Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hasan Karacadag's D@bbe (2006)

Historically, Turkish cinema has only produced a handful of horror films. However, in the last decade, a few more have appeared, and within that few, some have been successful at the box office. One of the successful productions to emerge from recent Turkish horror cinema is Hasan Karacadag's D@bbe (2006), which attracted, according to Giovanni Scognamillo, six to seven hundred thousand viewers in its native country. Karacadag was educated in cinema in Japan, and according to his biography at the IMDb, he was successful in the Land of the Rising Sun. D@bbe shows a strong influence from Japanese horror cinema fused with Islamic culture, especially its mythology and religion.
Karacadag's film is clearly influenced by Japanese horror director, Hideo Nakata, whose film The Ring (1998) attracted a wide international audience and created a huge boom in Asian horror cinema. Perhaps the best film to come from this boom is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's woefully underseen and underappreciated Kairo (2001), and it would be an understatement to say that Karacadag was influenced by Kurosawa's masterpiece. The narrative of D@bbe is nearly identical to Kairo with Karacadag mimicking Kurosawa's cinematic style and tone, even reproducing some of Kurosawa's compositions.Hande (Ebru Aykac), Cem (Serdar Ozer), and Sema (Fulya Candemir) are three young friends who work together at a pottery store. Their friend, Tarik (Serhat Yigit), has become suddenly withdrawn from work and their company. Sema has recently rebuffed his advances, yet Hande and Cem think something deeper is going on. Tarik has been locked up in his house for the last four days, since he installed an internet connection. Hande decides to visit Tarik to retrieve her digital video camera that she loaned to Tarik and to check up on him. At his home, Tarik is withdrawn and sullen. His home is in a shambles, with newspaper taped all over the walls. Before leaving Tarik, Hande looks into his room, where Tarik has killed himself by putting a large butcher knife through his throat. Kairo is an aloof film and is filled with aloof characters: a perfect style for a film about loneliness and shyness and the lack of human connection (Kairo, also known as Pulse, literally means circuit). Karacadag mimics Kairo's aloofness with his characters and his style, yet his narrative lacks the richness and subtle complexity of Kurowsawa's. Karacadag opts for a more traditional, linear, and focused narrative, focused primarily upon Hande and her investigation behind Tarik's death and the mysterious circumstances involving the internet and a recent outbreak of suicides all over the world. Hande's storyline is intercut with a sometimes intersecting storyline involving a homicide detective, Suleyman (Umit Acar), who is officially investigating Tarik's suicide (?). The story plays out like a traditional deductive mystery (with the biggest clue being the symbol, "388@0"), so D@bbe's detached style does not add to any depth or complexity to the narrative. Rather, it only slightly enhances a more arty, contrived style of filmmaking and enhances, at times effectively, the ethereal horror scenes. The horror scenes within D@bbe are where the film excels, as Karacadag is able to conjure quite a bit of infectious fear from his characters (and in the viewer) with his supernatural scenes. The source of the supernatural comes from the Koran, specifically the Dabbe and the Jinni. Like Kairo, as D@bbe progresses, all of the supernatural occurrences lead to something darker, cataclysmic, and, hence, apocalyptic within the world. Creatively, Karacadag ties it to the religion of his native country. Whereas Kurosawa went for a disorienting and fearful effect with his supernatural scenes, the demon jinni within D@bbe are more confrontational and aggressive. When characters encounter the jinni within D@bbe, the scenes are oppressive and overwhelming. Cem's encounter with a spirit within a abandoned building is effective (despite it being evocative and a predictable rendition of a scene within Kairo); and Hande's journey through the streets at night as dark spirits materialize around her, although a short glimpse of a scene, is well rendered and in its way, quite beautiful.

The objective facts within the first paragraph, except where noted within, are from Cine-historian, Giovanni Scognamillo's interview on the Onar Films DVD release of Oluler Konusmaz Ki/Aska Susayanlar Seks ve Cinayet. Scognamillo also co-authored with Pete Tombs the essay on Turkish cinema in the latter's essential Mondo Macabro.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fernando di Leo's Vacanze per un massacro (Madness) (1980)

Mario Gariazzo at Cineproduzioni Daunia 70 directed two films under their banner, Acquasanta Joe (1971) and Il venditore di palloncini (1974). Cineproduzioni Daunia 70 also housed Fernando di Leo who directed several works under their banner including the famous trilogy of Milano calibre 9 (1972), La mala ordina (1972), and Il boss (1973). Di Leo offered advice to Gariazzo on his script for his film La mano spietata della legge (1973) and towards the production of both Acquasanta Joe and Il venditore di palloncini. Their paths were to cross again as Gariazzo had prepared the story for the film Vacanze per un massacro (1980) which he would also direct. At the insistence of the producers, Fernando di Leo replaced Gariazzo as director and is credited also with its screenplay (Gariazzo has a story credit on Vacanze).

Vacanze per un massacro opens with Joe Dallesandro's character escaping from prison. Later, it is revealed that he served five years of his sentence for committing the crime of murder and theft of a sum of three hundred million lira. The money was never found. Immediately after escaping, Dallesandro's character (named Joe Brezy) kills two farmers and steals their car. Off to the countryside and to a small vacation cottage in the mountains. Joe arrives at the cottage and prepares to break in. Married couple, Liliana (Patricia Behn) and Sergio (Gianni Macchia), is from Rome and arrives at the cottage for a weekend getaway. Accompanying the couple is Liliana's younger sister, Paola (Lorraine De Selle). Joe hides in the bushes in wait. The next morning, Sergio goes hunting and Liliana goes shopping. Paola is all alone at the cottage, and Joe takes the opportunity to take control of the cottage and find what he has come for.
Vacanze is perhaps the purest exploitation film from Fernando di Leo. After five years in prison, Dallesandro's Joe didn't learn patience. Although Di Leo attempts to heighten the tension as if his eventual capture is imminent by police with radio reports of his escape and a front-page newspaper story detailing his murder of the two farmers, Di Leo also shows scenes of Joe coolly avoiding the police at a cafe in the beginning and making his way to his destination with little getting in his way. In fact, in an expository dialogue scene in the beginning, Joe asks a local at the side of the road as to whom lives in the cottage. Joe learns before the couple unexpectedly arrives that they are from Rome and are weekend visitors. Joe could wait nearby for the weekend to pass and for the couple to leave. The cottage and surrounding area would all belong to Joe. "There are no thieves, here," says the local on the side of the road. Well, there is now at least one, and there's an exploitation film that needs to play out.Joe seemingly doesn't have a propensity for violence, and when he does become violent, it's as a protective measure to ensure his own survival. However, Di Leo crafts the opening evening events and the events of the following morning in a subtle and provocative way. As Joe sits in wait outside the cottage, he becomes an observer of Paola, Liliana, and Sergio. Paola and Sergio, together and alone by the car, very near in time to the three's arrival, begin to scheme as to when the two will have an opportunity to screw. Later, after night falls, the three have dinner, and Joe watches from a window (with Di Leo's camera directly over his shoulder). Liliana listens as Sergio and Paola playfully bicker and complain about mundane events back in the city (Paola's university studies, it would seem, mean little to her for her future.) As Sergio and Paola play antagonistic brother- and sister-in-law (in an ineffectual manner), Paola takes the opportunity to play footsie with Sergio under the table. Liliana and Sergio retire to the back bedroom after dinner to make love before sleeping, while Paola hears the two's lovemaking. Joe watches from the window as she pleasures herself on the couch. The following morning, Sergio in hunter's garb and rifle in hand, awakens Paola who demands Sergio make time today for sex. Sergio takes the time to go down on Paola right there after she commands him, but she violently pushes him away and laughs in his face. Paola knows she controls Sergio. When Sergio goes outside and does some ridiculous, quasi-Tai chi moves, Joe knows he can control this trio also: Sergio isn't going to use his literal or metaphorical rifle at all; Paola is just a provocateur; and Liliana is clueless. Vacanze takes a turn into the Last House on the Left territory, as terror, humiliation, degradation, and violence ensues. As the typical terror film, of which Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972) is representative, middle-class fears are exploited: in all of their economic comfort and created world of self-control, there is an overwhelming fear of the outsider at the fringes of society who is secretly jealous of that comfort and self-control. In the terror film, that outsider does more than terrorize and violate his victims--he completely removes that comfort and created self-control. This idea was obviously an attraction for Di Leo with Vacanze, as the events of the film play out in unexpected way for a terror film. Paola doesn't play victim when confronted by Joe: she's still very much the provocateur: she begins to seduce him as soon as the two have a quiet moment. Joe forces her to work at digging a hole in the fireplace (take a guess as to what's hidden there). After Paola works for quite a while, she demands a break; and Di Leo begins to blur the characters' motives. As she wipes the sweat off of her chest, is she still seducing Joe? or is she genuinely tired? When Joe makes an advance upon Paola, is her pulling away just an ineffectual move? Are Joe's advances an act of violence? Why would he choose now to make a move upon Paola with Liliana and Sergio still outside the cottage with either arrival unknown? Di Leo forces the viewer to answer these disturbing questions (and for the remainder of the film), and the filmed proceedings aren't pretty.Despite Vacanze being Di Leo's purest exploitation film, its attraction lies in watching an immensely talented director apparently slumming with this film. The film appears extremely low-budget: four actors in total drive the narrative. The cottage appears tiny and is sparsely furnished in a very Spartan manner. Humorously, there is a poster of John Travolta on the wall above the couch in the living room. Even Luis Bacalov's score is recycled from another Di Leo flick (although not all of the music is recycled within Vacanze). Dallesandro still has his signature Adonis-like physique yet his youthful, boyish good looks are fading as the Seventies close and he is getting older. Most of the film is shot in harsh light (both the natural exterior and the artificial interior light) and the bruises and blemishes on the actors' skin are not covered with makeup. Everything about Vacanze is stripped down. Enrico Lucidi's cinematography is quite good yet minimal: Di Leo's compositions are an effective mix of hand-held camera, medium shots, and close-ups, increasing the claustrophobic atmosphere. While all of the actors have a limited range in their performances, Di Leo plays to their strengths and charisma, especially Dallesandro. He's effective when menacing and effective when manipulative. Lorraine De Selle appeared in several curious (and often nasty) Italian exploitation films. She always gives enthusiastic and energized performances and doesn't disappoint in Vacanze. What really shines is Di Leo's talent above all, and Vacanze is a true curiosity in his filmography. The above objective facts from the first paragraph come from the English-language liner notes included in the Raro DVD release of Vacanze per un massacro. Within the foldout insert, the same text, presumably, in Italian is on the left side with the English text on the right. The English language text is rather cryptic (as to whether this results from translation or otherwise is unknown). For example, the text reads that "Fernando di Leo 'lent a hand' by offering advice for his script--for his good detective film, The Bloody Hands of the Law (La mano spietata della legge)." I have no idea what "lent a hand" means in this context. Is the liner notes author insinuating that perhaps Di Leo scripted the film or had a larger role than offering advice? or is he making a joke towards the film's title? Also, the English text reads "at the producers' insistence, he (Gariazzo) was finally replaced by di Leo." Armando Novelli is the credited producer on Vacanze according to the film print on the Raro DVD. Interestingly, Gariazzo's two directed films for Daunia and Di Leo's trilogy under their banner, for example, were all produced by Novelli. Novelli, in addition to producing Vacanze, would also produce Gariazzo's Occhi dalle stelle (1978) and his nasty, Play Motel (1979) around the same time. If Novelli is the sole producer, then why write "producers'," insinuating that more than one exists. Is it a typo? Does this mean the film's financiers? Besides whom, the more important question is "why?" The choice of the word "insistence" implies something more intense than the "producers" preferring Di Leo over Gariazzo to direct. What did Di Leo possess that Gariazzo did not which would make him a more suitable director for the film? Finally, the text reads that Di Leo considered Vacanze per un massacro a "minor entry in his filmography," so perhaps all this questioning is for naught. Regardless of any mystery, Vacanze is a curiosity waiting for the unsuspecting.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jess Franco's La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes (The Mansion of the Living Dead) (1982)

"Damn you and bless you. Bless you and damn you. May your sins never be forgiven."
Jess Franco does not like the films of George Romero, which he finds "primitive," and he finds the idea of the living dead, as reanimated corpses without rational thought, "silly." Franco does like, however, Amando de Ossorio's La noche del terror ciego (Tombs of the Blind Dead) (1971), which he thought was creative and had a great atmosphere, and Franco's 1982 Spanish production, La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes, is certainly inspired by de Ossorio's essential Euro-cult horror film. "The living dead of this film," Franco relates, "are people who were dead, but in some ways, they're still alive." With La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes, Franco prefers a depiction of a literal living dead: people who are existing yet dead inside (soulless) and unable to feel genuine pleasure in life (or life), condemned to commit acts of violence in the service of another. Candy (Lina Romay), Mabel (Mabel Escaño), Lea (Mari Carmen Nieto), and Caty (Elisa Vela) are topless dancers from Munich who come to a resort hotel in Gran Canaria for a vacation. The hotel appears expansive yet deserted. "Maybe they're all at the beach," says one. They encounter the hotel's manager, Carlos (Robert Foster), who gives the four two rooms. The four split into couples; and after Candy makes love to her roommate, Candy goes to sleep. Her roommate decides to take an evening stroll with her camera, and under a sheet of fierce wind, she encounters a quiet convent. The convent's inhabitants are a brotherhood of cursed priests. Save some of the anonymous hooded priests, La Mansion has only seven characters (Albino Graziani and Eva León appear as eccentric and standout characters), and they are the sole people who inhabit La Mansion. It's a lonely and secluded film with a strong presence of atmospheric horror with some intense violence combined with some seriously playful sex and nudity: La Mansion is an odd mix of elements from seemingly two different films; yet this clashing creates a phenomenal disorienting and uniquely Franco effect. The sexual situations are joking, uninhibited, and come from a liberated culture in Spain. "For Spanish cinema it was a boom," says leading woman, Lina Romay. "There had been a complete opening. From not being able to to show even a breast, we had moved to where almost everything was allowed." (A more detailed discussion of sex in Spanish culture and cinema during this time is included in my review of El Sexo here.) Franco paints his four actresses as fun and thrill-seeking topless dancers who not only enjoy taking their clothes off but feel completely comfortable in the nude. Their openness feels celebratory, and the actresses' energy is infectious. Franco takes the opportunity when the four actresses as friends are split into two rooms as couples to reveal each pairing as exactly that--a couple in a romantic relationship, ready to reveal all to whomever is watching. These characters, like the culture, no longer has to hide behind closed doors with their sexuality. The sex scenes are comedic and light and create an overall sense of fun. Not all is light, however, in La Mansion. One of the more provocative relationships within the film is with Foster's Carlos and his prisoner, Eva Leon as Olivia. Olivia is bound in "the best hotel room" to her bed with a chained dog collar. Carlos brings her food but puts her tray just out of reach in order to torture her. Even more bizarre are Olivia's reactions to Carlos's behavior: it's a love/hate relationship with Olivia always attempting to seduce Carlos when he enters, despite his degrading words to her, and then her immediate resentment when he leaves. Leon's Olivia tells Romay's Candy the origins of the relationship, and it's an odd tale. This story is tied into Carlos's character and his relationship with the brotherhood at the convent. The best scenes of La Mansion come with the goings on at the convent. The ritualistic acts of violence by the priests are amazingly effective and well-written. Their prayers are as haunting and disturbing as are their acts of violence. The convent and its inhabitants feel ancient and from another world. Franco, during his interview included on the Severin DVD of La Mansion, speaks of the convent (a genuine location near Las Palmas in Gran Canaria) and tells of its fantastic atmosphere. The strong wind in this location, Franco continues, cuts the island in half and permeates the landscape. Franco notes how the ringing of the convent bell by the wind is pervasive in the area. The lonely convent feels trapped by the wind in its location. Franco is able to channel this unique atmosphere with his photography. He is able to make the convent other-worldly and take the secluded area and create a fantastic atmosphere of dread (and quite successful also at creating an atmosphere of dark seclusion at the resort hotel despite the comedic goings on.)The final act of La Mansion is dark, both literally and thematically. The mystery with Foster's Carlos is revealed as Romay's Candy delves deeper into the area's secrets. The playfulness of the first two acts dissolves and its absence intensifies the third. La Mansion de los Muertos Viventes is a great Franco film: it's another Franco experimental work, seemingly shot spontaneously, yet quite successful in its final result. Robert Foster really stands out and gives one of the best performances that I've seen from him. Franco also deserves a lot of praise for this work here. It was only after the third or fourth time that I had viewed La Mansion that I had realized that Franco had used this location before. Juan Soler Cozar's photography was able to transform the location to fit the atmosphere, and Franco's compositions were fantastic. The film is filled with myriad beautiful wide shots, emphasizing the seclusion, loneliness, and dread of the location. All quotes and remarks from Franco and Romay and objective facts about the production are taken from their interviews included on the Severin DVD release of the film. Buy this essential purchase here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Joe D'Amato's Caligola: La storia mai raccontata (1982)

"[Why did you make] your subsequent film Caligola: La storia mai raccontata?" asks an interviewer to Joe D'Amato in Spaghetti Nightmares. To this question, D'Amato tersely and succinctly responds, "That was commercial exploitation of the successful film by Tinto Brass."As such, only a cursory knowledge by the viewer of the history of Roman emperor Caligula is required, and perhaps more importantly, at least in terms of cinematic exploitation, the viewer gets treated to a depiction within Caligola: La storia mai raccontata (1982) of the traditional traits associated with the emperor's reign: egomania-cum-insanity, sexual deviancy, and indulgence. Caligola is a conduit film, leading its viewer to a long, indulgent orgy sequence in its middle from which its exposition inevitably leads. The orgy sequence buttresses the film, as D'Amato circuits Caligola's beginning and final act with a thin revenge plot line against the titular ruler.
Caligula (David Brandon) is having nightmares about his assassination. Domitius (Michele Soavi) attempts to murder him while the emperor is sleeping. Caligula's killing is thwarted by his bodyguard, Ulmar (Sasha D'Arc). While horseback-riding on the beach one day with Messala (Luciano Bartoli), Caligula sees a group of young people at the shore, one of whom is beautiful Livia (Fabiola Toledo). Livia belongs to a religious cult who do not worship the divine emperor as god. Caligula and Messala ambush Livia and her lover, and during Caligula's rape of Livia, she kills herself with a dagger. Caligula summons the senators, later, and tells them of his new architectural plans, so fitting for an emperor-cum-god. Unfortunately, Caligula does not have the funds to construct his opulent design, so an orgy is planned to raise the capital. Miriam (Laura Gemser), fellow cult member and friend of Livia, sees the orgy as an opportunity to avenge Livia's death so she decides to infiltrate. "What about the Caligula movie that you did?" asks an interviewer (from Flesh and Blood, Number Six, FAB Press, 1996). "I mean, half that movie is hardcore..." D'Amato responds [as to whether D'Amato shoots the hardcore inserts within some of his films]: "Yeah. Sure, sure, but Caligola was done like this--there are two versions, one soft version and one hardcore version...Yeah, I shot the hardcore version. In Caligola, yes. [note--The hardcore version, running at approximately one hundred and twenty five minutes is the version of the film here under review.]" While Caligola is not composed of half hardcore footage, the film certainly appears that way, as the viewer is led to its focal, middle orgy sequence by the emperor's violent and sexually deviant acts (and led out of the orgy sequence into another series of the same). Brandon's Caligula presides over D'Amato's most meticulous sequence: excessive wine-drinking and gluttonous eating are only the beginning. The sex acts begin with laughter, teasing, and fondling. A juggler walks in with fire batons. D'Amato heats the sequence up as the orgy truly begins. Two fighters enter and begin a fight to the death on the floor, donning spiked gloves. As the two punch and beat on each other, the blood sprays on the party guests. D'Amato relishes the close-up shots of the guests wiping the blood off of their faces to continue eating and drinking, as if the spraying blood was a minor party foul and totally expected. After one warrior dies at the fists of the other, after Caligula giving the thumbs-down sign, a horse and a woman are escorted in. "Watch this," says Caligula to Miriam. "It's a wonderful performance." It's an offensive scene. D'Amato finishes the sequence with his hardcore footage (Mark Shannon's inclusion is unsurprising here). A completely repellent and unerotic sequence.The commercial success of Tinto Brass's Caligola (1979) created a temporary market for films made in its wake, hoping to seduce more viewers by providing (and pushing the limits) of the sensational elements of the original. D'Amato's Caligola appears exactly that way--almost as if it's a temporary film awaiting completion, with a better narrative or more powerful compositions and visuals. To his credit, save the weaponry (which obviously look like costume props), the detail to the historic look of the film feels genuine. The costumes, the sets, and the armor, for example, all appear credible. D'Amato's own cinematography is professional and competent and sees little flare (save the middle sequence). Caligula's relationship with Soavi's Domitius is an engaging side plot and one of the more interesting touches of the film, as it really the most representative of Caligula's insane cruelty. (Soavi would cast Brandon as an ego-maniacal and somewhat cruel theatre director in his excellent directorial debut, Stage Fright (1987), a D'Amato Filmirage production). Brandon gives a very over-the-top performance as the emperor. Caligula's dream sequences contain D'Amato's best visual work. The masked, helmeted assassin is effectively haunting. D'Amato's signature hand-held camerawork is brilliant, as Brandon's Caligula wanders from the seashore of the beach, around the littered bodies of dead senators, up to a dune to encounter his killer. Carlo Maria Cordio's score is beautiful.Woefully underused are Laura Gemser and especially Gabriele Tinti, as the senator Agrippa. Tinti has a wonderfully emotive face and is an extremely talented dramatic actor. Tinti appears in few scenes (with two notably offensive scenes near the end, one involving torture). Gemser has never been an exceptional actress but is very charismatic and often brings an alluring air to her roles, adding a flare which only she can spark. She is not given much to do but to carry the thin revenge plot line, while her sex scenes with Brandon are completely unerotic (surprising from Gemser). Again, Caligola feels temporary, as if D'Amato and company wanted to shock its viewers into the theatres quickly before they forgot about Brass's original. Well, D'Amato succeeded in creating a forgettable film, himself.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Joe D'Amato's Immagini di un convento (Images in a Convent) (1979)

"Sister Consolata, wake up, the devil is here," says Sister Giulia (Maria Rosaria Riuzzi), "in the convent." Sister Consolata (Paola Maiolini) rolls over, gently slides up her dressing gown, and with the look in her eyes reveals that Sister Giulia is the last to know of the arrival. Perhaps Old Scratch had always lived within and around: the local legend tells of the sisters' convent built upon pagan land, whose presence is commemorated by a horned statue in the middle of the cloister courtyard, where numerous, nefarious deeds and events have plagued the previous years. Or, perhaps the Devil was awakened and invited by the arrival of Isabella (Paola Senatore), a young Countess whose pious and righteous father has recently died. The Cardinal asks the Mother Superior, Sister Angela (Aïché Nana) to house Isabella as her dying father's wish and to protect her from her wicked uncle, Don Ascanio. Maybe there's no Devil at all, and all the lusty goings on is just natural, as the Mother Superior tells Isabella that being a nun requires an "inhumane sacrifice" of human pleasures. "Sister Marta, is terrible," says the Mother, "we are all victims of a nightmare or God has abandoned us." Based upon Diderot's La Religieuse, Joe D'Amato released his fittingly-titled Immagini di un convento (Images in a Convent) in 1979.
"I like making horror and erotic movies," says D'Amato (during his interview in the documentary, "Joe D'Amato: Totally Uncut," included as a supplement on the Media Blasters DVD release of Images in a Convent), "because I like to shock my audience. When you go and watch a movie, you have to be involved in it. To shock the audience is the best way to involve them." As to whether shocking the audience is the best way to involve a viewing audience is debatable; yet this method can be extremely effective in creating memorable images. Images are what Images in a Convent are about, despite having a famous, controversial, and thought-provoking work as the inspiration for its narrative. D'Amato shot Images (and credits reveal D'Amato used his real name in this position), and its images are where the film excels. Save one sequence, Images perhaps lacks the ability to shock today (as to whether it was shocking in 1979, few would know: "it was a box-office bomb in its country of origin," writes Steve Fentone in his AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture.). Nonetheless, Images is a prime example of D'Amato's adeptness at creating erotic cinema, and within the film, he recites quite a litany of steamy sequences and cleverly-crafted satanic scenes, all beautifully rendered.Images is shot with soft light. The authentic hilltop location adds to its atmosphere of seclusion, beyond its natural beauty as surroundings. The horned statue, when shown, is always focal in D'Amato's compositions. Within minutes (after the exposition), the viewer gets treated to Senatore's Isabella (the actress with whom D'Amato had worked previously on The Ladies' Doctor (1977) and Emanuelle in America (1977), for example) having an intense dream as a handsome older gentleman unites with Isabella in the hallway of the cloister (the identity of this man is revealed later, and its revelation is a clever touch). These two embrace and take it slow, as does D'Amato with slower-motion photography, while Nico Fidenco's beautiful score sets the mood. With an odd silence, the music abruptly stops, and an odd audio distortion disrupts the soundtrack, followed by sounds of gushing winds. The two lovers do not let up, as the imagery continues with them. In a staggering of images, D'Amato, seemingly randomly, cuts between the two lovers with long shots of the empty hallway. The odd sequencing and non-syncing of the two lovers, the audio shifts, and the hallway quick shots are disorienting and quite effective and creepy. Isabella's dream is just the beginning of the night, as within Images and its first two acts, one sexual act inspires another. Always intimate scenes, D'Amato focuses on touches and kisses with his actresses, always pushing its intimacy by almost revealing all (in a few scenes, D'Amato breaks his style and does get graphic). The most graphic scene is a scene of violence within Images, the rape of Sister Marta (Marina Hedman) in the forest by two bandits on her way to summon the exorcist (Donald O'Brien). In subsequent viewings of Images, I've skipped through this sequence as it is quite horrifying and offensive. O'Brien's exorcist is an arrogant and egotistical man who arrives, like most cinematic exorcists, to do battle with evil. He doesn't stand a chance. The final act is reserved for D'Amato to film the sisters in their ecstasy, and it concludes quite powerfully, despite its curious elliptical and circular ending. Images is totally uninhibited. D'Amato never settles upon depicting any behavior either strictly induced by demonic possession or natural human desire. It's an odd atmospheric mix and very well-handled by D'Amato. All of the performances are quite good with Senatore, Hedman, and O'Brien standing out. The commercial inspiration for the film was Walerian Borowczyk's Interno di un convento (Behind Convent Walls) (1977) (a hit in Italy), and Images was originally to star Gloria Guida, Anna-Maria Clementi, and Gabriele Tinti (AntiCristo).

Friday, January 8, 2010

Joe D'Amato's Sesso nero (1980)

Luigi Montefiori (aka George Eastman) tells the tale of how his story and screenplay for the Santo Domingo production and Joe D'Amato film, Sesso nero (1980) had its genesis:

The first film he [Joe D'Amato] worked on as a director, as director and producer, was made in Santo Domingo. I don't know if I've already told this story. We'd gone to Santo Domingo, invited there by Aristide [Massaccesi, D'Amato's real name], to make a series of three movies. One was supposed to be a serious film, and the other two were sort of erotic, movies you don't have to do much work to make. He showed me pictures of Santo Domingo, which I liked, so I went there, really for a vacation. While we were shooting these three films, I was crazy about gambling at the time, and I lost my entire pay for these films and all the other money I had in one week. So I was penniless at the end of the first week. Not even enough to pay for the hotel room. In fact I had to share a rooom with Dirce Funari one of the actresses, despite the fact that we weren't romantically involved. I'd be sleeping at four a.m., she'd come in--we caught some sleep when we could. Since I had no money, and Aristide refused to give me and advance on other jobs, I tried to convince him to do another movie. I said, "Why don't you shoot something of your own? You have the actors, the location..." So while we were shooting the other films--we'd do a scene, change our clothes, shot the scene of another film--to use the same set--I'd be the good guy one minute and the bad guy the next--So I said, "Let's do another story. You can bring home another film that's all yours when we leave." He said, "No, I don't have a story..." and I'd say "I'll write one for you." So we agreed on my salary, and in three days I wrote "Sesso Nero." [note: in the interview collection, Spaghetti Nighmares, Eastman says, "I'd written the script and persuaded Massaccesi to do it so that I could make up the money I'd lost in one of my habitual nights out at the casino. I based the story on Max Frisch's Homo Faber and put it together over a weekend, and despite the fact it had been a lightning job, it turned out to be a real success."] When it came out it made a lot of money. He read it, liked it, and made it. I played a small part, as a nightclub manager, in a scene we shot back in Rome, however. I was paid two million lira. It cost him about twenty million to make. It ended up making hundreds of millions, a great success. That was the first film produced and directed by Aristide. Of course he'd directed others, but none that were completely his. (from the documentary, "Joe D'Amato Totally Uncut" included on the Shriek Show Anthropophagus DVD) From a story borne from desperation, Sesso nero is about Mark Lester (Mark Shannon) who receives some bad news from his doctor: he's required to have an operation which will render him impotent (in a dream sequence, he imagines himself completely incapacitated and vulnerable on the operation table, while a doctor hovers over him with a scapel and his literal manhood sitting in a tray to the side). Mark has to have the operation within fifteen days, so he decides to take the preceding time before his operation to visit Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic as a vacation, an opportunity for some final sexual escapades, and to possibly revisit some memories. One day while wandering the streets of the city, Mark sees a reflection in a store window of a young woman, Maira (Annj Goren), who he had met on the island years ago and she looks completely the same. Mark has a couple of quick flings, one with the hotel maid and another with his friend Jack's wife, Lucia (Lucia Ramirez), before running into an old friend at a nightclub (Eastman) who tells Mark that some voodoo incidents have been reported on the island. Soon after, Mark spies Maira again.Sesso nero is the spontaneous production born in Santo Domingo while presumably the three original films to which Eastman alludes in his anecdote are Hard Sensation (1980), Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980), and Porno Holocaust (1981). Shannon, Eastman, and Ramirez would appear in all four productions, while Funari is absent from only Sesso nero and Goren absent from only Erotic Nights. The original three productions, especially Holocaust, are notorious for the inclusion of their XXX scenes, side by side with its horror. Italian cinema had seen sex and violence (and sexual violence) at its extreme before, for example, with Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975). D'Amato, himself, wasn't a stranger to mixing the two elements and pushing the extreme with his Emanuelle e Françoise le sorelline (1975; also starring Eastman) and especially Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali (aka Trap Them and Kill Them) (1977), for example. D'Amato is asked in an interview, "Later, the series [the Black Emanuelle films with Laura Gemser] was linked to the Cannibal films (Trap Them and Kill Them). Was it a great success?" D'Amato responds, "Yes, all the Black Emanuelle films made a lot of money." The interviewer responds to his answer with the statement, "It was quite a violent film." "Yes, definitely," says D'Amato. "I had done everything with this series except mix it with splatter-type horror. (interview from European Trash Cinema, Issue #12, ed. Craig Ledbetter, Kingwood, TX, July, 1995.)" The inclusion of XXX scenes in horror films wasn't alien either, as myriad European horror films often had various versions by different distributors for specific markets, including those with hardcore inserts. The three Santo Domingo productions, however, by D'Amato were calculated hybrids of horror and pornography, especially Holocaust. In Spaghetti Nightmares, D'Amato is asked: "What can you tell us about Emanuelle e gli ultimi cannibali and Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi [Erotic Nights of the Living Dead]?" D'Amato responds, "They were both made along erotic lines, and having said that, there isn't much else to tell about them, really. The former, like the others of the series, was a reasonable commercial success (especially abroad), while Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi was a total fiasco. I had endeavored to mingle my two favorite genres, tending more towards the erotic side in this case, but the film was rejected by the public." After an interviewer comments that "When you made Porno Holocaust...There's a scene where a zombie gives a blow job to a woman. And she dies. I mean that's incredible isn't it?! (laughs)," D'Amato responds, "Yeah, we thought that when two people fuck, that's when the zombie arrives. This is what it's about. The maximum combination of horror and sex! (from an interview in Flesh and Blood, Issue #6, ed. Harvey Fenton, FAB Press, 1996)"Despite it being the only non-horror film in this grouping, Sesso nero delivers its darkest tale. Anticipating a future which lacks the joy of sex and a reduced virility, Shannon's Mark embarks on his present, temporary quest of engaging in joyless sex and humiliating situations, as a figure from the past, Maira draws him down deeper than he could imagine. The joylessness and lack of intimacy are inherent in the initial XXX scenes, as with Mark's first trist with the hotel's maid: the photography (shot by Enrico Biribicchi) has to focus on the close-up shots of penetration for credibility to the scene's unsimulated acts. Likewise, following another perfunctory explicit sex scene, this time Mark with Lucia, the viewer sees Mark writhing in pain and grabbing his goin (as he has had a flare-up of his condition), as Lucia sits coolly at the dinner table watching him, looking as indifferent when she had pleasured him. Mark has to be carried back to his hotel room by the man whose wife he "seduced." Mark's most intense emotional scenes come with the woman towards whom he has the strongest emotion, Goren's Maira, but Maira also, with perhaps Sesso nero's most erotic XXX scenes, uses her strong sexuality not to tempt and seduce Mark but to induce jealously and emotional pain, as she has sex directly in front of Mark (to his credit, Shannon's performance is better than his colder performances in the other three Santo Domingo productions). The most erotic scene comes near the end of Sesso nero and involves Ramirez's Lucia and Shannon's Mark. The photography isn't explicit and focuses on less subtle physical movements, such as two's hands on each other and Ramirez's looks into the eyes of Mark. Sesso nero's ending has its most shocking and symbolic scenes. Sesso nero is ultimately more interesting conceptually and less interesting entertainingly, despite the fact that D'Amato's direction, Biribicchi's photography, and especially the music by Nico Fidenco being quite good. Shannon and especially Goren standout above the other performances. Eastman's story and screenplay, motivated from gambling losses, creates an ironic tale for an adult film: the loss of male virility, the desire for emotional intimacy, and the depiction of a darker take on sexuality. So how did audiences take to Sesso nero (as Eastman relates that it was a big success financially)? When D'Amato is confronted with this statement in an interview, "The most surprising fact about your pornos is that they have a real storyline," D'Amato responds, "That's right. The first one I made, Sesso nero, had a story even though it dealt with hard-core sex. But most distributors didn't consider it commercial enough and so they cut out the dialogue and left in the ordinary fuck scenes. And that's the reason why this kind of film is not an art form. The audience is there just to see people fuck. As a filmmaker, it is of no real interest to me (taken from the European Trash Cinema interview as noted and cited above)." I suppose with Sesso nero, there are no safe bets.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jess Franco's She Killed in Ecstasy (Sie tötete in Ekstase) (1970)

"With 31 films already behind her (more if you count the various alternative versions of Franco's films), Soledad Miranda sped along a highway in Lisbon to her death, sometime in late 1971," writes Tim Lucas in his memorial essay about the actress, "The Black Stare of Soledad Miranda," in Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco. "'The day before she died, she received the greatest news of her life,' Franco recounted. 'I visited her apartment in Lisbon with a German producer, who came to offer her a two-year contract with CCC, which would assure her of at least two starring roles per year in big-budget films. She was going to become a major star in Germany. The next day as her contract was being drafted, she had the accident. When the hospital called me to break the news...I nearly passed out.'" The gorgeous Spanish actress died at the age of twenty-seven, and Lucas continues: "Contrary to German production yearbooks and CCC sources, which declare Der Teufel Kam aus Akasava [The Devil Came from Akasava] as the last of Soledad Miranda's films to be released, Franco has identified Mrs. Hyde (Sie tötete in Ekstase, 'She Killed in Ecstacy (sic)') in interviews as their final collaboration." (All facts and quotes from within this paragraph are from Lucas's essay.)
Author Peter Blumenstock describes Miranda in She Killed in Ecstasy within Obsession: "Actress Soledad Miranda's physical presence alone brings an atmosphere of mysterious eroticism and melancholy to the film that is seldom to be seen in Franco's other work...Sie tötete in Ekstase ("She Killed in Ecstasy") is, like Vampyros Lesbos of the same year, a straight "star vehicle" built around Miranda. In most of the film's 75 minutes it is her--in countless costumes and wigs (and of course nude)--sporting with numerous lovers of both sexes." The authors of Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 write: "For a film filled with nudity, strange decor and kitschy muzak Sie tötete in Ekstase is a downbeat, depressing affair. Even the presence of the lovely Soledad Miranda fails to revive the tortured, repetitive plot. The film overflows with death and thwarted desire...Sie tötete in Ekstase is deadly serious. Too serious to be entertaining." The authors of Bizarre Sinema: Jess Franco : El Sexo Del Horror have this to say about She Killed in Ecstasy, after declaring that Vampyros Lesbos is the best production of the post-Harry Alan Towers, Karl-Heinz Mannchen/Artur Brauner/Miranda era: "In a singular way, Las Vampiras/Vampyros Lesbos defines and sublimates Franco's fondess for lesbianism, already preponderant in Necronomicon and in a few Towers movies. So, for Franco's pleasure, Soledad Miranda 'gave life,' once again, to a lesbian relationship, re-proposing the same couple featured in Las Vampiras/Vampyros Lesbos, in another film of this set, Sie tötete in Ekstase. Her partner was the actress Ewa Strömberg, a very attractive blond-haired Swedish...Beyond this remarkable lesbian-personal coincidence, nothing more can be said about Sie tötete in Ekstase, an anonimous (sic) and rushed variation on the theme of Miss Muerte/Dans les griffes du maniaque, filmed with the title Mrs. Hyde."
Any viewer who watches Jess Franco's She Killed in Ecstasy (Sie tötete in Ekstase) (1970) is immediately confronted by Soledad Miranda's powerful presence and performance in Franco's extremely simplistic narrative. Dr. Johnson (Fred Williams) engages in cutting-edge embryonic research and he approaches the medical association with his research who find the doctor's work unethical and too controversial. The association expels Dr. Johnson and effectively ends his career goals and aspirations. He commits suicide with his only survivor his loving wife (Miranda). His death induces madness in the young widow, and she learns the identity of the association doctors (portrayed by Howard Vernon, Ewa Strömberg, Paul Muller, and Franco) and seeks revenge. Her revenge takes the form of seduction, from simple to elaborate, then murder.
Jess Franco and Soledad Miranda's final collaboration becomes a de facto love letter to its leading lady. Manuel Merino's photography focuses solely and seductively upon Miranda, as she seduces the film's characters. Franco's compositions are a little too clean for my tastes and too formal, as if he doesn't want to taint the beauty of Miranda. Numerous close-ups of her face and hypnotic eyes fill She Killed in Ecstasy, as Miranda is often able to portray her descent into madness and despair through only the windows into her soul. Franco's solemnity for Miranda's presence is offset by his usual playful nature: for example, Vernon's character is easily seduced by Miranda in a bar with a look and a flash of her legs. Back in Vernon's hotel room, he reveals that his kink is to be degraded and beaten while having sex. Miranda's character has no problem whatsoever complying with this request, as Vernon climbs too far into his ecstasy to notice that Miranda's beating and degrading is genuine. Strömberg's seduction is the film's most intimate, and its intimacy creates an odd blend of steamy eroticism and uncomfortable emotion, as the viewer knows, simmering inside is a deep hatred within Miranda's character. Muller's seduction and encounter with Miranda is the most circuitous and elaborate and the most entertaining of She Killed in Ecstasy.
Those seeking strong narratives should look elsewhere. Those seeking a strong and another seductive performance by beauty Soledad Miranda need to look only to She Killed in Ecstasy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity (2007)

Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a well-to-do, young couple living together in San Diego. They are "engaged to be engaged," and Katie's a university student while Micah is a day-trader who presumably works out of his home. Katie and Micah have begun to hear around their home unexplained noises at night, and Katie tells a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) that she has had encounters with the supernatural all of her life. The psychic tells the young couple that what is occurring is probably not a ghost and what is inside their home is not a haunting. Something paranormal is attached to Katie and it is fixated upon her. Micah buys a bunch of wonderful techie toys, like an EVP meter and an HD video camera. His intention is to film the odd goings on within their home and with his investigation help Katie. The viewer gets to see the results of Micah's experiment through solely his footage in Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity (2007).
Paranormal Activity was a huge box-office success in 2009 and it eerily mirrored the success of another popular and similar film a decade before, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's The Blair Witch Project (1999). Both films benefited from a massive, word-of-mouth, grassroots campaign, as everyone who had seen the film said it was very scary. Both are low-budget films made with unknown actors with debut filmmakers behind their genesis. The biggest similarity and each film's primary appeal is its shooting style: a film composed completely of footage shot by its on-screen participants. The "found footage" film has a very noticeable inherent flaw for traditional film viewers. Not only do the film's participants have to chronicle the film's action with their cameras, they have to drive the film's narrative as characters. Hence, the viewer is often left wondering if the character is acting "in character" by filming the on-screen action; or is the character filming the on-screen action for the benefit of a viewing audience? The best example of a recent film which matched character motivation and character camera-chronicling is Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's [Rec] (2007) . When the character motivation and the character filming do not jibe, it immediately takes the traditional viewer out of the dramatic action displayed within the film. Paranormal Activity suffers from this flaw with its character Micah, but as I've noted, it's an inherent flaw of the shooting style. Subsequent film makers, I'm certain, are going to conquer this filming (and narrative) style and produce more seamless films. Nonetheless, this inherent flaw in Paranormal Activity is almost completely overshadowed by its extremely effective paranormal scenes and scares.
I do not believe in ghosts and the like, as does not the overwhelming majority of today's culture. Most folks have a fear of being kidnapped, beaten, degraded, violated, having their fingers cut off, and killed (hence the popularity of the torture/kidnapping horror film). It's a primal fear, but Peli with Paranormal Activity is able to tap into another one: the almost complete vulnerability of one while sleeping. Unless you're a fan of crystal meth (and you're seeing ghosts, ninjas, and C.I.A. operatives all around you), everyone has to sleep; and Paranormal Activity's best scare scenes occur while Katie and Michah sleep soundly in their bed, as the camera focuses upon their bedroom and peeks out through the door, giving a glimpse of the rest of the house. Wisely, Peli has Micah's camera equipped with an on-screen digital clock in the right-hand bottom corner of the screen. He's able to use this innocuous device, especially in a couple of scenes where he speeds up the video, to clever effect. Likewise when Katie and Micah go to bed in the evening, the night is marked by an on-screen title card with a documentarian-type numbering and date of the happening. These title cards are used to excellent theatrical effect, as if it foreshadows something momentous about to happen (and most of Katie and Micah's nights are rarely free from activity). Peli's use of audio is also tops, including an extremely judicious use of lights and, especially, shadows. With little foreshadowing, nearly every evening contains unexpected paranormal events.
Peli attempts to shade over the inherent flaw in Paranormal Activity's shooting style by portraying Micah as an insensitive boyfriend. As the ladies are well aware, all of us boyfriends suffer from selective hearing, selfishness, and a degree of insensitivity in our relationships. During the first two-thirds of the film, the viewer can assume that Micah really doesn't believe in Katie's supernatural dilemma and that Micah is having a bit of fun, with his filming and technological toys, at Katie's expense. During the final third of the film, when the events in the house have really taken a toll on Katie, Micah does attempt to be sweet, caring, and sensitive; but when Peli has Micah embrace Katie or comfort her while she's crying, the intimacy of the scene is undercut by the fact that Micah's still filming. Katie's super sweet and really tolerant of Micah's behavior, despite the escalating series of events in the film. There are other scenes within the final act that standout more as a chronicle for a viewing audience rather than two actors portraying characters. This is also a minor quibble, but Micah and Katie's home is abnormally clean and sanitary. So clean, that the entire house seemed to shine in the light. I was waiting at some point for the (at least) twelve-to-fifteen person cleaning crew to come in one morning while they were having breakfast and work the house over.
Featherston and Sloat, as Katie and Micah, respectively, are good in their roles. They seem like a credible couple and are, for the most part, seemingly normal people. Fredrichs's psychic character is written well by Peli: he comes off as a down-to-earth, approachable character, instead of a traditional, stereotypical, eccentric and kooky type from past films. His performance is very good, as well. I don't watch very much recent American horror these days, but I have to say that I very much enjoyed Paranormal Activity and think that it's one of the better horror films that I've seen in a long time.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Awards and Thank You

Emily at The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense has been kind enough to bestow the above award to my blog. I've known Emily for a while now, and she writes one of the best and most popular horror blogs. I highly recommend checking her site out.

Geof over at his blog, Enter the Man Cave, had some extremely kind words to say about my writing, and I am very much flattered and humbled by his compliments. His blog is a tremendous amount of fun to read, and his taste is high above reproach: I submit as evidence his love for Dexter and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and rest my case. He was also kind enough to award me the "Kreativ Blogger" award which I proudly accept. Here are the rules upon receipt of the award:

The Rules:

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.

Here are the seven blogs which I am passing this award onto:

1. To Mob at his blog, Dear Bastards.... Mob writes daily entries, like a diary, and once a week or so, he'll post a collection of trailers. He also writes really precise and insightful reviews at Big Suck Loser. He's been a really good friend to my blog, and I have to admit I really enjoy reading about Mob and the wife and the MIL.

2. To Ben at his blog, Breakfast in the Ruins. Ben shares my love for paperbacks with sordid covers and sensational stories and has terrific taste in cinema. Ben wrote the best piece that I've ever read about Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape, and it's really representative of how fine of a writer he is.

3. To Neil Fulwood at his blog, The Agitation of the Mind. Although I've awarded Neil before for his excellent writing about cinema in general, his recent December posts dedicated to Sam Peckinpah deserve special mention and acclaim. I highly recommend frequently visiting his blog and reading his often insightful reviews.

4. To Scandy at his blog, The Scandy Factory. Scandy loves the VHS format and has an eye for the lovely ladies. Dedicating a blog to these two passions alone is very much worthy of my praise; however, I admire Scandy's blog, because he's creative, playful, and blogs about what he wants to...everything I admire in an artist.

5. Although I've been recently informed this morning that he's deleted his previous entries of his past work, I'm not going to let his work go by unnoticed. To Aaron at his blog, The Death Rattle. Aaron loves cult and exploitation cinema and writes about it with a fan's passion and a critic's objectivity. His reviews are in his signature style, and he has a voice all of his own. I know his future work, whatever he chooses to do, will be killer.

6. To Jenn at her blog, Cavalcade of Perversions. Jenn likes Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain. She also love cats, the Misfits, and writes the best reviews about some of the sleaziest cinema. And she calls us pervs. Jenn's blog is a personal favorite.

7. Finally, to Paul Cooke aka Buckaroobanzai at his blog, Ballistic Blood Bullets. Paul co-authored Tough to Kill: Volume 1, Italian Action Explosion and I absolutely love it. Paul continues to write killer reviews about exploitation and action cinema. Another personal favorite.

Since I'm giving the award, I'm taking the liberty of amending its rules. No recipient above is required to post anything about him or herself, if he/she does not want to. I respect people's privacy. As for seven things about myself that people might find interesting, I thought I would relate seven cinema-related anecdotes:

1. The first film I saw in the theatre was George Lucas's Star Wars during its original run. I remember it quite fondly, despite being a tiny lad of two or three years, not solely because of its visuals or story but because I had these super-dope Amazing Spiderman bed slippers that I wore everywhere instead of shoes. The slippers weren't flip-flops; rather they fit snugly like shoes. They were made of imitation leather, and the soles had no grips, so I pretty much slipped and fell everywhere. They were Spiderman's original colors, blue was the dominant color while red filled the flourishes, and Spiderman pointed proudly towards the world on top of my foot, shooting his signature web. I remember slipping and sliding at the theatre and squirming in my slippers during Lucas' seminal film.

2. The first R-rated film that I saw in the theatre was Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. I was seven, and my older sister was eight. My parents were still young enough to have energy to go out at night on dates, so they went and saw it before taking us. (They also previewed Raiders of the Lost Ark before taking us, as well). I loved the visuals of the film and I was familiar with its leading man, Harrison Ford (I got called Hans Solo, a lot, because of this man). Its themes and story was way too adult for little me, but I've grown quite fond of it today. The biggest epiphany, however, of my adult life in regards to this film is the realization that my mother is utterly and completely in love with Harrison Ford (I always wondered how my old man talked her into seeing a science-fiction, neo-noir film). I dearly love the woman with all my heart; however, I believe that if Harrison Ford walked into her home right now and carried her away, then she would proudly forget all of us and live her life in bliss.

3. In 1987, when I was twelve and an avid reader of both Fangoria and Gorezone magazine, I saw a full page ad for the Magnum video release of Dario Argento's Suspiria. Ten years after its initial release in America, where it was successful in its theatrical run, Suspiria was making its home video debut. This ad was my first exposure to foreign cinema. The older writers, like Chas. Balun (R.I.P), for example, were championing this film as it were a true triumph. Indeed. It was the first Argento film to my recollection to receive a American video release in its uncut form. It was also the first time that I had ever seen a film released on VHS in four editions: the uncut, letterboxed edition; the uncut, pan-and-scan edition; the R-rated, letterboxed edition; and the R-rated, pan-and-scan edition. After reading about the release in multiple issues, my interest was piqued. I asked my parents to purchase a copy for me on VHS for Christmas. Despite the $90 price tag, my parents said okay. I got the uncut, pan-and-scan edition (I don't think my parents knew what "letterboxed" meant and neither did I. I stressed also to them that I wanted the "uncut" version.) and watched it Christmas morning. It was a viewing experience that I'll never forget and is probably the single film which has shaped my film tastes to this day.

4. My first trip outside of the United States was to England, and this trip, like every subsequent one that I've taken outside of the country, I went to a movie theatre. I was a teenager in the eighth grade on a school trip with about ten others. The U.K.'s rating system was alien to me; some films were rated "15," when they were R-rated here in the States; while they had an "18" rating for adults only. At the time, us yanks only had the "R" rating, which still allowed minors with "adult guardian supervision." However, like in the States, seeing an "18" film for us wasn't difficult. I went to see Russell Mulcahy's Ricochet (Ice-T was the biggest O.G. at the time), Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (which has to been one of the most beautiful films that I've ever seen on the big screen), and Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles (which I was fortunate to see: it had an extremely limited run, I believe, in one theatre in London).

5. When I was in grad school in Los Angeles, there was a really beautiful girl in one of my poetry classes. We flirted a lot, but I never asked her out. During one of the final classes of the semester, she dropped a pen in my lap, and it fell between my legs. Sitting next to me, she coolly reached in and removed her pen. Needless to say I was motivated to finally ask her out. After class, I asked her if she wanted to have dinner, and she said yes. We went to a quiet restaurant in Marina del Rey. Andrew Fleming's The Craft had just made its video debut, and I had purchased at Tower Records its laserdisc release perhaps a couple of days before. At the time, a laserdisc machine was a good investment for a geeky film nerd, like myself: laserdiscs of recent films were of better quality and sometimes more affordable than VHS; the Criterion Collection put out stuff worth saving up for; and a single-laser machine could also play compact discs. There were machines with dual lasers, which were more expensive and overcame the biggest annoyance of laserdiscs--having to flip the disc at the middle of the film. I had a single-laser machine, and in this case, the flip of the laserdisc became a blessing. As dinner concluded, I asked her over to my apartment to watch The Craft. We snuggled under a blanket on my couch and watched. When I got up to flip the disc, she pulled me back onto the couch and we didn't finish the film until the morning.

6. The first film that I saw with the woman who was to be my wife was the remake of House on Haunted Hill. This film is a big piece of shit, and we both remarked to each other that fact when we had left the theatre. We had just started dating and were really into each other. Despite the film's poor quality, I had a great time just being with her. The second film that we saw together was Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, which we both loved. We started dating in November and by Christmas holidays, when we both had days off, she came over one evening and ended up spending the next three or four days with me. We spent that time almost exclusively in bed and we did a lot of what you think we did. We also watched a lot of movies. We watched the original House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price at least twice from what I can remember. I remember also being really sad when she eventually had to leave. Despite the fact that we're no longer married today, the best time in my life was that time when we were dating, falling head over heels in love, totally and completely into each other, and thinking of no one else.

7. Finally, just this last Christmas a few weeks ago, I got some of the best news that I've heard in a long time--my older sister, who lives in Italy, is getting married. I got the opportunity to spend the holidays with her and the rest of the family. In addition, she gave me the some of the best Christmas presents that I've ever received. She went to an open-air market on a weekend trip in Italy and bought me some real gems: I got two original Profondo Rosso fotobustas (there are pics of them here (not my actual ones, though. I received the one in the middle of the top row and the one in the middle of the middle row.) and the original Italian locandina poster for Michele Soavi's The Church (there's a pic of it up on eBay currently here). It thrills me to no end to know that these posters were upon walls in theatres in the heart of Italy during these films' original runs, real pieces of cinema history.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lucio Fulci's Door Into Silence (Le porte del silenzio) (1991)

"As for future projects," says Lucio Fulci during an interview (from Shock Masters of Cinema), "I'm writing a script with Franco Ferrini and Dario Argento. We're doing a remake of THE HOUSE OF WAX, an extremely sadistic tale of the fantastic. We are planning are getting it running in 1996, so wish me good luck." Unfortunately, Italian genre maestro, Lucio Fulci would die before helming what would be Maschera di cera (The Wax Mask) (1997), and the film would become the directorial debut of special effects maestro, Sergio Stivaletti. The anticipation of Fulci and Argento working together was high: they were arguably the two biggest names in Italian horror with an international audience, and because of this international audience, the two were still directing horror films while many of their colleagues had moved out of the genre. The anticipation of this project was perhaps as high as for Fulci's notorious Zombi 3 (1988), the sequel to his extremely popular splatter film, Zombi 2 (1979). Stephen Thrower writes in his book, Beyond Terror: The Flims of Lucio Fulci, "After a gap of nine years, the trade papers announced a forthcoming Fulci sequel that, had it worked out, could have stimulated a fresh wave of enthusiasm for the Italian horror genre. In 1988 Zombi 3, first announced as Zombi 3-D, would go before the cameras. A follow-up to the wonderful Zombie Flesh Eaters directed by the inimitable Fulci himself. It seemed perfect...Zombi 3 as it eventually appeared, to a howling chorus of disappointment, is one of the worst films ever made in Italian horror cinema." (The debacle and production history of Zombi 3 is for another day.) As they stand, both Zombi 3 and The Wax Mask, for all of their anticipation, are filled with sound and fury. Lucio Fulci's last directorial effort would be the little-seen and appropriately and eerily titled Door Into Silence (Le porte del silenzio) (1991).
Melvin Devereux (John Savage) is standing in front of the Devereaux mausoleum, in one of New Orleans' hauntingly beautiful cemeteries, speaking aloud and cryptically to his dead father, Richard. Melvin and his wife, Sylvia (Elizabeth Chugden), are realtors who work and live out in the more quiet and sleepy area in Louisiana. Sylvia is crying and is escorted home by comforters. Melvin is going home in his own car and taking his own special journey. Over numerous bridges and around road closings, Melvin takes a few frolics and detours: with a mystery woman (Sandi Schultz), who knows Melvin very well yet Melvin doesn't even know her name; a bubbly little sprite named Margie (Jennifer Loeb); and a hearse driver (Richard Castleman), who ends up anywhere and everywhere on any road which Melvin takes and always in front of Melvin. Melvin spies in the back of the hearse a name on a funeral wreath, and that name becomes Melvin's object of obsession, as he attempts to track down the hearse and learn who's occupying the coffin inside.
Fulci has this to say about Door Into Silence (during his interview included in Spaghetti Nightmares): "Well, it's a fine film, produced by my friend, Massaccesi, and based on another of my stories from Le Lune Nere. However, for various reasons, which I won't go into now, it's been beset by difficulties which have blocked its release for some time now...We shot it in two weeks on location in Louisiana, New Orleans and the surroundings. Another aspect of the film which has been given a lot of attention is the jazz soundtrack. Jazz is one of my great passions, by the way; I used to play when I was young. (edited by me out of Fulci's answer is a spoiler description of the film)." Door's producer and Fulci's "friend, Massaccessi" is Aristide Massaccessi, aka Joe D'Amato, whose production company, Filmirage, made four films in 1991 in New Orleans and/or its surroundings. Joe D'Amato has this to say about Fulci (and Door Into Silence, included in the documentary "Joe D'Amato Totally Uncut," a supplement on the Shriek Show Anthropophagus DVD): "Fulci's films were the best I produced. Unfortunately the ones I worked on weren't so successful, maybe because of distribution problems, or financial problems and so on...Even that one [Door Into Silence] was affected. It didn't do well, even if I think it's the best film I've worked on. It was a great film, with a great atmosphere. Fulci's very good so the shoot went great, with John Savage, and we brought a jazz band in to do the music, since there was a jazz soundtrack...We had helicopters...But it didn't make a single cent...But it's probably not the movie's fault. It's maybe the fault of the mess we'd found ourselves in at the time." D'Amato's helicopter reference (it's safe to assume since no helicopters appear in Door) relates to the film's opening aerial shots of Savage's Melvin driving across the Pontchartrain Expressway and the Crescent City Connection (bridge imagery is used extensively in Door). The jazz soundtrack that both Fulci and D'Amato reference is by Franco Piana. The costumes were designed by actress Laura Gemser. From his own story and screenplay, Fulci crafts a low-key, atmospheric, and fantastic film with not a drop of his signature blood and gore in sight. Door Into Silence is a film about death, immediately introduced by the opening cemetery sequence. Fulci, who always comes off as extremely erudite and conversant in music, art, film, and literature in his interviews, is able to fill Door with as many symbols relating to death as he can conjure. Door is a film about a journey, and as noted above, bridge imagery is prominent. Road signs indicating closures and detours lead Savage's Melvin all over the Louisiana countryside (in a seemingly curiously directed destination). The film is shot (by Giancarlo Ferrando) completely in the day light, but Fulci manages, with some very adept compositions to heighten the atmosphere, to create nightmare imagery, such as the small church funeral into which Savage timidly creeps or the understated and static shot of a blind newspaper salesman, who is sitting all alone and strumming a rhythm with a washboard. The mystery woman, who Savage meets at the beginning and encounters throughout Door, seems an archetypal character out of a famous Milton poem. The most obvious symbol is the hearse and it needs little flourish to become nightmarish.
Since Door is shrouded in mystery, Fulci wisely abandons any character exposition and keeps plot exposition to a minimum. Savage's Melvin appears initially a tired working man who wants nothing more than to go home to his wife. Over the course of the film, Melvin reveals himself a lonely, sad, and pathetic person. When Melvin first meets the hearse driver at a local bar, the driver has no problem swatting him aside and to the ground when Melvin starts to angrily bombard him with questions. Melvin picks himself up only to purchase a bottle of Scotch to keep him company on the road. Later, Loeb's Margie crawls into Melvin's car seeking a ride. She tempts him sexually, and it's an uncomfortable scene. It's as if Melvin doesn't want to have sex with the young hitchhiker, but he's craving human contact so badly that he'll engage in any. The scene ends quite embarrassingly for Melvin. The funeral scene is wonderfully curious as Savage's Melvin is tempted to disturb grieving families and walk forward to the coffin and open it in front of all. This scene speaks to Melvin's obsession, which is either completely irrational or the most important thing that Melvin will ever uncover in his life.Piana's jazz score is perfectly appropriate and moody. Ferrando's photography is very good. If anything sounds loudly from Door Into Silence, then it's Fulci's creative talent. Long overshadowed by his popular splatter flicks (which I very much enjoy, by the way), Fulci's filmography is quite diverse, and he's shown his talent in many genres. Completely eschewing the visceral, Fulci creates an ethereal gem. Door Into Silence, his final film, as far as the viewing public goes, has passed into its title.