Monday, 31 March 2008

Phantom of the Paradise tribute site

Very nice site dedicated to Brian de Palma's The Phantom of the Paradise, an important Argento intertext:

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Some questions

I've been thinking a lot about dubbing and subtitling cultures and their effects on how we receive and understand a film.

My impression is that in the UK he distinction between the subtitling and dubbing has historically been a strong one and that in the 1960s or 1970s the circuit on which a Italian (specifically) film would circulate was strongly dependent on which conventions it followed.

Putting it very crudely and reductively, I get the sense that subtitles equalled art equalled a middle class arthouse audience whilst dubbing equalled entertainment equalled a lower class fleapit audience.

But what I'm wondering is how things played out in other countries and of what the longer term legacy has been with regard to the film cultures that developed - e.g. is Argento a more 'respectable' figure for more 'mainstream' critical discussion in France partly because there was more of a dubbing culture and thus less of a class prejudice between films and audiences?

I'm thinking, for example, of the 'official' position of a Cahiers du cinema compared to the BFI, of Thoret's auteur study of Argento published by Cahiers' imprint against the BFI's Companion to Italian Cinema with its clear sense of awkwardness as far as names like Bava and Argento are concerned.

Anyone got any insights from where they are to help fill out my UK-centric picture?

Baciamo le mani / Kiss My Hand / Mafia War / Family Killer

Though obviously inspired by and in the style of The Godfather, this is one of those films which showcases the strengths of the filone cinema by putting a distinctive twist on its material in expressing a preference for more downbeat, fatalistic and realistic resolutions whereby the black hats tend to triumph over the light and dark grey hats.

The bad guys are represented by Gaspare Ardizzone, effectively played by John Saxon in scenery-chewing mode. He’s decided that the old ways are outmoded and that honour and respect matter little compared to money and power. His first act, the one which propels the rest of the narrative, is to summarily gun down one of the Ferrante family.

They’re the less bad guys. Godfather figure Angelino Ferrante, played by Arthur Kennedy with appropriate dignity and restraint, is the traditionalist who finds himself fighting an ever more difficult battle to keep his family together. Whereas some quiet words were once sufficient to settle disputes, now it is easier to resort to murder as a first rather than last resort; the rules of the business have changed.

The point where the difference between Baciamo le mani and The Godfather is perhaps most evident, however, is in the Michael Corleone type quiet one among Angelino’s sons, Massimo. Rather than getting drawn into the family business, Massimo wants nothing to do with it. Though he goes to New York to be with his older brother Luciano, this is very much against the wishes of his father, for whom “America is like a sickness”.

While the experience encourages Massimo to change his mind and plan a return to Palermo to set things right, he’s then randomly stabbed to death by a junkie before he can put this into effect; a doubly ironic demise given that this same junkie is likely a consumer of the product the Ferrante family have reluctantly become involved in trafficking, and which would surely have formed an important plank in his own acceptance of the new realities.

Featuring good use of locations and some striking compositions, the main area where the film falls short of its rival is that of duration. Often we don’t get a sufficient sense of how much time passes between scenes, as when the widowing of Mariuccia Ferrante is quickly followed by her becoming pregnant by her deceased husband’s right hand. Towards the end things perhaps also become that bit too “action movie” and perfunctory with a corresponding loss of epic and tragic dimensions and details. Then again, this could conceivably be turned into a strength of sorts, as yet another indication that the old ways and world have now passed. (One here thinks especially of Leone’s Once Upon a Time… films, or of Visconti’s The Leopard.)

The origins of Baciamo le mani are worth noting, with director Vittorio Schiraldi – only in his early 30s at the time – adapting his own novel of the same name. Though he has a few other noteworthy writing credits to his name, including two unusually critical and thought-provoking gialli, L’Assoluto Naturale and Il Gatto dagli occhi di giada, Schiraldi only ever directed one other film, the war documentary Lettere dal fronte. We don’t seem, that is, to be dealing with your typical genre filmmaker and, for better more than worse, it shows.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Eglima sto Kavouri / Death Kiss / The Rape Killer

We start off in what seems like Torso territory as a masked, black-gloved figure stalks a couple in a car in order that he may indulge in a spot of rape and murder. There's a difference, however, inasmuch as we first see the masked killer donning his gear and that he's wearing a regular stocking mask that doesn't particularly obscure his features anyway.

The masked killer, sort of

As such, it's not too much of a surprise when we then move onto something more reminiscent to The Killer Must Kill Again with the introduction of playboy ship captain Dimitris/Jim (Larry Daniels / Lakis Komnikos), his wife Eleni (Dorothy Moore) and mistress Laura (Jane Paterson).

Sure you don't want to call it Eastwoodcolor?

Dimitris likes Eleni's wealth and willingness to spend her money on him. He doesn't like her nor being dependent on her. Knowing that the maniac, Mikos/Mike (Vagelis Seilinos), is an ex-colleague, Dimitris thus concocts a plan:

“Ellen is going to be the next woman to be murdered. The police are expecting another murder. And there's going to be another one. He'll kill her and give me a flesh wound. It'll follow the same pattern as the other two murders. It's the only way I could think of to be rid of Ellen and keep my hands on the money.”

The killer is on the phone

The film's main weakness is that the set-up for this murder is a touch too elaborate to really be believable. Given that Dimitris knows Mikos is also a psychopath and a drug user and that Mikos already suspects Dimitris will betray rather than pay him off, is it really plausible that Dimitris would request Mikos shoot him in the shoulder and then beat him about the head with a rock? Isn't there a rather large chance of something “accidentally” going wrong, of receiving a mortal rather than a flesh wound?

The Killer Must Kill Again featured a similarly iconic 'Dracula carrying his victim into the castle' shot, if one remembers correctly

The Killer Must Kill Again was more convincing in this regard. George Hilton's playboy Giordio Mainardi did not try to overcomplicate things and took more opportunistic advantage of Antoine St John's unnamed killer, whom he had happened upon in the middle of disposing of a previous victim, without giving much thought to whether he had really found the ideal man for the job.

“A psychopath's not a professional,” to paraphrase Reservoir Dogs's Mr White.

Professional, however, is unquestionably what the filmmakers themselves are. Eglima sto Kavouri / Death Kiss is a well-crafted, suspenseful little thriller which keeps you engrossed as the conspirators attempt to double cross one another and the police seek to figure out what is really going on. Put another way, it's the kind of film where potential plot holes are sufficiently stitched up and the viewer stitched in – or “sutured” if we want to use theory-speak – until afterwards.

Some measure of their success can perhaps be gleaned from the fact that, if you ignored the characters' names and that of director Kostas Karagiannis along with an otherwise unnecessary folk dancing interlude, you could easily be fooled into believing this was an Italian rather than a Greek production. The requisite details are there: the subjective camera; self-reflexive use of voyeuristic devices like camera and binocular shots; the nightclub/disco scene and lots of modish, if now dated, 70s styles and designs.

Laura and Dimitros

It clearly worked, insofar as the film also secured international distribution thanks to Joseph Brenner Associates, who retitled it as The Rape Killer and unleased it on US grindhouse and drive-in audiences along with the likes of Autopsy, Eyeball and – to bring us right back to where we started – Torso.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Epigram for discussion of Tenebre?

"Sometimes I like to say that to read a book is to consider its author as already dead and the book as posthumous." (Hans-Georg Gadamer)

Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Bad Old Days

Earlier this week I got the Tony Anthony spaghetti western Comin’ At Ya! The problem was that the film is shot in 3D and thus requires red/green lenses to really be experienced properly.

Yesterday I was tidying up and found an old issue of Video World from 1992, which a friend had given me because it had an article on Lucio Fulci in it. The same issue also turned out to have a 3D Freddy’s Dead poster and glasses: Result!

I also re-read the Fulci piece, which is by Allan Bryce and was written to coincide with the UK video releases of four Fulci video nasties – Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery – by the notorious VIPCO.

It’s an intriguing time capsule of the bad old days, both for the heavily cut product and for showing what passed as horror film writing in the more mainstream media at the time:

“Nobody in their right mind could make the case for Fulci being a great film-maker. It’s just the opposite. His pictures are usually very poorly written, woodenly performed and clumsily directed. Their sole saving grace is the gore content, which is usually as high as Oliver Reed’s bar bill.”

I’m sure Stephen Thrower and most of us who have bothered to investigate Fulci’s wider filmography would beg to differ on this count.

Fulci may not have been a great film-maker (whatever that means) but nor was he as devoid of talent as Bryce seems to think. Indeed, in contradistinction to the “poorly written” line a few paragraphs later Bryce actually remarks on Fulci’s “sterling efforts at writing” comedy scripts in the 1960s.

What’s more amusing from a contemporary perspective is Bryce’s identification of The Psychic as Fulci’s “first brush with out-and-out gore,” in the form of the face smashing off cliff face sequence. Bryce does not, that is, recognise the origins of this in the earlier Don’t Torture a Duckling (which he refers to as The Long Night of Exorcism, as a translation of its French title) nor seem to recognise that Schizoid – i.e. Lizard in a Woman’s Skin – was originally released considerably earlier than 1979.

Thank $deity that Video Watchdog, European Trash Cinema, Giallo Pages and all the rest provided an alternative – even if, not having the backing of Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell, they couldn’t get into newsagents in the way a Video World could.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Così sia / They Called Him Amen

Has anyone seen the 1972 western Così sia / They Called Him Amen, directed by and co-starring Alfio Caltabiano? Dario Argento has a co-writing credit on it, which I would guess must be for an old script dating back three or four years. Intriguingly one of the keywords to describe the film on IMDB is 'gay,' leading me to also wonder if there are any quirky gay characters along the lines of those in the Animal Trilogy.


La Rossa dalla pelle che scotta / The Red Headed Corpse / The Sensuous Doll

Written and directed by Renzo Russo, this is one of the stranger gialli out there – if, that is, it can actually be called a giallo. It certainly features a number of characteristic giallo tropes: an alienated, artistic protagonist; a femme fatale figure or three; conspiracy and mystery and, above all, lots of mannequin action and imagery.

It's the last aspect which also, however, offsets the others to some extent, insofar as we're never too sure what's actually going on and what to make of the femme fatale, the conspiracy and the mystery which seem, instead, to have just as much in common with an E T A Hoffmann fantastique.

At one point a Mr Gonzales goes to the police station to report a missing person. Asked to name her, he hesitates, tellingly opening with the remark that “to me she was my doll, my sensuous doll,” while the direction focuses on his hands to the exclusion of his face. As he confesses to breaking into a house in search of the missing woman we get what would otherwise be a classic giallo subjective camera stalking scene, except for the fact that we know the identity – yet still not the face – of the stalker.

Living, bleeding doll?

It's possible that the version of the film I saw, with the title of Sweet Spirits, had been re-edited so that this scene appeared out of sequence. Nevertheless such changes would appear to have only added to a weirdness that was already there, with a blending of past and present, dream and reality throughout that demand an active involvement in making sense of the film.

What is clear is that Farley Granger plays an unsuccessful, alcoholic artist by the name of John Ward. The dealers don't want his paintings and he refuse to change his style or subject to meet the tastes of the market.

One day while out walking in the woods he happens upon a group of hippies, one of whom gives him a mannequin. “She's better than the real thing – she's always there and she'll never talk back to you,” he explains. Ward takes the mannequin home and repairs its damaged face: “I'll fix you up. You'll see.”

A composition that would likely look even more impressive in the proper aspect ratio

Later, in a bar, he meets a hooker who, on learning that he is an artist, suggests that she could model for him.

Back home, this seems to cause him to imagine that the mannequin has come to life, though at this point she remains silent and passive.

After some drinks, Ward falls asleep with his model/mannequin/muse. On awakening she has changed into another woman (Erika Blanc) and now talks to him.

After again being told that what the market wants is naked women, the model/mannequin/muse suggests that she might pose for John.

Pictures of Lily, er Erica

Reluctantly he agrees – they do need the money. The resulting painting sells and the dealers want more. So does the model: “Don't forget the chocolate, and the stockings – and bring me a few magazines.” More than this, however, she also takes another lover, in the form of a local huntsman, the aforementioned Gonzales (Venantino Venantini), and attracts the attentions of one of the dealers, Omar Bey.

Erica in seductive mode

It can all only end badly – if, that is, we can even say that there is such a thing as an ending in a film like this.

For taken as a whole it's a bit like that famous mobius strip sequence in Bava's Kill Baby Kill where, walking through the castle in pursuit of the child, Paul Eswai ends up also chasing after himself; perhaps not coincidentally a similar image appeared in The Archers' Tales of Hoffman, in the Antonia story segment, with that film's Olympia segment featuring a similar red-headed mannequin come to life who also meets a similarly disturbing end.

The Granger/Blanc relationship intriguingly recalls that between John and Mildred Harrington in A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, another Bava film which pushed the boundaries of giallo representation, while Blanc's dualistic character has affinities with her role as the succubus temptress in The Devil's Nightmare – indeed at one point she even wears a similar “threw it on and nearly missed” navel-revealing dress.

Gradually, that is, it all starts to make sense...

If, however, working at this isn't your thing there are the incidentals: the pleasing easy listening score; Granger's method-esque performance (the only person I can imagine playing the role better would be Frank Wolff); some nice little directorial touches, like ending a scene and coveng Granger's character's mood by having Granger him walk into the camera; and, of course, all that eye-candy.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Monday, 17 March 2008

The neo-nasty menace?

[This is another piece for the writing on film class I'm doing which I thought I'd share here; comments and suggestions on improvements / errors welcome]

According to right-thinking types British society is under threat from media violence as never before. “Torture porn,” the Internet, gangsta rap and computer games are breeding a generation of desensitised young men. Unable to distinguish between image and reality they rape, assault and kill without compunction. Just as we need to be saved from them, they need to be saved from these media by more vigilant censorship.

Things recently came to a head with the private members bill by Conservative Member of Parliament Julian Brazier, in which he argued for giving MPs the ability to overrule British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) decisions. Though the bill stood little chance of becoming law and was defeated, the debates within Parliament and the mass media were very interesting for a number of reasons. First, because of the crossing of party lines in the debate, with Brazier gaining his most prominent support from Labour MP Keith Vaz and the bill being criticised by both Conservative and Labour MPs. Second, because the arguments of Brazier, Vaz and their supporters in the media were really nothing other than the same old story that we had seen a quarter-century ago with the original “video nasties” affair. Third, because the response, as expressed in Internet discussions, including comments made on the websites of the same media, showed the extent to which Brazier and Vaz were out of touch with large sections of the public they claimed to represent. This last aspect was somewhat new and shows what the politicians and pundits perhaps most fear: the emergence of an informed population able to use new technology to route around censorship and misinformation.

Brazier singled out a number of different films in the parliamentary debate around his bill, including Gaspar Noé's Irreversible (a glamorisation of rape, according to the MP) and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (too violent, apparently). I want, however, to concentrate on something rather less critically respectable than these art house auteurs: Sergio Garrone's Nazi exploitation shocker SS Experiment Camp.

As it so happens Garrone's thirty year old film was one of those which had kick-started the original “video nasties” affair of the early 1980s. A history lesson: to the major studios the emergence of home video in the late 1970s and early 1980s represented a threat rather than an opportunity. Wary of losing theatrical sales, they declined to release big name films onto video or at best released them after a long wait. This created a vacuum for product which was filled by a large number of small scale entrepreneurs who bought up the rights to just about any film they could. Seeking to drum up interest in a marketplace that was thus growing more and more crowded by the day, SS Experiment Camp's distributors Go Video actually sent self-appointed moral watchdog Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA) promotional artwork for the video, which depicted a near-naked woman suspended upside down on a crucifix alongside a leering SS man, posing as a concerned member of the public. Whitehouse took the bait, the media ran with the story and rentals/sales of the video duly increased. It was classic exploitation film ballyhoo, and exploitation of that exploitation by the NVLA. It would be repeated, with minor variations, by other companies such as VIPCO, with their lurid “the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone” promotional artwork and copy for Abel Ferrara's Driller Killer, and World of Video 2000, with their guess-the-weight-of-the-damaged-brain competition for Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, with equal effect upon sales. Everyone won, at least for a while. The problem for Go and their competitors was that the lurid advertising campaigns soon proved to have worked that bit too well. Whitehouse and company had sunk their fangs in on the issue and were not going to let go.

Seeing a convenient scapegoat that distracted attention from the effects of her own government's economic and social policies, Margaret Thatcher quickly jumped on the bandwagon and, to cut a long story short, the Video Recordings Act was born and quickly passed by Parliament. Through the provisions of the VRA a relatively small number of films were banned outright. It became illegal to sell or offer them for sale. All other films had to be certificated by the BBFC before they could be legally released on video. As a result, a far larger number of films simply disappeared, because it was prohibitively expensive to pay for the privilege of having them checked by the BBFC examiner, who might also require cuts and resubmission. The (un)anticipated consequence of the former provision was to give the banned films a lasting cachet and create a black market for them. The (un)anticipated consequence of the latter was to take the video industry out of the hands of the small players and return it to the major studios who could afford to take a high-profile film like Rambo back to the BBFC again and again until a satisfactory compromise was reached over its home format content and certificate.

Fast forward 20 or so years or, rather, chapter skip to the late noughties.

The government has changed, though dissatisfaction with Nü-Labour's opportunistic abandonment of its old principles and policies is growing. The NVLA has likewise mutated, becoming Mediawatch after Whitehouse's death but otherwise repeating the same old mantras. New technologies have emerged, most crucially DVD and the Internet, along with new issues of control phrased in the same old terms of new and unprecedented threats to the young and impressionable.

Reacting against the major players' attempts to artificially control the DVD market through the use of Region Coding, which divides the world up into a number of different zones and makes most content region specific, keen film enthusiasts quickly spotted the potential of having region-free players and importing otherwise unavailable releases on-line retailers. After all, it was not against the law to purchase banned films, only to sell them. But, if a retailer is not located within the UK, then UK laws like the VRA do not apply to them. True, the horror fan who sought to import an uncut SS Experiment Camp from abroad was still taking a chance: customs might open their package, declare the contents legally obscene, have them destroyed and issue a fine or court summons. But it was a calculated risk that paid off more often than not. Horror fans were finally getting the chance to see uncut films again and British society could hardly be said to have collapsed as a result.

In truth, the video nasties appealed only to a relatively small and self-selecting audience, perfectly capable of maintaining a critical distance from the films for the most part. Read an online debate about the cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi, for instance, and it's clear how the fans are capable of saying why the former director's Cannibal Holocaust is a technically, aesthetically and intellectually superior film to the latter's Cannibal Ferox – which to be sure the cynic might say is not exactly difficult – without endorsing the films' putative racism or the killing of animals on screen.

If anyone was losing out here it was the UK based DVD distributor or retailer whose hands were effectively tied by the VRA. Yet over the course of the last few years the majority of nasties have in fact been re-released, sometimes with significant cuts by the BBFC – the animal cruelty of the aforementioned cannibal films contravenes earlier animal welfare legislation, which few would presumably wish to oppose – but more and more with only minor cuts or on a number of occasions none whatsoever.

In this the BBFC was responding to public opinion, canvassed through a number of high-profile consultation and research exercises, and a growing body of effects research based on more sophisticated models of the audience-text relationship. Adult audiences increasingly wanted to be treated like adults and be allowed to watch a film such as SS Experiment Camp if they so desired.

Indeed anyone over 18 had actually already been free to buy or rent the film, which had been passed by the BBFC uncut and released on DVD at the end of 2006 for over a year by the time it came to Brazier's attention. It could hardly be said that society had changed significantly for the worse in this time as a result of the film's availability nor that there had been any clear upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents that could be traced to the film.

So why bother with it? The answer should be obvious: it was an easy and obvious target: what sort of sick individual would watch a film called SS Experiment Camp, never mind attempt to defend it. Now, as it so happens the film is ineptly made and often outright laughter inducing, hard to take serious at any level – never more than when one recently castrated male victim utters the immortal line “you bastard, what have you done with my balls?” The “horrifying experiments of the SS” are more camp than anything else. They may be stupid and distasteful, but when has either ever provided an adequate reason for censorship? Just ask Eli Roth, the Jewish director of another Brazier target, the so-called “torture porn” films Hostel and Hostel II, who recently contributed a spoof “Nazisploitation” trailer to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's homage to trash cinema, Grindhouse.

Indeed, if there's the hint of exploitation attaching to anyone here, I would suggest that it is to Brazier and politicians like him, with their characteristic singling out of deviant minorities such as trash film fans, practitioners of BDSM or players of 'violent' video games like in the expectation that few will prove willing to stand up for them.

Yet this is another place where things are changing as a result of new technology. And, more importantly, changing for the better. While there were certainly dissenting voices at the time of the original video nasties campaign, it was difficult for them to be heard. Newspapers could only publish so many letters to the editor and would exercise a greater degree of control over which were selected. Today, by contrast, comments such as that by Dr B Flaks in response to a Times online opinion piece, “Stop this debasing film,” can find a place:
“In a free and civilized country there should be no need for any argument to stop the kind of censorship that we endured twenty years ago. I lived through the despicable 'Mary Whitehouse' period and have no wish to see that repeated. In order to watch such films people have to make the effort to go out and buy them – they will not see them by accident. If anyone does watch it and is disturbed by it, that says more about the viewer than the film.

The protection we do need is from venal and stupid politicians and from activists who would like to dictate to their compatriots what they can see or read.”

The politician's response to arguments like this is often predictable: it is fine for educated, middle class types to watch a SS Experiment Camp, but it needs to be kept out of the hands of the plebian masses who can't be relied upon to take care of their children. The problem with such arguments, besides what amounts to a patronising class-based racism, is that absolutely anything can and does inspire the psychotic individual. Take the case of Pierre Williams, sentenced to 38 years in prison for the murder of his former partner and her children. The text which Williams drew inspiration from was however not SS Experiment Camp or any other ex- or neo-nasty but the Bible. As the Times online reported:

“A container of cocoa butter at the crime scene became significant when a Bible was found in Williams’s possession: three pages were underlined in ballpoint pen and the words “special oil” high-lighted in three places. Detectives also found several other significant passages underlined, including: “Moses took some of the special oil and some of the blood which was on the altar and he sprinkled them on Aaron and Aaron’s clothes.””

So can we expect to a call for banning the Bible next?

A Special Train for Hitler

Just finished watching this Eurocine WWII Nazi exploitation. Two thoughts come to mind:

1. The way Eurocine uses its stock footage of tanks and battles is almost avant-garde, in that Ed Wood pre-empting the situationists way. Presumably Jean-Pierre Bouyxou was well aware of this; hell, he may even have theorised it already for all I know.

2. It's like Mother Courage and Her Children with spanking scenes.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Altar of Giallo

Just happened to discover this Spanish death metal band, Altar of Giallo:

Their song titles reference black gloves and Umberto Lenzi films; I would guess anybody who likes Necrophagia might find them a fun listen...

Little Bava article by yours truly

On Cinefantastique online:

Thanks to Steve for inviting me to write it; it's for a Bava retrospective in Los Angeles and there are various other Bava pieces on the site, so even if this one doesn't tell you anything new you may find something of more interest elsewhere there.

Modestly; the appropriate tone for a director who once said that he only ever made bullshits...

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Cinema fumetto nerosexy fantastique western saderotik estetica pop italiana 1960-1773

This latest volume in Glittering Images’ long running Bizarre Sinema series of exquisitely produced dual-language coffee-table style volumes looking at Italian cinema and popular culture focuses on the relationship between fumetti and film between the years 1960 and 1973.

Those familiar with Stefano Piselli and company’s other books will know what to expect: sometimes odd translations from Italian to English that nevertheless add to the what the authors might term naïf charm of the whole, much like the reproduction of a cowboy comic strip advertisement for Negroni salami in which the black hat pursued by the sheriff is one Bennye Ross, and, far more importantly, a treasure trove of information on these obscure old films and fumetti, all lavishly illustrated with stills, posters, ad mats and more.

It’s the photo of Jean Sorel and Elsa Martinelli as Diabolik and Eva Kant from Seth Holt’s ill-fated attempt to bring the Giussani sister’s seminal character to the screen; the tantalising page of an essay on Isabella by future Baba Yaga director Corrado Farina; the image of the blank-faced creatures controlled by the vampire lord in Maciste Contro il Vampiro, a legion of Blood and Black Lace-alike masked killers; the pop-art and fumetti styled advertising campaigns for Shell petrol directed by Elio Petri after The Tenth Victim

As can be seen from these examples the range of titles discussed by the authors is wider than might be expected, encompassing not only the more familiar – all those with an anti-hero whose name begins or ends with K, like Diabolik, Satanik, Kriminal and Sadik – and less well known fumetti adaptations – the jungle-girl adaptations of 1967-69 like Gungula and Samoa, Regina della giungla that perhaps present an under-explored link between the mondo, emanuelle nera and cannibal-survival filone – but also all manner of titles, be they westerns, horror, spy, arthouse or just plain weird and unclassifiable that partook of the fumetti spirit.

Though a slim volume, with only 90 or so printed pages, there’s enough in Cine fumetto to keep you going for a while…

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Probabilità zero / Probability Zero

A RAF plane equipped with experimental radar is shot down over occupied Norway. The whole course of the war could be affected if German scientists can figure out how to repair, replicate and use it.

Duke (Henry Silva) of SOE is charged with the job of intercepting the destroying the wreckage of the plane. The mission goes according to plan but it soon emerges that the Germans were one step ahead. Duke and the local Norwegian resistance attacked a well-disguised decoy.

The real radar equipment has been delivered to an impregnable laboratory deep inside a cavern only reachable by sea and a cliff-face climb.

Worse, the pilot and radar operator is still alive and can surely be persuaded to talk, “ve have vays” style…

Though reconnaissance and intelligence evaluates the probability of a successful raid on the laboratory at zero, Duke obtains permission from the top brass to undertake the suicide mission with a hand-picked team of individuals with little or nothing to lose.

Duke’s first recruit is the Brit John McCarding, an expert climber court-martialled for alleged cowardice that resulted in the deaths of three of his colleagues and who is desperate to prove his innocence. (McCarding’s accent sounds Scottish, though he’s described as “the best climber in England” by Duke.)

His second is Carlo “Charlie” Sardi (Luigi Castellato), an Italian POW who was the only one of six men who undertook a daring midget submarine raid to survive. Though happy to languish in the safety of the POW camp where he fleeces the other prisoners at three card monte, the camp commander correctly surmises that Carlo’s services in operating the submarine bomb can be bought if the price is right.

His third is Sam Schultz (Enzo Sancriotti), a sailor and smuggler who speaks Norwegian and knows the region’s coastline like the back of his hand. Sam is a reluctant ‘volunteer’ for the mission having been caught smuggling contraband by his new commanding officer. Indeed, he soon pledges to kill Duke when the chance presents itself.

The final member of Duke’s team is Sam (Pietro Martellanza / Peter Martell) a good all-rounder and expert frogman with a distinct attitude problem.

En route to Norway the group are intercepted by a German patrol boat, whose crew they easily overcome.

On reaching the Norwegian coast, Schultz decides that his mission is over and attempts to sneak away and swim for shore, taking some scuba gear with him. Worried that their mission could be betrayed and taking the opportunity to demonstrate to the others that he means business – not a difficult task when you’re Henry Silva, it has to be said – Duke calmly shoots the deserter in the back.

Though the four men reach their contacts in the resistance without further incident, Schultz’s body is found by the Nazis who note the American calibre of the bullet within it…

This 1968 war movie was directed by Maurizio Lucidi, one of those talented directors who seems to have flitted between filone without ever really excelling in any or producing the quantity of output to establish much of a name for himself. As such, it’s likely that most audiences will approach Probability Zero more for its star, Henry Silva or as a chance to see an example of what scenarist and co-screenwriter Dario Argento was doing in between Once Upon a Time in the West and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Given that Argento has indicated that he felt no particular enthusiasm for the war genre and found many of his writing assignments during this time to be disappointingly routine, his writing here proves better than might have been anticipated. Character and situation are well-defined, with some worthwhile attempts to go beyond cliché such as the juxtaposition of the over-familiar ruthless SS type utterly dedicated to the glory of the Third Reich with his more humane and pragmatic Wermacht colleague who reluctantly plays deadly games with the lives of his men:

“To die for the Fuhrer is an honour”

“No one who dies finds death honourable – that’s a quote from Goethe.”

“Captain, your remarks sound dangerously anti-German.”

One reason for the film’s success here is perhaps that the difference between being a western and a war movie often came down to a matter of historical location and trappings at this time: If The Good, The Bad and the Ugly situates its “two magnificent rogues’” treasure hunt against a Civil War backdrop, they also experience WWI trenches and WWII concentration camps by proxy. If A Bullet for the General sees an American agent go on a mission in revolutionary-era Mexico, it is also a thinly-veiled commentary on 1960s US imperial adventures.

According to Will Wright in Sixguns and Society the narrative structure of westerns as a whole changed between the 1930s and the 1970s in relation to shifts in the nature of American capitalism. In the earlier period, the bond between hero and society was stronger, with the hero acting to save the weak society from the villain. By the 1960s, however, this connection had largely broken down. While the hero might still save the society through his actions – as here, if we read the film as a displaced western – it was less relevant to his relationship with the rest of his group and / or with the villain, with whom he shared a common professional bond. (Richard Brooks’s The Professionals, in which four specialists go to rescue a Texan millionaire’s wife from the Mexican bandito who has kidnapped her is exemplary here.)

Though Wright’s model has been criticised by Christopher Frayling as far as the Italian western is concerned – criticisms that seem especially valid given its accelerated developmental pace and looser generic boundaries compared to the American western, it provide some useful ideas to play with: referring to Probability Zero’s obvious model and predecessor in Argento’s work, are we dealing with a reinterpretation of The Dirty Dozen or of Five Man Army?

In truth, however, for the average viewer none of this matters. Even with a panned and scanned, washed out video that is less than ideal for showcasing the rugged scenery and the action set piece, Probability Zero works, and works whether we read it as a war or western movie. Everyone – writer, director, cast, crew – does the their thing to the best of their professional abilities, with the result a solid, gritty action-adventure that engages the audience.

One curiosity is Carlo Rustichelli’s incidental music, with many cues sounding very similar – perhaps even identical – to those in his gialli and gothic scores for Bava and, as such, a little out of place at times. Then again, this only adds to the difficulty in placing the film versus acknowledging its accomplishments…

Fragment of Fear

Reformed drug addict Tim Brett (David Hemmings) has managed to turn his life around. He is about to be married and his first book, recounting his experiences, has just been published.

Visiting Italy, David is congratulated by his eccentric Aunt Lucy (Flora Robson).

A keen philanthropist who has dedicated her life to helping ex-convicts, she wonders whether Tim might not help his former junkie friends overcome their addictions rather than avoid them or, when David proves reluctant, pass on their names.

Shortly thereafter Aunt Lucy is found murdered.

Her funeral is attended only by Tim and an Italian friend (Adolfo Celi), though there is also a wreath from the mysterious Stepping Stones group.

Back in England, Tim goes to visit his aunt's old acquaintances and again hears about the Stepping Stones, the charitable foundation established by his aunt after the murder of her husband 35 years before.

On the train, an eccentric if harmless seeming woman engages Tim in conversation and gives him a letter, not to be opened before he reaches home. The letter warns Tim off investigating the Stepping Stones further. It proves to have been written on his typewriter; a tape recorded message and a cigarette butt in the toilet indicate beyond a doubt that an intruder has been in his apartment.

Someone from the Stepping Stones telephones, indicating that he can see Tim at this very moment. Unphased, Tim moves to call for the police. He does not need to do so, however, as at this very moment a policeman arrives on the door. He tells Tim that the woman from the train has accused him of harrassing her...

This rarely seen British thriller from director Richard Serafian, best known for cult road movie Vanishing Point, presents an intriguing kind of missing link between Antonioni's Blow-Up and Argento's Deep Red that should appeal to fans of the giallo.

The overall feel of the piece is, however, perhaps a touch more Antonioni than Argento.

The emphasis in on building an atmosphere of menace and paranoia rather than on the violent set piece, though Hemmings' cautious advances through his apartment, makeshift weapon in hand, certainly provokes a sense of deja vu in relation to Argento's masterpiece.

The way Serafian uses music is also intriguing in this regard. Johnny Harris's kinetic jazz-rock score is high in the mix and seems to drive the action at times.

Unlike Antonioni, Serafian also provides a 'proper' resolution to his film, gradually revealing the nature and extent of the conspiracy. Yet this resolution and the build up to it are very different from Argento, perhaps more reminiscent of Polanski, where 'defeat' tends to be more of an option.

To say much more than this – and that Serafian is clearly his own man, little interested in following trends or slavishly imitating any other director – would likely ruin things...

Trivia fans may note that John Bingham's novel was adapted by Paul Dehn, who had won an Oscar with Hammer composer James Bernard for writing the Boulting brothers thriller Seven Days to Noon, while Serafian's son Deran would later appear in Fulci's Zombie 3. Six degrees of separation, indeed...

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Das Ungeheuer von London City / The Monster of London City

Life imitates art imitates life in this 1964 krimi from Artur Brauner’s CCC.

A Jack the Ripper figure is stalking the streets of London, murdering prostitutes like his model. Meanwhile a Grand Guignol / Tod Slaughter style production based on the exploits of the original ripper is drawing sell-out crowds, prompting concerned politician Sir George (Fritz Tillmann) to raise the spectre of theatrical censorship.

All of this puts ripper actor Richard Sand (Hansjörg Felmy) under unwanted pressure. Already struggling to put his drug addicted past and period in a sanatorium behind him, being flagged as suspect and public enemy number one are the last things he needs.

Then again, it’s possible that his method like approach to the role may have led to madness...

As ever, however, he’s hardly the only suspect: Sir George himself has a strange habit of sneaking out at night attired similar to the ripper’s trademark get-up, while the play’s impresario and unacknowledged, pseudonymous author can hardly contain his glee as bloodthirsty punters turn each performance into a sell-out and would quite possibly do anything to keep this situation going...

Though Das Ungeheur von London City / The Monster of London City is purportedly based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace story, one strongly suspects he was credited by CCC for a combination of marketing and legal reasons. Despite this dubious provenance and the relative paucity of familiar names amongst the cast and crew – only female lead Marianne Koch, playing the obligatory ingénue / innocent in peril, and composer Martin Bottcher, whose crime-jazz scoring contributes nicely to the film’s downbeat mood – the results are surprisingly good.

Putting their money on the screen rather than in the pockets of a Fuchsberger or Kinski, the filmmakers, led by director Edwin Zbonek, manage to evoke both a more convincing London than many of their competitors and a more expressionistic one. The apparent paradox in this contradictory blend of styles is resolved insofar as, through such models as Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Lang’s M, the reality of the modern urban experience was defined as something approaching expressionistic nightmare.

The self-reflexive admixture of appeal to prurient interest, coupled with the evident caution about going too far, especially in the occupation of the ripper’s victims and the hereditary / syphilitic insanity that motivates him, works in similar terms. It is, that is, all about Victorian hypocrisy and its enduring legacy, that combination of private vice and public virtue which fostered the conditions for exploitative entertainments for a sensation-hungry audience and the exploitation of this selfsame audience by the entrepreneur and / or the concerned moralist or politician.

Neither of these are things one really gets from the traditional Wallace krimi, where the air of artifice is always that bit more pronounced and the world evoked that bit more distanced, for better or worse.

Indeed, it’s when the filmmakers take their lead from the more typical krimi that The Monster of London works less well. The narrative is too conventional, with that over-familiar combination of obvious red herrings and a killer who no-one – except the krimi viewer, that is – will suspect.

The inclusion of a hapless husband-and-wife team of would-be detectives who take it upon themselves to solve the case also results in some some awkward shifts in tone even as it introduces a touch of comic relief.

Still, a pleasant surprise overall.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Trauma DVD help

I have the old Tartan DVD of Trauma, which was certainly an improvement on the pan and scan video through which I first saw the film years back, but has never really struck me as being a particularly good transfer - I find the colours in it a bit murky.

Can anyone advise on whether this is a reflection of the cinematography or if there is a better looking DVD out there, preferably with both English and Italian audio options; part of the reason I ask is that I recently upgraded my Sleepless disc from the UK MIA release to the Italian Medusa one and it is so much better looking and sounding.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Marisa Casale - script girl

I started watching Probability Zero earlier, a late 1960s Dirty Dozen style war movie for which Dario Argento wrote the story; his father Salvatore produced it. The most intriguing credit for me, however, was for the script girl, Marisa Casale. Was she also Argento's wife, and Fiore Argento's mother?

Saturday, 1 March 2008

New French Fulci site

A new site, in French, dedicated to Lucio Fulci:

Die Weisse Spinne / The White Spider

When her husband Richard dies in a car accident Muriel Irvine (Karin Dor) is surprised to learn that she is the beneficiary of a larger than expected insurance policy he had taken out only days before, £50,000 rather than £5,000. (Remember that this was back when having £50,000 meant you were actually worth something.)

It offers the prospect of wiping out Richard's debts to exclusive Soho bridge club and secret gambling den Club 55 and of leaving her with a tidy sum besides.

Unfortunately the Anglo Insurance Company suspect foul play – especially since Muriel only identified her husband's horribly burnt remains from his distinctive white glass spider good luck charm – and are reluctant to pay up. Indeed, having had several similar occurences recently, they even pass on details of the case to the police.

Inspector Dawson goes to Club 55 to investigate and is found floating in the Thames the next morning, prompting Scotland Yard's bosses to call in world-famous criminologist Conway from Australia to investigate further.

Worse follows as Mrs Irvine discovers that Richard also owed family lawyer Mr Summerfield money. It is a small sum, but still more than she can afford after paying for the funeral.

Who is behind the conspiracy?

Happily Summerfield, however, agrees to fight the case in exchange for a percentage of the insurance money and also finds Mrs Irvine a job working for a charitable foundation he is connected with. Its mission, as it so happens, is helping ex-convicts settle back into society. Two such cases, with no love lost for one another and old scores to settle, are ex-Dartmoor men Ralph Hubbard (Joachim Fuchsberger) and “Kiddie” Phillips (Horst Frank), released after stretches for extortion and armed robbery respectively.

As the story unfolds we learn that Club 55 has an even more sinister business, performing murders for hire. A multitude of questions emerge.

Who is behind the operation?

Who commissioned Richard Irvine's murder?

What are the relationships between the insurance company, the club and the foundation?

Is Richard still alive, having done something of a Double Face with his car and another's body?

Who, if anyone, can the viewer trust?

And, in more meta terms, when is a krimi not a krimi?

The broader use of the term would, after all, imply any crime film, after the origin of the term
and subgenre in taschenkrimi – i.e. pocket crime novel. The narrower use of it would however apply specifically to adaptations of Edgar Wallace and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace. This puts Die Weisse Spinne / The White Spider in an in-between position: it’s a krimi by criterion A, but not by criterion B. To compound matters, it's by neither Rialto nor CCC.

The curse of the pan-and-scan strikes again

It looks as if the film's producers Arca-Winston wanted to get onto the Wallace bandwagon, but couldn't find an actual Wallace property not already taken by Rialto or CCC and thus settled on something in the same style by Louis Wiener Wilton, before setting about recruiting as many of the Rialto team as they could, including director Harald Reinl, his actress wife Karin Dor and, of course, perpetual Scotland Yard man Joachim Fuchsberger.

Behind the Wallace-esque pseudonym of Albert Tanner hides frequent krimi screenwriter Trygve Larsen, also known as Egon Eis. Intriguingly Eis had actually scripted a 1931 adaptation of Wallace’s The Squeaker before returning to the author 30 years later with The Fellowship of the Frog, The Red Circle and others for Rialto as Larsen.

Though they didn't get Eddi Arent for the comic relief role English-born Chris Howland makes an agreeable substitute, while the one-two-three of Horst Frank, Dieter Eppler and Werner Peters more than compensates for Klaus Kinski's absence.

The lack of a Siegfried Schurenberg style Sir John figure can be explained away by what is arguably the film's key departure from formula: the relegation of Scotland Yard to a subsidiary role, with Conway intriguingly presented as a Mabuse-like figure in a way that serves to highlight his affinities with the criminal mastermind behind the white spider murders and which seems intended to make you wonder just how far the murderous web might actually stretch.

The mise-en-scene positions us with Fuchsberger and Dor, lessening the sense of ambiguity

Unfortunately it's a conceit that doesn't quite come off, for the simple reason that we're likely to immediately reason that Fuchsberger's Hubbard is in actuality Conway and very definitely one of the good guys. Putting it another way, the filmmakers' willingness to experiment and to alienate their audience doesn't go that far – or far enough for their (white spider's) strategem to work.

Instead, the vague pretence that Fuchsberger is a bad guy overcomplicates and overextends the narrative while lessening our point of enagagement with it, especially since we're already working through something similar in relation to Dor's character.

It works better in her case because of the basic ground rules of this universe: an upstanding Scotland Yard man can always be trusted, whereas a woman may be an ingenue in peril, a treacherous spider woman, a combination of the two or even something else.

Far better, one thus suspects, had Reinl presented Conway and his nemesis to us as two sides of the same coin but let us know the former face of it from the outset – an approach, moreover, that would have been more consistent with his hero Lang if we think of Spione and the Weimer era Mabuse films.

Everything else – Peter Thomas's crime-jazz score; Frank's menacing professional killer with his unsettling preference for referring to himself in the third person; the talismanic, mythical qualities afforded Soho and Dartmoor; the anachronistic neo-expressionist German backlot vision of London; the surveillance technology etc. – is in perfect accord with the krimi formula, such that you would probably attribute the film to Wallace senior and Rialto if you missed the opening credits and ignored the absence of the ende joke.

Though compromised by a panned and scanned, badly dubbed VHS-rip with choppy sound, this ersatz Wallace is worth a look for the krimi completist. Others, however, would be better served by the real thing.