Wednesday 31 December 2008

Rosso sangue / Absurd

Joe D'Amato's follow-up to Anthropophagous opens much as its predecessor had finished, with George Eastman's hulking man-monster literally spilling his guts.

The similarity ends there, however, as rather than consuming his own entrails and thus bringing about his demise, Eastman's character, Mikos Stenopolis, has the capacity to regenerate just about any damage he may sustain within a remarkably short period of time, much to the surprise of the staff at the local hospital.

This ability, it seems, is the result of some experiments carried out on Mikos in his Greek homeland, a plot device clearly intended to further link the character to the previous film, which had actually taken place on a Greek island.

If the experiment has left Mikos's near immortal - he cannot regenerate damage to his brain, leading to a variant on the time-honoured aim for the head scenario - it has also left him even more psychotic than he already was.

Mikos's nemesis, who was responsible for his initial gut-spilling, is a Greek Orthodox priest, played by Edmund Purdom with dubious accent. His role in the experiment is equally unclear. As he tries to explain to Charles Borromel's unsurprisingly uncomprehending police chief, "I serve god with biochemistry."

What is certain, however, is that Purdom's priest is Dr Loomis to Eastman's Michael Myers, with the bulk of the film - scripted by Eastman and possibly Bruno Mattei, under his Jimmy Matheus alias - playing out as a homage / rip-off of the first two Halloween films in setting and incidents. Mikos, an unstoppable force of evil, is even referred to as "the boogey-man" a number of times.

Rather than the occasion being Halloween, though, it is the big game between the Rams and the Steelers for "the championship". Whilst the intention here was clearly to Americanise the film, the attempt fails. First, as Kim Newman noted in Nightmare Movies, since the adults gathered for the game - conveniently leaving their children alone with the babysitter to face the monster - incongruously snack on pasta. Second, because the filmmakers' representation of the game is more like soccer or rugby than gridiron, going from end to end at a frantic pace. (It may also be noted that at one point the supposed quarterback according to the voice-off is clearly a running back from the hand-off play that is made and the jersey number he is wearing; in another a touchdown is scored just before half-time but there seems to be no point-after attempt.)

Whereas Carpenter had his characters watch The Thing from Another World, D'Amato has the children, played by William Berger's daughter Katya and son Kasimir, watch one of his Dominican Republic films. Thankfully, however, Mark Shannon and Lucia Ramirez are dubbed as for an innocent romantic drama rather than a horror-porn hybrid.

If D'Amato skips on the sex and nudity that represents one of the two major components of his film-making approach, he more than compensates for this with horror and gore, whether Mikos holding in his entrails at the start; drilling one victim through the head; subjecting another to an involuntary trepanation with a band-saw, or putting a third in an oven. In other words, the film is just as worthy of its Rosso sangue - Red Blood - name as its Absurd one.

Though D'Amato would be the first to admit he is no John Carpenter, he is also a better director than many would give him credit for, generating plenty of atmospheric and a particularly suspenseful final act in which the kids - one bed ridden - must somehow defend themselves against the unstoppable boogey-man.

Other points of note include an early role for Michele Soavi, as an ill-fated member of a motorcycle gang; a practical joke playing, mask-wearing kid, and on-screen role for dubbing-artist Ted Russoff.

Carlo Maria Cordio provides an eerily effective soundtrack of swirling and droning synthesiser-led themes that build to intense, percussive crescendos in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Goblin or Fabio Frizzi's work on City of the Living Dead, but which ultimately lacks their subtlety and imagination.

In sum, better than you might think.

Tuesday 30 December 2008

I Ladri

Much like Contraband 20 or so years later, Lucio Fulci's feature debut is a culture clash crime story set in Naples. The similarity ends there, however, since I Ladri is not a blood-drenched gangster tale but rather a comedy in the vein of the director's mentor Steno.

Events are set in motion by the arrival of Italian-American gangster Joe Castagnato in Naples. He is rightfully suspected of having masterminded a multi-million pound heist in the USA, but nothing has been found to definitively connect him to the crime to date.

The head of the Naples police, Commissario Di Savio, brings Joe in for a friendly chat and indicates that he has finally met his match. His faith in his own and his men's abilities seems somewhat misplaced however, with the QDN - Questura di Napoli - seeming to lack anything comparable to the FBI's high-tech scientific methods whilst Di Savio himself constantly forgets his underling La Nocella's name.

Meanwhile stevedore and petty criminal Vincenzo Scognamiglio, who was working when Joe's ship arrived at the dock, discovers gold hidden in amongst a consignment of pineapple jam from the US. His wife Maddalena soon puts two and two together and realises how Joe managed to get his loot out of the US and into Italy.

A noir-ish moment

She thus makes Joe an offer, not so much of the cannot refuse type as of the accepted to humour variety, setting the stage for all manner of double crosses and, in the case of Maddalena's in-laws, bungling...

Though now Euro-cult interest in I Ladri concentrates more on its director than star, Toto; attractive female lead, Giovanna Ralli; or the not entirely coherently inserted Guys and Dolls-style song and dance number featuring Fred Buscaglione, it's probable that at the time of its release Fulci's name was the least thing attracting audiences to the film.

Specifically no-one in 1959 would be aware that it was to mark the debut of a director who would go on to exert a strong influence on horror cinema worldwide, and if anything would seem likely to have pegged Fulci's career as following that of his mentor or other Italian style comedy figures like Big Deal on Madonna Street's Mario Monicelli or Love and Larceny's Dino Risi in trajectory.

Or maybe Fulci's 1960s career was, with the critical - if not commercial - difference that he ended up making vehicles not for Toto or Alberto Sordi, as respectable / international / art house faces of Italian comedy, but rather Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, their disreputable domestic-only equivalents.

Fulci's direction here is basically classical, with a preference for two- and medium length shots rather than close-ups and for fluid camera movements over montage style editing. In this regard it's fascinating to watch I Ladri and contrast Fulci's approach here to his later style, with the film serving to demonstrate just how radically Fulci's film-making practice changed over the course of the 1960s with the twin inspirations of new wave explorations of the hand-held camera and the zoom lens and Sergio Leone's experiments with the wide-screen frame and Techniscope process in particular.

The local gangster

The other obvious difference is the aforementioned absence of violence. Everyone, including the gangsters, is presented as basically harmless, preferring outsmarting to rubbing out the opposition. Admittedly this is in tune with the film's generic nature - though here we can also note that the same year's Some Like it Hot indicates that even the St Valentine's Day Massacre could be used as unlikely springboard for comedy - but it is still far removed from what many would expect give Fulci's later work and reputation.

Guys and Dolls

The closest the film gets to a "violence number" is the aforementioned production number, in which Fulci goes out of his way to make what could easily have been a somewhat stagey interlude cinematic. If the relationship between it and the narrative is perhaps something of the inverse of a film like Zombie, where the narrative exists more for the set pieces rather than the other way around, it nevertheless thus confirms that, even at this stage, Fulci had a talent for the big moment. (I would exempt The Beyond from this split, arguing that like Argento's Inferno, it is a film where the set-piece / narrative distinction no longer withstands.)

Those familiar with Don't Torture a Duckling may also see certain precedents in Fulci's position on issues of Italian identity, with the Neapolitans often proving smarter than they let on in using time-honoured cunning against more modern technologies, and the always-ambiguous figure of the Italian-American gangster. Depending on one's point of view, or indeed, who is asking the question, he is an admirable figure and / or a reprehensible one, demonstrating the best and / or worst of Southern Italian character traits.

Those who see the director as an arch-misogynist may be surprised by his treatment of Ralli's independent and resourceful heroine compared to her somewhat dim-witted husband and his immediate famiglia, the one a habitual layabout and the other a religious / superstitious - delete as you see fit - kleptomaniac.

Those not concerned with Fulci's status as auteur, meanwhile, may simply concern themselves with the question of whether or not the film is sufficiently funny, entertaining and worth a watch. The answer on each count has to be a yes.

Sunday 28 December 2008

Quando le donne avevano la coda / When Women Had Tails

This prehistoric comedy might perhaps be glossed as a live action version of The Flinstones done in the style of the commedia all'italiana meets The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges, with an effective mixture of physical and visual humour, which comes across regardless of the language one is watching it in, and wordplay, which obviously requires a knowledge of Italian - at least in the version under discussion here.

The always-welcome Senta Berger plays Filli, a thoroughly modern looking cavewoman dressed in figure-accenting furs.


Frank Wolff, Guiliano Gemma, Aldo Giuffrè and company play the five cavemen who adopt her - or are adopted by her, insofar as they are that bit more primitive, wielding clubs whereas she uses a parrot as an opener in true Flintstones style and being made up so as to be almost unrecognisable. (Indeed, her Cheetah-like companion chimpanzee is smarter than the cavemen as well, placing coconuts beneath their dinosaur-bone framed hut so that they will break the shells when they land.)

The cavemen

To differentiate then each of the cavemen has a particular trait: Wolff's werewolf-looking figure combines a more inquisitive nature with a bad temper; another has a propensity to lose parts of his anatomy in accidents, but for a time regrow them, before spending the latter part of the film as just a head; while a third, complete with a Harpo Marx style hairdo, is coded as gay and soon falls in love with a more civilised, trickster-conman type caveman played in characteristic self-deprecating manner by Lando Buzzanca.


Buzzanca's character, meanwhile, predictably seeks to take advantage of the five cavemen's relative guilelessness to win Filli away from them whilst also ridding himself of his own bride - at least that's what I think he / she was...

When Women Had Tails is a very different experience from the otherwise comparable Hammer prehistoric epics, fur bikinis notwithstanding. As already noted, language is more important. It is also an exclusively studio based project, with all the action taking place in an expansive papier-mache, plasterboard and polystyrene type landscape with painted backdrops of volcanoes and so on.

One major point of note about the film is that it was written by future art-house favourite Lina Wertmuller, though unsurprisingly seems to be the sort of film that she and her supporters would prefer to downplay. Nonetheless, the battle of the sexes aspect is telling, with the imbalance in numbers between them also perhaps hinting at a connection to Seven Beauties, as a later inversion with one more civilised man and seven less civilised / attractive women, whilst the isolated prelapsarian setting recalls Swept Away.

Another point of interest, in relation to the history of gay characters in the cinema, as outlined by Vito Russo in his pioneering study The Celluloid Closet, is the inevitable end that befalls the only gay caveman: suicide.

Might make for a nice double-bill with Themroc.

Things to spend Christmas money on...

Guess the giallo

From the French VHS artwork; I've removed the performer credits to make it a bit more challenging:

The Crypt of Madness

Friday 26 December 2008

Bill Landis, RIP

Anyone who hasn't read Sleazoid Express should do so - a great gonzo read and chronicle of the pre-clean up New York grindhouse scene.

Yugoslavian Deep Red poster

Film, Folklore and Urban Legends - some thoughts

In Mikel Koven's latest book, Film, Folklore and Urban Legends, he applies folkloristic methods and readings to a variety of films including The Wicker Man, the zombie film and Weekend at Bernies and its sequel.

As a book for the folklorist, I found it relatively hard going compared to his more film studies based analysis of the giallo as a vernacular cinema, though his references to Walter Ong's work provide something of route in.

In again referencing Ong, I think Koven also inadvertently point to one of the differences between the Argento giallo and many of its imitators, namely the extent to which we can engage with the text multiple times:

'Films that demand rewatching, rewinding, and replaying are more “literary” in that in order to experience the narrative to its fullest, one needs to understand its overall structure. From a literary perspective, this demand is more “sophisticated,” more like “quality literature.”'

Again, however, this is also something which makes the Argento text less vernacular, or at least more open to different reading strategies. It also, I think, points to a difference between the more successful early Argento gialli – here I would include The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red and Tenebre – and the less satisfactory Cat o' Nine Tails. This is that Cat lacks many moments that require a re-reading or re-viewing in the same way as Bird's Gallery scene or Peter Neal's remarks in Tenebre.

As to the book itself, I found the chapter on The Wicker Man to be more successful than that on the zombie film, largely because the former is clearer in its focus.

Koven emphasises the way in which, in using J G Fraser's The Golden Bough, or at least a specific earlier version of it, as the source for The Wicker Man's mythology, Schaffer and Hardy took second-hand conjectures and commentary as truth. The result is something unsatisfactory from a folkloristic perspective, even if it may make for good cinema. Whilst there is perhaps nothing particularly revelatory here, inasmuch as the combination of pagan – or neo-pagan – practices depicted within the film has long been recognised as somewhat syncretic, Koven's analysis is impressive in its specifics and detail.

The chapter on the zombie film, by comparison, seems to suffer somewhat from an uncertainty over exactly what the zombie is and represents, specifically around the distinction between the traditional voodoo zombie and the Romero / post-Romero flesh eater, and what seems an – admittedly necessarily – selective reading of the corpus of films.

In a way, however, this also emerges as part of the point when we also consider Koven's analysis of the Weekend at Bernies films. It is more convincing in showing the value of Koven's vernacular approach when dealing with genuinely vernacular cinema that lacks a degree of self-consciousness about what it is doing. To put it another way, whereas Fulci and his collaborators on Zombie likely had voodoo in mind as a means of distinguishing their film from Romero's – even if maybe somewhat post-hoc and selectively, depending on who was asking – the authors of Weekend at Bernies were operating at a less conscious level, using folkloristic tropes without necessarily being aware of so doing.

An interesting read thus far...

Emanuelle e le porno notti nel mondo n. 2 / Emanuelle and the Erotic Nights / Emanuelle and the Porno Nights

You could be forgiven for getting confused here: the original Le Notti porno di mondo, also directed and edited by Bruno Mattei under his Jimmy Mathews pseudonym, featured Laura Gemser, but did not reference her Emanuelle character in its title.

Gemser's introductions / linkings have a certain something...

Regardless, the two films are pretty much interchangeable, featuring similar mondo-style supposedly from around the world but predominantly shot in the same Rome studios. Be it the USA, France or Germany the nightclubs and their audiences look the same, with bottles of J&B prominently placed on just about every table.

The first scenes here depicts a séance that segues into a black mass, complete with virgin deflowering in the name of Satan and one of those peculiarly sexless softcore orgy numbers.

Next we get a Parisian magician who specialises in making clothes disappear and doing the rising cloth routine with a detachable erection that may or may not belong to a nude dwarf who then runs through the audience; an adult version of Luna Park, where an on-leave soldier wins a blow-up sex doll and another person of restricted growth is triumphant with a kind of test your strength machine into which the men insert their penises; and a Lady Godiva routine that hints at a beauty and the bestiality scenario with her pony but doesn't go as far as Emanuelle in America nor La Bete.

This is followed by Ajita Wilson, photographing a lesbian sex show and addressing us straight to camera like Gemser; a Japanese penis transplant operation - here a male voice, purportedly that of a professor, is used to provide extra gravitas - and some New Guinea mating rituals of dubious authenticity as far as the virginity testing of the young women goes if not the stock footage of pigs being clubbed to death for a feast.

The usual mondo footage of animals qua meat

Dwarves are again the order of the day for the subsequent segment, a Biancaneve-themed routine, while detachable phalluses feature in the next, featuring a bodybuilder and his fan club of predominantly middle-aged women.


Things are rounded off with a report from the making of a porn film; a couple of women wrestling in foam; a science-fiction themed dance routine cum strip show; an Italian stripping housewife TV program and footage from a US nudist event.

While all of the material has a certain historical and sociological interest - Is this what passed for shocking entertainment? What was with the fascination with dwarves? - it is this last sequence that is probably the most interesting precisely because of its status as actuality footage, albeit obviously edited by Mattei into something more interesting. The bodies on display aren't merely those of attractive young women, as predominate elsewhere within the film, but are more balanced between the sexes and across the age spectrum, imparting an appropriately grotesque and carnivalesque tone.

Thursday 25 December 2008

Laure / Forever Emanuelle

Another day, another Annie Belle Emmanuelle film.

Aficionados will, however, no doubt note that I use the two M spelling on this occasion.

There is a reason: that Laure / Forever Emmanuelle was scripted and co-directed - albeit anonymously - by the real-life Emmanuelle and / or creator of the character, Emmanuelle Arsan, who also appears on screen, as Myrte, a friend of Belle's character Laure.

This makes, not surprisingly, for an intriguing case as far as theories of auteurism go, of a film which is officially credited to no-one, almost as if being from an unknown source in the manner of a number of erotic / pornographic works, but which clearly otherwise represents Arsan's take on Emmanuelle more than any of the other films bearing her / the character's name.

It's also strange to see Arsan in the flesh. Being of Thai origin, she is if anything more like Laura Gemser than Sylvia Kristel or Belle physically, more Black or Yellow Emanuelle than Emmanuelle. This also tends to put a different slant on the colonialist / exoticist / imperialist / orientalist - delete as applicable - aspects of the franchise, making the whole that bit more cosmopolitan and perhaps allowing for the possibility of challenging the binaries of the exotic and familiar and of orientalist and occidentalist discourses.

Will the 'real' Em(m)anuelle please step forward - Arsan as Myrte

The story in brief is that Laure and Myrte are part of an expedition into a remote area of the Philippines where they, along with Professor Morgan and hippie-type cameraman Nicholas - the inevitable Al Cliver - hope to make contact with a mysterious tribe, the Mara. Nothing so unusual about this, except that the expedition's intentions are more ethnographic than sensation seeking, with none of the usual cannibal ferox subtext or excesses.

Instead the Mara - a significant sounding name if we consider Hindu and Buddhist theology - represent something of the the innocence that has been lost by the westerners and westernised members of the expedition. Specifically, they have an annual rite of rebirth whereby each member of the tribe is reborn to assume a new identity, which they then keep for the next year before the cycle begins again.

The image and the reality - Belle and Cliver make love over his footage of their and others' lovemaking

Indeed, it takes rather a long time for the expedition to get underway, with the first half of the film being more concerned with detailing the erotic exploits of Laure and company and featuring various intellectual digressions that, if not necessarily registering as genuinely profound, indicate an somewhat uncommon level of ambition.

There is also some low humour, as when Laure's assisting the professor with his slideshow of the Mara is short-circuited by the attentions of some of her friends hidden beneath the podium much like Police Academy.

The limit point within the film's discourse of sexual freedom is also apparent. It is, unsurprisingly, male homosexuality While Nicholas indicates that he is not jealous when Laure goes off with another man, on the grounds that he feels whatever she feels and that whatever makes her happy makes him happy, there is never any suggestion that he and the Professor are going to engage with one another sexually in the same ways as Laure, Myrte and the other women do.

The film also features a transgendered character who comments on having chosen her gender. Crucially, however, she is also presented as having a female rather than a male lover in what is either a more challenging instance of queering gender identity or a means of recuperating the character back into the fold, whereby every man wants a woman and every woman a man and / or a woman.

Actually co-directed by Arsan along with Ovidio Assonitis, the film is well enough put together, with good use of locations; a pleasing Nico Fidenco meets Pierre Bachelet score courtesy of Franco Micalizzi, and some nice self-referential touches.

A potential double-bill candidate for screening with Marguerite Duras's India Song?

Tuesday 23 December 2008

La Fine dell'innocenza / The End of Innocence / Blue Belle / Emanuelle's Daughter Blue Belle

There are, I think, at least two ways of reading Blue Belle / La Fine dell'innocenza.

The first, suggested by the Oriental setting and Annie Belle's appearances in Forever Emanuelle and Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle - the later opposite Laura Gemser - is as Em(m)anuelle junior.

The second, suggested by Harry Alan Tower's involvement in the production, along with the presence of his wife/partner Maria Rohm in the cast, is as a more Sadean exercise along the lines of Jess Franco's Eugenie and Justine, being about the initiation of a naïve young woman into the workings of the real world.

La bellissima Belle

Whatever the case, director Massimo Dallamano was a good choice to help a stranger to such material, with his Sacher-Masoch adaptation Venus in Furs and schoolgirls in peril gialli What Have You Done to Solange? and What Have You Done to Your Daughters?, demonstrating a facility for taking what could have merely been sleaze seriously.

A messy close up of someone eating, recalling Dallamano's background as spaghetti western cinematographer

The story, significantly co-authored by Belle, begins with her guardian Michael arriving at the convent school to take her character, confusingly also called Annie Belle in apparent reference to Emmanuelle Arsan's eponymous, semi-autobiographical heroine, away with him.

He gives her a new outfit, which she changes into in the back of the Rolls Royce as a passing cyclist keeps pace with the car and, presumably much like the implied male spectator, enjoys the show.

Already, however, there is also a split evident: if the cyclist knows nothing of the couple and their relationship and plays no further part in the proceedings, we are likely to already more than a little disconcerted by the film-makers' declining to spell out the exact details of Michael and Belle's relationship with one another nor offer the expected explicit condemnation of his borderline incestuous cum Humbert Humbert tendencies.

Nor do things become much clearer after the action shifts to Hong Kong. Michael introduces Belle to his idle rich expatriate associates, before then being arrested on - admittedly well-founded - suspicion of currency smuggling. Left on her own, Laure is forced to make her own way in this demi-monde.

Intertextuality, 70s style

What follows is very much the usual stuff: copious nudity; some intentional humour, much of it revolving Al Cliver's collection of erotic curious and the reactions of more respectable old-timers to them (Cliver's presence feels very much of the cast-one, get-one-free variety, as also seen with the Gemser-Gabriele Tinti pairing in the Black Emanuelle films) ; extensive travelogue and quasi-documentary shooting, including sequences at a Buddhist temple where nun Ines Pellegrini delivers some pat Eastern wisdoms; various softcore lesbian and heterosexual numbers and, most problematic of all, a no-becomes-yes rape scene in which Belle loses her hitherto surprisingly retained virginity at the hands of her new mentor and confidant Linda's lover, Angelo. (Angelo's identity is revealed by the giallo-esque image of his distinctive ring, which Belle recognises in the resulting flashback.) In the end, however, Belle emerges triumphant, a new woman ready to face the world and whatever it can throw at her.

The female gaze, objectifying the male body?

Dallamano's backround as a cinematographer is in evidence in the way he directs, with a particular emphasis on shots that position us distanced from the action through some sort of barrier - a window frame, a piece of ironwork, a fence etc. - or with one character looking in on another.

The importance of voyeurism is further confirmed by several observational moments within the film, with telescopes, binoculars or through a keyhole. While for the most part these present men observing women, they are not exclusively about the "male gaze," with the keyhole scene in fact showing two women objectifying a man. In addition, another scene presents one character listening in, via a discreetly off the hook telephone, to two others making love, indicating a different, aural rather than visual regime and dynamic at work.


Given the film's exotic and Orientalist themes, it is perhaps also worth mentioning that the dominance of the visual over the other senses is arguably less a universal than a product of western culture at a particular point in its development and that, as such, psychoanalytic notions that tend to be derived from the experience of these selfsame cultures may also be less generalisable than their proponents have often recognised. Though there is nothing new in this, with it quickly being recognised that Laura Mulvey's ideas here, for instance, very much assumed a white, middle class, heterosexual position, it is I think also worth reiterating.

Another interrelated issue here is that of consciousness and false consciousness: What do we say and do when the female spectator identifies with the 'wrong' subject position, as defined by the theorist and their theory? How does the theorist square a concern for women's own, supposedly authentic voice and experience, when it does not echo her own? What does the theoriest say when someone who is 'objectively' oppressed by patriarchy, capitalism and/or colonialism subjectively refuses to acknowledge this oppression?

Though such issues may seem navel gazing, the point is that they cut to the heart of exploitation cinema itself. Indeed, Blue Belle brings them closer to the fore than most exploitation films because of the multiple roles played by Belle. While it is difficult to say how far the film reflects her own thoughts on gender relations and coming of age, especially given that the actual writing of the screenplay also included contributions from Dallamano and Towers, the confused messages that emerge are nothing if not challenging.

Who was behind the oh so 1970s "porno rape" scene? Who detailed the reactions of Belle and those around her to her violation? Were these understood as representations of fantasy or of reality? If rape is undoubtedly abhorrent, does this mean that rape fantasies are necessarily bad, as per the old 'pornography is theory, rape is practice' line? Unsurprisingly I don't pretend to have any answers here - indeed, I think such questions are basically unanswerable. But again it is the fact that a basically unpretentious exploitation film that is provoking me to think about them and, hopefully, you to respond.

Like its models and the mondo, with its equivalent scenes of the exotic, unusual and perverse, the film's narrative approach is decidedly episodic, with individual scenes and sequences that often exist in and for themselves as much as a part of the larger whole: After the opening sequence has introduced Belle with medium-length brown hair the next scene, set in the Alps, sees her with her more familiar bleach-blonde pixie crop.

Another, decidedly what-the-hell moment, sees Belle being attacked by a group of robbers and rescued by the timely interventions of a martial artist as if in a Bruce Lee film. This is, however, then retrospectively revealed as being a scene from the making of a film within a film. If the inclusion of such material is incongruous, it also serves to further highlight the interconnections between world popular cinemas - think also here of the Ford / Kurosawa / Leone triangle, of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars - and their willingness to borrow from one another's traditions in search of new attractions to present to their sensation-hungry audiences.

A similar hybridity is evident in Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera's scoring in which the acoustic guitar and female vocal led ballad predominant in the early European sequences, is contrasted with sitar - admittedly not the most obvious Chinese instrument - in some of the Hong Kong sequences before these two themes are eventually reconciled and combined in the penultimate scene.

Monday 22 December 2008

Il Tempo degli avvoltoi / Time of Vultures / Last of the Badmen

Directed by Nando Cicero, this is one of those spaghetti westerns which deserves to be a lot better known than it would appear to be, with only two comments on the IMDB.

Featuring the winning combination of George Hilton and Frank Wolff, giving one of the best performances of his under-rated, all too brief career, alongside a solid supporting cast including Eduardo Fajardo, John Bartha, Femi Benussi and Pamela Tudior, it's an unusually harsh and cynical tale even by the standards of the genre.

Hilton plays Kitosch, a gun for hire who is caught in bed with his boss Don Fernando's wife Steffy, for which he is punished with a branding. Kitosch escapes the Don's clutches, makes it to the nearest town and asks for protection from the sheriff. Instead, he is arrested and thrown into jail, to be handed over to the Don's men once they arrive.

At this point another outlaw, Wolff's black-clad Joshua Tracy, intervenes. He kills the sheriff and the two outlaws take off and team up. It doesn't take long, however, for Kitosch to realise that his erstwhile rescuer and partner is literally mad, bad and dangerous to know, prone to fits and consumed by a desire for revenge on his ex-wife and her current lover.

It is almost as if the characters of Mortimer and El Indio from Leone's For a Few Dollars More had been fused into the one man - a difficult role, full of contradictions for the performer to embody. The versatile Wolff, equally comfortable in Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Guiliano and Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence, was one of the few actors fully capable of tackling the role.

Under these circumstances, everyone else's contributions, while perfectly adequate and to type - Fajardo is the villainous Don, Bartha the sheriff etc. - are overshadowed somewhat. Nevertheless, the film is always watchable, with plenty of action and twists in the tale to keep things interesting even when Wolff isn't on screen.

Friday 19 December 2008

Another Giallo/Krimi locandina poster

'A giallo by Edgar Wallace'; for The Hunchback of Soho, but broadened out to The Hunchback of London:

Thursday 18 December 2008

Die Toten Augen von London / The Dead Eyes of London

[Note that this review contains a spoiler]

This is one of the quintessential krimis, part of a select group along with The Hexer and The Sinister Monk that would inspire sequels or remakes. It is also noteworthy for having a relatively famous predecessor in the form of the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Dark Eyes of London, one of the few pre-war Wallace adaptations to reach a wider audience; here we might have a quick straw poll on how many have heard of the Weimar German versions of, say, The Hexer or The Squeaker, or have seen them?

It is also important for being the series debut of Alfred Vohrer, who would go on to direct approximately half of all the titles in the series, far outstripping his closest rival Harald Reinl. Putting it another way, Vohrer was to the krimi what Terence Fisher was to Hammer horror, or Mario Bava to the giallo: the man without which the genre would otherwise be just about impossible to imagine.

As Tim Lucas and others have noted, Vohrer and Reinl's directorial styles are different, each man putting his own particular stamp on the material. The thing that really stands out here is how much fun he and his team appear to be having with all sorts of trick shots.

Though some, like the impossible POV shot from inside a man's mouth as he cleans his teeth with a water pick, exist purely as moments of cinematic spectacle, others, like the repeated use of anachronistic irising effects; the device of having a character move in front of and away from the camera in lieu of an obvious cut; or the reflection of one character in another's mirror shades, are more neatly intertwined with the theme of vision running through the film.

Another of Dead Eyes's merits is the sadistic glee with which Vohrer handles the murder set pieces, ranging from the burning of a man's hands with a lighted cigarette so that he plunges to his death down an elevator shaft, to a strangulation to a shot-through the eye a la Argento's Opera some 26 years later. (The killer, along with almost everyone else, wear black gloves, extending the 'fashion to fetish' trajectory identified by Gary Needham in relation to Bava's The Girl Who Knew too Much and Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; giallo fans will also appreciate some loving close-ups of gleaming knife blades.)

Plot wise it's the usual clotted affair, where just everyone who shows up on screen is improbably inter-related and involved in one way or another, beginning with the recruitment of Karin Dor's Eleanor Ward - a meaningful surname in the Wallace universe, where very few young women appear to have been brought up by their natural parents - to read a barely legible Braille message on a scrap of paper. Said scrap was found in the pocket of a wealthy Australian gentleman fished out of the Thames, an apparent accident of a type that has been occurring with alarming frequency of late, leading to well-founded suspicions of foul play.

But there are also those near certainties you can use to make sense of it all; I say near because as the series wore on the film-makers would occasionally experiment with casting someone against type for an added frisson.

To wit: Joachim Fuchsberger's Inspector Larry Holt is above suspicion and reproach, as is Eddi Arent's comic relief, Sergeant "Sunny" Harvey, while Klaus Kinski's Edgar Strauss is either a suspect or red herring and Dor's foundling the woman-in-peril cum love interest for Fuchsberger. (Is it just me or would anyone else like to see a krimi where it's the Scotland Yard man who is behind the conspiracy as a means of capturing the love interest and the fortune she typically seems about to inherit.)

The nature of Ady Berber's Blind Jack, the henchman who provides the murder gang with muscle is also of interest. A mentally subnormal ape-like throwback, with a tendency towards violence and a string of previous convictions behind him, he's the type of somewhat un-politically correct 1920s Wallace character whose existence in a 1960s German krimi seems daring, naive or something of both in the light of the Nazi period with eugenics, extermination und so weiter.

Since we see Blind Jack in the pre-credits scene, bundling a victim into a van, his role is not a mystery, rather it is the identity or identities of the leaders of the gang, the ones controlling him.

[spoiler warning]

On the krimi-giallo connection it also worth noting here the occupation of one of the gang's leaders, as a presumably Protestant counterpart to the Catholic priests and fake priests who pop up with alarming regularity in the giallo.

[spoiler warning]

Heinz Funk's score again mixes the conventional and the unusual, with some of those not quite sure what they are, or are supposed to be, timbres. It's all in good fun, nonetheless, just like the rest of the film.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Krimi book

I have just been alerted to the existence of this book on the krimi.

If only my German were better (read, more than three years of barely remembered lessons from secondary school), and I'd be going for Das Edgar Wallace Lexikon and Ein Fall für das FBI: Die Jerry-Cotton-Filme by the same author as well, along with Sir John jagt den Henker. Siegfried Schürenberg und die Edgar Wallace-Filme...

Sunday 14 December 2008

Mondo Cannibale / Cannibal Holocaust 2

A group of film makers go missing in the jungle where they were working on a documentary about some of the last remaining cannibal tribes. Some time later the footage they shot is screened before the excited and shocked group of television executives who commissioned the film.

It could be Cannibal Holocaust, but it is actually Bruno Mattei's 2003 digital reboot, alternately known as Cannibal World and, arguably more honestly, Cannibal Holocaust 2. This said, it would perhaps be better thought of as Cannibal Xerox, both for a nod to Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox in the form of a penis-ectomy scene and on account of the way in which Mattei and his co-scenarist Giovanni Paolucci all but plagiarise numerous scenes and lines from Ruggero Deodato's film in lieu of writing their own script from scratch.

Maybe Cannibal World gets away with it on being less a remake of Cannibal Holocaust than a contemporary re-interpretation or maybe Deodato was simply disinclined to engage with the subject matter again at this time, here remembering both the reaction his film had provoked and the alternative approach to primitive world ultra-violence seen in Cut and Run compared to its two predecessors in Cannibal Holocaust and Last Cannibal World. (As of August 2008, Deodato was however working on a new Cannibal themed film.)

Whatever the case, with the notably old-school exception of gutting a lizard on camera, the departures from the original source are where Mattei's film tends to get things more wrong than right.

The two key differences are in structure of the narrative and, following on from with this, the composition and dynamics of the film-making team. Though the bulk of the film comprises flashbacks to the documentary film-makers at work and the results, the film within the film structure of Cannibal Holocaust, wherein the first half of the film concentrates on the rescue mission and the second on an exploration of their what they found of the missing film-makers, is not really in evidence.

In particular, the Professor Monroe character, as the one who provided a more moral, anthropological voice on the mondo film-maker's excesses, is here positioned as one of the documentary team, Bob Manson. While he initially serves as something of a counterpoint to his Alan Yates like counterpart, in professing to be more concerned about the wider environment than with viewer ratings – or at least can justify his excesses if they help spread his message more widely – he soon succumbs to an ecofascistic / survival of the fittest / law of the jungle type amorality.

Reference to Cannibal Holocaust's Yates brings us on to the film's second major departure in terms of the group's composition. Their leader, the one who recruits the initially reluctant rival Manson as best man for the job, is actually a woman, Grace Forstye [sic]. The rest of the team is rounded out with Cindy Blair, whose role in the proceedings generally proves to be similar to that of Faye Daniels in Deodato's film, and the less noteworthy pairing of men analogous to Jack Anders and Mark Tomaso.

While the team also have two cameras like their Cannibal Holocaust counterparts, Mattei fails to satisfactorily introduce this detail nor to make use of the apparently different properties of the two cameras within his actual mise-en-scene. Rather there are too many images that do not accord with either camera-person's point of view and instead come across as being staged for the benefit of and recorded by an external, non-diegetic, camera. The impact of this is particularly significant when it comes to the gore scenes: whereas Deodato made impressive use of pseudo-documentary techniques and downright 'mistakes' to prevent us from noticing how unconvincing a given effect might have been, Mattei's comparatively conventional approach makes such shortcomings all too apparent.

Connected to this is Mattei's decision not to use stock footage and the Grace's comments within the film as to the datedness of such practice, that today's more sophisticated audience are sure to notice it. If the distancing from Mattei's own practice within the likes of Hell of the Living Dead is ironic, it is also a strategy that proves less effective than Deodato's admittedly morally problematic re-contextualisation of real atrocity footage as being a put-on for the camera in the infamous 'Road to Hell' sequence of his film. Similarly and paradoxically, Mattei's approach makes it that bit harder to suspend our disbelief that we are watching anything other than a film here.

In a similar vein, the film also lacks that palpable sense of psychosis one gets from its model, of not knowing just how far the film-maker was willing to go in his pursuit of authenticity. Instead, it comes across as a more calculated product, as the work of someone intent on giving his target audience what they wanted, but in a no more and no less manner. If this is no such bad thing in itself, as demonstrated by Deodato's Cut and Run, the issue is that Mattei is not quite as good a film-maker as Deodato and does not have the same resources at his disposal here.

As already mentioned in reference to the figure of Manson, Mattei's characters are also less satisfactorily drawn. Alternatively, however, we might also see this as one of the film's developments / departures from its model, in terms of emphasising that today it is less viable to hold Monroe's doctrine – i.e. that academic would-be detachment from the rest of the corrupt world / system – than it is to succumb to the inevitable.

Cannibal World's rape scene is also of interest in this regard because of its dynamics. While Grace expresses her displeasure at the scene, framing it as wasting film on a porno in a reprise of Faye's critique of the analogous scene in Cannibal Holocaust, Cindy encourages the men. The conflict within the group seems here more about power directly and less about power in relation to gender, of Cindy temporarily asserting her position with the men against Grace in decidedly un-feminist manner perfectly in keeping with the film-makers' we-are-all-complicit post-reality-TV world-view.

Or, maybe not, insofar as it is the TV network executive who emerges as the film's admittedly muffled moral voice, as he asks the inevitably “who are the real cannibals” question to the camera and the spectator...

Longer term fans will want to note that amongst the English dubbing voices can be heard Ted Russoff and Susan Spafford, two voice artists whose careers dated back to the glory days of the filone cinema and can be heard on the likes of The Strange Vice of Signora Wardh, while newcomers may want to check out actress and model Cindy Matic's portfolio.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Another World Entertainment Deep Red DVD - the second disc and the summing up

The second disc of Another World Entertainment's Deep Red set contains the alternate international, English-language cut of the film, presented in 2.0 and 5.1 mixes, and an array of supplemental materials.

Again presented with optional Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish subtitles, the differences between the cuts of the film are immediately evident, with the credits sequence having a different structure and the narrative then beginning with the parapsychology conference.

With the interplay between Marcus and Gianna being cut down in particular – there is no after-funeral discussion of Gianna's not having a boyfriend at the moment and Marc's parapraxic remark that he does not have either – the film has a faster pace to it, albeit at the expense of a bit less humour, social comment on feminism and, most important, adumbrations of images to come.

The disc

The extras encompass the 2001 British documentary Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror; well-writen biographies and filmographies for Argento, Nicolodi and Hemmings; a trivia section, and an extensive gallery of stills, posters and pressbooks including some material from Ecuador of all places (apologies in advance to any Ecuadorian readers).

In sum, a highly impressive presentation of the film, compromised only slightly for the English speaking viewer by the absence of an Italian language / English subtitle option – an omission likely explicable in terms of the vagaries of international film rights and one that the enterprising fan community might well be able to get round with a bit of subtitle extraction and re-timing from another disc, not that I would condone such borderline illegal activity, except for personal use...

Yet another interesting poster

An Italian locandina for Hammer's 1972 psychological thriller Straight on Till Morning, with a giallo sounding retitling. The film's director, Peter Collinson, also made the babysitter in peril thriller Fright and the Desperate Hours styled thriller The Penthouse, both with Suzy Kendall:

Another World Entertainment Deep Red DVD - the commentary track

The disc also features an informative, insightful and thought-provoking commentary from Thomas Rostock that picks up on all manner of seemingly innocuous details to demonstrate their meaningfulness in relation to Deep Red as a whole and strikes a good balance between the personal, the specific details of the film and its wider place in Argento’s career and ouevre.

Thus, for example, we are encouraged to think about exactly why the seemingly absent minded – or forgetful – Marta should offer Marc a coke rather than an espresso or a whisky (J&B naturally). The answer offered – and it is one I would agree with – is that it accords with his emasculated status, his reduction to the position of a boy rather than a man. It also further expresses Marta's (s)mothering approach towards her son, Carlo, whom she has failed to permit to follow his ‘natural’ trajectory towards normative heterosexual adulthood.

Similarly, we learn that co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi had authored a book on Roman ghosts, much like Amanda Righetti within the diegesis.

If the commentary sounds somewhat dry, this may be attributable to the Rostock's speaking in today's lingua franca, English, rather than his own native tongue. I highly doubt that many English-language Argento experts – many of whom Rostock graciously cites – could have done a better job in any case.

Another 'genealogical' thought on Deep Red

Another element Deep Red takes and expands upon from Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the importance of theatricality. In Four Flies it is highly significant that the key incident which propels the action forward, the protagonist's confrontation and apparent accidental killing of the man who has been following him around and concomitant assumption of his intended role in his persecutors' psychodrama, should take place in a theatre.

Though it is again a visit to the theatre that puts events in motion here, the investigation also sees the others reconstruct the scene for the absent Marc's benefit, a detail which also reminds us of co-investigator Gianna Brezzi's at times curious role in the proceedings. Does she knows more than she is letting on? Here we can also note the moment when Marc awakens having been rescued from the blazing remains of House of the Screaming Child. To simply there would have been simply too mundane and ignominious an end for Argento, Marc having to know the identity of his nemesis, even if “only at the moment of dying” like Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West

As further emerges with the likes of his unofficial (i.e. Opera) and official adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera, the theatre is fundamentally a haunted place in Argento's universe, with this being expressed here by the solidified / sedimented murderous thoughts Helga detects and the way the camera cranes in dramatically on her as if it were an invisible, assaultive presence.

Zombies: The Beginning

The first thing to say about Bruno Mattei’s Zombies: the Beginning is that its title is misleading. The film functions as a sequel rather than a prequel to Island of the Zombies, picking up where its predecessor had left off.

Indeed, in order to do so it also immediately recontextualises that film's shock ending, in which the sole escapee from the island and the destruction of the Dark Star, Sharon, had transformed into one of the flesh eaters, into one of her recurring nightmares as she wakes up in the Middle East Asia General Hospital. (Here we also get the use of the “Dr Davis telephone please – Dr Blair, Dr J Hamilton, Dr J Hamilton” radio voice.)

Finding none of her corporate masters willing to believe what seems like an absurd story about zombies, Sharon retreats to Wat Sung temple for six months where she is then approached by Paul Barker, a representative of another corporation, Tyler Incorporated.

Barker tells her that a consignment of materials were taken from the zombies’ island to research facility on another island, which has not been heard from since. A squad of corporate marines is ready to accompany Sharon on the mission, for which she will be rewarded with a comfortable place in the Tyler corporate machine...

From here on, as you can perhaps tell, the film unfolds as an earth-bound, contemporary set Aliens rip-off with zombies in the place of aliens, repeating situation after situation from James Cameron's film.

The sole exception, as Sharon meets the equivalent of the alien queen, is more reminiscent of Luigi Cozzi's Zombie-meet-Alien crossover, Contamination.

If the film obviously doesn't match up to the standards of its primary model, it is nevertheless not at all badly made, with dynamic camerawork and editing – here remembering Mattei's background prior to becoming a director – and a commendable straightness amongst the performers even when uttering the most cliché dialogue or repeating scenes straight from Aliens playbook.

There are also some nice stylised Suspiria / Bava style lighting effects inside the submarine that takes the team to the island, along with neat use of frame-within-frame monitor screens to present the chaos of the zombie ambush in the powder room, although the viewer more concerned with logic rather than effect may also question the appropriateness and consistency of the POVs expressed within these.

Whatever its limitations – and here the sound, in terms of both dubbing and scoring is less satisfactory – Zombies: The Beginning emerges as a fitting tribute to its director, his sheer belief in the viability of this kind of cinema and his willingness to take it into the digital realm.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Franco and Ciccio as box-office barometer?

I watched the Franco and Ciccio giallo spoof Two Cats of Nine and a Half Tails in Amsterdam last night. While I haven't yet formulated my thoughts on the film itself, it did occur to me that for the period in Italian cinema when they were active it would potentially be possible to chart the contours of the what was currently popular at the box-office by charting what they were making.

Like later porn titles that reference a commercially successful mainstream film, theirs is in certain ways a stamp of approval and a sign of success, of sufficiently penetrating the wider public consciousness.

Monday 8 December 2008

Some thoughts on Deep Red, as a precursor to continued exploration of the Another World Entertainment DVD

Insofar as Deep Red is widely acknowledged as a giallo masterpiece, one of the first examples of the form that the interested should seek out, we need only give the briefest of synopses:

At a parapsychology conference in Rome, psychic Helga Ullman announces the presence of a murderer in the audience. That night she is murdered in her apartment. Alerted by her scream, Marc Daly, an English jazz pianist, rushes to the scene. Unable to save Helga or prevent the killer from escaping, Marc soon becomes convinced that some vital detail about the crime scene has changed and thus embarks upon his own unofficial investigation...

If this plot derives primarily from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and can thus in turn be traced back to Bava’s The Girl Who Saw Too Much, Argento’s aesthetic approach emerges as the fulfilment of the poetics intermittently present in Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

By poetic I mean two interconnected ideas, the first coming from Edgar Allan Poe and the latter from Pier Paolo-Pasolini. For Poe, a key principle in creating a composition was that of unity of effect: the author should determine the overall effect he wanted to have on his audience and then, working backwards, gear his aesthetic choices to this end. For Pasolini, the cinema was poetic rather than prosaic when it used technique expressively, as a means of articulating and embodying the consciousness of its characters and author beyond a mundane narrative mise-en-scene. Mikel Koven uses this idea in relation t the vernacular poetry of the giallo set piece, but I would argue that here Argento goes further towards the intertwining of narrative and set piece, approaching the point where they becoming indistinguishable.

In Cat o' Nine Tails, Argento's direction is at its most poetic in his representation of the insane killer as an disembodied eye. Excepting the sight of the killer disappearing into the shadows as they make good their escape from the Terzi Institute, we never actually see them as possessing a body. All the murders take place almost as if through some supernatural force – a garrotte extends around one victim's neck, a knife slashes the face of another – rather than through the usual black-gloved hands trope of other gialli. This, I would argue, expresses the killer's position as a scientist whose future is compromised by a genetic flaw. The killer's insane desire, I would argue, it to be a disembodied consciousness, a brain without a body.

In Four Flies on Grey Velvet, this poetic aspect is evident in the recurring use of circular and meandering camera movements. The former are particularly associated with the killer, expressing their psychotic inability to overcome the past trauma that has determined their present and – in the film's final scene, in which a last look back precipitates their death – ultimate future. The latter are associated with their persecuted victim, expressing his paranoiac difficulties in finding a line that makes sense: why are they, whoever they may be, doing this to me?

But, if Cat expresses a character's insane desires and Four Flies madness and paranoia in a poetic way, they do so intermittently, with less sense that the whole film has been constructed backwards, orchestrated with a single idea or effect in mind as Poe argued for.

In contrast everything in Deep Red seems to function to unsettle the viewer, inviting him or her to make connections between seemingly irrelevant details – why bring attention to a road repair truck, for example – to get the sense of another terrifying, irrational, illogical world subsisting alongside this one, a world of ghosts, doubles / shadows and other things existing beneath, between and behind the seen / scene.

The film is also replete with unmotivated camera movements and retrospectively false POV shots, beginning with the camera that tracks in on Daly to then – as his voice fades out on the soundtrack – continue on past him into the auditorium of the conference, travelling across time and space, before successive shots and movements position us with what can only be read as an invisible, haunting, presences.

Another key element here is the use of Gaslini and Goblin's music, which goes beyond that provided by Morricone for the Animal Trilogy to increasingly lead rather than supplement the visuals, with a more successful integration of the diegetic and non-diegetic than Four Flies on Grey Velvet and a greater kinetic intensity/affect. Indeed, as with Suspiria and Inferno, some passages within the film, most notably Marc's investigation of the haunted house of the screaming child, are almost free from dialogue - if not music.

In returning to certain themes from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the film also goes beyond its immediate model in a way that demonstrates just how far Argento had come in his filmmaking since his already audacious debut.

Two things immediately come to mind.

The first is the presence of David Hemmings as Marc, with the intertextual allusions this establishes in relation to Blow-Up. Blow-Up is, as many commentators have indicated, an anti-giallo, a deconstruction of the thriller that ends with Hemmings' protagonist possessed of a new understanding of the world but essentially unable to function. A man has been murdered, but there is nothing he can do.

Argento was famously dissatisfied with this irresolution and, having skirted around the issue in his earlier gialli, finally responds to Antonioni directly in having Hemming's character doggedly refuse to give up in existential despair and solving the mystery, albeit with considerable irony in terms of the additional deaths his involvement could be argued to have precipitated.

The second is the way in which Argento handles the central scene in which the identity of the killer is revealed and concealed. Whereas in Bird the vital use of a reverse angle prevents the viewer from seeing whose hand is grasping the knife and thus splits us from the detective protagonist, within Deep Red Argento allows us to see, however fleetingly, the face of his killer, confident that, like Marc, we will not recognise this image within the frame. Watching the film a second, third or even twentieth time, one can never fail to be astonished at his misdirecting sleight-of-hand here.

Another vital way in which Deep Red presents an advance on its predecessors is its engagement with history. While personal history had long been an Argento theme, in terms of the traumatic incidents in the past that, hitherto repressed, erupt into the present, his attempt at engaging with its collective counterpart in Le Cinque giornate had been less successful. Though I would actually recommend that fans see the film, with its allusions to Soviet Montage and Chaplin's Modern Times by way of the cynicism of Leone's Duck You Sucker, it remains perhaps a step too far away from the earlier gialli with which he had made his name.

History emerges within the film in the form of a Fascist / Holocaust subtext also found in Suspiria, Tenebre and Phenomena. Though Deep Red is certainly far less explicit in this regard than the contemporaneous likes of The Night Porter, Salon Kitty, Salo, something is nevertheless there if we consider the use of Christian and Jewish iconography in the representation of a traumatic domestic scene from the killer’s past, complete with Christmas tree, and the Menorah and Magen David figures in Helga’s apartment, and the absence of issues of religious difference from the Animal Trilogy; here we can also note that the killer’s distinctive pendant in Four Flies on Grey Velvet was originally going to be a cross, and that within the mise-en-scene a number of cruciform shapes do remain, but denuded of wider associative meanings.

(If Four Flies' killer’s circular pendant, with trapped fly, re-iterates the theme of circular entrapment in time, a cross might have made the theme of death that bit stronger given comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell’s identification of the cross as the ultimate symbol of death in The Hero with the Thousand Faces.)

That the traumatic nature of 20th century history should emerge in Argento’s cinema around this time can be ascribed to both personal and political factors. In terms of the former, it is noticeable that this period in his work coincides with his relationship with Daria Nicolodi, who has identified her own upbringing as both Catholic and Jewish, with her maternal grandmother being of the latter religion. In terms of the latter, it is again Italy’s struggling to come to terms with its past around this time, as the return of those aspects of history like collaboration and complicity with rather than resistance to fascism which necessarily had to be suppressed and repressed in the immediate post-war reconstruction of the body social and politic.

Sunday 7 December 2008

The Italian Gothic, 1956-66, as Transcultural Gothic

Part of the reason for my relative lack of updates over the past week or so is that I was preparing for and then away at a two-day symposium on The Global Gothic, at which I did a presentation on The Italian Gothic, 1956-66, as Transcultural Gothic.

It was basically about I Vampiri as the first modern Gothic horror film, its failure relative to The Curse of Frankenstein; the subsequent emergence of Italian Gothic in the films of Bava, Freda, Margheriti and company where they passed their work off as that of English or Americans, and the distinctively Italian characteristics that could nevertheless be discerned in terms of the aesthetics and thematics.

I've uploaded the Powerpoint I used here for anyone interested:

It may help to supplement it with the clips of Dracula arriving at Lucy's bedroom window in Fisher's Dracula and Kurt Menliffe's appearance before Nevenka at night in The Whip and the Body, along with the sequence in Kill Baby Kill where Dr Eswai ends up chasing and catching up with his double...

The panel I was on also had a very good presentation on Coffin Joe :-)

Profondo Rosso / Deep Red - Another World Entertainment DVD

The obvious question many giallo and / or Argento fans are likely to ask when confronted with this new DVD release of Deep Red from Another World Entertainment is whether it is really necessary: aren't there already perfectly adequate releases out there?

Well, besides that choice is a good thing in itself, there are a number of reasons for getting this disc.

The first, for those in Europe and elsewhere whose players support the format is that the film is presented in PAL rather than NTSC format and, as such, represents both a subjective and objective improvement on the likes of the old Anchor Bay release, fine though it was in its day, in visual quality.

The second, for those in the Scandinavian countries, is that the release allows the opportunity to watch the film in the original Italian with subtitles in their language and, beyond this, to generally support the indigenous DVD industry.

The third, for the fan who wants the most authentic version of the film, is that this Deep Red corrects a couple of issue in the presentation of some previous releases.

While perhaps not as significant as the correction in Another World's release of Fulci's The New York Ripper – where a scene previously included as a coda on the Anchor Bay disc was correctly re-inserted into the main body of the narrative with the effect of making a character into more of a suspect / red herring as the filmmakers had intended – in being confined to the start and end of Deep Red, they are nevertheless very welcome.

The first, more minor correction, is the use of the original typeface for the opening credits. It is thinner than the one used by Anchor Bay, which now seems like a retrospective post-Suspiria creation. As such, it establishes Deep Red as less a predecessor to Suspiria than a successor to the Animal Trilogy or a film very much in its own right. A minor semiotic point, some may say, but a stimulating one that could be taken further nonetheless.

The second, which will likely provoke more discussion in fan circles, is that the closing credits no longer entail a false freeze-framing of the image and instead see a character continuing the gaze actively into a pool of blood. If some critics may say “so what” here, I can only reply that for fans, long used to suffering through cut and otherwise compromised versions during the days of video and even into the DVD era, this is somewhat equivalent to having a version of Truffaut's The 400 Blows which for some reason did not end on the famous freeze frame of Antoine Donael replaced by one which does, to preserve its author's intentions, however unfashionable these may be as a mode of analysis that may be in certain circles.

If I haven't yet had time to get onto the extras yet, it should already be clear that even if you have Deep Red already, you really need this new DVD as well...

Friday 5 December 2008

Some nice Edwige Fenech pictures

Thanks for all the kind words about the blog and apologies for the paucity of updates this week. By way of compensation, here are some nice pictures of Edwige Fenech, looking glamorous as always...

Saturday 29 November 2008

Giallo Fever is two years old

Just noticed that I started this blog two years ago. As long as you keep reading it, I'll keep writing it...

Immagini di un convento / Images in a Convent

With the titles proclaiming Images in a Convent to be an adaptation of Denis Diderot's La Religeuse, Joe D'Amato/Aristide Massaccesi's 1979 naughty nun entry initially suggests that it may be offering something a touch classier than his usual fare; the novel having previously been adapted most notably by Jacques Rivette in 1965.

The Diderot reference, however, soon proves little more than pretext or justification for that familiar D'Amato melange of sex, sleaze and sadism, though proceedings remain comparatively tame, tasteful and softcore until a gratuitous hardcore porno-rape sequence relatively late on.

The action centres round a convent built upon pagan ruins, whose legacy remains in the form of a horned statue that some believe to exert a malefic influence, and the impact of two new arrivals upon its inhabitants.

The first of these, Isabella, played by D'Amato regular Paola Senatore, is a rebellious young noblewoman whose wealthy and influential uncle wants her safely out of the way for less than spiritually pure reasons.

The second is a mysterious young man, found wounded in the grounds one day, who may or may not be the devil himself.

Under the influence of this unholy trinity events quickly get out of hand until it is time to call in the exorcist, as incarnated by Eurotrash stalwart Donal(d) O'Brien.

While not quite reaching the high standards set by Walerian Borowczyk's Behind Convent Walls or Gilberto Martínez Solares's Satánico pandemonium, Images in a Convent emerges as a superior example of nunsploitation, benefitting in particular from an effective score by frequent D'Amato collaborator Nico Fidenco that merges quasi-religious chanting with eerie synthesiser drones, attractive cinematography by Massaccesi anduninhibited performances by a cast who just about manage to be convincing as nuns with their abundant pubic bushes and natural breasts.

Released by Shriek Show on R1 NTSC DVD a few years back, Images in a Convent looks and sounds pretty decent overall, although the company's quality control problems continued to haunt them somewhat in the form of a straight 1.85:1 presentation instead of the 16x9 indicated on the case.

Likewise, while the notion of an authentic version of a D'Amato film may be somewhat oxymoronic given his penchant for inserting or excising material in accord with audience and other requirements, it can be noted that a short sequence around quarter of an hour in, where the horned statue takes possession of Sister Lacinia before she visits and makes love to Isabelle appears to be missing, according to Midnight Video (

These minor flaws are almost compensated for by the presence of an edited version of Roger Fratter's 1999 documentary Joe D'Amato: Totally Uncut on the second disc of the set. Running just over an hour, it charts the progression of D'Amato's career from his early days as a stills photographer (his first credit was on Jean Renoir's Le Carrosse d'or) to camera operator (including work on Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World) and in-demand cinematographer to director and producer, with the genial, forthright and self-deprecating D'Amato's direct-to-camera observations on his business - focus on the audience and the box office, not the critics his essential mantra - illustrated by numerous excerpts from his extensive filmography.

With the rough look of the documentary excusable on budgetary grounds my only criticism - speaking here as a Eurotrash more than a porn aficionado - is that it gives more attention to the latter and less to the former.

Completists will thus also want the other part of the documentary to give a fuller picture; thankfully it is included on the Anthropophagous DVD.