Monday, 29 June 2009

Byron Deidra

has tragically died from his liver condition, the one that allowed him to play the role of the Yellow killer in Giallo without the need for make up.

RIP Byron Deidra, you had a promising Rondo Hatton-esque career ahead of you, having almost stole the film from your better known co-star...

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Il castello dei morti vivi / Castle of the Living Dead

Castle of the Living Dead is famous for two main reasons.

First, Donald Sutherland took his son Kiefer’s name from the film’s writer and co-director Warren Kiefer AKA Lorenzo Sabatini

Second, it represented the first credit for Michael Reeves, who co-wrote the film and apparently functioned as more than just second unit man; producer Paul Maslansky subsequently backed Reeves’s official directorial debut The She Beast the following year.

The Reeves connection is immediately apparent, as a scene-setting voice-off establishes a somewhat disordered situation that prefigures Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General.

First, we are told that Napoleon may have been defeated, but that demobbed soldiers have turned to banditry and made the roads unsafe.

Then we are told that executions of bandits are thereby commonplace, and presented with what seems to be one such scene. The incongruities are the victim’s dress – a harlequin’s motley, rather than a soldier’s uniform – and the souvenirs being sold by a dwarf.

The harlequin then contrives to have his would-be executioner put his own neck in the noose and kicks away the stool, much to the (anti-authoritarian) amusement of those gathered.

Next it is revealed that executioner and executee, along with the dwarf, are in fact part of a theatrical troupe and the whole thing was a gag.

They collect their money and go to the inn.

There, the leader of the troupe, Bruno, and the harlequin, Dart (Luciano Pigozzi), argue over money – another trope whose mundane quality seems very Reeves if we think of the impoverished circumstances of Karloff and Lacey’s couple in The Sorcerors or the discussions between Hopkins and Stearne – another arguing (homosexual) couple, perhaps – in Witchfinder General.

Eric (Philippe Leroy) intervenes as Dart is about to kill Bruno, leading to Dart fleeing on the ex-soldier’s horse. (Ian Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall is also a soldier in Witchfinder General.)

Turning a bad situation into an opportunity, Eric decides to join the troupe, just as they have been offered the chance of doing a private performance for Count Drago for three gold pieces – a tidy sum, apparently.

Watching this, and the similiarity with what unfolds, I wondered if the makers of the 2000 French fantastique entry Deep in the Woods had also seen Castle of the Living Dead.

The troupe travel to Drago’s castle, en route encountering a witch, played in drag by a young Donald Sutherland, who had earlier played a soldier/policeman at the hanging, who foretells doom should they go there.

Since the film wouldn’t get much further if they heeded said warnings, the troupe continues on, greed outweighing other considerations.

There they meet Drago, (Christoper Lee) who makes his entrance in the approved Dracula-esque manner and who proves to be equally suspicious in his behaviour, as when he offers Bruno a pre-performance drink:

Bruno: "Aren’t you having any?"
Drago: "Alas, no. I give it only to my guests."

Indeed, having imbibed the concoction, Bruno suffers a fatal ‘accident’ whilst performing the hanging routine…

More character driven than most 1960s Italian horrors, Castle of the Living Dead is unusual for its relatively low-key approach to evil. Drago has no grand designs for revenge or ruling the world. Instead, he just wants to be able to perform his dubious experiments in peace. His victims, meanwhile, are neither particularly heroic nor bent on vengeance. Instead they just want to make it out alive in one piece.

Adequately directed and nicely shot in black and white (Luigi Kuveiller was camera operator), the film is atmospheric and benefits from wry performances from Leroy, Lee and Mirko Valentin (as Lee’s henchman, Hans), while Gaia Germani as Laura makes for an unusually active and level-headed love-interest cum victim.

Katalin Varga - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

Katalin Varga: it’s the kind of title that, beyond telling you its subject is a woman, gives nothing away and encourages you to look more closely at the synopsis and credits. You then discover it’s a Rumanian-Hungarian-UK co-production, with a first time English-speaking writer-director, Peter Strickland, at the helm. You also discover that, at its core, it’s a rape-revenge film.

If the film is more The Virgin Spring than Last House on the Left in its art-house rather than exploitation trappings, its nevertheless still a daunting combination of film-maker and material that’s far easier to get wrong than right.

As an outsider Strickland one obvious advantage: he can engage with subject matter the insider cannot. But he also thereby suffers from an obvious disadvantage: can he really understand this subject matter as an insider would. (And, if so, perhaps we then might ask which insider’s perspective that we are we talking about, that of the male perpetrator, the female victim or some third party?)

Happily Strickland proves more than adequate to the challenge he has imposed on himself, as he exposes male and female attitudes that seem both universal and the product of specific historical circumstances; draws nuanced and believable performances from his cast; and reveals an eye for landscape and place that for me recalled early Werner Herzog – perhaps not a surprising connection when we consider Katalin Varga’s Transylvanian setting and the at times Popul Vuh quality of its ambient score.

In particular, we see how the importance of honour and vendetta, coupled with a distinctly unforgiving notion of Christianity, lead to tragedy:

Katalin has concealed the secret of her rape from her husband for ten years. He thinks he is the father of (t)he(i)r child, Orban. When Katalin finally confides in a trusted friend word nevertheless gets to her husband, who orders that they leave for shaming him. Telling Orban that his grandmother is ill, Katalin sets off in search of revenge on the men who have wronged her…

But if the story thus suggests a timelessness, the omnipresence of the mobile phone – the sole piece of (post-)modern technology present, indicates that the film is set in the post-revolutionary present. The further tragedy, if we think about the implied resurgence of Christianity post-communism and the officially atheist situation during communist rule, is how little the position of women seems to have changed over the course of two or three generations.

Nice B movie horror site

B Movies and Beyond:

Co-incidentally I was privileged to see Roger Corman, sometimes called the King of the B's, at the EIFF. He indicated that the title was a misnomer, because the B movie referred to major studio productions during the period of the double bill, circa 1930 to 1950, when there would be A films supported by B films. He felt his work for AIP wasn't really a B-movie in this sense, and that if there were two films they would be more B+ pictures of equal stature.

Mondo cane oggi / Mondo cane 3 / Savage World Today

As the title Mondo cane oggi indicates, this was an attempt to bring the mondo film up to date for the 1980s, representing as it did the first time the name had been used since 1963's Mondo carne 2

As the sometime subtitle l'orrore continua indicates this also entailed a recognition that the nature of the form had changed since the 1960s, to become closer to the horror film with Faces of Death and Snuff.

Although Mondo cane oggi has a number of unpleasant images, it is debatable whether these qualify it as a horror film, especially as they lack the shock value of their counterparts in Africa Addio.

Specificaly, there is hardly any real human on human violence while much of the animal killing, which includes some snakes and a small turtle, is contextualised as being for food.

This said, there is other footage, most notably of two dogs fighting as the credits play, but also perhaps a Spanish bullfight, which would likely fall foul of the censors insofar as it lacks this defensible context.

The film also exhibits that classic mondo racism, insofar as the majority of the ‘outlandish’ and ‘bizarre’ practices shown are presented as the province of the non-Western other, particularly in India, Japan and the Far East.

In one scene, for instance, we see traditional irezumi tattooing practices associated with the yakuza, along with the ritual amputation of a finger segment. What is lacking, however, is a consideration of what mainstream Japanese society thinks of tattoos through their criminal subcultural associations.

With the softer material being represented by the likes of bodybuilders (!) and joggers (!!) the main harder moments pertaining to man are a couple of autopsies, one which reveals the cadaver as having been filled with bags of heroin; a man being subjected to electric shocks in a bid to ‘cure’ his homosexuality (“donne si, uomini no” explains the narrator) and some time-honoured sex change surgery footage.

The authenticity of much of this footage is questionable, in a classic case of “if it excites you pretend it’s real, if it disturbs you pretend it’s fake”

Accompanied by voice over or vaguely scene setting music throughout, the film has something of a music video quality to it – apt insofar as one of the mutations of the mondo was into the music performance backdrop/accompaniment, as with SPK’s Despair.

Stelvio Massi hides as director and cinematographer behind the Max Steel pseudonym.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Nel labirinto del sesso (Psichidion) / The Labyrinth of Sex / Sexual Inadequacies

This 1969 film from trash favourite Al Brescia presents an interesting combination of mondo and “white coater” exploitation forms, apparently using the time-honoured defence of being educational as a means of getting around the censors - as when a discussion of the normalcy of voyeurism provides the justification for an voyeuristic candid camera montage of women in various states of undress.

The film begins with some classic Mom and Dad style birth of a baby footage, as the narrator’s voice-over emphasise the Freudian notion that the infant is already a sexual being.

A montage of clips of children and adolescents then follows, as the voice-over - soon identified as that of a doctor type - emphasises the importance of discussing sexuality openly and honestly with children and adolescents so that they grow up to be normal rather than deviant.

Unsurprisingly the film’s discourses around normal and abnormal sexuality are where its age shows. On the one hand, its defence of masturbation during adolescence as a natural stage in the development of a healthy adult sexuality was probably quite a progressive position for an Italian film to take in 1969. On the other, the lumping together of homosexuality with paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia as perversions where the wrong object of desire is chosen seems rather dated.

The various vignettes address such themes of nymphomania, understood as a normal desire taken to excess rather than a true deviation; fetishism, featuring Franco Ressell and a mannequin to suggest a giallo connection; gender (re)assignment surgery, focusing on those born with ambiguous genitals; and a man and woman having their physical states monitored by doctors as they purportedly have sex.

An entertaining historical document.

The original Yellow Kid

Since Giallo references manga and has its own 'yellow kid', here's an image of the original:

More on the character and his place in the history of comics here and here

Friday, 26 June 2009

Thoughts on Giallo

Last night I saw Giallo again, but this time with a paying / proper audience rather than one of critics and other freeloaders ;-)

The cinema was 90% full.

The thing I really noticed was how this audience laughed at Brody’s delivery in relation to his character’s back story, laughing with rather than at the film. But they did not laugh when one of the killer’s victims escapes and touches the leaves of a tree – they got that this was a reference to the final images of Opera.

I enjoyed the film more a second time, being able to pay more attention to the cinematography (Frederic Fasano), production design (Davide Bassan) and intertextual references, that, for example, the Marnie-esque blackmailer of Do You Like Hitchcock is a murderous butcher here. (Argento’s vegetarian commentary?)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009


The title Giallo refers, generically, to a distinctive kind of Italian horror-thriller film, of which writer-director Dario Argento has been a leading exponent since his 1970 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

As such, it’s a very self-referential title, akin to Pulp Fiction, and one which is also indicative of the film’s nature, that it is more for his fan-base in Italy and internationally than an attempt to reach a new audience.

The big question, even as far as this audience is concerned, is whether the film can live up to fan expectation. Or, insofar as Argento’s stock is currently at a low level in the wake of a string of poorly received films – 2004’s The Card Player, 2005’s Do You Like Hitchcock and 2007’s The Third Mother – whether it might actually surpass them for those sufficiently dedicated to find out.

Amongst mainstream critics, meanwhile, Argento’s reputation, such as it is, is that of a virtuoso stylist who is not particularly good with narrative and characterisation, and whose work is often marred by its gratuitous violence and misogyny.

While he has tried to address these criticisms, the results as seen in the likes of 1993’s Trauma and 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome, have ended up pleasing fewer fans whilst still failing to curry favour with the critics.

The one exception, at least as fans were concerned, was 2001’s Sleepless, a film widely perceived as a return to form, precisely because it presented a kind of retrospective ‘greatest hits’ package that looked back to Argento’s 1970s and early 1980s work. It also came in the wake of his idiosyncratic 1998 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, a film which few have anything positive to say about.

It’s at this point that I must declare my own position: I think that each and every one of Argento’s films has something to make them worthwhile, and that Sleepless is over-rated compared to Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player. I also think that, if taken as an intentional parody – always an awkward critical position to take, admittedly – The Phantom of the Opera actually works.

It is also in this way that I would argue Giallo’s apparent weak points may be taken as strengths, such that we can laugh with the film’s more awkward moments rather than at them.

Before accentuating the possible negatives, however, I would like first to address the positives. Like Sleepless, Giallo is a film that breaks little new ground. But whereas its predecessor made a somewhat selective survey of the high points of Argento’s past films, Giallo looks all around.  

Thus, for example, while we get a nightmarish yet naturalistic re-imagining of Suspiria and Inferno’s taxi rides – the maniac here is a taxi driver – we also also have an exciting rooftop chase finale that recalls the less well regarded Cat o’ Nine Tails.

Argento also continues to explore his emergent interest in Japanese culture, as previously seen in The Third Mother’s Gothic Lolita / J-horror styled witch follower of the mother.  Giallo’s  maniac, himself given the name Giallo for a meaningful diegetic reason, draws inspiration from violent hentai manga and subjects his victims to sadistic tortures that wouldn’t be out of place in Takashi Miike’s Audition.  Disconcertingly – but ultimately tellingly, via past traumas, involving their respective mothers, that define both men’s present situations – his police nemesis also buys a volume of Japanese pornographer / photographer Araki’s work.

Elsewhere we may note the name of the overarching production company, Hannibal Films, as in Lektor; the presence of Polanski veterans Adrian Brody and Emanuelle Seigner,  also of course Mrs Polanski; and, in a more throwaway manner, the returning the favour presence of a poster for Juno.

The Thomas Harris reference serves to further highlight the Manhunter-esque relationship between cop and maniac and to explain away the rather unusual position the former occupies within the Turin police force.

The plot can be summarised as follows: Giallo’s modus operandi is to kidnap beautiful young women whose absence will not immediately be noticed. One such victim is Celine, a young fashion model; giallo fans will immediately notice the form’s long fascination with the world of glamour, dating all the way back to Mario Bava’s  foundational 1964 entry Blood and Black Lace. Unfortunately for Giallo, and perhaps fortunately for Celine, her air-hostess sister Linda (Seigner) has just arrived in town to pay a visit. Concerned by Celine’s failure to show up for their rendezvous, Linda goes to the police station to file a missing person’s report and is there sent to see Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Brody) in the bowels of the building.  He soon realises the “pattern killer” he is hunting has struck again and they embark on a desperate race against time to save Celine…

It provides a solid framework for plenty of classic Argento images, suspense, shocks and splatter.

In the case of the violence, however, it’s also important to note that as much is suggested as shown. Besides helping answer those who would argue Argento’s violence is only gratuitous, it’s an approach which proves beneficial insofar as it showcases what special effects man Sergio Stivaletti can do rather than what he perhaps might struggle at, namely convincing in-camera facial mutilation effects, and the desire of a portion of the audience to see such images.

The other thing Giallo has is a lot of humour. Humour is, of course, not alien to the horror film. But it is also something that is difficult to do well, as criticism of the comic relief moments in Argento’s films testifies. In Giallo, I think the key thing is that Brody, whose deadpan delivery of key lines relating to Enzo’s back-story elicited laughs from the audience I watched the film with, was also the film’s co-producer. As such, it seems unlikely that he and Argento had a disagreement about how to portray the character, as with a number of the director’s more fraught actor relationships, and that this was their intent.

In combination with Seigner’s involvement, the film thus emerges as something akin to Argento’s version of Polanski’s Bitter Moon, as something to be both taken seriously at times and as a self-parody at others in its commentary on past glories.

How less sympathetic audiences will get the joke is another matter entirely...

Monday, 22 June 2009

Vinyan - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

Or Emmanuelle [Beart] and the Last Cannibals?

Horror films have never been that big in the Francophone world. One suspects that the reason, besides the competing discourse of the fantastique, is that they are seen as somewhat déclassé, not serious enough.

As such, Fabrice Du Welt’s previous genre entry Calvaire / The Ordeal was especially welcome for being an intelligent yet unpretentious all-out anti-fantastique horror film.

Sadly the director’s new venture, made in English with an eye on the larger marketplace, proves a disappointment. Maybe it’s mis-marketing, that it’s less a horror film than a character study and an exploration of loss, but if so it’s also a piece of marketing that drew me to see it with expectations that were not fulfilled.

The set-up is simple, and exploitative of real-world tragedy: In the 2004 Tsunami, aid-workers Jeanne and Paul Behlmer lost their son Joshua. Six months later at a fund-raising event Jeanne thinks she sees him in a video surreptitiously recorded across the Burmese border and convinces Paul that they should go find the child. He agrees to the expedition, less from hope than the prospect that failure will give his wife a sense of closure.

The problem is equally simple: Besides being a distaff version of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in the jungle rather than Venice, there’s really nowhere left for the narrative or the filmmakers to go once the expedition has gotten under way, except towards the inevitable.

Vinyan – a title which refers to lost souls or spirits – is dominated by two visual styles.

The first, seen in the pre-expedition scenes in Phuket, Thailand, is expressionistic-impressionistic man-over-nature stylisation, with obvious symbolic use of red in the manner of its ‘official’ model and the ‘unofficial’ likes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. (Cinematographer Benoit Debie, who first came to prominence through his work for Argento-fan Gaspar Noe, later shot Argento’s The Card Player). It works.

The second, seen in the jungle scenes in Thailand and Burma, is naturalistic nature-overwhelming green inferno-ism, with minimal ability to use red, is more reminiscent of an Italian cannibal film. It also works, with greater qualifications.

But – that BIG but – there’s little connection nor segue between them. The characters are first in one environment then the other. What thus emerges is that the former was one which could be controlled by the filmmakers, whereas the latter is one that – an impressive Tenebre-style crane shot in a ruined temple possibly an exception, depending on the degree of post-processing trickery involved – could only be endured and responded to.

Beart and Sewell do their best, but their characters’ relationship lacks the sexual(ised) tension of their counterparts in Don’t Look Now, with more T&A from Beart (and / or Julie Dreyfus) also being needed if the film is to work qua (s)exploitation and more cannibal splatter if it to work as an exercise in gore.

The denouement, with its (s)mothering maternal monster and white goddess allusions to the likes of Mountain of the Cannibal God and Zombie Holocaust also proves more laughable than anything else. “The horror, the horror,” indeed...

In sum Vinyan is a film which, contra Calvaire, sees pretension override generic intelligence.

The Girlfriend Experience - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

In 1966 Jean Luc Godard made Two or Three Things I Know About Her, a film about a Parisian housewife who prostituted herself in order to enjoy the fruits of consumer capitalism. Appearing on television to promote the film and further explain its message, that capitalism = prostitution, Godard would be accompanied by an actual prostitute.

I mention this by way of introduction not because of some desire to show off my knowledge of cinema – Two or Three Things is a hardly obscure – but because I think it provides something of a model for The Girlfriend Experience, as another film about capitalism and exploitation in its diegesis and in terms of the relationship between its two major players.

The first is director Steven Soderbergh, who has managed to accomplish in the 1990s and 2000s to do what Francis Ford Coppola had hoped he and his movie brat colleagues would in the 1970s, namely alternate between mainstream and personal projects.

The problem with more personal projects is, of course, precisely that: how to find an audience for a more experimental project, lacking big name stars, when you don’t have the resources of the Hollywood machine at your disposal.

This is where the second player, self-styled existential porn star cum performance artist Sasha Grey / Marina Ann Hantzis comes into the equation.

For she gives Soderbergh the necessary hook to hang The Girlfriend Experience upon, whilst in turn benefitting from the exposure it gives her as she aspires to move outside the porn demi-monde as into more legitimate realms.

Both, that is, are symbiotically exploiting one another. Both are also exploiting the audience. But this is to be expected – what film doesn’t, at some level, exploit our desires?

A problem, for me, the way in which The Girlfriend Experience fails as art, is that it is too calculated. Grey plays not a housewife like Marina Vlady in Two or Three Things but a high-class Manhattan call girl, Chelsea/Christine, whose clientele are Wall Street brokers, with the whole thing being set over an indeterminate, but brief, period around the run up to the US treasury bailout and the presidential elections last year. The issue is that in US cinema hookers are invariably crack whores or career women. As Samuel Goldwyn said, “we need some new clichés”.

Another, as Godard’s film also shows, is that it’s all been done before, and far better. There’s nothing particularly radical about what Soderbergh is doing here. Besides Godard, we can consider movie brat Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Body Double, the former featuring Nancy Allen as a similar call girl, and the latter originally casting porn performer Annette Haven in the role eventually filled by Melanie Griffiths.

Nor am I convinced by the radicalism of what Grey does in her ‘own’ porn films. Note the bracketing of ‘own’. The producers of Anal Cavity Search 3 or Grand Theft Anal 11, and the vast majority of their consumers, do not care about Grey’s philosophy, they just want to make money off her and jerk-off to her respectively.

Basically, it’s hard to talk philosophy when you’re deep-throating someone. And while Grey can be applauded for her willingness to do so-called ‘interracial’ porn, these selfsame films surely reinforce racist stereotypes, fantasies and fetishisation rather than challenge them. This is also something which can be said of her appearances in so-called ‘lesbian’ porn, invariably addressed as it is to the male heterosexual spectator.

Then there is the issue of residual payments, something which porn performers, as workers for hire (like most of us under capitalism), do not receive. Though Grey has mentioned these – and that she is will get them from The Girlfriend Experience – there is little doubt in my mind that if she were to push the question with the porn producers and insist upon them she would quickly be persona non grata.

Porn producers are certainly happy to see someone move into the mainstream for the legitimation it helps provide their industry but not if that person then begins to question the legitimacy of their own business practices. (Not, of course, that Hollywood is unfamiliar with being adept as screwing its own talent over; yes, I do have an essentially sadomasochistic view of the universe whereby you are either one of those doing the fucking or one of those being fucked.)

The issue may be that Soderbergh’s film does not entirely provide the showcase Grey wants. Though she demonstrates that she has some acting ability, Soderbergh remains more interested in technique and technology, much of it alienating. There are almost no medium close-up or two-shots in which Grey and another performer are there actually acting and reacting to one another. Instead, we tend to get shot-reverse shot patterns – albeit as likely to focusing on the one who is listening than speaking – sides of mobile phone conversations; voice-off monologues, and figures either in shadow, behind objects or in soft focus. The actors, that is, are as often as not reduced to figural elements as those around which the film revolves, while much of the ‘experience’ looks to have been constructed in the editing and post-production.

The key thing which needs to be emphasised is that the film is not sexually explicit. There are a few seconds of naturalistic nudity but there is no actual sexual activity seen, with the result a safe R rating .

Having someone used to performing sexually on camera, I wish Soderbergh had taken the chance to bring the porn film out of its ghetto, to complete the work begun by Radley Metzger in the 1970s but left uncompleted with the rise of home video in the 1980s and of gonzo porn in the 1990s. (Tellingly, Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven, an imaginative retelling of Pygmalion, is the only porn film referenced within The Girlfriend Experience, via a modern-day Al Goldstein’s savage critique of Chelsea’s non-performance for him.)

In my ideal version, everything that is in there already would be retained, but would have been punctuated by alienating, deliberately non-eroticised scenes of Chelsea involved in actual sex work. He would have then fought a campaign against the MPAA and their undoubted refusal to certificate the film, won, and would then have released the film on DVD without any chapter stops or ability for the consumer only interested in porn to go straight to the action. He might then have directed a porn film with Grey whose soundtrack consisted of Grey – who asserts to be a fan of Godard, Breillat and other high-brow art cinema figures – reading excerpts from Histoire(s) du cinema or expounding her own personal philosophy, again without the opportunity for the consumer to fast forward or – if it were possible – turn the sound down.

Somehow, however, I don’t think such hybridisations it’s going to happen. There are too many vested interests for it to be otherwise, in both porn and mainstream cinemas.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Salvage - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

As someone who grew up watching Hammer horror and who regretted that new British horror films were few and far between at the time, I never thought I’d find myself responding to a film like Salvage in a “what, another one?” kind of way.

Put it down to over-familiarity with the form, a sense of having seen it all long before, and done better.

Or, to itemise, if you’ve seen some or most of The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies, Shivers, 28 Days Later, [Rec] and Diary of the Dead, you’ll find nothing new here.

We begin with a scene of suggested violence as a paperboy encounters something in the trees behind an ordinary suburban house. Santa and snowman decorations outside most of the houses on his route – significantly excluding the one the paperboy visited just before being offed; the one belonging to the brown skinned family – establish the season.

Following this we get a slice of social realist drama as a dad takes his reluctant teenage daughter, Jodie, to spend Christmas with her mother, during which they happen to catch a part of a radio broadcast about a metal container having been washed up on a nearby beach. It’s hardly the most subtle piece of information planting, but is at least generically conventional if we think of the likes of Night of the Living Dead’s returning space probe and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s reports of grave-robbing.

After being deposited Jodie accidentally catches her mother, Beth, having sex with a man and, already not being in the best of moods, responds predictably by running over to a neighbour’s house. Mum follows and attempts, without success, to explain things to her daughter.

Just when you start to wonder what is happening horror-wise – although the mise en scene is already suitably edgy, with good use being made of the widescreen space – all hell breaks loose as a group of soldiers in black combat gear appear, shoot the aforementioned brown-skinned neighbour, Mr Sharma, after he advances on them with a knife, and force everyone else back indoors at gunpoint.

A bit of social comment is then inserted as Beth’s one-night stand, Kieran, speculates that Mr Sharma must have been a terrorist, despite her remarking, in a more reasoned fashion, that he is a Hindu (i.e. the darker skinned non-terrorist, as unofficial ‘swarthology’ discourse might have it) rather than a Muslim (i.e. the darker skinned potential terrorist).

Not, however, that Beth is a perfect model of calm responses in other ways as, with all communications suspiciously closed off, she desperately tries to contact her daughter in the house opposite...

The problem I had with Salvage at this point was it really had nowhere left to go. It doesn’t get more intense but rather just continues at the same would-be fever pitch for the next hour or so, continuing to rely on the same well-worn techniques – the sudden noise, the sudden cut, the sudden appearance in the frame etc. It also has a monster which, when eventually revealed, is not that impressive, nor terribly convincingly explained away.

As ‘bad’ mother Beth Neve McIntosh is suitable frenetic, with the fact that the breakdown of her marriage was not due to alcoholism, drugs or infidelity – each of which the opening moments seems to invite us to presume – but that she put her legal career first, a nice subversion of expectation. But, at the same time, the strong female / weak male reversal of pre-feminist horror film has arguably become a new cliché in these post-feminist times.

Likewise, if the Muslim = Arab = terrorist equation has become a cliché in Hollywood productions, a more politically correct counter-treatment has become just as much of a norm in low-budgeted, somewhat more engaged British productions. They are, one suspects, fearful of offending the liberal establishment and its sensibilities.

Whereas, for example, neo-Nazi David Copeland’s bombing campaign in Soho inspired 2001’s Gas Attack, we’re still waiting for a similar treatment of Finsbury Park Mosque and the July 7 bombings.

Two real horrors thus emerge. First, British horror directors are playing it too safe at present. Second, anything they do that is grounded in reality – i.e. a 28 Days Later or Salvage rather than a Dog Soldiers – cannot match up to the horror of the reality we are actually in.

“It’s only a movie,” indeed...

Friday, 19 June 2009

Out Rage - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

This new documentary from Kirby Dick seeks to do for closeted Republican politicians what his earlier This Film is Not Yet Rated did for the MPAA, namely expose hypocrisy and a self-serving agenda.

Until the mid-1970s the Republican and Democrat parties did not appreciably differ on their stance on gay issues. True, a reason for this was perhaps that before the Stonewall Riot and the birth of the gay liberation movement there probably weren’t any votes to actually be won around gay issues anyway.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 this changed. For Reagan saw the Republicans enter into an unholy alliance with Christian conservatives, leading to the emergence of the so-called “culture wars” between progressive/Democrat and reactionary/Republican elements.

As a consequence, it became all but impossible for Republican politicians to admit their sexual preferences to the wider world. The resultant divergence between their homosexual practices – as interviewees make clear the appellation gay can hardly be ascribed to many of these individuals – and their anti-gay preaching to the crowd is unsurprising, the usual hypocrisy to be expected from politicans.

What was far worse, however, was the way family values ideals often impacted on their voting within congress, not just on things like gay marriage and adoption but also funding to fight the AIDS crisis.

Equally disturbing is the silence of the mainstream – read straight – media on these issues, leaving the job of naming and shaming closeted Republicans to gay activists, press and bloggers.

Much like This Film..., Out Rage is successful in doing what it sets out to, in getting its serious point across adroitly and with considerable wit.

It proves more limited in its relevance and accessibility however. Whereas we in Europe are familiar with Hollywood product and, through it, are indirectly affected by MPAA decisions, what the US as a nation or at a state level decides to legislate for and against rights remains a domestic issue.

Thus, for example, whilst under Reagan Republicans were voting against gay equality legislation and AIDS funding alike, under Thatcher Conservatives were voting against the former (i.e. Clause 28) but were devoting money towards the latter, even if this was perhaps motivated more by the fear of AIDS spreading beyond gays and drug addicts than any actual sense of compassion for those with 'deviant' lifestyles.

More serious criticisms are what is missing even in the US context. That the film is really about homosexual Republican men, rather than lesbians, bisexuals or transgendered individuals can at least be explained away by reference to the party’s male establishment bias, the likes of Sarah Palin notwithstanding. But, on the other side of the coin, one would thereby like to know more about the wives and girlfriends of homosexual Republican: What do they know? What is their understanding of the situation?

I also felt Dick might have done more to draw out possible parallels between past and present. One noticeable thing, again from a UK perspective, is the tell-tale nature of the names of many of those featured: that a James McGreevey is Irish-American, a Barney Frank or Larry Kramer Jewish-American. What’s evident is thus how in other respects Americans have overcome old prejudices and no longer feel the need to misrepresent themselves in terms of one – i.e. the WASP – ideal, and the possibility that the self-hating Republican gay is something of a contemporary analogue to the old cliché of the self-hating Jew.

White Lightnin' - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

Imagine a darker version of Walk the Line, perhaps as directed by David Lynch, and you begin to get an idea of what to expect from this imaginary biopic.

Its subject, Jesco White is from a similar kind of southern white rural background to Johnny Cash, but less well known and far more troubled in terms of drugs, drink, depression, and the devil alike.

White’s youth was spent looking for whatever kicks he could find, beginning with self-asphyxiation around the age of six before quickly moving onto “huffing” lighter fluid and petrol, drinking whatever he could lay his hands on, injecting crystal meth, and developing a penchant for tattooing and wounding himself.

As far as his father and mother were concerned, Jesco had the devil in him. Unfortunately, Jesco himself believed this – in his environment, full of fire-and-brimstone preachers it would be hard not to – and lived up / down to it.

His sole release was another D, dance, specifically the distinctive form of Appalachian mountain dancing or clogging of which his father, D Ray, was a leading exponent.

Unfortunately, Jesco could never quite keep his devils at bay and wound up in a juvenile detention centre, which he went in and out of for the rest of his adolescence, before being sent to the state mental hospital. The constant on each occasion was a lack of effective therapeutic interventions, the sense that he and the other inmates/patients – the label really made no difference – were individuals who did not matter.

Eventually Jesco was released, albeit into a world of trouble. Most significantly his father had been murdered whilst he was institutionalised.

This fuelled both the positive aspects of Jesco’s being, in his desire to keep his father’s dancing legacy alive, and the negative, in his “eye for an eye” understanding of the Bible.

The conflict between the good and the bad Jesco, or the straight and the intoxicated, is at the core of the remainder of the story, clouding his relationship with his older girlfriend Priscilla and leading inexorably to tragedy.

White Lightnin’ is well directed. Though there are some moments where it feels like technique for the sake of it, most of the tricks within helmer Dominic Murphy’s bag contribute to the overall effect in a more poetic form-is-content way: the black screens between scenes and their suggestion that an indeterminate amount of time has passed, either subjectively or objectively, for Jesco; the bleached out, processed visuals the sickness and poverty of his (un)natural environment.

It is also nicely acted. As Jesco, Edward Hogg delivering a bold, primal performance. As Priscilla, Carrie Fisher bravely takes on the kind of older woman role that many performers more concerned with their image would likely have declined.

The main problem I had with the film was thus its writing, its treatment of the facts.

On the positive side, White Lightnin’ did encourage me to find out more about Jesco White. It is also true that it is a highly subjective portrait, with many scenes which deliberately confuse real and the imagined situations and experiences.

But – and it is a big but – screenwriters Eddy Moretti and Shane Smith play rather too fast and loose with things on occasion. Most notably, the most significant moment in Jesco’s life, the murder of his father, happened when he was in his late 20s, rather than his teens as presented here.

Indeed in general the film-makers seem more comfortable creating a sense of place than they do time. Perhaps the intention is to suggest that nothing really changes in this part of the USA – we may, after all, wonder why D Ray’s success as a dancer didn’t lift his family out of poverty – but a more 1950s or 1960s rather than 1990s feel to the details of trucks, motorcycles and tattoo designs might have helped cement this idea.

If the film’s dark subject matter means it needs to be approached with some caution, it’s also important to emphasise it’s not as bad as it could be. For that, interested parties are recommended to check out Todd Phillips documentary about outlaw rocker G G Allin, a self-destructive damage case whose train-wreck of a life makes even White look lucky and well-adjusted.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Black Dynamite - Edinburgh International Film Festival Review

Does the world really need another blaxploitation spoof?

After all, the original 1970s films were often barely above self-parody and were ideologically suspect even at the time as far as many within the African-American community were concerned.

Reflecting this political aspect, many contemporary African-American film-makers have also had an uneasy relationship with the form, as epitomised by the debate between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino over the latter’s appropriation of blaxploitation and the N-word in Jackie Brown.

And then there are the Wayans Brothers affectionate and intermittently effective parodies I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking your Juice in the Hood, along with Larry Cohen’s Original Gangstas, with its intriguing juxtaposition of 70s heroes and 90s ghetto.

It is, in total, a challenging arena to seek to make a contribution to. Happily the team of director Scott Sanders and co-writer/star Michael Jai White, who had earlier collaborated on the under-rated Thick as Thieves – in which White plays a black drug dealer who aspires to a white country club lifestyle – prove more than up to this challenge.

The key to Black Dynamite’s success is that the film-makers know the difference between a good-bad movie and a bad-bad movie.

They beautifully bring out all the clichés and weaknesses of the classic blaxploitation film – dodgy camera work, continuity and process shots; bad dialogue and even worse delivery; sentimentality; Vietnam flashbacks; the on-going fight against the man and his evil plans; and improbably dressed, coiffured and named characters, including the likes of Cream Corn, Chocolate Giddy Up, and Tasty Freeze.

But they also know when to get serious, most notably in well-choreographed and performed martial arts and action scenes that owe more to Enter the Dragon’s Jim Kelly than Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite, along with a truly excellent KPM library and retro style funk soundtrack that channels the spirits of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and company.

The key difference between White and Kelly is that he can actually act; that between him and Moore is that his character and schtick should appeal to just about everyone.

Indeed, the only people I can’t imagine being won over by Black Dynamite are white power types who wouldn’t dream of going to see a black super-cool, super-stud super-hero kicking ass anyways.

A joy from start to finish, Black Dynamite has the potential to do for Blaxploitation what Austin Powers did for the 1960s superspy film.

Jerichow - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

First things first: I must confess to being a fan of Christian Petzold’s work, such that the semi-annual appearance of his latest film usually represents one of the highlights of the EIFF for me.

For the uninitiated, the German director specialises in well-crafted, slow-burn thrillers. They demand a higher degree of viewer involvement than most comparable Hollywood product, but are not as hermetic as those of, say, Michael Haneke.

Petzold’s clinical, restrained mise-en-scene, all the better to accentuate the moments of sudden violence, does recall Michael Haneke somewhat. But there also is no question that Petzold is his own film-maker. This is particularly signalled by that issues around German identity that Fateh Akin would foreground here being a bit more subtextual.

The title refers to the location in North-Eastern Germany, near Rostock on the Baltic Sea coast, where the action, centring round a triangle of characters, takes place.

The first, Thomas, is an ex-soldier. He’s someone we can infer grew up in the DDR and to whom life has not been particularly kind. He was dishonourably discharged from the army after serving in Afghanistan – a stain on his character that’s deliberately left underexplored. After failing to keep his savings from a creditor now has no money with which to do up the family home, now his after the death of his mother.

The second, Ali, is a Turkish-German businessman. He came to the BDR when he was two years old and has established a chain of 45 fast food places in the area. Perhaps through the pressures of his job – his employees, many of them fellow migrants, cannot be trusted – he has a tendency to drink too much.

A chance encounter when Ali, drunk again, drives his Range Rover into a ditch, leads to Thomas being hired by Ali as his driver and, after the ex-soldier demonstrates that knows how to handle himself and when to keep quiet, general trusted right-hand.

It would be a perfect relationship but for the third point in the triangle, Ali’s wife Laura. Theirs is a curious relationship. She’s younger and considerably more attractive than Ali, yet she works hard for his business rather than taking things easy in the trophy wife manner that might be expected. She’s also, of course, a ‘true’ German like Thomas.

One day the three of them head to the coast for a picnic, during which the drunken Ali encourages Thomas and Laura to dance together. Ali then goes up a cliff, which collapses beneath him. After a highly significant moment of hesitation and exchange of reaction shots between Thomas and Laura, Thomas rushes to Ali’s aid and hauls him back to safety.

As Thomas and Laura embark on an affair under the always suspicious Ali’s nose, they begin to hatch a murderous scheme…

At this point it becomes clear, if the viewer had not realised it earlier, that Jerichow is a interpretation of James M. Cain’s oft-filmed novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Crucially, however, Petzold again makes some interventions of his own, as we begin to wonder whether it is not so much that the postman always rings twice as that sometimes he doesn’t ring at all or perhaps only once – and even then, maybe not in the manner anticipated…

Another of Petzold’s strengths is his ability to draw the best from his actors. Jerichow proves no exception, with Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss and Hilmi Sözer delivering nuanced, credible performances and playing off one another well.

Technically the film is accomplished, with good cinematography and sound design in particular.

In sum, strongly recommended.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Mondo di notte numero 3 / Ecco / This Shocking World

When George Sanders committed suicide in 1972 he famously left the note “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

Though there’s evidence that Sanders’ suicide was in large part attributable to ill-health, the idea of being bored with the world is one that neatly fits in with this 1963 film for which he provided the voice-over for the English language version.

For as the title Ecco – literally “here it is” or “look” – indicates, this is a film which is dedicated to showing the sensation-hungry viewer sights from all around the world that he’s [sic] supposed to find shocking, titillating and bizarre.

It is, in other words, a mondo film, part of that exploitation cum documentary genre that flourished in Italy in the early 1960s to then be taken up by US exploitation filmmakers and morph into more extreme death documentaries, snuff and cannibal films in the 1970s and 1980s, before providing what “paracinema” scholar Jeffrey Sconce has identified as the playbook for today’s reality television shows.

This legacy is what makes Ecco most come across as naïve and charming today as one imagines the reactions of one’s trash film forbearers at the Jacey.

If they were shocked and awed at the sight of a fakir running a few skewers through himself and wonders, what would they make of the emergence of tattooing, piercing and body modification practices amongst a wide cross section of today’s western population?

If their Dirty Mac contingent got off at the sight of bare-breasted tribeswomen bouncing up and down like some National Geographic story come to life, how would they respond to the omnipresence of pornography on the internet and its penetration (sorry) into the culture as a whole?

The tribeswomen; note the apparent ritual scars

The main exception is a segment showcasing some Portuguese whale fishermen, as they hunt down, dispatch and butcher one of the beasts, to presents a scene today’s conservation and animal rights types might have issues with. The issue for such a present-day viewer then becomes the contextualisation given the slaughter, that it is traditional and that the animal is efficiently made use of by the entire community in a manner that is more akin to the Native American with the buffalo than McDonalds with cattle.

Gutting a whale

It is, in other words, pretty much what you would expect: a succession of scenes strung together by obvious binary contrasts (rich and poor, modern and primitive, modern and ancient, urban and rural etc.) which are sometimes subverted (the tribeswomen perform their native dance for the edification of westerners whilst themselves preferring rock and roll) and of often dubious authenticity (the ever so demure black mass supposedly recorded in secret; the propensity for the same faces to appear in the nightclub scene audiences etc.), which together add up to a demonstration of Hamlet’s proposition, “there are more things within Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Besides Sanders’ voice-over other significant non-Italian contributions come from producer Dick Randall and fellow exploitation legends Lee Frost and Bob Cresse. The latter pair later collaborated on Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Freudo and Love Camp 7 amongst others, with some hints of the last film’s Nazisploitation fetish perhaps coming through in a throwaway reference to human-skin lampshades in a sequence purporting to show a secret German student duelling society. (Since Love Camp 7 and Isla: She Wolf of the SS helped in turn inspire various Italian imitators of the SS Experiment Camp variety it’s also worth remembering here that the traffic wasn’t just one way.)

Riz Ortolani supplies the music, that typically eclectic yet effective mixture of the sentimental, bombastic and inappropriate which made him the go to man for the filone at this time.

Neither the best nor worst of its kind, Ecco’s main strength is perhaps as an introduction to the mondo that shows the uninitiated what they can expect without being so outré as to be an immediate turn-off.


Saturday, 13 June 2009

Oltre la morte / After Death

Having been surprised by Claudio Fragasso’s mafia thriller Naples-Milan One Way earlier in the week, the chance of watching After Death AKA Zombie 3 or 4 (depending upon who's counting and from where) was too good to pass up.

Was he a hack who had struck lucky on one occasion, or someone whose work I had unfairly dismissed in the past?

On this evidence here, he’s more the former than the latter. There are however occasional hints of something better trying to escape the confines of the low budget and short shooting schedule.

Fragasso’s camera is fluid, with some nice Evil Dead style tracking shots through the jungle – albeit with the difference between the two film-makers thereby further confirmed through the way Raimi invented his own camera on a plank of wood technique which Fragasso’s more conventional eye-level shots don’t imitate.

The areas where the film is lacking are those around character and plot development, although when you consider that he was apparently shooting without a script and with a cast who couldn’t speak one another’s languages, this is less surprising.

Then there’s the fact that rather than having Giancarlo Giannini as his leading man Fragasso’s here got gay porn woodsman Jeff Stryker, whilst in lieu of Pino Donoggio to score the film he has Al Festa of Fatal Frames infamy. Leading lady Candice Daly, meanwhile, apparently took the part on the prompting of her then boyfriend.

An extended 20 minute prologue sets the scene, via a patchwork of allusions to The Beyond, Zombie, The Evil Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Demons, amongst others:

A group of scientists establish a medical research station on a remote tropical island to study various life-threatening diseases. In failing to save his daughter from cancer, they incur the wrath of the local voodoo priest. He opens the third door to hell, causing the dead to return to life.

The only survivor of the resultant zombie massacre is a young girl, Jenny. Exactly how she escaped is not clear, but this at least is in accord with much of what follows – including her subsequent return to the island with a quartet of mercenaries after the boat they are sharing mysteriously veers towards the island. They decide to head inland, in the hope of finding assistance. One of the mercenaries, Tommy, spies a zombie, chases [sic] after him, and gets bitten…

Meanwhile – again, this is a film with a lot of meanwhile, where things just tend to happen without rhyme or reason – a trio of investigators trying to discover what happened to the research team find the voodoo temple and, within it, The Book of the Dead which, true to idiot plot form – there is also lot of this, including the re-opening of the door of hell and – then gets read out aloud:

“If you want to open the door to hell today these four words you must say”
“Well, why are you stopping at that point?”
[Takes book] “Anatanou! Zombies! Maraco! Zombies!”

At least by around this time the survivors have managed to find a cache of M-16s to even the odds somewhat…

Like many films within the genre After Death plays upon the distinction between black magic and white science. The bulk of the monsters are non-white, native-types, the majority of the victims, with whose plights and in some cases zombie transformations we are supposed to sympathise.

This latter aspect, that the more fundamental distinction is between the living and the undead mitigates against the notion that the film might have been intended as a paranoid, racist fantasy, as does the presence of an African-American mercenary amongst the otherwise all-white group.

Admittedly, much like the none-too sensitively named “Chocolate” in the Fragasso scripted Rats, this is probably unlikely to appease the more politically correct viewer.

But, then again, the more politically correct viewer is unlikely to be the target audience for After Death anyways.

The real question is thus how far the film will appeal to the gore-hounds. The answer here depends somewhat on how you like your red stuff: While there are plenty of throat and face rippings and shots to the head, there is less that is particularly imaginative, convincing or extreme along the lines of, say, Zombie’s splinter in the eye or Hell of the Living Dead’s hand in the mouth and fingers up through the eyeballs gag.

One of the stars of the film, Nick Nicholson, has a blog where he discusses some of the amusing behind the scenes goings on in the film and in his career in Philippenes film-making. Check it out at

Christoper Lee receives knighthood

Congratulations to Christopher Lee on his knighthood

Friday, 12 June 2009

Cinema Sewer, Volume 2

Just published by FAB Press, Cinema Sewer Volume 2 presents a compendium of material from back issues of Vancouver-based Robin Bougie’s journal of the same name, along with some new hitherto unpublished pieces.

For those not familiar with Cinema Sewer, it’s basically Bougie’s idiosyncratic, personal magazine about porn, horror and general trash cinema, with a distinctive approach to design and layout based on the use of hand-lettering and original line illustrations, often of a pornographic nature.

It’s confrontational, not for the easily offended and a frank insight into its author’s more or less uncensored id, perhaps not as extreme in its transgressions as unapologetic serial killer enthusiast Peter Sotos’s infamous zine Pure but still inherently far enough out there as to separate that one per cent from the other ninety-nine.

Rather, Sotos probably separated that 0.01 per cent, of which neither Bougie, I or (hopefully) you are part of, from the 0.99, insofar as an issue of Pure landed him in court on child pornography charges; like the film Maladolescenza, Pure is a text it’s useful to be aware of, but one which must be approached with extreme caution – or, better, avoided.

Anyway, if you’re part of that 0.99 per cent, with similar interests to Bougie and an awareness of how difficult it can be to acknowledge them in a wider context, no matter what reasoned arguments you may make, it’s essential reading, being well-researched and containing plenty of material that’s hard to come by elsewhere.

How many other publications, for instance, would have excerpts from Marc “Mr 10½” Stevens autobiography or reprints of his fan-club information, or a review of an extreme S&M video from Germany, Kit Kat Experiment?

Moreover, in relation to the latter, how many would then go on to feature an extended dialogue between the author and one of his readers in which they attempt to work through their positions on such material?

Or, even if your tastes veer more towards trash than porn cinema, or more towards contemporary and vanilla porn than 70s/80s roughie fan Bougie, it’s still a worthwhile purchase as an indication of support and gratitude that publications like Cinema Sewer still exist...

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Vampires of Dartmoor - Dracula's Music Cabinet

One of the most interesting recent phenomena in the film soundtrack scene is the imaginary score, of music for films that do not exist or as alternative soundtracks for those that do. Much like everything, the results are of variable quality: For every The Giallo’s Flame, that successfully channels the spirit of Fabio Frizzi’s mellotron, there are two or three unimaginative, lazy, fake 70s porn soundtracks that think some fuzzed-out, waka-chuka guitar is all that’s required.

Given this hit and miss aspect, when I heard about the upcoming re-issue of this late 1960s album I was intrigued, but also wanted to know more. A quick search and a rip of the original, long out of print, vinyl was on my mp3 player, via Mutant Sounds.

And what a treat Dracula's Music Cabinet is. It's sufficiently like the work of Peter Thomas. Heinz Funk and Gert Wilden to function as the alternate score to many a krimi or post-Expressionist Mabuse / mad scientist entry, with bizarre studio effects, weird vocals and self-explanatory titles like Der Henker von Blackmoore and Die Folterkammer des Dr. Sex [or Fu Manchu], whilst also being just that bit different.

The re-issue is available from Moviegrooves.

Palermo Milano solo andata / Palermo-Milan One Way

As the old adage goes “every cloud has a silver lining”

In the case of the Italian filone cinema the lining was perhaps that its general decline sometimes afforded those who were still able to make films the opportunity to work with the kind of talent that likely would otherwise have been unavailable to them.

Claudio Fragasso's Naples-Milan One Way is a case in point, with the writer-director getting the opportunity to work with actors Giancarlo Giannini and Stefania Sandrelli – actors who, twenty years before, were more likely to be found working with Wertmuller and Bertolucci respectively – alongside internationally recognised composer Pino Donaggio.

But while the film certainly benefits from their respective contributions, the real surprise is Fragasso's own direction. Not only does he handle the various action set pieces extremely well while sustaining a high level of tension throughout, but he also allows for the characters and the story to develop.

Admittedly the last is derivative, with Ricky Tognazzi's La Scorta and Umberto Lenzi's From Corleone to Brooklyn coming to mind in the modern and classical eras of the poliziotto respectively.

But it's also a story that was still relevant at the time and, if Gomorrah is anything to go by, today: the extent to which the tentacles of organized crime have reached through the establishment and the often thankless task of those who challenge this power.

More importantly, Fragasso also navigates his own path between such models, providing more genre thrills than Tognazzi’s film whilst avoiding the more unrealistic aspects of Lenzi and Merli’s work. (Another notable difference between the two periods is that Fragasso’s film features policewomen as part of the team, with their gender going unremarked and their abilities unquestioned by their peers, in sharp contrast to the masculine, woman-as-victim world of the 1970s poliziotto film.)

The altogether more vulnerable Giannini plays a mob accountant, Turi Leofonte, known as “the computer” for his ability with numbers and capacity for memorising everything. He's been named by an informer as someone who knows all the secrets and will divulge them if given the right prompting.

Before word gets out, a hand-picked police squad is hastily assembled, with leave cancelled. Their job is to take Leofonte into custody and transport him to safety. It should be a more or less routine task, but the mission is compromised from the start.

Narrowly escaping an ambush – albeit at the cost of the lives of some of the police escort and Turi’s family alike – the survivors are forced to continue to Milan alone, not knowing whom they can trust.

Drama is added by the well-defined internal conflicts within the group. Understandably paranoid, Turi worries his escort has been selected precisely because of their youth and relative lack of experience, while they in turn are frustrated by his general attitude. In the middle is Turi’s rebellious and naïve teenage daughter, Chiara, who starts to develop a mutual friendship with the youngest of the policemen.

Fragasso recently made a sequel, charting the return voyage from Milan to Naples, which features Merli's son, Maurizio Mattei Merli…

Monday, 8 June 2009

Ladies of Giallo

Over at Daily Tourniquet,, is the first of an on-going series looking at the Ladies of Giallo with a profile of the talented Rosella Falk of Seven Bloodstained Orchids, Sleepless and more.


Dalle Ardenne all'inferno / The Dirty Heroes

Wow, what a mess!

An intermittently entertaining one, to be sure, but a mess nonetheless.

For this post- Dirty Dozen WWII action / caper crossover can't seem to decide what it wants to be, the tone it wants to take, and generally outlives its welcome somewhat thanks to a resulting lack of focus and a near two-hour running time.

We begin with the escape of two Chicago gangsters, Joe Mortimer (Frederick Stafford) and Randall (Howard Ross) from a Nazi POW camp, aided by one of the guards, Sergeant Rudolph Petrowsky; Petrowsky just happens to also be from the Windy City, having had to leave the US in a hurry and take advantage of his dual nationality sometime before the war.

The three men are intent on steal some diamonds and plans for the V1 and V2 rockets from the Nazis. To accompany these goals they need the assistance of three people.

The first person is local resistance leader, Luc Rollman (Adolfo Celi). He unfortunately expects that the diamonds should be returned to the Dutch people from whom the Nazi's appropriated them...

Students of geography and military history will at this point note that the Ardennes, as referred to the in film's Italian title, is in Belgium rather than Holland; suffice to say that this proves an early indicator of the film's somewhat slapdash approach to such matters.

The second person is Kristina von Keist (Daniela Bianchi). She's the wife of the local Wermacht commander, General von Keist (Curd Jurgens). She's also Jewish, her real name being Hannah Goldschmitt.

Needless to say it would be very bad for her and her husband if recently arrived SS commander General Hassler (Helmuth Schneider) were to find out.

Being intent on pursuing what his army counterpart Keist feels to be a lost cause, Hassler's has brought about an end to the uneasy truce that had existed between Rollman's partisans and Keist's men by a series of punitive SS actions.

The third person - finally we get there - is another of the men's old Chicago crime colleagues, O'Connor (John Ireland) who's now a Colonel in the advancing US army. They need him to create a diversion by launching an attack on the German positions at the right time. The complication here is that O'Connor doesn't really have the authority to make such an attack...

In sum, what we have is an convoluted and co-incidence based story that alternates awkwardly between war as hell and war as caper approaches, with few clichés left unexplored - the good German and the bad Nazi, the Jewish woman passing as 'Aryan' - and some dubious treatments of the partisan struggle and the Holocaust where attempts at pathos tend instead to come off as bathos.

Alberto De Martino's direction is a mixed bag, some effective compositions and set pieces - most notably the underwater sequence in which our (anti-)heroes enter the Nazi compound through the canal system - being offset by a lack of imagination in the battle scenes, some poorly integrated stock footage and, most laughably, a moment when a reconnaissance plane commandeered by O'Connor transforms into a bomber, delivers its payload, and metamorphoses back again.

Bruno Nicolai and Ennio Morricone contribute some suitably stirring martial music.

The leading men acquit themselves well enough in the derring-do stakes - Howard Ross looking as though he'd been working out particularly hard - whilst Bianchi makes for a suitably attractive love interest and sympathy figure.

The cast are nicely rounded out by some of those always welcome Eurocult faces, including, in two rather unimaginative pieces of casting John Bartha as an SS officer and Tom Felleghy as one of his allied counterparts.

A beautiful Bava poster

For The Whip and the Body:

Presently on Ebay, at a reasonable price, but just a little too large sized for me as a quattro foglio / four sheet that's 55 by 78 inches and in two pieces...

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Fulci / Bacon #2

Yesterday I was at a seminar on Francis Bacon, which produced another couple of connections to Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin:

Bacon's paintings, with their vivisected / meat forms

Lizard's dogs

Interestingly the lecturer also mentioned Bacon's interest in Bataille - someone whom I've often thought about Fulci's 'obscence' "stories of the eye" in relation to...