Sunday, 31 March 2013


Have a look, see what you think, maybe help them out?

Aenigma Fanzine

Two things:

First, Aenigma #2 is out.

Second, Aenigma now has a web page:

I Bastardi / The Bastard

The first thing to note about this film is the implications of its Italian and English titles. The Italian title translates as The Bastards, whereas the English title and the English lyrics to the theme song (“he’s a bastard”) refer to The Bastard. This plural/singular distinction is an important one, since the English version is likely to make the viewer think that the titular bastard is Jason (Giuliano Gemma) whereas the Italian is likely to make the viewer also think of Jason's older, hypochondriac, half-brother Adam (Klaus Kinski) and perhaps also Jason’s girlfriend Karen (Margaret Lee) and the rest of their gang.

The narrative begins in medias res as Jason flees with a bright yellow bag filled with jewels into the waiting getaway car. Having got out of town, Jason and his two accomplices find their way blocked by a police car. Jason encourages his driver to slowly go forwards and then suddenly accelerate. The stratagem works, but the police car pursues and eventually traps the robbers. The three men get out and the two accomplices are then summarily gunned down by the two cops, who prove to be other associates of Jason’s in disguise.

Jason is the bastard.

Then, however, the cops in turn seek to betray Jason.

Everyone is a bastard.

Jason, however, had predicted as much and, having chained the bag to the floor of the car, manages to take them out.

Having disposed of the getaway car and removed the false fittings from the ‘police’ car, Jason arrives in the next town, stops off for a glass of milk – this an apparent nod to Gemma and co-writer/director Duccio Tessari’s earlier collaborations on the Ringo spaghetti westerns – and then meets up with the waiting Karen.

After dealing with another attempted betrayal in a night club – Karen turning the music up so Jason’s shots will not be heard – the duo rendezvous with Adam, their mother, and the other members of the gang.

At this point also we get a more diegetic explanation for Jason’s avoidance of alcohol, his mother being an alcoholic. This said, he later sends his mother a crate of whiskey as a gift; Adam, whether out of concern for his mother and/or a desire to discredit his half-brother, has the bottles watered down. When Jason learns of this, he gifts his mother another lot of the proper, good stuff. Amusingly, this time we see the bottles, complete with telltale J&B labels.

Rather more important in relation to the narrative, however, is that Jason announces he is not going to share the loot with his brother and the others, instead intending to use the $100,000 to bankroll setting up his own gang. To this end, he has hidden the loot; it may be significant that we do not see him do this.

Jason is the bastard.

What Jason proves not to have foreseen, however, is Karen’s betraying him to Adam. Worse, Adam has his surgeon associate (an unrecognisable Umberto Raho) shoot Jason up with drugs and sever the tendons in the wrist of his gun hand.

Jason is taken in by ranch-owner Barbara (Claudine Auger) who helps him to recover (Gemma here displays his athletic prowess by jumping backwards and somersaulting into the swimming pool, apparently on the first take). Barbara’s kindness makes Jason begin to question his previous life, but not to the extent of foregoing revenge.

Jason may not be the bastard, but he is still one of the bastards.

It is somewhat ironic that, having made some comparably Hollywood-style westerns in Spain, Tessari and Gemma should go to New Mexico to do a crime film with a contemporary setting. This said, the trope of the gunman with a maimed hand is a common one in the Italian western (cf. Django, The Great Silence) and a scene of Jason practising by shooting out the strings of a harp and his donning of a leather wrist-guard seem inspired by A Fistful of Dollars.

Tessari makes good use of the landscape, contrasting its brown and green exteriors with some yellow, blue and red interiors (Dante Ferretti has an early design credit here). Tessari's direction is similar, the obvious stylistic flourishes in some scenes (e.g. Jason’s flashbacks/hallucinations as he stumbles deliriously through the near desert landscape) forming a nice contrast with the less emphatic functional approach elsewhere.

Gemma, Kinski and Lee each acquit themselves well, even if none is being called upon to deliver anything outside of their comfort zone. Hayworth's performance is harder to judge, on the grounds that she was afflicted by undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease at the time. Without seeing the original script, it is thus difficult to know the extent to which her character's drunkenness was there from the outset or was improvised during filming as a response to difficulties.

One aspect of the script, as written or rewritten, that comes across as rather unsatisfactory is the somewhat deus ex machina ending with its rather too-neat settling of accounts (this term, referenced within the dialogue, is yet another spaghetti westernism).

In sum, a film that starts off well, but loses its way a bit towards the end – much like its lead character, admittedly.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema

This 2011 volume published by I B Tauris presents an analysis of a number of films that may be identified as a sub-genre of a sub-genre, namely Italian or Spaghetti Westerns that have an explicit political (read left) orientation.

Whilst adapted from author Austin Fisher's PhD thesis and thus possibly more theoretically oriented than some fans would like, the author's use of the likes of Louis Althusser and Franz Fanon does not come across as gratuitous name dropping or shoe-horning of the theory into the text, coming across as more bottom-up than top-down.

Fisher begins by establishing the broader context in which his corpus of films emerged, most notably that of the post-war settlement where the anti-Fascist alliance of the resistance (a resistance which was a formative experience for some of the key filmmakers) was represented, with overt and covert US support, benefitting the Christian Democrats party and marginalising the communists.

Turning to the films themselves, the key distinction Fisher makes, responding to the taxonomies of Will Wright, Christopher Frayling, and Bert Fridlund, is that between RSA and insurgency narratives.

The RSA narrative is derived from Althusser's distinction between the Ideological State Apparatus, or ISA, as represented by the education system and the mass media, and the Repressive State Apparatus, as represented by the law. Put crudely the ISA tells you what to think and do, while the RSA then comes into play if you fail to follow the ISA.

The key characteristic of the RSA film, as epitomised by Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown and Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence, is the power of the law, or the RSA, being (ab)used by the powerful against the weak.

In Sollima's film it is how land baron Brokston sends Corbett off to bring back Cuchillo dead or alive (preferably the former), for the peon's supposed rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl to divert attention from the real perpetrator, his son.

In Corbucci's it is how businessman Policott contrives to have those who refuse to surrender to him outlaws, such that they may be legally murdered by bounty hunters/killers.

For Fisher the key point about The Big Gundown is its ultimate incoherence. Here it is germane to remember a fundamental difference between Sollima's film and Corbucci's. In The Big Gundown the ending of Franco Solinas's screenplay was dropped, so that Corbett did not kill Cuchillo and the real villain was punished -- i.e. an unhappy ending. In The Great Silence Corbucci was asked to provide a happy ending for some territories, one in which Silence triumphed. Corbucci subverted this request by presenting a happy ending that it was difficult to take seriously, reminiscent of the self-consciously ironic coda to Murnau's The Last Laugh.

The insurgency narrative is drawn from Fanon, and is exemplified by Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General and Corbucci's Companeros. These are narratives where a US or Anglo character heads south from the US into Mexico and thereby becomes involved with the revolution, whether supporting or subverting it.

The key question these narratives raise, to Fisher, is the place of violence and its justification/rationalisation: how do we distinguish between legitimate violence against an oppressor and illegitimate violence whereby the formerly oppressed becomes the oppressor?

The most important film in this regard is Sollima's Face to Face, with its civilised eastern academic going west for the sake of his health and then becoming a ruthless bandit leader.

Sollima's film is also important for featuring the two key actors within the Italian political western, namely Gian-Maria Volonte and Tomas Milian.

There are perhaps two notable areas of omission in Fisher's discussion. Both are, however, perfectly understandable given the origins of the book in a PhD thesis where (as I was advised) it is better to accentuate the positive by looking for confirmation rather than refutation of one's ideas.

The first of these is where these films fit in relation to the taxonomy proposed by the editors of Cahiers du cinema around the time of May 1968 (and all that). They suggested that films could be divided into five main categories in relation to form and content and whether these were conservative or radical in approach.

Category A encompassed the bulk of films, especially those produced by Hollywood. These films were conservative on both the form and content axes. As such they were condemned by Cahiers. The far rarer category B encompassed films which were radical in both form and content, such as Godard's Wind from the East. Category C encompassed films which were formally radical but conservative in their content. The Cahiers critics felt such films preferable to those in category D, which were formally conservative but politically radical. Finally, category E encompassed films which did not fit into this schema, in that they might initially be taken as conservative texts but then proved to question this through their contradictions.

With this taxonomy Italian political westerns would seem to be closest to category D. But a problem perhaps then arises when it comes to identifying what conservative form means. A key characteristic of the films of Leone and, more pertinently, those who he influenced is, after all, their comparative lack of regard for David Bordwell classical Hollywood style or Noel Burch's Institutional Mode of Representation.

To give one example, in Django Kill there are rapid-fire montage type flashbacks which are tinted and at times appear to be in reverse motion, with bodies rolling uphill rather than downhill. Rather than seeking to conceal his interventions Questi makes them obvious.

What thus arguably emerges is a situation where formal radicalism becomes less clear cut. Django Kill is radical in relation to The Searchers, but conservative in relation to Wind from the East.

The second area where I felt that Fisher might have commented is with regard to Pier-Paolo Pasolini's broadly contemporaneous notion of an “unpopular cinema”. Pasolini identified three approaches to cinema and politics, the first two of which broadly correspond to Cahiers' categories A and B. For Pasolini the popular cinema, as represented by Hollywood, lacked political bite. The avant-garde cinema, as represented by Godard, was critical, but was also self-defeating as it could only ever reach a minority audience and even then implied a fundamentally sado-masochistic relationship between the sadist filmmaker and the masochist spectator. Pasolini's alternative, the unpopular cinema, was political, yet accessible to wider audiences. As such it could be considered as having affinities with Cahiers' category D.

Pasolini himself took an unpopular cinema line with his Trilogy of Life, of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Thousand and One Nights, the wider accessibility of which could be directly compared to the films that preceded them, Oedipus Rex, Pigsty and Medea. Pasolini also, however, subsequently repudiated the Trilogy of Life and made Salo as a film which he hoped would be deliberately unwatchable and impossible to recuperate.

Italian political westerns would appear to clearly fit into Pasolini's framework as instances of an unpopular cinema. As such, Fisher's failure to provide a detailed discussion of Carlo Lizzani's Requiescant/Kill and Pray arguably emerges as another structuring absence. Lizzani was, after all, avowedly leftist, as were the actor playing the film's protagonist, Lou Castel, and a performer playing an important supporting role -- none other than Pasolini.

Deleuzean Hybridity in the Films of Leone and Argento

As the corrections to my PhD thesis, on Deleuzean Hybridity in the Films of Leone and Argento, have now been approved, here it is for those who wish to read it.

Basically what I say is that Deleuze formulates his concepts of the movement-image and the time-image primarily in relation to classical Hollywood genre cinema and modern European art cinema respectively. As such, the films of Leone and Argento raise questions regarding this framework, in being post-WWII European films, but also being genre films (westerns, thrillers, fantasy-horror, and a gangster film). I then try to bring out how these films have hybrid characteristics, and relate this to certain earlier and later films to place the two directors within a broader tradition.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Popular Italian Cinema: Culture and Politics in a Postwar Society

This 2012 academic essay collection has two main sections.

The first features five chapters on specific post-war cycles. These are, in order of presentation, the peplum; horror, this including the giallo; the western; comedy, more specifically the Comedy Italian Style predominant in the 1960s but not Franco and Ciccio nor the Sex Comedies and Decamerotics of the 1970s; and a group of films dealing with the Tarantela.

The second features two chapters on violence in relation to the western and treatments of rape.

Taken as a whole the volume serves to consolidate some established understandings whilst challenging or extending others in useful directions and, as such, can be recommended for readers of this blog – although you may want to wait and see if there is a paperback edition, given its somewhat prohibitive price

In her introduction editor Flavia Brizio-Skov establishes a few guiding principles taken by the four contributors to the volume.

 They are more interested in the consumption of the texts rather than their production. In other words, they are more concerned with what people (audiences) do with these films than what filmmakers intended them to do. They assume that all texts are ideological, with a text that purports not to be ideological likely being one that is implicitly conservative.

In his chapter on the peplum Frank Burke begins by looking at three early post-war examples of the form, each preceding the boom that followed Hercules (1959). He highlights their increasing conservativism, relating this to the consolidation of Christian Democrat regimes backed by the US.

Burke then looks at Leone’s The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) and foregrounds how it works as a parody, with nominal hero Dario being inept and ineffective. Burke thus suggests that the film was perhaps more successful in Leone’s terms, as an intentional parody, that Christopher Frayling would appear to indicate in his discussion of the film. For Burke the problem with The Colossus of Rhodes is that its critique of the peplum is too subtle, generally only becoming apparent on a second viewing. Burke nevertheless tacitly agrees with Frayling that The Colossus of Rhodes is an important predecessor of the Italian western, where the parody would be more obvious.

Burke then examines another ironic peplum, Cottafavi’s Hercules and the Captive Women. He emphasises how its Hercules is an indolent figure whose motivation to act against the Atlantean Aryan/Nazi-coded villains stems not through commitment to more abstract notions of morality or a wider concern for the people but rather friendship, and that the eventual destruction of Atlantis that Hercules precipitates is one that has both allusions to nuclear weapons and that is indiscriminate.

Burke’s chapter arguably also raises a question which recurs throughout the book: by what means and how adequately can the film scholar looking at the meanings audiences attached to these films be verified, given the general infancy of cultural studies at the time and the distance of several decades?

Andrea Bini’s chapter addresses the Italian horror film. He argues that it comprises of three broad periods, each spanning approximately ten years. In this he both confirms and extends the work of previous scholars (such as Maggie Günsberg) by suggesting a slightly different breakdown of the first two periods and introducing the third one. For Bini, as Günsberg, the first period spans the years 1956-66 and can be characterised as Gothic. For Bini, as Günsberg, the second period is characterised as giallo, but begins in 1967 rather than 1969/70. For both critics, however, the key film heralding the Gothic to Giallo shift (can we say epistemological break? or paradigm shift?) is Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Bini’s third period, that of excess and gore, begins in 1977 and lasts until 1986.

Bini says that the Gothic-Giallo-Gore progression sees horror move from being marginal to mainstream and back to marginal. Here he foregrounds that Suspiria and Inferno were less successful within Italy than Argento’s earlier films, alongside the increasing importance of producing films for export. This gives an interesting angle on Suspiria in particular: according to the figures in Maurizio Baroni’s Platea in piedi, Suspiria was more successful than any of the Animal Trilogy and Deep Red in terms of its absolute ranking in box-office take for the year, as 4th most successful film of 1976/77. However, this success can also be measured in relation to a decline in absolute cinema attendances and, concomitantly, the amount of Lire taken, over the 1970-77 timespan.

Bini also notes the absence of the vampire in Italian culture and how they are replaced by the powerful witch. This helps explain the commercial failure of Freda’s I Vampiri, the figure of Asa in Bava’s Black Sabbath and, indeed, the non-Italian settings of both films alongside the Wurdalak episode of Black Sabbath.

Bini further emphasises how horror was a specifically adult genre in Italy, with reference to the sex-horror films of Renato Polselli. This also explicates their often problematic position in the US marketplace, where horror tended to be seen more as something for children.

For Bini the reason why The Bird with the Crystal Plumage achieved the breakthrough that previous gialli had not seems to have been partially down to making the right film at the right time. Whilst denying that Argento’s films are explicitly political, he suggests that the director managed to tap into the fears and uncertainties that emerged in the Years of Lead, generally taken as beginning in 1969.

Bini, finally, puts forward that Argento’s films along with the genres or cycles as a whole express and ambivalence toward the feminine. This can be seen as being in accord with Mikel Koven’s reading of the giallo as a form which is ambivalent towards modernity more generally.

In her chapter on the Western Brizio-Skov posits that a fundamental difference between the Hollywood Western and the Italian Western is the remove at which they operate: US Westerns dealt with the myth of the West. They were Westerns about the West. Italian Westerns dealt with the myth of the myth of the West. They were Westerns about the Western. One expression of this distinction is that the US Western, as epitomised by Shane, has a hero, whereas the Italian Western, as epitomised by A Fistful of Dollars, has an anti-hero.

Brizio-Skov contents that in social terms the likes Clint Eastwood’s Joe/The Man with No Name worked for those Italians who were winners and losers in the new economic system of individualism. Those who were winners could see themselves reflected on screen, those who were losers could enjoy a wish fulfilment of what they would like to be on screen.

Individualism also manifested in the way in which the Italian Western anti-hero would destroy a corrupt system, but decline to stay around or settle down to construct a better one in its place.

Above all, in Brizio-Skov’s analysis, the Italian Western was a sub-genre marked by contradictions in how it could be read, this leading to its being criticised by the left and the right on the one hand, and being enormously successful with audiences on the other.

Finally, Brizio-Skov suggests that the Leone Western ushered in the post-Western, as inaugurated and exemplified by Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

In this regard, a crucial distinction between the Western Italian Style and Comedy Italian Style was that the former could readily be exported internationally, whereas the latter was too close to home to be successfully exported widely.

In his chapter on Comedy Italian Style, Bini suggests that three distinct periods of films could be identified, thus repeating the magic number as already seen in Italian horror and in the Western (US-Italy-US). In general the success of a film depended upon how well Italian audiences were able to see and recognise themselves as the subjects of the comedy whilst not feeling insulted or threatened. Unsurprisingly the boundaries here shifted considerably between the late 1950s and mid 1970s.

Though Comedy Italian Style is perhaps less interesting to readers of this blog, it is worth remembering that Leone employed writers Age and Scarpelli for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on the basis of their work within the form. That is to say, the connections are there if one seeks them out.

This also applies to Flavia Laviosa’s examination of films featuring the tarantela, which emerges as a more specialised topic with several films about the phenomenon being documentaries and/or not exported. She does, however, mention tarantism in Flavia the Heretic Nun, whilst references to appearances of spiders in other European and North American horror films might lead back to the likes of Canevara’s The Black Belly of the Tarantula or Fulci’s The Beyond.

The second section of the book begins with Brizio-Skov’s chapter on violence in relation to the three periods of the Western established in her earlier discussion: classical-, Italian-, and Post-Western. The last of these, inaugurated by The Wild Bunch, continues through various 1970s Westerns before reaching its high point in Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Drawing on Murray Slotkin in particular, Brizio-Skov suggests that the classical Hollywood Western presents a situation of regeneration through violence, accompanied by a clear-cut positioning of the good and the bad and their respective relations to the community. The Italian Western sees an initial breakdown of these frameworks. The post-Western then presents spirals of violence, where one excessive retaliation spawns another excessive retaliation. Tantalisingly the author then raises the issue of where in contemporary cinema a regenerative violence might still be found and mentions the cop film. Accordingly one is left wanting more, in the form of a discussion of the 1970s cop and gangster film cycle in Italy.

The second chapter in this section, and the last in the book – there is no conclusion – is by Lavioso and addresses how rape has been dealt within in Italian cinema. Lavioso foregrounds a discursive change from texts which discuss rape in the context of sex to texts which discuss rape in the context of (abuse of) power. One issue here, perhaps, is that the popular status of some of the texts/films discussed is less clear; though my own understanding of Damiani’s The Most Beautiful Wife was certainly enhanced by learning about its real-life background and inspiration. Likewise, I wondered whether another case mentioned had any relationship to Di Leo’s To Be Twenty – especially given that Di Leo’s films often have a realist/sociological bent – whilst the deployment of Trauma Theory might suggest a new way of looking at Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome.

All in all, a very fecund collection where even the least obviously relevant chapter – the tarantela – suggests new lines of inquiry.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Dunyayi kurtaran adam / Turkish Star Wars

As Pete Tombs mentions in his book Mondo Macabro a group of French Situationists once took a martial arts film, marketed as Crush Karate, and performed a detournement upon it, changing its title to Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

This comes to mind because Dunyayi kurtaran adam – literally The Man who Saved the World, apparently– has, as its colloquial name of Turkish Star Wars, would suggest qualities that seem almost to be those of an unconscious detouernement of its better known counterpart.

While not an expert on Turkish popular cinema by any means, a few common factors have emerged in the films that I have seen, these generally being the ones that seek to imitate a Hollywood or other foreign success and rework it for the Turkish market.

First, Islam tends to play a more significant role. This makes sense in a film like The Turkish Exorcist, but seems out of place here as a substitute for Star Wars’ force.

Second, there is absolutely no shame in lifting footage or music from the source film or films – a factor that likely explains why Turkish Star Wars will never appear on a legitimate DVD release in the US or UK even if it were to be called Not Star Wars: A Turkish Parody in the manner of the tedious deluge of Not [insert name of intellectual property here]: An XXX Parody that US porn producers have inflicted upon us in the past few years.

Holy intellectual property law Batman!

Third, the Turkish films tend to be more violent than their foreign models. Here, for instance, there are various shots of people getting a mace or a spear in the face and another of a boy having his head being crushed by a robot.

The gore is, however, difficult to take seriously simply because it is so inept and comic-book/cartoon like in style.

This brings us on to a fourth difference, the one that relates most strongly to the detournement idea: the use that the filmmakers make of their appropriated footage and what they film themselves is just so at odds with European and North American stylistic norms as to appear inept.

A one-two of initial cheap shots occurs during the credits through the Musak type theme and the presence of two men with the unfortunate sounding forename of Kunt. Yes, this is a Kunt Film.

After just under two minutes of names scrolling upwards on a black screen in a reasonable no-budget version of Star Wars the action proper begins. Or, rather, an assemblage of footage of a rocket launch, the X-Wing crews preparing for the battle of Yavin, their Imperial counterparts on the Death Star and a voice-off that, over the course of two-and-a-half-minutes explains what is going on – if, that is, you speak Turkish. As the version I watched this time did not have subtitles, I could only go by memory and how it made a lot of religious references.

Then, at the four minute 30 second mark we are introduced to our two protagonists, both pilots of one of the various spacecraft seen flying about during the voice-off. Here we can see that the filmmakers have used back-projection to interpolate them in the place of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and so on. Unfortunately they also play some of the back-projected footage the wrong way and generally show such a lack of awareness of the  rules of continuity editing that we cannot follow the battle nor determine which of the various spacecraft are being flown by our heroes.

While this is going on we are also introduced to the main antagonist. Here the filmmakers actually shoot some new footag eof their own, showing a cut-price Darth Vader alike and his various goons in their lair, one that looks more like the cavern-like interiors of the Mos Eisley cantina than the antiseptic ones of the Death Star.

Our two heroes than crash land on a planet. The landscape here is reasonably effectivve as an alien world, though the filmmakers then ruin the mood by showing the Sphinx, pyramids and a selection of hieroglyphs alongside reintroducing the voice-of-god narrator, making it seem that we have wandered into a Chariots of the Gods type documentary. At this point the musical accompaniment also switches to the portentous horror-movie tones of Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue.

This proves, shortly afterwards, to be the cue for the introduction of a half dozen figures on horseback, They are either skeletons, in the manner of the Blind Dead, or merely men with skeleton designs, in the manner of the Marsh Phantoms of Captain Clegg.

Whatever the case, they are hostile and charging at our heroes. This leads to a long melee sequence in which our heroes prove adept at martial arts, while the filmmakers again illustrate their ineptitude by making it appear more as if the protagonists have been attacked by 20 or 30 riders. Taking two horses, they gallop to the accompaniment of the Indiana Jones theme. This is intercut with monsters jumping out in extreme close-up before us; exactly where these monsters are in relation to the two riders is unclear.

The men’s horses are then shot out from under them by some Cylon-B-grade robots and taken to a cliff-front settlement where the villains are torturing and murdering the locals, including the aforementioned head-crushing robot. On seeing this our heroes break free of their bonds and proceed to use their martial arts skills, as the Indiana Jones theme is again played.

Though suffering some injuries at the hands of the villains, they manage to drive them off and then have their wounds tended by a village woman. The playing of the Indiana Jones love theme and a shot-reverse-shot pattern of close-ups indicates an attraction between the woman and one of the men.

Love springs eternal, even in an unintentionally surreal Turkish Trash Masterpiece...

All this is only in the first twenty-odd minutes of the film. It runs an-hour-and-a-half.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Beyond the Darkness

With the Beyond the Darkness title stemming from a Joe D’Amato film and the subtitle cult, horror and extreme cinema, the typical reader of this blog can probably expect that Phil Russell’s book is going to be of interest to them, whether as a source of new films to track down and see or to simply see how another fan’s tastes diverge and converge with your own.

Rather than plunging straight into the alphabetised reviews of roughly 160 titles across 420 or so pages, Russell sets out his criteria in the introduction: No, this is not a comprehensive discussion of cult, horror and extreme cinema, nor could it ever be. No, this is not an “entry level” book, where no prior knowledge is expected.

At this point the prospective reader might wonder what “entry level” means and whether they are just going to get another discussion of, say, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer or The Beyond. Well, yes, both these titles are present and correct.

Crucially, however, the wide geographical and temporal range in the films discussed, from North America, Europe, and East Asia, and from the late 1950s to the present, should mean there are titles you haven’t seen or may not even have heard of.

Another important factor here is the gamut of positions the films discussed occupy in relation to art, auteur, experimental and/or exploitation cinemas. This is sometimes seen within a single film (e.g. Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Nacho Cerda’s Aftermath) and sometimes within the broader career of a given auteur (e.g. David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future to Shivers to Dead Ringers).

Importantly, Russell also here establishes his limits, particularly around the inclusion of actual death footage. Accordingly those expecting a run through of interminable Faces/Traces of Death sequels may be disappointed.

The reviews themselves are informative and even-handed, avoiding fan-boy type hyperbole, whilst still often couched in Joe Bob-Briggs type language. There’s a levelling effect, where Jesus Franco’s “Bloody Moon is far from being a masterpiece but is entertaining from start to finish” whilst Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch is essentially a hit or miss affair”

In addition to the reviews there are also some longer pieces, such as a reprint of the Cinema of Transgression’s manifesto and an interview with Nick Zedd, or a discussion of horror and censorship in late Franco Spain.

Some apparent misspellings (“Marchians” for Martians in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars) and awkwardness in the formatting (though no worse than other print-on-demand type titles I’ve seen) aside Beyond the Darkness can be recommended.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Tell Them They're Dead

A giallo-inspired trailer from Lee Stokes; sure he would appreciate some feedback from you.

Monday, 4 March 2013


Though preceded by a title card indicating that the makers of Naughty! merely wish to present the facts around their subject matter, pornography, there can be little doubt where their loyalties lie and that this disclaimer was a convenient defence with regard to the censors. Put otherwise, this is the British equivalent of the US White Coater, that type of porn film which was allowed because of claims to be educational or otherwise have redeeming social value.

One moment in the present day which is particularly interesting socio-culturally is when the filmmakers (complete with phallic, as penetrating, hand-held camera) enter into a ‘bookshop’ and encounter the angry manager, before his responsible attitude is explained (i.e. not for minors) and then, having won his trust, they are permitted into the back shop. There we can briefly but clearly see a magazine cover showing an erect penis and two women fixated upon it in a pornutopian way.

All the vox-pop interviews ostensibly caught unrehearsed are in favour of porn, while the remarks of luminaries such as Al Goldstein and John Lindsay are unchallenged by anyone from the anti-camp, nor by the filmmakers. The filmmakers could have likely sought out existing footage from those opposed to porn or even interviewed some of them. That they didn’t, to make a Mary Long (cf: Deep Purple) appear even more ridiculous is indicative of a degree of restraint which strengthens their position.

If the filmmakers have an enemy it is less those who are opposed to pornography on principle than those whose position is a hypocritical one of public virtue and private vice, most notably the Victorians and, by extension, their contemporary counterparts. On the Victorians the filmmakers provide some informative material on those ‘Other Victorians’, as Steven Marcus notably termed then, even if their reconstructions frequently fail to convince.

Regardless of this, these reconstructions at least have the advantage of being in a broadly common language and only a few generations back. Accordingly they contrast favourably with a digression into ancient Greece, on the role of the (female) prostitute in the society and the normalcy of (male) homosexuality.

What’s largely lacking here are discussions of how the term pornography was itself a Victorian-era construction from Greek, as the writings of or about prostitutes, and of how (male) homosexual relationships appear to have been strongly determined by age and class, in terms of who was doing what to whom, or in Goatse terms the giver and the receiver. In this regard, another issue is the predictable syllogism of gay = camp within this section. In fairness to Long, however, he did have another crack of the whip with 1974’s On the Game.

The subject matter tends to preclude analysis of the direction, acting and so on. On balance I would say the contributions of those before and behind the camera are satisfactory, given that the important thing was getting the film in the can and out to theatres as soon as possible rather than producing a masterpiece for all time.

Library music is used, including the famous Gonk cue later featured in Dawn of the Dead.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Aenigma fanzine

The look of this new fanzine by Nigel Maskell, of Italian Film Review, is deliberately low-fi and retro, the text being done in a typewriter font where the g’s have the descender filled in with ink and the occasional word is struck through or inserted in pencil, and then appearing as it has been cut out and pasted onto the background, with the result then being photocopied. There’s no colour, excepting the use of red card for the cover.

Anyone who remembers old punk-era, pre DTP zines, or who now reads Cinema Sewer or Rick Trembles’ Motion Picture Purgatory will feel right at home.

Nigel begins with a childhood memory of seeing Asylum whilst on holiday and how it led into horror and then Eurohorror. Following a brief digression into Joan Blondell – a digression that works thanks to the stream of consciousness style of the writing – we’re then onto five of the great Italian horror shock endings, namely Zombie/Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond, Rabid Dogs, To Be Twenty and 'Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.

Next up is a review of The Beast in Heat, in which the brilliant description of the titular Beast – "a Luciano-Pigozzi headed Ron Jeremy figure in a Luis Guzman mask" – pretty much tells those of us in the know all we need to know, that Nigel knows his stuff.

Following this is a piece on Cannibal Holocaust that’s partly about the film and partly about the late lamented video culture in the UK. Nigel’s analysis of documentary authenticity and the wider history of animal cruelty is good, though I would have added in a nod to Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, as a foundational documentary that is nevertheless misrepresentative, sensationalist and exploitative at points. I’d also say more about the score: while effective and mentioned diegetically I feel it detracts from the effectiveness of the whole.

The discussion of Zombie Flesh Eaters is similar: Part a discussion of the film, part the author’s reactions to it and the influence it has had on his life.

All in all, if you’re a reader of this blog, you should find plenty in Aenigma. If you don’t, well, as the masthead proclaims, with a reference to Welsh band Super Furry Animals, “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck”

Available from

Friday, 1 March 2013

Mr. Towers of London: A Life in Show Business

Harry Alan Towers was a British-born, peripatetic film producer probably best known for the Fu Manchu series starring Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin, and his collaborations with director Jess Franco, these also often featuring Towers’ partner Maria Rohm. And, one would imagine, that is the main selling point for this autobiography.

The first thing that struck me, reading the back cover blurb, was a somewhat schizoid split: At the top, in larger sized letters there is the unattributed remark “Makes Jackie Collins look like Dr Seuss”. Underneath, in smaller type, there is a blurb by Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog. I can only assume that some of those who saw the book sight unseen would pick it up for the Collins quote and that some of them would then buy it, while those who know about Towers or recognise Lucas’s name would buy it sight unseen, as I did after seeing Lucas mention it on Facebook. Whatever the case, it’s a classic example of knowing how to exploit different markets that Towers himself would surely have been proud of.

There seem to have been two reasons why Towers waited until so late in his life to publish his memoirs. First, during the rest of the time he was just too busy wheeling and dealing and getting things done to write them; if he was writing it would be a script under his pen-name of Peter Welbeck. Second, Towers clearly knew a lot of things about a lot of important people that could have proven legally actionable were they or he still alive.

In this regard, the most important event in Towers’ life (besides meeting Rohm, to whom the book is dedicated) was the time he was arrested in the USA for his alleged involvement in a prostitition racket. Whether Towers was or was not -- he otherwise makes no secret of his knowledge of the vice trade at the time -- the scandal looked likely to ruin him. Moreover, by skipping bail he set up a Polanski-like situation of being unable to return to the country and thus the centre of the film industry (at least in the west).

Given this, it is no surprise that Towers ended up making films pretty much anywhere else in the world he could. In this regard his wanderings also present close parallels with two of the major figures in his memoirs, namely the aforementioned Franco and Orson Welles. This, in turn, helps us intuitively understand Franco’s enthusiasm for Welles, along with his being tasked with second unit work on Chimes at Midnight and subsequently reconstructing Welles’s Don Quixote. Equally, however, one also gets a sense of a key difference between the two men and thus Towers’ dealings with them: Whereas Welles was someone who had a tendency to abandon projects, leaving them in an unfinished state, Franco is someone who can be relied upon to complete a film, for better or worse.

Indeed, if anything, Towers suggests that Franco could sometimes be too efficient, noting an incident when, on a trip to Brazil, the director managed to finish work a week early -- no mean feat given what must have already been a tight shooting schedule -- and so spent the surplus time shooting some footage that became the basis for another film.

Elsewhere, Towers provides some commentary on the Salkinds’ Musketeers films, noting how their cleverly using the term project rather than film in their contracts enabled them to get two films out of a cast and crew who thought they had only been employed for one.

He also amusingly comments on how the services of Klaus Kinski were acquired for Justine and Count Dracula. In the former case, Kinski’s scenes as De Sade were shot in the one day that his per diem could be afforded, while in the latter Kinski, having initially announced that he would not appear in a Dracula film, was sent a copy of the script that concentrated upon his unnamed part and excised all references to Dracula, Renfield and so forth.

While my comments obviously concentrate on those aspects of Towers’ life and work that are particularly germane to my own interests and, presumably, most of those who read this blog, it is worth pointing out that they cover the whole of his life, including his earlier periods as a theatre, radio and television producer.

A giallo inspired short to check out

Here, via Vimeo.

Also let Ryan know what you think.