Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Le foto di Gioia (1987)

Le foto di Gioia (aka Delirium) (1987) is an Italian thriller (or giallo, depending on how liberal you are with your labels) that no one seems to like.  Its participants are well-known to fans of the genre:  director, Lamberto Bava; cinematographer, Gianlorenzo Battaglia; screenwriter, Gianfranco Clerici; and actors Serena Grandi, Luigi Montefiori, Daria Nicolodi, and David Brandon, for example.  In short, Le foto di Gioia is a quite sleazy but standard thriller.  The requisite over-the-top kill sequences are present, but this film is more a Serena Grandi-centric showcase of eroticism.
Grandi plays Gioia, whose character I've read described as "a former porno actress (1)," "a former hooker (2)," and "a model for Pussycat, a skin magazine (3)."  In any case, Gioia is now the owner of the "skin magazine," and Le foto begins with a poolside scene at her house of a photo shoot involving up-and-coming model, Kim (Katrine Michelsen).    Her brother, Tony (Vanni Corbellini) "directs" the shoot by telling the models how to pose, while quiet Roberto (David Brandon) snaps the soon-to-be glossy pics.  Gioia's close friend and colleague (who also lives with her), Evelyn (Daria Nicolodi) handles the administrative duties.  A disabled young man, Mark (Karl Zinny), spies on Gioia with a telescope from the second story of the adjacent house.  He even calls Gioia and makes inappropriate remarks, but she only seems slightly perturbed.  At the end of the day's shoot, the group convenes for a drink.  Kim is the last to leave; and in a bizarre sequence leading to a very pedestrian murder scene, Kim becomes the first victim of the film.  Sales of the magazine skyrocket upon the discovery of the model's death; yet Gioia feels that this killer is targeting her in a very deadly game...

It does not take long after starting Le foto di Gioia to note the distinct lack of enthusiasm in this production.  I submit as evidence these two quotes from director, Lamberto Bava, in which each he makes a telling admission:

"I don't like thrillers, even though they say I can direct them.  After LE FOTO DI GIOIA, I had to make another one, but I find doing scenes where women get stabbed to death repugnant.  Dario Argento does it so well, but I feel like being sick as soon as I see the knife in the murderer's hand.  I reached my limit with that film, it's a genre that doesn't interest me.  I prefer fantasy.  To be a director, you have to enjoy what you do; the moment you stop enjoying yourself, you'd better stop, that's why I've stopped doing thrillers.  I'm better off doing something else. (4)

"At a distance of year, I can say that it was an error of mine to do a movie with Serena Grandi, who at that period was at the peak of her success in Italy.  Maybe I should have made a movie with a Black Mass, Serena on the altar with black goats, but I don't like eroticism.  I made a giallo I shouldn't have made.  If I was a professor and LE FOTO DI GIOIA was a composition, I'd give it a 6, 6+ [on a scale of 10]." (5)

Bava admits during his interview included as a supplement on the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD of Delirium that this film was made at the peak of Serena Grandi's popularity in Italy, and also that the production was centered around her.  (6)  He did note in the same interview that he did like some of the murder sequences (7); to which I agree, as they are very unique in conception.  For example, when Kim is murdered early in Le foto, the camera changes to a first-person, subjective point of view.  Cinematographer, Gianlorenzo Battaglia lights this point of view very much in the vein of Bava’s previous Dèmoni (1985).  The face of Kim changes radically, and her head is covered with a bizarre mask which resembles a giant eyeball.  Presumably, this point of view is to demonstrate the crazed mind of the killer.  Bava admits in his DVD interview that he was influenced by the paintings of Savini (presumably Tom Savini).  (8) These sequences are designed to have a surreal, disorienting, Buñuel-ian effect but unfortunately, they are done without any sensitivity.  In execution, the murder sequences appear almost silly.
Gianfranco Clerici’s script for Delirium is exceedingly easy to follow and mind-numbingly boring to boot.  Bava’s direction does not help much to either elevate or energize it.  For example, he paints almost all of his characters as red herrings in a very uninteresting fashion.  Daria Nicolodi’s character will make an offhand remark to Gioia and then brush it off as nothing.  Luigi Montefiori’s character has been hooking up with Gioia and then splitting town, but what is he hiding?  In a single take, Montefiori sits in front of a window in an office.  Behind him is the Colosseum.  He tells Gioia over the phone that he is not in Rome.  Really?

Since Le foto di Gioia was conceived with Serena Grandi in mind and the production centered towards her, it is no surprise that the film is truly a love letter to its voluptuous and beautiful star.   The film’s credits are intercut with a nude model pictorial of Grandi; the killer photographs all of his victims in front of a giant nude photo of Grandi; and in the office of Pussycat magazine, nude photos of Grandi hang from the walls.  Grandi has two love scenes with Montefiori, one in a bubble bath and one in a sauna:  in these sequences, the nearly seven-foot actor occupies less than a quarter of the frame.  In the quite sleazy finale, the killer rips the clothes from Grandi’s wardrobe nearly piece by piece to increase the ogling time for the viewer.

“Lamberto is a fairly good director but I only acted in BLASTFIGHTER and LE FOTO DI GIOIA to make money,” recalls Montefiori.  (9)  “I don’t think much of either film, though I’ll admit the former had more originality and style.” (10)  When asked if Le foto di Gioia was one of her least-liked films, Daria Nicolodi answers, “Yes.  I believe I love everything I do and all the experiences I live through, but these two films [the other, Paganini Horror] simply weren’t very interesting.” (11)  I’ve already detailed above what Bava thinks of the film.  In conclusion, given the talent involved, Le foto di Gioia is a missed opportunity to make a memorable thriller in the waning days of Italian horror cinema.  I love just about anything that these participants produce; but when they are not excited at all about the production, how are we to be?
I am, however, excited and proud to include this entry as part of the Italian Horror Blogathon being hosted by Kevin J. Olson at his blog, Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.  Kevin has written some fine pieces on Italian Horror this week and the previous contributions from other bloggers have been top notch, as well.  I highly recommend everyone to visit his blog and immerse him/herself in a little horror, Italian-style this Halloween season.

1.  Smith, Adrian Luther.  Blood and Black Lace The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies.  Stray Cat Publishing, Ltd.  England.  1999:  p. 39.
3.  European Trash Cinema.  Vol. 2, No. 6.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  1992: p. 40.
4.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed.  Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books.  Key West, FL.  1996:  p. 23.
5.  Della Mora, Max, Matteo Palmieri, Andrea Giorgi, and Manlio Gomarasca.  “The Lamberto Bava Interview.”  European Trash Cinema.  Vol. 2, No. 7.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  1993: p. 11.
6.  Interview: Lamberto Bava.  DVD Delirium: Photo of Gioia.  Media Blasters/Shriek Show.  January, 29th, 2002.
7.  Ibid.
8.  Ibid.
9.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed.  Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books.  Key West, FL.  1996:  p. 109.
10.  Ibid.
11.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed.  Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books.  Key West, FL.  1996:  p. 117.

Friday, October 25, 2013

El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher (1983)

El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher (1983) was the first Jess Franco film that I had ever attempted to watch.  About twenty years ago, I requested a print catalog from a film collector who advertised in the classifieds of either Fangoria, Gorezone or the like.  This particular collector (whose name escapes me after all these years) dealt in primarily obscure European horror cinema and offered VHS copies for sale.  He had about fifteen films for sale directed by Jess Franco (which, at the time, I thought was a large filmography, only to be oblivious to the fact that Franco had directed probably ten times that many films by that point!).  One of the titles for sale was The Fall of the House of Usher (bear in mind, that this was his listed title.  I cannot find a credible source which lists this title as an official release title).  Bypassing more exotic titles such as Vampyros Lesbos and Succubus, I decided to dip my little toe into the water with a film with very familiar source material.  When the tape arrived in the mail, sadly very little could be gleaned from its print:  it was a multi-generational copy; the imagery was washed-out and blurry; and the audio distorted with hums, hisses, and pops.  About five or six years ago, I purchased the region-one, Image Entertainment DVD of El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher under the title Revenge in the House of Usher and I have watched it three or four times over the last few days.  I also dipped into my library of arcane film knowledge and uncovered some very interesting tidbits about the production.
Alan Harker (Antonio Mayans), a young doctor, is summoned to the castle-home of Dr. Usher (Howard Vernon), Harker's former professor and colleague.  Dr. Usher is cared for by young Helen (Lina Romay) as Dr. Usher's physical health is failing along with him suffering bouts of mental incapacity.  Harker greatly admires his former professor, despite the fact that Dr. Usher adhered to some very controversial medical theories.  It would appear, at first blush, that Dr. Usher needs Harker's help with some medical experiments; but it soon becomes clear that Dr. Usher wishes to make a hefty confession unto someone who may understand his actions...
Revenge in the House of Usher has the potential to be a strong film in Franco's enormous filmography.  Franco really excelled at creating very moody and poetic cinema and he was especially adept at creating disorienting, other-worldly settings outside of the fantasy genre.  One of his best examples is Christina, princesse de l'érotisme (1973), where the main character encounters both real, corporeal people in the mansion that she is visiting; but she also encounters seemingly ethereal, unreal people also inhabiting the mansion.  Franco, unlike any other filmmaker, seamlessly is able to blend both types of encounters to make really sensuous and provocative cinema.  Lorna, the Exorcist (1974) works in the same way:  throughout the duration of the film, one never gets the sense that Lorna is completely "real," despite the fact that she is very present in familiar settings, like a crowded casino, or dreamily available in Lina Romay's bedroom sequences.  Usher has similar sequences:  during Harker's first night in the castle, he descends into the catacombs, where he encounters captive females, an imprisoned servant, and a spectral woman who all hint towards a malevolent past which Usher is hiding.  Later, in the final act of the film, Vernon's Usher, who has now lost his grip on classical reality, encounters his dead wife in a surreal encounter.  He also uncovers all of the women in the castle playing a taunting, child's game at his expense, which really undoes the belief that Usher is in control of anything going on in his life.  These dream-like sequences are the essence of Franco's artistic talent, and Usher has very strong scenes.
Unfortunately, El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher commits one of the cardinal sins of cinema, and I honestly believe it never recovers from this stigma:  the reuse of footage from Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof) (1961).  During the much-anticipated confessional scene between Usher and Harker, El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher cuts to lengthy clips of Franco's classic film.  As one could imagine, this use of the footage feels like padding and also feels like a really cheap, low-budget tactic.  It appears that Eurociné either co-produced or acquired the film after it was finished.  The company owned the rights also to the Orlof film (1); and additional scenes were filmed for the French version (2) (which is also the print on the Image DVD).  These additional scenes star Olivier Mathot as Morpho and Françoise Blanchard as Usher's daughter, Melissa.  These scenes are included, obviously, to make Usher an Orlof film.  (If I had to speculate, Mathot probably directed his scenes with Blanchard.)  With the exception of some festival showings, this print remained unreleased in Spain. (3)  I wish that El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher didn't contain these scenes.  I would have much preferred to have Vernon relay his confession to Harker in narrative form:  it would have allowed the expressive Vernon to convey his feelings of melancholy and guilt in a purer, more heartfelt form.
Finally, here is the most curious tidbit regarding Revenge in the House of Usher.  In an 1996 interview, Franco was asked "What would be the smallest crew you've ever used?" (4)  Franco responds:

"The smallest?  Let's see... I did the direction of photography myself in the 'Usher' film.  So one--I had an assistant for the camera.  I had someone for the makeup--two.  I had Mayans--three.  I had one more, more or less, for props and things. And Lina.  That makes four or five.  Five people."  (5)
Interesting to note in the vast filmography of Jess Franco, Usher has his smallest crew.  I find this very impressive.  Also, I really enjoy this film:  it's very moody and poetic in classic Franco style; and if one can appreciate the compositions, the disorienting vibe, and its somber tone, then it's well worth visiting.  Another film of artistry on the periphery.

1.  Bethmann, Andreas.  Jess Franco Chronicles.  Medien Publikations.  Tschechien, Czech Republic: 1999.  pp. 108-09.
2.  Obsession:  The Films of Jess Franco.  Eds. Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen and Frank Trebbin.  Munich, Germany:  1993.  p. 156.
3.  Bizarre Sinema Jess Franco El sexo del horror.  Eds.  Carlos Aguilar, Stefano Piselli, and Riccardo Morrocchi.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy:  1999.  P. 133.
4.  "Interview with Jess Franco," by Kevin Collins.  European Trash Cinema Special #1.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  October, 1996.  pp. 27-28.
5.  Ibid.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

El retorno del Hombre-Lobo (1981)

El retorno del Hombre-Lobo (Night of the Werewolf) (1981) is the culmination of a strong career in the fantasy genre for Paul Naschy.  While Naschy was often solely the screenwriter and performer on most productions, Night of the Werewolf afforded him the opportunity to direct himself as his most famous character, Waldemar Daninsky.  Utilizing very familiar themes from his past work, such as the heavy burden of history upon the present, tragic and doomed love, and the eternal battle between good and evil, Naschy creates with El retorno del Hombre-Lobo a very personal and special work in his filmography.

Unsurprisingly, Naschy is quite proud of the film.  In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Wolfman, he writes:

"El retorno del hombre lobo contains all the coordinates of my own life, fitting together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:  the claustrophobic castle, the Gothic tombs, the ill-fated love affair, the menace of the undead, the ostracism of someone who is despised for being different and the all pervading shadow of death.  All of these elements go to make up my personality and my work.  Movies, even horror fantasy movies, can carry real depth of meaning because through fantasy we can convey a far deeper message than would appear possible at first sight." (Midnight Marquee Press.  Baltimore, Maryland.  1997. p.150.)
Night of the Werewolf begins in medieval times where Elizabeth Bathory (Julia Saly) is adjudged a witch, a Satanist, and a vampire and sentenced.  Her followers, including Waldemar Daninsky (Naschy), a werewolf under the control of Bathory, are sentenced to death before the royal court.  Cut to the present where lovely archeological students Erika (Silvia Aguilar) and Barbara (Pilar Alcón) are planning a special holiday trip to the Carpathian mountains.  At a fireside meeting on a dark and stormy night, Erika tells her professor that she has located the tombs of both Elizabeth Bathory and Waldemar Daninsky and intends upon traveling to the region to investigate the site.  She asks her professor if she may take a special talisman on her journey, a medallion bearing the demonic name of Astaroth, with the intention of performing a ritual at the grave of Bathory.  Her professor resoundingly says no, but Erika is channeling an evil vibe in her dreams and is determined to resurrect Bathory to all of her former glory.  Auspiciously, two dullards happen upon Daninsky’s crypt slightly before Erika, Barbara, and their friend, young Karen (Azucena Hernández) arrive in the region.  These two geniuses intend to loot the crypt’s contents for treasure.  One pulls the silver cross dagger from Daninsky’s heart, and the newfound crypt becomes their own...
I’ve seen a lot of Naschy’s cinema, and at first blush, one would think that El retorno del Hombre-Lobo is a retread of themes and stories from his previous films.  For example, think of the iconic opening of El espanto surge de la tumba (1973), where Alaric du Marnac (Naschy), a warlock, and his faithful servant, Mabille (Helga Liné), a witch and vampire, are adjudged by the royal court as criminals and executed for their crimes.  Later, during a present-day setting, the descendents of that past event are called upon from the grave by their evil ancestors.  The theme of tragic love is a strong and familiar one in Naschy’s cinema.  In El gran amor del conde Drácula (1973) (as in other films, for example), Naschy’s monster character may only find peace in death from the hand of a woman who completely loves him.  The appealing irony of this theme is through love life is worth living, but a happy life is impossible when a violent creature stirs also inside that same heart.  Finally, one can see the lasting influence of the Universal Studios’ classic, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), in several of Naschy’s films, especially its classic final battle.  One needs only to look to Naschy’s previous La noche de Walpurgis (1971) as evidence.  El retorno del Hombre-Lobo contains all of these themes, and these themes are dramatized in sequences that eerily resemble their predecessors.
However, Night of the Werewolf really stands out from other Naschy work for this performance of Waldemar Daninsky.  Naschy is often praised for his athleticism and dedication to detail with his acting.  Rarely is kudos ever given for his emotive ability.  Naschy’s cinema is often talky, but Night of the Werewolf shows a judicious use of dialogue.  By this point in his career, Naschy was a veteran actor and he is able to bring a real sensitivity and tenderness to his Daninsky character.  For example, in a particular scene, Daninsky sits in front of a fire alone.  He is joined by his companion, an outcast who cares for Daninsky in his home, named Mircalla (Beatriz Elorrieta).  She is a beautiful woman who is horribly disfigured on the left side of her face.  Mircalla tells Daninsky that one of the young women will be able to free Daninsky from his curse.  He acknowledges the truth of what she says, and with a tender gesture, he rests his hand upon the left side of her face.  No long. heavy-handed, and drawn-out conversations.  Just quiet and intense character interactions.
Make no mistake, however, El retorno del Hombre-Lobo is a werewolf film; and Naschy is going to tear into quite a bit of ass during its running time.  If nothing else can be said about the film, it is so damn entertaining, well-paced, and handsomely-filmed.  I always giggle when Naschy as the werewolf grabs a rifle from an unsuspecting victims hands and breaks it in half before tearing into his victim’s jugular vein.  Who doesn’t love the sensuous imagery of the vampire women appearing at will upon the guests at the castle?  One also cannot forget the truly provocative imagery of Saly’s Bathory bathing in the blood of her victim.  El retorno del Hombre-Lobo ranks as one of the best of Spanish fantastic cinema.
I’ve seen Night of the Werewolf at least a dozen times and I will see it a lot more.  For those who have not seen it, check it out immediately (it was released on both DVD and Blu-Ray about six or seven years ago by BCI/Deimos).  For those who have seen it, Night of the Werewolf is worth revisiting, especially during this Halloween season.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Virus (Hell of the Living Dead) (1980)

Virus (Hell of the Living Dead) (1980) is Bruno Mattei's contribution to zombie cinema, following the commercial success of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Zombi 2 (1979).  In the documentary, Hell Rats of the Living Dead (2002), included as a supplement on the Blue Underground DVD release of Hell of the Living Dead, Mattei intimates that Romero's seminal classic was his inspiration but that his take on the story would not be taken as seriously.  (1) Mattei's longtime creative partner and co-screenwriter Claudio Fragasso confirms that the screenplay for Virus changed much during shooting and reveals that, "The first draft was excellent and original, but it got mutilated because it would have been too expensive to make.  I'd conceived the idea of an entire Third World made up of an army of zombies against whom the armed forces of the industrialized nations would have had to fight.  In the end, sadly enough, although it was an excellent piece of work, the film turned out to be little more than an insipid imitation of Dawn of the Dead."  (2)

In its final incarnation, Virus is, at its heart, an episodic road movie, with strong episodes that make the film memorable and worth revisiting coupled with weak episodes that are detracting, boring, and overlong.  Its simple frame narrative involves a power plant in a Third World nation that suffers a contamination leak.  This contamination leak infects the population turning them into flesh-eating zombies.  A squad of four is dispatched (by the powers that be) to quell the menace, with Franco Garofalo's Zantoro character standing out.  Towards their mission destination, the four encounter a pair of foreign reporters, one of whom is comely Margit Evelyn Newton, who are in country studying the native culture and the subsequent outbreak virus currently infecting the people.  They reluctantly team up for the adventure.

The weakest episode of Virus begins promising.  Newton reveals to the group that she studied the locals for about a year and knows their customs very well.  She volunteers to scout the happenings at the local village to see if their group is welcome for some needed rest and relaxation.  Newton strips and covers herself in body paint.  At first blush, I thought this was an opportunity to see lovely Ms. Newton in her birthday suit, but unfortunately, as the sequence unfolds, Mattei utilizes the sequence to exploit one of his best commercial tools:  stock documentary footage.  "That movie [Virus]," explains Mattei, "was made in Spain and as there aren't any jungles there (laughs), we bought footage from a Japanese documentary."  (3)  The use of the documentary footage is almost Ed Wood-ian in its power, as it appears Mattei and company may have built the entire production of Virus around this footage.  The documentary footage is composed mostly of cultural rites, and most of the footage has a vintage, "Mondo Cane" feel to them.  A judicious use of this footage would have been welcome, but the sequence is beyond overlong.  One will easily nod off in between the cuts of Newton as observer and the various cultural rites unfolding in exacting detail.
The most famous sequence of Virus, perhaps, involves Franco Garofalo (a frequent collaborator with Mattei, see for example, La vera storia della monaca di Monza (1980) and L'altro inferno (1981)).  A group of zombies are seen by the group, shuffling down a hill and blocking the navigable path.  For whatever reason, the entirety of the group freezes and becomes oblivious as to what to do next.  Garofalo as Zantoro becomes ridiculously animated and begins to bait the group of zombies with nonsensical dialogue to entice the group to actually eat him.  As the group of zombies encroach upon Zantoro and get ready to feast, he reveals his baiting is a ploy and begins shooting the heads of the zombies at point-blank range.  For the first-time viewer of Virus, take note when Zantoro starts losing his shit and acting crazy, as the film is about to take a giant leap into quality entertainment.
The best sequence of Virus is a classic one of zombie cinema.  The group, closer to their destination yet have grown increasingly weary, find a dilapidated house and enter to take shelter.  The group splits up to search the house, and one of the soldiers finds a closet full of costumes.  The soldier mockingly puts on a ballerina’s tutu and a top hat and begins to dance around the house, alone.  No shit.  While he is playing alone, the soldier fails to note the rather sizable group of corpses on the ground in the basement:  a critical and fatal error in judgment.  Of note also in this sequence is a kitty cat found feeding with her previous owner (a scene which defies written description).  In between this beautiful nonsense, Mattei makes effective use of the classic setup:  the zombies begin a siege upon the house and the survival horror kicks in.
The final act of Virus is strong; and if Mattei had taken a serious approach to the subject matter, then I believe the final act is representative as to how it would have looked.  The group arrives at their mission destination.  The camerawork is strong as there is an overwhelming sense of dread over the location.  Mattei effectively uses the quiet atmosphere of isolation to heighten the subsequent (and inevitable) siege of horror by the zombies.  The use of Goblin’s score, here, also deserves mention.  By the way, does it sound familiar?  Mattei states that the production had no problem using Goblin’s score(s), “because we paid for the rights.  We have utilized music not only from Dawn of the Dead, but also Buio Omega/Buried Alive and the Luigi Cozzi film, Alien Contamination.”  (4)

I quite enjoy Virus but not as much as other Mattei cinema.  There is quite a bit of brilliancy within yet there is also a lot of boring bits as well.  For any student of the maestro, Bruno Mattei, however, Virus is essential viewing.

1.  Hell Rats of the Living Dead.  Directed by Gary Hertz.  9 minutes.  Included as supplement on DVD release of Hell of the Living Dead.  Blue Underground Entertainment.  Documentary date, 2002.  DVD date, 2007.
2.  Spaghetti Nightmares.  Ed. Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta.  Fantasma Books. Key West, Florida.  1996:  p. 55.
3.  “An Interview with Bruno Mattei.”  European Trash Cinema.  Vol. 2, No. 5.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  1992:  p. 10.
4.  Ibid.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff (1973)

"Ah yes, I remember," says William Berger.  "I had very little time to make this one.  All my scenes were done in a row, in a very short period of time, three days or so.  I haven't seen the movie."  (1)

"I worked intensively with Jess," says Edmund Purdom.  "It was very stimulating.  He was such an incredibly prolific mind; it seems to be going in several directions at once.  I never saw [THE SINISTER EYES OF DR. ORLOFF].  In fact, I've never seen any of Jess's movies.  All I can tell you is the way he worked, which was very impressive indeed."  (2)

Despite the fact that its two leading actors have never seen the film, Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff (1973), I have seen the film.  It was given a DVD release a couple of years ago by Intervision Picture Corp.  The disc had been collecting dust in some nook of my room, and I had an itch to watch some Franco, so I gave it a spin.

Like most Jess Franco films, Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff (1973) has a curious history.  The authors of Bizarre Sinema:  Jess Franco El sexo del horror write that subsequent to Soledad Miranda's death, Franco was searching for another actress to replace her.  (3)  Montserrat Prous was the sister of Juan A. and Alberto Prous, two cameramen who had been working for Franco.  (4)  She had had a small role in a previous Spanish comedy and was assisting her brothers during the shooting of various movies.  (5)  Franco convinced Prous that she was going to be a star, and she was going to be the lead in the first film of Franco's new production house, Manacoa.  (6)  Along with Berger, Purdom, Robert Woods, and another new recruit, Kali Hanza, the first film of this new production company was Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff.  (7)
Prous plays Melissa Comfort, and she is the ward of her uncle, Sir Henry Robert Comfort (Jaime Picas).  Her immediate care is handled by her aunt, Lady Flora Comfort (Hanza) and her sister, Martha (Loretta Tovar), as Melissa is disabled and unable to walk.  Recently, Melissa has been haunted by nightmares which she believes involve an event ten years prior when she was a child concerning her father's death.  Flora and Martha consult Dr. Orloff (Berger) to examine Melissa about her nightmares.  Dr. Orloff reveals to Melissa that he knew both her father and her mother.  He tells her that he loved her mother very much and her father was a close friend.  He agrees to treat her by giving her medicine to help her sleep.

After her first dose, Melissa awakens in a somnambulistic state and reveals that she can walk.  She enters her uncle's study and murders him.  The following morning, Melissa awakens to learn that her uncle is gone from the house to go hunting (without knowledge of her behavior the night before).  Melissa believes something is amiss.  When his body is found by the side of the road, Inspector Crosby (Purdom) is assigned to the case.  Dr. Orloff, coincidentally, performs the autopsy upon Melissa's uncle.  Hmm...
I enjoyed Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff.  It's well-paced (short, too, at about seventy-five minutes); features good performances, with Prous and Berger standing out; and Franco indulges a particularly favorite theme, subjection/domination of the will by another.  Against the backdrop of Franco's other work, especially his work during this period, Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff is far from distinguishable.  The camerawork is clean for the majority and missing are those beautiful, subjective Franco shots, often leering at its ladies in provocative poses.  The mystery-cum-police-procedural story is very conservative and well-rendered, and there are no diversions or frolics from the action.  Frolics and detours from the plot would have been very welcome.
Subsequent to Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff, Franco attempted to make three films back-to-back with the Manacoa production house.  (8)  Two of the films were never finished and the other did not do well.  (9)  Franco would make much better films during the immediate period, such as La comtesse perverse (1973), Al otro lado del espejo (1973), and especially, Sinner (Le journal intime d'une nymphomane (1972).  The latter was produced by Robert de Nesle and features both Prous and Hanza.

I would definitely recommend Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff for those looking for a more restrained Franco film or for those, like me, who have seen a lot of Franco and are now looking for obscure titles from the filmmaker.  I have seen well over a hundred of his films and I know there are still plenty out there to uncover.  Los ojos siniestros del doctor Orloff isn't a hidden gem but it's very entertaining Franco.
1.  Obsession:  The Films of Jess Franco.  Ed. by Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen & Frank Trebbin.  Berlin, Germany.  1993:  p. 218.
2.  “International Man of Cinema:  An Interview with Edmund Purdom.”  Chartrand, Harvey F.  Shock Cinema.  No.  24/Spring 2004.  Ed.  Steven Puchalski.  New York, N.Y.  2004:  p.  31.
3.  Bizarre Sinema Jess Franco El sexo del horror.  Ed.  Carlos Aguilar, Stefano Piselli, and Riccardo Morrocchi.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy.  1999:  p. 104.
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid.
6.  Ibid.
7.  Ibid.
8.  Ibid.
9.  Ibid.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Nosferatu a Venezia (1988)

Nosferatu a Venezia (1988) is a rare film which can successfully sustain claims of both total incompetence and artistic genius.  Both claims have strong merit.

Professor Catalano (Christopher Plummer), a renowned expert on vampirism, is summoned to Venice, Italy at the request of Princess Helietta Canins (Barbara De Rossi).  The princess resides in her familial manor with her aged mother, younger sister, and spiritual advisor, Don Alvise (Donald Pleasence).  She is convinced that an evil curse has overtaken the manor and has infected the entire family.  Below the manor and below the canals of Venice, a tomb is located, bound completely in chains.  The princess believes this tomb houses the source of the evil and wants Professor Catalano to help her open the tomb and end the curse.  He says no.

The ancient evil residing in the tomb might actually be the legendary vampire, Nosferatu (Klaus Kinski), to whom Professor Catalano has devoted his life’s study.  Opening the tomb, the professor argues, would be unleashing too great an evil.  He presents evidence supporting his claim:

Two hundred years prior to the present day, Nosferatu’s last known appearance occurred in Venice while a plague was overtaking the populace.  Specifically, Nosferatu was last seen in the princess’s palatial manor and had given one of her ancestors the vampire’s kiss.  Nosferatu disappeared thereafter, never having been seen again.

The princess is adamant.  The family and the house are cursed, and the curse must be lifted.  She schedules a séance at her home where a medium successfully summons Nosferatu from his slumber.  Interestingly, it appears that during the séance, the ancestor of the princess channeled her spirit through the body of the princess.  Nosferatu, in effect, must have been called back to the world of the living by his last victim who is also clearly in love with the creature.  Shit is about to go from bad to worse.
Among real cult-film aficionados, Nosferatu a Venezia is a curiosity, known for its troubled production history.  The IMdB, as trivia, lists these facts, which are mostly corroborated by Luigi Cozzi, an assistant to the production, here (especially pages five and six).  Given the production problems, it is unsurprising then that Nosferatu a Venezia appears disjointed and poorly-structured.  The film is totally unengaging on an emotional level and extremely difficult to follow, despite a very simple narrative.  Producer, and subsequent director, Augusto Caminito failed to make a film equal in praise to its predecessor, Werner Herzog’s masterful Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979).  Instead, at its most superficial level, Nosferatu a Venezia is a travelogue of the beautiful city of Venice and of Klaus Kinski traversing its streets, alleys, and canals.  In between the sequences of the city and of Kinski, some story unfolds.  This is not say that there are not brilliant sequences which are very memorable.
After Nosferatu has entered the manor a couple of times, one time committing murder and the other assaulting the princess, the professor and company realize that Nosferatu may be coming back again.  In a daylight sequence in an enclosed garden behind the manor, the professor feels a climate change and knows that Nosferatu is coming.  With a shimmer in his eye, the professor realizes that his entire life study is about to come to its fruition:  an ultimate confrontation with Nosferatu.  (Plummer deserves a lot of praise for his performance, as it is quite good.)  Kinski appears in dramatic fashion.  Nosferatu rebuffs two powerful shotgun blasts from the local doctor (and also, incidentally, the princess’s would-be paramour).  Plummer’s professor grabs his cross and begins a litany, one it appears that he has been preparing for a while.  Kinski, in an essential Kinski moment, seems slightly perturbed at the sight of the professor.  (One of the best emotions that Kinski could faithfully and inimitably produce is that of contempt.  He is in top form, here.)  De Rossi appears at the stairs and beckons for Nosferatu.  Kinski now sees Plummer’s character as inconsequential and with an unforeseen incendiary ability, violently heats the cross in Plummer’s hands.  The professor drops to the ground with his wounded hands (and even more so, wounded pride), and Nosferatu nonchalantly steps over him to take the princess’s hand.  An amazing sequence.
The subsequent sequence rivals its predecessor, where Plummer, thoroughly defeated, packs his bags to leave the manor.  Plummer gives this wonderful speech about failure while Don Alvise follows behind him, shaming him by yelling at the top of his lungs.  (Pleasance gives a bizarre, emotional performance.  His character has almost no narrative weight in the final film.  This anomaly quality of his character just heightens the disjointed nature of the film.)  Plummer crosses a pedestrian bridge across one of the canals and a gulf of fog overtakes him.  When the fog clears, his character is gone, while his suitcase floats in the canal below.  Unbelievable.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading Klaus Kinski’s autobiography, Kinski Uncut, is well aware that Kinski quite enjoyed fucking or at the minimum, quite enjoyed writing about fucking in descriptive detail.  Unfortunately, I could decipher little in its text about Nosferatu a Venezia, but the final act of the film seems as if it could have come from pages from his autobiography.  Describing the final act, here, would be a disservice, but I hope that I have hinted towards its content sufficiently.  The final act is ridiculous, over-the-top, and much like the final film, totally incompetent or artistically brilliant.

Nosferatu a Venezia has a DVD release from Germany, available here.  It is well worth seeing, if you are a serious fan of the antiquities and curios of European cult cinema.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Zeder (1983)

Italian director Pupi Avati's contributions to the genre have been few but they have been potent, and quite often brilliant, contributions.  His atmospheric mystery starring Lino Capolicchio, La casa dalle finestre che ridono (1976), subverted the mechanics of the standard giallo formula and boasted rich characterizations and a meticulous and satisfying story.  Its visuals, like the iconic image of the titular house, have few equals from his contemporaries in the genre.  Within the last few years, I was treated to a viewing of a much later Avati contribution to the genre, L'arcano incantatore (1996), a wonderful period-piece mystery with a strong occult theme.  L'arcano incantatore plays out like a beautiful and cautious fairy tale, and again, boasts a strong performance by its richly-drawn protagonist, portrayed by Stefano Dionisi.  Over the last few months I have kept my eye on several copies of the out-of-print, Image Entertainment DVD of Zeder (1983) with hopes a seller would reduce the price, so I could purchase it.  With luck I was able to secure a copy and was again treated to Avati’s cinema.  I haven’t seen Zeder in years, and this recent viewing was extremely satisfying.
Zeder begins with an odd flashback sequence, set thirty years before its present, in Chartres where an old lady is killed in the shadow of a dilapidated maison by an unknown assailant.  Enter Dr. Meyer (Cesare Barbetti) who accompanies the police to the maison crime scene.  After a preliminary investigation, Dr. Meyer believes that there is something unusual about the location.  He brings a young patient to the location, named Gabriella, and during one evening he escorts her to the basement of the maison.  Gabriella is violently attacked by an unknown force.  After her attack, Dr. Meyer believes that he has identified what is unusual about this location.  He summons some workers who begin digging up the floor in the basement.  Little is yielded from the dig, save a wallet with an identification card with a name that reads Paolo Zeder.  Dr. Meyer believes that Paolo Zeder had his corpse buried on the premises for a specific reason:  Zeder knew that he would be resurrected, because of an unnatural power located within the area.
Cut to the present in Bologna, where Stefano (Gabriele Lavia) and Alessandra (Anne Canovas) are celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary.  Alessandra gives Stefano a rare model of an electric typewriter that she purchased at an auction.  As an aspiring novelist, Stefano begins giving his new gift some use.  When his typewriter ink ribbon becomes dislodged, he removes the ribbon to discover the words of the typewriter’s former owner:  a man named Luigi Costa who has written some very bizarre material.  Apparently Costa knows of Paolo Zeder’s work and the ability for the dead to resurrect at selected places, denoted as “K” zones.  Stefano, with reluctant Alessandra’s help, sets out to find Luigi Costa and uncover the mystery.
Zeder contains elements of the paranoia/conspiracy thriller (popular the decade before); the tried and true (yet very much dead) Italian giallo; and atmospheric horror (mostly akin to haunted-house theatrics).  At times, Zeder appears confused, only because Avati doesn’t strictly adhere to any of the mentioned formulas.  Avati is a master filmmaker, however, so the patient viewer will very much rewarded at the end.

At first blush, I thought that the exposition, the opening flashback sequence at Chartres, was too contrived to introduce the character of Zeder and the concept of the “K” zones.  What is later revealed, in a storyline parallel to Stefano’s investigation, is that Dr. Meyer and Gabriella, now a grown woman, have not abandoned their search from almost thirty-years previous.  They are not alone, either, as it appears they have recruited quite a staff and have secured serious financial backing in uncovering the existence of a “K” zone.  When Stefano makes a little headway in his investigation, he usually becomes thwarted by some mysterious figures who knows exactly what Stefano is up to.  These mysterious figures appear to be working for a larger group engaged towards the same goal.

By the end of Zeder, it is apparent that the central relationship of the film is between Stefano and Alessandra.  Stefano becomes obsessive towards uncovering the truth, even putting his life in danger at times, while Alessandra wants him to abandon his search and come home to her.  In a particularly endearing scene, Alessandra reunites with Stefano in a hotel room after a fight.  She reveals to Stefano that one of their close friends is dead, and they both realize, despite their previous spat, that they need each other for consoling.  The emotions of the scene never feel forced, and Zeder is really benefited by Lavia’s and Canovas’s performances.
If you have watched a lot of gialli, as I have, then you’re well prepared for Avati’s death scenes.  Avati effectively uses the tried-and-true method of the unsuspecting victim encountering a menacing figure emerging from the darkness.  The menacing figure gives a little chase, before the flash of the blade and the bloody killing.  Avati excels far better with his atmospheric set pieces, nearly all of which come in the final act.  When Stefano learns that an old building, near a necropolis ruin, is being occupied by a mysterious scientific group, he undertakes several clandestine trips into the old building.  All of his trips are revelatory and nearly all are extremely creepy.

Riz Ortolani’s score for Zeder is memorable, primarily because it is tonally inconsistent with the images (as is his score for Cannibal Holocaust (1980)).  It is a heavy-synth score, far more evocative of John Carpenter’s score for Halloween (1978) with shades of Harry Manfredini’s score from Friday the Thirteenth (1980).  Ortolani’s score is kind of amazing in a singular sense for adding a true unreal vibe to the entire film.

I can find little fault with Zeder.  It is truly a film to be appreciated by adults.  It’s storyline always assumes that its viewer is intelligent and thoughtful and rewards that viewer in the end.  Zeder easily ranks as one of the best Italian genre pictures in its waning days.