Sunday 31 August 2008

Qualcosa striscia nel buio / Something is Creeping in the Dark / Something is Crawling in the Dark

We open on a dark, stormy night on an isolated road that is seeing an unusually high amount of traffic.

Feuding couple Sylvia and Donald Forrest (Lucia Bose and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) are en route to a party at her friend Helen's, prompting Donald to naturally assume that the two cars which race past them must be other guests.

Director Colucci constantly reverses the angles here, framing Sylvia and Donald in the eerie blue light that dominates much of the film

In fact they are occupied by Inspector Wright (Dino Fazio) and Detective Sam and their quarry, the psychopathic Spike (Farley Granger).

Farley Granger as a rather old juvenile delinquent

Spike reaches the bridge and discovers it has been washed away in the storm and is thus apprehended by Wright. He then starts to turn back towards town with his quarry, advising Sylvia and Donald to do likewise.

They encountering another car heading in the opposite direction, occupied by Dr Williams and his assistant Susan who, despite being on the way to perform a vital operation, nevertheless had time to stop and pick up Professor Lawrence after his car broke down.

With the road back flooded and the water level rising all around, attention turns to a mansion house on the hill nearby.

The old dark house, plus ca change

Once inside, Wright and Williams go to make their urgent telephone calls, only to discover that lines are also down.

Sylvia and Donald continue to argue, with Sylvia also proposing that the group all make the most of the night via an anonymous orgy.

Spike then proves himself to be more than your average psychopapthic killer by improvising an etude on the piano. This has a powerful effect on Sylvia as we segue into a slow-motion fantasy sequence situated in an as yet unidentified room; later on it will prove to be the guest bedroom Sylvia and Donald are allocated.

In the fantasy Spike strikes Sylvia, who then stabs him repeatedly as he grins, undoubtedly plenty of material for anyone wanting to interpret the characters' repressed desires through the lenses of psychoanalytic and / or feminist theories: is this what men are really like? what women are really like? what men really think about women? what women really think about men? what men think women are like?

Intriguingly, however, the ensuing exchange of dialogue again hints at something beyond all this, insofar as both Spike and Sylvia seem to have somehow shared this fantasy and, through it, something of their respective inner secrets and desires:

Sylvia: “Tell me, how does it feel to kill?”

Spike: “Do you think you could really understand? Tied to a thousand fears, a thousand prejudices, a thousand superstitions? No, you live a life full of vanity and compromise. You could be able to understand what it really means to free yourself from all the hypocrisy and stupidity of this decadent world. You couldn't understand that.”

“And why not?”

“Because you're swimming in it.”

As the night continues the irrational and magical side is further foregrounded as discussion next turns to the house's former owner, whose initially covered portrait dominates the room. Apparently Lady Sheila Marlowe died in mysterious circumstances a year ago, not long after being acquitted for the murder of her husband. The information that she was also an occultist and held regular séances prompts Sylvia to suggest trying to contact Lady Marlowe.

The only true mystery is that our lives are governed by dead people?

Needless to say this soon proves to have been a less than good idea given the circumstances...

This 1971 supernatural horror / thriller was one of only two films directed by Mario Colucci and the only one which he both wrote and directed; his other directorial credit is on the 1968 spaghetti western Vendetta per Vendetta, while his list of writing credits is surprisingly, encompassing a total of seven films in nine years.

With Something is Creeping in the Dark also being Colucci's final film credit, one wonders whether he died shortly afterwards; had invested most of his own money in the film in the hope of launching his career, or simply responded to the indifference that met its release by turning his attentions elsewhere.

Yet while the film may not be particularly outstanding or memorable is it not the exactly the worst example of its kind on any count.

Colucci uses all manner of techniques – including slow motion, freeze-frame, superimpositions, rapid-fire edits and subjective camera alongside the more usual zooms and extreme close-ups – and demonstrates a firm grasp of how to generate atmosphere and effect and of ways in which to tell a story visually.

At one point Colucci even turns the camera upside down

Technically the film is likewise accomplished, with production design and lighting dominated by cool blues and brilliant reds, while the presence of Lucia Bose, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart and Farley Granger in the cast imparts a degree of quality and name recognition there as well.

Angelo Francesco Lavagnino – who also makes his only on-screen appearance in the film, minus the Angelo, as the Professor – contributes a simple but effective series of cues, ranging from the percussive polyrhythmic mix of bongos and hi-hat overlaid by shock stabs that heighten the excitement of the opening car chase; through Spike's suitably lush and swooning piano piece, to the piano chords that accompany the séance and sound like they could well be emanating from the pits of hell itself.

The satisfactoriness of the script is more dependent on how generous one is willing to be. For example, we're told that Professor Lawrence was picked up by Dr Williams after his car broke down. Given that Williams were supposed to be racing to an emergency it seems unlikely that he should have stopped – unless this selfsame contrivance is read as another indicator that no-one present here as quite the control over their actions they think, albeit in terms of the supernatural rather than the unconscious.

What this in turn clues us into is that, to the extent it is an example of the European fantastique, the film should theoretically be working via a cinematic rather than a narrative logic. The question here is whether this is successfully and consistently conveyed. While the aforementioned dream sequence certainly works in fantastique / cinematic terms, the mundane nature of the conflict between the police and Spike doesn't, with the filmmakers also failing to make the most of the rational detective type figures encountering a supernatural mystery angle or the Terror Express / Assault on Precinct 13 one of the two coming together against a mutual foe.

Beyond this, it's perhaps also that, for all the technique, the film also feels curiously old fashioned compared to Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon, as another group of unpleasant characters stranded in an isolated location thriller, and Freda's Tragic Ceremony, as another occult themed horror-thriller. Colucci's direction lacks the sense of irony and self-parody we get in Bava's film, while his set of characters and séance are that bit less hip and happening than their counterparts in Freda's.

The one other area where the film is modern, namely its avoidance of an obvious protagonist with whom we can identify – Sylvia or Donald?, Spike or Inspector Wright? – also hurts it, because we're not given sufficient information to approach them the other way, that they aren't supposed to be rounded flesh and blood characters with whom we might identify as much as the pieces in some cosmic game.

One final point of note is that Something is Creeping in the Dark contains one of the more memorable credits within the Italian horror and thriller cinema, that of Lorenda Nusciak. Appearing as Lady Sheila Marlowe, the actress has a role recalling Gene Tierney's debut in Laura, in that she too only appears on screen in a still photograph. Nice work if you can get it?

Saturday 30 August 2008

Guess the film from the poster

It's one of those Polish posters, so unless you know the language it may be difficult :-)

The clue is that it's a giallo with either an animal and / or a number in its title.

Krimi project?

I'm toying with the idea of putting together a little book / booklet on the krimi films, along the lines of the Midnight Media giallo and slasher series or Tough to Kill: The Italian Action Explosion, as a sort of viewer's guide, nothing too heavy or serious.

This post is just really to gauge interest, to see if there would be any and also so see if you have any ideas for what could be used as ratings icons - e.g. bowler hats, London towers, Kinskis?

Der Gorilla von Soho / The Gorilla of Soho / The Ape Creature / The Gorilla Gang

The bodies of drowned men, all elderly, wealthy foreigners with no relatives in the UK, keep being hauled out of the Thames. While the first seemed like an accident – the victim's wallet still being full – the fourth in as many months offers a challenge to statistical probability and suggests that something more sinister may be afoot.

Here we see the Gorilla of Soho, in its natural habitat...

As it so happens the victim, an Australian millionaire, was found with something else in his possession: a doll with writing on it.

The first problem facing Inspector Perkins (Horst Tappert) and Sergeant Pepper (Uwe Friedrichsen) is that the writing, in addition to being obscured, is in an language they do not know.

Yet another doll

Accordingly Miss Susan McPherson (Uschi Glas) is brought in. An expert on African languages, she soon identifies the words “crime,” “murder” and, most revealing of all, “the monster and the gorilla”

Female narcissism

Female to be looked at ness, as Pepper frames Susan

Not so easy to place

The notorious Gorilla Gang has returned...

The revelation that Ellis had left his wealth to the organisation Love and Peace for People shortly before his untimely demise naturally leads Perkins there. He arrives to find known blackmailer Sugar (Herbert Fux, in his only krimi role) and the organisation's head, Henry Parker, in the middle of a heated exchange; though not party to the exchange that Sugar is being paid off because of something to do with Henry's brother, Donald, the Inspector certainly knows that something is up.

Accordingly his next point of call is a nightclub with scantily clad models who pose on pedestals for the members – who, as it turns out include Sir Arthur – to photograph and sketch them. He is not there for this, however, but rather to speak with club habitue Sugar and to dig around to see what he can find out, thereby learning that one of the girls at the club, Cora, was involved with Donald Parker.

Herbert Fux, lit in the dominant red of the nightclub

Meanwhile Sugar is confronted by a gunman and almost grabbed by a digger – shades of My Dear Killer's opening decapitation murder – but escaped by diving into the river; it's supposed to be the Thames but remains as unconvincing as the rest of the non-stock footage.

Fux and a foreground gunman, in the dominant blue of the nighttime exteriors

This stock footage, meanwhile, is itself somewhat badly used in the obviously back projected driving sequences, with the same iconic red bus appearing behind the drivers no matter where they're supposed to be in London.

Next the investigators visits St Mary's, a convent-run institution for wayward girls where Dorothy Smith, a mute black girl, tries unsuccessfully to communicate something to Perkins on his way to ask the mother superior about Jack Corner, the ex-boss of the Gorilla Gang who had worked at St Mary's following his release from prison three years earlier.

Apparently Corner suffered horrible burns as a result of an accident in the boiler room – a fate with echoes of Sheila Isaac's fate in The Case of the Bloody Iris or the scalding of Amanda Righetti in Deep Red – but disappeared shortly thereafter.

On the way back Susan discovers another doll in her bag with writing on it, again in an African language: “The gorilla sometimes comes at night; the mother superior doesn't know,” revealing that one of the girls knows more that the others. Curiously, however, they don't connect the African language to Dorothy, the only non-white girl there, encouraging Susan to go undercover at the convent as a welfare officer.

Meanwhile the gang, the contours of whose activities are gradually taking shape, are plotting the murder of their next victim, Mr Stuart. At a meeting with Henry Parker and his lawyer, Dr Jekyll [sic], Stuart, another wealthy foreigner of advancing years, surprises the foundation's director with the news that they are not to be the prime beneficiaries of his will. Rather, he has just discovered that he has a daughter, Susan Ward, whom he is intend on tracking down.

That same night Stuart falls victim to the gorilla and is delivered to St Mary's. There the Sister and a reluctant Dorothy dispose of his body as they have clearly done the gang's previous victims. The girl also plants a doll on Stuart, whose body is fished out of the Thames shortly afterwards. Perkins discovers the doll, whilst the post-mortem reveals the curious fact that he been drowned in fresh rather than sea water...

At this point we're only about half-way through; safe to say that everything ultimately ties together and is resolved in a re-assuring manner with everyone getting their just desserts one way or another...

Though certainly entertaining at the camp and trash level, this is one of those awkward post-Blood and Black Lace pre-The Bird with the Crystal Plumage krimis that shows the filmmakers trying to find a more contemporary aesthetic, attitude and approach but largely failing.

Part of the sense of deja vu throughout the proceedings must also, however, be attributed to the highly formulaic nature of the material. Obviously popular genre works, both literary and cinematic, are always formalaic to an extent, but there is nevertheless the distinct impression of the filmmakers adapting a bottom of the pile krimi featuring rather many elements that had appeared earlier in the cycle and which thus now feel distinctly past their best before date.

Thus, for example, the gorilla costume wearing villain instantly recalls the likes of The Monk with the Whip and The Frog with the Mask. This in itself is not a problem but it does leave one wondering why that bit more, insofar as the film's Gorilla Gang – I suspect the novel may be different – seem to have been given their appellation for no particular reason. And, in a film like this that moment of questioning in the viewer is fatal.

It would have been better if the gang had been using a trained gorilla in their crimes. While certainly more difficult to render on screen convincing way – here it's worth remembering that 2001: A space Odyssey was released in the out the same year – this would also have kept one more in that state of wonderment and presented a nice line of descent back to Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue and thus the very origins of the detective genre and sensation literature.

As it is, despite the alternative Ape Creature title, the filmmakers don't even try to cover up that it is a man in a suit, with the on-screen presentation of making it clear from the outset that we are dealing with a man in a gorilla suit.

Again the contrast with the likes of the the monk with his whip or the archer in green is telling, insofar as the films in which they appear present us with an enigma of the sort absent here: are these supernatural figures from the past who have somehow manifested in the present, along the lines of Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, or merely something more mundane?

Not everything is the filmmakers' fault, however, with the plot being very obviously a retread of The Dead Eyes of London, beginning with the paradigmatic substitution of reform school girls for blind beggars as the subjects for dubiously motivated philanthropy and continuing through the foundling who is unwitting heir to a fortune; the man-beast cat's paw figure; the woman helping the police because of her special linguistic abilities and soon falling into peril thereby, and the pushing of one blackmailer down a lift shaft.

If all this is partially masked by the shift to colour and to another set of stock performers – Horst Tappert assuming the Joachim Fuchsberger role; Uschi Glas the Karin Baal one; Uwe Friedrichsen the Eddi Arent one etc. – the behind-the-scenes team are essentially the same, featuring such ubiquitous krimi film names as director Alfred Vohrer, production manager Horst Wendland, editor Jutta Hering, cinematographer Karl Lob and composer Peter Thomas.

While Thomas and Hering's contributions are solid, with the former exhibiting the ability to adapt to the new musical idioms of the time whilst still producing something distinctively his, Lob fails to push the expressive use of colour far enough in the set-pieces and lights the expository scenes in somewhat flatly. Putting it another way if Lob's work on Dead Eyes of London was almost comparable to that of Bava on Black Sunday – as two films released in the same year and independently of one another showcasing traditional black and white Expressionism circa 1960 – his work his work here falls far short of his Italian counterpart on Blood and Black Lace – as one of the key models for the new colour Expressionism / expressivism.

Another almost there but not quite murder set piece begins

Vohrer's direction is, in itself, nothing to be ashamed of. It's brisk and efficient and contains enough self-conscious stylish moments and images without becoming self-indulgent. But there's also little he hasn't done before. Maybe it's a case of seeking to demonstrate a consistency of authorial voice – the opening credits, after all, proclaim “an Alfred Vohrer film” before anything else – but if so, it's also one without that vital element of development that Peter Wollen identified as the distinction between the John Ford and Howard Hawks.

A key moment here is one of the film's most striking images, in which another character is reflected in the mirror of a Kinski-esque blackmailing ex-con's sunglasses. For, in fact, Vohrer had used the exact same shot with Kinski himself in Dead Eyes, where he had played this selfsame role.

The Kinksi-alike – or in a giallo the Luciano Rossi-alike

Likewise, while the choreographing of one of the murder set pieces to the smooth jazz record playing on the dansette is a nice touch – the victims legs cease kicking just as the music stops – this is offset somewhat by the re-introduction of non-diegetic mood music moments later as their body is discovered. (I'm also fairly certain that another krimi had featured a similar device, in a manner more directly prefiguring Tenebre. Please let me know if you know which film it is. )

This said, the period between Dead Eyes of London and The Gorilla of Soho can hardly be compared to the 40+ years of Ford and Hawks' careers, nor the ever-desperate production context of the German popular cinema in the 60s with the solidity of Studio era Hollywood.

Indeed, another element that emerges from the film is precisely that of the rapidly changing social and moral climate of the 1960s basically outstripping (at times literally) the ability of the filmmakers to adapt their material. Thus, for example, whereas 1964's The Phantom of Soho had featured a brief blink-and-you'll miss it flash of exposed breast from of its nightclub performers, here the nightclub is wall-to-wall breasts and buttocks; bush was still a no-no though the obscuring literal and metaphorical fig leafs here would soon come off for the later giallo-krimi crossovers, the St Pauli thrillers and the Schulmadchen report cycle alike.

If this is again just a syntygmatic shift, other elements attest to more profound changes. While the name of the Peace and Love Foundation clearly resonates with post-Summer of Love idealism, the reference to it as a Salvation Army type organisation and its actual philanthropic work in finding work for ex-convicts along with their distinct recidivist tendencies are grounded in an early 20th century weltangschauung that was becoming increasingly shaky in the Age of Aquarius. (Consider here also the case of Jack Henry Abbott, and the question of how far his inability to cope with his release from prison was the result of inherent psychopathy or long institutionalisation or the relative weight commentators might afford these alternatives depending on their politics.)

Likewise, it's the question of whether the Sergeant Pepper character, with his less dedicated attitude towards his work and chasing after every figure in a skirt, is a Wallace name that has been given a non-Wallace characterisation or is entirely the invention of the filmmakers as a younger, hipper alternative to the hitherto traditional but ostensibly outmoded Eddi Arent upper class twit type.

After all, the “you've never had it so good” ideology of the period was one in which the old politics of social class supposedly no longer mattered, though the cynic in me would suggest that it was more the case that new post-war model of mass production requiring more mass consumption than anything else, with the gap between the haves and have nots certainly returning with a vengeance less than ten years later and the persistence of the lumpenproletariat or underclass – old wine, new labels? – emerging as a challenge to left and right alike.

Elsewhere we get a couple of girls at St Mary's engaging in a catfight, apparently because one made vaguely lesbian advances towards the other; the head of Scotland Yard showing a distinct interest in one of girls at the club, and, at the end, a decidedly phallic “ende” that seems to belong more to the world of Bond and the Beatles than bowler hats. Yes, the times they were a changing...

To sum up, not a good krimi but one which is certainly entertaining and which proves to offer a lot to talk about – I haven't even mentioned the underwater gorilla sequences, which have to be seen to be believed – even if itself it doesn't really have much to say.

Nice piece on the krimi film


Wednesday 27 August 2008

La Mansión de la niebla / Quando Marta urlò dalla tomba / Maniac Mansion / Murder Mansion

This is one of those Spanish-Italian co-productions where the preponderance of Spanish names amongst the cast, including actors Andrés Resino, Analía Gadé, Alberto Dalbés and Edouardo Fajardo, and crew, most prominently director Francisco Lara Polop, leave one in little doubt as to who were the dominant partners.

The impression is further enhanced by small details like the pouring of a whisky from a Cutty Sark rather than a J&B bottle, if not the prominence given giallo regular Evelyn Stewart / Ida Galli amongst the performers.

Reading the signs

While somewhat slow to get started, the credits being followed by a five-minute, dialogue-free driving sequence, it's not padding, instead serving to neatly introduce some of the characters and something of their respective personalities, as we witness a macho competition between a young motorcycle riding vaguely counter-culture type, Fred, and his older sports coupe driving counterpart, Mr Porter, soon centring around their rivalry for the attentions of attractive hitch-hiker Laura.

Meanwhile, the middle aged Mr and Mrs Tremont calmly continue on in their VW beetle, declining to get involved.

Following some more introductions and exposition involving the pre-existing relationships between philandering husband, Ernest, and his neurotic, father-fixated wife, Elsa, everyone then finds themselves lost some way from their mutual destination, Milen.

Fortunately a mansion house is nearby. Even more fortuitously the house's owner, Martha, happens to be there. This is an especially lucky coincidence given that she was herself only visiting to do a spot of work on the dilapidated property.

As everyone introduce themselves attention turns to the portrait of Martha's grandmother above the fireplace. The woman, a well-known occultist who looks curiously like her granddaughter, apparently died alongside her chauffer in a car accident some 30 years before, but is rumoured to haunt the area, with the nearest village having been abandoned as a result of a wave of mysterious deaths.

Combined with the Bosch and Eliphas Levi style images all around the mansion, it hardly makes for a terribly reassuring place to spend the night – especially for Elsa, who had a terrifying encounter with the selfsame chauffer in the cemetery just beyond the mansion only a few minutes before.

Elsa encounters the chauffeur and the witch / vampire

Though himself almost run over by the chauffer's phantom car Fred proves more skeptical and, accompanied by Laura, adopts the role of investigator determined to get to the bottom of the mansion's many secrets...

Murder Mansion is one of those old-fashioned horror-thriller crossovers that hedges its bets around supernatural versus naturalistic explanations for most of its running time before ultimately plumping for the latter in the manner of the giallo. The most relevant reference points thus emerge as the likes of Something is Creeping in the Dark, with its similarly ill-matched group of travellers stranded in a remote “old dark house” location, and The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave, with its tomb-using noir-style conspiracy of passion and wealth.

Against giallo convention this black glove is worn by the film's hero, Fred, as part of his motorcycling get up

Given Fred's role and apt name, the film is also clearly one of those “Scooby Doo” gialli identified by Mikel Koven, where the bad guys – don't worry, I won't reveal he, she or they are – would have “gotten away with it” were it not for the “pesky meddling kids”

Grandmother Martha and her reincarnation?

Though certainly featuring traditional horror devices like creepy music and shock zooms, Francisco Lara Polop's direction is also surprisingly subtle at times.

He often blurs the image to transition from one scene to the next rather than making a straight cut – a simple technique but undeniably also effective in imparting a oneiric sense to proceedings, especially when used both for routine changes of scene and as a route into the flashback sequences around Elsa and her father, played by familiar giallo film face Jorge Rigaud, and with whom she seems to have something of a Jocasta complex, if we want to be psychoanalytic about things.

Similarly Polop sometimes opens a scene on a detail rather than with an establishing shot, to momentarily make us that bit more confused as to our location and whose perspectives we are sharing.

The film's colour schemes is also interesting. The mansion interiors are dominated by orange, the exteriors of its surroundings by blue, thus creating a striking visual contrast between the two and a subtle recurring theme of the blurring and / or encroaching on these boundaries – further echoing the fantasy and reality theme – as when, for example, Martha and Elsa, the two most sensitive characters in the piece, don bright blue dresses.

Blurring the boundaries sexual orientation, living and dead, past and present, reality and nightmare, orange and blue

Another major strength of the film is the sheer tangibility of its fog. Rather than looking all too obviously like the artificial, cliché, product of a smoke machine situated just off camera it has the cloying, obscuring physicality of the real thing, further helping location and studio material blend seamlessly and adding to the believability of the supernatural or otherwise manifestations, such that we don't immediately dismiss them as the obvious products of smoke and mirrors which our onscreen surrogates are curiously unable to see through.

Amongst the performers no one really stands out positively or negatively, the women being glamorous and threatened, the men heroic and shifty, all very much in accordance with types. Curious as it may sound this also contributes to the effectiveness of the film as a whole, precisely because there is thereby a uniformity of style and approach by which no-one stands out, in sharp contrast to some Italian or Spanish productions starring out of place ex-pat Americans. (As with many films of its type the setting is somewhat unclear, the names of the places and people – Soren, Milen, the Clinton family – serving instead to indicate that we're in that mythic Eurotrash land where “any reference to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”. )

Marcello Giombini's music is characteristically idiosyncratic, blending traditional horror pipe organs and the like with strange noises, laughter and screams, but generally works and further contributes to the atmosphere.

Monday 25 August 2008


Or the night before the night he came home...

For what we have here is a film that, released in 1971 and thus a good seven years before John Carpenter's seminal Halloween, plays out a somewhat similar babysitter in peril scenario, albeit in a lower key, almost kitchen-sink manner more in keeping with its British origins.

The babysitter in question is Amanda (Susan George), a childcare student at the local technical college who agrees to babysit for Helen and Jim (Honor Blackman and George Cole), a middle-aged, somewhat shabbily genteel couple who have recently arrived in the village.

Helen proves to be somewhat on-edge, though her concern at this point seems explicable as nothing more than that of a slightly neurotic mother leaving her young child, Tara, in the care of an unfamiliar babysitter in an unfamiliar place:

Amanda: “Is there anything I ought to know, Mrs Lloyd?”
“About Tara, I mean.”

It is only later, as the couple drive to what passes for the town's most glamorous night-spot – and, given the drab reality of much of early 1970s Britain quite possibly its only night spot – and meet with their friends that the truth begins to emerge:

Jim: “Do you think she knows?”
Helen: “Why should she?”
“I don't know – something she said about everyone knowing everything.”

That Helen and Jim are not in fact husband and wife and that she is celebrating her divorce hardly seems to warrant this concern, even given the villagers' apparently conservative attitudes...

The maniac's first appearance, reflected in a kettle

Meanwhile Amanda is unnerved by a presence outside, though when her boyfriend Chris (Dennis Waterman) arrives she naturally takes this as one of his horror buff his practical jokes, the practical side of it as far as he is concerned that of getting into her pants in time-honoured slasher film manner.

While the film's discourse around sexual frustration leading inexorably to violence has parallels with Halloween's, we never definitively learn whether Amanda is or isn't a virgin unlike Laurie and her friends in Carpenter's film:

Chris attempts to persuade Amanda to go to bed with him

Chris: “You can't stay a virgin all your life, you know”
Amanda: “How do you know? I might not be one.”
“Ah, well, if you're not this is your big chance.”
“With you?!”

It was not Chris who was lurking outside earlier, however, but rather Helen's estranged husband Brian (Ian Bannen), who has escaped from the asylum where he was being held – yet another echo of Halloween, along with his taking a car to get here and killing the driver in the process, though this is kept off-screen– and is determined to get back his wife and child, whatever it takes...

It is also this aspect that gives Fright more of a slasher than a giallo feel, in that as there's no real mystery or conspiracy angle. We soon realise that Brian is insane, while Jim, Helen and their Doctor friend are only acting in everyone's best interests rather than seeking an inheritance and / or revenge as would typically be the case in a comparable Italian scenario such as The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave.

A nice two plane composition with a fake split screen effect

Whatever the plusses and minuses of this approach, there's little question that the film's makers knew their business and goals.

Director Peter Collinson and co-producer Harry Fine had worked together on the earlier woman-in-peril thriller The Penthouse in 1967, with Collinson again mining similar psycho-on-the-loose territory with Straight on Till Morning in 1972.

This, in turn, was produced in conjunction with Hammer films who had worked with Fine and Michael Styles company Fantale Films on the Karnstein trilogy comprising The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil. Each of these was also made from a Tudor Gates script and featured music by Harry Robertson / Robinson. Editor Spencer Reeve also worked on two of the three Karnstein films, along with a further five earlier Hammer productions.

The Plague of the Zombies

All this is telegraphed by the inclusion of clips from The Plague of the Zombies as the film within the film that Amanda, perhaps unwisely given her state, watches on television – a neat little in-joke that also prefigures Carpenter's interpolation of clips from The Thing from Another World into Halloween.

Joining the dots still further around the British-Italian-US horror circle, The Penthouse starred Suzy Kendall prior to her women-in-peril roles for Dario Argento and Sergio Martino, whilst in between Italian excusions such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Torso she also appeared in Sidney Hayers's Assault, a film that with its mystery aspect – who is the rapist and killer haunting the woods near the girls' school? – is as much British giallo as proto-slasher.

George, meanwhile, had earlier appeared in Peter Walker's Die Screaming Marianne, a film also features some giallo-isms of the sort that would become still more pronounced in his later The Flesh and Blood Show – as a British take on The Assassin Reserved Nine Seats or Stagefright locked theatre murder scenario – and Schizo.

Classic 70s rack focus action

And then there's the fact that Cole and Waterman had both recently made appearances for Hammer, the former in The Vampire Lovers and the latter in Scars for Dracula. Indeed, the horror movie episode Chris recounts to frighten Amanda, of a girl being decapitated sounds almost like an out-take from The Vampire Lovers, while Waterman's apparent inability to enter the Lloyd house until invited resonates with Stoker's original formulation of the rules of vampirism and the fate that befell his character's brother in Scars of Dracula.

All this genre pedigree doesn't necessarily mean anything beyond an inherent interest in terms of trivia of course. Fortunately, cast and crew alike deliver on the promise it represents with the result an entertaining and suspenseful thriller that's worth watching in its own right.

Shot and reaction shot, enhanced by sharp editing

Cole and Blackman are the kind of solid professionals that the British theatre and cinema system was so good at producing in its hey-dey, adept at taking any character and presenting them with the same professional finesse.

George, though representative of a more contemporary approach where the female actor's abilities sometimes seemed to count for less than her willingness to strip off, nevertheless likewise acquits herself well.

In this she is also helped by the characterisation provided by Gates, as one that allows for her to express not only one-dimensional scream queen-isms but also an emergent sense of resolve, beginning with the brush-off she gives the too-cocky Chris and continuing, albeit intermittently, to rhw finale with its final girl-style shift from passive to active defence.

The stand-out performance for me, however, was that of Bannen as the madman. By turns terrifying and pathetic, he is always utterly credible, a far remove in this regard at least from the unstoppable, supernatural, archetypal “boogeyman” figure represented by Michael Myers in Halloween.

Bannen at his most threatening; note also the skilful lighting effect

Even more amazing, however, is that it isn't necessarily Bannen's best performance of this type, as anyone who's also seen his turn as the suspected child-molester in Sidney Lumet's The Offence could attest.

Collinson expertly builds the tension up through devices such as the unmotivated cut, camera set-up and movement – why that shot from the top of the stairs, looking down on Amanda at the door? why those hand-held shots in the already cramped space of the kitchen? – and a well developed eye and ear for picking out and exaggerating unnerving details, be it a giallo-style broken doll, a loudly rattling water pipe, or a tapping whose source modulates from a leaky tap to the dark outside and thus prompts Amanda to go investigate.

He also knows when to spring a Lewtonian “bus” rather than a more graphic shock, as in the following scene when a ghost-like sheet suddenly blows across Amanda's face. As an objective image it may not make sense, but as a subjective one it works beautifully to create the desired effect, whilst also hinting at her distracted state and the ease with which someone could have snuck past her whilst her attentions were otherwise occupied.

Not that gorehounds will necessarily be disappointed, with the brutal bludgeoning of Chris following shortly afterwards to demonstrate that Collinson could deliver the goods here as well if he wanted to.

The director also makes interesting use of more obvious subjective camera elsewhere in the film, sometimes presenting things from Brian's point-of-view with Amanda being replaced by his ex-wife, recalling the bizarre masks worn by the killer's victims in Lamberto Bava's Delirium: Photos of Gioia, but considerably more accomplished.

Robinson's music is satisfactory, with no emetic style balladry of the “strange love” sort, though the Ladybird, Ladybird title theme, with its subtle fairytale allusions to the events about to ensue, is sung by one Nanette, perhaps a British equivalent to all those Minas, Olympias and Christys' who so often did the honours in Italian product of the period. There's even a nice bit of Hammond-heavy party music that plays as Jim and Helen get down on the dancefloor, though whether this is Robinson's work or comes off a KPM library sessions album I wouldn't presume to say...

Sunday 24 August 2008

American risciò / American Rickshaw / American Tiger

How many films about a rickshaw driver can you think of?

Well, chances are that unless it's your chosen specialist subject, American Rickshaw will probably increase your total by an either infinite amount, or somewhere in the region of fifty to one hundred percent.

Therein lies the first of many questions about Martin Dolman / Sergio Martino's 1990 film. Why make a film about a rickshaw driver? Was he hoping to start a new franchise along the lines of the American Ninja series by taking advantage of those who would watch anything with the magic word 'American' in its title?

It might make sense, although I can't recall rickshaws exactly being big in the 80s, unlike ninjas. There were no Teenage Mutant Rickshaw Drivers, after all.

Whatever the motivation, there's certainly a strong east-meets-west aspect to the production, not only in the hero's occupation but also the mysterious old Chinese woman who, as we will eventually learn, represents the forces of good in opposition to Donald Pleasance's televangelist, Reverend Mortom

If this combination suggests that Martino and company might have been drawing some inspiration from John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, which also starred Pleasance, and Big Trouble in Little China, these also seem somewhat odd choices for models given their relative lack of box office success at the time and somewhat belated cult recognition. (Thinking back to my own teenage years, I can remember catching up with Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing, but never thinking about seeing Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness, either in the cinema or on home video; my loss.)

Regardless of its inspirations American Rickshaw emerges as a somewhat confused film, with the list of supporting characters including the televangelists son, who has a penchant for hiding behind one-way mirrors and filming people having sex; the stripper-cum-hooker who ensnares our hero, Scott, for one such film; Reverend Mortem's murderous minion, played by ex-Fists of Steel cyborg Daniel Greene, and Scott's friends and colleagues, including an amusingly / offensively camp gay rickshaw driver.

The plot meanwhile veers uneasily between the mundane and the magical, with Scott having to worry about his college exams one day and the fate of the world the next, with curious coincidences and mystical Mcguffins.

Though it might be argued that this serves to make the protagonist easier for us to engage and also places us in a position somewhat comparable to his – what exactly the hell is going on? – it proves hard to really care when athlete Mitchell Gaylord's suffers from a severe lack of charisma as Scott and Martino's direction is utterly flat and uninspired.

If American Rickshaw has any value it's as a time capsule of late 80s fashions, technologies – check out those mobile phones – and attitudes. Fine if you're a historian or sociologist but not so good if what you want is to be entertained.

Saturday 23 August 2008

Three upcoming releases from Shameless

The Designated Victim, Strip Nude for Your Killer and Oasis of Fear, all arriving on 15 September.

Especially nice to see The Designated Victim and Oasis of Fear, which have previously been hard to find.

Friday 22 August 2008

Cinque uomini contro tutti / Cobra Mission / Operation Nam

Obviously taking its inspiration from Rambo, this Fabrizio de Angelis / Larry Ludman entry sees a group of Vietman veterans decide to return to the country after hearing reports that some of their comrades are still being held in prisoner-of-war camps by the Viet Cong, fully a decade after the war's official end; that there's a four- rather than a one-man army is probably explicable by the fact that none of the quartet of Christopher Connelly, John Steiner, Oliver Tobias and Manfred Lehmann could exactly be described as possessing the same physique or star recognition as Stallone, though together they certainly present an attractive proposition for the Eurotrash enthusiast.

Gordon Mitchell also appears as one of the men's former commanding officers, and tries to dissuade them from their self-appointed mission.

After incidents involving an cynical conman who takes opportunity of Americans desperate to be reuinted with loved ones and a militantly anti-communist French colonialist priest – incidents which also allow for some welcome cameo appearances from Ennio Girolami, Luciano Pigozzi and Donald Pleasance to further bolster the film's cult appeal – the four men cross the border into Vietnam and proceed to dispose of what seems like half the Vietnamese army without themselves really breaking much of a sweat.

Exploding huts, trucks and choppers

Although the action remains equally gung-ho in the second half as the Cobra Mission team heads for the border with the rescued POW's in tow, the film also develops a more serious side as it emerges that the US authorities have not only repeatedly denied the prisoners' existence but have also been complicit in the Vietnamese keeping them captive.

If the resulting impression is one of an at times awkward mixture of juvenile action and a rather more adult and cynical approach, vaguely reminiscent of the moral universe of the spaghetti western, it also helps to further distinguish the film from its American model and give it a more distinctively Italian cast.

In particular Rambo's famous question “do we get to win this time” cannot necessarily be answered in the affirmative here – assuming, that is, that it's even possible to definitively identify this “we,” with the early US-set scenes also nicely establishing that the four veterans have not exactly been welcomed back into civilian life with heros welcomes.

One wonder what John Wayne would have thought of his son Ethan's role in the film. It's not The Green Berets, that's for sure...