Posts Tagged With: Witchcraft

The Other OTHER HELL Review… Bruno Mattei & Claudio Fragasso’s Jaw-dropping Spaghetti Exorcist / Nunsploitation Hybrid Arrives On Severin BD.

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BD. Region B. Severin. Unrated.

I previously dug up and reviewed the Redemption VHS edition of The Other Hell (1980) elsewhere on this site, where I rashly described it as Bruno Mattei’s “wildest and best” movie (or something along those lines… go click the link if you can be arsed, because I certainly can’t). Since then, courtesy of a clutch of fine Severin / Intervision releases, I’ve been able to spend some quality time with the gob-slapping cannibal / zombie / WIP atrocities that Mattei perpetrated in the last few years of his career / life and am obliged to reconsider my assessment of this one as Mattei’s finest hour-and-a-half…. or perhaps that should be twenty minutes, as much of the supplementary material on Severin’s spanking new Blu-ray of The Other Hell lends weight to ongoing speculation that its nominal director “Stefan Oblowsky” comprises something like one part Mattei to every four parts Claudio Fragasso.

Fragasso contributes an amusing, highly self-deprecating commentary track (sample quote: “Zombie nuns… that’s cool… because it’s blasphemous!”) He confesses that shots of a burning priest were bought in from the producers of The Legacy, drops the fascinating aside that at one point he was going to write a sequel to Bay Of Blood for Mario Bava and wonders: “Why is Umberto Lenzo always so angry?” Most memorably, one of the many faults he finds with The Other Hell is that it should have been a lot “crazier”… a mind-boggling judgement considering that the film’s pre-titles sequence – wherein a deranged nun, apparently having just carried out a gory abortion in an alchemist’s lab, rants about the genitals being “the door to evil” before stabbing one of her sisters-in-Christ to death, apparently at the psychic behest of a statue with red, throbbing eyes – is one of the more studied, subdued and subtle moments in this film, which subsequently relates the vain attempts of trendy cleric Father Valerio (Carlo De Mejo) to put these unfortunate goings-on down to psychiatric rather than Satanic malaise, while all around him bats attack crucifixes, nuns vomit blood after taking communion, stigmata rend every available inch of flesh, severed heads turn up in tabernacles, exorcists catch fire, devil babies are dunked in boiling water and psycho-kinetic sculptures force nuns to strangle themselves!

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Sinister gardener Boris (perennial Mattei standby Franco Garofolo) delivers an unsolicited soliloquy about how he prefers animals to people, then leeringly decapitates an unfortunate chicken (you guessed, its headless body proceeds to take a jerky tour of the barnyard). The wheel of karma turns full circle when Boris, after killing a witch’s cat, falls victim to his own guard-dog in a scene crudely cribbed from a certain Dario Argento picture. The film’s title is clearly intended to reference another Argento picture, although naming this farrago “L’Altro Inferno” makes about as much sense as calling Alan Briggs’ Suffer Little Children, another upcoming and suitably wholesome Severin (Intervision) release,  “The Other Suspiria”!

Nobody’s ever going to confuse The Other Hell with an entry in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy (hang on, I was forgetting Mother Of Tears!) but its sheer go-for-broke audacity, its all-out  sense of accelerating, no-holds-barred delirium puts it ahead of even Joe D’Amato’s Blue Holocaust (from which it swipe its Goblin score, its fluffed “shock” ending and its female lead Franca Stoppi) in the see-it-to-believe-it sick puppy stakes.

Stoppi is probably The Other Hell’s trump card, chewing the scenery magnificently as Mother Vincenza. She comes across very well in the short interview on this disc, reminiscing about days spent shuttling back and forth between the sets of The Other Hell and Mattei’s True Story Of The Nun Of Monza topped off by evenings on stage! Sadly, stage fright ended her career prematurely but she reinvented herself as an animal rights activist (and no, she wasn’t at all happy about that chicken decapitation, though Fragasso describes it as “inevitable… chickens always end up like this!”) before sadly passing away in 2011. The featurette To Hell And Back comprises archive interviews with Mattei and Carlo De Mejo. Elsewhere Fragasso offers some interesting observations as to why the careers of both De Mejo and Garofolo fell short of what those actors might otherwise have achieved.

Inevitably when a film of this vintage and provenance is re-rendered in Blu-ray there’s going to be a certain amount of grain in evidence, but Severin have managed to keep this element within acceptable levels on a disc that cannot be denied a place on your shelf… Satan himself demands it!

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Incidentally, towards the end of Fragasso’s commentary track, he and his interlocutor are scratching their heads over the identity of the actor playing the priest in the film’s lame “twist” ending. Is it not (I could be wrong) “Mark Shannon” (Manlio Cersosimo), who starred in any amount of goofy horror / porno crossovers for Joe D’Amato? If so, he manages the unprecedented feat here of keeping his dick in his trousers when confronted by a movie camera. Thank heaven for small mercies, eh?

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Stork And Slash… The Shameless BD Of Michele Soavi’s THE SECT Reviewed

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The Sect. BD. Region B. Shameless. 18.

Shameless’s UK disc debut of Michele Soavi’s 1991 effort The Sect (in both DVD and BD formats) follows hot on the hooves of the similar service they recently rendered to Soavi’s The Church (1989.) In my review of that one, elsewhere on this site, I recanted my long-held conviction that its many splendid visual set pieces could not compensate for a narrative that oscillates between risible and non-existent. On relection, this verdict was difficult to square with my oft-professed love for the likes of Inferno, The Beyond and City Of The Living Dead. I’ve performed a similar critical volte face after watching The Sect on Blu-ray, though it’s probably the lesser of the two films Soavi directed with Dario Argento as producer. Both of them kick in like gangbusters, only to lose momentum as bravura visuals alternate with wilfully obscure exposition through their overlong running time (The Sect clocks in just shy of two hours) en route to unsatisfying denouements. No accident, perhaps, that this one was released in the US as The Devil’s Daughter, possibly with the baffling conclusion to Hammer’s To The Devil A Daughter (1976) in mind.

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If anything, The Sect’s opening is even stronger than that of The Church, slapping the viewer upside his/her head with a 1-2 sucker punch. First we witness the end of the ’60s dream as members of a Californian hippy colony are slaughtered at the behest of Damon (Church alumnus Tomas Arana), a wild-eyed mystic with a penchant for discerning profundities in the lyrics of classic rock songs (remind you of anyone?) before crossing Continents and decades to “present day” Frankfurt, where John Morghen blows his own brains out in a metro station after police discover that he’s been taking the words of the Tony Basil song Stop That Man (“He’s getting away with my heart in his hand”) rather too literally. Reassuring stuff, given that Morghen (the perennial super-masochist / martyr of pasta paura cinema) died such a disappointing death in The Church.

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Frankfurt magistrate John Ford (just one of several, vaguely irritating, buffish character names) issues doomy pronouncements about the activities of sinister Satanic outfits. He’s particularly concerned about “The notorious Faceless Sect operating in the US during the ’70s”, a  cult founded by the mysterious Moebius Kelly. The briefly glimpsed Ford is played by Donald O’Brien, who’s certainly got form in this field, having run a Kito cult in his role as Doctor Butcher M.D. in the Marino Girolami film of that title.

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Before we can work out what the hell is going on, elementary schoolteacher Miriam (Kelly Curtis, Jamie Lee’s prettier big sister) runs over a jay-walking hobo (Moebius Kelly himself, played by Herbert Lom) and takes him back to her place to recuperate. The old geezer’s got a funny way of showing his gratitude – he bungs a dung beetle up Miriam’s nose while she’s asleep and Celtic imagery begins to invade her dreams, which apparently signifies that she’s now ripe to be knocked up with the devil’s spawn. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that many of the people around her are conniving at precisely this aim. Shades of Val Lewton and Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943)…

… and indeed, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) whose demonic insemination scene was restaged at the climax of The Church. This time out the titular sect contrive to get Miriam raped by a stork that jumps out of the submerged well in her basement… a submerged basement well of which she was previously unaware … did I already mention that this film’s plotting isn’t exactly its strong point?

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Just as The Church proceeded  from a vague Dario Argento diktat (“My brief to Michele was to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany beginning a new Middle Ages”), so Argento stipulated certain of The Sect’s salient imagery, including the Satanists’ full moon face ripping ceremony which (with the aid of Pino Donaggio’s spellbinding main theme) works rather well, plus some stuff that really doesn’t, e.g. the ongoing shenanigans concerning a kind of anti-Shroud Of Turin which, we learn, smothers some people but brings others (whom you’d prefer to be dead) back to life. What I really want to know about this flying snot rag, though, is… does it smell of death? And one of its victims, Kathryn, is ideally placed to comment on this, played as she is by Maria Angela Giordano of Burial Ground infamy.

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Struggling to impose some of his own identity amid all of this Argentiana, Soavi seems more intent on stuffing every available frame with arcane symbolism and cryptic allusions than he is with pulling all of these disparate strands of material together in a way that makes some kind of narrative sense. At one point he offers us a channel-hopping bunny which tunes into footage of the director himself doing conjuring tricks on TV! You’ll like it… but not a lot!

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“Who hid the remote in the cellar?”

It would be unfair to dismiss Kelly Curtis as just another sorry sibling recruited by the spaghetti exploitation industry solely on account of kid sister Jamie Lee’s scream queen exploits (in much the same way that Italian producers made a minor star out of Tisa Farrow and even attempted to do so with Neil Connery, before he forsook international espionage and returned to working as a milkman)… she already had a decent acting pedigree quite independently of JLC, who was born the same year that Kelly appeared as a little girl in Mom and Dad’s The Vikings (1958.) Plus, she’s actually rather good, here, ably personifying the anxieties suffered by pregnant women in a film that deals with such concerns rather more subtly than e.g. Alien (1979) or Humanoids From The Deep (1980), if considerably less so than Polanski’s picture. No doubt Herbert Lom later pleaded ignorance of any violent scenes that take place in The Sect…

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Having moaned in my review of The Church that I was only sent the DVD version, I’m happy to report that they sent me The Sect on Blu-ray and it looks just great. Given the two audio options available, I chose the Italian language one (with English subtitles) because it’s in 5.1 Surround. The mix proved strangely unadventurous and I didn’t notice any significant benefit until the outbreak of Pino Donaggio’s gorgeous main theme during the moon lit face removal ceremony… that one always gets the hairs standing up on the back of my neck to an extent only bettered by Fabio Frizzi’s Voci Dall Nulla at the climax of The Beyond.

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Extras include trailers for this and other Shameless releases plus the continuation of the Soavi interview from their Church disc, this instalment entitled Beauty And Terror.” Hardly surprisingly, he talks up his collaborations with the likes of Argento and Terry Gilliam but it’s gratifying to hear the director acknowledging his debts to Fulci and D’Amato (“This man had an energy not human!”), too. His “compare and contrast” reports on the various directors’ personalities, working methods and the atmospheres on their respective sets are most enlightening. Soavi also reveals that Tarantino offered him the direction of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), which he now regrets turning down.

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Given her grisly former glories, it’s interesting to hear Soavi detailing the way in which the demise of Maria Angela Giordano’s character was cut, having been deemed too gruesome. We also learn that the Sergio Stivaletti special effect by which a bug climbs up Kelly’s nose was shot with a camera that was formally Mario Bava’s.

The Sect is an uneven film, no question, but it’s probably better than anything Argento himself has managed since 1987 and only a terminally hard-to-please pasta paura buff could fail to find something to enjoy herein, if only the first screen teaming (ish… they don’t actually share a scene) of Italian Horror’s “Mr & Mrs Most Mutilated”, Morghen and Giordano. Perhaps some sinister Satanists can arrange for him to impregnate her… or perhaps even they would find the probable results of that coupling just too daunting to contemplate!

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Me Me Lai Vs The Satanic Majesty Of Wonderful Radio 1 … CRUCIBLE OF TERROR Reviewed, Pop-Pickers!

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DVD. Region 0. Severin. Unrated.

James Bolam is John Davies, a struggling art dealer… struggling with a terrible ’70s moustache as much as anything. His commercial fortunes, if not his grooming regime, seem set to improve when several punters take an interest in a beautifully fashioned bronze of a naked woman. But John’s alcoholic friend Michael Clare (Ronald Lacey) explains that the sculptor, his father Victor (Mike Raven), will never part with the piece… and with good reason. Before the titles we saw Victor using the body of Chi-San (Me Me Lai or Me Me Lay, as she’s identified here) as the armature for this piece. John’s not so easily put off though, even after one of his backers, while trying to half-inch the bronze, is suffocated with a plastic bag.

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“By ‘eck, lad!”

John bugs Michael into taking him and his girlfriend Millie (Mary Maude, last seen on this blog lustily administering corporal punishment to boarding school girls in Serrador’s The House That Screamed) out to Victor’s West Country retreat and it doesn’t take long too long to work out why Michael is such a booze hound. Victor is a loopy, domineering psychopath who uses his “artistic temperament” as an excuse to bully his family, flaunting his female conquests in the face of his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Betty Alberge) who’s senile, dresses like a little girl and carries a doll around with her. The whole set up plays like an indigestible mash-up of Mystery Of The Wax Museum, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (*),  and The Old Dark House. I haven’t quite worked out exactly who Derek Guyler-lookalike Bill (John Arnatt) is or what he’s doing there (does Victor swing both ways?), suffice to say that this is one of the most badly miscast films I’ve ever seen.

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Anyway, various cast members who come too close to discovering the secret of that bronze are variously butchered, bludgeoned and drowned, then Vincent pursues Millie around some Cornish caves prior to preparing her to serve as the centrepiece of another sculpture. At this point the malevolent spirit of Chi-San manifests itself and Raven, over acting even more preposterously than in the rest of the picture, meets a suitably ironic and infernal fate. “She was very high up in a sinister religious sect…” Bill tells the traumatised John, while wrapping things up with an unlikely tale of reincarnation and possession “… and Evil is always more powerful than Good” (neatly reversing the more familiar Hammer formula there.)

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I originally intended to entitle this piece “Raven Bonkers” but soon-to-be Italo Cannibal Queen Me Me got the nod after a quick look at this site’s stats proved that  Ms Lai is its bronze medallist in terms of attracting hits, trailing only Irene Miracle and David Warbeck and yes, beating Lucio Fulci off into fourth place. One day some pervert sitting somewhere in his lonely room and cultivating his dubious niche fantasies will google “Me Me Lai beating off Lucio Fulci” and find himself reading these very words…

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Her brief but pivotal appearance in one-shot director Ted Hooker’s Mystery Of The Wax Museum variant Crucible Of A Terror (1971) is one of the minor points of interest of this engaging little oddity and erstwhile staple of late night regional ITV programing, but the flick’s primary appeal to students of Schlock Cinema – and indeed, of larger than life eccentrics – is the presence in it of Mike Raven.

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“All the world’s a stage…” as Shakespeare once pointed out, “… and one man in his time plays many parts.” Austin Churton Fairman worked as a photographer, conjuror, interior decorator, travel writer, flamenco guitarist, ballet dancer and presenter of religious TV programs and Woman’s Hour before emerging as “Mike Raven”, a Pirate DJ specialising authoritatively in blues, soul and RnB (that’s real, Booker T-type RnB, junior… as opposed to the tripe that gets passed off under that description these days.) Such was his expertise in this field that when Tony Benn closed down the pirates, at Raven’s door the newly minted and totally wonderful Radio 1 came rapping (cue Flowers In The Rain…) That’s him below in the Colonel Sanders outfit, front row, two places to the left of Peel.

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Perhaps it was due to the preponderance of black cat bones and John The Conqueror roots in all those old blues standards that Raven developed a growing interest in the occult (how unlike a Radio 1 DJ to have scandalous skeletons in his closet), started dressing entirely in black and adopted suitably sinister facial fuzz… or perhaps that stuff wasn’t entirely unconnected with an attempt to rebrand himself, yet again, as a horror film icon. His impressive physical stature secured him the role of Count Karnstein in Jimmy Sangster’s Hammer effort Lust For A Vampire (1971) after Christopher Lee had turned up his nose at it. Unfortunately Raven’s voice was dubbed and after you’ve seen Crucible Of Terror that won’t come as too much of a surprise, his stab at Boris Karloff coming across more like Bobby Picket of The Crypt Kickers.

In the same year he actually starred opposite Lee to tolerable effect in Stephen Weeks’ Amicus offering I, Monster, a film often cited as the most faithful cinematic adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll And Mister Hyde… why all the characters’ names were changed remains a major mystery. It was all downhill after DJ Horrible’s Crucible Of Terrible though…  Raven pseudonymously wrote and produced, as well as starring in, Disciple Of Death (1972) which at least managed the mean feat of making Crucible look like a vaguely coherent film.

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Mike Raven never manage to claim that place on the Horror pantheon which he clearly coveted but his wayward mini-career in the genre constitutes a brief byway with which any self-respecting trash film fiend should be familiar, suitably commemorated in this spanky Severin release, “transferred in startling HD from the only known uncut 35mm print in existence, loaned to Severin by a Bodmin Moor coven!”

So… whatever happened to Mike Raven? In a spooky case of life imitating Art (or at least, imitating schlocky horror flicks) he did indeed relocate to Bodmin Moor to successfully pursue parallel careers in Art and sheep farming, completely unperturbed by the announcement of his death during Radio 1’s 25th Anniversary celebrations in 1992. Before his actual passing, five years later, Raven declared that his perpetual personal reinventions were an ongoing attempt to come to terms with his sexuality and his spiritual beliefs. He was buried on his beloved Bodmin Moor in a plot he had dug himself, something I’m sure all his Radio 1 peers really dug.

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore…”

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A good cast is worth repeating…

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(*) Bolam, of course, went on to star in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.

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Altared States… Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH and Robert Eggers’ THE WITCH Reviewed

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The Church. DVD. Region 2. Shameless. 18.

The Witch. BD. Region B. Universal. 15.

The wheels grind slowly here at The House Of Freudstein. Maybe it’s something to do with that split in the space / time continuum we’ve got going on down in the basement… one minute a badly dubbed Italian brat is running away from a shambling mosaic of putrescent human flesh, the next he’s popping up in a fin-de-siecle parallel universe. Makes my fucking head spin, I don’t mind telling you! Anyway, the wheels grind slowly…

… case in point, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a film released in 2015. When I interviewed Harvey Fenton at Nottingham’s Mayhem Film Festival that year, for a piece which ultimately appeared in Dark Side magazine, he raved to me about this film, citing scenes such as the one in which a child dies in the throes of religious ecstasy

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and enthusing about its possessed goat. “What… better than the possessed goat in Drag Me to Hell?” I asked. “Better than that!”, he assured me. So I promised him I’d watch it. A year went by and finding myself on the winning team at Mayhem 2016’s Flinterrogation quiz (yeah, I do bang on rather a lot about this but what you going to do about it?) I grabbed a couple of BDs as my share of the winners’ swag bag, one of them being The Witch. A month or so after that I finally watched it… and now I’ve got my shit together sufficiently to review it!

The final poke that stirred me from my default state of inertia was the arrival on my in tray of Michele Soavi’s The Church (1981), debuting on UK disc courtesy of Shameless. The striking parallels between the two films strongly suggested to me that they should be considered together. I mean, both of them offer a simplistic, Manichaeist world view in which the principal characters’ loss of faith is precipitated by and / or precipitates an inexorable paradigm shift into a new and malign reality… the other stuff they share in common being caprine capers (or, if you will, hircine horrors) by which the ram Black Phillip eviscerates Ralph Ineson in Eggers’ picture and (a much smarter day’s work, in my estimation) a Rosemary’s Baby reject bonks the beautiful Barbara Cupisti in the bowels of a cathedral crypt during Soavi’s… Country File was never like this!

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Eggers’ New-England Folk Tale (as the film’s subtitle has it) plays out in the 1630s and concerns a family of Puritans (the ever excellent Ineson as patriarch William, Kate Dickie as his wife Catherine and Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, the oldest of several children) who leave their settlement on account of some obscure doctrinal dispute and set up in a small holding in the wilderness, throwing themselves on the bounty and mercy of God…

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… but darker Gods are at work in the woods.

When their infant son is abducted (and a murky, impressionistic Blair Witch-style sequence suggests that he is indeed ritually sacrificed by some hovel-dwelling hag) the family turns in on itself amid mutual suspicions of Satanic involvement. Thomasin becomes prime suspect after searching secretly in the woods, with her brother, for the missing baby but returning alone. Suspicions are not exactly allayed when the boy reappears, only to die in the aforementioned religious ecstasy. As paranoia peaks, recrimination turns into physical confrontation. Black Phillip lends a hand (hoof?) in the ensuing bloody carnage which leaves just one family member standing and ready to throw in their lot with The Dark Side for a truly delirious conclusion.

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The above makes The Witch sound like a pedal-to-the-metal Evil Deadalike but in fact it’s a suspenseful, satisfying, slow burn of a movie with ravishing cinematography (courtesy of Jarin Blaschke) and sound design. Hats off to Harvey (though for me, Black Phillip’s not a patch on the possessed goat in Drag Me To Hell.) You keep expecting a rational explanation or at least an upturn in the family’s miserable fortunes until the penny finally drops, the shock realisation that this just ain’t gonna happen… reminded me of the point in Blow Up where you twig that the mystery is never going to be solved… of watching Match Of The Day pundits acknowledging, long after everybody else had sussed it, that Leicester City were not going to blow their 2015-16 title challenge… and going to bed on the 9th of November when it was obvious that Trump was going to win, while the TV talking heads were still blathering about how Hillary’s best wards were yet to be counted and she was going to turn it around.

Writer / director Eggers plundered the archives of 17th Century witchcraft testimony to mount The Witch as a realistic story and the events in it are real, if only in the minds of its religiously fanatical participants. “Buddha says…” as we were so helpfully reminded in the title sequence to every episode of Monkey: “… that with our thoughts we make the world.” The paranoid Puritan mindset made The USA and the ongoing story of how it, in turn, makes over The World in its own image is, one suspects, going to take a significant twist or two over the next couple of years. One also suspects that we will see, over a similar period, Ms Taylor-Joy emerging as “the new Christina Ricci”…

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Anya Taylor-Joy, emerging as “the new Christina Ricci”… yesterday.

Universal’s BD edition of The Witch looks and sounds quiet beautiful and comes with the bonus of Digital HD Ultraviolet, though I’m too much of a Luddite to have anything more than the vaguest of ideas what that actually means… not such a technophobe thought that I don’t feel justified in having a moan about the clunky interface and slow response of the menus on this disc, problems I’ve encountered on various other Universal releases. It’s a bit short on supplementary features too, boasting precisely… none…. not a sausage… barer than William and Catherine’s family food cupboard!

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Shameless’s Soavi disc is somewhat better apportioned in terms of extras. Alongside the mandatory clutch of trailers for the label’s other releases, you get the featurette Cathedral Of Fear in which the director (still looking cool, if a touch grey and grizzled around the edges) talks about his sophomore feature effort and how it emerged from the remnants of Lamberto Bava’s abandoned Demons 3. He acknowledges that Argento was a generous producer who scrupulously avoided stepping on his toes, while admitting that he found  it difficult to see The Church and his follow-up effort The Sect (1991) marketed as “Argento productions.” Soavi also concedes that he, Argento and Franco Ferrini struggled to come up with an effective ending (no foolin’) and remembers trying to coax the enigmatic smile required for the film’s closing shot out of Asia Argento, whom he describes as “handsome, attractive and talentish.” “Now everyone has gone their own way…” concludes MS “… but it was a very beautiful period of my life.” Nice.

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And what of The Church itself? On its release, almost (cripes!) thirty years ago, I reviewed the film with something less than whole-hearted enthusiasm… “style over substance” was the burden of my complaint against it. With hindsight and in the light of my previous championing of such comparably amorphous entities as Argento’s Inferno and Fulci’s The Beyond, that verdict does seem rather a perverse one. It was arrived at in the context of my expectations following Soavi’s stunning directorial debut Stagefright (1987), a cracking giallo (arguably the last worthwhile offering in that genre) that packed more than its fair share of visual flair but proceeded, nevertheless, along the ruthlessly logical lines of Luigi Montefiori’s script and producer Joe D’Amato’s commercial demands. At this remove, having very much enjoyed this Shameless release, I’m more inclined to celebrate Soavi’s wayward pictorial sense than to question it, especially in view of the Pasta Paura drought that we’ve suffered in recent decades.

The Church couldn’t be further removed from ruthless logic, opening with a posse of Teutonic Knights galloping through a lush forest at daybreak to the accompaniment of Keith Emerson’s infernal fugue (the film’s score, by Emerson, Philip Glass and Goblin – which at this point was effectively Fabio Pignatelli – is one aspect of The Church with which I’ve never had any issues). Acting on a hot tip-off from an over acting village idiot (Gianfranco De Grassi, “Curlie” from Aldo Lado’s notorious Night Train Murders), the knights storm the cave HQ of some devil worshipping peasants and put them to the sword.

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This sequence features a memorable cross-shaped P-O-V shot through a knight’s helmet visor, suggesting again a world shaped by a narrow world view. After the witches have been buried in a communal grave and the site marked with a huge cross, an epic steadicam shot brings us to the present day and to the cathedral which has been erected on this spot, where one of the presiding prelates is spaghetti splatter legend and Stagefright alumnus Giovanni Lombardo Radice aka John Morghen.

Yuppie dark ages buff Tomas Arana arrives at the church to assist Barbara Cupisti (another Stagefright alumnus and Soavi’s real life main squeeze while this movie was being made) in the restoration of a demonic mural (shades of Pupi Avati’s masterly The House With Laughing Windows), while scowling Father Feodor Chaliapin (Name Of The Rose, Inferno) sermonises endlessly about the ever-present threat of demons. Apparently the ghosts of those Teutonic knights are also hanging around the place, because somebody in the foley department is working overtime banging coconut shells together to render the signature hoof tattoos of their spectral mounts. Arana, who has already displaced a marked tendency towards flakiness with his preference for the perusal of medieval inscriptions over the charms of Cupisti, is possessed by evil spirits while prying into the basement pit of souls. We know that he’s possessed because he stops combing his hair, sits at a typewriter endlessly tapping out the legend “666” (yes, we’ve seen The Shining too) and starts foaming at the mouth over Asia Argento’s ankle socks. More spectacularly, Arana is later seen in a telephone box – not changing into a superhero costume, as you might think, but tearing out his own heart and offering the still pumping organ to a boiling blood-red sky.

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When the church warden skewers himself to the basement cross with a pneumatic drill he activates an intricate system of cogs and levers (just think of Howard Hawks’ Land Of The Pharaohs, and if you haven’t seen that try the board game “Mousetrap”) that seal our hapless protagonists (now including a party of school children, models and fashion photographers on a location shoot, and assorted tourists) off from the outside world. In connection with this the characters explicitly reference Fulcanelli, whose “Mysteries of The Cathedrals” tome also inspired Pupi Avatis’ The Arcane Enchanter, 1996 (though it was Avati himself who subsequently told me that Fulcanelli was a mythical rather than historical figure.)

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At this point the plot, which was already as creaky as one of those Medieval ratchet devices, flies out of the stained glass window as the increasingly bemused looking participants are left to wander around the cathedral confines, rapidly losing their marbles. Antonella Vitale, who for most of the film has little to do except flounce around looking gorgeous, is nearly squeezed to death by a wedding dress she’s modelling at one point, but the fact that Argento can manage such an arch comment on the state of his relationship with this actress can only have encouraged the above mentioned doubts about the authorship of La Chiesa. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that the only other memorable scene involving La Vitale (a ludicrous one in which she pulls her face off) has been crudely cribbed from Poltergeist, a film on which producer Stephen Spielberg reputedly called more shots than nominal director Tobe Hooper.

Soavi swears that Argento was no back seat director but here has been charged with cooking up something from an Argento outline so half-baked that it could probably induce listeria poisoning (“My brief to Michele was to explore the feelings I had about life in contemporary Germany beginning a new Middle Ages.”) The viewer will have to make up his / her own mind about the exact working relationship between director Soavi and the man who “presented” his second and third feature films.

Elsewhere a castor mounted demon is wheeled in to spirit a girl off into a cloister; two bikers tunnel their way out of the church, only to discover that the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train; an old buffer’s face literally rings a bell after his wife has decapitated him (off camera, regrettably, likewise the eagerly awaited demise of John Morghen) and a risible rubber fish monster leaps out of the font to clamp its latex jaws around an unfortunate bystander’s head. Stivaletti’s attempted show stopper is an Archimboldo demon head that finally bursts through the floor of the cathedral and reminded me of nothing so much as the climax to Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass And The Pit.

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The mounting confusion is hardly mitigated by the fact that various characters don’t let their deaths discourage them from returning to participate further in the escalating surreal shenanigans and in a heart warming cast reunion where they witness Arana (now in full Devil Rides Out billy-goat drag) and Cupisti restaging the devil impregnation scene from a certain Roman Polanski movie… and then that unconvincing coda.

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He’s so horny… horny, horny, horny…

The Shameless DVD looks OK but the music and sound effects seem to have been mixed kinda low. I wish they’d included a 5.1 audio option (when I saw La Chiesa in Rome on the big screen with a nice sound system, it proved to be a pretty immersive experience.) In fact I’d really like to have seen their (near) simultaneous Blu-ray release but you know what they say… bloggers can’t be choosers!

This release also comes with reversible sleeve options and for once I prefer the “newly commissioned art work” to the “classic” imagery on the flip… though I’m not sure they would have gotten away with it back in the heyday of the Video Packaging Review Committee… those pesky kids!

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Magic Flounders All Around Us… Dario Argento’s MOTHER OF TEARS Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. Optimum. 18.

After a quarter of a Century’s teasing, here it is… the “thought you’d never live to see it” conclusion to Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy kicked off by the audio-visual assault dished out to viewers in Suspiria (1976) and continued in the stylishly enigmatic Inferno (1980.) The first of those dealt with the Mother Of Sighs (running a ballet school in Friburg as a front for her malevolent coven) while its successor concerned the Mother Of Darkness, up to God-knows-what in an apartment block built for her by the alchemically-inclined author and architect Varelli. Inferno gave us a preview glimpse of the Third Mother (in the succulently pouting form of Ania Pieroni) but Argento cooled on the idea of completing the trilogy, perhaps because the second instalment (despite its ongoing cult following) did pretty much zip commercially and possibly on account of his estrangement from former muse Daria Nicolodi, who maintained a creative and financial stake in the franchise. Every so often, Argento would express an interest in reviving the project (invoking such intriguing prospects as Jennifer Connelly playing the weep inducing witch) though one always suspected that these announcements amounted to little more than ploys intended to prop up interest in a directorial career that was going rapidly off the boil, reaching its stone cold nadir with the cinematic triptych (Trauma / Stendhal Syndrome / Phantom Of The Opera) that was intended to launch the acting career of his and Daria’s daughter, Asia.

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Meanwhile Nicolodi and Argento acolyte Luigi Cozzi collaborated on the latter’s
De Profondis aka The Black Cat (1989), a typically confused and confusing Cozzi effort which starts as an unofficial and uninvited conclusion to Argento’s occult odyssey before mutating (at the insistence of paymasters Cannon) into one of the countless Poe adaptations that were littering contemporary screens, with a squirt of Philip K. Dick introduced, a propos of nothing, at the death (which it effectively was for Cozzi’s directorial career.) That oddity notwithstanding, the trilogy has lacked a proper crowning piece… until now.

So why now? (where “now” = 2007) Perhaps John Moore’s 2006 Omen remake was a particularly big hit in Italy (certainly should have been, featuring as it does the godlike thespian genius of our old pal “John Morghen” / Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Whatever… does Mother Of Tears pass its MOT test? Surely there must be more substance to it than to Cozzi’s undoubtedly entertaining but ultimately shambolic concoction? Well no, not really, though of course a senseless schlock-fest from Dario Argento is always going to be an altogether more polished and up market proposition than one by his erstwhile assistant.

The action (and boy, there’s a lot of it) kicks off with the exhumation of a monk and a sealed casket covered in occult runes during the development of a piece of land outside Rome.  At the Eternal City’s antiquities museum, professor Giselle Mares (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni from Opera and Demons 2) and her assistant Sarah Mandy (Aaargh, it’s Asia again) open the casket but soon wish they hadn’t. The former is disembowelled and strangled with her own chitlins by cultists who want the contents of the box (a red, rune-covered robe, a fuck off ceremonial knife and several grotesque fetish figures) to facilitate the revival of Mater Lachrymarum’s  dark powers. As Rome descends into violent chaos, Sarah is obliged to confront the oncoming Apocalypse with the aid of her own rapidly awakening magic powers and the advice and encouragement she receives from pop-up blurry visions of her dead mother (Nicolodi, looking in every respect a shadow of her former self).

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“Hey, did you ever see that film, The Beyond?” “Never mind that… you can see our house from here!”

From here on in, up to the film’s arbitrary anticlimax, Argento packs in plenty of mortifying violence. Taking its cue from Hostel and its ilk, also following on from his own contributions to the Masters Of Horror cable TV series, this is hands down il Maestro’s goriest offering yet and also establishes another personal record with unprecedented levels of female nudity…. very nice, too. Characterisation is as flimsy as ever… Sarah’s lover Adam James and cop Cristian Solimeno could easily be cut straight out of the picture without anybody noticing the difference. Unfortunately the same could be said for Udo Kier, his presence here a token attempt to invoke the glories of Suspiria. As Father Johannes he also gets to mouth lines from Inferno, when not ranting  about the onset of “The Second Age Of Witches” (sorry, the first one appears to have passed me by.) To be fair, Kier’s grisly demise (in a picture that’s not exactly short of them) does provide Mother Of Tears with one of its most memorable moments. Discovering his possessed housekeeper tucking into the corpse of her infant son, he registers his dismay at this turn of events and is promptly dismembered on the staircase with an opportunely placed axe, neatly referencing another classic moment of Spaghetti Splatter hysteria, his death scene in Margheriti and Morrissey’s Blood For Dracula, 1973 (commemorated below.)

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Mind the doors!

Sarah develops a similarly summary and cavalier attitude towards human life (a witch glares at our heroine on a train so Sarah squashes her head to pulp in a door… when her boyfriend expresses some vaguely pro-witch sentiments she sets fire to him!) as The Eternal City descends into the thrall of Evil,though this process is not rendered particularly convincingly.

Italian exploitation directors, God bless ’em, have always struggled to portray the onset of The Apocalypse in a believable manner… remember the climax of Fulci’s marvellous Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), where a frenzied voice over attempt to convince us that New York is going into meltdown doesn’t quite gel with the closing visuals, in which shit faced deadsters stagger over the Brooklyn bridge while traffic proceeds in a perfectly orderly fashion beneath them? And what of Enzo Castellari’s New Barbarians (1982) and its post nuclear ilk… don’t start me! Similarly, Argento’s vision of “the second fall of Rome” comprises people scuffling on street corners as Asia walks down the road, and heavily made-up sluts in Goth gear shouting drunken abuse at passers-by… Dario, if I took you for a drink down my local high street next Saturday night you’d see far worse, mate!

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Girl Power spirals out of control in Mother Of Tears…

When Sarah seeks help from two of her mother’s spooky friends, a couple of lesbian witches, one has eyes gouged out and the other is fucked to death with a harpoon! Sarah must rely on her own burgeoning paranormal powers to locate the ongoing Sabbat in Rome’s catacombs that is responsible for all of this nonsense. In fact, all she has to do is follow a bunch of Hell’s Harpies then wade through showers of shit and pools of human offal (Jennifer Connelly did all of this and more for Argento in Phenomena and eventually won an Oscar, so maybe it’ll do the trick for Asia too) before witnessing the Satanic knees-up in question, which comprises mainly Hostel-style dismemberment plus some far out and, for the most part, physically impossible sexual unions (this stuff looking like out takes from Bran Yuzna’s Society) presided over by Ma Waterworks herself, in the sumptuous form of Israeli model / actress Moran Atias. “Who wants to eat the girl?” she asks her followers, indicating Sarah’s prone form (I’ll pass on Asia, who looks a bit sinewy, but would happily accept an invitation to a fish supper from Ms Atias anytime) before the good guys snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in improbable fashion.

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Mama Mia!

OK, let’s run down some of the problems with this picture… the misconceived fumetti inserts stick out like septic thumbs, the pointless outbreaks of CGI look more than ever as though they’ve been included just to keep FX man Sergio Stivaletti happy, DP Frederic Fasano’s attempts to invoke the cinematography of Suspiria and Inferno come across as distinctly half-assed and Claudio Simonetti’s “Original” Sound Track is similarly regurgitative of former glories. Once again Argento moves his camera around in disappointingly pedestrian style… no abseiling over the Konigsplatze here! As an unexpected plus point though, Asia didn’t grate on my nerves anything like as much as usual!

Does MOT make any kind of “sense”? Clearly not, though exactly same charge could be levelled at its highly rated predecessors. Does it employ everything but the kitchen sink (and that’ll probably turn up in some future “director’s cut”) en route to a finale that fizzles out like a wet fart? Sure, but again that’s entirely consistent with the first two-thirds of the series. In its general tone, is Mother Of Tears “like” Suspiria and Inferno? No (in fact there are closer parallels with the La Chiesa / La Setta brace that Argento produced for Michele Soavi in the early ‘90s) but then Suspiria and Inferno were hardly “like” each other, where they?

As I post this review, Luca Guadagnino is directing an Argento-approved reboot of Suspiria intended for release forty years after the original. I seriously doubt that anybody will consider it worth their while to remake Mother Of Tears in 2047.

MOT is crisply transferred in its original screen ratio (2.35:1) for Optimum’s DVD release. Bonus material is restricted to a theatrical trailer.

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Don’t like the look of yours much…

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