Posts Tagged With: Spanish Horror

There Goes The Neighbourhood… THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED Reviewed

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The House That Vanished (UK / Spain, 1973) aka Scream… And Die! / Psycho Sex Fiend / Don’t Go Into The Bedroom / Please! Don’t Go Into The Bedroom. Directed by José Ramón Larraz.

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Made just three years after Larraz’s feature debut, the mortifying Whirlpool, THTV shuffles that film’s thematic concerns and its director’s personal obsessions (paranoia, glamour photography, gerontophilia) to ultimately disappointing effect. In contrast to its predecessor, the female lead glamour model character (“Valerie Jennings”) isn’t played by a for-real glamour model, though actual actress Andrea Allan, who inevitably brings more nuance and conviction to her role than Viv Neves could muster in Whirlpool, does remind me of Page 3 girl Gillian Duxbury (funny how I can’t remember what I did yesterday but retain encyclopaedic knowledge of women I fancied when I was a teenager… pathetic really, isn’t it?)

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Andrea Allan displays “nuance” (left) and “conviction”.

To the considerable chagrin of her photographer / sort-of-boyfriend Terry (Alex Leppard), Val won’t agree to do pornier shots. Maybe if he had some of those to sell, feckless Terry wouldn’t have to resort to petty crime. Driving Val back from a shoot, he takes a detour into the foggy countryside to burgle a house. Val’s not best pleased when she twigs what he’s up to, even less when it transpires that he’s forced entry into the wrong house, where he and Val are separated and she witnesses an unidentified nut job stabbing a prostitute to death. After escaping the scene and being stalked through a car breaking lot, Val hitches a lift home but loses any trace of where this traumatic incident took place (the house doesn’t actually disappear… though Terry does). Nor, under the circumstances, is she particularly keen to report what happened to the police.

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It wouldn’t be early ’70s erotica without that bloody wicker chair…

Her unease doesn’t exactly abate when Terry’s car turns up parked outside her flat, containing her photographic portfolio, from which one identifying shot of her has been conspicuously pinched. Things get creepier still when the sinister Mister Hornby (Peter Forbes-Robertson) moves into the basement flat with his collection of birds (you’ve seen Psycho, haven’t you?) There’s the possibility of a redemptive romance with art dealer Paul (Karl Lanchbury), then again he’s having it off with his aunt (you’ve seen Whirlpool, haven’t you?) Although veteran smut scribbler Derek Ford is credited with writing THTV, this Wayne Rooneyeque hangover from Whirlpool would seem to reflect the director’s own personal proclivities (yes, tastes in these matters can get more niche than “Page 3 girls from the ’70s”). Val’s friend Lorna Collins (Hammer and Pete Walker alumnus Judy Matheson, below) pays a visit and is promptly raped and strangled.

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Val decides it might be wise to accept Paul’s invite to spend the weekend at his place in the country and after a surprisingly tender love scene, she starts to get the feeling that (hands up if you didn’t see it coming) she’s been in this house before…

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The House That Vanished delivers enough sex and violence (and then some) to satisfy your average undemanding deviant’s cinematic desires but its plot, considerably more expansive than that of Whirlpool (which was effectively a chamber piece) hangs together significantly less well and the improbably upbeat ending packs correspondingly less of a punch than the bleak denouement to Larraz’s debut. This one fits the Spanish sleaze brief but to seriously diminishing returns. Fret ye not, Larraz still had it in him to tweak his ingredients yet again and come up with…

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… that’s “Vampyres”, in English money.

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Twisted Neves… José Ramon Larraz’s Mean, Mean WHIRLPOOL Reviewed.

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Now that’s what I call an alternative title…

Whirlpool (Denmark / UK, 1970) aka She Died With Her Boots On / Perversion Flash.  Directed by José Ramón Larraz.

I never did get my hands on a review copy of Arrow’s spiffing Blood Hunger – The Films Of José Larraz box set and I certainly can’t afford to buy it (at this point, if you’ve got the required plugin, you’ll be able to hear the smallest violin in the world scratching away) but I did get to access their online Larraz resources while researching an interview with those comely Vampyres Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska, affording me the opportunity to rewatch the director’s debut feature Whirlpool as it was intended to be seen, looking a lot better than the nth generation VHS dub of my previous acquaintance… and wow, it finally hit me what a bleak (and arguably mean-spirited) little film this is. I mean, it isn’t quite Saló but, you know, it’s unlikely to turn up anytime soon on the Talking Pictures channel, nestled in between Genevieve and The Good Companions, sponsored by Dormeo…

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In furtherance of her model girl career, the lovely Tulia (Viv Neves) agrees to accompany intense young photographer Theo (Karl Lanchbury) to his Aunt Sara’s place in the country. Aunt Sara, as played by Pia Andersson, is a libidinous libertine involved in a dodgy sexual relationship with her nephew but also partial to a bit of old-girl-on-glamour-girl action. Plying Tulia with drink and surreptitiously administered Mary Jane (Larraz’s idea of smoking a joint can only be described as quaint), they draw her into a game of strip poker and then their lustful bed. Ooh er indeed, Missus.

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Being the liberated young Missy that she is, Tulia’s quite happy with this arrangement but becomes increasingly troubled by traces of her disappeared predecessor in this menáge à trois, a certain Rhonda (Johana Hegger) who even returns in a dream sequence for a sleazy bit of rumpo-pumpo from beyond the grave.

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While they’re taking a brief break from shagging, Theo takes Tulia to the pub to score some more “special fags” from his mate Tom (Andrew Grant), after which they all go for a drive in the country and Theo takes photos of Tom tearing Tulia’s clothes off and assaulting her. Whatever reservations Tulia might entertain about this treatment are soon apparently overcome and she wastes no time jumping back into bed with Theo and Sara. As difficult to swallow as this turn of events might prove for viewers, it seems for a while that we’re possibly headed for a similar plot twist to that in James Kenelm Clarke’s Exposé (a film which seems to owe much to Whirlpool, which itself owes a certain something to Roy Boulting’s Twisted Nerve, 1968) whereby Neves will be revealed as Rhonda’s investigating / avenging sister or lover or whatever. But no… Tulia unearths a set of dodgy prints in Theo’s forbidden darkroom, depicting more rough sex in the woods and deduces from it (in an inspired / improbable joining of the dots) exactly what happened to Rhonda. Before she can even express her dismay, let alone extract any measure of justice, she is definitively – and quite shockingly – silenced.

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Although her big screen career soon hit the buffers (with only one more appearance, as a sexy nun in Paul Morrissey’s 1978 Pete’n’Dud vehicle The Hound Of The Baskervilles) the undeniably statuesque Ms Neves (she was either Vivian or Vivien… sources vary) was perfectly cast in the role of a sexually adventurous, doomed early-70s “dolly bird”. She was one of the Sun’s first Page 3 girls (making her topless debut in May 1970) and the very first woman to appear naked in a British broadsheet when her Fisons Pharmaceuticals ad graced the pages of The Times on 17/03/71. She quit nude modelling in early 1973, expressing herself embarrassed and disillusioned, though in the mid-’80s she set up a glamour modelling agency and her daughter Kelly followed in her footsteps onto Page 3 during the ’90s. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1979, Neves passed away on 29th December 2002.

In his feature debut, José Ramon Larraz begins to embroider themes that he would continue to embellish through such subsequent offerings as Deviation (1971), The House That Vanished (1973), Symptoms and Vampyres (both 1974, with Lanchbury cropping up again in the latter)… country retreats in the spooky English countryside (as similarly portrayed by fellow Catalan Jorge Grau in Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, 1974), dangerous secrets, a sense that some tragic history is playing itself out again, emergent psychosis in a milieu of uninhibited and ultimately deadly sexual indulgence… Larraz obviously experienced a sense of artistic liberation in swinging England after escaping the repressive atmosphere of Franco era Spain, but if you can take the boy out of Franco era Spain… well, the converse is not necessarily true.

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When Tulia is cut down before she can offer the expected rationale for continuing to participate in orgies with these obvious nut cases, one theoretical explanation… and the one that you might feel Larraz is nudging you towards… is that her character’s just an irredeemable hussy who simply “had it coming”. Despite the mitigating chuckles to be had along the way over some of Whirlpool’s wardrobe excesses and equally florid patches of dialogue, that remains the most troubling aspect of this truly troubling picture.

Alongside that Larraz box set, Arrow are also releasing Stelvio Cipriani’s haunting OST on vinyl, pop-pickers…

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“Cor, that Viv Neves was one fit bird…”

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Ha Ha Ha… Boom Boom! * THE FOX WITH THE VELVET TAIL Reviewed

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* With apologies to those who are too young to remember Basil Brush (you poor bastards…)

(As “In The Eye Of The Hurricane”). BD. Region B. 88 Films. 18.

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Can the Spanish do giallo? Sundry senors have had a go at in on various occasions, with approaches ranging from León Klimovsky’s on-the-nose A Dragonfly For Each Corpse (1975) to Pedro Almodóvar’s postmodern Matador (1986… that’s postmodern as in “featuring a serial killer who masturbates over a quota conscious compilation of gore highlights from Bava’s Blood And Black Lace and Jess Franco’s Bloody Moon”) and of course many films thought of as spaghetti slashers were actually Italo / Spanish co-productions, e.g. Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971), Umberto Lenzi’s Eyeball (1975)… and the title under consideration here.

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Viewers attracted to José Maria Forqué’s The Fox With The Velvet Tail / In The Eye Of The Hurricane by some perceived connection with Dario Argento’s international thriller hit The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) might well have been perplexed by its relative bloodlessness and low body count (one man and his poisoned dog)… but only if the presence of Jean Sorel in its cast had not already alerted them to the fact that Forqué is here following the pre-BWTCP bonkbusting template set down by the likes of Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah (1968) and Umberto Lenzi’s A Quiet Place To Kill (1971) in both of which Sorel had taken the male lead, daring viewers to guess whether his bland, masculine good looks conceal nefarious intentions or whether (as in Lucio Fulci’s Perversion Story, 1969) there’s a double bluff going on and there really is nothing more than an ineffectual numpty lurking beneath that smooth exterior.

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Bland? Numpty? Moi?

Carroll Baker, Sorel’s usual foil from those films is missing here but Argentinian substitute Analía Gadé brings the same qualities that she did… a good looking woman who’s vulnerable and possibly a little past her physical prime, an observation I make not to indulge petty sexist prejudices but to underscore the appropriateness of her casting as Ruth, a woman rebounding from her apparently steady but unsatisfying husband Michel (“Miguel” in some releases… played by Tony “Return Of The Evil Dead” Kendall) into the arms of Sorel’s exciting, edgy Paul, who spirits her away to an exclusive coastal resort for the time of her life (what’s left of it!)

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The subsequent accumulation of luxury detail (pet swans, not to mention swan sculptures stuffed with caviar… exclusive disco dates, et al) is a tale told at a pretty langourous pace. We’re half an hour in before Ruth’s brakes have been tampered with, leading to a white knuckle ride down the side of a mountain road. At this point in a typical Sergio Martino giallo, Edwige Fenech would have taken at least three showers and been menaced by various permutations of several would be assassins, sex cases and people who’ve taken out insurance policies on her. Forqué steps up the pace immediately thereafter, though, with a sequence involving sabotaged scuba diving gear… is somebody trying to kill her? Or to kill Paul?

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Miguel pays them a visit and immediately falls under suspicion, but what about Paul’s mysterious “war buddy” Roland (Maurizio Bonuglia)… and just what exactly is Daniella (Rosanna Yanni), the sunbathing bimbo from next door, up to? Turns out, when Ruth eavesdrops on the rest of the cast (during an unfortunate outbreak of mass indiscretion) that just about all of them are planning to do her in and divide her estate before she can divorce Michel … all of this only about half way through the film’s running time, but rest assured that from here on in things start getting really complicated… and not a little kinky. Needless to say, there are several twists on route to the ambiguous conclusion of this tawdry tail. Special mention for a great performance from Sorel, whose character seems to degenerate before our very eyes as the seamy, steamy plot details unfold.

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Forqué clearly has a painterly eye for compositions and a pleasing facility with lurid colour palettes. The film’s various scrumptious Spainsh and Italian locations are beautifully rendered by co-directors of photography Giovanno Bergamini and Alejandro Ulloa if, indeed, you believe that they both worked on the picture. Was this anything more than quota satisfying fiction? Maybe one of them handled the undersea photography? Whatever, 88 (some of whose transfers have drawn criticism) do a spanky job presenting the main feature here. Piero Piccioni compliments the overwrought visuals with an appropriately lush OST, the high point of which is a (sadly unidentified) pastiche of Woolworth’s Warwick warbling ersatz Bacharach.

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Extras include a trailer, reversible sleeve, alternative titles and credit sequence, plus a silent “clothed” version of one love scene. “No sound, no T&A, no point!” you’re probably thinking (you uncouth bunch!) and while Forquée goes through the glossy gears efficiently enough, TFWTVT – seamy, steamy and swinging as it is – might well leave you hankering for something a little more sleazily transgressive. If so, tune into Parts 2 & 3 of this Spanish-themed Weekender for a double dose of louche Larraz lunacy…

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Hung up down snogging didn’t start in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman. No Siree, Bob..

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What Do You Wanna Make Those Eyes At Me For? Jess Franco’s THE DEVIL HUNTER On 88 BD.

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“They make me glad, they make me sad, they make me wanna lot of things that I never had”

BD. Region Free. 88 Films. 18.

The Devil Hunter (1980… aka The Man Hunter / Mandingo Man Hunter / Sexo-Canibale or, on this print, plain old El Canibal) was originally to have been directed by Amando de Ossorio (he of the atmospheric Blind Dead series) but when he dropped out the property devolved into the careless hands of Franco, here employing his trusty “Clifford Brown” alias. Utilizing the sets, locations, general tone and certain cast members from his 1979 film Cannibals / White Cannibal Queen, Franco mounts an objectionable, albeit entertaining (if you’re in an undemanding mood) racist / sexist fantasy in which starlet Laura Crawford (Ursulla Fellner) is abducted and spirited away to an unspecified Third World locale where the natives live in fear of the eponymous Devil, offering him frenzied tribal dances and chained maidens in supplication.

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The Devil, when he finally turns up, is a major disappointment, being nothing more than a tall black guy with ping pong eyeballs. But boy, can he eat pussy … no, really, he actually eats pussy!! Meanwhile Fellner, in chains (a major Franco preoccupation), is being raped by one of the kidnappers, while gang-leader Gisela Hahn (from Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination) enjoys the spectacle from her hammock.

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Back in civilization, Al Cliver (Pier Luigi Conti), in low-rent Indiana Jones threads, is picking up a hefty fee to liberate this damsel in distress. He’s flown out to that unspecified Third World jungle in a helicopter, then, true to Franco form, spends an eternity wandering around in the undergrowth not actually doing anything much. Eventually he arranges with the ’nappers to swap the girl for a suitcase stuffed with money. They keep the girl and try to shoot Cliver, but anticipating this turn of events, he has stuffed the suitcase with worthless paper (unfilmed Franco scripts, perhaps… if, indeed, such a thing ever existed).

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Now the bad guys start getting picked off by The Devil (Hahn’s head is beaten in with a rock) and the natives prepare Fullner for consumption … none of this being anything like as interesting as it might sound. Cliver scales the cliff on top of which the sacrifice is to take place and incredibly, his cliff-scaling exploits are rendered by that staple expedient of the old Batman TV series, i.e. Franco’s camera is laid on its side and Cliver is filmed crawling across the floor! It’s for the individual viewer to decide whether this is more or less ridiculous than the spectacle of Al with his arm (supposedly amputated by natives) conspicuously tied behind his back in Franco’s Cannibals. Whatever, Cliver makes it to the cliff-top and, after a perfunctory wrestling match, hurls The Devil to his death, saves the gal and pockets the money. The natives are so chagrined at the death of their idol that they trash his totem pole. Thankfully, the world was spared a sequel in which they turned their worshipful attentions to Indiana Al…

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A gag I seem to have used in several reviews recently runs along the lines of the film in question being sufficiently well remastered to look better than it probably has a right to. This is certainly the case here, a good-looking presentation that underlines the slapdash way that many of these titles were originally thrown out there on VHS (only to be confiscated, in the UK), a point made by both academic and veteran anti-censorship campaigner Julian Petley and our old mate John Martin in Calum Waddell’s 47 minute bonus featurette Franco-Philes: Musings On Madrid’s B-Movie Maverick.

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Other worthies having their say on Franco’s wild and wilful career include ertwhile Fango editor Tony Timpone, Hypnotic Crescendos blogger Rachael Nisbet, Starburst Assistant Editor Martin Unsworth, Andy (Necronomicon) Black and Sitges Film Festival Organiser Mike Hostench, plus Franco collaborators Antonio Mayans, Howard Maurer and Dyanne (Wanda The Wicked Warden herself) Thorne. Nobody has a bad word to say for Franco… then again, I imagine none of them ever sat down to watch Devil Hunter all the way through!

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Jess Franco (1930-2013). We will never see his like again…

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Because She Was Worth It… Jorge Grau’s THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE Reviewed

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“Keep young and beautiful, it’s your duty to be beautiful, keep young and beautiful, if you wanna be loved…” Al Dublin / Harry Warren.

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For longer than I can remember, Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (1974) has featured prominently among my very favourite films and since my earliest fanzine scribblings, I’ve had a lot of journalistic mileage out of it. My sadness over the death of its director on Boxing Day last year was compounded by the fact that Senor Grau’s final illness commenced just as I was on the eve of interviewing him in August 2018. Don’t put off till tomorrow, etc…

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In the last interview he did actually give (to Calum Waddell, published in issue 199 of The Dark Side magazine), JG insisted that the repressive climate of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s fascist regime did not cramp his own film making style. It’s notable, however, that the almost Bunuelian portrayal of rural idiocy, religious mania and  authoritarian policing in his most celebrated offering was shot in the UK, that the same year’s gialloesque effort Puena De Muerte (“The Death Penalty”… misleadingly retitled Violent Bloodbath in English-speaking territories), a meditation on the ethics of capital punishment in totalitarian societies, was shot in Spain but set in France…

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… and that the film under consideration here, the previous year’s Ceremonia Sangrienta / “Bloody Ceremony” (in which a self-serving aristocratic ruling class exploit their backwards assed superstitious serfs to the point of killing them for use as beauty aids) was also shot in Spain but relocated to Eastern Europe.

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Most obviously an Iberian response to Hammer’s Countess Dracula (directed by Peter Sasdy in 1971), The Legend Of Blood Castle / The Female Butcher (to give it its Anglo release titles) fits more generally into the long roll call of movies devoted to the bloody true life outrages of Hungarian Countess Erzsebet Bathory de Ecsed (1560-1614). First rearing her scarlet cinematic head in Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), the bloodthirsty shade of Bathory can also be detected in Harry Kumel’s Daughter Of Darkness (1971), Vincente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972), Luigi Batzella and Joe D’Amato’s The Devil’s Wedding NIght (1973), Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1974) and Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part 2 (2007), among countless others. Jess Franco and Jean Rollin tapped into the cinematic potential of the Bathory mythos on numerous occasions and Leon Klimovsky’s La Noche De Walpurgis (1971) is just the first of several run ins between Paul Naschy‘s “tragic wolfman” character Waldemar Daninsky and assorted Bathoryesque villainesses.

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In Grau’s picture Lucia Bose plays an “Erzebeth Bathory” who is descended from the historical anti-heroine and ultimately begins to emulate her misdeeds, though the bloodletting is almost relegated to incidental status relative to the sexually dysfunctional relationship of the principal characters. Grau wastes no subtlety on depicting Erzebeth’s husband, the Marchese Karl (Espartaco Santoni) as a psycho struggling to simultaneously repress his homosexual and homicidal impulses.

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Initially Erzebeth tries to win back his waning affections with the traditional womanly wiles and when she discovers that the blood of a beaten servant girl makes her skin look younger, she needs very little encouragement from her witchy old nanny Nodriza (Ana Farra) to start reviving “the old ways.”  There’s a really sadistic scene in which a little girl is encouraged to play with a doll that has been left lying amid shards of broken glass. But how to entrap and subdue all those stropping young peasant wenches?

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At this point the plot takes a distinct turn into left field, as Karl agrees to drink a preparation that will simulate his own death (the first cinematic mention of the historical Bathory’s alleged penchant for potions). Officially lost to the plague that is haunting the countryside, Karl is now free to kill to his heart’s content, making sure that his victims’ blood drips through a sluice in the floor of his playroom in the attic, below which Erzebeth has positioned her bath tub. Love and sex have been completely subsumed to this odd couple’s true passion…murder, as confirmed when gold-hearted tart Marina (Ewa Aulin), whom we’ve been led to view as the Count’s slim shot at romantic redemption, is done in by him. Finally the pig-ignorant local peasants, who’ve been chalking their ever-dwindling numbers down to vampirism and plague, rumble what’s been happening and storm the castle with the traditional pitchforks, firebrands, et al.

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Nanny has her vicious old tongue cut out (in a scene that will appeal to Mark Of The Devil fans) so she can’t suggest blood sacrifices to anybody else. Like her historical inspiration, this Erzebeth (having stabbed Karl to death – for real, this time, after yet another domestic tiff) is spared execution but bricked up alive, our final sight of her reassuring us that yes, she has degenerated to the point where her looks now reflect the ugliness of her soul.

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It is been suggested that at least some of the releases put out by Mya Communications, whose disc is under review here, were not properly authorised. Whatever, they’ve done a decent job on this one with a print whose not exactly pristine quality somehow adds to the film’s unrelenting atmosphere of oppression and claustrophobia. Sourced as it is from Spanish elements, various peasant strumpet victims remain modestly attired throughout, though out takes from alternative “export” versions of the film, included in the supplementary materials here, significantly boost the tit and bum quotient. You can even, should you choose, watch these alternative takes side-by-side in “comparison mode”. Once you’ve had enough of that, the other extras include Italian and American variations on the title and credit sequences and an international poster gallery.

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My Brain Hurts… Siberian Khatru On Board Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and why wouldn’t you?), Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (Pánico En El Transiberiano, 1972) was – along with the likes of Witchfinder General, Tales From The Crypt, et al – a regular fixture on the Friday late night horror slot with which Granada TV used to enliven my humdrum adolescence. In those days of course (sit up and pay attention, Junior, this is for your own good!) we didn’t yet have the benefit of VCRs and given that the gaps between transmissions of certain films might be as long as two years, it was a catastrophe of global proportions if you succumbed to sleep half way through this or some or other horror gem, usually waking up during the credits with a stiff neck and another significant wait in prospect.

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Flash forward past the VHS era and into incipient middle age, at the dawn of DVD, where Horror Express became one of the most widely released titles on the nascent format, mostly in scuzzy looking and not necessarily authorised editions on fly-by-night labels, apparently because of a misconception that it had entered the public domain. Indeed, if memory serves me well, this is the first title I ever saw on DVD, round at David Flint’s place. Image Entertainment’s managed a decent R1 version that has been deleted for some time now and was followed  by a R2 incarnation from Cinema Club’s Horror Classics imprint, very welcome despite its absence of extras, full screen presentation and rather tired, solarised-looking print, which seemed identical to the one that subsequently got screened by the BBC. In 2011 Severin managed a predictably pristine BD / DVD combo edition chock full of impressive extras that you’re going to get another chance to catch on the new Arrow release under consideration here.

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Born in 1925 and now (if indeed he’s still alive) long retired, Eugenio Martin was an able journeyman director of adventure yarns until the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (shot in Spain) initiated a vogue for Paella Westerns in which he enthusiastically participated with the likes of El Precio De Un Hombre (aka Bounty Killer, 1966) , Requiem Para El Gringo aka Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971 with El Hombre De Rio Malo (“Bad Man’s River” aka Hunt The Man down)

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By this point Martin had already started dabbling in the horror genre, his 1969 offering Una Vela Para El Diablo (“A Candle For The Devil”) showing a preoccupation with hidebound social concealing psychotic deviance that would be amplified in later efforts up to and including the early ’80s brace Sobrenatural and Aquella Casa En Las Afueras (“That House On The Outskirts”). The latter turns on a memorable, Sheila Keith type turn from the venerable Alida Valli and features abortion as a plot point in a way that would have been impossible scant years earlier, under Franco’s regime.

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There’s a similar faith vs secularism motif in the Spanish / British co-production Horror Express (1972), easily the best of Martin’s fear flicks… how could it fail to be, combining as it does a truly stellar cast (including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their strongest non-Hammer outing) with some totally wacked out plotting. Said action commences with Sir Alexander Saxton (your basic Professor Challenger type, as essayed by Lee) unearthing some kind of deep frozen yeti in scenic Szechuan (in fact all the impressive locations in this picture are actually Spanish) at the turn of the Century. Later he runs into old scientific adversary Dr Wells (Cushing) at Shanghai railway station, as both are about to board the Transiberian Express. The prickly professional rivalry between these two leads to Wells bribing a porter to take a peek at the contents of Saxon’s crate. Oh, mister Porter… what he finds is a thawed out troglodyte whose glowing red medusa stare leads to prolific bleeding from the victims’ own eyes (which rapidly cloud over with cataracts), followed in pretty short order by death. Cushing’s autopsy (pretty graphic stuff for its day) reveals that the victim’s brain is smooth as a baby’s bum, every wrinkle (and piece of information that is potentially useful to a space Yeti) sucked right out of it.

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Having bailed out of his crate, Trog now mooches around the train, disturbing the genteel travellers with further eye-bleeding, brain-sucking antics. His victims’ ordeals, effectively conveyed via dissolves and quick cuts, still pack a horrific punch and really shook me up as a kid. I’m convinced that they also made a big impression on Lucio Fulci who, it became apparent to me after meeting and interviewing him, was a bit of a Spanish horror buff. The mistreatment to which various characters’ eyes are subjected in Fulci’s 1980 schlock opera City Of The Living Dead are unmistakably reminiscent of these scenes, ditto the ping-pong eyeballs which pop up at the conclusion of his masterpiece The Beyond (1981).

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Back on that train, as if all of the above weren’t entertaining enough, Martin chucks in Eurobabe Helga Line as the beautiful Polish Countess Natasha and her Rasputin-like personal chaplain Father Pujardov, played by Alberto de Mendoza in a performance possibly patterned on that of Patrick Troughton as Lee’s sidekick Klove in Roy Ward Baker’s Scars Of Dracula (1970). The Argentinean Mendoza was a busy actor (right up  till his death in 2011) whose notable Eurotrash credits include Bitto Albertini’s Nairobi-based giallo oddity L’Uomo Piu Velenoso Del Cobra (“Human Cobras”, 1971), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1970) and Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale (1971) plus the Fulci brace One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story (1969) and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971.)

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His mad monk maintains that the Troglodyte is Satan incarnate (”There’s the stink of Hell on this train… even [Line’s] dog knows it”) and Saxton’s attempts at rational explanations (“Hypnosis! Yoga!”) are somewhat less than compelling. When the train’s resident detective manages to shoot Trog, Mills performs an autopsy that presents some startling results. This missing link’s retina has retained images of dinosaurs and even a view of The Earth seen from Outer Space (Martino taking his cue here from a pinch of the pseudo-science that informed Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, made the previous year). The conclusion is that the evil entity comprises pure energy that must inhabit a host body to make its way around terra firma. The train dick’s hairy hand (hope I got that the right way round) indicates that he is the new host, and a fresh cycle of brain sucking and The Thing-type paranoia kicks in when he sets out to absorb the engineering expertise that will allow the construction of a spaceship with which to check off of planet Earth. Ultimately Pujardov volunteers to host the Elemental and, as if the passengers hadn’t already suffered more than their fair share of commuting misery, he now raises the bodies of all the previous hosts and victims as a horde of marauding zombies!

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By this point the express has been boarded by a macho bunch of cossacks, under the command of Captain Kazan, played by Telly Savalas. Ah yes, Telly Savalas… never the subtlest of actors, the future Kojak star raises the bar here for all subsequent outbreaks of scenery-chewing thespianism… but how else was he going to steal the show from the legendary Lee / Cushing axis? Obviously labouring under the delusion that he’s performing in a Spag Western (an impression enhanced by frequent, tuneless whistling on the soundtrack) Savalas swaggers around gargling with vodka, smashing glasses, ranting xenophobic invective and delivering such impenetrable aphorism as: “A horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms and The Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.” “What’s he raving about?” demands Mills, reasonably enough, only to be punched out by Kazan of this trouble. “Everybody’s under arrest!” howls the Captain before handing out a few lumps to Saxton, a propos of nothing in particular and horse whipping Pujardov into the bargain… Oh, those Russians! Savalas’ overripe performance had such an impact on my impressionable mind that I long misremembered him as dominating the entire picture, and it came as quite a shock on my first adult rewatching of Horror Express to realise that this character doesn’t make his entry until well into the film’s final third.

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Thankfully, Saxton and Mills manage to de-couple the zombie-infested carriages and send them down the line that sends them careering over a cliff. Great miniature work throughout, but which bright engineering spark decided to lay down a line that would send trains careering over a cliff? Even Southern Rail commuters expect better than this… and speaking of stiff upper lips, Cushing gets to utter the best line in the film –  “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”, one that still resonates loudly in the wake of Brexit…

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Bonus materials include an interview with director Martin in which he reveals that the film’s motivating “high concept” was producer Philip Yordan’s desire to get his money’s worth out of the train that he had purchased for Pancho Villa, in which Martin had already directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. In the featurette Notes From The Blacklist producer Bernard Gordon talks about his run-in with everybody’s favourite Commie-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Telly And Me comprises an interview with composer John Cacavas, who acknowledges how his scoring career flourished under the patronage of Savalas. There’s an enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

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All of these were on Severin’s BD, which also included an audio interview with Peter Cushing that you could listen to while watching the film. Arrow replace that with a useful Kim Newman / Stephen Jones commentary track. The main feature here looks marginally grainier but more a tad more nuanced, colour wise, than the now out of print Sev disc, for which this disc constitutes the perfect replacement.

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“Spirits Of The Vilest Roman Emperors”… Jess Franco’s SADIST OF NOTRE DAME and SINFONIA EROTICA On Severin BD.

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Director / star Jess Franco ponders a knotty moral issue in The Sadist Of Notre Dame…

The Sadist Of Notre Dame. BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

Sinfonia Erotica. BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

During the darkest days of “video nasty” witch-hunting, I was often required to debate the subject on TV chat shows (Kilroy… John Stapleton… Right To Reply… I’ve done ’em all) which pitted me, on more than one occasion, against a certain holy-rolling side-kick of the dreaded Mary Whitehouse. During one such exchange I pointed out to her that significantly more serial killers claimed inspiration for their misdeeds from The Bible (it’s usually The Book Of Revelation) than from horror films. “Oh, that old cliché!” she blustered. “That’s a mealy-mouthed way of admitting that it’s a fact!” I shouted at her, as the mic was yanked away from me and pointed at another concerned worthy.

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Jess Franco’s The Sadist Of Notre Dame (1979) follows the murderous career of precisely one such bible-bashing nutcase, in the slabbering shape of… Jess Franco! Yes, this is Franco’s A Cat In The Brain, though actually preceding that notorious cinematic car crash by 11 years. While Lucio Fulci’s flick faces few serious contenders in the “unintentional comedy” stakes, TSOND is undeniably a much better film. Stick a frame around that last sentence because I’m not going to be making a habit of comparing Lucio Fulci unfavourably to Franco. As well as starring their own directors, both titles incorporate large chunks of films each had already made, though Sadist is content to raids Franco’s Exorcism (1974) in contrast with the several films Fulci cannibalised for A Cat In The Brain, some of them not even directed by him in the first place.

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Exorcism stars JF as the disturbed Mathis Vogel, who mistakes the Grand Guignol performance of a Satanic mass for the real thing and is moved to avenge its “victims” by killing the performers. The rise of legal porno cinema rendered this kind of picture pretty much redundant at the time and Exorcism went largely unreleased. Parisian producers Eurocine tried to recoup some of their losses by enlisting Franco to shoot hard-core scenes (in which he enthusiastically participated) to be added to 25 minutes of the original footage and released as Sexorcismes. Franco’s original footage was also reworked, without the benefit of porno material, as Exorcism And Black Masses… none of this to any significant commercial success. Exorcism and Sadist (sometimes “Ripper”) Of Notre Dame have both been released as “Demoniac” (Redemption attempted to release the Sadist variant… I think… under that title on VHS in the UK during the 90’s, kicking off a real shit storm. Black House Films have now released a UK blu-ray of Demoniac, though I haven’t seen it and can’t vouch for its contents). Still with me?

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By 1979 Franco and his new muse Lina Romay had returned to Spain, after years of exile, to take advantage of the rapid liberalisation that followed the death of our hero’s namesake, the Generalissimo. Still trying to retrieve something from the Exorcism debacle, Eurocine (in co-production cahoots with Spanish company Triton) requested another reworking of its footage, which Franco saw as the ideal opportunity to vent his fury at Catholic hypocrisy, now that he was free to express himself freely on this and any other subject that took his fancy.

The Sadist Of Notre Dame begins with new footage in which the Vogel character (still played by Franco but now named Mathis Laforge) is incarcerated among a bunch of winos and deadbeats in a Swiss Sanitorium. Escaping in (appropriately enough) a garbage compactor, he arrives in Paris and naturally enough, for a defrocked cleric, he gravitates towards the eponymous cathedral, stabbing to death the first prostitute who fastens onto him (“The Court of The High Inquisition sentences you to death!”) before extending his range to the killing of women who arouse his libido by indulging in such sinful activities as… (ulp!)… disco dancing!

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Not wishing to hide his light under a bushel, Laforge pens a fictionalised account of his murderous moral crusade (entitled “The Return Of The Grand Inquisitor”) and visits the offices of Venus Editions to see if editor Pierre De Franval (Pierre Taylou) will publish it in his flagship quasi-literary bongo mag The Dagger In The Garter (“We specialise in erotic bondage drama stories…”) Having been fobbed off, Laforge is leaving the office when he overhears De Franval and his secretary Anne (Romay) mocking him… more significantly, he learns that she and her flat mate Maria (Monica Swinn) are organising a sex show and orgy at a deconsecrated church for a couple of kinky aristocrats and their swinging pals, news which stokes Laforge’s self-righteous ire and reconnects us with the original  narrative of Exorcism and its tragic conclusion.

The protagonist’s interrogation of his victims, his tormented self-interrogations and his confessional exchanges with former seminary class-mate Relmo (Antonio De Cabot), now an officiating prelate at the Cathedral, make for a more bleakly compelling experience than Fulci wandering around muttering about Nazism and sadism, although TSOND does have its moments of unintentional comedy, e.g. the aforementioned and seemingly endless disco dancing sequence and the one in which some old Count (Claude Sendron) gets his masochistic rocks off as one of Anne’s pals walks all over him. I’m sure he’s having the time of his life but such pursuits, however ardently enjoyed, invariably come across as ridiculous to non-participating observers and are consequently best kept private, a point underlined by another scene of pale, flabby individuals involved in a half-hearted daisy chain.

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Severin have done the usual stalwart job with this 4k scan of the best available elements, discovered (I always love this bit) “in the crawlspace of a Montparnasse nunnery” and the bonus materials won’t disappoint, either. There’s a short interview with the doyen of French B-movie critics Alain Petit… a mini video essay from Robert Monell, curator of the inimitably named “I’m in a Jess Franco State Of Mind” blog… and who better than Stephen Thrower (author of Murderous Passions and The Flowers Of Perversion) on familiar passionate, informative and insightful form, to talk us through the labyrinth of alternative versions and discuss whether TSOND is a variation on Exorcism or a new film in its own right? Best of all though is the eye-opening, fly-opening featurette The Gory Days Of Le Brady, covering that legendary sleaze cinema (pictured below) and its neighbours in the Parisian equivalent of New York City’s The Deuce. Sample quote: “If you slipped on some sperm and fell over, everybody would just laugh”. A word of advice, dear readers… such floor deposits will probably be frowned upon down at your local multiplex.

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Meanwhile, “transferred in 4k from an uncut 35mm print donated by The Institutuo De La Sexualidad Humana in Madrid” (sure thing, boys), Severin present Franco’s Sinfonia Erotica (1980). If Sadist Of Notre Dame was a somewhat misleading title for a film whose title character agonises over his killings rather than wallowing in them and in which the naming of another character as De Franval is nothing more than a throwaway, Sinfonia Erotica is authentically one of Franco’s many muted adaptations of “the divine Marquis” (Thrower concedes in one of the extras on this disc that any truly faithful adaptation of De Sade’s literary excesses would be unreleasable in any market), specifically an amplification of the De Bressac interlude from Justine Or The Misfortunes Of Virtue.

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Is it just me or does the bottom of that engraving resemble a VHS tape?

Martine De Bressac (Romay, hiding behind her Candice Costa alias) is driven back to her family estate by Doctor Louys (Albino Graziani) after her husband’s libertine antics have driven her to a nervous breakdown. What she discovers on her return is hardly conducive to recuperation. Her husband the Marquis (Armando Borges) is embroiled in a gay affair with a dissolute young nobleman named Flor (Mel Rodrigo). As if this wasn’t sufficient complication, on the very day she returns, the runaway nun Norma (Susan Hemingway) is discovered unconscious on their grounds, apparently having been raped.

Under threat of return to the hated convent, Norma reluctantly agrees to join the Marquis and Flor in their bed, also in a plot to drive Martine completely insane and murder her. Amid the expected soft core bonkathon (including, uniquely in Franco’s filmography, man-on-man action) sub-plots (in every sense of the term) emerge and it becomes a, er, toss-up as to who’ll do away with whom first. Perversely, the more Martine learns of the Marquis’ murderous intentions towards her, the hotter she seems to get for him (spending much of the film frantically masturbating) and when (SPOILER ALERT!) she emerges as the only survivor of the menage a quatre, it  transpires that this is the culmination of a vengeful masterplan by Doctor Louys, rather than the fulfilment of her own desires. Like Norma, she’s escaped from the frying pan only to find herself in the patriarchal fire.

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Franco delivers this perhaps unexpected feminist message with a thoroughly characteristic disregard for the rules of “well made cinema”, to the strains of Franz Liszt, to boot. My recent reviews of the prolific director’s films have increasingly featured a line to the effect that “this is one of his more watchable efforts”… but have I been lucky enough to keep getting progressively “more watchable” Franco flicks? Or is true, as is often asserted (“You can’t say you’ve really watched any Franco film until you’ve watched all of them”, in the formulation of Tim Lucas) that you more you watch, the more you get it?

Again, Severin have effected the best looking version of Sinfonia Erotica that’s currently possible. Special features include another excerpt from the long last interview session that JF ever gave (to Sev’s David Gregory), featuring his reflections on his doomed relationship with first wife Nicole Guettard, plus another audience with Stephen Thrower, who traces the development of Franco’s De Sade obsession through the course of his career. I’ve never made any secret of my long-running Franco-scepticism and he’s never going to supplant Fulci  in my heart, but Thrower’s thoughtful commentaries and a succession of excellent Severin releases are, slowly but surely, converting me to the cause.

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Dreams Of Discontent … THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Blue Underground. Unrated.

Note: The disc under review here was issued as a bonus on Blue Underground’s 2-disc set of Harry Kümel’s Daughter Of Darkness, which has subsequently been upgraded, in its entirety, to Blu-Ray.

Asking a man how down he is with the aims of Feminism is a bit like asking him if he’s stopped beating his wife. Feminism is too broad a movement for that question to be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Do I believe that women should have equal opportunities and receive equal pay for equal work? Yes, it’s a no brainer, though I’m getting fed up with showboating offers from male media personalities to have their pay cut to the same level as female colleagues… let’s level things up, fer Chrissakes! Do I believe that the law should protect women from sexual assault and harassment? Yep. Do I believe that every attempt by a man to chat up a woman constitutes assault or harassment? Nope. Do I buy the argument that more women in the corridors of power will automatically lead to a more caring, sharing, nurturing world? Well, check how the influx of female Labour MPs in 1997 (“Blair’s Babes”) voted re waging war on Iraq. Do I believe that Page 3 girls should be banned? No. Do I believe, like Andrea Dworkin, that sexual intercourse should be abolished? Are you out of your fucking mind?!?

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They sure knew how to put together double bills back in the day…

During the #MeToo moment we’re currently living through, our mass media regales us on a daily basis with the argument that every possessor of a penis spends their every waking hour ruthlessly abusing and exploiting everybody with a vagina. Although the Geneva Conventions and Nuremberg Tribunals disallowed the concept of collective guilt, the fact that Harvey Weinstein allegedly liked masturbating in the company of actresses and female employees has been used to justify constant injunctions to the rest of us to reconsider our behaviour and attitudes towards women. I’ve decided, instead, that now is an appropriate moment to revisit Vicente Aranda’s La Novia Ensangretada (“The Blood Spattered Bride”, 1972), which co-opts Sheridan Le Fanu (previously adapted into Dreyer’s Vampyr, 1931, Vadim’s Et Mourir De Plaisir, 1960 and miscellaneous Hammer “lesbian vampire” efforts) in the service of a feminist parable of Aranda’s country waiting for the death of Franco so that it can take its place in the 20th century and at the heart of Europe. It was precisely such (often female centred) exploitation movies as this that blazed the trail subsequently taken up, to international acclaim, by Arthouse directors like Pedro Almodovar.

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The House That Screamed and Bell From Hell refugee Maribel Martin (as Susan) and Simón Andreu (as her husband, whose name we never learn… in fact none of the male characters seem to have names) are newlyweds, honeymooning in his family’s country seat. Things seem idyllic enough but Susan is rapidly alienated by her beau’s increasingly boorish, macho behaviour, which includes rough lovemaking, brusquely helping himself to al-fresco blow jobs, shooting foxes and even at one point  (that old cave man cliché) literally dragging her around by her hair! During a visit to the family crypt, Susan discovers the ancestors of her in-laws included one Mircalla Karstein, who married into the clan only to butcher her disagreeable spouse…

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As her own husband’s obnoxious behaviour intensifies, Susan becomes increasingly obsessed with the figure of Mircalla, catching glimpses of her (in the comely form of Alexandra Bastedo) around the grounds, dreaming of sexual encounters with her (recalling some of my own adolescent reveries concerning the divine star of The Champions) and also of embarking with her on the gory dispatch of her husband. A trendy shrink (Dean Selmier) spouts supposedly reassuring stuff about “the Judith complex” and hysterical young ladies’ fear of penetration.

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Judith With The Head Of Holofernes by Luis Cranach the Elder, 1530.

Indeed the Andrea Dworkin-type coaching that Susan receives in her dreams from Mircalla (“He has pierced your flesh to humiliate you… he has spat inside your body to enslave you… punish his arrogance, destroy his masculinity!”) seems to bear out his diagnosis… but is Mircalla merely a hallucination? Why does a vicious carving knife keep turning up under Susan’s pillow, despite all attempts to hide it? And will Susan actually enact her murderous dreams? Well, an opening title informed us (and the good doctor reminds us) that, in the words of Plato: “The good ones are those who are content to dream what the wicked actually practice”…

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“Eeh that’s champion, lass!”

One morning, walking on the beach, hubby discovers Susan’s mystery woman completely buried in the sand…. just like that! He brings the amnesiac girl (who can only remember that her name is Carmilla… geddit?) home and blithely waffles on about himself, blissfully oblivious to the growing sexual tension between his bride and the attractive newcomer. They start taking long nocturnal walks together and, after a tip-off from that psychiatrist, hubby eventually discovers them sleeping naked together in a coffin, down in that crypt. It’s too late for Relate to save this one, as the now vampirised Susan and her supernatural sapphic pal, having already killed off the doc and a gamekeeper, turn their murderous attentions on Andreu’s character.

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Love is a battlefield…

He dispatches their schoolgirl victim / accomplice then traps them in their coffin, shoots it full of holes and is about to carve open their breasts when a freeze-frame and the arrival of the newspaper headline shown below definitively concludes matters… or does it? Andreu can be heard at the end insisting that the female vampires will return.

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Such dreams of discontent are the natural product of a pressure cooker society but in an ideal world, nobody’s going to regard their contents as the template for a social program (Andrea Dworkin is no longer with us, I’m told and it’s unlikely that she left any heirs) but like De Sade, Mircalla and Susan must be allowed to dream…. indeed, how can anybody stop them? The fact that their dreams are mediated for our consumption by Sheridan Le Fanu and Vicente Aranda is something to ponder. And while we’re pondering it, here’s a word from our sponsors…

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“Double bill be damned…”

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Dead Ringer… THE BELL FROM HELL, Reviewed

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“La Campana Del Inferno”. DVD. Pathfinder. Region 1. Unrated.

When I asked Paul Naschy about the difficulties of making genre films under the Franco dictatorship, he told me that he had encountered far more problems since the democratisation of Spain. I guess that his simple-minded paeans to the glory days of Universal horror were never going to trouble El Caudillo unduly. Other, more subversive Spanish film makers, had to consider their options. Jesus Franco left his mother country for quite a while and those who remained had to find ways to couch their social protests in somewhat oblique terms…

a-bell-from-hell1.jpgIn Claudio Guerin Hill’s “La Campana Del Infierno” (1973) we are introduced to John / Juan (Reynaud Verley), a virile, brooding youth, who’s just been released from the booby hatch his family have banged him up in after his casual attitude towards sex was taken as conclusive evidence of his “mental instability”. He seeks gainful employment in an abattoir and after a few days of slaughtering animals (cue the expected grisly killing floor footage, recalling Eloy De La Iglesias’ official “video nasty” La Semana Del Asesino (“The Killer’s Week”) aka Cannibal Man (1972), quitting with the ominous words: “I’ve learned enough”. Heading back to his home village, where he is due to appear in court on account of some minor peccadillo, John moves into his dead mother’s house and starts visiting her wheelchair-bound sister Marta (Viveca Lindefors) who is responsible for his incarceration, and her three sexually attractive daughters (Esther, the youngest of them, is played by Maribel Martin, whom Spanish horror buffs will find a familiar, pretty face from the likes of Ibanez Serrador’s La Residencia / The House That Screamed (1969) and Vincente Arranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (La Novia Ensangrentada, 1972).

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From this promising set-up, director Guerin Hill embroiders a growing sense of unease with the slow accumulation of off-kilter detail. John reveals a penchant for inventive and cruel practical jokes, first by pretending to gouge out his own eyes (he’s something of a budding Savini) then, more subtly,  by convincing leading citizen Don Pedro (Alfredo Mayo), when he visits the Aunt’s house, that her daughters are the ghosts of three drowned girls. Their startling slow-motion, mist-enshrouded return constitutes a cinematic shock worthy of Mario Bava (TBFH writer Santiago Moncada also scripted Bava’s Hatchet For A Honeymoon, 1969). In fact the girls are very much alive and their varying degrees of sexual engagement with John add  further kinky twists to an already unhealthy situation.

One night John is riding around on his motorbike in the woods (as you do) when he happens upon Don Pedro and other purported community pillars, who’ve taken time out from their hunting trip to hassle the local hermit’s mute daughter. He arrives just in time to break up what’s threatening to become an I Spit On Your Grave type situation. From here on, anxious about John blowing the whistle on their nocturnal activities, these guys start pussy footing around him. True to form, he takes this as his opportunity to play a particularly elaborate and humiliating practical joke on Pedro. Watching John’s macabre antics, the viewer grows increasingly anxious about just how far he is prepared to go.

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Things take a turn for the decidedly nasty when he sprays bee-stimulating chemicals all over his Aunt, while she snoozes in the garden, then releases the contents of an agitated apiary in her direction. For his next trick he contrives, with varying degrees of flirtation and physical force, to tie up his comely cousins. The girls are then suspended from a mechanical rail in the home abattoir he has constructed in his mother’s basement (every home should have one!, washed down and consigned to a dissection bench. Intending to bury their remains on the cliff from which his socially ostracised mother fell to her death, John  delivers a beautiful but spooky soliloquy about their flesh becoming grass (well, sap actually) but ultimately he is unable to go through with exacting his intended vengeance via vivisection.

The girls escape and John is overpowered by outraged locals, who subject him to another perverse variation on crucifixion. A noose round his neck, John is bricked up alive in the walls of the local cathedral. He’s to be used as a counterweight for the new bell, which we saw arriving in town on the same day as him, symbolising the traditional, hypocritical  values that have dogged him, and to which he will ultimately be sacrificed. “Was I really insane?” he muses, as he waits to be tolled off… well yeah, but society’s vengeance is scarcely more balanced.

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John‘s no ding-a-ling though, having ensured that he’ll get the last laugh from beyond the grave. In a tour de force, phantasmagorical finale, Don Pedro goes over to John’s family home after seeing lights being turned on and off. He is first alarmed by the life-size mannequin of John that we saw being made in the film’s surreal opening shots, then drowned in a fish tank… at John’s ghostly hands?  The final laugh is really on the viewer…

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The joke turns very black indeed when you learn that Guerin Hill (a sort of Iberian Michael Reeves figure, who only completed one other feature, La Casa de Las Palomas / The House of the Doves in 1972), plunged to his death from the cathedral’s bell tower (above) on the final day of shooting, obliging Juan Antonio Bardem to complete the picture. Like the character of John’s mother in the film, nobody is sure if the director was pushed, fell or jumped. If he was pushed, somebody obviously took particular exception to his scathingly satirical vision of Spanish society. If he jumped, Bell Of Hell begins to look like a bleak cinematic suicide note. If he fell… well, carelessness and bad luck deprived us of a major talent.

Pathfinder have done a good (if not great… some of the darker scenes are distinctly grainy) job of bringing The Bell From Hell to disc, in a nicely framed anamorphic print. This is a particularly welcome release when you consider that TBFH hasn’t been available in the UK since the long-gone Duplivision video release, which I previously believed to be cut but is, one of our reliable sources now tells me, more complete than the disc under consideration here, despite the latter being hyped as the full enchilada.

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Extras include an OK commentary track by critic Chris Desjardins and a trailer gallery for other Pathfinder releases, including their Master Of The Flying Guillotine “ultimate edition”.. Check out the eponymous decapitator in old dude make up… Jimmy Wang Yu as the one-armed boxer… and that fakir guy with the long wobbly arms. Hm, I can feel a review of that demented chop socky masterpiece coming on…

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

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THE DEMONS

THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN

BD. Region B. Nucleus. 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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