Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor's Crank (2006)

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's Crank (2006) is my favorite superhero-cum-antihero film of recent years. Villian Ricky Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo), often decked out in Joker-ish purple, has left our antihero, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), a sweet gift: a dvd labeled "Fuck You." As Chev grabs his heart, he watches himself incapacitated on the tube while Verona is giving him an injection of poison of the Chinese-synthetic type, guaranteed to deliver a slow painful death. Shit-talking Verona smirks and wishes our antihero "good-bye," while Chelios summons about every ounce of anger in his body. He hits the streets in his vintage wheels off to kill Verona in the most heart-racingly fashion as possible.
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, a talented writing and directing duo, create a film in video-game, comic-book fashion, which others have tried unsuccessfully, that has all of the alluring aspects of the styles' aesthetics combined with an extremely literate script. The duo wrote an excellent script for the dark thriller, Pathology (2008), directed by Marc Schölermann, which was hampered slightly by a stiff leading actor but was nonetheless a terrific film. Crank, their debut film as writers and directors, initially appears as the type of film geared towards the ADD crowd but it's too focused to be written off as such. The visuals and audio are cutting-edge quality and technology, and the duo integrates myriad styles into the film. Crank has enough retro qualities to prevent the film from being too glossy; and of course, its humor, which is dark and often nasty and very funny, is Crank's biggest allure. Most of the humor is delivered by antihero Chelios in a stellar performance by Statham.
A man on a mission, Chelios is off to look for Verona. At a nearby club, one of Verona's would-be accomplices doesn't know where Verona is but is able to give Chelios some coke and with a little angry attitude, Chelios picks a fight with the club's patrons. The coke and the aggression give our antihero some pep, and when shady Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam) gives him his cell-phone diagnosis that the poison will kill him if he slows down, Chelios knows that he has to keep a furious pace up in order to exact his revenge. Doc recommends epinephrine, so it's off to the hospital.
Crank opens with a first-person p.o.v., hits the streets for the quick cuts and fast pace in Chelios's vintage wheels (or on foot), which include a trip through the mall Blues Brothers-style, goes underwater for a quick underworld meeting, saturated colors litter interiors, on-screen text beyond subtitles (does Chelios look like he has what written on his forehead), and of course, a bit of blood is going to spray and stream, including the best use of a body shield since Governor Schwarzenegger's stint in Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990). This is just a sample of Neveldine and Taylor's visuals, and their use of audio is both a superior accompaniment and an accomplishment on its own. Some of the fun stuff is watching Chelio's heart slow down before he bursts back into action. With a nifty dissolve, the camera x-rays his chest to show a couple slow pumps but its the heartbeats which ring in the viewer's ears. The audio of the heartbeats throughout Crank are not only a signal of Chelios's mortality but a nifty cue for the next exciting action sequence which often tops the preceding one. The music is a fantastic mix of odd and old jingles from Quiet Riot, an extremely humorous use of Billy Ray Cyrus's "Achy Breaky Heart," Loverboy, and NOFX, for example. Mixed into the soundtrack are little audio touches that break the "fourth wall," such as the use of reverb, cd-skipping sounds on some audio, and classic video game blips. Not least of all, the sound design and construction of the duration of the film would give any mixing board or speakers a work out and it's an impressive display of sound.
Most of the offbeat humor and detail of specific sequences in Crank should really be experienced by its viewer and not related here. I will say however, that Statham gives a tour-de-force performance in Neveldine and Taylor's true coup d'etat of cinema. Statham gives Chelios a sharp and sardonic edge combined with a ferocious intensity and feeling. His soft bits come with his girlfriend, Eve (Amy Smart), and the two actors have an immediate on-screen chemistry. The lighter humor, still punctuated by some nasty bits, comes with these two characters who also deliver one of Crank's most audacious scenes. The dialogue between Chelios and Verona is priceless, as each manages to push the right button to infuriate the other. Their trash talking becomes a version of boys in the schoolyard armed with machine-gun wit. In between all of the fun stuff in Crank, Neveldine and Taylor litter the scenery and random shots with some truly odd compositions. The action sequences are phenomenal, and Crank's overall dark and perverse edge is extremely intriguing and attractive.Neveldine and Taylor delivered a sequel to Crank in 2009 and their forthcoming Gamer (2009) is one of my most-anticipated cinema trips this year. Crank is punk rock cinema played at high volume. I absolutely love this film. See it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mario Caiano's Bloody Payroll (1976)

Claudio Cassinelli is Raul "The Cat" Montalbani in Mario Caiano's Bloody Payroll (1976). As its English-language title suggests, Montalbani and his crew (including a drug-addicted psycho, Fausto (John Steiner)) head to a local corporation to rob its payroll money, and also as its English-title suggests, the heist doesn't go well. The crew of four manage to smack the employees around a little bit while collecting the dough. The police arrive and two of the crew get away, leaving Montalbani and Fausto inside. The police give chase to the fleeing two, while a hostage standoff happens at the corporation. The two make a successful getaway, along with all of the cash from the heist. Montalbani convinces the police to exchange the hostages for a getaway car and safe passage. The police agree, even though Montalbani's killed one of the hostages and thrown his corpse out the window. With two hostages in tow, Montalbani and Fausto exit, only to inadvertently get spotted by patrolling officers at a gas station. Fausto and Montalbani split. Fausto dies and Montalbani's pissed. This is just the beginning: Bloody Payroll is about get bloodier, as Montalbani's out to get his cash and more importantly, revenge.
Along with Weapons of Death (1977), Mario Caiano delivers with Bloody Payroll, two of the best films of the Italian Eurocrime genre in the 70s. Claudio Cassinelli is one bad motherfu**er as "The Cat," who doesn't care about anybody or anything, except getting his money. Anyone who has seen him play cops, such as in Massimo Dallamano's What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974) or little-seen and underrated Umberto Lenzi's Free Hand for a Tough Cop (1976), knows that good-looking and unassuming Cassinelli can play intense and focused. However, when he's on the other side of the law, his character becomes downright nasty. The two thugs that's he's after aren't angels, either; they're going around killing the ones who knew about the heist and their current whereabouts. If Raul manages to find them, they plan on killing him, too. Fortunately for Raul, he finds the getaway-car supplier's girlfriend before his cohorts do. Her name is Leila, played by Silvia Dionisio. She's a pro, and Raul picks her up while she's working. Thinking he's a john, she takes Raul back to her apartment and Raul roughs her up. She gives up the location of the hiding two heisters. Raul's off to confront them, but still, Bloody Payroll has much more to play out.The score is by Gianfranco Plenizio and it's a swinging jazzy score, almost dated by a decade. Save Silvia Dionisio's performance, it's about the only sweet thing in this production. Bloody Payroll is gritty and violent. Even the police scenes, as they track Raul, are played without theatrics: the cops move with an intense investigative focus (also totally credible), because they know how dangerous the criminals are. Caiano drops in some cold compositions that really stick with the viewer:
Caiano also really shows a command of the action sequences of which there are several. The car chase scene after the heist is phenomenal: he uses multiple shots with some crafty editing to make this one (and I've seen a bunch) one of the most exciting that I've ever seen. The violence is hard-hitting and Raul's character (and Cassinelli's performance) is a perfect vehicle for it: one way or the other, he's going to get what he wants. Dionisio's Leila is also an interesting character: she latches on to Raul because she believes he's strong enough to take her out of her current life and into a better one. She's truly incredulous that someone could be so cold and uncaring, even after she plays loving nursemaid and on-call lover to him. Dionisio is a fine actress with some of my favorite performances in Paul Morrissey's Blood for Dracula (1974), and Ruggero Deodato's Wave of Lust (1975), alongside Al Cliver and John Steiner. Bloody Payroll doesn't really roll on what's unexpected: its execution is just done unexpectedly well. See it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Herman Yau's Gong Tau (2007)

Four different opening visual sequences at the beginning:
1. Black and white credit sequences intercut between:

2. A sexy nude woman doing a seductive dance for an unknown onlooker.
3. An intruder in a home, shot partially from the intruder's p.o.v., who disturbingly looks in upon a sleeping baby and then upon a sleeping adult.
4. The beautiful and ominous image of rain at night with a police officer descending the stairs with a title card which reads "Seven Days Later."

These are:

1. Eerie foreshadowing of the visceral and atmospheric horror to come, both disturbing and compelling;
2. A primer of the themes of HK Category III films;
3. The beginning of Gong Tau (2007) by Herman Yau, one of HK's most exciting film makers; and
4. All of the above.

Gong Tau is Chinese black magic. Here we go:

At the police station, Fat Wah is being interrogated by officer Rockman Cheung (Mark Cheng) about a criminal from Malaysia named Lam Chiu (Tak-bun Wong), who thirteen years previously, Cheung shot and arrested for bank robbery. Lam Chiu was released a year ago after a twelve-year sentence, and the police think that Lam Chiu is currently up to no good. Lam Chiu could be pissed about Cheung's shooting him: Lam Chiu's injury left him without the ability to feel physical pain. Cheung gets a cell-phone call from his frantic wife, while Cheung's superior, Sum (Suet Lam) is about to spring Fat Wah for lack of evidence. Cheung's wife is afraid of being alone in the rain, while their newborn baby sleeps in his crib. Cheung should go home, but Sum says that it's Uncle Bill's last night on the job. He's currently standing in the rain, on patrol, at a call box, while Sum and the fellas at the police station have him on speaker phone. Quick cuts show disturbing imagery of chanting and altar-worshipping. Cheung's wife becomes overcome by pain; his baby dies; and Uncle Bill meets an hooded stranger in the rain. Sum and company hear gunshots from Uncle Bill's end of the cell phone. Bill's found strung up in a tree, and Cheung goes home to find his wife in hysterics and an extreme amount of pain and his child dead. Cheung thinks the cop-killing is the work of Lam Chiu, and while Sum doesn't disagree with him, Sum also believes the child murder is the work of black magic. Cheung's wife, Karpi (Maggie Siu) is hexed, and Lam Chiu is targeting Cheung in an act of revenge.This is the initial set up for Gong Tau, and for the viewer who is willing to go further, an exciting thriller plays out with truly horrific and unexpected elements. Be forewarned: the act of infanticide is truly disturbing and is not hidden away from the camera. About every bodily fluid produced by the human body is released, spilled, and cooked and rendered in Gong Tau, and at times, the imagery is truly repellent. However, Gong Tau is an amazingly well-scripted thriller also which is as compelling to watch as it is, at times, disturbingly repellent. The visuals are often brilliant, as well as the pacing and performances. Cheung is a character torn: his wife needs him both emotionally and physically but his anger is propelling him towards finding the killer. Sum puts his hand on his shoulder at the window in a fraternal quiet scene at the police station. Sum begins to tell Cheung about the Gong Tau, and then BAM! a cop comes from atop the stairs and says Lam Chiu is on the phone asking for Cheung. With a nifty audio cue and quick camera follow up the stairs, within seconds Yau changes the tone and ups the excitement. Not only is Cheung's character torn emotionally, it is later revealed that he has quite the interesting recent past. This revelation moves the film in an entirely different direction and was unexpected and quite welcomed.Yau's talent visually is apparent. Still in demand as a cinematographer for others' productions (for example, Dennis Law's Fatal Contact (2006) and Fatal Move (2008), who also executive-produced, here), Yau demonstrates with Gong Tau his mastery of the use of light and dark, effectively at the foreshadowing at the beginning and in the very intense final act. The lighting is so well-done in Gong Tau that it looks as if Yau pointed at the shadows and said, "You sit there," and to the light, "You stay there." His camera movement appropriately captures the emotion of a scene: true visual storytelling. When the goings on in Gong Tau are quiet, I was never prepared for any of the shifts in tone and was literally at the edge of my seat. Finally, there are some scenes that I can't describe why they are so effective. One scene stands out: a drug deal of two men both in hoodies. What the two are dealing ain't the typical street ones (at least not on my block). The hoodies are common attire, but the overwhelming feeling of the exchange is extremely creepy. Superficially, it's just two guys talking in a dark alley in a static shot: I don't know, but maybe, Yau's got his own visual mojo working.Maggie Siu is really vulnerable as Cheung's wife, Karpi: her character has to experience the majority of the terror and also bear the strongest pain and emotions. In a fantastic scene with Cheng, the two parents let their emotions out about the death of their child. It's raw and genuine and it's a scene which takes Gong Tau completely out of the sensational and exploitative arena. Johnnie To-regular, Suet Lam is one of the best actors working in Hong Kong today: Lam has a true command of the entire dramatic range of emotions and is entirely charismatic on screen. He's phenomenal. Tak-bun Wong's performance as Lam Chiu deserves praise as well: his character is appropriately sleazy but has some real depth as well.Once again, with Gong Tau, Herman Yau proves he's one of the most talented working in Hong Kong today. No matter what the subject matter or the budget, Yau cannot hide his talent, and I'll be damned if his films aren't exciting.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ferdinando Baldi's War Bus (1985)

The little yellow school bus. It inspires images of happy and laughing children, going to and coming from school, and LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow. It's truly jarring to imagine one in the middle of the jungle, during the Vietnam War, specifically its end with the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The little yellow school bus is filled with missionaries and mercenaries and a South Vietnamese major: their mission and school has been overrun by North Vietnamese forces, shown in an exciting firefight at the beginning. With a little fuel, some wire mesh on the windows, and few bullets, the motley crew escapes the clutches of the North Vietnamese. A few twists and turns and the bus stops. Three marines emerge from the jungle led by Sgt. Dixie (Daniel Stephen) and they are going to commandeer the bus. The marines have been separated from their platoon and desperately need to find a friendly base to withdraw from the combat zone. Major, says Sgt. Dixie, since there's no more joint command, we're taking this bus. And going to get into some adventures, too, in Ferdinando Baldi's War Bus (1985).War Bus runs on emotion and simplicity: the thinnest of plotlines to tie together the action sequences, with some very clever touches however, and characters, dialogue, and imagery to inspire empathy/sympathy to all of the film's participants (save the North Vietnamese Army). After successfully commandeering the bus, the marines turn the bus south, away from enemy territory. The trio has a tip that there's still a friendly base nearby and want to check it out. Major Kutran (Ernie Zarate) wants to help the marines make a quick exit, so he can get himself and the others to safety. The bus has little fuel and really cannot make it anywhere far like Da Nang. After a botched crossing at a river bank, lined with landmines, the marine trio splits on foot to explore the nearby base, while the bus coasts on fumes going nowhere fast. The marines discover after nightfall, that the base is now in the hands of the enemy, and completely desperate, the three attack the base in an exciting sequence filled with stealthy kills, gunfire, and grenade explosions to get another vehicle. The little yellow school bus arrives to rescue the marines when the fight becomes too heavy. The marines escape on the bus, having also gained some drums of fuel and some friends: realizing that the terrain is too uncertain with unexpected hostility nearly everywhere, all have to unite to survive.
Veteran Italian genre director, Ferdinando Baldi creates a real Italian 80s action classic with War Bus. Baldi like his contemporaries cut his teeth on Westerns and made some great ones: Texas, addio (1966) with Franco Nero, Hate Thy Neighbor (1968) with George Eastman, and perhaps his most well-known, the strange and unique Blindman (1971) with Tony Anthony, for example. One of his most notorious films is the George Eastman-scripted Terror Express (1979), a Last House on the Left-ish sleaze picture set on a train, starring lovely Silvia Dionisio. Indisputably, Baldi can craft action and bring strong emotion and delivers with War Bus. In one of the best sequences of the film, the bus stops at a mountainside and notices dead marines tied to stakes, littered on the mountainside. Unfortunately, the marines cannot free their dead comrades, because the corpses have all been filled with explosives as a trap. Angered and inspired, they decide to ignite the traps to free their comrades' souls, and this emotional scene segues into another exciting fire fight with the North Vietnamese.With the little downtime from the action sequences in the approximately eighty-minute film, Baldi fills War Bus with scenes of sexual tension between the females and males on the bus, blossoming romance between some, and moments of pure emotion, such as when a missionary tells her story about why she became who she is. While the characters' emotions are not really complex, they are certainly pure; and when the conclusion builds to its crescendo, in another exciting firefight, the emotions of camaraderie fuel the exciting final explosive action. Setting the film during the withdrawal of U.S. troops during the Vietnam War is a nice creative touch: none of the characters know what is lurking around any of the jungle, so every encounter is unexpected. The setting also makes all of the characters desperate: since the War is nearly over, there are no two sides fighting a war: "it's every man for himself." The characters' union isn't inherently born from the plot, it's actually created from their actions. Exciting and action-packed, War Bus is fantastic 80s action from Italy. Well worth seeking out for fans of the genre. See it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fernando di Leo's The Violent Breed (1984)

"Children, don't be frightened...I'm here to take you home," says CIA operative, Kirk Cooper (Henry Silva). Cooper's leading a secret mission to free some hostage children, smack during the middle of the Vietnam War, along with his operative buddies, Mike Martin (Harrison Muller) and Polo (Woody Strode). Surreptitiously, the crew gets in successfully, rescues the children, and takes out the enemy. Unfortunately, Silva's Cooper takes a bullet in the chest. Mike and Polo stop to do some roadside surgery on Cooper on the way to the rendez-vous. Before exiting, Polo takes Mike and Cooper's rifles and tells them that he's staying in Vietnam. Mike and Cooper split. "Why didn't he kill us?" asks Mike. "That was a mistake," answers Cooper.
Cut to modern times, e.g. 1984, in New York for Fernando di Leo's The Violent Breed (1984), one of the last films from one of the finest Italian directors of his time. The opening war sequence set up a very intriguing story, at least on paper: Silva's Cooper has risen to the top of the CIA, while Strode's Polo has become very successful in Southeast Asia. Polo runs a ring located near the Cambodia/Thailand/Laos borders, where he buys arms from the KGB to sell to Cambodian guerrillas who use the arms against Chinese-trained Vietnamese. Polo takes his profits to buy drugs in Thailand and sells them to the mafia, who distribute the drugs in the US. Muller's Mike is in the middle and is the typical di Leo protagonist: happy-go-lucky by nature but caught in between the exertion of power from both sides (here Cooper and Polo). When the pressure of the powers comes upon him, Mike, in di Leo fashion is going to play a bit: be evasive when confronted, confrontational when it's unexpected, violent and/or loving when necessary, and live life as if it's his last day. So when Silva summons Mike in for a game of handball and shop talk, Mike asks Cooper: so what do you want me to do about Polo? Deliver a message for me, says Cooper.Mike is sleeping with sexy Sharon Morris (Carole André) and doesn't tell her what he does for a living. Sharon's sunbathing when Mike tells her that he's going to be gone for a while, can't tell her where he is going, or when he is coming back. Expectedly mad, Sharon tells Mike that she won't be here when he gets back. Mike flies off to Bangkok to meet with his contact, Madame Fra (Danika La Loggia) of the local whorehouse which supplies Polo's camp with ladies; and isn't Mike surprised when down in the lobby of his hotel, Sharon meets Mike for a beer. Mike's expectedly mad and takes out for his mission. While at the whorehouse, Mike meets a pretty local prostitute and takes a bath. The next morning, on foot and in his jeans and t-shirt, Mike walks to Polo's camp, only to get ambushed and captured. Polo walks in on Mike and asks him as if he's seen him just yesterday, "What are you doing here Mike?" Mike wants to make an offer.
During the 1980s action films with political and social themes were nothing new (e.g. Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982) or Joseph Zito's Missing in Action (1984)). Di Leo's cinema is full of his unique socio-political views, not least of all, his total disdain for conformity and authority. Silva's always shown smiling and on the phone and well-dressed, while Polo's always with a machine gun, often in a hurry, and a man of few words: in one scene, a henchman picks up Polo from a business meeting with the Russians en route to meet the captured Mike. In the jeep, Polo spies some locals on the side of the road and the two have this exchange:
Polo: Who are they?
Henchman: Oh, farmers who don't like working in the fields or try to sell their own or just don't produce much.
Polo: Well?
Henchman: They're supposed to be shot.
Polo: What are you waiting for?
Henchman: Your order.
Strode's Polo stands from the passenger seat of the jeep and guns down the locals. It's a defining scene for his character, but you can also get the sense of how di Leo views those in power (also it's a two to three shot take showing di Leo's mastery of a low budget). Mike, with his murder eminent by Polo and/or the Russians, asks for a beer, preferably a cold one. He also asks Polo, unequivocally and sincerely, you want to untie me? Mike doesn't question Polo or Cooper's motive: they're two sides of power of the same coin. Mike's really like everyone else just caught in the middle of the two's struggle and it's typically meaningless to try to win. The offer that Mike wants to make is unknown as to whether its genuine. Even if the offer's genuine, it probably is not going to matter. Mike's acceptance and/or rejection of his role in this power struggle can be seen by the viewer in the film's final scene.
Not only did the 1980s bring socially- and politically-minded action films, the cinema also did and was expected to, bring the action sequences. The bigger the better the explosions and more bullets, the merrier. The Violent Breed falls short in this area and is probably why it is one of the least regarded in di Leo's canon. Save the opening rescue sequence, where the characters are wearing the local threads from the army surplus store and playing soldiers, a brief martial arts exhibition by Mike on some unexpected guests outside his Bangkok hotel room, and the final sequence, where Mike takes on Polo and company, the action sequences lack the money for the big explosions. The action of The Violent Breed can't quite compare to its Italian or American contemporaries.Silva and Strode are reunited from their earlier di Leo collaboration, Manhunt (1972), where they played a pair of nasty hitmen. Muller and Strode made two films together in 1984, this one and one of the better films to come out of the Italian post-apocalyptic wasteland, Romolo Guerrieri's The Final Executioner. The Violent Breed is only for the diehard di Leo fans.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ruggero Deodato's Body Count (1987)

Ruggero Deodato's cinema is a combination of immorality, perversity, and fun. Who is having the fun, whether it's Deodato or the viewer, is intuitive. His films' extreme subject matter often overshadow his aesthetics: for example in perhaps his most infamous, notorious, and well-known film, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), accompanying the truly extreme violence was a vast array of masterful visuals, an even-more masterful use of Riz Ortolani's score, and most impressive, the narrative technique, never-topped, of viewer manipulation and image juxtaposition: think of the smile on the documentarian's face as he looks upon the impaled victim. Or think of the smile on the face of Marc Porel in Deodato's sole entry into the crime genre of the 70s and also one of its masterpieces, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976). What's he looking at? The corpse of the criminal he chased down. How about the pile of corpses at the feet of reporter Fran Hudson (Lisa Blount) in Deodato's nasty Cut and Run (1985)? Her reaction is also atypical. I could go on and on and I plan on revisiting several of Deodato's films here, but let's begin with his little-known film which few like entitled Body Count (1987) and head to the slasher's camp site.
Dr. Olsen (John Steiner) is the doctor for the school's basketball team. His daughter, Rose (Clelia Fradella) wants to go to the local camping grounds for a couple of hours but promises to be back before dark. Daddy doesn't like the camp site, but since she promises to be back before dark, he agrees. A couple of hours is just enough time for her to do the nasty with her fella, and night falls before she knows it. The camping grounds have recently been purchased by Robert and Julia Ritchie (David Hess and Mimsy Farmer, respectively). Julia's not too happy about the purchase (or really her marriage). Julia loves her young son, Ben, and has some roving eyes for Sheriff Charlie (Charles Napier). Robert is happy with the land purchase: supposedly located on Indian burial grounds where a Shaman put a curse upon it. Robert thinks the story is a bunch of crap: that is until Ms. Rose Olsen is sliced and diced that very evening. Was that a police cruiser in the background?
Cut to fifteen years later. Ben Ritchie (Nicola Farron) is a grown man and returning home to the camp site from his stint in the army. He's gratefully picked up on the side of the road by a bunch of teenagers in a Winnie. The group is out to have some fun, and Ben just knows his parents will be all right with their staying at the campgrounds. Meanwhile, Dave (Bruce Penhall) is rolling up the campgrounds on his radical motorbike with his buddy and his girlfriend. Julia is elated to see her son. Robert, not so much: Hess's Robert looks a little glazed over and crazy and these damned kids are bound to cause trouble. Robert has a confrontation on the side of the road with Sheriff Charlie: Charlie tells Robert to stop setting deadly traps on his property. Robert does what he wants with his property, because he knows the sinister Shaman's somewhere lurking and he's going to get him. By the way, says Robert, leave my wife alone, if you know better.
Anyone familiar with 80s horror knows its slasher film: dumb teenagers, bad acting, ridiculous and haphazard plot, some gore and a copious amount of female flesh. Body Count does not stray far from its contemporaries; however, Deodato throws his talent into the mix. David Hess, with whom Deodato worked previously on House on the Edge of the Park (1980), is really let go. With all due respect to Mr. Hess, he can really play nasty and disturbed characters. His performance as Robert doesn't disappoint: there are several scenes where it appears Hess has truly "lost it." In one scene, which has to be seen to be believed, a fat naked teenager runs in screaming "orgy" on Robert and Julia having a quiet dinner alone. The look on Hess's face is priceless when the fattie slips on the floor only to get up and rush out the door. The majority of the gore and the nudity is located at a rundown and nasty hunter's cabin, where the group of teenagers have made into a makeshift shower. The hunter's cabin becomes a den of sin for all its participants, both killer and victims, and Deodato puts so much energy into them, you'd think he's cast an evil spell over the location. The obligatory chase scenes are the visual highlight: with steadicam work, Deodato goes around trees and with the foilage and some creative editing, when the victim takes the expected fall, it really has an impact on the viewer. Deodato's flavor just drips throughout this production: Penhall's Dave is a great example: although his buddy, in a very humorous scene, and his girlfriend fall as the first young victims, well, hey, everything's going to be all right. Dave still has his radical motorbike and the opportunity to hang out and get laid: maybe with a couple of the girls.
The adults in this production are all Eurocult regulars and some are legends: David Hess, Mimsy Farmer, John Steiner, Ivan Rassimov, and Charles Napier. Hess worked previously with Deodato on House and Pasquale Festa Campanile's fantastically nasty Hitch-hike (1977), for example. Farmer appeared previously in Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), and Armando Crispino's trippy Autopsy (1975), alongside Ray Lovelock, for example. Deodato, like Hess, lets Farmer go: she has some great emotional scenes, sexual, crazy, and maternal. Steiner, in a small role, here, has numerous credits with some of my favorites in Deodato's Wave of Lust (1975), Mario Bava's Shock (1977), and Dario Argento's Tenebre (1982), for example. Steiner is the consummate professional. Rassimov in an even smaller role (and seemingly his last) is always great to watch. Some of my favorite performances are in Edoardo Mulargia's Cjamango (1967), Mario Gariazzo's The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (1974), as Satan, and in a true Deodato masterpiece, Raiders of Atlantis (1983). Napier had the privilege to appear subsequently in Fabrizio de Angelis's The Last Match (1990) and Umberto Lenzi's Cop Target (1990) before returning to Hollywood. Napier with his prominent jaw cannot keep his hands off of Farmer in Body Count. Famed composer Claudio Simonetti delivers a fun and synthy score that screams 80s.
When I initially saw Body Count years ago, I thought it was poor knock-off of the myriad of horror films that I had grown up with in the 80s. Since then, I've grown to know Deodato better and can really see him in this film. Interesting stuff for Deodato fans and of course, the curious.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jacques Deray's Three Men to Kill (1980)

Jacques Deray and Alain Delon made nine films together with a few of my favorites being The Swimming Pool (1970) with Delon alongside beautiful and talented Romy Schneider, The Gang (1977), a period-piece gangster picture which sees Delon get amazingly animated at times, and this one, Three Men to Kill (1980). In an opening sequence at a chateau outside of Paris, a group of old white men in dapper suits are watching a promotional film for a jet fighter with a new missile capability. The group concludes their meeting with the possibility of a sale of the armaments, but there are grumbles from three of the group as to the possible quality of the goods. Nonetheless, they disband peacefully as the evening has grown late. As one of the group leaves the chateau en route to Paris, he passes a slow-moving car which Michel Gerfaut (Delon) is driving. Gerfaut waves the car by and then allows another speeding car to pass him. Gerfaut stops when he sees the first car crashed against a tree and takes the injured driver to the hospital. Gerfaut does not know the identity of the driver, nor did the man say anything to him. Gerfaut leaves the hospital without giving his name and drives to his poker game in Paris. The injured man is dead from not an accident but from two bullets, and the two men who killed the driver now know Gerfaut's involved (found his identification in his car).
Gerfaut gambles the night away at his poker game, and in the morning at her Paris flat, sexy Bea (Dalila Di Lazzaro) awaits his return. Bea has recently met Gerfaut and knows little about him. He's aloof and quiet, but Bea finds his demeanor endearing. Gerfaut is taking her to a coastal beach community that morning to meet his mother. After the two arrive and Bea is sunbathing on the beach, Gerfaut goes for a swim. He is attacked in the water by two swimmers and is nearly beaten and drowned. Gerfaut narrowly escapes the two's clutches but says nothing to Bea about his attack. While the two are at a cafe having a drink, Gerfaut gets a telephone call at the bar while Bea leaves to go shopping. In a fantastic sequence, Gerfaut takes two steps down the stairs to the alcove where his telephone call is waiting. Deciding that the area appears too opportunistic for an awaiting foe, he takes his call topside. No answer. Gerfaut knows now the beach attack was not random. Gerfaut learns that three men have been killed since last night: one of them was the injured driver whom he helped to the hospital. Leaving Bea at the beachside, Gerfaut heads back to Paris for his next move.
At first blush, Three Men to Kill seems very traditional and typical, as does much of Deray's cinema. However, Deray often creates films which lull the viewer into normalcy and the expected, only to make subtle changes along the way to the traditional narrative to make everything slightly off kilter and different. Gerfaut, upon his arrival to Paris, sees a close friend who is a police officer. His friend offers to escort him home and help him find out the identity of the men after him. In a really masterful and manipulative sequence, Gerfaut sips his Scotch from his seemingly safe Paris apartment. The doorbell rings, and when the police officer goes to look in the peephole, he sees his last image: a bullet. Delon's Gerfaut grabs the dead officer's automatic and gives chase (in the obligatory but very cool car chase).
The joke (or mystery) behind Three Men to Kill is really Gerfaut's identity. As he takes advances on his would-be killers, the viewer asks who's the cat and who's the mouse? Gerfaut seemingly knows his killers' next move before they do. Is it just luck? Gerfaut makes a joke before sitting at his poker game that maybe being a Good Samaritan and helping the injured driver would give him some luck. Are the killers inept? No, the three initial hits are ice-cold and professional and clean, Gerfaut was the deux ex machina in the plan. Even Bea, when questioned about what she knows about Gerfaut, can't relay much: his past is a mystery. She only knows that she is in love with him and that he is a very good gambler. So Deray's joke on the viewer is guessing how good of a gambler Gerfaut is.I love the action scenes in Three Men to Kill and my man-crush for Delon does not wane. His trademark stoic and icy appearance becomes a true asset to his character, and Deray, his frequent collaborator, uses Delon's acting ability well. The peephole hit is a terrific sequence, as are some of the subsequent kills, including a very, very cold and intense one in a hospital bathroom. A good bit of subtle humor is thrown into mix, concerning Gerfaut's identity, and it's a welcome foil to the sometimes intense sequences. Dalila Di Lazzaro's Bea is a wonderful accompanying character to Gerfaut: she's easy-going and breezy but deeply loves Gerfaut and really shows it in a particular scene. Three Men to Kill escalates to its totally unexpected conclusion, and I love the final scene, which just put a big smile on my face. Deray's style and dark humor is not for everyone, but I think the underrated director is quite talented. The unassuming Three Men to Kill ranks as a Delon favorite. See it.

José María Elorrieta's Curse of the Vampyr (1972)

José María Elorrieta is not a name that I really know, not even his pseudonym, Joseph De Lacy, but his film Curse of the Vampyr (1972), I know and love very much. The films of the late 60s and early 70s always make me think of the times during which they were made: the changing of cultural mores with an emphasis on more of the intellectual rather than the spiritual; the awakening of cultural sexuality; and of course, the artistic depiction of all of these changes. Curse of the Vampyr seems to be born from these cultural changes; however, all intellectual discourse or thought aside, it's a fantastic and perverse exploitation film for the sticky-floor crowd, the horror fans, or the young folks sick and tired of their parents' cinema.Perhaps the opening sequence is a signal: an old man is sitting downstairs, relaxing in his robe with a stack of books. From atop the stairs a young blonde woman spies the old man and quietly descends the staircase. When the old man notices her presence, he is shocked by the dagger in her hand but perhaps even more shocked by her revealing smile, showing two fangs. The maidservant must have seen this night coming, because she enters with cross in hand and subdues the beautiful blonde. A stake is driven in her heart in bloody fashion. Cue credits.
The town needs a doctor. Enter Dr. Materlick (Diana Sorel), a gorgeous woman who tells the mayor that she knows he requested a man for the position but her credentials are more than suitable. She is accompanied by her beautiful nurse assistant Erica (Beatriz Elorrieta). Fine, says the mayor, we are glad to have you here. Our locals are of the usual type: irrational and superstitious and fear vampires. Is that a problem?
Before Erica and Dr. Materlick can finish their first glasses of wine, the pair are summoned to the castle by Baron von Rysselbert's manservant. The Baron (Antonio Jiménez Escribano) has had a heart attack. Now, if the Baron was a Count, then he would be a vampire. But he's not, so he ain't. Erica and Dr. Materlick give the Baron treatment and assure the Baron's son, Carl (Nicholas Ney) that his father will be all right. Carl's grateful for Dr. Materlick's help and invites her to stay on at the castle to attend to his father. Dr. Materlick accepts. She notices the two puncture wounds on Carl's neck. How did he get them? the doctor asks. Carl doesn't know, and oh, it's nothing.Typical set-up for a vampire film: old castle, superstitious locals, and the outsider who encounters the vampiric goings-on, only to have to eventually confront and end the evil. To be truthful, I would have watched, and more than likely loved, Curse of the Vampyr if it stayed typical. I doubt, however, that I would have written about it if it was typical. It ain't. The old man from the opening sequence is revealed to be the Baron and the young blonde woman sporting the fangs and dagger is Margaret (Loreta Tovar), his niece and Carl's cousin and lover. Carl reveals candidly to Dr. Materlick that the Baron loved Margaret more than anyone else in the world. In an eerie sequence, the Baron descends to the castle's catacombs where it is revealed the Baron is keeping Margaret's corpse, stake protruding prominently from her chest. In an entrancing slo-mo sequence, Carl and Margaret are seen near the edge of a serene and quiet lake, laughing and chasing each other. Margaret dashes away from her young lover and turns a corner to find a fairly disgusting-looking man with a sheet wrapped around him. Margaret is quickly under the spell of the disgusting-man's gaze who then bites her neck. Carl finds Margaret laying nude on a patch of grass. He goes to lovingly embrace her, and Margaret gives him the kiss of the undead.
Intrigued by these haunting and compelling scenes, I was still quite unprepared for the turn of events around the halfway mark of Curse of the Vampyr. Carl had warned the viewer though. He tells Erica, who he has now become quite smitten with, that during the full moon, he will change into something horrible. In a terrific sequence, in a spin on the werewolf legend, Carl standing in front of a mirror becomes sickly looking and grows fangs. His image disappears from the mirror. The freakish Carl immediately visits Erica's bed and bites her neck. Erica rises and goes down to the catacombs to free Margaret by removing the stake. The two head to the countryside for a frolic and feeding in another fantastic slo-mo scene where they subdue a local.
Curse of the Vampyr has some fairly clever twists, such as Carl's vampire with traits typically associated with traditional werewolf lore. Beyond the film's ideas, plot line, and images, Curse is really revels in its escalating and perverse subject matter. Bedtime attire for the ladies is always see-through and/or short, and while the initial nudity of the film is fairly tame, the sexuality of Curse becomes more explicit, culminating in a fairly strong lesbian sequence involving Margaret and a recent widow later on. Curse's plot becomes a vehicle for the exploitation shenanigans. Even the vampiric violence is imbued with a strong sexuality, and Curse of the Vampyr's ending forgoes a tidy conclusion to substitute a bizarre melange of exploitative and nonsensical imagery.
Curse of the Vampyr is an atypical film from a director whose work is unfamiliar. Totally unexpected from a totally traditional genre, well worth seeking out.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Luigi Cozzi's Paganini Horror (1989)

Kate (Jasmine Maimone) is the lead singer of her rock band whose new song Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli), the band's manager, thinks is crap. The band needs something new, something unexpected. Daniel (on drums; Pascal Persiano) feels bad for Kate, so he takes a boat ride to a trashy-looking hideaway. With a satchel full of ten-thousand dollars, Daniel offers to buy a song from a fedora-sporting codger (Donald Pleasence). Go ahead and open the briefcase, says the codger, the combination for both locks is "666." Rock on. Inside is an original piece of unpublished music by Niccolò Paganini, a famous violinist who reportedly sold his soul to the Devil. Lavinia has an initial concern about the music: since it's unpublished, there might be a rights issue. Kate and Daniel are full of excitement though: let's shoot an accompanying music video, like Michael Jackson's Thriller, and hire horror-film director Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) to shoot it at Paganini's old villa now owned by the very sweet Sylvia (Daria Nicolodi). Let's title the song "Paganini Horror."
The cinema of Italian director Luigi Cozzi has always been to me the equivalent of a great all-nite party that I wished would never end with my cup always filled, the music always just right, and all my favorite people gathered around. However, I know also, deep down, that if I keep this party pace up, irreparable brain damage is bound to set in. Cozzi's Paganini Horror (1989) is apparently his last feature film to date, and it's truly a doozy. Cozzi's cinematic career involves a long professional relationship with both Dario Argento and Argento's long-time lover and actress Daria Nicolodi. His feature Starcrash (1978) had some of my favorite people and also really hurt my head: sexy Caroline Munro, in her tight futuristic outfits; Marjoe Gortner, mugging for the camera as if he truly had been touched by God; and a robot when every time it spoke had me clamoring for the sweet sounds of Jar-Jar Binks. Glowing eggs and gore had never been so cinematically entrancing as in his Contamination (1980). Cozzi tamed the Hulk, Lou Ferrigno, for two Hercules features in the 80s, culminating in two of his best towards the end of the decade: The Black Cat (aka Demons 6) (1989) and this one, Paganini Horror. I think that I'm still okay to write this review but also feel a strong need to begin coloring or finger-painting.
In a brilliant and deceptive segueway, Cozzi shows the villa and the villian, donning a gold mask and holding a gold violin. Kate awakens in a white gown, not knowing where she is, but the crypt of Niccolò Paganini is in front of her adorned with candles. Kate gets a knifing by the demonic violinist as Mark Singer stands over her filming. "Cut!" Daniel takes off the gold mask while Lavinia and Sylvia smile in satisfaction. Kate and company rock out for the shooting of the song for the video, and while sexy bassist Rita (Luana Ravegnini) is about to change for the final scenes of the video, the demonic violinist visits her in her dressing room. Thinking it's Daniel, Rita tells him to stop fooling around. In no uncertain terms, the man in the gold mask tells her that he ain't Daniel and check this out: from the end of his golden violin a blade flashes, signalling the end of Rita's career. When Rita doesn't show for the next shoot, Lavinia thinks that Rita's flaked out and fled. While making an impromptu change for the next scene, Daniel encounters Rita, wearing a gown that looks like wet toilet paper. Daniel says good-bye to this world, as do the others: the villa becomes trapped in another dimension, while Paganini plays his symphony of demonic hijinx on the survivors.
My writing about Paganini Horror is almost as fun as viewing it. While it might seem that I'm having fun at Cozzi's expense, let me say that I greatly admire and love the man's cinema. Cozzi's cinema is as important to me as is Antonioni's. Paganini Horror, like Cozzi's cinema, is so pure and genuine. There is never the feeling that Cozzi's is ever above the material, as if he's making a horror film just for money or as a stepping-stone to a bigger commercial film in his career. Paganini Horror drips with as much love as it does with blood and gore (and there's some disgusting and effective bits of it). So much enthusiasm is also present throughout, especially from the actors' performances. Donald Pleasence in a small role near the end of his career could take his character's aloofness and hide in it; however, Pleasence revels in it and takes on a quiet sinister intensity as the Satanic trader. Nicolodi, who also co-wrote the screenplay, could also fade into the background like a wallflower, but she imbues her performance with a true maternal flavor and brings as much emotion as she can muster to the production. Jasmine Maimone's Kate, probably best known for her leading role in Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985), seems so animated during not only her musical performances but throughout, almost yelling her lines she's so excited. The rest of the cast is just as infectious. Cozzi fills Paganini Horror with brilliant solid colors of blue, green, and red unfiltered light, giving the film an air of artificiality, like a movie set, but it gives the film a feeling of its other-worldliness and dissonance. The gore scenes range from ridiculous to effective, which is always an effective mix. The outfits, the hair, and above all, the music are perfect time-capsule entries of the 80s, which I relished.
Paganini Horror is some serious fun for the not uptight. Tread lightly, however, because it can be lovingly damaging and infectious.