Saturday, December 29, 2012

L'ossessa (1974)

L'ossessa (1974), or its bizarre English-language title, The Eerie Midnight Horror Show, is part of a genre of Italian cult cinema of which I am very fond:  post-Exorcist possession flicks.  Some of these films are reverent towards the source material, like L'anticristo (1974), while some are more sensational and sleazy, like Malabimba (1979).  L'ossessa definitely falls in the middle of this spectrum.  It’s totally uneven in entertainment value, suffering from primarily poor characterization despite its casting of actors of note, but it does have some marvelous set pieces and sequences.
Stella Carnacina plays Dani, a talented art student with an eye for uncovering forgotten works of art.  At an old church, she convinces her professor to purchase a life-size crucifix as a restoration project.  The crucifix is notable, for the body appears to be carved out of a single piece of wood; and the artist was successfully able to render the agony and emotion of its model.  Once the restoration project is begun, Dani returns home to attend a party hosted by her parents, portrayed by Chris Avram and Lucretia Love.  Avram’s character is staid and conservative, but Ms. Love is quite the swinging chick:  she takes to handsome paramour, played by Gabriele Tinti.  The two skip out of the party to fuck in the back bedroom where Ms. Love reveals that her kink is to be whipped with a handful of thorny roses.  Dani witnesses her mother and lover through a window and either despondent, disappointed, or shocked, she returns to the school to work on her painting.  While sitting at her easel, the crucifix resting behind Dani begins to animate.  The model comes to life revealing himself as Ivan Rassimov who, without hesitation, rips off Dani’s clothes and takes her upon the floor of the studio.  Enter the Devil.
Following Dani’s connubial scene with the Devil, and seemingly against the wishes of the director, Mario Gariazzo, L'ossessa quickly moves into the “possessed girl” sequence: Avram and Love witness spastic behavior from their daughter; Dani makes an inappropriate sexual gesture towards Avram; Love and Avram call the family doctor; Dani’s condition worsens to prompt the family doctor to consult specialists; and the specialists, in their infinite wisdom and knowledge, suggest an exorcism.  Gariazzo delivers this sequence almost as mechanically as my prose.  Gariazzo doesn’t want to keep his Dani character boringly bound to a bed (a la Linda Blair) to await the arrival of the exorcist in the final act.  In a ridiculous, yet almost sublime, dream sequence, Dani sees herself in a underground cavern (a fine cinematic substitute for Hell) where Rassimov’s Devil is accompanied by three witches.  The plan, here, is for Dani to be the puppet of the Devil to commit blasphemous and nefarious acts in his name.  Rock on, then.
Dani commits some minor Satanic acts before the local priest arrives to examine her.  (Indeed, as I write this review, pop-up advertisements play in the background of my PC that are far more Satanic than Dani’s acts.)  It is not long, then, in L'ossessa that Dani is whirled away by her parents to a mountain-top convent where in a remote section lives a reclusive yet famous exorcist, played by genre stalwart Luigi Pistilli.  The exorcist knows why he has been summoned and is sort-of ready to do battle with evil.
L'ossessa cannot be taken seriously as a drama, as the little details reveal.  For example, when the family doctor comes to examine Dani, he never once questions or speaks to her.  I cannot fathom why an experienced doctor would not talk to his adult patient about her symptoms.  In fact, when the specialists convene at Dani’s bedside to finally to decide upon her exorcism, none of the four specialists even notice that Dani is completely at rest behind them.  To top it off, Pistilli’s exorcist is quite capable of waving a cross in front of Dani when she is writhing in the violent throes of the Devil, but when Dani switches to a seductive pose to entice the priest, Pistilli’s character runs from her bedside, like a frightened adolescent.  Why does a cinematic exorcist have to be trained for solely overt, theatrical spiritual matters and not spiritual matters common to all?  The answer, perhaps, is that Gariazzo didn’t want to make a straight, Exorcist rip-off, but his hand was forced into completing one.  The best sequences are when Gariazzo and company completely divert from the source material.  For example, in one of L'ossessa’s best scenes, possessed Dani lays in a convent bed and the church bells begin to ring in a deafening manner.  The sounds are too much for her, and Dani bolts from her bed while her agonizing screams emit, competing with the sounds of the bells.  She runs through the convent and through the mountain-side village, whereupon Avram and some kind souls give chase to her.  Carnacina gives an emotional performance during this sequence, conveying true agony through her flight.  This one sequence is more frightening than any of the previous ones combined.

Despite its adept casting, L'ossessa fails to draw memorable performances from its actors.  For example, the extremely-talented and handsome Tinti is sorely underused as Love’s lover.  He performs the one fuck scene with her and appears later in one scene where Love rebuffs him (as she apparently feels guilty for her behavior after Dani becomes ill).   Rassimov is quite good and he has the fun role as the Devil:  he’s given the opportunity to let go and be indulgent and grasps the opportunity mightily.  Carnacina and Love appear to be cast for their seductive charm (and it works, as both are incredibly sexy).  However, Carnacina really transcends her cosmetic casting and devotes real emotion to her character, despite the weak screenplay.  Pistilli would have been a perfect cinematic exorcist in another movie.  He’s a wonderful actor with an emotive face, like Tinti, and with richer characterization, his performance would have been better.

L'ossessa is truly an average movie in the sub-genre of post-Exorcist films which places it fairly high on the obscurity scale.  However, I know that there are fans like me who will be attracted to it.  If one can appreciate its imaginative and sensational moments, then it’s worth seeing.  Otherwise, give this one a miss.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

10.000 dollari per un massacro (10,000 Dollars for a Massacre) (1967)

One can tell within the first few minutes of 10.000 dollari per un massacro (10,000 Dollars for a Massacre) (1967) that it has the potential to be a doozy of a Western.  Django (Gianni Garko, billed here as "Gary Hudson") lays on the beach at sunset, laughing and celebrating with a corpse.  The corpse is a lucrative bounty, and Django is tickled pink to cash it in.  Crossing the valley, Django spies Manuel Vásquez (Claudio Camaso) on horseback, and the two pass each other by quietly and without incident.  It's a fateful meeting, and the two meet several times during the duration of the film.  However, only one of the two gunslingers is going to survive this picture.
In an introduction to Westerns All'Italiana:  The Wild the Sadist and the Outsiders, Gianni Garko writes:

"In 10.000 Dollari per un massacro and Per 100.000 Dollari T'Ammazzo, I used the assumed name of Gary Hudson,.  I impersonated two romantic revenge-driven bounty killers with all the frailties of the common man.  In both movies Claudio Camaso, the younger brother of Gian Maria Volonté, portrayed my opponent.  I still remember him fondly." (1)

I love Garko's description of his character.  The title of the film is ironic.  It is clear from the outset of 10.000 dollari per un massacro that above all Django loves money.  When Django goes to the sheriff to cash in his latest bounty, the sheriff remarks that Manuel Vásquez's bounty is currently at three thousand.  Django scoffs, because he knows that the bounty will get higher.  Later that evening at a saloon, Django enters and finds Manuel at a card table.  They play an uneasy hand, and Django remarks that the fellow who beat the two at poker cheated.  Manuel knifes him in the back and gets his earnings from the corpse's pocket.  He splits the take with Django.  Pretty saloon owner, Myanou (Loredana Nusciak), chides Django for his violent actions and notes that Django and Manuel are just alike:  there is little evidence that she is wrong.
Manuel kidnaps a wealthy landowner's daughter, and the father later goes to see Django who offers him five thousand to retrieve his daughter and kill Manuel.  Django scoffs at the offer, again.  Django gets critically injured by two of Manuel's gang, and it is pretty Myanou who nurses him back to health.  Django has a change of heart and professes his love to the woman.  She returns his love and asks him to accompany her to San Francisco, away from the violent life on the frontier.  He agrees.  The father of the kidnapped daughter appears again and this time offers Django ten-thousand to find his daughter and kill Manuel.  Django accepts.
Much of the script of 10.000 dollari per un massacro, penned by Franco Fogagnolo, Ernesto Gastaldi, and Luciano Martino, focuses on the theme that Django, killing criminals for the law for money, and Manuel, a criminal killing anyone for anything, are the same.  Wisely, director Romolo Guerrieri focuses his drama on this theme.  Guerrieri, incidentally, also helmed two excellent films scripted by Fernando di Leo, the Western, Johnny Yuma (1966), starring Mark Damon and Rosalba Neri, and the crime drama,
Liberi armati pericolosi (1976), starring Eleonora Giorgi and Tomas Milian.  At a pivotal point in the film, Django and Manuel agree to commit a stagecoach robbery.  Django stipulates that no one is to be harmed.  Manuel agrees but reneges on the deal by killing everyone.  Why should Django care, if the score from the robbery is the same?  The romanticism of Django, which Garko adeptly observes, dies at that moment.  It is time for revenge.
There are quite a few attempts at humor in 10.000 dollari per un massacro but most of them fail to inspire laughs and inadvertently, perhaps, make the film a lot more disturbing.  I’ve never quite admired Gianni Garko’s acting range, but here, he is quite good.  There is a boyish charm to his character which creates a sense of innocence about him, despite the fact that he is a confident gunfighter.  When his reality comes crashing down upon him, Garko follows suit and becomes the cold, stoic fighter to whom I am most accustomed.  Good-looking Claudio Camaso looks quite a bit like his brother and plays his character of Manuel much as his brother does in the Leone Westerns:  very much charismatic yet wholly impulsive and cruel.  The action sequences are excellent, and save some plodding scenes, the pacing and tone is well-done.

While 10.000 dollari per un massacro is very much traditional and not quite innovative, it is traditional cinema done exceptionally.  I also believe, but am uncertain, that this film is one of the first films to capitalize on the Django character from Sergio Corbucci’s landmark film.  Gianni Garko would later cement his own legacy in the Euro-Western as Sartana in multiple films.  10.000 dollari per un massacro is well-worth seeing for fans of the genre.

1.  Garko, Gianni,  “Introduction.“  Authors, Bruschini, Antonio and Federico de Zigno.  Western All’Italiana: The Wild the Sadist and the Outsiders.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy.  2001:  p.  15.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Una pistola per cento bare (A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins) (1968)

Jim Slade (Peter Lee Lawrence) is imprisoned by the Army for his refusal to kill anyone during wartime, citing religious reasons for his refusal.  The Civil War ends, and he is pardoned.  Jim returns home to his parents' ranch in Tucson, Arizona and comes home to find his parents murdered.  Jim abandons his religious pacificism to exact revenge upon his parents’ murderers.  He buys a pistol and quickly learns to use it.  Four bandits were witnessed at his parents’ ranch, and Slade sets out to find them.

Umberto Lenzi only directed two Westerns, and Una pistola per cento bare (A Pistol for a Hundred Coffins) (1968) is his most notable.  Una pistola begins promising.  Slade finds the first bandit in a town’s square with a noose firmly around his neck, seconds before he is to be hanged for murder.  Slade rescues the bandit and escapes the town.  In a remote section of the desert, Slade forces the bandit to dig his own grave and reveal the identities and locations of his accomplices.  Once the bandit supplies the information, Slade guns him down in cold blood.  Slade’s bloodlust continues.  In the next village, he finds the home of a bandit where his wife and two children prepare for a meal.  Slade kills the bandit whose corpse falls upon the kitchen floor.  His wife and children are forced to witness his death.  Wasting no time, Slade tracks the third bandit to a crowded saloon.  Slade announces his presence to the crowd and demands the bandit present himself.  The bandit, well-dressed and at a card table, identifies himself.  Seemingly oblivious to the onlookers around him, Slade guns him down.  This mean-spirited killing spree by Slade occupies only the first fifteen minutes of Una pistola.  Amazing.

Unfortunately, the energy created during the first act cannot be sustained.  Jim has little information on the fourth bandit, as he only knows his last name, “Corbett,” and the state where he last seen, “Texas.”  He moves through the counties and checks the local bounty boards.  During one afternoon, he rides into a sleepy town and stops in the saloon.  He meets a traveling preacher, like Slade also fast with his gun, named Douglass (John Ireland).  Soon after introductions, the town is under siege by a group of bandits who attempt to rob the local bank.  The bandits are positive that two-hundred thousand dollars are located on the premises.  No money is found and the bandits retreat, not before killing the local sheriff.  The mayor of the town offers Slade and Douglass five thousand dollars each to stay and protect the town.  Slade refuses but accepts the deal when he learns that the bandit leader is none other than Corbett (Piero Lulli), the final man upon whom Slade wants to exact revenge.
During the second act of Una pistola per cento bare, the pacing slows and the plot becomes slightly too convoluted.  Slade’s plan to catch and then kill Corbett involves learning the location of the two-hundred thousand dollars, manipulating the location of the cache to lure Corbett back into town, and finally, enacting a plan to subdue Corbett once he arrives.  This latter aspect of Slade’s scheme involves myriad phases and Lenzi and his scriptwriters employ several plot and character twists.  The exposition of this scheme takes too long, so most of the ninety-minute runtime becomes bogged down.
Despite the meandering second act of Una pistola per cento bare, it does contain the most notable sequence of the entire film.  The local asylum has burned down, and the asylum’s patients have been relocated to a single cell in the town’s jail.  Within the cell are a pyromaniac, a rapist, and a murderer to name a few and there is nowhere to safely put them besides the jail.  Both Douglass and Slade, presumably because of their religious backgrounds, see the group as unfortunates and take pity upon them.  In the most well-known sequence of the film, the group escapes the cell and lays siege upon the town:  burning buildings, murdering townsfolk, and two attempt to rape the lovely beauty who sings at the local saloon, before being thwarted by Douglass who appears at the last second.  This sequence is not nearly as menacing as some of the early sequences in, say,  Condenados a vivir (Cut-Throats Nine) (1972) but it is unsurprisingly sickening and unnerving.  The inclusion of the group of psychotics in Una pistola appears, at first blush, solely to create an overtly exploitative sequence.  (However, one of the group involves himself in the plot in a pivotal scene.)  Certainly this sequence in Una pistola has created a lasting legacy and notoriety for cult and Western film fans.
When Una pistola per cento bare ended, I had this overwhelming feeling that I’ve just watched an average western, despite several strong sequences.  In the first instance, the film feels transitory, as if its meandering and convoluted plot was warming up for the giallo. (Lenzi would release his sinful Orgasmo subsequent to Una pistola.)  Also the mean-spirited and tension-filled opening act would foreshadow Lenzi’s later work with his masterful crime flicks, such as Milano odia: la polizia non può sparare (1974).  Ultimately, I believe the absence of a central and focal villain is the biggest flaw of Una pistola.  The opening sequence of the film establishes that Slade is willing to abandon his religious beliefs of pacificism (and face hard labor for this belief) for the sake of revenge.  Having Slade relentlessly and coldly follow this path of revenge only to stall the path to become a scheming, substitute lawman feels artificial.  Perhaps a simpler plotline would have made Una pistola a strong, exploitative, mean-spirited Euro-Western.  As it stands, Una pistola per cento bare is more of a cult oddity for Euro-Western and Lenzi completists.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Yankee (1966)

My expectations when sitting down to watch Yankee (1966) were of seeing an arty western with some kinky shit included in regular intervals.  This may sound glib, but make no mistake, these were welcome expectations; for the director of Yankee was none other than Tinto Brass in his sole contribution to the genre.  As for my expectations, they were mostly fulfilled:  Yankee is beautifully shot (photography by Alfio Contini) with an interesting design; the music by Nini Rosso is memorable; and finally, the dialogue of the script is clever and often playful.  The kinky shit is also there, but its quantity is much less than I anticipated.  Perhaps, there is a reason behind this restraint, as we will see.
The Yankee is Philippe Leroy, an arrogant and confident bounty killer who loves money.  During the opening sequence in a darkly-lit saloon, a bandit enters on horseback (!) and robs the till.  The Yankee, in attendance, shoots the bandit, as does another bounty-killer rival in the bar.  With two bullets firmly placed in the heart of the bandit, neither bounty killer wants to share the bounty.  The buxom barmaid proposes a game of chance:  with a deck of cards, the one who draws the high card may bed the barmaid; while the loser may claim the corpse for the bounty.  The Yankee's rival draws first and selects a two from the deck.  With a win inevitable, the Yankee forfeits the game and claims the bounty.  This is excellent character exposition.
The Yankee crosses the Rio Grande into New Mexico and stumbles upon a frontier town that is suspiciously devoid of inhabitants, save the gravedigger.  The Yankee learns that the town is controlled by egomaniacal and ruthless bandit, the Grand Concho (Adolfo Celi).  The Yankee makes a brief stop at the sheriff's office and learns that the majority of the Grand Concho's gang hold bounties.  Most of the bounties are low, but in the aggregate, the bounty for the entire gang is quite lucrative.  The Yankee hatches a scheme to bring down the Grand Concho and his gang.  His intellect and fast gun will be essential, but his arrogance may prove fatal...
If the story of Yankee sounds familiar, then perhaps this is intentional.  Kevin Grant, author of the interesting Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns, sees Yankee as a polarization of the cat-and-mouse motif that the anti-hero engages with his opponent during the film.  Grant in his introduction emphasizes Brass's film and  writes that, "...Yankee [1966], whose dialogue resonates with references to risk and the deadly pleasure of playing--its director, Tinto Brass, envisioned its villain and anti-hero as bull and bullfighter, respectively."  (1)  Yankee's chief commercial inspiration may have been Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Brass was attracted to this motif, now becoming commonplace in westerns.
"Brass had initially conceived a totally original visual experience," writes authors Antonio Bruschini and Federico de Zigno, "where the various main characters' entry was supposed to be introduced through the emphasis on a symbolic detail (the gunfighter's spur, the woman's naked ankle and so on...), closely in tune with the pop-style of that era, adopting a visual conception similar to that of the comics of Guido Crepax." (2)  Unfortunately, Brass's vision was stifled, as Bruschini and de Zigno continue, "The end results were considered 'too odd,' by the producer who 'manipulated' the film in the cutting room, to make it more 'normal.'  'The main obsession I had, was that of the ''language,"' says Brass, 'I wanted to apply the language of the comics to the most disparate genres.  That western, as I had conceived it [...] was supposed to be a movie told with ideograms, much like Chinese writing, a sign indicating a concept.  But after the argument I had with the producer there remained only a few microscopic details, the colt, the spur, the trigger and so on, which left the audience baffled.'" (3)
Perhaps if Brass had been able to fulfill his vision with Yankee, then it may have been appropriate to discuss the film alongside his own Col cuore in gola (1967), Jean-Luc Godard's Week End (1967), Giulio Questi's La morte ha fatto l'uovo (1968), and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L'éden et après (1970) and Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1974), for example.  As Yankee stands today, however, much of Brass’s original vision remains.  For example, the Grand Concho occupies seemingly a castle which casts a shadow over the entire town below.  The castle is fitted with a throne upon which Celi’s character sits.  On the walls are various portraits of the Grand Concho with many of the styles influenced by the art of the time.  In a hilarious and provocative sequence, Yankee enters the castle while the Grand Concho and his gang are away.  He steals many of the portraits and posts them around the quiet town.  When the Grand Concho sees his portraits, now littering the town like bounty notices, he becomes enraged and demands all houses burned where a portrait is placed.  This is just another part of the game--while the portraits sit in the castle they commemorate a grand leader, and as they are posted in the street, each becomes a symbol for ignominy and contempt--a nice juxtaposition and a fantastic sequence.
The editing of the film is contemporary (Brass was one of the editors).  Yankee has many single-shot cutaways, and each could stand on its own as a single composition.  Indeed, they are disorienting but they never distract--often each piece emphasizes the preceding or subsequent sequence.  In as much many of the close-ups are a joke.  Think of how many times one sees a close-up of a gunslinger's eyes during a fateful confrontation.

Adolfo Celi is a brilliant actor and he really steals Yankee away from the others.  He’s not quite a Manson-like guru but more traditional.  At one moment he can be jovial and then at the drop of the hat, Celi’s character is frighteningly cruel.  Leroy is fine in his role.  He lacks the boyish charm of Giuliano Gemma, the melancholy of Anthony Steffen, or the total badass-ness of Lee Van Cleef, for example.  Much of his face is hidden by his hat, and Yankee is so full of playful dialogue, little attention is paid to his aesthetics.  Yankee follows a traditional Western tale, yet there is enough to make the film spontaneous.  When the gunfighter’s game escalates to its conclusion--two guesses as to whom is participating--it is remarkably tension-filled.  The ending is very satisfying, and I would be remiss to note how very good Celi is in this sequence and on a whole.

Finally, as for the kinky shit and provocative bits that are characteristic of Tinto Brass cinema, author Christopher Frayling adds this interesting observation:  “By 1967, when Questi made the film (Django, Kill), things were getting a little out of hand:  an Italian magistrate seized all the copies of Django, Kill he could find, and a Cinecittà producer dragged Tinto Brass out of the cutting room of another Spaghetti Western, Yankee.  It was ironic, wrote [critic] Fornari, that of all films these two should receive ‘the stigma of artistic martyrdom.”  (4)  This is an interesting quote from Frayling, as it seems to insinuate that 1) perhaps the producer of Yankee feared criminal liability and forced the cutting of Yankee to distinguish it from Questi’s film and 2) perhaps Brass’s original film was as provocative as Questi’s landmark western.  I don’t know.  Yankee is tame compared to Brass’s other work.  As it stands today, Yankee is ripe for a visit from the seeker of curious cinema and a fantastic Euro-Western for those uninitiated to the genre’s uniqueness and offbeat charm.

1.  Grant, Kevin.  Any Gun Can Play:  The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns.  FAB Press.  Surrey, England, U.K.  2011: p. 22.
2.  Bruschini, Antonio and Federico de Zigno.  Western All’Italiana: The Wild the Sadist and the Outsiders.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy.  2001:  p.  39.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Fraying, Christopher.  Spaghetti Westerns Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone.  St. Martin’s Press.  New York.  1981, 1998:  p. 82.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dove si spara di più (Fury of Johnny Kid) (1967)

Dove si spara di più (Fury of Johnny Kid) (1967) is a minor Euro-Western which features major actors of European cult cinema.  Its lasting impression upon European cult cinema is its historical value.  Dove si spara di più boasts one of the first appearances of iconic Spanish actor Paul Naschy and is also one of his earliest forays into the technical side of filmmaking.
Through his father, he writes, Paul Naschy became friends with a number of film directors, one of whom was Gianni Puccini.  During the filming of Dove si spara di più, Naschy "became a consultant to the art director, to the head of wardrobe and to the armorer, much to the chagrin of executive producer Enrique Cabezas who had helped [him] get involved in the movie in the first place.  Gianni had a blind faith in [his] judgment, even going so far as to ask for [his] advice about the script and certain scenes."  (1)
Naschy's appearance in Dove si spara di più is in a bizarre scene.  Enter bustling saloon leading man Peter Lee Lawrence as Johnny and his Falstaff-ian accomplice, Lefty (Andrés Mejuto).  With biceps and forearms bulging, Naschy plays a bandit engaged in an arm-wrestling contest.  The contest is a fierce one, and the participants go back and forth, moving almost to the rhythm of the song being sung by lovely María Cuadra (portraying a wistful and tragic prostitute).  As Johnny and Lefty make their way to the bar, a winner emerges in the arm-wrestling contest.  The loser of the match gets his hand impaled upon a bed of a nails.  Naschy writes:  "The props department came up with the idea of placing wooden planks with real, sharp-pointed nails under the forearms of each actor.  So when I forced down the arm of the Italian actor the nails went into his flesh, sinking into several veins and splattering blood over the continuity girl, who almost fainted.  As a result we had to wait three or four days to carry on shooting, this time, obviously. using fake nails." (2)

Peter Lee Lawrence (né Karl Hirenbach, billed here as Arthur Grant) portrays Johnny Mounters in Dove si spara di più, as the youngest son of the Mounters family who own a large ranch at the end of the valley.  Across the way is competing family, the Campos clan, most represented by villainous son, Rodrigo, portrayed by Pietro Martellanza (billed as Peter Martell).  The youngest Campos is sweet and passionate Giulietta (Cristina Galbó).  The two families are engaged in a bloody rivalry.  Johnny and Giulietta fall in love.  Is everyone picking up on from where the source material originates?
Westerns, in general, are full of archetypes and a blending of Shakespeare and Western mythology would seem an ideal pairing.  Not quite.  Dove si spara di più is never truly compelling and the familiar story is not rendered memorably.  It is a chatty film, full of speeches, which may seem appropriate given the source material, but the Western landscape should have an equal amount of talking down iron sights.  The gun fights and action sequences pale to the cinema of Corbucci and Castellari and at times appear ridiculous.  In one sequence, the Campos and Mounters families engage in a gun battle with each family behind cover across a courtyard.  During the shootout, one can actually witness fools break cover and head out into the courtyard.  Of course, they are gunned down within seconds.  I don't understand this battle strategy--ever.

Other sequences make no sense and are odd and seem out of place.  Normally, I love characters acting nonsensically in cinema.  There's an energy and spontaneity and freedom in those sequences.  However, there are times when ridiculous sequences seem just nonsensical and plodding.  For example, Lawrence's Johnny is a character who does not drink alcohol.  Fair enough.  So when Johnny gets angry or full of melancholy, he doesn't head to the saloon to knock back glasses of whiskey.  Instead, he has the bartender pour him a glass of whiskey which he slides down the bar and shoots with his pistol before the glass falls off.  Lawrence shoots quite a few glasses.  Perhaps at the conception stage, this scene was either pivotal and/or clever.  During its rendition, it seems grating and annoying.
Not all the nonsensical and weird sequences are uninteresting, however, in Dove si spara di più.  The town's sheriff is a douchebag and has aligned himself with the Campos family.  In exchange for giving a blind eye to the nefarious deeds of the Campos family, the Sheriff is granted the hand of Giulietta in marriage.  His allegiance to the Campos family goes further back:  in an attempt to apprehend one of the Campos' sons, he is forced to pull his pistol.  Both the sheriff and the son fire his weapon simultaneously and the bullets collide.  The sheriff carries to the two bullets, now fused as one, as a symbol of fate.  He believes that his destiny is weaved with the Campos's.  It's an interesting, highly unlikely, and symbolic scene.  It's a clever use by the filmmakers to make often boring expository material weird and unusual.

Peter Lee Lawrence and Cristina Galbó were once married, and as far as my limited research has uncovered, Dove si spara di più is the only film in which the two star together.  The best scene of the film is the meeting of the two.  Johnny with Lefty in tow decide to rob a stagecoach, believed to be carrying a valuable Campos treasure.  As Johnny pulls the riders out of the carriage, Giulietta emerges last.  She pulls a small pistol from her purse and aims it at Johnny.  Johnny is frozen, and adeptly, Giulietta shoots the black mask off of Johnny's face.  The chemistry that the two hold shows instantly that it is love at first sight.  This scene is the heart of Dove si spara di più; and had the love story been developed more, then film could have been something interesting.  Instead, the love story is a vehicle for a familiar revenge tale and stock Western mythology.
Dove si spara di più is definitely a film for the European cult film fan who is looking to branch out in the more obscure titles that the genre has to offer.  I am a huge fan of Peter Lee Lawrence--a cult actor in a genre of cult cinema, to be certain--so I would recommend the film to his fans.  Paul Naschy fans will certainly relish the opportunity to see the icon in one of his earliest endeavors.

1.  Naschy, Paul.  Memoirs of Wolfman.  Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.  2000.  Pp.87-88.
2.  Naschy, Paul.  Memoirs of Wolfman.  Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.  2000.  Pp.88-89.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mondo Cannibale (Cannibals) (1980)

Benvenuti nella Giungla

Mondo Cannibale (Cannibals) (1980) is Jess Franco's foray into the then-popular cannibal genre (decidedly marked by Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980)).    This production was "announced as Rio Salvaje to be produced by Magna Films/Madrid;" but, it was French film company, Eurociné, who overtook the production (with Daniel Lasœur serving as production manager). (1)  Italian actors Al Cliver (Pier Luigi Conti) and Sabrina Siani were cast as the leads.  Humorously, Franco admits to seeing Deodato's seminal film and "then one more" before having his fill of the cannibal genre (2), and despite his ambivalence towards the genre, I cannot fathom Franco ever turning down an opportunity to make a film.

Mondo Cannibale lacks the realism and sadism so characteristic of the genre.  Hence, it completely misses the mark with the genre’s fans.  The film was shot in Alicante (3) in a beautiful palm forest, a locale more suitable for young lovers to stroll under the moonlight than for human-flesh feasting.  Turtles, if they frequent the area, were left in peace.  Franco cast the local gypsies as the cannibal tribe, and frequent collaborator Antonio Mayans (aka Robert Foster) was cast as the tribal leader.(5)  Al Cliver plays Jeremy Taylor, and with his wife and young daughter they take a foray into the jungle for an expedition.  Shit goes from bad to worse when the cannibals attack.  Taylor’s wife is killed; Taylor is tortured and maimed; and his young daughter goes missing, presumed dead.  Cliver’s Taylor wakes up in a hospital in New York with amnesia.  Lina Romay appears as a nurse in the asylum (Romay as a non-blonde Candy Coster).  She becomes attached to Taylor and helps him recuperate.  He regains his memory and is determined to return to the jungle to find his daughter...
The only real gore of Mondo Cannibale are primarily close-ups of the requisite cannibal feedings.  Understandably, with Franco’s distaste for the genre, they look like people eating raw steak upon a willing victim’s stomach.  The plot of the film reads like an American pulp novel or serial:  the young daughter of Taylor grows of age and becomes the queen of the tribe and is forced to return to civilization with her family and abandon her adoptive tribal one.  Franco treats the material in a perfunctory manner.  Of highlight, however, is the film’s music.  Despite the credits reading Robert Pregadio as composer, Franco admits the music is the collaboration of him and Daniel White. (4)  The music is evocative of Riz Ortolani’s score from Cannibal Holocaust, yet it is quite beautiful appreciated on its own.  Despite the gore being gratefully little and poorly-rendered, the actors’ make-up is quite striking.  Eschewing any realism, Franco paints his actors’ faces in bright, festival-like colors.  In any state of mind, Mondo Cannibale appears like drunken Mardi Gras revelers making a film in the midst of partying.  The palm-forest setting must be quite striking, as Franco alters many of his compositions to emphasize their beauty.  The frames do not look like postcards but have Franco’s unique, poetic touch.
DVD label, Blue Underground released Mondo Cannibale on DVD a few years ago.  Its attraction is primarily for fans of Jess Franco.  Cannibal fans can get their fill and then some with Deodato’s masterful film.  Despite the fact that she has little dialogue and delivers a sub-par performance, one can see Sabrina Siani’s charisma.  She’s incredibly sexy and scantily-clad throughout the picture.  Antonio Mayans is surprisingly animated in his role, but he is always a compelling actor to watch.  Al Cliver gives a familiar performance:  he never stretches the heights of his acting ability but manages to deliver again, an emotional and thoughtful performance.  Lina Romay’s role is very straightforward and offers little in the way of character.  She should be given more but c’est la vie.  I’ll see anything that Franco makes and have seen well over a hundred of his films.  Mondo Cannibale gets a rare revisit from me.
Finally, to those who frequent these pages, I apologize for the lack of content over the last few months.  I’ve been fine yet haven’t had any inclination to write about anything.  This post ain’t the greatest, and I wrote it mainly to shake off the cobwebs and produce something.  I plan on writing more very soon.  If you enjoy reading these pages, feel free to comment upon any post.  Comments are open to anyone and everyone.
 1. Obsession:  The Films of Jess Franco.  Ed. Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock.  Grauf Haufen and Frank Trebbin.  Germany: 1993.  p. 137.
2. Video interview “Franco Holocaust.”  Cannibals DVD.  Blue Underground.  November 13, 2007.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Prince of Darkness (1987)

One of the fondest memories of my childhood took place when I was eleven years old and in a packed house, Houston movie theatre. There was a matinee showing of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) during its opening weekend, and I was accompanied by my aunt Susan and her son, my cousin Steve who was a year younger than me. Big Trouble was a perfect film to see as a little boy and with a packed theatre of moviegoers: a large spectacle film, full of action and humor and there was plentiful cheering and laughter coming from the audience. The experience was more exhilarating than a roller coaster ride, and I daresay the experience, for me, has ever been duplicated. Unfortunately, cinemas must have been vacant elsewhere in the country. "Nobody got it," says director John Carpenter. "Like I said earlier, timing was never my thing in terms of when my movies come out. This movie was completely and totally misunderstood. The critics and public thought it was just bad, and there is nothing I can do about that." (1)
Well, Carpenter has a true fan with Big Trouble in Little China with me, but the financial failure of the film led him back into low-budget filmmaking. (2) Carpenter entered into a contract with Alive Films, and the contract stipulated a budget of three million dollars per film with Carpenter having complete artistic freedom. (3) The first of the two-picture collaboration was Prince of Darkness (1987). (4) Prince turned out to be a fortuitous production for several reasons: 1) it allowed him to shoot the entire picture in Los Angeles, close to his home, so he could always be near to his young son; 2) it was a film that he always wanted to do; and finally 3) Prince of Darkness gave him a break from the rigmarole of Hollywood games and politics. (5) With a filmography full of underrated gems and hidden treasures, no one Carpenter picture is perhaps as overlooked as Prince of Darkness.
I have always considered John Carpenter a perfect classical filmmaker: wide and medium shots and close-ups are the norm with the occasional smooth and fluid tracking shot (e.g. the opening shot of his masterful Halloween (1978)). The first act sees its exposition delivered and all characters introduced, and do not be surprised to see those same characters in the final act, holed up, with their backs against the wall, making a last stand. John Carpenter is traditional film maker extraordinaire, but Prince of Darkness sees quite a bit of artistic innovation. The opening ten minutes of the film, for example, in a bold move, are the credits of Prince of Darkness which are inter-cut with short sequences. These short sequences serve as the film's exposition but they are more like little short films. These sequences only hint to the substance of the film's plot. They are primarily, simply disorienting. For example, Victor Wong (with whom Carpenter worked previously on Big Trouble) plays Professor Howard Birack who teaches theoretical physics. In his first sequence, Birack walks towards his classroom and pauses in front of the building. He cups his hands over his face and stares at the blinding sun through his fingers. Carpenter's camera racks focus from Birack in the background of the frame into the foreground where a mound of furious ants circle, as engaged in war. The scene represents change and it's delivered in a very subtle and doubly-creepy fashion. (To further add, I love Birack's classroom speeches during this first ten minutes: "Say goodbye to classical reality!") Later in Prince, when all of the characters have gathered in the central setting location of the church, Carpenter introduces a dream sequence, which every character experiences when he or she goes to sleep in the film. The dream sequence is composed of a small, shaky tracking shot in front of the church which stops upon the entrance. At the entrance of the church, a dark figure stands with smoke bellowing from behind. The audio is squeaky hisses and barely decipherable dialogue. To this day, this dream sequence freaks me the eff out. Carpenter says that he "shot these sequences with a video camera and re-photographed it on a TV to give them a video feel. It was effective and I enjoyed shooting them." (6) I would go further to say not only were these sequences effective but quite ingenious.
At its heart, Prince of Darkness is a film about rational and logical people attempting to give meaning to, and to structure, chaos. Its spiritual father is H.P. Lovecraft, and in my opinion, its direct influence is the work of Nigel Kneale. The script is penned by "Martin Quatermass" (Carpenter's pseudonym) (7) as an homage to Kneale's best-known work, the Quatermass series that were filmed as television serials and as feature films many times over the course of Kneale's life. The plot and setting of Prince of Darkness are most evocative of one of Kneale's best works, The Stone Tape (1972). Prince of Darkness is about physicist, Professor Birack, who is contacted by a priest (Donald Pleasence) who has discovered a forgotten religious sect, "The Brotherhood of Sleep." At an abandoned church downtown, a guardian priest watched over an artifact: an ancient canister which houses an unknown substance. The substance appears to have a consciousness and is able to perform actions which defy most scientific laws. The priest senses the canister houses an ancient evil and he needs the help of Birack to figure out what it is. Birack assembles a team of students, including Brian Marsh (Jameson Parker) and Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), and other scholars to meet at the church for a research session. Whatever is in the canister will reveal itself to everyone at that time. Damn.
When I first saw Prince of Darkness, I was disappointed. I was an adolescent and saw the film as a "New Release" VHS rental. I felt disappointed, because I wanted to see the Prince of Darkness. (In fairness to adolescent me, the trailer kind of feeds this expectation rather than hindering it.) Preferably, the Prince would stalk the halls of the church, taking its unsuspecting victims one by one. In other words, I wanted a more visceral experience like Carpenter earlier delivered with his masterful The Thing (1982). I wanted to see everything and I had to know everything. This wasn't Carpenter's technique at all. "If I applied anything from him [Lovecraft] for Prince of Darkness," says Carpenter, "it was his style, the way be built up his stories very slowly to reach that gasp. And it was something I hadn't tried before." (8) The "gasp" to which Carpenter refers is his summation of Lovecraft's style: a fictional experience where the reader is led through a series of horrific events to the threshold of the consuming evil, the haunting ghost, or the lurking monster. Lovecraft would end his stories at that threshold and allow his reader's imagination to take over. Make no mistake, however, that Lovecraft fueled that imagination greatly with his prose. Fear is what Lovecraft wanted to generate, and it was also Carpenter's goal with Prince of Darkness.

Carpenter adeptly attempted to generate a lurking fear with his viewer and was mostly successful. If you have never seen Prince of Darkness, then during your first viewing watch closely the character of Kelly, portrayed by Susan Blanchard. In the ensemble cast, she is not a very rich character with a well-drawn background nor does her character initially buttress the plot or drive the narrative. In a very subtle fashion during the second act, Kelly becomes a very important character to the plot, but Carpenter keeps her character in the background. In a very adept turn towards the end of the second act, Carpenter makes a big revelation about Kelly that kicks off the action of the final act. Kelly's character is a perfect example of Lovecraftian fear. The homeless people who populate the area outside of the church serve as guardians for the Prince of Darkness. They serve mostly as a very effective visual motif for Carpenter (rocker Alice Cooper is amongst their number). Carpenter's compositions of the legion of homeless folk are completely creepy. The best murder sequence of the film involves character Wyndham (Robert Grasmere) standing alone under the night sky in a large alley behind the church. Wyndham has been through a bout of sulking and whining and stands defiantly behind the church in protest. A beautiful wide composition emphasizes that Wyndham is all alone. Another wide shot follows to see the legion of homeless people shadowed in the distance. Wyndham turns his head to follow another wide composition to see an ominous character come out of the church. Cut to a quick close-up on a murder weapon then to its charging assailant. It's a brilliant murder sequence: disorienting, haunting, and violent.

The biggest flaw of Prince of Darkness is attempting to integrate a quick romantic subplot between Brian and Catherine to provide an emotional core for the film. Brian shows that he has a crush on Catherine during the first act but is too shy to talk to her. When he does get the courage to speak to her, Carpenter intensifies their relationship quickly. Both characters, however, fade into the ensemble during the second act, so one wonders why Carpenter went through the trouble. The last ten minutes of the film provide a somewhat hollow consummation of their relationship and answer the first-act questions. This relationship feels forced, so perhaps Carpenter should have kept Brian shy and Catherine distant: unrequited love may have been more appropriate or more tragic. C'est la vie.
Today, I watch all of Carpenter's movies over and over with much love. I would rank Prince of Darkness as one of my favorites from him. As I get older, I'm more impressed with the quality of Carpenter's work and the immense talent that he possesses.

1. John Carpenter The Prince of Darkness. Boulenger, Gilles. Silman-James Press. Los Angeles. 2003: p. 198.

2. Ibid. p. 201.

3. Ibid. p. 201.

4. Ibid. p. 201.

5. Ibid. p. 206.

6. Ibid. p. 204.

7. Ibid. p. 280.

8. Ibid. p. 204.

Monday, March 26, 2012

La polizia chiede aiuto (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) (1974)

La polizia chiede aiuto (1974), directed by Massimo Dallamano, is better known to English-speaking audiences as What Have They Done to Your Daughters? This film follows Dallamano's previous What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and along with the latter film, La polizia chiede aiuto is often referenced as the second film in a trilogy, the "Schoolgirls in Peril" films, that conclude with Enigma rosso (Red Rings of Fear) (1978). Fans of Italian genre cinema and the genre's traditional critics often enthusiastically debate as to what label to ascribe to La polizia chiede aiuto: is the film "i poliziotteschi minori," as authors Federico Patrizi and Emanuele Cotumaccio relate? (1) or is the film the only other financially successful giallo to be released after 1972 (along with Profondo rosso (1975)), as authors Daniel Dellamorte and Tobias Petterson relate? (2) La polizia chiede aiuto begins and ends with onscreen text, relating to the problems of missing teens in Italy: this is a film which wants to inform its audience and be socially relevant to its culture and at the same time, the movie also wants to be compelling and entertaining and not exploitative. Is the film successful?
Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) discovers in an attic loft the body of a fifteen-year-old girl, named Silvia Polvesi (Sherry Buchanan), an apparent victim of suicide. An autopsy is performed. Its results conclude that Silvia's injuries do not match her cause of death (hanging), and evidence was found in her body that she had sex shortly before her death. The police now label the case a homicide. Assistant District Attorney Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) oversees the case while Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) heads the investigation. Their prime suspect is Silvia's mysterious lover, and through a series of leads, the police discover that Silvia was part of a prostitution racket involving girls her own age...
Little fault can be allocated to the script of La polizia chiede aiuto, penned by Dallamano and Ettore Sanzò. It's a script guided by logic and strictly adheres to the cinematic concept of a police procedural. Stori and Silvestri appear as credible and intelligent and are competent with deductive reasoning. Plot construction is not a problem: there's more than enough material to move the mystery swiftly along. What La polizia chiede aiuto is sorely lacking, and its absence is to the film's serious detriment, is characterization. This is surprising, given the adept casting of the leads. Claudio Cassinelli is perhaps the most underrated actor in Italian genre cinema. In my opinion, he is just as handsome as Franco Nero or Fabio Testi, for example, but is much more talented. Cassinelli is one of the few actors that can appear as impulsive and obsessive and sensitive in the same role (see Morte sospetta di una minorenne (1975)) or as brooding, intense, and violent (see
Diamanti sporchi di sangue (1977)). Beautiful Giovanna Ralli has an incredible vulnerability surrounding her character in the film and she's quite adept at channeling that vulnerability for the entire picture. Mario Adorf's character appears briefly in the film but Adorf's character benefits from having an emotional background, whereas Stori and Silvestri's characters conspicuously have no background whatsoever. Adorf's character has a daughter the same age as the initial victim in the film (which later becomes a big plot point). In a representative scene, Assistant District Attorney Stori meets Silvestri in an elevator after a particularly grueling bout of reviewing gruesome evidence. Stori has also become the target of the killer who is acting in an effort to stop the police investigation. Silvestri reaches out to Stori for a tender moment, and she curtly rebuffs him. That's it. There's almost no characterization to La polizia chiede aiuto.
In my opinion, the almost total absence of any characterization makes La polizia chiede aiuto definitely a minor film, worth revisiting once in a blue moon. There is, however, much to praise within the film. Of particular note are the film's visuals. Franco Delli Colli handsomely lensed La polizia chiede aiuto and Dallamano is also a seasoned and respected cinematographer. It is unsurprising, then, that the film looks so slick, especially the giallo and the poliziottesco sequences. The killer of the film dons a complete black leather outfit, replete with motorcycle helmet to mask his identity. He carries a large butcher's cleaver as his weapon. In a signature giallo sequence, he stalks the dark halls of a hospital in order to attack an injured witness housed there. The killer is discovered by the police, and they give chase in the hallways. One officer rounds the corner, and the killer chops off his hand with plenty of blood spray. The lighting, combined with a judicious use of the killer’s point of view, make this sequence classic gialli, and it rivals the best scenes in the genre. This scene is quickly followed by an exciting motorcycle/car chase (as one appears in every poliziottesco film): the editing is quick and meticulous and the pacing is furious. Overall, La polizia chiede aiuto is a fantastic film to watch, and it has enough signature elements to satisfy both giallo and poliziottesco fans. Not to forget to mention, Stelvio Cipriani composes another amazing score.
Ultimately, La polizia chiede aiuto (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) (1974) feels too clean, cosmetic, and compartmentalized for me to truly enjoy it. This, however, says more about my artistic taste than serving as an accurate criticism of the film. La polizia chiede aiuto needed to loosen up at some point, have its characters embrace each other or tell another a joke. The film needed some distraction to shake up the proceedings. La polizia chiede aiuto has a mechanical and meticulous story, well-rendered in a sumptuous visual package. If you are a fan of the genre, then this one will find its way to you.
1. Italia calibro 9. Patrizi, Federico and Cotumaccio, Emanuele. Profondo Rosso. Rome: 2001. p. 174.
2. Violent Italy. Dellamorte, Daniel and Petterson, Tobias. Tamara Press. Malmo: 2002. p. 39.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pronto ad uccidere (Risking) (1976)

Pronto ad uccidere (Risking) (1976) has a simple yet confusing narrative. The director, Franco Prosperi, and the four screenwriters, Peter Berling, Antonio Cucca, Claudio Fragasso, and Alberto Marras may be praised for creating a story which cleverly "blurs the lines" with their characters' motivations or may be chastised for being somewhat lazy with their characterizations. In between the clever or lazy bits, Risking is a standard police thriller with a few standout sequences.
Ray Lovelock is Massimo Torlani who lives with his disabled mother. One morning, after coffee, he kisses her on the cheek goodbye. With ski mask and machine pistol in his possession, Massimo attempts a daylight jewelry store heist and fucks it up very badly. Within seconds, his heist fails and the police arrive. Massimo takes a hostage and attempts to flee the scene but is subdued by the police's karate master. Now in a Roman jail, Massimo meets Giulianelli (Martin Balsam), a respected crime boss doing hard time and running the prison. Massimo earns his respect by beating down Bavoso in the yard. Not long after his arrival, Massimo is visited in jail by his "attorney," who actually turns out to be Commissioner Sacchi (Riccardo Cucciolla). Lovelock's character is a cop, and it seems getting Massimo into the prison was a ruse. Sacchi works to get Giulianelli and Massimo into the same cell, and Massimo earns his trust. They bust out, and now Massimo must stop Giulianelli and his drug ring...
Or get revenge. Massimo’s mother was put in a wheelchair by a shotgun blast to her back from a gun wielded by one of the syndicate’s henchmen. Commissioner Sacchi wants Massimo to keep focus and not let his anger hamper his investigation.
The events of the first act of Risking are cast in a new complexion after the first dialogue between Sacchi and Massimo. I especially wondered why Massimo didn’t see the police karate master coming during the botched heist. This is one of the big “twists” within Risking, and this type of narrative and character trickery is common throughout. Martin Balsam as Giulianelli is so cool during every scene, even when he takes a bullet from a rival gangster, that I often wondered if Giulianelli knew who Massimo really was and was manipulating his character for his own ends. The ending of the film supports this thesis. When Elke Sommer appears in Risking as the secretary for drug supplier, Perrone (Ettore Manni), she immediately captures both Lovelock’s character and the viewer’s attention. She flirts with Massimo only to rebuff him. Within hours later, Sommer’s character is in Massimo’s hotel room, ready for some loving. Massimo finds a pistol in her purse. Who is she really? I don’t know. What’s going on?

I like being effectively manipulated while watching cinema. However, when narrative and character twists become common, not only do they become predictable, they become distracting. I’m not the type of viewer who demands supreme closure and absolute resolution to any film’s narrative or their character arcs. I’m pretty cool with keeping things loose, but Risking feels way too contrived and poorly-constructed at the same time. It’s as if Prosperi and company had good ideas and filmed those good ideas as scenes, but when some sort of transitional scene or some revelational moment came in Risking, Prosperi and company became lazy and made some ridiculous shit up to move the film along. Risking ends with myriad loose ends, and those loose ends were never tied to anything firmly-rooted.
This is a pity, because despite its flaws and standard construction, Risking has some fantastic sequences. I love the prison yard brawl between hulking Bavoso and Lovelock. Lovelock’s character mimics a matador as he beats down Bavoso who is wearing an appropriate red muscle shirt complete with hairy back and arms. In the third act of Risking, there is a truck hijacking-cum-chase sequence which sees Lovelock’s character take many a dangerous tumble (mostly on motorcycle). Like most 1970s cinema, the stunts all appear genuine and dangerous, and some of those stunts during the truck sequence were exhilarating for me to watch yet potentially fatal for its participants. Risking has brutal and graphic and sadistic shootouts and ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious sequences. For example, Massimo and one of his criminal associates are walking down the street. A uniformed police officer recognizes Massimo and yells “Hello!” Lovelock has to give the officer a quick and brutal punch to the face to maintain his cover. It’s a brutal scene but it also induces a chuckle. Elke Sommer receives little screen time in Risking but is radiant, enigmatic, and charismatic in her role. She and Lovelock have fantastic chemistry in few scenes, and perhaps in retrospect, Risking should have been built around them. Oh, well. Martin Balsam is one of the best American actors and gives another excellent performance as Giulianelli. Balsam and Sommer certainly elevate Risking from complete obscurity. Lovelock is so good-looking and so cool that his enthusiastic fans should seek this one out.
Pronto ad uccidere (Risking) is flawed to the point where the flaws are distracting, making subsequent viewings definitely optional. This flick is for fans of Italian genre cinema and its rousing crime cinema.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Demonia (1990)

Demonia (1990) is about Liza (Meg Register), an archaeologist and protégé to Professor Paul Evans (Brett Halsey). Despite her mentor's discouragement, Liza has a real fascination with the occult and the supernatural. In her hometown of Toronto, Liza attends a séance and has a powerful vision of young women her age being murdered. She collapses and awakens to find Professor Evans at her bedside. Evans tells Liza that she is accompanying him to Sicily to study the Ancient Greek influence at the base of a local village. Upon arrival, Liza, however, seems drawn to a monastery atop a hill, long abandoned and shunned by the villagers since the Middle Ages. The building once housed a convent of nuns who died under mysterious circumstances, and perhaps they are calling out to Liza, today.
Piero Regnoli co-scripted Demonia with director Lucio Fulci in one of his last credits. The plot of Demonia is the typical tale of small town fear and loathing towards outsiders. The small Sicilian village at whose base the archaeological team has begun a dig fears the archaeologists uncovering their secret: nearly five hundred years ago, the young nuns who lived in the monastery atop the hill were massacred by the local villagers. Why? The young nuns were fond of having orgies with men; murdering them during orgasm; and then drinking their blood. They also committed quite a few other blasphemous and heinous deeds. Hence, the local village lynch mob and vigilante murder. Interestingly, the villagers actually kill the nuns by crucifying them. "I really prefere [sic] the crucifixions," says Fulci, in regards to the special effects of Demonia, "I like them alot." (1)

The small-town tale of fear and loathing within Demonia becomes, thematically, a story of oppression and rebellion. This aspect is mirrored by the main relationship of Demonia between Paul and Liza. To say that Paul is controlling and that Liza is submissive is an understatement. Paul dominates Liza. It’s one thing to control someone’s physical behavior by controlling him/her through his/her actions. It’s another thing to tell someone what to think. Throughout Demonia, Paul continually tells Liza to avoid the monastery and focus on the Ancient Greek influence of the project. It’s not an admonition to Liza in a horror-movie sense: Halsey’s character is telling Liza to stop focusing on superstitions and the occult, because he thinks it‘s stupid. Paul is so controlling and insecure, as Demonia progresses, his character appears more and more pathetic. In acts of quiet rebellion, like exploring the monastery in the middle of the night and researching its history at the city’s archives, Liza never confronts Paul.

The setting, the convent/crypt of the once evil nuns, combined with the central relationship, the dysfunctional/sick relationship between Paul and Liza, equals a ripe opportunity for Liza to become a candidate for demonic possession. With Liza’s body as a conduit, one of the evil nuns will be able to exact revenge on the villagers and continue to do evil shit by killing members of the archaeological team. There are also plenty of opportunities for brutal, Fulcian gore, like a man being quartered, a woman having her eyes removed by kitty cats, and the aforementioned crucifixions.

The structural problems of the script of Demonia, however, are glaring. Meg Register, as Liza, drives the drama as the main character, but once she becomes a victim of the evil, the plot of Demonia takes focus off of her character. Lucio Fulci, as the chief police inspector, then enters the film to drive the narrative. With all due respect to the Maestro, Fulci’s performance is fine but his role is boringly perfunctory. It doesn’t help either that the small town fear and loathing is personified by one character, the village butcher, played by Lino Salemme, a popular genre actor of the period (especially in Dèmoni (1985) and Dèmoni 2 (1986)). Like Fulci, Salemme gives a good performance, yet his character has such a burden and just a little more variety would have helped. Brett Halsey is a real addition to Demonia. He’s a legendary actor in Italian genre cinema, and his charisma is undeniable. However, like the other performances, Halsey’s character is very rigid and limited. At a later point in the film, Paul is a suspect in the rash of murders around the village and the archaeological dig. It is difficult to feel any empathy for him, as he is such a controlling jerk for the majority of the film. Watching Paul squirm a little bit under police interrogation is actually kind of refreshing. Nonetheless, Meg Register, as Liza, is very compelling as the lead in Demonia. It’s very entertaining to watch her indulge her obsessions, like a late-night visit to the monastery. Register is really beautiful and she gives a very good performance and stands out.

Demonia contains the strong elements that have made other Fulci film classics, like Zombi 2 (1979), Paura nella città dei morti viventi (1980), and L'aldilà (1981), for example: very strong atmospheric sequences punctuated loudly by brutal (and often sadistic) gore sequences. The beautiful Sicilian scenery, especially the monastery, is authentic. Steve Fentone, author of AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture, writes:

Demonia was filmed on authentic sites at Monte Castello, the isle of Sicily (in the thick of Mafia country). When we interviewed the star in 1995, Halsey remembered the chief location was a genuinely spooky ancient monastery whose basement actually contained the mummified cadavers of human beings. Fulci and crew were given permission to shoot there by the caretaker, a Roman Catholic clergyman; who evidently never suspected that the script included naked killer nuns.” (2)

Despite the fact that there are few sequences within the monastery, all of them are memorable within Demonia. These sequences carry the film, in my opinion. While the gore sequences are competent and certainly effective, none are as memorable as Fulci’s atmospheric sequences. In the truest sense, Demonia shows Fulci’s growth as an artist: he was always able to create more unique, different, or equally intense atmospheric sequences with every subsequent film. In terms of the visceral in Fulci’s cinema, the films waver wildly in content. Fulci’s cinema set the bar high with films like Zombi 2, for example, with its slow-motion eyeball sequence, and I believe that it would be difficult for any filmmaker to top that work. Fulci’s later work that relied more heavily on atmosphere, like Aenigma (1987), for example, appears more personal and interesting than the later gore-heavy work. Demonia is a good and very entertaining late Fulci work. Unfortunately, the characters are drawn too flat and are too limited from making the film a richer and more whole piece. Definitely ripe for a revisit for fans of Lucio Fulci or demonic cinema.

1. “Beyond the Thoughts of Lucio Fulci: A Conversation with the Man Behind such Legendary Movies as ‘The Beyond,’ ‘New York Ripper’ and ‘Gates of Hell.’” Trauma # #2. Edited by Kristian P. Mølgaard. Karpedam 4b, DK-6200 Aabenraa. Year unknown (presumable mid-1990s). p. 13.

2. AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture. Fentone, Steve. FAB Press. Surrey, England, U.K. 2000. p. 75.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Zombi 3 (1988)

Almost all of the literature that I have read about Zombi 3 (1988) revolves around blame. In a cool featurette included as a supplement on the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD of Demonia (1990), entitled "Fulci Lives," a fan was able to capture Lucio Fulci directing a scene from Demonia and was even able to ask him some questions. Fulci responds to a question by answering "Zombi 3 is not my film." (1) Despite this admonition, Lucio Fulci is the credited director of Zombi 3, the sequel to one of his most famous films, Zombi 2 (1979). “Lucio Fulci wasn’t in good health so when we saw the first cut of the film, it was much too short, therefore I shot two weeks of material to fatten it up,” says director Bruno Mattei. “There’s a little in it by Fulci and a little by me.” (2) Lucio Fulci would add in a later interview: “That’s a movie that I made for money, not pleasure. After the film was half-finished, the producers gave the direction over to Bruno Mattei who didn’t create a masterpiece, to say the least. Although the audience applauded when my name appeared on the credits, I am ashamed of the movie. Later on, the audience started throwing crap at the screens!” (3) Finally, Bruno Mattei relates, “Zombie 3 had a bad screenplay and I didn’t want to make it but it was made to cash in on the name of Fulci and because Zombie 2 was successful. Zombie 3 is not a good movie.” (4)
I enjoy Zombi 3 immensely. However, it’s a notorious film: in addition to the two directors of Zombi 3, most real fans of Italian genre cinema tremendously dislike the film, especially fans of horror. One has to bear in mind that Zombi 3 is a Flora film production: producer Franco Gaudenzi, screenwriter Claudio Fragasso, cinematographer Riccardo Grassetti, and director Bruno Mattei are representative members of this production company. The films that this company were making at the time (like Zombi 3 primarily in the Philippines) were action films, like Strike Commando 2 (1988) and Born to Fight (1989). It’s unsurprising that Zombi 3 appears like a film more of this class. Two of the leads of Zombi 3, Ottaviano Dell'Acqua and Massimo Vanni, for example, are also seasoned stuntmen. Zombi 3 has more machine-gun action and shit blowing up than slow zombie shuffling. Despite the film’s notoriety, I am here today to celebrate Zombi 3 and not to bury it.
With two directors, Zombi 3 is unsurprisingly a fragmented film with some very strong episodes. In perhaps the most famous sequence of the film, Bo, a soldier played by Vanni, and Marina Loi, who plays Carol, trek off together to find a doctor for one of the injured in their party. They traverse the quiet streets in their jeep until it breaks down. Vanni’s Bo suggests that the jeep’s radiator needs water and Carol volunteers to find some. She enters what appears to be a resort area onto a second-floor balcony, overlooking a lagoon. She ominously calls out, “Is anybody there?” Carol is pushed into the lagoon and Bo hears her scream. He attempts to rescue her, and this rousing episode becomes an action-packed survival-horror sequence. Bo uses his military combat skills to thwart the oncoming zombies who are amazingly animated and energetic. Visually this sequence is remarkable. A crane shot (in two cuts, not one fluid take) slowly pans from Carol at the top of the balcony down to the lagoon, showing the vast area and the quiet dread surrounding it. Theatrical green lighting filters out of an alcove at the base of the lagoon while the lagoon itself bubbles like a cauldron. The set looks like a Halloween haunted house attraction and when the first zombie appears, he looks like his makeup is homemade and caked on by himself. It’s a beautifully artificial sequence, like most effective Mattei cinema, and it’s also hauntingly atmospheric, like the best Fulci cinema.
In another effective Romero-esque sequence, a group of soldiers, donning hazmat suits and machine guns, patrol the infected zone. The audio is the voice of radio D.J. “Blue Heart” who gives a summation of the events so far and introduces another who relates rescue station information. With some haphazard and off-kilter compositions, zombies jump upon the soldiers and engage in battle. In a nasty sequence, a soldier and a zombie get into quite a tussle before the soldier ends the fight with a harsh blow to the chest with a knife. The famous siege sequence in the final act of Zombi 2 at the church-cum-hospital receives a memorial reference in Zombi 3 at a resort hotel-cum-survivor camp. The effective Fulci composition of the group of zombies dismantling an entire wall signals the near-end of the group of survivors. (I admit this sequence is much more effective with Frizzi’s score accompanying the visuals.) The final act of Zombi 3 sees its survivors mobile, moving from location to location and fending off zombies, as opposed to the final act of the previous film. Finally, Beatrice Ring appears in two fantastic sequences. During one in a gas station where she fights a small group of the undead and blows up the station by igniting the pump. The second Ring sequence is a classic Fulci setup on a bridge where Ring, who plays Patricia, attempts to cross with her boyfriend and Vanni’s character in tow. Patricia loses control of her car (for an unintentionally hilarious reason) and is forced to exit the bridge by foot. She seriously injures her leg while escaping the vehicle. The zombies surround both sides of the bridge. The key visual touch is the back light on the zombies: despite the low-budget nature of Zombi 3, both veteran directors were able to create effective sequences.
The script of Zombi 3 is poorly paced and constructed. Fulci admits in an interview that Claudio Fragasso would “show up every morning with a new script. Every morning, I mean it.” (5) The first twenty minutes of the film is an expository sequence, detailing a biological weapon entitled “Death One” whose scientists believe is too unstable and should be contained. A sample is stolen by a criminal, and the sample breaks and infects its thief. Before you ask, no, this act does not begin the zombie outbreak. Another sequence follows where the soldiers subdue the thief and take his corpse. The military burns his corpse and the ashes enter into the air. The ashes affect the local ecosystem and BAM! zombie outbreak. This sequence definitely feels like filler. The famous sequence involving Marina Loi should have kicked off the action of the first act (presumably in Fulci’s initial version) but the sequence appears almost halfway through the film. The plot construction is forgivable, considering its patchwork final version. Unfortunately, it is the poor plot and pacing which will deter most viewers from taking a second chance on Zombi 3. However only real cult film fans will ever see Zombi 3, if I had to speculate.
This period of Italian genre cinema, the late-eighties to early nineties, is one of my favorites. It’s the last gasp of the cinema that I love and there is a wonderfully desperate quality to the cinema that I cannot define. Zombi 3 is almost representative of this period and with an open mind, it can be, if not sublime, at least quite fun.
1. Demonia. DVD. Media Blasters/Shriek Show. Region 1. 2001.
2. “An Interview with Bruno Mattei.” Conducted by Andrea Giorgi, Matteo Palmieri, and Andrea Daz. Translation by Max Della Mora and Adrian Smith. European Trash Cinema. Vol. 2, No. 5. Edited by Craig Ledbetter. Kingwood, TX. 1992. P. 10.
3. “The Lucio Fulci Interview.” Conducted by Loris Curci and Antonio Tentori. European Trash Cinema. Vol. 2, No. 4. Edited by Craig Ledbetter. Kingwood, TX. 1991. P. 7.
4. “An Interview with Bruno Mattei.” Conducted by Andrea Giorgi, Matteo Palmieri, and Andrea Daz. Translation by Max Della Mora and Adrian Smith. European Trash Cinema. Vol. 2, No. 5. Edited by Craig Ledbetter. Kingwood, TX. 1992. P. 11.
5. “Lucio Fulci.” Shock Masters of Cinema. Edited by Loris Curci. Fantasma Books. Key West, FL. 1996. P. 72.