless BD continues the incremental improvements to Torso that seem to have marked every successive edition… notes that the characters write to each (on paper and on one occasion across a mucky windshield) are now in English and the two surviving characters now exchange philosophical observations (in Italian, with English subtitles) as they walk off into the sunrise, as opposed to the Third Man style dumbshow of the Shameless DVD release.

Extra-wise you get “Dismembering Torso”, a new 23 minute interview with director Sergio Martino. He tells how his usual producer, big brother Luciano, rejected his idea for the film (which was based on a notorious real life case), ultimately produced by Carlo Ponti. We also learn that Sergio originally wanted to call it Red For Love, Black For Death (the scarves thing, right?) but the title became The Corpses Don’t Bear Traces Of Carnal Violence… until distributors insisted that they must bear precisely such traces, obliging Martino to go back and redub the police inspector’s briefing on this subject. He recalls that Torso was doing OK at box offices until Last Tango In Paris came out and slaughtered all the competition (pity they couldn’t call Bertolucci’s film “The Bumholes Bear Traces Of Butter”). Self-critical as ever, Martino observes that “some of the actors were a little wooden”. Well, there’s a good reason for that, Sergio…

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Above: another cracking couple of reinterpretations from beyondhorrordesign.blogpsot.com

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50 Shades Of Blu… THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH on Shameless BD

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Much  has been made of the “sex killer” angle in gialli… possibly too much. The culprit in what we might as well, for the sake of argument, concede to be the first giallo proper (Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963), though more than a little unhinged, turns out to be murdering on account of very cool calculations about an inheritance. Similar considerations motivate the assassin(s) in Bava’s Blood And Black Lace (1964), no matter how “sexily” its several slayings are rendered for our delectation… indeed, it frequently seems in that film as though Bava is inviting the audience to get off on the couture slaughter more than the film’s hard-nosed killer(s) is / are actually doing.

It would be perverse to argue that eroticism plays no part in these films and their popular appeal. Certainly during those bonkbusting Carroll Baker vehicles churned out in Bava’s wake by producer Luciano Martino, e.g. Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah (1968) and Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse from the following year, the jaded jet-setting characters, when they aren’t swindling each other out of large sums of money, are clearly having more and better sex than you ever have… probably took some time out to embezzle money from your company’s pension fund too, the bastards!

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Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, which changed the whole giallo ball-game when it crossed over from domestic to international success in 1970, was the first Italian thriller to prioritise (if not the first to feature) the exploits of a sexually sadistic killer. Even then, Argento’s focussed as much (if not more) on the trauma that had warped this character’s psyche out of shape rather than the lip-smacking relish with which they went about their stabby antics. Consider, furthermore, the motivations of the murderers in Argento’s subsequent films. You might well be surprised at how very few of them are actually out-and-out “sex killers”. But I’m getting ahead of myself… this argument will be developed in a future posting about The Stendhal Syndrome (if I ever get round to writing it!)

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Where were we? Ah yes… early 1970 saw Luciano Martino planning The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh as another steamy chamber giallo vehicle for Carroll Baker, but entertaining doubts about the cost of rehiring the star and another director. He didn’t have to look far for a solution… kid brother Sergio was chomping at the bit to direct his sophomore feature and had established his qualifications with the likes of spagwest Arizona Colt Returns (1970), various mondo documentaries and by shooting additional material to bump up the running time on such films as Hans Schott-Schöbinger’s 1969 adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

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It was on the latter that Sergio discovered a breath-taking young starlet named Edwige Fenech, who promptly became a fixture in Luciano’s pictures, not to mention (jammy sod!) his bed. Add indefatigable screen writer Ernesto Gastaldi and all the ingredients (give or take some hunky love interest / potential killer for Edwige) were in place for a run of classic gialli, kicking off with the revamped, sexed-up Strange Vice, on which Sergio proved beyond dispute that he’d been paying attention during his stint as second unit director on Bava’s 1963 epic of sadomasochism beyond the grave, The Whip and the Body (1963).

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Meanwhile Gastaldi pounced enthusiastically on psychosexual hints made in Argento’s smash but borrowed its fetishistically clad fruit-cake only for that character (newbies beware, things could be about to get a bit spoilerish) to end up playing second banana to an insurance fraud conspiracy (“I told you, the best time to kill anyone is when a homicidal maniac is on the loose!” one conspirator tells another). Audacious stuff…. I mean, is there any cinematic precedent for a serial killer who is simultaneously the film’s principal red herring?

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TSVOMW’s opening intercuts a fatal razor attack on a prostitute with the arrival of the plane that is bringing the Wardhs to Vienna, greeted by a quotation from one of that city’s most famous sons, Sigmund Freud, concerning the potential killer inside all of us. Fenech plays the eponymous Julie Wardh (the “h” at end of her surname allegedly intended to forestall any libel proceedings from aggrieved real life Mrs Wards!), the neglected, bored wife of a workaholic diplomat (Alberto De Mendoza). She is simultaneously stimulated and troubled by salacious memories of her full-on sado-masochistic entanglement with brooding Jean (old Tartar cheek-bones himself, Ivan Rassimov). Their idea of fun, as revealed in sensuous slow motion flashbacks to the accompaniment of a Nora Orlandi theme that can only be described as sacramental, included him beating her in a muddy field (shades of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour, 1967) and – don’t try this at home, kiddies! – bonking her on a bed of broken glass. No wonder Julie is troubled by her cab driver’s stated desire for “perverts” to “get what they deserve”.

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Nor does the life of a neglected ambassador’s wife seem anything like as dull as we are expected to believe, including as it does wild embassy parties where drunken floozies rip each other’s dresses off, prior to one of them being bloodily dispatched in a Hitchcockian shower sequence (“Another girl slashed to death?” remarks Julie’s cynical friend Carol: “We should be grateful that he’s eliminating all the competition!”) Julie is horrified to discover Jean popping up among the ferrero rocher at one such bash but not sufficiently horrified to resist a) succumbing to his erotic menace and b) striking up yet another affair, with smoothie antipodean inheritance chaser George (George Hilton). When somebody starts blackmailing Mrs W about her various extra-marital liaisons, the worldly Carol (Cristina Airoldi) becomes convinced that Jean is playing his old head games with her, and agrees to meet him in a park on Fenech’s behalf… only to get sliced up a treat (I wonder how grateful she was for that!) La Dolce Vita has definitely soured and in mortal fear that Jean has lost it completely, Julie abandons her hubby and absconds to Spain with George. No prizes for guessing that there are several more twists to come…

Aside from her obvious facility for nude scenes (no shit, Sherlock!), Fenech deserves credit for a performance that gets us on the side of a protagonist who is, when you get right down to it, pretty selfish, shallow and unlikable… in many ways a 20th Century rendering of the Balzac character she played for Schott-Schöbinger.

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Martino confesses readily to the influence that Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955, above) exerted over TSVOMW (and what about Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, 1951?) but has waxed ambivalent about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, to the extent of half-heartedly claiming, when he and fellow ‘B’ movie directors were being feted (at the behest of Quentin Tarantino) during the Venice Film Festival ten years ago, that his picture actually preceded the Argento biggie. In sharp contrast to Argento’s signature use of steadicam, his characteristic deployment of hand-held camera does convey a sense of urgency, plunging the viewer into the thick of the carnage and his restrained use of zoom underscores dramatic moments without descending into Franco-esque overuse. But there’s no doubt where those “through the keyhole” POV shots, which Martino would repeat through just about all of his subsequent gialli, came from. To be fair, Argento himself seems to have been influenced by the scene of Airoldi’s death in the park, restaging it pretty faithfully for Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971.) Martino’s diplomatic comment on this is that both scenes owe a lot to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966.)

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Argento inarguably pinched one of TSVOMW’s central plot devices, by which calculating, opportunistic killers take advantage of a genuinely deranged individual’s murder rampage to deflect suspicion from themselves for Tenebrae (1982) though if anything, Argento tones it down because at any one time in Martino’s flick, there are no less than four killers operating with dovetailing motivations, no less than three of whom are out to get Fenech! Looks like Freud wasn’t just blowing cigar smoke up our asses with that opening quote…

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Shameless continue their drive to upgrade notable titles on their slate to Blu-ray. Having started a bit late in the game, they’ve avoided some of the pitfalls that bedevilled various early-adopting competitors, some of whose remasterings were looking distinctly variable in quality for a while there. It could be argued that Shameless have had less opportunity to cock one of these up because they’ve so far only done so few, but now that this aspect of their operation is picking up it looks like they’ve learned well from the mis-steps of others. Those having been made, DNR is currently considered less desirable than an “authentic” level of upfront graininess and if you can live with that, opportunities are now opening up to grasp hitherto unguessed-at cinematographic subtleties in some of your favourite films. Arrow’s recent(ish) Deep Red was a particular delight in this regard and the efforts of Emilio Foriscot and Florian Trenker are done similar justice here. No sound problems for audiophiles to have hissy fits over, either.

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Bonus materials comprise the Martino interview and Fenech profile from the previous Shameless release, plus a mini-doc in which most of the significant participants in TSVOMW have their say, the latter lifted from Italian label No Shame’s early DVD edition. Justin Harries’ “fact track” also reappears from that original Shameless release and alternates entry-level giallo observations with some interesting speculation about how the various men in Mrs Wardh’s tangled love life correspond to Freud’s tripartite model of the human mind. I used to get a lot of flack for bringing this kind of thing into the discussion of exploitation movies but in case that’s too high-brow for you, Harries also describes Martino’s film as Sex In The City with added murder.

Another home run from Shameless!

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ALL THE COLOURS Of Blu… Sergio Martino’s Classic Occult Giallo On Shameless BD

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

When Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage parlayed Mario Bava’s giallo formula into the stuff of international crossover hits in 1970, every spaghetti exploitation director worth their salt (and several who weren’t) scrambled to get a piece of the slasher action by setting killers in broad-brimmed hats and dark macs onto scantily clad ingenues. Sergio Martino surfed this filone particularly adeptly, aided and abetted by the most scantily clad and beautiful ingenue of them all, his producer brother Luciano’s room mate Edwige Fenech. The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh aka Blade Of The Ripper / The Next Victim / Next! (1971) pounces enthusiastically on psychosexual hints made in Argento’s box-office smash and established a template in which Fenech’s neurotic character would jet set around the world in her attempts to live down the sexy skeletons in her closet and escape the homicidal nut job on her tail, only to discover that just because she’s paranoid, it doesn’t mean that several of the men in her busy love life aren’t conspiring in various permutations and with miscellaneous motivations to do her in. Fenech wasn’t available (probably knocking out a few period sex farces) for Martino’s second giallo of 1971, The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail, which ran along disappointingly formulaic lines and proved conclusively that Anita Strindberg and Evelyn Stewart together couldn’t make up for the absence of one Edwige Fenech.

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Thankfully she was back for the following year’s All The Colours Of The Dark aka Day Of The Maniac / They’re Coming To Get You / Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh Part 2, et al, in which Martino would extend the giallo’s frontiers exponentially. Fenech’s Jayne Harrison in this one is even more screwed up than the spoiled Mrs Wardh and with considerably more justification. Cooped up in Kenilworth Court, Putney, she’s suffering post traumatic stress disorder following the car crash in which she lost her baby (and it’s only later that we learn that she witnessed the fatal stabbing of her mother when she was seven) but gets precious little emotional support from her cold fish, workaholic pharmaceutical salesman boyfriend Richard (George Hilton). He obstructs her sister Barbara (“Susan Scott” / Nieves Navarro)’s efforts to set Jayne up with a psychoanalyst, insisting that she just pull herself together and keep taking the tablets (… but are they, as claimed, just vitamins?) Jayne is plagued by nightmares in which her various traumas are juxtaposed with all manner of Satanic psychedelia (good news for us because she tends to get over them by taking a shower in her nightshift… woah, baby!) and things go from bad to worse when a guy who resembles the assassin from her dreams (Ivan Rassimov, looking even more striking than usual in a pair of shocking blue contact lenses) starts stalking her. Her chic new neighbour, Mary (Marina Malfatti), waxes blasé about this (“Strange men have been following women since the stone age, Jayne!”) but does propose a novel solution to our heroine’s malaise, i.e. that she attend a black mass (?!?) Although much has made up to this point of Jayne’s indecisive character, by a flick of scripter Ernesto Gastaldi’s pen she decides there and then that she wants to participate in precisely such a shindig RIGHT NOW!

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“Chill-O-Rama”, huh?

In a gothic folly that will be only too familiar to fans of Toyah Wilcox’s The Blue Meaning album, Jayne gets down with the Satan worshipping junky set (I think this is what we’re supposed to infer from the calamine lotion daubed liberally over their faces) and during a Rosemary’s Baby-inspired scene, is taken (to the accompaniment of Bruno Nicolai’s ravished acid rock theme) by cult honcho J.P. McBrian (Julian Ugarte from Paul Naschy’s breakthrough picture Mark Of The Wolfman, 1968). Now “J.P McBrian” might strike you as a disappointingly pedestrian moniker for a Satanic cult leader, but he’s knobbing Edwige Fenech so the dude’s doing alright for himself, OK?

Far from her being mitigated by these occult dabblings, Jayne’s problems are exacerbated when, at a subsequent ritual orgy, she is implicated in the killing of Mary, who had apparently grown terminally jaded about life and delivered Jayne to the sect as her replacement. I love the way the Satanic acolytes shuffle round each other in a little dance routine while all this is going on. Now Jayne’s stalker (Rassimov) reveals himself as “Mark Cogan”, the murderer and former lover of her mother, who had been an enthusiastic participant in all these occult shenanigans (foreshadowing a plot point in Argento’s Opera)… “Now you’re one of us, Jayne…” he glowers: “It’s impossible to renounce us!”

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The plot descends into pure paranoia at this point, with the news that McBrain is a Big Cheese at Scotland Yard, though this is immediately revealed as a figment of Jayne’s increasingly traumatised, drug-addled and brain-washed imagination (check out the totally surreal “breakfast with dead people” vignette… did it really happen?) Turns out that significant characters have been motivated by all-too materialistic considerations (i.e. an inheritance) but, at the very death, Martino can’t bring himself to impose a purely logical wrap-up on the narrative. Once the mandatory shop window mannequin has been chucked off a roof, Fenech’s final (and almost certainly post-synched) lines, delivered with her face turned away from the camera, indicate that genuine psychic forces are awakening within her, an awakening which is going to either empower or destroy her… or is this is just one more level of delusion? ATCOTD’s ambiguous and haunting conclusion ensures that the viewer will keep turning the film over in his / her own mind after watching it, like a nightmare from which (s)he is struggling to wake. An inveterate mix’n’matcher of genres, Martino set the ball rolling here for a synthesis of straight giallo and the supernatural that would be handled to more influential effect by Dario Argento just a few years later…

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If you think you’ve read something very like the above review on this site before, congratulations on a) your excellent taste in blogs and b) being such an attentive, retentive reader. The first time we ran Sergio Martino’s occult giallo past the viewing panel here at HOF it was on the German Marketing-Film DVD, which occasioned a certain amount of moaning about its not-exactly anamorphic presentation and the fact that its 5.1 option was only available on the German language sound track… foreskin durch technik, indeed. The Shameless BD fits our TV screen much more agreeably, albeit with no Surround option whatsoever (though Nicolai’s black music theme still lit up our left and right frontal speakers, not to mention our Woofer, to diverting effect.) The digital upscale significantly enhances the beauty and subtlety of Giancarlo Ferrando’s cinematography, while noticeably boosting the graininess of certain passages… ah well, to quote an irate French chef from a P.G Wodehouse story, I can take a few roughs with a smooth and if you’ve had the Marketing-Film edition on your shelf for a few years now, you’ll certainly be wanting to upgrade to this.

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Extras include a bunch of trailers for Fenech / Martino oriented Shameless releases and Doors, a spooky (and apparently prize-winning) short by Michele De Angelis. Hi, Michele! There’s a new interview with the ever-affable Martino, in which he sings the praises of his regular repertory players (“If you’ve got a winning team, why change it?”) and recalls the memorable occasion of his first meeting with Edwige Fenech, apparently resplendent in leather trousers (and looking far more fetching in those, one imagines, than Theresa “Mock Turtle” May ever managed to.) Once again, Sergio assures us that he felt no disappointment when the divine Fenech took up with his brother Luciano (yeah, whatever) and acknowledges the passionate devotion of giallo fans. He describes how the process ATCOTD was shot in led to framing problems and recalls that ten minutes were cut out of the film’s tricky climax when it played in Roman cinemas. Most amusingly, he opines that when snooty critics condescendingly refer to him as a craftsman, it makes him “feel like a carpenter.” Undeniably though, such moments in ATCOTD as the Lewtonesque “bus shot” (actually a “black cab shot”) are, er, very well crafted…

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It’s always a pleasure to hear the thoughts of Diabolique magazine mainstays Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, who contribute a characteristically enthusiastic and knowledgable commentary track here. Their excitement about contributing to a Blu-ray edition of what is clearly one of their favourite films (and why wouldn’t it be?) registers almost palpably. While ATCOTD, for all its manifest merits, is thematically skinnier than e.g. Borowczyk’s The Story Of Sin (for which the Diaboliquel duo contributed an exemplary voice over to Arrow’s release), this disc is all the better for their efforts and yes, Kat does get to vent her ongoing obsession with Mathew Lewis’s The Monk. Hey, why not pick up a copy of that Gothic classic, stick some Bruno Nicolai on your stereo as you leaf through it and knock back a glass or two of absinthe while you’re doing so? Go on, you’ve earned it!

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Say what the fuck?!?

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No Orchids For Marilù… the Shameless Blu-Ray of Umberto Lenzi’s ALMOST HUMAN Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

As well as fascists, ultra-leftists, fascists posing as ultra-leftists and ultra-leftists posing as fascists, Italy’s “years of lead” (the violent ’70s, give-or-take) were stoked by disgruntled southern peasants who’s been drawn to the northern cities by the promise of the Italian “economic miracle”, only to turn to crime after finding the streets paved with shit rather than gold. In one of this disc’s bonus interviews, Milano Odia: La Polizia Non Puo’ Sparare (original Italian title) director Umberto Lenzi posits another explanation for this chaotic decade, namely that it was French criminals who brought kidnapping, drug dealing, bank robbing, et al, to Italy… an improbable claim but one that also surfaces in Enzo Castellari’s seminal Poliziotteschi effort High Crime aka The Marseilles Connection (1973) and Contraband, Luci Fulci’s late (1980) entry in the cycle, the latter of which panders to a romantic conception of the mafia’s origins as a patriotic opposition to the Napoleonic occupation of Italy. Almost Human (1974) is not a mafia movie (though Lenzi made plenty of those) and its protagonist is not mobbed up, nor is he any kind of a heroic patriot… Giulio Sacchi (Tomas Milian in top, scenery-chewing form) is part of the aforementioned economic flotsam and jetsam… he’s a snivelling psychopath with a chip on each soldier and a burning desire to strike back at everybody who’s responsible for his personal and social inadequacy, i.e. everybody but himself!

The action starts with Giulio fouling up a bank heist by shooting a cop who merely wanted to write him a parking ticket (his trigger-happiness will be a recurring motif throughout this film.) Beaten up and called “a shit head” by local Mister Big Ugo Majone (Luciano Catenacci) and his boys, Giulio resolves to prove them wrong and join the criminal super league. As explained to impressionable stooges Vittorio (Gino Santercole) and Carmine (a nicely nuanced Ray Lovelock), his master plan includes the kidnapping of Marilù (Laura Belli), the daughter of rich industrialist Porrini (Guido Alberti.) After they’ve pocketed the ransom they’ll kill her anyway to cover their tracks. “Listen, there’s only one thing that matters…”, Giulio insists: “… either you’ve got a load of money and you’re somebody cool, or you haven’t got a place to pee!”

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The kidnap is eventually effected with the connivance of Giulio’s long-suffering girlfriend Iona (Anita Strindberg)… boy is he punching above his weight here, but Iona’s hung up on this bit of rough and that’s all there is to it. After her boyfriend has been gunned down, Marilù tries to seek refuge in the home of a bourgeois family who are sexually assaulted, strung from the light fittings and machine-gunned for their trouble. Carmine, who had initially experienced cold feet, participates enthusiastically in all this carnage after Giulo has plied him with pills.

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Giulio ties up an irksome loose end by sending Iona’s car to the bottom of Lake Cuomo, with her in it. investigating this rum series of events, Commissario Walter Grandi (Henry Silva) notices that one guy keeps cropping up again and again and finally it clicks that Giulio was the guy taunting him at the scene of a cop stabbing. “I’m interested in this man..” he tells his superior, in a telling turn of phrase that suggests Grandi’s personal affinities with his quarry: “… he’s a psychopath!” Takes one to know one, I guess, but the law requires something more solid than the strong circumstantial case he is building. In the words of the title… “Milan Hates: The Police Aren’t Allowed To Shoot” But we are talking about Henry Silva here…

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Grandi is literally hobbled as the climax to the kidnapping drama plays out. Having shot the ill-fated Marilù and both of his accomplices, Giulio unloads a clip into the Commissario’s leg before disappearing with the ransom money. Later he’s sitting at a sidewalk café in his expensive new threads, sipping “French champagne” and trying to recruit a new crew of dead beats when Grandi, walking with the aid of a stick, turns up and shoots his way through the legalistic Gordian knot. “Call the chief and tell him that ex-detective Grandi just killed a murderer”, Dirty Henry tells a gob smacked copper. Giulio expires, appropriately enough, atop a pile of garbage.

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Producer Luciano Martino’s in-house writer Ernesto Gastaldi (better known as a giallo specialist) penned this hard-hearted effort in accordance with Lenzi’s obvious love for the likes of Mervyn Leroy’s Little Caesar, William Wellman’s Public Enemy (both 1931) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932.) Its story owes another obvious debt to No Orchids For Miss Blandish, the 1939 James Hadley Chase novel  filmed under that title by St. John L. Clowes in 1948 and as The Grissom Gang by Robert Aldrich, just three years before Lenzi lensed Milano Odia: La Polizia Non Puo’ Sparare… he lensed most of it, anyway. The edge-of-your-seat car chases sequence, orchestrated by the legendary Rémy Julienne, has been cut in by the cost conscious Martino from the previous year’s The Violent Proefessionals, directed by his kid brother Sergio. This would be the first of many times that Julienne’s footage got recycled in various crime slime epics… hope he was remunerated every time rather than accepting a flat payment (though I rather doubt it!) All of this kick-ass action is nicely complimented by a downbeat Morricone score with a memorably staccato main theme.

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Of the significant bonus material on this disc, the featurettes Like A Beast… Almost (interviews with Lenzi, Lovelock, Gastaldi and Santercole) and Milian Unleashed (an audience with the film’s charismatic star) will be familiar to anyone who invested in the No Shame DVD release back in the noughties and the latter has already appeared on Shameless’s own DVD release of Almost Human. Pride of place goes to a new Umberto Lenzi interview, in which the grumpy old man of Italian genre cinema is on vintage form. He talks animatedly about how that cinema drew its inspiration from successful American models and – while remaining infra dig with the intelligentsia –  effectively bank rolled the Arthouse efforts of Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, et al. He moans about Kathryn Bigelow pinching his President-masked bank robbers and Sergio Martino stealing his favourite editor (Eugenio Alabiso.) Amusing (sort of) anecdotes include how film noir icon Richard Conte missed the first day of shooting because he died, obliging Lenzi to recruit Silva at short notice in what turned out (with apologies to Conte’s nearest and dearest) to be a masterpiece of serendipitous casting.

Lenzi ‘fesses up re his reputation of being a hard ass with actors but contends that if you don’t impose your will upon them, the shoot is going to hell in hand cart. His memories of working with Milian (on several pictures… he compares the relationship to that between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski) are particularly compelling. Apparently the actor used to drive him mad by improvising while the camera was rolling, though Lenzi is big enough to admit that these unsolicited contributions were sometimes inspired. More alarmingly,  he reveals that Milian’s method acting approach prompted him to hit the pharmaceuticals pretty hard in his attempts to clinch the character of Giulio’s Little Casar. We at The House Of Freudstein are reminded of Laurence Olivier’s advice to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man (1976)…

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presented in HD, Almost Human looks almost totally marvellous,  though pronounced grain in certain shots (a few obvious second unit cutaways) are the price we have to pay for such technical advances. It’s an imperfect world, made even more so by the recent passing of Tomas Milian. This Shameless release serves as a timely tribute to an enormous talent, showcased in a role that is, even by his less than sedate standards, truly demented.

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Stay tuned to this frequency for further bulletins from our roving Crime Slime reporter…

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Four Flies / Red Eyes… Argento’s FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET Reviewed

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As already mentioned in this month’s Scalarama postings, there was a time in the ’80s when I would think nothing of catching a train from Liverpool to London, doing a spot of shopping in Forbidden Planet, stopping up all night in a shabby Scala seat to catch a 4 am screening of Four Flies On Grey Velvet then returning on the milk train to Lime Street… eloquent testimony to both the lure of The Scala and the 40 year unavailability of Dario Argento’s third giallo (not to mention how much more disposable income and motivation I had in those days!) You kids don’t know you’re bloody born, with your deluxe Blu-ray collectors’ editions! Speaking of which…

 Blu-ray. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

CoOP41YW8AA0YaT.jpg-large.jpgIf The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) was evidence of Argento’s growing self-assurance his follow-up, the same year’s Quattro Mosche Di Velluto Grigio / Four Flies On Grey Velvet testifies eloquently to his emerging genius. Its dazzling title sequence intercuts an overhead view of a drum solo with closeups of a beating heart, a brilliantly chosen image with which to simultaneously express Argento’s central and interconnecting themes – time, love and mortality. Thereafter we are plunged straight into violence: Gleefully confounding our expectations, Argento has the menacing figure based on Cameron Mitchell’s heavy in Blood And Black Lace apparently killed by the character he’s been stalking, rock drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) who tracks him down to a derelict theatre.

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All this is photographed by a mysterious masked figure in the balcony, and the guilt-stricken Tobias, who already has to contend with the breakdown of his relationship with his wife Nina (another touchingly fragile performance from Mimsy Farmer) is now plagued by photographs of the incident turning up at his house – no wonder he suffers from a recurring nightmare of decapitation.

His housekeeper works out what is going on and arranges a meeting with the blackmailer in a local park, only to be stalked through its topiary after closing time and stabbed to death in a maze. At this point Tobias enlists the aid of a gay private eye, a deft comic performance from Jean Pierre Marielle as the ineffective detective who fares no better than the housekeeper… after a chase on the underground he confronts the blackmailer, who promptly beats him over the head and injects curare directly into his heart.

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As his entrapment deepens, Roberto seeks consolation in an affair with his wife’s friend Delia (Francine Racette), who predictably is soon pushed down a flight of stairs and stabbed to death. The police’s forensic division use one of the dead girl’s eyeballs in an experiment, passing a laser beam through it in the hope that the last thing she saw can be reproduced as a photographic image (that old chestnut pseudo forensic chestnut) and provide a clue to the identity of her killer. The resulting image is meaningless, the titular “four flies on grey velvet.” Things are looking bad for Roberto, but out the blue the significance of this image announces itself… then things look even worse as he finds himself at the mercy of his tormentor. He is shot twice but just as the killer is about to deliver the coup-de-grace, one of the drum’s eccentric friends appears and saves the day. The killer jumps into a car and drives away, only to crash into the back of a truck, and Roberto’s ongoing premonitions of decapitation are shockingly fulfilled…

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Argento had recourse to extra high-tech equipment for FFOGV and technological innovation also features as a plot device (noted Italian SF specialist-Luigi directed second unit and also had a hand in writing the film’s story.) Paradoxically, Four Flies is the director’s warmest, most human film – transcending mere gimmickry, Argento uses his technical bag of tricks to cut straight to the heart of the human condition. By a masterful manipulation of screen time he illuminates the plight of those for who present is a constant re-working of past traumas. The titular clue is quintessential Argento, an audacious visual representation of a dead moment from the past, lovingly conserved and cultivated in the mind of a psychopath until it can swing again into violent life. There is no room for any concept of free will in this scheme of things and Argento goes to extraordinary lengths to comment on his fatalism – the classical device “Deus ex machina” is used at the climax of many of his  films but here Tobias is saved by the intercession of a god very much present in the machine, Bud Spencer as “Dio” who is introduced by a burst of The Hallelujah Chorus on the soundtrack, a nod to the Spaghetti Westerns in which Argento got his script-writing break.62-four-flies-on-grey-velvet-1-preview

In another spot of dues-paying the director gives Tobias an address on Fritz Lang Street! Clearly Argento is in a playful mood – he even manages an affectionate sex scene, touchingly played by Brandon and Racette, which brings the emotionally shrivelled life of the killer into sharper relief. Similarly, a jokey visit to an exhibition of funeral accessories where one of the tacky exhibits is a coffin car, serves as a comic pre-echo of the film’s shattering conclusion, where Argento scales the heights of tragedy. Using a camera that shoots (by his reckoning) up to  25,000 frames per second, Argento elongates the final seconds in the present of a character whose life has been lived almost exclusively in the past. His minutely-detailed slow motion dissection of this terrible moment either sadistic, nor voyeuristic, but ultimately compassionate. Enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s most haunting theme (at times the marriage of visuals and music in FFOGV approaches what he achieved in tandem with Sergio Leone) this profoundly moving moment leaves the viewer emotionally drained but wishing that he could sit down and watch the whole thing all over again (though for decades seeing it at all was some feat.) By tugging on the strings of time Argento has wrought a work of staggering complexity and resonance in which each part refers to every other part and to the whole. Nic Roeg’s feted Don’t Look Now, which aspired to something similar (a full two years later), comes across as positively simple-minded in comparison.

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From about 2010 0nwards a succession of official looking releases turned out to be little more than tricked-up bootlegs, finally put by right by Shameless in early 2012. This one is Argento-approved and optically fixes a screen glitch (caused by the film jumping the high speed camera gate) that has detracted from the film’s shattering climax in every previous small and big screen release. Visual and aural elements have been beautifully remastered, four elusive pieces of footage can now be viewed (in standard definition) as either isolated extras or in situ, Luigi Cozzi introduces and talks about the making of the film, you get alternative English titles and credits plus the expected trailers…

… talk about well worth waiting for!

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Van Orton Design

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All Hands On Bawd: TOP SENSATION Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

“The jet-set breaks loose in an orgy of violence and terror.” Don’t they just…

Tony (Ruggero Miti) is a troubled young man. Specifically, he’s a catatonic pyromaniac. Yep, he’s a fire starter… twisted fire starter. His problems began in boyhood apparently, when his Mom Mudy (Maud Belleroche) let him attend one of  her acid parties, where his synapses were duly blown. Mudy’s ideas haven’t got any less radical with the passage of time. Poo-poohing the advice of square psychiatrists, she decides that now her son’s a man, his recovery would be best effected by taking him on a sex cruise around the Greek islands with her decadent pals Aldo (Maurizio Bonuglia) and Paola (Rosalba Neri), plus the conniving Ulla (Edwige Fenech in one of her very earliest film roles), whom they’ve employed for the precise purpose of popping Tony’s catatonic cherry. “This boat is loaded with whores!” observes Mudy, diplomatically. When they’re not shagging anything that moves, her decadent hipsters friends are planning how they can defraud Mudy out of her oil inheritance. Oh, and Paola has a penchant for playing with lighted sticks of dynamite… what could possibly go wrong, huh?

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The boat bound bacchanal is proceeding full steam ahead as we join this sordid saga, with Neri prowling around the deck in her PVC bikini, lobbing live explosives into the sea to the aural accompaniment of Sante Maria Romitelli’s delightfully cheesy sexadelic score. “This is really turning me on!” she enthuses to Aldo and for a second there I was seriously wondering if Austin Powers was going to join the dramatis personae. Instead, buffoonish Greek shepherd Andro (Salvatore Puntillo) and his beautiful bumpkin of a wife, Beba (Ewa Thulin) are piped on board to ensure that the possible permutations of couplings and tripling become even more intricate and potentially explosive… all under the watchful gaze of Mudi who, anticipating Celebrity Big Brother, has thoughtfully installed CCTV in every cabin so that she doesn’t miss a trick or indeed a fuck. Nor indeed will you, dear reader, feel remotely short changed in the smut department as you relish the opportunity to oggle Fenech nekkid and appreciate Thulin’s skin, not to mention Neri’s furry bits.

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When our jaded swingers have exhausted the possibilities of human interaction, Aldo photographs Ulla suckling a goat… I said suckling, OK? (Reminds me of a joke Jim Morrison told in Miami, shortly before he got arrested.) It’s even suggested, albeit very tastefully, that the goat orally pleasures Ulla… hang on, can such shenanigans ever be reconciled with the concept of “tastefulness”? It’s difficult to say… with his, er, singular direction of this astonishing motion picture, Ottavio Alessi has ripped a vortex in the cinematic continuum, taking us to a strange new plateau where moralists, cineastes and cunning linguists fear to tread. Or something. BTW, that little goat grew up to be… Satan!

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After strangling Beba, Tony explicitly acknowledges his incestuous relationship with his mother (I reckon this guy would get on very well with Michael from Nights Of Terror / Burial Ground) before strangling her too. The boat is sailing on regardless as we reach the 90 minutes mark and events are arbitrarily wound up. There’s an alternative ending (included as an extra here) in which we get the benefit of Tony’s bonkers internal ruminations for a minute or so before the boat resumes sailing on regardless. What is Alessi trying to tell us? That free love has a downside? Well, paying for it also has a down side so what, exactly, is his point? Both endings feature a hypocritical quote from The Book Of Ecclesiastes to the effect that your sins will find you out. As if to prove his point, Alessi never directed again after this crackpot concoction of Gilligan’s Isle and Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, his sophomore effort. Shameless have appended their own final caption, reassuring us that “No goats were molested in the making of this film.” Phew, that’s a relief…

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In the main bonus item here, the featurette Of Boats And Goats, Neri remembers that Alessi was so unsure of himself on set, he relied upon her to the extent that she got her first and only credit as assistant director. It’s great to see Neri looking so well and reminiscing so happily about this film and her fellow cast members. Ditto Salvatore Puntillo, who reminds us of his distinguished stage career but leaves us in little doubt that his stint as the meat in a Fenech / Neri sandwich remains a personal and professional highlight.

Just when you thought they’d been a bit quiet recently, Shameless hit the ball out of the park with this extended exercise in nautical naughtiness. Sure it’s panned, scanned and to varying degrees scuzzy-looking (certain restored scenes of exposition and dialogue look a bit crap and Edwige’s goat-lovin’ moments especially so) but you know you’ve gotta have it! And Michele Soavi’s The Church and The Sect are on the way… yeeh and indeed, haw!

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An ultra-rare still from the entirely imaginary sequel Bottom Sensation.

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“Stupid Dolls Of Flesh And Blood”… Sergio Martino’s TORSO Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

Faced with the problem of replacing talismanic female lead Edwige Fenech (who was probably knocking out a sexy comedy or two at the time) for 1973’s I Corpi Presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale (“The Corpses Show Traces Of Carnal Violence”), Martino made a virtue of necessity by casting Derbyshire dolly bird Suzy Kendall, who had become something of a giallo icon herself since starring in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Here Martino and stalwart scripture Ernesto Gastaldi cut back on the frenetic over-plotting and globe-trotting of their previous collaborations to render their most Argentoesque effort yet… stylishly shot yet boiled down to its brutal, basic ingredients, this is something like the quintessential giallo. Distributed, retitled (as “Torso”)  and marginally recut by Joseph Brenner for the American grindhouse circuit, the film’s pared down focus on psychosexual violence twitched the death nerves of American film goers who were about to embrace Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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Much has been made of the connection between gialli and the subsequent American slasher cycle… by reducing things to a simple-minded body count mechanism and concentrating on predominantly attractive, sexually active female victims, Torso probably deserves as much credit (if that’s the appropriate word) for this cultural exchange as Bava’s Bay Of Blood (1971), whose plot is more easily recognisable in the first couple of Friday The 13th movies.

After a kinky photo shoot involving doll mutilation (?) has played out under the titles, we are introduced to Kendall’s character Jane. She’s studying Renaissance Art at Perugia University, whose student body for the Academic Year 1973-4 seems to consist exclusively of refugees from America’s Next Top Model. Before they’ve learned to distinguish their Perugino from their pudenda, however, the girls start getting strangled and carved up by a balaclava clad assassin. Cristina / Conchita Airoldi (as Carol) is offed in even more memorable style than she was in Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971).

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After a pot-fuelled heavy petting session with two hippies turns sour (as is so often the case), she wanders off into the foggy woods (like you invariably do on such occasions) and ends up strangled, stabbed and drowned in a muddy swamp. Sex and drugs, then killed in a forest? You couldn’t have a clearer template for the stalk’n’slash cycles “have sex and die!” rule. Brenner astutely recognised the significance of this death scene, bumping it up in the running order so it plays under the film’s titles, to the accompaniment of a howling fuzz guitar riff (imported from Bruno Nicolai’s score for the Leon Klimovsky flick, Night Of The Walking Dead.)

The only lead the police have is the killer’s preference for red and black scarves as strangulation aids. Martino manages a little in-joke by casting Ernesto Colli (one of the several assassins in Mrs Wardh) as the campus scarf vendor who attempts to blackmail the killer, only to be squashed under the latter’s car (after all, “death is the best keeper of secrets…”) Meanwhile sweet Danni (Tina Aumont), in best Bird With The Crystal Plumage style, is struggling to recall the half-glimpsed clue that’s tormenting her… did she see her obsessive wannabe boyfriend wearing a black on red patterned scarf or a red on black patterned scarf at the time of the first killing? Her uncle Nino is quite sure of one thing… that Danni and her sexy pals should try and take their minds off things by spending a weekend at his remote, cliff-side manner in the country. Uh-oh…

The lecherous villagers are suitably impressed when all this tantalising totty rolls up. Sample comment: ” “Cor… look at all those knockers!” (Yeah Einstein, two per girl… though admittedly that might change when – to paraphrase the marketing for Shameless’s DVD release – “the whores meet the saws!”) Katia (Angela Corvello) and Ursula (Carla Brait from Giulio Carnimeo’s Why These Strange Drops Of Blood On The Body Of Jennifer?, 1972) are having a hot and heavy lesbian fling so it’s no surprise when they go the way of all sinful flesh, where they’re soon joined by Danni.

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Because Jane arrived separately and retired to bed early with a sprained ankle, the maniac is initially oblivious to her as she eaves-drops, horrified, on the sawing up of her pals into handily disposable portions of sexy student. The killer boasts an impressive array of cutting tools, but it’s not clear whether his armoury includes a strange vice (yuk, yuk!) Our anguished heroine impotently watches the townspeople below and tries to alert them to her predicament by reflecting the sun off a mirror, but no dice. All she manages to do is reveal her presence to the killer, after which she spends about half an hour playing hide and seek around the house’s ornate fittings and among the butchered remnants of her pals… a fetishistic expansion of one brief, tense scene in Bird With The Crystal Plumage where the killer lays siege to Kendall’s apartment… yep, she’s in a locked room and only a psychotic maniac has the key! All the windows are (in)conveniently barred against burglars… cue the “through the keyhole” shots that Martino so obviously loved in BWTCP and with which he litters all of his gialli.

But who is the killer? No giallo epic would be complete without the expected massed ranks of suspects. Doctor Roberto (crime-slime mainstay Luc Meranda) spends a lot of time loitering menacingly for no apparent reason… art lecturer Professor Franz (John Richardson, who’s been gracing spaghetti exploitation flicks since Bava’s Black Sunday in 1960) seems unnecessarily obsessed with the correct way to depict the gory martyrdom of Saint Sebastian… brooding student Stefano (Roberto Bisacco) has been stalking Daniela and attempts to throttle a prostitute who laughs when he fails to rise to the occasion…

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… even kindly Uncle Nino (Carlo Alighiero) is an incestuously inclined voyeur… and maybe we should be worrying about the peeping tom milkman (“Ernie”, by any chance?) who seems to have emigrated from the set of one of Martino’s “sexy comedies”. Just about all of these guys seem to sport one of those racy little red / black neckerchiefs, too …

All is finally resolved with the mandatory ludicrous psychosexual revelation… “I killed them because they were dolls… just stupid dolls of flesh and blood!’ howls the culprit (calm down, calm down!), flashing back to the unfortunate (and hilariously rendered) childhood incident in which his kid brother went arse over tit off a cliff after a game of doctor’s and nurses went horribly wrong. Incidentally, the final confrontation between the characters who turn out to be killer and hero respectively is a full-on punch-up that wouldn’t be out of place at kicking-out time in a Glasgow hostelry and very much suggests the influence of the contemporary kung fu craze. When I interviewed Martino he declared his “absolute favourite moment” from all his films to be “the sequence at the end of Torso, in which Suzy Kendall is locked in the room, being stalked by the killer. I think that I was very successful in generating a lot of suspense there”… not half, matey! Edwige Fenech… who needs her?

The Shameless edition of Torso undoes Brenner’s revisions and restores footage that was never dubbed for English language releases. You can stand a few subtitles, can’t you? If not, I’ll be round with me hacksaw…

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Who you calling a stupid doll? You’ve got a fucking sock on your head!

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Heart Of Glass… THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

Un altro giorno, un altro giallo here at The House Of Freudstein…

In 1970 Dario Argento’s directorial debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage emerged as an unexpected international crossover hit, single handedly inspiring nothing short of a renaissance for the giallo genre coined by Mario Bava in 1963 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much / The Evil Eye. Luciano Martino was just one of the many film makers looking to cash in the revitalised killing-by-numbers craze. He had already produced Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah in 1968 and Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet, So Perverse the following year but liked the idea of bringing in similar films on a lower budget, employing home grown talent.

He didn’t have to look too far, finding exactly the kind of ambitious young director he needed in kid brother Sergio; the choice of an alluring leading lady was a similar no-brainer, i.e. his current squeeze, Edwige Fenech, with whom Sergio had already shot additional footage to fill out Hans Schott-Schöbinger’s The Sins Of Madame Bovary (1969); and scripting duties fell to the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, who had previously penned the above-mentioned Carroll Baker vehicles for Luciano among giallo credits including Elio Scardamaglia’s The Murder Clinic (1966) and Luciano Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Gastaldi had also directed one of the early gialli, 1965’s Libido, himself. The feature on which Luciano teamed them – The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh aka Blade Of The Ripper / The Next Victim / Next! (1971) – pounces enthusiastically on psychosexual hints made in Argento’s smash hit and shows that Sergio wasn’t sleepwalking through his stint as second unit director on Bava’s 1963 epic of sadomasochism beyond the grave, The Whip and the Body (1963).

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The film’s opening intercuts a fatal razor attack on a prostitute with the arrival of the plane that is bringing the Wardhs to Vienna, greeted by a quotation from one of that city’s most famous denizens, Sigmund Freud, concerning the potential killer inside all of us. Fenech plays the eponymous Julie Wardh (the “h” at end of her surname allegedly intended to forestall any libel proceedings from aggrieved Mrs Wards!), the neglected, bored wife of a workaholic diplomat (Alberto De Mendoza.) She is simultaneously stimulated and troubled by salacious memories of her full-on sado-masochistic entanglement with brooding Jean (old Tartar cheek-bones himself, Ivan Rassimov.) Their idea of fun, as revealed in sensuous slow motion flashbacks to the accompaniment of a Nora Orlandi theme that can only be described as sacramental, included him beating her in a muddy field (shades of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour, 1967) and – don’t try this at home, kiddies! – bonking her on a bed of broken glass. Eat yer heart out, 50 Shades Of Grey…

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Nor does the life of a neglected ambassador’s wife seem anything like as dull as we are expected to believe, including as it does wild embassy parties where drunken floozies rip each other’s dresses off, prior to one of them being bloodily dispatched in a Hitchcockesque shower sequence (“Another girl slashed to death?” remarks Julie’s cynical friend Carol: “We should be grateful that he’s eliminating all the competiton!”) Julie is horrified to discover Jean popping up among the ferrero rocher at one such bash but not sufficiently horrified to resist a) succumbing to his erotic menace and b) striking up yet another affair, with smoothie antipodean inheritance chaser George (George Hilton.) When somebody starts blackmailing Mrs W about her various extra-marital liaisons, the worldly Carol (Cristina Airoldi) becomes convinced that Jean is playing his old head games with her, and agrees to meet him in a park on Fenech’s behalf… only to get sliced up a treat (I wonder how grateful she was for that!) In mortal fear that Jean has lost it completely, Julie abandons her hubby and absconds to Spain with George (many of Martino’s gialli feature a lot of jet-setting, reflecting their status as international co-productions aspiring to success in as many territories as possible.) No prizes for guessing that there are several more twists to come…

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Martino confesses readily to the influence that Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) exerted over TSVOMW (and what about Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, 1951?) but has been ambivalent about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, even seeming to claim half-heartedly at one time that his picture actually preceded the Argento biggie. His characteristic deployment of hand held camera conveys a sense of urgency, plunging the viewer into the thick of the carnage and his restrained use of zoom underscores dramatic moments without descending into Franco-esque overuse, all of this in sharp contrast to Argento’s signature use of steadicam. But there’s no doubt where those “through the keyhole” POV shots, which Martino would repeat through just about all of his subsequent gialli, came from. To be fair, Argento himself seems to have been influenced by the scene of Airoldi’s death, restaging it pretty faithfully for Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971.) Martino’s diplomatic comment on this is that both scenes owe a lot to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966.) Argento inarguably pinched one of TSVOMW’s central plot devices, by which a calculating, opportunistic killer takes advantage of a genuinely deranged individual’s murder rampage to deflect suspicion from himself (“I told you, the best time to kill anyone is when a homicidal maniac is on the loose!”) for Tenebrae (1982.) In fact if anything he tones it down because in Martino’s flick, at any one time there are no less than four killers operating with dovetailing motivations, no less than three of whom are out to get Fenech. Yep, there are nearly as many killers as red herrings… Looks like Freud wasn’t just blowing cigar smoke up our asses with that opening quote!

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This handsome “Shameless fan edition” is beautiful remastered in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen and comes with an all-new Sergio Martino interview and Introduction plus fact track and visual essay by Justin Harries, Fenech bio and trailers for other Shameless releases.

Fenech has made the mind-boggling observation that she doesn’t remember TSVOMW having any particularly erotic overtones. Strange, indeed… eroticism is undoubtedly, if not in the jap’s eye of the beholder, a subjective business, but the frequent showers that Edwige takes herein, be they in hot water or crystal cascades of broken glass (while mounting a persuasive portrayal of a woman in the throes of sexual ecstasy) certainly registered with this scribe and commenced the honourable tradition of her endless ablutions (by which Fenech became the most fragrant and freshly scrubbed actress in cinema history.) Martino states in the bonus interview that such scenes were easier to get past the Italian censor than love-making ones and that he often shot the latter specifically to provide the censors with their pound of flesh for extraction, leaving intact the scenes which he considered more important. He even declares himself disappointed that Fenech’s bonking scenes have been restored to DVD editions of his films. You won’t be.

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