Sunday, 31 January 2010

Muerte de un quinqui

Retrospectively one thing about Paul Naschy's films, regardless of where we situate them generically, whether as horror, giallo- or crime-thriller, is that his presence seems to guarantee the inclusion of particular scenes and ideas that we would not get were someone else cast in the role.

As in Italy circa 1975, crime appears out of control in Spain as well; a guarded attack on the regime?

Scripted by Naschy himself under his real name Jacinto Molina, Muerte de un QuinquiDeath of a Hoodlum – is a case in point.

The heist

Naschy plays a psychopathic robber, Marcos, who guns down two men during a jewellery heist, stamps and kicks his girlfriend into a coma (Seul contre tous, anyone?), and flees from the rest of the gang with the loot which he had been safekeeping until their fence arrived.

As with the limping Peter Dockerman in the Jose Luis Madrid directed Spanish giallo Jack the Ripper of London, Marcos is physical handicapped, wearing a hearing aid as a result of being beaten by his father as a child.

As with Gilles in the Carlos Aured directed Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, he's also psychologically traumatised, being fixated on his mother, who was killed by his father in the same incident, and defending her name against any criticism.


Her traumatic murder

And its consequences

More generally Marcos is one of Naschy's tragic villains / monsters, as much a victim of circumstances and history as anything else. This links him back to the most famous of his characters, the reluctant werewolf Waldemar Daninsky.

Having arrived in the sticks, Marcos gets a job as a handyman on a farm. At this point the similarities with Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll are again foregrounded in that the farm is inhabited by three people, one in a wheelchair. This time, however, it's a husband and wife – he is the one in the chair – and their attractive daughter. The mother and daughter look like sisters and, like the sisters in Aured's film, are soon both romantically involved with Marcos.

In addition to bedding his co-stars, Naschy also strips down to his waist to chop some wood and generally show off his weightlifter's physique, again all as per usual.

Cody Jarrett redux?

Eventually the rest of the gang, headed by Frank Brana, show up, just as the games between Marcos and the family turn deadly serious...

Leon Klimovksy, who also produced, directs with his usual efficiency.

[See also]

Der Teppich des Grauens / Carpet of Horror / Il terrore di notte / Terror en la noche

Within the opening minutes we learn that the cast of this 1962 krimi includes Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor and Werner Peters and that its director is Dr Harald Reinl. We also get establishing shots of London, meant to convince us that the film wasn’t made on a studio backlot in Germany and failing in this regard, and, of course, the opening murder, committed via a pellet that sublimates to give off a deadly gas. The victim was about to reveal the identity of a feared master-criminal. Scotland Yard are brought in to investigate…

The hand of doom

If all this is familiar stuff, there are also some unusual things about The Carpet of Terror – a somewhat misleading title, perhaps, but also one that sensibly downplays the Zyklon-B aspect of the killer's modus operandi for the German audience of the period – that make it worth the krimi enthusiast’s time.

For starters Fuchsberger's character, Harry Raffold – the allusion to gentleman thief Raffles is quite deliberate – is not a Scotland Yard man but rather a member of the secret service. This leads to a spot of confusion when he is arrested by an over-enthusiastic Scotland Yard man.

Fuchsberger and Besari

Raffold also has a black sidekick, Bob, played by Pierre Besari. While basically the film's Eddi Arent character, his ethnicity is never made an issue. This is in sharp contrast to monster roles like Al Hoosman's Bhag, where blackness and primitive savagery were part and parcel.

Behind the scenes there are also various points of note. Carpet of Horror was produced neither by Rialto nor by CCC but by Germania Film GmBH. Perhaps consequently it was based not upon an Edgar Wallace or Bryan Edgar Wallace source, these being the properties of Rialto and CCC respectively, but rather an imitation Wallace by German writer Louis Weinert-Wilson.

The film was also a Spanish and Italian co-production like most of Germania's output. Talent from both countries is present behind and in front of the camera including co-scriptwriter Eugenio Martin and composer Francesco De Masi – beneath a Germanised pseudonym – and actors Eleonora Rossi-Drago and Antonio Casas. As such, it might be considered a forerunner of CCC's co-production crossovers like the krimi-giallo What Have You Done to Solange? and Jess Franco's The Corpse Packs His Bags.


In other ways Carpet of Horror is more business as usual: Dor plays the orphan who has come into an inheritance of £50,000 and who ends up being rescued by and marrying Fuschbeger; most members of the criminal gang are leather-coated proletarian types; the police have a very un-British propensity for carrying and using firearms, and Big Ben's chimes are heard even when the action has relocated to a country house far outside of London.

The gang and the master's (non-)voice

Reinl also again engages in his Lang-isms, with the criminal mastermind a Mabuse like acousmetric figure who we never see until the end and who communicates with their minions via a TV monitor.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Japanese Kill Baby Kill poster

Currently on Ebay

Suspiria homage in Hollyoaks

First scene, after the credits:

Thanks to Johnny Redman for pointing this out to me.

Mark Kermode and VRA 2009-10

Does anyone know if Mark Kermode commented at all on the recent revelation that the VRA had never properly been passed into UK law and, more particularly, if he said anything against its re-instatement?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Tiempos duros para Drácula

Having turned up at the hospital in desperate need of a blood transfusion, a man claiming to be Count Dracula is referred to an analyst and proceeds to recount the sorry story of his life.

His troubles begin with having to live up to his family's daunting legacy and with having to bring in money to pay the mortgage on the family castle and the electricity bill, to which end he has turned it into a tourist trap.

Dracula greets visitors to his castle - Christopher Lee meets Howard Vernon

Unfortunately the number of visitors has declined and so the electricity company pulls the plug, forcing Dracula to pawn his cape...

Having got it back and wearing his top hat, he is mistaken for a chimney sweep and then berated for putting on airs and graces and failing to show the appropriate solidarity with his fellow worker...

He gets a job advertising a toothpaste – whether coincidentally or otherwise Fulci's Dracula in the Provinces featured a vampire who operates a toothpaste factory – but is then thrown out the studio when it is decided he looks too much like a famous politician...

Teeth / fangs


Women to be penetrated...


This is followed by playing Dracula in a kung-fu / horror / sexploitation film, in which he loses a fang in a fight scene. The dentist proposes a gold replacement which Dracula cannot afford, refuses to glue the apparently decayed tooth back in place, and throws him out of the surgery.

Surmising that the episode pretty much destroyed Dracula's self-prestige, the analyst suggests that a relationship with a good woman might help, only for Dracula to then recount another tale of woe as he marries Sonia, who proves only interested in him because he provided her with information for her book about vampires (?!) and divorces him soon thereafter, citing mental cruelty. If this wasn't enough, he also proves to be impotent...

So it continues for the rest of its 73 minute running time, with scene after scene piling on the embarrassments and failures – the picking up of a transvestite in a disco, being mistaken for a spy's contact, and so on.

The relative lack of a narrative drive doesn't particularly prove an issue through a combination of the film's brevity; the fact that enough of the scenes are entertaining and amusing; various incidentals and just the simple fact that it's put together nicely with everyone's contributions working together to produce something greater than the sum of the individual parts. First among equals here is writer director Jorge Darnell. Lifante, best known as Martin in Jorge Grau's Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, is endearingly pathetic, whilst Adolfo Waitzman's piano, synth and concrete score manages to be both oppressive and quirky at the same time as it plays variations on Chopin's funeral march.

Fans of Spanish pop cinema will likely appreciate the spy scene as a riff on the street of spies in Lucky the Inscrutable, the seeming coincidence becoming an intentional reference when we also consider the presence of Jess Franco's regulars Luis Barboo and Antonio Mayans in the cast; the overt quotation of the director's 1970 Dracula as the film within the film, and the distinctive visual similarity between Jose Lifante's look and that of Howard Vernon in the same director's Dracula vs Frankenstein.

Another Franco trope - the Disney T-shirt?

Christopher Lee as a very different Dracula

Psychoanalytically minded types can play the game of identifying and explaining the phallic symbolism in advance of their on-screen counterpart does. Those beyond this may meanwhile care to consider the prevalence of mirrors within the mise en scene and what these say, in Lacanian terms, about this Dracula in relation to his imagined / idealised ancestor. They might also consider all this in relation to the film's nature as an Argentinian-Spanish co-production, given the enormous popularity psychoanalysis in general enjoys in the former country [cf.]

Perhaps the only people who may be disappointed are those seeking a bit more sex and violence, who would probably be better served by George A. Romero's Martin or Paul Morrissey and Antonio Margheriti's Blood for Dracula. Again, however, the incidental details of the film's nudity – or relative caution thereof – are of significance when we consider it as a 1976 film that pre-dated Francisco Franco's death and thus the destape – i.e. undressing – period that followed it.

In sum, a good film to show to the Eurocult naysayer.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Quintana / Quintana: Dead or Alive

This 1969 Euro-western entry comes across as a hybrid of the spaghetti western and the Zorro film, with the former supplying most of the iconography – duster coats, ponchos, six guns – and the latter the bulk of the plot, which revolves around the conflict between the titular masked hero and ruthless landowner Juan De Leyra, happy to see a man executed for a crime he didn’t commit and / or to use this as leverage against the man’s beautiful fiancée.

The result is something which is especially interesting historically, if not always as successful on aesthetic or entertainment grounds.

In his seminal study Sixguns and Society, Will Wright proposes that the structures of western films from 1930 to 1970 could be seen as passing through four broad phases in terms of the relationship between the protagonists, the antagonists and the wider society. In the first phase, the classical western, the protagonists fought on behalf of a weak society. In the last phase, the professional western, society was essentially an irrelevance. Wright saw this shift as relating to changes in the structure of US capitalism, in particular the post-WWII rise of the technocracy.

Being based on the biggest box-office earners in the USA, Wright’s study only included one Italian western, The Good the Bad and the Ugly. He classified Leone’s film as being closest to a professional western, on the grounds that society plays little part in the three men’s treasure hunt. While there are obvious issues here in translating between the US and Italian contexts, as Frayling and others have emphasised, it is nevertheless notable that the protagonist of the spaghetti western is after vengeance – another of Wright’s plots, with another configuration of protagonist, antagonist and society relations – and / or money the majority of the time. Though the wider society might benefit as well, it tends to do so indirectly.

Quintana surprises his American would-be killers

Here Quintana is very much integrated into the society he is both a member and defender of. Though he might thus be understood in terms of the kind of bell tower loyalty seen in the spaghetti, the difference is that his action is selfless – few know his real identity, although the viewer does – and not geared towards the benefit of a family type group but rather the class of the peasantry as a whole. The defeat of De Leyra and his forces is thereby more a collective rather than individual good.

One particularly significant scene in this regard is the one where Quintana mounts a daring solo raid on De Leyra’s stronghold that results in the successful rescue of one prisoner – admittedly the one he was primarily concerned with – and the gunning down of a dozen or so others. Back home, Quintana’s actions and motives are called into question, whether his display of individualism wasn’t that of a glory seeker detrimental to the wider goal.

Another point of note here is the relationship between Quintana and the local monks. If the poor man’s choice is between becoming a bandit or a beggar, as per the discussion between Tuco and Padre Ramirez in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, both bandit and priest are here presented as social roles.

Actor turned producer-writer-director Vincenzo Musolini / Glen Vincent Davis's visuals are dominated by zooms and Dutch angles. Unfortunately these tend to come across style for its own sake more than style that adds to substance. Nonetheless, it can at least be said that he tried hard and had the potential to develop into a decent filmmaker had he learnt some restraint – a potential that was to remain unfulfilled by his death in 1969 aged only 39.

Leading man Osvaldo Ruggieri / George Stevenson’s film career appears to have been even similarly short, with only one other film to his name according to the IMDB. He spends most of his time here beneath a mask and unfortunately doesn’t do much to bring his character to life beyond it.

Felice de Stefano’s at times over-emphatic music takes obvious inspiration from Ennio Morricone, with strongly-strummed guitar, a pipe organ in some of the religious scenes, and a borderline plagiarist cue taken from For a Few Dollars More.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Fulci / Fuller

Lucio Fulci became Louis Fuller for the Seven Doors of Death release of The Beyond; both Seven Doors of Death and The Beyond feature "fuller's earth" in the final scene.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Another local PSA

Cult Fiction movies:

David Hess and John Morghen in Edinburgh

"Hey all, here is a message from our esteemed friend Adam at the Jekyll & Hyde:

Jekyll & Hyde and Cult Fiction Movies would like to invite you all to an evening in the company of Mr David Hess. Star of the infamous video nasty ‘Last House on the Left’. Also in attendance will be Giovanni Lombardo Radice star of ‘Cannibal Ferox’, ‘House on the edge of the park’ (Alongside David), ‘City of the Living Dead’ and many more. The Jekyll will be closed to the non ticket holding public specifically for this icon of the horror genre on March 14th 2010 in an evening packed with everything a budding movie goer could hope for in this fine old gothic venue. There will be movie showings in the crypt bar all evening with intros from David himself, who will be partaking in a Q&A session on the balcony section of the pub along with an opportunity to get your favourite movies signed. The event will be brought to a close with David playing a live set featuring songs from the soundtrack of ‘Last House’ originally composed by himself .

Tickets will be priced at £6/£5 concessions (with an additional small autograph charge). The concessionary price is offered to students, members of the Edinburgh B-Team and The Edinburgh Zombie Club. Tickets are available from the following outlets.

The Jekyll & Hyde, Cult Fiction Movies and Ticket Scotland

Sounds pretty fucking awesome if you acks me!"

I would concur, and will post more as I know it.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Ugly Hatchet for a Honeymoon poster

There's no other way to describe this poster for A Hatchet for the Honeymoon except that it's not the sort of thing you'd probably want to have on your wall and looks like a piece of early video box cover art:

America così nuda, così violenta / Naked and Violent

You can be forgiven for confusing this 1970 film with its 1969 predecessor A Thousand sins... no Virtues.

For both are the products of the same team, headed by director Sergio Martino and his producer brother Luciano, and present mondo exposes of the western world at the time.

Indeed, one faux occult ritual sequence was sufficiently similar to make me check whether I had in fact seen the film before, before a check of the archives – revealed that the earlier film had been set in Sweden whereas this one is located, as its Italian title indicates, in the USA.

Besides the occult, other common themes include the sexual and social revolutions of the 1970s, with plenty in the way of sex, drugs, the counter-culture and so on.

There's also a similar mixture of found footage – here of Woodstock and anti-Vietnam demos – reconstructions / inventions – the occult ritual is tastefully suggested to be linked to the Manson Family's alleged practices – and highly dubious vox pop interviews with Easy Rider-styled bikers, redneck racists, black panthers and other representative / stereotypical American figures of the time.

The most interesting topic is the Native American occupation of Alcatraz. Citing a clause in 19th century legislation, activists took control of the island as a territory abandoned by the US. Unfortunately it's also worthy of a documentary in its own right, rather than being a two minute segment here.

One aspect in which the film differs from its predecessor – albeit perhaps down to different edits being extant for different markets – is that other familiar mondo staple of animal cruelty and death. What A Thousand... lacked Naked and Violent provides, via the sacrificing of a chicken in the occult ritual, whose blood is at least seemingly used, and a group of men shooting live rabbit targets strung up on a washing line, apparently not for food but solely as cheap target practice.

The whole is tied together by the usual voice-off commentary along juxtaposition of extremes and opposites – wealth and poverty, black and white, modernity and tradition etc. - alongside the use of scene-setting music, on this occasion courtesy of Bruno Nicolai.

In the end the biggest difference for me between the two films was in how I acquired them: A Thousand Sins... an AVI download from a VHS source, Naked and Violent the recent DVD from Mya Commmunications.

Unfortunately the free download and the paid for DVD are almost identical as far as image quality is concerned; if anything the DVD is worse, with some noticeable jump cuts between one scene or segment and another.

Examples of the print damage

Maybe no better source print was available. But if so there's nothing to indicate this, unlike those releases which at least tell you at the start that this is the case or that some material has been interpolated in from an inferior source or has proven impossible to locate. Nor are there any extras.

All in all, it's the kind of treatment that can only discourage the fan from shelling out their cash. Indeed, we might even venture that in making the film available with English subtitles, the release has a self-defeating aspect: If the increased sales from providing subtitles are greater than the cost of their production, then aren't there just going to be more dissatisfied customers than otherwise? What makes it even odder is that these subtitles have clearly been produced, not being burned in to source print and being removable for those comfortable with the Italian audio. So it is not as if the release was just about taking something that already existed and transferring it across to DVD.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Playbirds

London, the late 1970s. Someone is killing the models of porn magazine Playbirds. With no real leads to go on, the police decide to send one of their own undercover / uncovered in a bid to make the maniac reveal himself from amongst the suspects already identified / proposed. They are:
  • The Playbirds photographer with a history of violence.
  • The politician who preaches virtue in public and practices his vices in private.
  • The Christian prophet of doom.
  • The Playbirds owner who finds that his sales increase with each new murder.
Now, when you consider that the film is the product of the real life Playbirds owner David Sullivan, you can immediately strike two of these four suspects off the list, namely the men making their livelihoods off the porn industry. Concomitantly the likelihood of either of the anti-porn types being the killer is doubled.

Alan Lake as / is David Sullivan

Not that the film really open up space for discussing pornography anyway, other than to mock the anti-porn types of the time – as Sullivan did by naming another of his magazines, Whitehouse, after the religious puritan campaigner of the same surname. Still, the way in which his own alter-ego is presented seems somewhat curious. For he is crass, lacking in taste, obsessed with his horse racing (“use the whip!”) and generally someone you would very much like to see get his comeuppance.

We also get some footage of the mechanics of porn business, with copy upon copy of Playbirds being printed and stapled, rolling off the presses and being bundled up and into boxes for distribution: Fascinating from a documentary point of view, but distinctly anti-erotic.

The work of porn in the age of mechanical reproduction

Much the same can be said of the glamour shoots: Although the intention is clearly to make things seem sexy and exciting, the very fact that we're aware of this intentionality, or a lack of spontaneity and authenticity serves to distance us.

This emergent auto-critique also applies to the funniest and sleaziest moment in the entire film, in which Inspectors Porno and Bribeasy – er, Holbourne and Morgan – interview volunteers for going undercover and uncovered as a model in a bid to root out the maniac. Bump and grind music plays on the soundtrack as a succession of unsuccessful candidates strip off, the camera retaining a detached, observational eye throughout. Then, when glamour star Mary Millington steps into the breach, the camera becomes an active participant, moving around her and going in for close-ups as her routine continues.

Cue obligatory pseudo-lesbian scene

As with the giallo-inspired murder set-pieces, it's a moment of spectacle that makes us all the more aware of the banality of the bulk of the film, be it the detectives at work or 'Sullivan' at the racetrack.

Willy Roe is also the kind of point-and-shoot director whose attempts at visual style, such as a hand-held mirror based sex scene, don't really come off anyway.

Like other Sullivan productions most of the cast divides into two camps: Besides the models and porn types who cannot act but are happy providing the nudity and simulated sex, we also have various slumming thespians happy for just about the only work available them at the time.

Suzy Mandel

Somewhere in between, in uncredited roles, there are also some interesting other figures: unlikely 50-something porn performer Derek Aylward as a client in a massage parlour, candidly / knowingly acknowledged as the front for a brothel that the police are fully aware of, and performance artist / musician Cosey Fanni Tutti as a model; while her work within the British porn industry was also part of her wider art project – she posed for Sullivan's magazines and mounted an exhibition called Pornography – the film does not address this subject.

Playbirds goes off the rails a bit towards the end and finishes with one of those shock endings commonly found in weaker thrillers.

Yet if it leaves you dissatisfied and feeling cheated, this is perhaps apropos given the film's milieu, of a product which promises more than it can ever deliver and leaves you wanting more. (Not that such charges can only be levelled against porn...)

Insofar as the film is essentially 1959's The Cover Girl Murders revamped for a more permissive age and filtered through contemporary exploitation trends, intertexts are not difficult to find: The politician recalls the judge in Night after Night; the use of computer profiling in an attempt to narrow down the list of suspects The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; the glamour/model/sleaze setting Strip Nude for Your Killer, Delirium: Photos of Gioa and so on; the Playbirds of reality/Playbirds of fiction element the diegetic and non-diegetic Tenebres; the cod occultism Virgin Witch or Satanic Rites of Dracula; and fetishistic shots of black gloves around women's necks and a clue concealed in the photographic blow-up countless gialli.

The hands of doom

The white heat of the Scotland Yard computer system

The film also features plenty of jaw-droppingly funny / bad and just plain distasteful dialogue (“O goody, I'm going to be raped, I've never been raped before”) and some nice location shots of Soho for good measure.

[See also:

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Dario Argento o la alquimia del miedo

Just flicked through this Spanish book, Dario Argento or the Alchemy of Fear.

My Spanish is non-existent, but it looks like a decent alternative or companion to the likes of Maitland McDonagh in English or Jean-Baptiste Thoret in French for those who read the language.

First there's a thematic overview, identifying key motifs in Argento's films - e.g. the elements (agua), animals (gatos) etc.

Then there are chapters on each of his films through to The Phantom of the Opera.

Then there is a 1999 interview with Argento, conducted at the Sitges film festival.

Finally the are portraits of important collaborators such as Morricone, Goblin, Nicolodi and Cozzi.


Due maschi per Alexa / Fieras sin jaula / Two Men for Alexa

The opening moments of this 1970 noir-esque thriller from Juan Logar nicely establish its basic operating principles, that we have to pay attention and do some work in piecing together the fragments for ourselves.

A Citroen DS = France

Three scenes are intercut with one another, introducing the four main characters around whom almost all the action will revolve: Caterina expresses her concerns for her father Roland, that his second wife Alexa (Rosalba Neri) only loves his money and is possibly unfaithful. Simultaneously Alexa demonstrates her infidelity by making love with her boyfriend Pietro (Juan Luis Galiardo) on a beach, as an older man – Roland (Curd Jurgens) – drives to the property nearby, observes the couple, and makes various preparations.

Unmotivated use of colour filters in a 'normal' scene

Some time later, Roland catches Alexa and Pietro in bed together and pulls out a gun and shoots himself. As Pietro goes to open the door, Roland's trap is sprung: Steel shutters close over the windows and doors, locking the three of them in the room together.

As the lovers desperately search for a way out and increasingly crack under the pressure, we see what led to this tragic, as in inevitable, denouement...

The dead man who speaks

Two Men for Alexa should particularly appeal to at least two audiences.

The first are fans of leading lady Rosalba Neri. There are no issues here, not least since as the film provides not only ample demonstration of her physical charms but also of her often underrated acting abilities.

The second are those who like stories about twisted relationships and situations that can only end badly. Some directors and films that come to mind here as reference points are Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, Claude Chabrol's L'Enfer, Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel and Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon. The issue here, is that these films have the respectability and name recognition value that this low-budget French-set, Spanish-Italian co-production, as an apparent piece of European trash cinema, doesn't.

For while Two Men for Alexa certainly has elements of this, it is considerably more intelligently written, directed and performed than this blanket label might suggest.

One scene that immediately comes to mind is the first encounter between Alexa and Pietro: Inasmuch as it occurs in a nightclub and plays out against a groovy Piero Piccioni theme, it initially seems a classic case of retro kitsch.

But then we have consider that Roland is also present and very much out of place in this youthful setting. And there is the wordless exchanges of looks between the trio at the fateful moment: Alexa and Pietro's sense of recognition in finding another like themselves – young, attractive, vivacious and in search of the easy life – alongside Roland's world-weary resignation that this is the beginning of the end for his and Alexa's relationship.

The fateful encounter

The film in general is replete with little poetic touches like these, with objective and subjective, imagined and real deliberately taken to the point of confusion or indiscernibility. The use of voice-off is particularly noteworthy in this regard: The summing up of the case presented by the dead or dying narrator is a familiar noir trope if we think of the likes of Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.

The first difference is that Roland has a degree of self-awareness throughout that his younger counterparts in these films do not, in explicitly telling Alexa he's offering his wealth in exchange for her youth. Gloria Swanson's character in Sunset Boulevard may be an ageing vamp and coded as a kind of vampire, but she is never quite so up front as this about feeding on her young writer lover/prey.

The second is that we also get Alexa and Pietro's perspectives on the same events, such that we also hear from the fatal man and woman as well as from their victim/fall guy. Or perhaps this is itself yet another point of distinction, that there is no one victim here, nevermind an innocent one.

Credit is due to those at Cinemageddon who reconstructed the film from Italian and Spanish language sources and provided English subtitles.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Rollin on UK TV

Il castello dalle porte di fuoco / Blood Castle / Ivanna / Scream of the Demon Lover

This turn of the decade Italian-Spanish co-production from Jose Luis Merino is very much the product of its time, having one foot in the 1960s past and the other in the 1970s future. As a 1960s film, it is rich in Gothic atmospherics. As a 1970s film it is that bit more explicit in terms of nudity, violence and perversity.

Set around the turn of the 20th century, the plot sees biochemist Dr Ivanna Rakovski (fotoromanzi fixture Erna Schurer) hired to assist Baron Janos Dalmar in his researches. The baron has a bad reputation amongst the locals, being suspected of the murder of several young women and of his older brother, Ygor.

Schurer voices off

But it is hard for Ivanna to know how much credence to put in these peasant stories, not least because the man who agrees to take her to the Dalmar castle attempts to rape her en route.

Whatever the case, Baron Janos is initially reluctant to employ Ivanna, having apparently not realised that she was female, beautiful and eligible when he contracted her via an agency. She is equally reluctant to leave, however, and soon wins him over with a display of professionalism, although predictably their relationship equally quickly begins to extend beyond work.

The Baron's first appearance, via Dracula and Black Sunday.

It emerges the Baron is continuing his late brother's research into tissue regeneration; having died when his laboratory blew up Ygor is also the experimental subject, with his charred remains being preserved in a vat of chemicals.

The Baron tries to blame these chemicals for inducing the extraordinarily vivid hallucinations or nightmares Ivanna soon experience, which see her being taken to the castle dungeon and tormented by an unseen figure...

Blood Castle's greatest assets, besides lead Erna Schurer's breasts and her willingness to display them at every opportunity which presents itself, are its visuals. Take out the scenes of Schurer wandering around the passages and chambers of the castle and the film would probably be half the length. But they are so beautiful to look at that it almost doesn't matter.

This is all the more so since the film is, like many of its kind, decidedly less satisfactory when it actually comes to telling a story. Besides the usual infelicities of translation and dubbing (some of the supposedly Slavic characters speak with Cockney accents in the English version) we get an awkward kitchen sink of supernatural, mad science and mad man motifs that recall superior predecessors and intertexts featuring only one or the other: The Virgin of Nuremberg, via the torture chamber and a (not so) mysterious disfigured figure; The Whip and the Body, via the ambiguous S&M scenarios and the Byronic baron; and The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, via a Hitchcockian glass of drugged milk.

It's this aspect which also demonstrates how Blood Castle is a perfect illustration of the division between Anglo-American and European approaches to fantasy-horror, as proposed by Tohill and Tombs in Immoral Tales, that between the narrative logic of the former and the cinematic logic of the latter.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Appuntamento in nero / Scandal in Black

Angela (Mirella Banti) is the wife of a diplomat, John Baldwin (Andy J Forest). One day she visits a down-market cinema and is attacked in the toilets by a maniac. The incident proves the last straw for John, who is secretly having an affair with Angela's live-in friend Eva (Mary Lindstrom), a model. Not wanting to divorce Angela for fear of scandal, John decides to murder her and blame it on the maniac at large...

Even when presented in this form, Scandal in Black has an obvious plausibility concern in why a respectability-obsessed career politician would be living with the (perhaps lesbian coded) friend of his wife to begin with: Wouldn't this in itself be scandalous enough or at least provide plausible cause for scandal when manipulated by the media and rivals or enemies?

Things get worse when we consider the way in which Angela's supposed rape in the toilets is handled by the police, with no sign of their making any sort of forensic examinations. For, had they done so, they might have realised that Angela faked her attack.

The reason why isn't entirely clear: It could have something to do with a traumatic incident fifteen years previously, as shown in a pre-credits sequence. But if so there's no definite and convincing point of connection ever really established. Instead, the initial trauma feels somewhat shoehorned in because that's what the textbook dictates a giallo should have. Yet in its presentation, with rape prominent and the identity of the attacker obvious rather than concealed, it also seems to be aiming at something more.

Whatever this something more is remains obscure, however, quickly leading to the conclusion that Scandal in Black is best approached by not questioning things too much and going with the flow.

What we get are various reversals of fortune amongst the conspirators, very much a case of who is screwing who, both metaphorically and literally; various well-worn filone tropes including black gloves, blades, damaged dolls, blackmail subplots, threatening phone calls, shower scenes and a death (specifically decapitation) by power tool; all topped off by some of the most consistently defective detective work around:

“Did you realise last week’s hit and run victim worked in the same movie theatre where Mrs Baldwin was attacked?”
“How do you know that?”

Or how about:

“Even in a small city like this hundreds of women are molested every week. Most of the time that’s the end of it; nothing else ever happens.”

And this from a female officer who was once molested herself. Perhaps something is lost in translation, but even so...

Shower abstraction of female form

And clear blade

Throughout all this the main tension in the film, one that is never quite satisfactorily resolved, is between the erotic thriller and slasher film aspects of the giallo. There are more softcore sex scenes and fewer murder set pieces. This slows things down somewhat, since the sex scenes rarely advance the plot.

The doll

The real issue, however, is that the continuing presence of violence numbers makes the sex-violence interface that bit more evident and thus detracts from enjoyment of the sex scenes. This would be fine if a Laura Mulvey styled “visual unpleasure” was the aim, but it's not, at least in general terms.

Sexist, or a critique of sexism?

The opening scenes encapsulate this tension perfectly: First we have the rape scene, which is not supposed to be sexy. Then we have Angela driving in her sports car en route to the cinema, seductively dressed and very much performing for the camera and the male spectator. Taken together we have a pleasure which is at best a guilty one.

As a whole it feels as though the filmmakers have taken the plot of a Lenzi “psycho-sexy” giallo from the late 1960s and filtered it through the lens of an Argento psycho-sexual giallo from a few years later. This would be fine, but for the fact that when Lenzi himself worked in an Argento idiom, as in Seven Blood Stained Orchids, he did so as an alternative to his own earlier approach. Thus when one character is killed with an electric drill within that film, the effect is more an impressive piece of splatter than something uncomfortably psycho-sexual: The drill may be phallic, if one wants to interpret it that way, but it is first and foremost a drill. Here, by contrast, we have an approach that is too self-conscious for its own good, as when Angela remarks of her phantom attacker that “He used the bottle neck as if it were a phallus”.

The Lenzi connection may seem less arbitrary when we consider that leading man Forest was a regular in Lenzi productions of this time. His performance here – to the extent any performance can be judged through a bad English dub – is somewhat one note if suitably unlikeable. Leading lady Banti is perhaps best known for her role as one of the lesbian victims in Tenebre. She acquits herself well enough, as does the more decorative Lindstrom, in what appears to have been her only film appearance.

Hedman plus posters

Also in the cast are Franco Citti and Marina Hedman. The former, though most associated with Pasolini, appeared in the odd filone production, such as The Cat with the Eyes of Jade. The latter, a hardcore porn performer, is amusingly cast as one of the employees of the cinema, whose walls are adorned with posters for the likes of Fatal Temptation and Emmanuelle 5.

The scoring, by Marco Rossetti, is decent, but suffers from that artificial, synthetic quality, where every drum beat has exactly the same pre-programmed sound. Had the film been made in 1975 rather than 1990 you could imagine it all being more organic (read real instruments, and a Hammond B3 rather than a synth), and much the better for it.

In sum, entertaining enough if you can turn off your critical faculties, which I was not able to do...