Posts Tagged With: Spanish Horror

“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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Simon Slays… Arrow’s Blockbusting 4K BD Edition of PIECES Reviewed

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BD / DVD / CD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

Lucio Fulci always seemed a bit touchy on the question of possible influences on his films and so it proved when I interviewed him in 1994. He adopted a pained expression (like somebody had just stepped on his ski boot) when I invoked the spectre of H.P.Lovecraft and claimed he hadn’t even heard of Ambrose Bierce (let alone read An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge) until after he completed The Doors To Silence (1991.) Unpredictable as ever, Fulci (who, it transpired, was quite the Spanish horror film buff) then amazed me by volunteering the information that he had pinched the idea for The House By The Cemetery (1981) from Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s La Residencia / The House That Screamed (1970.)

Although arguably the ever popular (at least in the venerable Aurum Horror Encyclopedia) “body-in-pieces fantasy” has cinematic antecedents that go at least as far back as James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Serrador’s gothique girls school adventure hit the spot with its daring satire of Spain’s ossified fascist society, in which the sexually repressed son of an authoritarian headmistress finishes off several young ladies at her finishing school so that he can build himself an idealised “pure” woman.

When Generalissimo Francisco Franco died in 1975 and his appointed successor King Juan Carlos opted to become a constitutional monarch in a modern liberal democracy, things thawed pretty rapidly. In “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is!”, one of the many extras on this handsome package, The Pact director and Pieces lover Nicholas McCarthy identifies it as a film coming “at the ass end of the Spanish horror boom” which honours the Iberian tradition with its hommage to La Residencia and via such touches as the casting of tapas terror titan Jack Taylor. Late Phases director Adrian Garcia Bogliano, in the same featurette, notes that things had been buttoned down for so long in Spain that exploitation film makers made up for lost time by packing as much sex, violence and plain craziness into their films as the creaking plots would bear… and no film exemplifies this tendency more brazenly than Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces (1982.)

Somewhere in “Boston, 1942″(or a Madrid facsimile thereof) some four eyed little schmendrick is discovered labouring over a jigsaw of a naked Playboy playmate (which looks like it dates as far back as the early ’70s, tops) by his mom (May Heatherly, who bit that doctor’s tongue out in Cannibal Apocalypse.) Not knowing where all this is going to end (though masturbation would be a reasonable guess) she smashes a mirror (repeated in slow motion and shattervision, like she was in an Adam And The Ants video or something) before announcing that she’s going to bin said nudie jigsaw. Now The Beastie Boys wrote a rousing rap when their mom threw away their best porno mag, but this guy’s protest is rather more emphatic… he buries an axe in her head and starts sawing her into … Pieces!

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When the cops turn up he insists that “a big man… a big man” performed the murderous deed then scarpered and as forensic science wasn’t so hot in Boston, 1942, he gets away with it…

… “forty years later”…

… loose living, flash dancing bimbos at some Boston college are being carved up with a chainsaw by a black clad assassin. In broad daylight. At the same time, somebody is having another go at that jigsaw. Looks like Junior from the pre-titles sequence is replaying his primal scene… but who did he grow up to be?  Willard the burly gardener (Paul “Bluto” Smith) is strenuously touted for our consideration on account of his familiarity with a chainsaw and appetite for beating up cops trying to investigate the case, but c’mon… are we really expected to buy that the scrawny kid in the Quincy tank top grew up to be this ogre? Indeed, the Paul Smith interview included as another of the extras on this set is pointedly entitled The Reddest Herring.

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Other leading suspects include closet case anatomy professor Arthur Brown (!), played by Jack Taylor and the Dean of Studies (Edmund Purdom.) Curiously, Professor Chow the kung fu instructor (yep, the college has a kung fu instructor) played by Kin Lung Huang (*) is never in the frame, despite his penchant for wandering around the college at night, randomly picking fights with women he encounters (it’s a crazy world on this campus… then again, what do you expect when they employ an anatomy professor named Arthur Brown?)

The Dean is keen on a low-key investigation, which might seem like a tall order (what with these butchered co-eds turning up all over the place) until you consider the resources that Boston’s finest are prepared to commit to the case, i.e. Lt Bracken (Christopher George), his sidekick Sgt Holden (Frank Bana), and ex tennis pro May Riggs (George’s wife, Lynda Day), working undercover (sure thing, I mean who else would you send?) Bracken’s got the measure of the case, though – “We must catch the killer…” he advises Holden: “… that’s what it says in the rule book” (I bet he was the stand out candidate at police academy.) Smoothy student Kendall (Ian Sera) is initially a suspect but, having won the confidence of Lt Bracken (and with precious little alternative manpower available) he is soon seconded to the case. I think he’s supposed to be like Keith Gordon’s character in Dressed To Kill (1980) but in the event he’s way more irritating. Co-scripters Dick Randall and “John Shadow” seem to find him equally obnoxious, judging by the fate they’ve devised for him. First of all, after the killer has finally been unmasked, Kendall has to fight off his knife wielding attentions until Bracken turns up to shoot him in the head. While they’re congratulating themselves on that, the putrefying dream girl that the killer has been stitching together falls out of a cupboard and pins Kendall to the floor. Just as he’s recovering from that shock and joshing with the cops about it, in the mother of all Carrie quotations, the composite corpse reaches up and claws his balls off! I swear to Christ, I’m not making any of this shit up!

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The budget that the Boston PD allocated to the investigation of this case would seem to be significantly less than that afforded the FX crew on Pieces. Kudos to Basilio Cortijo for some of the stunning gore creations on display here (mostly centering, of course, on the after effects of chain saw attacks.) There’s stuff that Giannetto De Rossi wouldn’t turn his nose up at. Among all the silliness and non sequiturs, Simon also manages some suspenseful sequences and set pieces murders that look like they belong in an arty giallo rather than a run-of-the-mill American slasher effort. (**) The scene in which Isabel Luque’s nosey reporter is stabbed to death on a water-bed wouldn’t be out of place, if not quite in an Argento classic, than in a top-of-the-range Fulci effort, though better editing would have obscured the wobbliness of that rubber knife before it entered the girl’s skull and edited via her mouth, a la the pre-titles sequence of Fulci’s aforementioned House By The Cemetery.

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Bad chop suey strikes again…

People get snotty about Pieces in particular and JPS in general, while learned tomes get written about Jesus Franco. Now don’t get me wrong, people have a perfect right to enjoy the films of Jesus Franco and write learned tomes about them… I’ve read one or two of them and it proved a worthwhile investment of (rather a lot of) my time. But compare Pieces to e.g. its closest equivalent in the Franco canon – Bloody Moon (1981) – and really, there’s no contest.

I used to love the long-defunct magazine Continental Film Review (briefly recoined as Continental Film And Video Review before it disappeared forever from our newsagents’ shelves) for the way it would alternate analysis of the new Antonioni or Fellini offering with pages of stills from the likes of Danish Dentist On The Job and similarly, I do appreciate it when a label goes to town on a “mere” exploitation movie.

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Suffice to say, Arrow have done an astonishing job here. The 4K restoration of Pieces from its original negative looks just dandy, but video high fidelity probably isn’t a major reason why anyone would watch a movie like this. It’s the extras assembled here that make this release indispensible. People used to talk about “party tapes” but you could have your mates round for this set all weekend and still be discovering stuff long after all the snacks have been snacked on, drinks quaffed and the party favours have petered out. For starters, this is the ultimate “Musos edition” of Pieces with three (count ’em) score options and that’s before you even get onto the commentary track. I hope the original music by Librado Pastor is your favourite, because you also get that on a bonus CD. It’s not likely to keep Ennio Morricone off my deck for any length of time but I’m glad to have it. Thanks, Arrow.

That commentary track, courtesy of The Hysteria Continues (basically Justin Kerswell and his mates) is a real plus: skilfully moderated (it sounds like a couple of the participants are on some kind of conference call set up or maybe Skype), enthusiastic, entertaining, informative and insightful. I’m particularly grateful to Kerswell and co for clearing up an aspect of the film that has always mystified me, i.e. the bit where a certain “Virginia Palmer” (you’d think her family had suffered enough, considering what happened to Laura and everything) skateboards through a giant sheet of plate-glass in slow motion, apparently a propos of nothing. Turns out it was a propos of reminding jigsaw boy of his mother smashing that mirror, reactivating the killer inside him after years as a useful member of society, plying his trade as a… oops, nearly gave it away there! Sadly no explanation is offered (I’m sure they looked for one) as to why Professor Chow should launch an unprovoked flurry of kung fu kicks at Lynda Day (or why she forgives him so readily), over and above the clearly implausible one suggested in the (frequently piss-taking) English dub, i.e. “bad chop suey!” Just to clarify another bit of trivia they allude to, it’s true that the “John Shadow” who’s “credited” as co-writer of Pieces is NOT (as often rumoured) Joe D’Amato… the guilty party is actually Roberto Loyola, one of the many producers involved in the tangled saga of bringing Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974) to the screen.

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As if the guidance of The Hysteria Continues wasn’t immersive enough for you, you’re also treated to The 5.1 Vine Theater Experience…. a barker lures you (with lines like “Come and see tits getting sawn”… let’s face it, you’re never going to get that at the NFT) into the lobby of the eponymous LA theatre where you’ll have fun spotting trash film luminaries before taking your seat for a screening of Pieces, courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing. During that you’re able to enjoy the surround sound reactions of an up-for-it audience enthusiastically applauding every outbreak of nudity, guffawing at every last gobbet of gore and critiquing salient thespian missteps (Lynda Day’s “bastard… BASTARD… BASTARD!!!” predictably takes the cake!)

Not least among the bonuses offered on this set is the presence of two distinct versions of the feature, the US theatrical cut and Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche (“A Thousand Cries In The Night”), the slightly longer Spanish version. I must have the attention span of a goldfish or something but I never manage to work out what the extra stuff is in the longer cuts of these things. One thing I did learn from watching Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche, though, is the extent to which the American dubbers yocked things up by spicing up dialogue that was already pretty fruity to begin with (i.e. for once something gained a lot … of mainly trash … in translation), the “bad chop suey” crack being the most obvious example. The Spanish original also plays Stars And Stripes Forever over Suzy Billing’s murder but those who put the US release together obviously figured that such iconic American music shouldn’t accompany shots of a girl pissing herself and being dismembered by a chainsaw, so substituted the kind of jolly library music often played over sketches on The Benny Hill Show.

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The late JP Simon gets an hour-long interview / profile devoted to him and in a similarly lengthy interview with art director Gonzalo Gonzalo (so good they named him twice) we hear a lot of amusing stories about how resourceful the director was in stretching out his minimal budgets to maximum effect. A short audio Interview with producer Steve Minasian relates how everybody was shafted for their money by a fly-by-night distributor. Undeterred by this cautionary tale, JPS disciple Sergio Blasco relates on another featurette of his collaboration with the maestro on a sadly unrealised Pieces sequel.

Of course you get a trailer, image galleries and a reversible sleeve (featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.) The collectors’ booklet apparently features new writing on the film by critic Michael Gingold… I’ll have to take Arrow’s word for that as I didn’t receive a copy of it.

Watching this set might not quite be “the most wonderful feeling in the world” (to paraphrase one of the most notorious lines of dialogue in Pieces) but in trash movie terms, it comes pretty close.

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You can always rely on beyondhorrordesign.blogspot.co.uk

(*) Kin Lung Huang  starred (as “Bruce Le”) in the likes of…Bruce’s Deadly Fingers (1976), My Name Called Bruce (1979) The True Game Of Death and Re-Enter The Dragon (both 1979)… and just in case the penny hasn’t dropped yet regarding his USP, The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980.)

(**) The producers of Pieces include Stephen Minasian (who put up money for Friday The 13th) and Dick Randall, who produced Ferdinando Merighi’s 1972 giallo The French Sex Murders… though on reflection, I’d be pushing it (over a fucking cliff!) to describe that one as “arty.”

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Boys & Ghouls Come Out To Play… WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? Reviewed

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DVD. R1.  Dark Sky / MPI. Unrated

Who Could Kill A Child? That’s the provocative question posed in the title of Narcisco Ibanez Serrador’s fabled 1976 Euroshocker… actually, that’s just one of the many  titles which has been attached to Serrador’s picture, and probably the most appropriate given that it’s a straight translation of the original Spanish title ¿Quién Puede Matar a un Niño?… others have included Would You Kill a Child?, Death is Child’s Play, Lucifer’s Curse, The Killer’s Playground, Trapped, Island Of The Damned and that old standby, Island Of Death …a rose by any other name would smell as sweet and Serrador mounts this hybrid of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Wolf Rilla’s Village Of The Damned (1960)  in impressive style, so very impressive that it would come to exert an obvious influence over such subsequent fare as Fritz Kiersch’s Children Of The Corn (1984).

No surprise really, as Serrador sprang from prestigious Spanish horror stock. His polymath father Narciso Ibáñez Menta acted, wrote, produced, directed and performed make up duties (no doubt he also had a hand in the catering) on a host of Spanish cinema and TV efforts, many of them in our favourite genre. Serrador himself served a similar apprenticeship in TV drama from the early ‘60s onwards before making his feature debut with the stunning, claustrophobic La Residencia aka The House That Screamed (1970).

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As if to prove that he wasn’t some kind of one-trick pony, Serrador unfolds the action of Who Could Kill A Child? in bright sunshine on a deserted holiday island… this one is possibly the ultimate in agoraphobic horror! Much of the credit for this must go to DP Jose Luis Arcane, who would later become the favoured cinematographer of Pedro Almodovar and Bigas Luna, and who gets his own bonus interview featurette on this disc. In fact Serrador (who comes across as a very agreeable chap on his own featurette here) derives maximum benefit from all of his collaborators, chiefly his leads Lewis Finder and Prunella Ransome as Tom And Evelyn, a young couple expecting their third child and discovering that their Spanish holiday heaven is rapidly descending into something altogether more hellish.

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Finding the mainland resort of Benavis too over run by tourists for their liking, the protagonists take a boat to the sparsely populated island of Almanzora… sparse indeed, as there seem to be no adults around and the local children respond to Tom and Evelyn’s presence in distinctly surly manner. He speculates that the grown ups have all decampred to some shindig on the other side of the island, but a gradual accumulation of disquieting detail increasingly indicates that there is something very  wrong going on in Almanzora. When Evelyn does finally set eyes on an adult native of the island, it’s an old man who is promptly bludgeoned with his own walking stick by a young girl. Tom, goeing to investigate, witnesses the sequel – a macabre game of human piñata – and the penny drops that maybe he and his wife should have just settled for a weekend in Skegness. Desperately searching through the empty homes and shops for an explanation of what has happened, they uncover a wounded and traumatised guy (Antonio Iranzo) who’s been hiding out from the killer kids and gets Tom and Evelyn up to speed: a couple of nights previously all the island’s children had gone on a spontaneous rampage, gate crashing one house after another and murdering their adult inhabitants, in a spirit of infernal fiesta. His chilling story told, this guy makes the mistake of leaving with his young daughter, who mercilessly leads him into an ambush. This and most of the film’s other killings take place off screen, which only makes the climactic blood bath all the more horrifying when it does play out.

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Hotly pursued, Tom and Evelyn make several escape attempts but can’t shake off those murderous munchkins. This is genuinely involving stuff, as Serrador has taken the time to establish them as characters that we care about, ably assisted by the sympathetic performances of Fiander and Ransome. The director admits in his bonus featurette that he didn’t really get on particularly well with Finder, but the Australian actor is utterly believable as an urban sophisticate with macho pretentious, who flounders when faced with danger before steeling himself to the point where yes, he will indeed kill a child (mowing down dozens with a machine gun as an encore) when survival demands it. Ransome (sadly, no longer with us) is even better, radiating sweetness and vulnerability. Waldo de los Ríos’ OST plays its full part in ratcheting the tension en route to a the deeply downbeat denouement, as the final quarter hour or so  reverts to claustrophobic mode and shock succeeds shock without ever giving way to schlock… as a useful point of comparison and contrast, did you really give a toss about what happened to Tisa Farrow, Serena Grandi, Zora Kerowa and their travelling companions in Joe D’Amato’s similarly set up but woefully directed Anthropophagous Beast (1980)?

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This is crackingly efficient and effective horror movie making… the only points at which WCKAC wobbles slightly are those where it dwells on the nature of the killer kids’ condition and its transmission (some kind of “animal magnetism”, it is limply suggested). It would have been better to leave this to the imagination of the viewer, as Hitchcock had in The Birds. Anyway, the film’s harrowing full title sequence (omitted for years from previous releases, reinstated here in its entirety) supplies all the motivation that the nihilistic ninos of Almanzora could wish for, comprising a collage of news reel material detailing how children have always suffered the most when “mature” adults wage war on each other… the horrors of The Holocaust, Indo-Pakistani wars, Biafra, Korea, familiar images of Vietnamese innocents strafed by napalm… Serrador’s version of children turning on adults is grotesque and ultimately absurd but the message appears to be that the converse state of affairs is even more shocking and ridiculous, yet is repeated throughout history with numbing regularity. Interesting and ironic that this powerful prologue has been for so long prodcribed by political establishments that continue to condone the perpetration of such horrors in real life! It was only in 2011 that Who Can Kill A Child? got an uncut UK release, courtesy of the Eureka label.

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Incidentally, during the long period when this footage went unseen, the rumour mill was working over time with speculation on what it actually comprised. Various critics of a “liberal” persuasion convinced themselves that it contained material “equating” abortion with violence against children and declared this to be some kind of reactionary faux pas on the part of Serrador. Well, for starters it transpires that there is no such material. Now you mention it though, thanks for putting me right about any lingering suspicion I had that abortion was in some way “violent.” Obviously any foetuses concerned are gently coaxed out of their mothers’ wombs and sat down with a nice cup of tea…

Dark Sky present the film in a beautifully vibrant transfer, anamorphically faithful to its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As a bonus you get those interview featurettes with Serrador and DP Alcaine (courtesy of the ubiquitous David Gregory) and a generous gallery of promotional materials.

Serrador, who on the strength of this and La Residencia could so obviously have been a contender, never (officially) directed another theatrical horror feature (nor one in any other genre). The consignment of his promising directorial career to the dusty bin of cinematic history was stipulated as a condition in the contract he signed with a TV company to exploit the lucrative game show concept that he had dreamed up… namely Un, Dos, Tres. And yes, that’s the same show franchised to ITV in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as 3-2-1. Now that’s really horrible…

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Brain Drain On The Train… HORROR EXPRESS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions A/1. Severin. Unrated.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and just try stopping me!), 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 have the benefit of VCRs (never mind digital recording) and, given that the gaps between transmission of individual 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.

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 gaff. 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 (Cinema Club seems to have been acquired at some point as an arm of BBC enterprises.) Trust Severin to do it right, with the best looking release in ages…

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 aks Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971’s 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 mores that conceal psychotic deviance which 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.

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 (actually all the impressive locations in this picture are 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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“Book him, Crocker!”

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 his 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.)

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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This 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 out 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 propose of nothing in particular and horse whippng 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’s quite a shock now to realise that his character doesn’t make his entry until well into its 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…

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 the same year’s Pancho Villa, in which Martin had directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. There’s a wide-ranging 1973 audio interview with Cushing that can be played as an accompaniment to the film. 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 a characteristically enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

Mind the gap!

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“Who loves ya, baby?”

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Re-Booty Call… Victor Matellano’s VAMPYRES Remake Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. Soda Pictures. 18.

Victor Matellano makes no bones about his passion for the Spanish horror film tradition, having previously directed a documentary short about Jesus Franco and a feature length examination (Zarpazos! Un Viaje Por El Spanish Horror, 2013) of the whole Iberian genre shooting match, showcasing the likes of Franco, Jorge Grau, Carlos Aguilar, Eugenio Martin, Jose Larraz and Paul Naschy. He went so far as to incorporate archive recordings of Naschy’s voice into Wax, his 2014 variant on the much reworked Charles Belden chestnut, also finding room in its cast for such tapas terror stalwarts as Jack Taylor, Antonio Mayans and Lone Fleming… Mayans and Fleming return (joining Franco and Naschy alumnus, our very own Caroline Munro… though her role here is little more than a throwaway) for Matellano’s 2015 reboot (i.e. it’s hovering somewhere between remake and sequel) of Larraz’s Vampyres, a project which JL endorsed before passing away, as is clear from some of the supplementary material on this disc.

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In the roles made (in)famous by Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska, Marta Flich and Almudena Leon are the eponymous sapphic sirens, luring unsuspecting dudes into threesomes where they end up donating more bodily fluids than the ones they were hoping to. Christian Stamm is the main victim but it is suggested, as it was in the 1974 original, that this character is some kind of supernaturally enhanced Van Helsing figure, doomed to pursue the toothsome twosome through successive incarnations…

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Poor Rupert…

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Rupert’s fate rebooted in 2015.

… this incarnation sticks pretty to close the original, down to the frequent recitation of its dialogue, verbatim and the recreation of specific scenes and shots (e.g. the ghoul girls running around in the woods, their capes flapping behind them), but starts to falter somewhat when Matelanno seems to lose his nerve about selling reheated early ’70s fare and introduces ill-advised elements of stalk’n’slash (the stalkees are ill-defined creative types camping out, for some reason, in the grounds of the girls’ gothic shag pad) and the dreaded “torture porn”, signalled by an unsubtle pinch from Eli Roth’s Hostel 2.

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The orginal Vampyres was at some level a love story (albeit an extremely kinky one) and a story of addiction (what’s the diff?) in which Larraz skilfully conveyed the compulsive nature of the title characters’ behaviour… though lethal, they remained attractive and ultimately pitiable. The current crop, when inflicting (unconvincing) tortures on their captives, just become petty, spiteful and bathetic.

Matellano has a good eye (by dint of which he generally manages to obscure this film’s budgetary shortcomings and mediocre locations, relative to the original) and his heart is obviously in the right place. His revisitation of Vampyres will do OK on the basis of its Barthorean levels of boobs and blood, but I’d like to see how this director gets on with some original material and a decent screenplay collaborator. His next effort, A Stop Over In Hell has been completed and its cast includes Italian action director in excelsis and occasional thespian, Enzo G. Castellari. Obscure credits buffs excited by that casting coup are exactly the kind of obsessives who’ll spot May Heatherly (from Cannibal Apocalypse and Pieces) in Vampyres 2015. Sad to report that she died shortly after it was made.

Bonus materials here include teasers / trailers, a mini-interview with Caroline Munro and a short “making of” featurette, narrated by Jack Taylor and apparently dating from a time when the film was entitled Universe Of Vampyres.

… and yes, Larraz’s original did play The Scala on more than one occasion so this timely Soda release gels nicely with our current Scalarama theme.

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“Build Me A Woman”… THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED Reviewed

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“Schooldays… the happiest days of your life”?

DVD. Region Free. Shoarma Digital. Unrated.

If Enrique López Eguiluz’ La Marca del Hombre Lobo (the inaugural outing for Paul Naschy’s ongoing “tragic wolfman character, Count Waldemar Daninsky) represents the first significant flowering of an Iberian horror sensibility in 1968, the first truly great Spanish horror opus has to be Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s La Residencia (aka The House That Screamed / House Of Evil / The Finishing School / The Boarding School, 1970.) Whereas Eguiluz (and subsequently Naschy and other directors) gleefully mined the Universal and Hammer Horror cycles, maniacally mix-and-matching their conventions  in an orgy of schlock surrealism, Nacho dips into the Hammer legacy with taste and restraint (an impression ably enhanced by the lush orchestral score of Waldo De Los Rios) to come up with a  well constructed, riveting and suspensful narrative en route to a genuinely surprising twist ending, mounting in the process an allegorical critique (i.e. the only kind he could get away with) of the ossification and morbidity of Spanish society under General Franco.

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The film opens with Theresa (Cristina Galbo from Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue, What Have you Done To Solange, et al) arriving at a fin-de-siecle French finishing school for, er, challenging pupils. Madam Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) runs this Dothegirls Hall along the lines of harsh discipline and stifling routine in an attempt to turn her charges into compliant prospective wives. Ballet lessons are designed to distract them from “morbid” (as in “sexual”) thoughts and Fourneau tries to divert her voyeuristically inclined son Luis (John Moulder Brown) from similarly impure musings by banging on about the unworthiness of her pupils, to wit: “None of these girls are any good… in time you’ll find the right girl… you need a woman like me!” (If you ask me, these Oedipal relationships can get a bit incestuous…)

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Needless to say, it’s not too difficult to detect desire seething away not far beneath this hypocritical veneer of propriety. Helping Madam enforce order are an inner circle of collaborators led by the scary Irene (Mary Maude), who takes all-too-obvious sexual pleasure in dishing out the beatings and humiliation. She even controls the rota for conjugal visits to Henry the randy wood chopper, cue hysterical scenes in sewing class as the girls bite their lips and frantically thread their needles in the most overt display of Freudian symbolism since Tom Jones. “Most of the girls here are on the verge of a nervous breakdown”, Theresa is told and no wonder so many of them are running away… or are they? Serrador skillfully steers our attention away from the real story that’s going on and our sympathies in altogether the wrong direction. Just before (and I’m doing my best here to minimise the “spoiler” effect, here) unexpected early death of a sympathetic character (shades of that ultimate Oedipal horror, Hitchcock’s Psycho) the director abruptly freeze frames the action, giving you an opportunity to shout your objection at the screen, suffer the disappointment of being ignored as the grisly action resumes and register just how far you’ve been drawn into this dark fairy tale.

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Lucio Fulci, who seems to have been a bit of a Spanish Horror buff, was generally very guarded (to the point of testiness) about admitting his influences, but amazed me when I interviewed him by volunteering the information that he had pinched the idea for The House By The Cemetery from La Residencia. Perhaps Argento was similarly influenced by its female environment, oppressive school atmosphere and brutal ballet lessons for Suspiria?

The edition under review here, courtesy of the Australian Shoarma label (which released a bunch of interesting stuff on the early crest of the DVD wave and promptly disappeared), seems to be somewhat expurgated. There are references to surreptitious trysts between Theresa and Luis that we don’t get to see and while it’s possible that such scenes were never included in the film, there’s a blatant jump cut that was obviously made to obfuscate the lesbian  overtones of Fourneau tending to the wounds of a girl she’s just had beaten. There are no extras and the the feautre is presented in a none too sharp, distinctly none-anamorphic  transfer wherein vertical lines visibly warp at either side of the screen, all of which lends credence to rumours that Shoarma’s releases were “grey market” at best… strewth, Bruce!

Stop Press: Scream Factory have just announced an upcoming kosher BD release of this one… something to scream about!

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La Repulsion… SYMPTOMS Reviewed

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Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Region Free. BFI. 15.

Do you remember, dear reader, when ITV (in its various regional incarnations) was actually worth watching? Before it was completely overrun with talent contests, reality programs and shit films, ITV was synonymous  with World In Action, The World At War and… late night screenings of really cool, obscure films. I distinctly remember Lucio Fulci’s “lost” meisterwerk Beatrice Cenci (1969) turning up in the graveyard slot on Granada during the late ’80s, round about the time we were cooking up Samhain… ditto Symptoms (1974) by Jose Ramon Larraz. The latter broadcast became the source of innumerable VHS bootlegs which were the only way to see and appreciate Larraz’s film for about thirty years, as all negatives seemed to have disappeared. Now you can finally chuck your bootlegs away because, after featuring it for some time on their “75 Most Wanted” list, the BFI have finally tracked down the required elements for Symptoms and issued this all-singing and dancing Blu-ray edition, on their more exploitation-oriented “Flipside” imprint… this, mind you, for the film which managed to bump Ken Russell’s Mahler as the UK entrant for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1974.

The first thing to say about Symptoms, the thing you really can’t avoid mentioning, is the obvious debt that it owes to Polanski’s Repulsion, 1965 (though that’s probably too simplistic a statement of the relationship between the two films… no less a pundit than David Pirie has argued that Larraz actually outdoes his avatar here.) In Repulsion Catherine Deneuve’s alienated young manicurist comes unglued amid the isolation of the big city, her repressed sexuality erupting into unconscionable violence before she retreats irrevocably into catatonia.

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Symptoms unfolds as though Larraz and his co-writers (Stanley Miller and Thomas Owen) have been pondering whether she might have achieved a more positive outcome by heading for the sticks and honouring the early ’70s tradition of  (in the vernacular of the time) getting her shit together in the country. The answer they arrive at seems to be… no! The shit hits the proverbial fan when this notional rural idyll turns out to be every bit as oppressively agoraphobic as any urban milieu. Perhaps this jaundiced take on our green and pleasant land is a particularly Spanish phenomenon… in the same year as Symptoms, Jorge Grau turned in his surreal and utterly alarming twist on English gothic, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue.

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Helen (Angela Pleasance) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to her old lake-side house so that the latter can get over the trauma of a romantic bust-up. It will transpire that Helen is getting over an even more drastic sundering, but for the time being it’s as well to note that she’s a bit odd…. intense. Presumably a classic screen beauty like Deneuve would have been beyond Larraz’s budget anyway, but Symptoms benefits immensely from the casting of Pleasance, whose peculiarly puckish presence draws the viewer into an ongoing guessing game regarding just WTF her problem is.

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Whatever it is, it’s got something to do with the disappearance of her “friend” Cora (briefly glimpsed in the shape of Marie-Paule Mailleux during intermittent flash backs)… nor do the vaguely sinister attentions of lurking handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan) in any way alleviate the growing tension, which builds beautifully for about an hour before a final third which maintains the film’s supremely creepy atmosphere while punctuating it with an escalating series of grand guignol eruptions. In Symptoms, Larraz reiterates Polanski’s point about sexual self-loathing and the potential it has warp the self and damage others, a concept whose relevance to real life is all too readily apparent at the time I sit here typing these words….

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I reacquainted myself with Symptoms during a thunderstorm which complimented the on screen events quite beautifully… then again I remember how wonderfully evocative and engaging the film was, viewed late at night in my parents’ lounge, all those years ago. This perfectly orchestrated chamber piece will  probably weave its disturbing magic in whatever circumstances it is seen. Larraz is exceptionally well served here by sympathetic collaborators… his cast, his DP Trevor Wrenn, his art director Ken Bridgeman and composer John Scott… also by his own polymath grounding  in comic book art, fashion photography and art history. There are frames of Pleasence’s face that suggest a Vermeer portrait. Elsewhere, some of the house’s William Morris interiors are echoed in the fronds which embrace the corpse of a woman discovered in the lake, a scene which itself strongly suggests a pre-Raphaelite rendering of Ophelia.

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Symptoms failed to garner anything like a feverish reaction at Cannes Festival or indeed anywhere else, but its editor Brian Smedley-Aston was sufficiently impressed by Larraz to remortgage his house to fund the directors’s Vampyres the same year, an altogether more lurid take on the “rural lesbian violence” schtick that also comes highly recommended. The witty Smedley-Aston is interviewed for this set’s generous compliment of bonus features, as are Pleasence and Heilbron. As well as his work with Larraz, he discusses editing (and being obliged to re-edit) Performance with Donald Cammell and his experiences on the  Jeff Lieberman films Squirm and Blue Sunshine. To her Symptoms reminiscences, Heilbron (now working as a psychotherapist) adds her reflections on Freddie Francis’s The Creeping Flesh (1973) and rhapsodises about acting alongside Peter Cushing. Pleasance is interesting, insightful and funny (e.g. when she reveals that her “perfectly circular head” saved her life when a heavy light fell on it during the making of Symptoms.) For all of these new interviews we have to thank our old mate Pete Tombs and the From Barcelona… To Tunbridge Wells episode of his 1999 Channel 4 series Eurotika! is also revived here (remember, dear reader, when Channel 4 was actually worth watching?) Pride of place though, must go to Celia Novi’s award winning 2011 feature On Vampires And Other Symptoms, an impressive, impressionistic mash up of JRL’s two most celebrated pictures, his autobiographical comic strips and what turns out to be a trip to the 2009 Sitges Film Festival (four years before his death) where the Catalonian director received an honorary award and was treated to a surprise reunion with Vampyres stars Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska…. those scenes alone were worth the price of admission.

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… it’s better than bottling it up! Larraz’s El Periscopio, 1979.

 

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