Posts Tagged With: Stalk’n’Slash

Toy Division… PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH Reviewed

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Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (USA / UK, 2018). Directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund.

Nazi atrocities reinterpreted via the conventions of the stalk’n’slash genre… what offence could conceivably be taken? In cinemas, now.

Hey, ho, let’s go… I haven’t exactly been an avid follower of Charles Band’s Puppet Master franchise, despite the fact that this Blog’s fairy godmother Irene Miracle starred in David Schmoeller’s 1989 original. If you’re approaching the latest sequel / reboot in a similar state of woeful ignorance, you might well appreciate its pre-titles recap of “the Toulon massacre” that kicked off all this shit in the first place. Blink and you’ll miss HOF Hall-Of-Famer Udo Kier under heavy burns make up as evil puppeteer Andre Toulon.

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Cut to the present day, where recently divorced comic book writer Edgar Easton (Thomas Lennon) moves back in with Mom and Dad, in fact into the bedroom of his puppet-collecting brother, who died under mysterious circumstances. On a more positive note, he embarks on a heated affair with girl next door Ashley Summers (Jenny Pellicer) and together with his wise-cracking schlubb of a buddy / comic store co-worker Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) they take a road trip to a convention marking (well, celebrating, really) the 30 anniversary of that massacre, in the hope of auctioning off one of Ed’s dead brother’s Andre Toulon puppets. You might well be thinking at this point that they and the other attendees deserve all they get. Which turns out to be plenty…

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Having taken ten minutes or so to establish the protagonists’ characters and back stories, Laguna and Wicklund spend the rest of the picture trotting out a succession of eye-wateringly inventive splatter set pieces (appropriately enough in a film going out under the reactivated Fangoria banner… its co-directors both seem to have backgrounds in prosthetic effects and  look like they were probably weaned on that mag in its heyday) when the undead Toulon launches a telekinetic campaign from his crypt (as you do), mobilising his repulsive toys in a  blitzkrieg of butchery against the minority groups he so despises.

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Many of the victims are messily dispatched while having sex which is, in itself, one of the dodgier tropes of the stalk’n’slash cycle that Laguna and Wicklund are so gleefully invoking… but that’s the least of this film’s transgressions against political correctness. Most of the victims are also Jewish (including the couple who congratulate themselves on surviving The Holocaust, only to have their faces burned off by a flame thrower wielding killer puppet) but a lesbian is carved up in her bath and a gypsy ends up pissing on his own head, which has just been lopped off his shoulders by a puppet piloted drone. “These are hate crimes”, Ed tells dim investigating officer Brown (Michael Paré). No shit, Sherlock.

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My initial exposure to PM:TLR was at the 2018 Mayhem Festival,  and I do recall that it was received with a collective “What the actual fuck?!?” response reminiscent of the audience reaction to Springtime For Hitler in The Producers. Before we’d had a chance to debate its ethical niceties, though, we were watching Mandy, after which nobody could talk about anything but Panos Cosmatos’ tripped out revenge saga. Even so, it was difficult to dismiss the memory of the (jewish) Markowitz pushing a “junior fuhrer” puppet into an oven with the words: “See how you like it!” It was only on a second viewing that the penny dropped for me about the exact significance of the film’s crowning outrage, in which a puppet tunnels up a pregnant woman’s vagina and exits, dragging her unborn foetus and placenta behind it. The “Jew Suss” features of the embryo snatcher suggest only one possible interpretation of this scene, i.e. as a take on the old pogrom promoting myth about Jews using christian children in their passover meals… on a holiday that actually coincides with this release! Tasteless, much? I’m only surprised at the restraint by which this film wasn’t marketed as some kind of dark mirror image to Toy Story, utilising the line “To Buchenwald and Beyond!” The final twist suggesting that everything we’ve seen might be the contents of a comic book written by world-weary Ed comes as little mitigation for a film both violent and politically incorrect enough to make The Gestapo’s Last Orgy look like The Sound Of Music.

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Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich arrives in UK cinemas at an “interesting” moment in time, where it seems impossible to discuss Israel or The Holocaust or whatever without somebody branding you “an anti-Semite” before you’ve even got two syllables out. God knows what the PC brigade will make of this. The BBFC don’t seem to have found any fault with it but what will The Daily Mail say? (“Hurrah For The Blackshirts Puppets!”, perhaps?)

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The film boasts a better cast than it probably deserves. The principals are likeable (which doesn’t prevent just about all of them being graphically bumped off), Lennon playing it admirably straight-faced throughout. It’s always good to see Barbara Crampton, here as a tart-tongued tour guide / former cop. Must have seemed like old times for the film’s soundtrack composer, Fabio Frizzi, who was Lucio Fulci’s go-to OST guy (come to think of it, the character who gets the back of her head pulled off in a car must have given Frizzi a proper case of the Dunwich deja vu!)

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Now I hear that bloody Chucky is getting relaunched. If that one does OK, how long will it be before producer Band goes for a Dolls reboot? Check your Christmas stocking very carefully, this year…

Puppet Master - The Littlest Reich. Theatrical Poster

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At Least It’s Not Telly Bloody Savalas… WHEN A STRANGER CALLS Reviewed

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BD. Second Sight. Region Free. 12.

Although it’s clearly a stab at making a classy slasher film (skilfully directed from a thoughtful script, with strong performances by a quality cast), Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls (1979) will probably never live down the taint, in UK viewers’ minds, of debuting over here on a theatrical double bill with Barbara Peeters’ schlock riot Monster (Humanoids From The Deep), itself conceived as an eco-conscious feminist parable but turned into an explicitly violent, tit-infested Horror Of Party Beach variant after the addition of new footage by producer Roger Corman (and yes, a review of that particular trash classic is in the pipeline for 2019, here at the HOF).

Not entirely uninfluenced, one would imagine, by the runaway success of John Carpenter’s Halloween the previous year, Walton and co-writer Steve Feke decided to re-shoot and expand their taut, suspenseful 1977 short The Sitter, with Carol Kane taking over the role that had previously been played by Lucia Stralser. That one and the first 20 minutes of When A Stranger Calls (which recaps it virtually shot for shot) turn on the old urban legend / campfire story about the threatening phone calls that are eventually traced as coming from inside the house! Anyone out there who knows their slasher movie shit (and I’m sure that includes all HOF readers) will have no problem also recognising this as a pinch from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), perhaps the most under-acknowledged seminal influence (now that Bava, Argento and Martino are routinely granted their due credit) on the whole stalk’n’slash phenom.

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Kane (whose supersweet face would have made her a megastar in the silent era… where she would, no doubt, have spent more time getting lashed to railway lines than being threatened over the phone) plays Jill, the babysitter being bugged by some bozo who keeps asking her why she hasn’t checked the children. Suspense builds relentlessly until the above mentioned revelation, Jill’s scramble to get the hell out of that house and the superbly edited entrance of Charles Durning as the cop John Clifford, prior to the discovery of the dismembered Mandrakis children upstairs.

Once the original material has been played out, we learn that the perpetrator, a certain Curt Dunkley (Tony Beckley), was confined to a booby hatch from which, several years after the grisly event, he’s escaped. No prizes for guessing that, by the end of the picture his path is going to intersect (via a fortuitous bit of scripting) again with Jill and the children she has subsequently borne. In the build up to that Walton follows the obsessed Clifford, who’s quit the cops, gone freelance and accepted a contract from the bereaved, aggrieved Dr Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano) to whack the wacko. Simultaneously, we track the Hogarthian, down-and-out progress of the clearly disturbed Dunkley. Walton takes the brave decision to prevent him as a pathetic, almost sympathetic character, a gambit that pays off thanks to a sterling performance by the respected British stage actor Beckley, splendidly complimenting the performances of Kane, Durning, Ron “Super Fly” O’Neal and Rachel Roberts (who, like Beckley, would die the following year) in this little gem of an ensemble piece.

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There was further evidence of Fred Walton’s directorial skill and intelligence in April Fool’s Day (1986), a late arrival in the stalk’n’slash stakes that managed a witty, Postmodern take on that sub-genre a full decade before Wes Craven’s inferior Scream (whose taunting phone killer will seem strangely familiar to anyone who’s seen When A Stranger Calls). Disappointing, then, that Walton was largely confined to TV Movies thereafter, though his stint in this milieu did lead to the sequel When A Stranger Calls Back (1993).

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Included as an extra on this disc, WASCB resists the temptation to resurrect Curt Dunkley but throws in too many other improbabilities for its own good, e.g. that Jill (now a women’s counsellor, gun advocate and martial arts ace) and Clifford have teamed up to advise and protect imperilled baby sitters (as though this was the crime epidemic of the early ’90s)… specifically here, to advise and protect Julia played by Jill Schoelen (there was a time there when Jill Schoelen seemed to be in every Horror flick that came out… wonder what she’s doing now?) The baby sitter stalker in this one is cleverly written… in fact way too cleverly, Walton granting him what virtually amount to superpowers that wouldn’t disgrace a super villain in a big budget sci-fi adventure pic, though if you’re prepared to suspend your disbelief from a great height, this makes for some effective shock moments. All things considered, this sequel is a bit of a mish-mash, though.

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Simon West’s 2006 remake (not included on this set) unfolds in an improbably hi-tech house that wouldn’t disgrace a super villain, either. Inexplicably more successful than the original, this one’s main points of interest come from the aptly named Camilla Belle (above) as its imperilled ingenue, filling a skimpy vest every bit as perkily as Jessica Biel did in Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When A Stranger Calls – The Musical remains, at the time of writing, a figment of my imagination, but among the other extras here you do get interviews with director Fred Walton, Rutanya “Mrs Mandrakis” Alda and soundtrack composer Dana Kaproff. If you’re sufficiently quick off the blocks, you’ll also get his OST as a bonus CD on the limited edition release, together with a slipcase, reversible poster and collector’s booklet.

‘Scuse me, I’ve got to go and make a phone call…

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Little Sawdust Hearts, Torn At The Seams… WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR? Reviewed

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BD. Network. Region B. 15.

Sal Mineo, whose finest hour-and-a-half came as Jimmy Dean’s sidekick in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) had a great future firmly behind him by the time he wound up in Joseph Cates’ Who Killed Teddy Bear?, ten years later. Here he plays Lawrence Sherman who, during adolescence, was supposed to be baby-sitting his kid sister Edie but snuck away for a bit of slap and tickle with the neighbourhood floozy. Happening upon and grossed out by their furtive fumblings, Edie fell down the stairs, still clutching her beloved teddy bear and sustained a head injury that left her mentally handicapped. Lawrence has been trying to make amends ever since, serving as carer for the adult Edie (Margot Bennett) and working as a busboy in a Times Square bar to support her. Upon developing an unrequited passion for aspiring actress / bar hostess Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) though, he undoes years of good work by decapitating Edie’s teddy and leaving it in Norah’s apartment (and what better way to win the heart of any young lady?) He also spies on her from his adjacent apartment, follows her around and bombards her with obscene phone calls (it’s strongly suggested that he’s flobbing off while doing so).

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Though not actually confirmed till halfway through the picture that it’s Sherman pulling all these sick stunts, you’d have to be equipped with the IQ of Edie not to have worked it out long before this point. I mean, he’s angry and alienated and when not working out obsessively, this guy is trawling Times Square’s grind houses and dirty book shops. You can’t help wondering if Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro screened Who Killed Teddy Bear? before coming up with the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)…

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“You talkin’ to me?”

Norah seeks the support of bar boss Marian (Elaine Stritch, giving probably the best performance in the film… though Prowse is pretty good) and troubled cop Lt Dave Madden (Jan Murray). Marian tries to parlay her comforting routine into a lesbian encounter, for which transgression she is bumped off by the jealous Sherman. Madden is an even more complicated piece of work… his apartment is littered with textbooks on deviant sexual behaviour that are clearly intended to mirror Sherman’s collection of pornographic publications, some of which he shares. He rationalises his obsession as an attempt to understand the minds of sex criminals after the rape and murder of his own wife. The lingering suspicion that he’s a bit of a flake himself is reinforced when his attentions towards Norah become a little over affectionate (she needs to change her deodorant… or maybe stop using one) and are rebuffed, causing him to rant: “Every scrawny broad thinks she’s entrusted with the crown jewels and that she’ll die if she loses them!” I’m reminded of Lucio Fulci’s comment on his own slice of the big apple, The New York Ripper (1982): “Every excess in that movie is an excess of fantasy because every character is extreme… (it’s) a film without salvation”. Sure enough, things don’t work out too well for anyone by the end of Who Killed Teddy Bear?

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Mineo’s loyal gay fan base will enjoy the scenes of him working out, bare-chested and his tight-fitting outfits during some of the ludicrous funky dance sequences with which this film is freighted. Hill St Blues buffs will recognise the “Dan Travanty” who plays Carlo (the bar bouncer who gets stabbed by a drunken customer) as Daniel J. Travanti / Capt. Frank Furillo. Otherwise WKTB?, while no masterpiece, emerges as an engagingly torrid little pot-boiler and incidentally, an invaluable visual record of Times Square before Rudi Giuliani cleaned it up (looking all the more immediate for Joseph Brun’s gritty monochrome photography). Don’t start me on Leslie Uggams’ infuriating ear-worm of a theme song, which failed to even ruffle the Queen of Atlantic Records laurel on the late Aretha Franklin’s brow.

 

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When this film was shot, director Cates had already turned in his masterpiece anyway, in the shape of his daughter Phoebe, for which we are duly thankful (and no, I’ve never felt the temptation to send her a decapitated teddy bear…)

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You get a take-it-or-leave-it 1966 episode of Court Martial (“The House Where He Lived”)  starring the ill-fated Mineo (and the even worse-fated Frank Wolff) but the other principal extra here is as worthy of the admission price as the main feature… LSD: Insight Or Insanity?, an 18 minute high school educational reel narrated by Mineo, promises to dispel all the sensationalist myths about acid, then proceeds to trot out and elaborate on every last one of them (people staring at the sun, jumping off tall buildings, et al) and introducing a new one on me: “Other trippers attempt to merge their being with a large fast automobile”. “What do America’s leading doctors, scientists and psychiatrists have to say?” asks Sal the square.

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Well, the assembled worthies (a scary-looking bunch who would surely harsh even the mellowest of trips) are unanimous: “The LSD fad… is more than a fad. Because of it, people are disturbed and even dead”. The most telling indictment of all? “LSD doesn’t inspire one’s desire to perspire”. Hot diggety dog! As well as this threat to the Protestant work ethic, “there’s always the chance of a bad trip, a bummer, a freak-out… or even a flip out!”, dutifully re-enacted by an overacting kid in a strait-jacket. Yep, “a real kick has become a real kick in the head”. And if getting stuck in a psychological “never-never land of no return” isn’t enough to deter you, Insight Or Insanity? ends with a bunch of kids playing Russian roulette. Are they tripping or this merely a metaphor? Powerful stuff, either way… how odd then, that the film makers follow this harrowing spectacle with a pro-acid song playing over the credits. Like Sal says… “It’s up to you!”

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

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BD. Nucleus. Region B. 18.

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

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Sunny side down…

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

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What the pluck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re welcome.

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Got To Get Ourselves Back To The Garden… ASSAULT Beautifully Restored By Network.

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BD. Network. Region B. 15.

Although the upscaling from DVD to Blu-ray has produced miraculous editions of some old favourites (CultFilms’ Suspiria springs to mind) there have been at least as many (and probably more) titles which make you wonder why they bothered. We can all think of stuff that was scanned through 4k and all the rest of it, sometimes crowd-funded on its way and to great fanfare, only to emerge drowning in grain or compensated-to-shit with DNR. So why has this visually astonishing Network restoration, drawing from 35mm negative elements in the vaults of the BFI, been such a low-key affair?

Well, Assault is something of a problematic viewing experience from a 2018 perspective. While the assaults on the schoolgirls are obviously not rendered with any kind of pornographic expliciteness, the presentation of such subject matter in the guise of entertainment now seems vaguely questionable, the BBFC’s classification of it as ’15’ notwithstanding. The casting, furthermore (as a traumatised and catatonic assault victim) of Lesley-Anne Down, whose name so closely resembles that of a real life victim of Britain’s most notorious sex killers, seems rather insensitive and just to put the tin hat on it,  when Tony Beckley’s emasculated teacher tells Frank Finlay’s gruff cop that he has fantasised about raping all of his students, you ask yourself if things could get any more non-PC… only for the Detective Chief Superintendent to retort by suggesting that the guy is probably “not man enough” to rape anyone… ouch!

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In the words of Cicero: “”O tempora, o mores”…

1971 was arguably the annus mirabilis of the giallo, the year that brought us Mario Bava’s überinfluential Bay Of Blood, Fulci’s psychedelic three-ring circus Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, Sergio Martino’s masterly The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh and an Argento brace in the shape of The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, amid countless others. One of the most intriguing yellow shockers from this year, though, was made right here in dear old Blighty and produced, as if that weren’t already a sufficiently surprising proposition, by Peter Rogers,  the man responsible for all those jolly Carry On Romps

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The director of Assault, though, was ideally placed to handle a British attempt at the giallo (which this film so clearly is)… Sidney Hayers, having racked up a couple of routine thrillers in 1950, revealed a knack for transcendental cinematic delirium with the completely demented Circus Of Horrors (1960), a film that would give the trashiest Eurotrash competitors a run for their cheesey money. Hayers subsequently directed Peter Wyngarde in Night Of The Eagle aka Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) an effective little variant on Jacques Torneur’s Night Of The Demon (1957) but 1971 turned out to be his busiest year in terms of Freudsteinian credits. As well as the  The Firechasers (an insurance fraud thriller) and episodes of both The Persuaders and the short-lived Shirley MacLaine vehicle Shirley’s World, Hayers directed Revenge aka After Jenny Died and Inn Of The Frightened People, in which Joan Collins and family take the law into their own hands when their young daughter is raped and murdered… not a million miles removed, thematically, from the film under consideration here.

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Straight after Circus Of Horrors, Hayers began a prolific career in TV direction with episodes of The Avengers and The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre. Anyone whose caught even a handful of the German krimi cycle, which was so influential on the giallo, will know how often these Wallace thrillers featured schoolgirls in peril as a plot point and that’s the theme around which both Assault and Revenge (not to mention the subsequent Italian trilogy written and / or directed by Massimo Dallamano) rotate…

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… but Assault’s credentials as a giallo all’Inglese go way deeper than that. You want a plot that hinges on its protagonist half-glimpsing a crucial clue and agonising about its exact significance? You got it. You want said character to be played by giallo icon Suzy Kendall? Here she is. Lascivious subjective camera work… a hard-ass cop… a shoal of lecherous and disreputable red herrings… convoluted plotting wherein all sense of proportion is lost (a trip to pick up some sodium pentathol concludes with the pharmacy blowing up… *) … a spectacular demise for the newly unmasked culprit, so ingeniously (some would say stupidly) devised that it suggests divine retribution? All present and politically incorrect. Overblown alternative titles? Well, Assault played the US grindhouse circuit (presumably post-Exorcist) under the alias In The Devil’s Garden, a rebranding actually justified (kind of) by the fact that Kendall’s feisty Julie West spends much of the film believing she literally saw Satan himself at work when she stumbled upon a fatal sexual attack inflicted on one of her students in the woods adjacent to the posh school where she teaches. Indeed, her insistence on sticking to this lurid account leads to her being ridiculed by the prickly coroner (Allan Cuthbertson) when she gives evidence at the inquest. Det. Chief Supt. Velyan (Finlay) co-opts a sleazy tabloid reporter (Freddie Jones) to vindicate her, unmask the culprit and set up a truly electrifying climax…

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Perhaps it would be inappropriate, given Assault’s subject matter, to describe this restoration as “ravishing” but it’s an incredible step-up from Network’s previous DVD edition. Even the bonus trailer, which looked pretty knackered on that, is significantly improved here. The stills gallery remains but the 1981 Tales Of The Unexpected episode There’s One Born Every Minute, starring Finlay, is conspicuous by its absence… no great loss when weighed against the sumptuous presentation of the main feature.

My screener didn’t come with the limited edition collector’s booklet with essays by Adrian Smith and Laura Mayne, plus PDF material. Hopefully that comes with some information on this beautiful renovation job. Hell, I might even shell out £9.75 to find out. Talk about a bargain… what are you waiting for?

Trivia note: much of Assault was filmed in Black Park, Iver Heath, Bucks, subsequently the home of pre-Cert video distribution legends IFS.

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(*) … and taking with it, in his first credited screen role (as “Man in chemist shop”), David Essex. Is he more, too much more than a pretty face in Assault? I don’t think so…

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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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ORANGE ALERT…AMSTERDAMNED Reviewed

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DVD. Shameless. Region 2. 18. (We actually watched the earlier, out-of-print edition on the Cine-Excess imprint of Shameless sister label Nouveaux Pictures. Same specs and extras.)

Having considered one non-Italian giallo, Sidney Hayers’ Assault (1971) in our previous posting, I thought it might be in order to take a look at another one here.  This particular Italian genre has tended to travel as badly as Italian cheese but perhaps that distinct sub-strain of Venetian thrillers (the superior Who Saw Her Die and The Designated Victim, the execrable Giallo In Venice… even, if you stretch a point to breaking point, Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now) explains why the format translated so well to the canal-crammed capital city of Holland for Amsterdamned (1988)… not to mention the consummate skill of writer / director Maas and his collaborators.

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Much of the film plays like an unabashed advertisement on behalf of the Amsterdam tourist board, an impression underlined by the 35 minute “making of” featurette (“The City, The Film, The Makers”) included among the extras here… the action even adjourns to The Rijksmuseum at one point so we can check out Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (oh go, if you’re going to get all pedantic on me, that’s Rembrandt’s The Company Of Frans Banning Cocq And Willem Van Ruytenburch). Not sure though, how visitor numbers were ever going to be  boosted by this saga of a demented frog man emerging from the city’s canals to slaughter victims, seemingly selected at random, in sundry spectacular fashions before disappearing again in those waterways. The staging of and musical accompaniment to the kill scenes have more than a suggestion, albeit a heavily ironic one, of Jaws about them and, just like on Amity Beach, there are civic dignitaries with a vested interest in the crisis being handled in a manner likely to put off the fewest possible tourists (the suggestion is then, if anything, more of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, bringing the scenario Spielberg pinched for Jaws back to its North European roots).

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Over the mayor’s objections, the chief of police insists that the right man to crack the case is inspector Eric Visser (Maas’s favored male lead, Huub Stapel). It’s difficult to discern precisely what special qualities he brings to the investigation, beyond a facility for fairly amusing one-liners and looking cool in a scruffy kind of way. He seems to devote way more time to bringing up his similarly flip and anarchic daughter Anneke (Tatum Dagelet), putting up with her eccentric, nerdy boyfriend Willy (Edwin Bakker) and pursuing his own romance with sexy Rijksmuseum guide Laura (Monique Van De Ven from Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight… can’t say that I blame him) than applying himself to the small matter of all this canal carnage. Clues and leads just seem to drift his way as if by magic and it has to be said that when they do, he pursues them energetically via his participation in such beautifully executed (and edited) set pieces as a car / motorbike chase (complete with witty allusions to Bullitt and Starsky & Hutch) and, as if that weren’t enough, a rattling speedboat chase around the canals of Amsterdam (some of which was actually shot, somewhat contentiously, in the city of Utrecht) that’s every bit as good as its obvious inspiration, the equivalent scene in Geoffrey Reeve’s Puppet On A Chain (1971… the first AA film that the underage Freudstein ever snook into).

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Red herrings swim in and out of the plot and are dispensed with in their turn until Maas conclusively demonstrates his affinity with Amsterdamned’s Italian models by revealing the culprit to be a character to whom we haven’t even been properly introduced yet, and ludicrously motivated to boot (think of Sergio Pastore’s Crimes Of The Black Cat and you’re thinking along the right lines). While comfortably handling the genre conventions, Maas injects a pleasing vein of gentle humour that is generally absent from (or handled less successfully in) spaghetti thrillers and proudly flies the flag for his lowland homeland with plentiful visual and scripted allusions to iconic Dutch stuff… no Focus references, sadly, not even a glimmer of Golden Earring, but nederbeat outfit Lois Lane accompany the credit crawl with their insanely infectious title song…  even catchier than Simon Park’s signature tune for Van Der Wank. Allegedly on its original Dutch theatrical run, Amsterdamned finished with a jokey variant on the Carrie / Friday The 13th-type shock shot of a fist emerging from the canal, albeit clutching nothing more deadly than an ice cream cone. Just one gorenetto, eh Dick?

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Proof positive that it’s possible (albeit very rarely) to find a decent giallo that was made outside of the Italian milieu. No need to take my word for it… when I interviewed him, Lucio Fulci, no less, pronounced himself a fan of Amsterdamned and Maas’s work in general. If it’s good enough for Fulci…

… and indeed, Maas turned out to be a most amiable bloke while attending last year’s Mayhem in Nottingham, wowing festival-goers with his 2016 effort Prey, effectively an Amsterdamned remake with an escaped lion standing in for the skin-diving assassin.

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Billy, Don’t Be A Weirdo… BLACK CHRISTMAS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. 101 Films. 18.

God, Christmas arrives earlier every year, doesn’t it? Still, if you’re the kind of ghoul whose yuletide wish is to sit the family down in front of Bob Clark’s classic 1974 Canucksploiter (as, apparently, was standard procedure for the Presleys every December 25th at Graceland) then you’re gonna need five weeks or so to drop heavy hints to your nearest and dearest about slipping this one into your Xmas stocking. Maybe they won’t take your hints but never mind, worse things happen during the festive season…

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… for instance, to the occupants of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, allegedly somewhere in the USA (actually, Toronto). Initially assailed by obscene, ranting phone calls from some sex-case identifying himself as “Billy”, members of the feisty sisterhood (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Lynne Griffin among its number) are soon being killed and their bodies arranged in the attic, where young William seems to be putting together some kind of black Nativity scene. Clark and writer Roy Moore pull every trick in the book to divert your attention towards Hussey’s intense concert pianist, abortion-resenting boyfriend as prime suspect, which probably tells you all you need to know about whether it’s him or not. John Saxon’s Police Lt and his (somewhat clueless) underlings take an eternity to work out that those phone-calls are actually coming from within the sorority house (difficult to believe, actually, that the ungodly racket Billy makes during his calls wouldn’t have already pinpointed his whereabouts), setting up a rattling false ending and memorably ambiguous creepy  coda…

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Horror and thriller buffs of a certain vintage and of a certain theoretical persuasion have had a lot of fun (haven’t we?) trying to nail the influence of Italian gialli on the lucrative American stalk’n’slash cycle. Of course there were other antecedents (as, indeed the giallo had its own roots in e.g. Germany’s Edgar Wallace adaptations) and we’re looking at one of them right here. It has even been suggested (a suggestion which gets repeated in the bonus materials on this disc) that John Carpenter conceived (or “borrowed” the concept for) his massively-influential-in-its-own-right Halloween (1978) as a sequel to Black Christmas…

Clark (whose earlier genre credits included Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, 1972 and Dead Of Night, 1974) might or might not have been aware of Bava and Argento’s contemporary stylish efforts… there are shots in Black Christmas which strongly suggest that he was (I won’t insult the reader by spelling out precisely which ones I’m talking about… they’re clear enough) although it’s possible that he and Argento were just cribbing stuff from the same Fritz Lang movies. Whether as a result of studying Argento or not, Clark introduced… always a contentious claim… well, he certainly put considerable impetus behind the use of sinuous P.O.V. shots in subsequent North American slasher movies. To this end he and his camera crew improvised a primitive Steadicam before Steadicam was even invented. Cinematic influences are seldom a one way street and it’s difficult to watch the establishing glimpses of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, wherein an external shot of a face at a window lap dissolves into a similar but not identical one, without concluding that Fulci has watched Black Christmas, or at least its closing moments.

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Clark incidentally inaugurated the trend (considerably less significant artistically than in marketing terms) here of tying these kill-by-numbers films into holiday set ups and special occasions (Halloween, Friday the 13th, St Valentine’s Day, et al… not to mention such inferior, albeit sometimes entertaining Xmas slay-rides as Carles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 effort Silent Night, Deadly Night), also spawning a fertile filone of Sorority House Massacres while he was at it.

Horror and comedy (to invoke an adage so often restated that it’s become tantamount to cliché) are two sides of the same coin and it’s not hard to detect foreshadowings of Clark’s subsequent comic success with the likes of the Porky’s films in Black Christmas. Kidder’s drunken, potty-mouthed provocateur (who kids the dumbest cop in the picture that “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange) gives particularly good value for money but all of the major cast members (well, apart from the barely glimpsed Billy) contribute believable, believably imperfect and generally likeable characters. The female principals, in particular are strong-willed free spirits, polar opposites of their sketchy cinematic descendants in so many dreary “have sex and die” epics. The fact that you care for these people makes Black Christmas so much more than the bravura display of cinematic technique that it undoubtedly is. Clark is handsomely served throughout by his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, several of whom remember him with affection and admiration in the bonus materials assembled on this disc.

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Clark died with his son Ariel on 04/04/07, reportedly at the hands of an inebriated, uninsured driver, which just goes to prove the aforementioned Signor Fulci’s point that nothing a horror director can put on the screen is remotely as horrifying as the stuff that happens every day in real life.

101’s BD transfer of Clark’s finest hour is a bit grainy but that shouldn’t put you off this seminal and seriously chilling thriller. Like it says in the trailer: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… IT’S ON TOO TIGHT!”

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

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 – SPOILER ALERT! –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another home run from Shameless!

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