Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Big Switch

This 1969 crime exploitationer from Pete Walker starts off in good style with a five minute striptease sequence, followed by scene-setting images of Carnaby Street at the time atop which Patrick Allen provides a voice-over introduction to protagonist John Carter.

The second strip sequence and some nice lighting effects

Given his age, identified as just the wrong side of thirty; cynical hard man attitude towards Swinging London, and ambiguously seedy / glamorous job as a sub-Blow Up photographer working in advertising, it’s not hard to see him as an easy character for Walker (born 1939) to have written.

An odd shadow effect

Also of note in this regard is that the second half of the film takes place in Walker’s birthplace of Brighton, with the showdown taking place on its pier, a location that both appears to reflect his own origins in a theatrical family and the end-of-pier theatre that provides the setting for 1972’s The Flesh and Blood Show.

Unfortunately incidental details of this nature are the main things that the film has going for it.

In terms of its stock in trade, sex, violence and sleaze it barely holds its own against Performance and Get Carter. This matter doubly in that it obviously doesn't compare to these films as far as cast, production values and direction go.

You are a voyeur

The cynicism and tawdriness pervading the entire enterprise, if at least self-conscious and deliberate on Walker’s part, also make it difficult to really care about Carter’s predicament. So too does the at times downright amateurish way in which he acts.

The story begins when Carter enters the flat of the girl he has just picked up (after going to get a packet of cigarettes, this being the kind of film where everyone smokes constantly) to find her unexpectedly dead, apparently the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. So what does Carter do? Well, he picks up the gun, calls the police; hesitates and hangs up; wipes the gun of his prints; puts it back, and leaves...

Does the strange shot-reverse shot framing here indicate something about Carter's relationship with his agent, or is it just ineptitude?

Worth a look for the Walker completist or student of British crime cinema of the period, but hard to recommend to the casual viewer looking more for entertainment.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Maciste all'inferno / The Witch's Curse

Maciste is unusual amongst the peplum heroes in that his origins are not mythological but literary, making his first appearance in Emilio Salgari’s novel Cabiria. Though a relatively minor character in the novel and Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 film adaptation, Masciste proved a hit with Italian audiences, with dockworker turned actor Bartolomeo Pagano going on to play him in a further 24 films in the silent era.

Maciste’s adventures in these films established the character as unbounded by time and space, setting a precedent for his reincarnations in the peplum boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In Maciste alpino, for instance, Maciste actually fights in the First World War for Italy, while in the original Maciste all’inferno he is presented as a 19th century petit bourgeois type.

The English language title screen

In this remake cum reinterpretation of Maciste all’inferno the action is relocated to 16th and 17th century Scotland.

If this setting is one against which Kirk Morris’s / Adriano Bellini’s pepla wearing, bare-chested Maciste looks somewhat out of place, it is at least consistent with the nature of the character’s previous adventures. For, as we see via flashback interpolations of footage from other Maciste films – none featuring Morris, it might be added – the character’s mission to fight injustice wherever it may be found had earlier saw him face the mythical Cyclops and the historical Mongols.

The choice of setting might also be attributed to either director Riccardo Freda and / or producers Panda film, given that their previous collaboration on The Ghost had also had seen the use of Scottish locations.

As with that film, Maciste all’inferno / The Witch's Curse’s representations of Scotland is unconvincing, particularly through what appears to be the Catholicism rather than Protestantism of the Christianity on display when the priest officiating at the ceremony recites “in nomine patris” and so on.

Some rather un-Presbyterian hand gesturing here

This is excusable given that the purpose of the film was to entertain its target audiences in Italy, not to educate them on religious distinctions that might have interfered with their enjoyment of the film.

It does, however, also provide a further clue to why the typical peplum was unlikely to be well received by anyone emphasising fidelity to myth and history.

The story comes across as something of a combination of two films by Freda’s former cinematographer turned director Mario Bava, Black Sunday and Hercules in the Haunted World.

The opening sequence seems inspired by Black Sunday as a woman is burnt at the stake for being a witch and dies leaving a curse upon the village and its people.

I Vardella, er Martha, will have my revenge!

100 years later another woman is feared to be the re-incarnation of the witch and to have brought her curse to fruition.

While having the same name as the witch, Martha Gunt, she is not a double / reincarnation in the way Barbara Steele’s Asa and Katya are in Bava’s film, with the witch Martha and the innocent Martha being played by different actresses.

With the innocent Martha placed in gaol, tried, found guilty and sentenced to also burn at the stake, Maciste makes a timely entrance.

At this point the film becomes more like Hercules in the Haunted World as Maciste determines that the witch Martha’s curse can be lifted if he enters into Hell itself and bests her there.

The entry to Hell is beneath a tree

The complication is that the witch then ensorcels Maciste so that he loses his memory and cannot remember why he entered Hell in the first place

Although its story has affinities with the two Bava films, Maciste all’inferno is somewhat distinctive in its visual style. In part this is unsurprising when we consider the differences between the black and white expressionism of Black Sunday and the expressive use of colour in Hercules in the Haunted World. But another aspect of the difference appears more budgetary than aesthetic. Freda appears to have had the kind of material resources at his disposal to do crowd scenes denied Bava and to be able to deploy the sort of spectacular Bava had to fake through skilful mise-en-scene.

A relatively populous hell

In this regard it is also worth noting that, despite the film’s historical setting, Maciste all Inferno’s version of hell is a largely mythological one, as Maciste encounters the likes of Sisyphus and Prometheus rather than Satan, leading one to suspect that the lord of this hell is in fact Hades rather than Satan.

Maciste and Sisyphus...

and with Prometheus

One of the ways in which Maciste all’inferno remains distinctive even in its The Witch's Curse is that Maciste goes by this name, rather than being renamed as Hercules or Goliath for the sake of Anglophone audiences unfamiliar with the character and his history.

Maciste crosses a ravine...

to fight a giant; there is some good use of trick perspectives here to make the giant seem bigger than he really is

As a Freda film of this period it is also odd in that it sees him credited under his own name rather than his Robert Hampton pseudonym. This is perhaps because, unlike the cases of the western and the horror film, there was no-one to fool as regards the national origins of the peplum.

In terms of its own influence, meanwhile, Maciste all’inferno’s Scottish scenes are reminiscent of Michael Reeves’s The She Beast and Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General. If this seems co-incidental, it is worth noting the visual similarities between the witch Martha and her She Beast counterpart Vardella. Moreover, Reeves was clearly familiar with Italian horror given his second-unit work on Castle of the Living Dead; the Italian co-production nature of that film and The She Beast, and the casting there of Steele in a distinctively Italian-style dual role.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Tuesday 13 April 2010

La guerra del ferro / Ironmaster

Though made possible by the post-Conan fantasy boom, and marketed as such, this 1983 entry from Umberto Lenzi is really more a pre-historic adventure.

For the film eschews overt manifestations of magic and the supernatural, as seen in the otherwise comparable likes of Ator and Conquest, in favour of a more naturalistic, quasi-anthropological approach in which the only monsters present are less-evolved Neanderthal and ape-man tribes.

A decidedly misleading, if audience-attracting, poster for the French release of the film

At the heart of the story is the rivalry between two stone-age tribesmen, Vood and Ela, who might be summarised as the Cain and Abel or Shiva and Vishnu of the piece.

Vood’s father is chief of the tribe, but surmises, correctly as it turns out, that his son is more concerned with his own glory than the well-being of the tribe as a whole. Accordingly he expresses his preference that Ela should succeed him.

This prompts Vood to murder his father and proclaim himself chief. But Ela, who was witness to the murder but powerless to prevent it, refuses to accept this and challenges Vood to ritual combat for the leadership of the tribe. He wins, assumes the mantle of chief and duly banishes Vood into exile.

While wandering in the volcanic mountains – not, perhaps, the kind of thing a normal person would do, but something that makes sense in this context, along with allowing for some suitable Promethean connotations – Vood then happens upon a natural furnace and a piece of iron in the shape of a sword.

The value of this new weapon is demonstrated as he kills a lion, whose skin he fashions into a headdress, and is persuaded by Lith, who had watched the battle with the beast, to accompany her back to her tribe to take power.

Vood with sword and headdress

With this duly accomplished, Vood equips his warriors with iron swords and turns his attention towards the other tribes in the area, including his own former one...

As might be Lenzi does not shy away from gore in Ironmaster. In the case of the human on human violence this is perfectly justifiable given the 2001-esque black monolith qualities of the furnace and sword: Progress comes from violence and killing rather than peace, as is most forcefully made when a pacifist agrarian tribe is compelled to change its ways in order to survive the onslaught of Vood’s armies.

The inclusion of a boar being speared and gutted cannot however be justified. A quasi-anthropological excuse, that this is what these people would have done for food, is effectively negated by the decidedly unrealistic fright wigs and fur bikinis worn by the cast.

With the film having been shot in the Custer State Park in Dakota it is also noticeable that no buffalo are subjected to a similar fate. One presumes this was either because they were protected or simply too expensive to make for a cheap special effect.

Cast-wise, George Eastman has a suitably imposing villainous presence as Vood, whilst William Berger’s hippie associations are also useful in relation to his casting as leader of the pacifist, vegetarian tribe. Female leads Pamela Prati as Lith and Elvire Audray are attractive, if decidedly unconvincing as authentic tribeswomen. Unfortunately, with the exception of a bit of nipple slippage from Prati’s fur bikini, neither gets their kit off. Sam Pasco, who plays Ela, was a bodybuilder type. That this was to be his only film role tells you all you need to know.

Pasco and Audray, plus Prati's back

The De Angelis brothers provide a decent, if not terribly memorable, primitive score.

Monday 12 April 2010

Der Würger vom Tower / The Strangler of the Tower

While written by Erwin C. Dietrich and produced by his Urania Film company this 1966 krimi just about manages to successfully pass itself off as a Rialto/Edgar Wallace or CCC/Bryan Edgar Wallace entry thanks to the filmmakers’ careful study of the form.

We open in tried and tested fashion with establishing shots of London and a murder, committed by the titular Strangler of the Tower. That he’s played by man-mountain Adi Berber of Dead Eyes of London and others only adds to the ambience.

The twin poles of krimi London; I wasn't sure whether the murkiness of the image is down to the transfer or an accurate rendition of a London fog.

Otherwise, however, the film features a less familiar cast than most krimis. Only Berber is really familiar, with Kai Fisher’s distinctive red hair invisible given the black and white nature of the piece.

Berber's first appearance, revealed by his victim's lighter

This lack of familiar faces gives the film a somewhat different dynamic. We have to pay more attention to the performers and the dialogue rather than relying upon type-casting. There’s no immediate syllogism, that Eddi Arent equals comic relief; Klaus Kinski red herring / suspect, and Karin Dor ingénue in danger.

The issue here for the non-German speaker, in watching an unsubtitled copy such as this, is that the film is thus that bit less immediately accessible in narrative terms.

But if I wasn’t able to follow what appears to be a typically convoluted plot, it is clear that it has the right ingredients: an ingénue in danger; a mysterious criminal brotherhood with an underground lair; a plethora of suspects cum red herrings; a dogged Scotland Yard investigator, and so on.

The criminal fraternity and the damsel in distress

Indeed, there’s even a touch of self-referentiality insofar as one the characters – the one residing in the equally obligatory country house – is an avid krimi reader.

Visually the film is instantly accessible, with the time-honouored combination of stock footage of London alternating with studio back-lots and corresponding realist and expressionist idioms.

What’s largely lacking compared to the typical Alfred Vohrer or Harald Reinl entry, however, are those more imaginative, excessive and playful moments of pure cinema. The exceptions, such as the shooting of the action mirrored in a pair of glasses, do however suggest that director Hans Mehringer, whose only film this was, had enough of what it took. So too does the recurrent use of visual clues, such as a necklace and a pair of two-tone shoes.

The film’s use of Soho locations is worth noting insofar as the filmmakers make extensive use of The Paul Raymond Revue Bar, or a mock up of it, for the obligatory night-club scenes.


Walter Baumgartner and Hans Möckel’s scoring is also something distinctive, being in a straight crime jazz idiom that lacks the quirky touches characteristic of Peter Thomas or Martin Boettcher’s work.

Worth a look.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Edwige's Eyes

The metal band Cathedral have a new song entitled Edwige's Eyes, inspired by Edwige Fenech and her appearances in 1970s gialli; it's on the cover CD of the current Metal Hammer magazine.

Último deseo / The People who Own the Dark

You could be forgiven for mistaking this 1976 Spanish horror entry as being the work of Amando De Ossorio, featuring as it does a horde of unseeing, zombie-like monsters much like his Blind Dead along with a small group of people holed up by said monsters a la Return of the Evil Dead.

In fact, however, the film was directed by Argentinean ex-pat Leon Klimovsky from a scenario co-authored by Blood Spattered Bride director Vicente Aranda.

We begin with the introduction of a dozen characters as they assemble at a mansion house for a masked, de Sade-inspired orgy. The six men including Alberto De Mendoza as scientist Professor Fulton and Paul Naschy as military man Bourne. One of the six women functions as mistress of ceremonies. The others, including Teresa Gimpera and Maria Perschy, are there to service the men's requirements.

But before the orgy moves into Jesus Franco territory the dungeon is shaken, as if by an earthquake.

Being a pre-destape film, this is about as far as it goes nudity wise

Venturing into the upper levels of the mansion to see what is going on, the participants find the servants blinded, their eyes burned white. Fulton realises that these symptoms are indicative of a nuclear explosion nearby. (Yes, this makes no sense, except in a Protect and Survive or Duck and Cover don't tell the public too much of the truth about nuclear armageddon way.)

The Beyond meets Horror Express?

Come morning the six men drive into the nearest town to find out what has happened and stock up on supplies. Victor cracks under pressure and kills some of the blind people before himself being killed by Edward; back at the mansion, Edward in turn suffers a breakdown, stripping naked and crawling around on all fours as if he were a pig.

Naschy blasts some of the local wildlife

The situation becomes more desperate as night falls and the blind march on the mansion intent on killing all those within...

A Birds meets Night of the Living Dead shot

One of the greatest strengths of the horror film is often its capacity for allegorical use, the way it allows the filmmaker to obliquely comment on social and political issues to cutting effect.

This can be seen in Night of the Living Dead, as an obvious inspiration for both The People Who Own the Dark and De Ossorio's Blind Dead films, and the Blind Dead themselves: Romero's film allowed him to comment upon the likes of the Vietnam War and the continuing necessity of the Civil Rights movement, while the Blind Dead enabled Ossorio to sneak criticism of the Franco regime past the Spanish censors.

Random Naschy images

The problem in this regard for The People Who Own the Dark is a relative lack of clarity about what the film's message is. With the Blind Dead it was easy to see, in that here were these ancient undead figures who killed those amongst the younger generations who failed to keep silent, or had the temerity to raise an oppositional voice.

Here by contrast we have a mixed bag of reference points also including Pasolini's Salo, Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, Saura's La Caza, Petri's Todo Modo – coincidentally released in the same year – and, amongst less exalted / more generic texts, Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids and Romero's The Crazies.

The thing that these works have in common with the Blind Dead films and Night of the Living Dead is an internal consistency. Once you have accepted that the bourgeois in The Exterminating Angel cannot leave the house; that the dead are returning to life to eat the living; that there are ambulatory killer plants on the loose amongst an almost entirely blind population; or that a group of bourgeois sadists are intent on exploring every facet of power and perversity that they can, everything else follows logically. You know how to engage with the film, where your sympathies are supposed to lie or, indeed, if you are to take a more detached, observational position.

Here by contrast we don't get any particular cues. This is most apparent when it comes to the most attractive of the female characters, Perschy's tart with a heart. Before the catastrophe, she has an encounter with a blind beggar and gives him alms. Later, post-apocalypse, she attempts to leave the mansion with one of the men to go in search of help.

It's the kind of selfless, heroic gesture that would conventionally be rewarded.

But the couple are then captured and killed by the blind, much like young lovers Judy and Tom in Night of the Living Dead were by the ghouls. The thing is that whereas the ghouls operated on a pure instinctual need to feed, the blind mob is being led by the aforementioned beggar, and dumps the mutilated bodies before the sighted for added impact.

Assembling this, my dominant impression was perhaps of a universe informed by Machiavelli – in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king or, as we might formulate it here, the lifelong blind man is king amongst the recently blind – De Sade and Nietzsche in which the greatest error is not to take advantage of others' weakness when you have the chance for, resenting you, they will seek your destruction as soon as they get the chance.

These ideas aren't a problem, if you are a Pasolini or a Bunuel and attracted their kinds of audience, or if you're single-mindedly intent on making as unrelenting a film as possible, but Klimovsky doesn't appear to be.


At least the cynical and nihilistic ending, with with some decidedly ironic use of Beethoven's Ode to Joy via A Clockwork Orange and / or Murder in a Blue World, is well realised and consistent with what has gone immediately before it, to indicate who really owns the dark, the light and the (brave new) world and to take you out of the film satisfactorily.

Alas, it's a slog getting there, with too little in the way of sex, violence and spectacle for the kind of hardened Euro-trash fan who is likely to be the primary audience for the film today.

In sum, very much an oddity as a rip-off of a rip-off that nevertheless subverts imitation with its own curious innovations.

He's a friend of ours / he's a friend of mine

Having discovered that Cinemageddon is no longer accepting new sign-ups without an invite and that I have a number of invites available, I'm offering five of them here.

If anyone would like one, please email me at hennesseybrown@gmail.com

Wednesday 7 April 2010

La marca del Hombre-lobo / The Mark of the Wolf Man / Frankenstein's Bloody Terror / Hell's Creatures

This is the first film in the Waldemar Daninsky cycle. It could also have been the last, had its success not prompted Paul Naschy to bring his creation back from the dead after he apparently killed by the traditional silver bullet at the film's close.

Like other great horror cycles, this move isn't particularly objectionable insofar as Naschy would develop the character and the mythos as the series went on.

As it is, for the first film in a series Mark of the Wolf Man presents a curious combination of elements that at times seems less indebted to its direct model of Universal's The Wolf Man than the monster rallies which followed it.

For while the film shows how Daninsky became infected with the curse of lycanthropy it also features vampires, albeit masquerading as humans and offering to help treat his condition. The only one of the triumvirate of classic monsters thus absent is Frankenstein's monster. Amusingly, however, the film was released in the US as Frankenstein's Bloody Terror. Being obliged to deliver a Frankenstein film and having a film without either the monster or his creatror, the distributors added in an animated title sequence which purported to explain how the Frankenstein family had been cursed with lycanthropy and became the Wolfsteins.

Part of this is true

This, however, isn't

We begin with a ballroom sequence that nicely establishes its romantic aspects along with the fact that there was a decent budget for the film, some prints of which were actually release in 70mm and with stereo sound.

A masked ball is being thrown for the engagement of Countess von Aarenberg to Rudolph Weismann, with all the local nobility and bourgeois in attendance. Daninsky dances with the countess, who is instantly enchanted by his enigmatic if somewhat sinister presence.

Zurakowska and Naschy...

and the guy playing Rudolph

The next day they are formally introduced at an antique shop before meeting by chance in the grounds of Wolfstein Castle. Daninsky, who explains he often retreats there for peace and quiet, tells the Countess and Rudolph the history of the Castle and the Wolfsteins. Imre Wolfstein was cursed with lycanthropy and, as such, could only be truly killed by being shot with a silver bullet by a woman who truly loved him. As he was stabbed through the heart with a silver dagger, Imre is not truly dead, only prevented from rising from his tomb.

Rudolph is sceptical and drives off with the Countess, forcing a gypsy wagon into a ditch as he unthinkingly speeds past them.

Daninsky helps the gypsy couple get back on the road, but with a storm brewing they ask if there is anywhere they might shelter for the night. Despite its history, Daninsky suggests Wolfstein Castle.

The gypsies approach the castle

The gypsies get drunk on the vintages in the Wolfstein's cellars, find the family tomb and pull the silver dagger out of Imre Wolfstein's remains. He thus comes back to life and kills them, followed by a couple of peasants.

Learning of the latter deaths the locals organise a hunt. During this Daninsky and Rudolph happen upon Imre. Daninsky manages to plunge the silver dagger back into the werewolf's heart to save Rudolph, but is himself bitten. The distinctive star-shape of the wound, the mark of the wolf man, tells him that is fated to become a werewolf himself.

Imre Wolfstein, back from the dead

Rudolph agree to help Daninsky, who tries to keep his distance and his secret from the Countess. Predictably he does not succeed. Going through Imre Wolfstein's papers, the Countess then discovers a forty-year old letter from one Doctor Janos Mikhelov, intimating that he might have found a cure.

It seems like a long shot, but is also the only promising avenue that the trio have found, with Daninsky becoming increasingly despondent that the only cure for his condition is to be a silver bullet.

They thus make contact with Dr Mikhelov – or rather his son. He agrees to assist Daninsky and arrives with his wife, Wandesa. The thing is that far from being the benevolent figures Daninsky was hoping for, they are in fact vampires intent on using him and Imre for their own nefarious purposes...

The vampires

Daninsky transforming

There is a lot to like about The Mark of the Wolfman: The cast, which includes Rosanna Yanni, Dyanik Zurakowska and Julian Ugarte alongside Naschy; the impressive sets and production design; stylised, painterly compositions and cinematography in the vein of Mario Bava or Jack Asher, and a score that is often more than just serviceable and which sometimes even approaches the heights of Krysztof Komeda's work on Dance of the Vampires.

Classic imagery and a beautiful composition

Above all it's the way these pieces fit together as a whole and the overriding sense that not only Naschy but everyone else involved believed in the value of what they were doing. Maybe it wasn't Bunuel, Saura or whoever the ciritics liked. Maybe they had misgivings about aspects of it. Maybe they were just out to collect their pay-cheques. But, if any of this was indeed the case, the point is there is no real evidence of this on screen.

If only more contemporary horror films were like this...

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Piero Umiliani website

Website for one of my favourite Italian composers, who scored many filone films in the 1960s and 1970s and penned The Muppet Show theme.


Monday 5 April 2010

El asesino está entre los trece

This is one of those films that looks a lot better on paper than it actually turns out to be.

It has a solid starting point for a thriller as eleven guests are invited for a weekend at an isolated country house, only to then be told by the hostess that one of them murdered her husband; the thirteenth figure is her somewhat odd son.

The assembled guests, hosts and servants

Admittedly this is clearly derivative of Agatha Christie. But, as the likes of Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon and Michele Lupo's The Weekend Murders showed, an unoriginal scenario doesn't necessarily mean an unoriginal film.

Writer-director Javier Aguirre has also assembled a solid ensemble cast, with the likes of Patty Shepard, Jack Taylor and Simon Andreu amongst the guests / suspects and Paul Naschy as one of the servants.

Though more a metteur en scene than an auteur, Aguirre had some talent for horror, as demonstrated by his collaborations with Naschy on Count Dracula's Great Love and The Hunchback of the Morgue. And, indeed, the murder set pieces here, performed by a black-gloved and garbed killer using an assortment of hand weapons, are well executed, pun intended.

The trailer probably looked good, at least

So, where does it all go wrong?

The answer is in the pacing. The first twelve minutes are spent introducing the various characters. At thirteen minutes everyone settles down for dinner and the announcement that a murderer is amongst them is made. Dinner and conversation around this revelation, which everyone takes remarkably calmly, continues for another fifteen minutes.

Everyone then retires for the night, at which point Naschy's character goes to bed with the maid. Like the later hand to hand fight he engages in, it's a scene that crops up in almost every film he was in around this time, making one think it must have been a standard clause in his contract. As they make love, someone watches from outside, priming expectations that things are about to finally kick off.

Some rather obvious matte work

But nothing happens. Come morning everyone is still alive and quite happy to remain at the estate, digging out and divulging guilty secrets for the next half hour; by this point you may be wondering if Aguirre was intent on subverting the thriller by way of Waiting for Godot or The Exterminating Angel.

Two obligatory Naschy moments

Then, with half an hour left, we get two murders in the space of two minutes; a succession of three further deaths at regular intervals; a traumatic flashback; some further improbably calm reactions by those still alive and now proven innocent of the original murder, and a 'surprise' reversal with five minutes remaining. FIN.