Thursday, October 31, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Links (UPDATED 10/31)

Hello, all!

Use the comments section to link to your pieces. Keep checking this space for updates. I’ll keep this post on top throughout the blogathon for convenience; my daily posts will appear beneath the daily link update. I look forward to reading everyone’s entries! And remember, you have until Halloween night to contribute something.

UPDATE (4:45): I will be out of the house for most of the night (which means I'll be away from my computer), but continue sending those links if ya got 'em. I'll try to post them from my phone. There's still time! Thanks so much for the contributions, all!

Happy Halloween, everyone! Sadly, today is the last day of the blogathon. I'll be updating the links page throughout the day; I'll also be posting my contributions for today a little bit later. 


- Simon sneaks one more review in...and it's an Umberto Lenzi TV movie, to boot. Consider me intrigued.

- Tim wraps up his contributions to this year's 'thon with a look at one of my personal favorites (obviously saving the best for last!).

- As I continue to read  Simon's blog, Creatures of Light and Darkness, I found more Italian horror related goodness that he covered in September.

- Goregirl covered her 10 favorite Lucio Fulci movies.

- Tim is back with his look at Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin.

- Simon finishes his three part look a greats and gems of Italian horror with a look at two of my favorites, Shock and The House by the Cemetery.

- James is back with a look Fulci's 8 1/2-esque A Cat in the Brain.

- Hans A., of the fantastic blog Quiet Cool, takes a look at  Lamberto Bava's oddball Deliria: Photos of Gioia.


- Tim is back with his Masters of Italian Horror series, he's already done entries for Argento and Bava, this time looking at Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock.

- Simon continues his Halloween Hootenanny with part two in a series that looks at greats and gems of Italian horror, this time it's Lady Frankenstein and Baron Blood.


- Erich Kuersten, author of one my favorite daily stops Acidemic, chimes in with a look at one of my favorite Italian horror films, Michel Soavi's StageFright: Aquarius (aka Deliria).

- Tim returns with a review of the Mario Bava classic Black Sunday.

- Simon's Halloween Hootenanny continues with what looks to be the first in a series of posts covering Italian horror.

- And Dick returns with another review, this time with a look at the The Embalmer.


- Aaron Fenwick, of the blog Tomorrow's Sound for Today's Swinging Generation, checks in with a review of one of Argentio's more popular efforts, Phenomena.

- Brennan, of the blog Popcorn Culture, offers up his first contribution to the blogathon with a look at Argento's first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

- Finally, James returns with two more capsule reviews. First, a surprisingly good Joe D'Amato film, and then he looks at one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good zombie movies.


- James returns with a look at the disappointing Baby Yaga and the late-era Bava Lisa and the Devil/The House of Exorcism, covering both versions of the much maligned film extremely well.

- Neil Fulwood returns with a look at Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Your Daughters?; a sequel to the great giallo What Have You Done to Solange?


- One of the things I love about hosting this blogathon every year is that it gives me a chance to be introduced to new blogs that I get to add to my daily reading list. Dick's The Oak Drive-In is just such a blog. His contribution is on 1971's Lady Frankenstein (which has one of my favorite posters with its line, "only the monster she made could satisfy her strange desires!").

- Neil Fulwood has always been a big supporter of this blogathon, and if you aren't reading his blog The Agitation of the Mind on a regular basis...well I just feel bad for you. Neil stops by this year with a look at Michel Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man).

- Simon Wright returns with a look at Dario Argento's cut of Dawn of the Dead.


- Stacia, of the great blog She Blogged By Night, has been a longtime supporter of this blogathon and has promised to do an entry on Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo for two years running now. However, the fates conspired against her every time she'd tried to watch the film, but in year four she finally checks in with a fantastic essay on Lenzi's 1969 film. Thanks, Stacia!

- Lee, of the Hougly Film Journal, has been commenting around here for a couple of years, but now offers up his first contribution to the blogathon with a look at Argento's first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

- James, of The Cameraman's Revenge, was quite prolific during last year's blogathon, and he's off and running once again this year with a look at the film that started it all, I Vampiri, and the film that is considered one of Bava's least interesting efforts (although he makes a case for it), Baron Blood.

- Peter, who authors one of my very favorite blogs Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee, has contributed from the onset of this humble project. And this year, he doesn't disappoint with a look at the 1971 giallo Slaughter Hotel...wait, you're telling me there's a giallo starring Klaus Kinski! I'm there.

- How fortuitous, Tim, proprietor of my favorite blog on the interwebs, Antagony & Ecstasy, has a review of Dario Argento's Dracula 3D, which was recently screened at the Chicago International Film Festival (which Tim has been reporting on here) and conveniently coincides with the first day of this-here blogathon.

- Simon Wright, author of the blog Creatures of Light and Darkness, checks in with a look at two of my favorite zombie movies: Burial Ground (aka The Nights of Terror) and Cemetery Man; the former because it's so wacky, and the latter because it's just really damn nice to look at. He also checked out a few Italian horror flicks prior to the blogathon, so explore Simon's blog and check those out.

Italian Horror Blogathon: Torso (aka I Corpi Presentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, aka The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence)

Sergio Martino’s Torso is one of the exploitation masters more popular movies. And that’ probably because it falls somewhere in-between the traditional giallo and the slasher film that would become popular seven years after its release. It’s not the best Sergio Martino film out there, but it’s an interesting look at a director that straddles the fine line between exploitative trash and legitimately good psychological thriller.

The primary question that swirls around Torso is whether one should consider it a proto-slasher or a traditional giallo. The answer to that question all depends on how one views the two female characters in the film: There’s Jane (Suzy Kendall, who for you Martino fans is essentially the Edwige Fenech of the film) and there’s Dani (Tina Aumont). Both are students at a rather quiet University for international students; however, the school and the community is rocked by when two of the students are found brutally murdered. Dani is a gorgeous art student who gets a strange feeling when she recognizes a red and black scarf that was left on one of the victims. A manhunt begins for the killer (who strikes a couple of more times), and Dani, fearing for her life, leaves the city with Jane and some fellow girlfriends, retreating to a country villa. To the surprise of absolutely no one that is familiar with the slasher subgenre, the killer stalks the girls, turning their vacation from the city into a nightmare.

So how do we answer the question above? Are we watching a proto-slasher or a giallo? The answer lies in the film’s two halves, two female characters, and its different titles. If we follow Dani throughout the first half of the film, then we’re watching I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence), a giallo with a literal title (that is indeed what happens to the victims) that leaves nothing to nuance. The first half of the film is very much a giallo in that classic sense: a foreigner involved in a murder mystery, black-gloved killer (although unlike most gialli, the killer, albeit masked, is not kept offscreen), sexualized murders, and a killer that has a few psychosexual quirks. So if we think we’re watching a giallo, then we probably think that Dani is the protagonist because it really feels like the film is going to settle in and focus on her since she holds the key (identifying the scarf) to solving the murder.

However, during the second half of the film when the girls get to the villa,  the film’s tone shifts. Here, Martino amps up both the titillation and the gore, and it is here that we realize that if we see Jane as the protagonist, then we feel like we’re watching a slasher, for Jane is thrust into a circumstance at the end that can be interpreted as a Final Girl sequence (although there is one moment that makes it a mix of both slasher and giallo). The film’s brusque American title, Torso, is a more apt moniker that gets right to what the second half of this movie is all about: a killer dispatches their victims with a bow saw in an extremely cruel and gruesome fashion.

It was around this time (1973) that the giallo was starting to establish itself as something more than just your basic “Krimi” inspired horror film. Sex = Death trope that became well-worn after only a few years during the ‘80s slasher boom is on full display here, replacing the more languid procedural elements of the giallo. Martino fills the villa with what looks like — with the benefit of ‘80s slasher knowledge — nothing but disposable characters that will be picked off one by one by the killer in a lurid manner (similar to what Bava did a few years earlier in Twitch of the Death Nerve). However, in a stroke of inspiration, Martino shockingly throws us for a loop by playing  off those expectations — giving it a different feel than Bava’s film and disposing of every girl in the villa, with the exception of Jane, in one off-camera moment. The subsequent scene where Jane discovers her friends’ bloody bodies splayed throughout the downstairs of the villa (something we would see in both Black Christmas and Halloween) is played wonderfully by Kendall (her wide-eyed, “holy shit what is happening” look reminded me of Marilyn Burns). The scenes at the villa are more visceral with a final 30 minutes that is essentially an extended (maybe the longest I’ve ever seen) Final Girl sequence that is incredibly tense and one of the best things Martino ever filmed.

A lot of the interest in Torso does indeed stem from it being a precursor to the slasher, which will no doubt pique the interest of hardcore horror fans. But Martino — an unfairly marginalized director, certainly not one of the “big three” of Italian horror but he deserves to be in the conversation in regards to the top five — seems to be up to something more than just mere titillation, and there is definitely more going on in Torso than it simply being a curiosity solely because it can claim “firsties.”  As is evident in his other gialli (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, The Scorpian’s Tail, and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), Martino was always interested in going for a psychological effect with his films, no matter how rooted they were in exploitation. With Torso, he does give us some wonderfully eerie and ominous shots of the killer (in particular a long shot of the killer in the foggy woods), but the killer is primarily left off screen during the murders.

It’s a tricky balancing act, too, since so much of Torso feels like Martino’s greatest hits. The structure is a bit all over the place (similar to his other films), and there are some scenes that feel out of place considering the more serious turn the second half of the film takes. I’m thinking specifically of the bizarre ménage à trois — set to an even more bizarrely displacing score by the De Angelis brothers that totally removes any sexuality from the scene — that opens the film, or the hippie party where a couple of groooovy pot-smokin’ college students try to get into the pants of the same girl, only to a get a cigarette butt put out on them for their troubles. Or the gratuitous bits of nudity that would be followed by said nude girls being murdered because...well because they had the audacity to be naked, I suppose. Make no mistake, though, Martino clearly wants us to notice all of the nude college girls, but the film doesn't take the point of view of the killer. It doesn't linger on the violence (the camera lingers very much on their alive bodies, though, with close-ups that are designed to disorientate rather than titillate).

The best example of this is during the film’s brilliant and horrifying Final Girl setpiece: As Jane crouches and hides, she must do everything she can to keep herself from screaming (and in one horrifying scene retching) while having to watch one of her friends get cut up with a bow saw. Martino wisely keeps things uncomfortably quiet during the scene (throughout most of those final 30 minutes, really) as she watches wide-eyed at the horrifying acts being done to her friends taking place right in front of her. The blocking of the scene (the dead body obscured by furniture) and the framing of these shots is quite ingenious in how it suggests the brutality.

One would expect Martino to rub the audience’s nose in the ugliness — to linger on the lurid nature of the violence — however it’s possible to interpret Martino's lingering as a means to implicate the audience in the act of watching. I guarantee had Torso been released in the middle of the slasher glut, people would be talking about what a brilliant postmodern attack it is on the subgenre. I don’t know if a director as well-versed in exploitation cinema as Martino is deliberately rubbing the audience's blood lust in their faces, but it certainly feels like something is going on a more psychological level here, which is a common current running through all of Martino’s films.

Torso is a typical Martino mélange of giallo, exploitation film, and psychological thriller. The first half of the film is the least interesting — mostly because it contains a slog of a mystery and the typical, albeit hilarious, exploitation bits found in other Martino films. It all feels like “been there done that” territory for those familiar with Martino’s work. However, once the film suddenly switches settings to the isolated villa, Torso becomes one of the best and most interesting of Martino’s films. Sure Martino was known as somewhat of a trashy filmmaker, but he was no hack as the the last half of Torso (and his other gialli) proves.  If you’re new to Italian horror, I don’t know that Torso is good enough to be in the same league as some of the best gateway gialli by Bava and Argento and Fulci, but for the seasoned fan of the subgenre, the last 30 minutes alone make it essential viewing.

Note: Formatting issues delayed this entry. I don't know why the text in these last two paragraph  isn't uniform with the rest of the post, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it. Obviously the screengrabs did something to the text. Oh well. Enjoy the awesome, albeit NSFW, trailer below. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: The House by the Cemetery (aka Quella villa accanto al cimitero)

Lucio Fulci was on something of a roll when The House by the Cemetery was being filmed. Coming off what was his most creative stretch of films, Fulci was definitely establishing himself as the maestro of a particular brand of otherworldly horror. Aided by screenwriter Dardono Sacchetti and longtime partner cinematographer Sergio Salvati, this third entry in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” series (which also includes City of the Living Dead and The Beyond) is the most neglected of the three films that make up the unofficial trilogy. Even though it doesn’t have the more memorable moments of visceral gore a la City or outré ambiance a la The Beyond, it is certainly one of the Italian horror master’s best films — with an emphasis, more than most of his non-giallo films, on character development and a slow burn, Gothic mood — sadly overshadowed by the films that came before and, more infamously, the films that followed. I was floored by my recent revisit of the film; I had seen House by the Cemetery three times prior to this viewing, and I have to say, my admiration has grown exponentially for a film that I initially didn’t think much of.

The film opens with a girl and her boyfriend sneaking into an abandoned house for a quick cuddle. The boyfriend wanders off, and as the girl looks for him, she stumbles upon his dead body and lets out a scream before a hand wielding a knife enters the frame. The knife then proceeds to go through the girls head, and in one of Fulci’s more famous effects (seen in the trailer below), the end of the blade comes out of her mouth. The girl’s body is then dragged away by the unknown assailant into a dark doorway just as the camera pans up from the floor to the (creaking) door closing, leaving the viewer without an answer. The film then cuts to the exterior of the house while the credits role. The opening feels very much like an American slasher (the tagline to the American poster is even quite slasher-y with its tagline: “Read the fine print: you may have just mortgaged your life,” which is an amazingly awesome tagline) and not at all like what follows, which is Fulci’s take on American favorites The Shining, The Amityville Horror, and Frankenstein.

The story proper begins on the same exterior shot of the house, only as the camera zooms in, we see a little girl peering through the curtains, mouth agape, looking out the window in an horrified fashion. Fulci freezes the frame and then zooms out to reveal that the girl is in a portrait that young Bob (Giovanni Frezzi) is starring at. Bob — who we will learn is an obvious takeoff of the Danny Torrance character — is the son to Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco and Catriona MacColl), who live in New York but move to Boston for six months so he can take over his colleague’s (who killed his mistress and himself) research. Bob asks his mother who the little girl is, confusing Lucy. He tells her, “the girl in the picture.” Of course when Lucy looks at the picture, the girl is not there. However, when she leaves the room after telling Bob to quite joking around with her and pack the rest of his toys up, Bob looks at the picture again to once again find the little girl staring out the window.

This opening few minutes is atmospheric and intriguing (especially thanks to Walter Rizzati’s score), but the minute we hear the dubbing for Bob, it immediately takes us out of the movie whenever Bob is on screen; it’s that bad (there is a special feature on the DVD where Frezzi acknowledges the awful dubbing, good naturedly attributing this monstrosity that was out of his control to his popularity among horror fans). Thankfully, Fulci and his crew calibrate, making the awful dubbing (a staple of Italian horror, sure, but Bob’s voice is beyond even the most egregious Italian dubbing) an afterthought.

Back to the plot: as the Boyle’s move to Boston, they come to find that the house they were initially supposed to stay in is no longer available. However, one of the real estate agents, Harold, suggests “the Freudstein place” much to the chagrin Harold’s real estate partner Mrs. Gittelson (Dagmar Lassander), who takes Harold to task for not referring to it as “Oak Mansion,” which immediately causes Lucy to feel apprehensive about moving into this house. But Norman is so eager to get into his colleague’s aborted research that he agrees to take the keys belonging to the Freudstein house.

Bob, sitting in the car waiting for his parents to come out of the real estate office, sees the girl from the photo and shares a conversation with her from a distance, hinting that the two have the same kind of psychic/supernatural connection. As soon as Bob moves into his new house, she begins playing with him on a regular basis, warning him and his family of imminent doom if they stay in the house. One afternoon she shows Bob the tombstone belonging to one Mary Freudstein — located outside of the house they’re stating in — informing him that she isn’t really dead.

Meanwhile, Norman begins to hear strange noises coming from the basement, people in the town keep insisting that they’ve seen him before despite his claims that he’s never been there, and Lucy finds the tombstone — in a great reveal — for one Jacob Freudstein under a rug while she sweeps up around the house. Norman eventually finds out that Freudstein was an experimental Victorian surgeon who conducted illegal experiments in his basement. Hmmm. This knowledge seems to unlock a flurry of unfortunate circumstances (signaled by blood flowing from Freudstein’s tombstone) where people connected to the Boyle’s are being murdered by the mysterious killer from the opening of the film, who then drags them away to an unknown location.

The House by the Cemetery applies more of a slow burn approach to its story and setpieces. The idea that the townspeople seem to think Norman has visited the town before and that he has a daughter and not a son are admittedly little things, but they add enough intrigue to keep one watching. Fulci really lets things develop, and even though there isn’t that sense of dread that pervades every moment like his previous two “Gates of Hell” films, the attention to character detail here (that isn’t really found in his other two films of the trilogy) adds some dramatic weight to those tense final moments. Perhaps more than any other film he made, it really felt like Fulci was going for a Gothic horror atmosphere with this one.

This committed approach to make a Gothic horror really gives Fulci’s DP, Sergio Salvati, a chance to create some memorable, Gothic images (big empty mansions, cobwebs, shadowy corners, et al) that are evocative of Bava. Unfortunately, this would be the last time Fulci worked with Salvati, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the last time a Fulci film had this kind of atmosphere in it. Perhaps more important than any other director/cinematographer collaboration in Italian horror, Fulci and Salvati really brought out the best in each other (Salvati was just as responsible for what made the likes of Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, and The Beyond so memorable). Just a cursory glance at both of their IMDB pages suggests they were creatively stunted after they stopped working together. 

One of my favorite touches of Salvati’s is in the way he switches his aesthetic approach throughout the film, flipping back and forth between a sweeping camera and handheld. In one of the film’s best scenes — it’s both a great setpiece and tremendous moment that moves the narrative forward, something Fulci became increasingly less concerned with in subsequent films — we watch as Norman listens to his colleagues notes over a tape recorder. The camera cuts away from Norman in the library listening to the recording, but we can still hear the message from the recorder  (the use of diegetic sound from the tape recorder playing over this scene portends doom in a way that reminded me of The Evil Dead) as the camera zooms in on Norman’s eyes and then cuts to the cemetery outside of the house, switching to an handheld approach, walking the viewer through the cemetery, into the house, and up the stairs before we hear the word, “blood” echo from the tape recorder, triggering blood to poor out from Freudstein’s tombstone.

At this moment, the camera continues with its handheld aesthetic as it makes its way down the stairs of the basement — crudely gliding over the tables of dripping blood and severed limbs — before zooming in on the image of a corpse with an eviscerated stomach. This handheld approach makes the reveal of what’s been going on in that basement (apparently Freudstein has been collecting body parts and using his victims’ organs to regenerate himself) resonate more viscerally than the more deliberate, Bava-inspired camera dollies used throughout most of the film. Salvati employs the same tactic when Freudstein finally appears onscreen (more on that in a bit) as the shooting style is switched  to add more immediacy and menace to Freudstein’s presence.

It isn’t just an atmospheric horror film, though. Don’t fret hardcore Fulci fans, there are still plenty of those classic Lucio Fulci moments throughout The House by the Cemetery: completely arbitrary moments that displace the viewer (a mannequin in a store window has its head fall off, spilling blood everywhere in a scene that rivals the “What the fuck!?” moment from The Beyond where a random vial of acid falls on a woman’s face); extremely deliberate, “I dare you to look at this” moments of gore; an animal attack (this go-round it’s a bat in what is one of Fulci’s least inspired moments — flesh-eating spiders from Hell it is not); and a loose dream logic narrative structure that plays more like a nightmare (again, though, really toned down compared to the other two films of this series).

It should be noted that the palpable detachment found in later Fulci’s films is not evident here. In addition to the Gothic atmosphere he tries to establish, the other thing Fulci still seems to be invested in is the visceral nature of the film (although to be fair, even if I hate the movie, he did seem invested in that regard with The New York Ripper). The gore here doesn’t occur as often as it does in his previous films, but it is still really gory. The film’s most gruesome setpiece — Mrs. Gittelson being fireplace-pokered to death — was supposed to be even more brutal than it already is. In the scene, Mrs. Gittelson enters the house to tell the Boyle’s that she’s found a new house for them. However, she is approached by someone/something (okay, it’s Freudstein, who Fulci wisely leaves off camera until the end of the film) and gets a fireplace poker in the jugular for her troubles.

The scene plays out like a lot of Fulci gore setpieces with its overtly languid approach in regards to the moment the fireplace poker penetrates the woman’s skin. This is typical Fulci “I dare you to watch this” filmmaking, and it was intended to be the most graphic scene of Fulci’s oeuvre. When her body is being dragged away (this is one gory image), the remnants of what’s left are much more gruesome than initially implied by the fireplace-poker-in-the-neck scene that precedes it. There was supposed to be a scene where the caretaker’s head was brutalized by the poker as well, but they couldn’t execute it to Fulci’s standards, so the scene was cut (it was, it should be noted, not a scene that the censors cut and therefore has never been restored; I doubt the footage was ever kept). So if one looks closely at the woman’s body being dragged away, they’ll notice the poor woman’s face has holes in it. I don’t know what got into Fulci with this particular scene, but Jesus Christ is it brutal.

Oh, but just like the best Fulci films, The House by the Cemetery has so much more going for it than simple gore. Despite what the description of that previous setpiece suggests, Fulci is amazingly subdued here. The restraint he shows in saving the reveal of his monster until the very end is refreshing, and it pays off big time, for not only does Dr. Freudstein lay claim to one of the very best names I’ve ever heard in a horror film, but he is also quite simply one of the very best movie monsters I’ve ever seen. The ending comes off as doubly effective because of Fulci’s decision to withhold Freudstein for the whole film. All we have seen of Fredustein to that point is a hand here or foot there — always accompanied by a subjective point of view compete with creepy heavy breathing. This synecdochical approach to Freudstein’s reveal seems appropriate since his MO is to take body parts from others to restore his own body. So the ending is that much more meaningful because the reveal of the monster (who is only screen for maybe 5-10 minutes at the very end) is treated as something special.

About that ending: it is as good a setpiece that Fulci filmed, containing an ending with a twist that has the appropriate  “what the fuck just happened?” tone to it for an Italian horror film. And because we know that Italian horror films tend to favor nightmarish (il)logic more than narrative coherence, I was kind of on board for that ending. The logistics of the final scene made me think of The Beyond in the way it plays with time and space. It’s not as confounding as that weird freeze frame/cracked lens effect Fulci uses at the of City of the Living Dead, and it’s not quite as eerie and unsettling as the ending of The Beyond (where our characters are surrounded by a vast sea of nothingness), but it evokes a tone that falls safely somewhere in the middle of those two endings.

And really, a lot of The House by the Cemetery will feel that way to people: safe. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this piece, House doesn’t have teleporting zombies and a ghost priest that makes people regurgitate their innards, nor is it an ethereal horror masterpiece and one of the greatest horror films ever made. Even though the productions of the “Gates of Hell” trilogy all overlapped, and are very much of a piece (notice the similarity in settings that act as gateways: the bowels of the hotel in The Beyond, the catacombs in City, and the basement in House), they each offer something different. The House by the Cemetery is certainly the most subdued of the three.

“[T]here’s no logic to it, just a succession of images” is the way Fulci described this loose trilogy, and for the first time I started to notice that all three films, to quote Stephen Thrower, “haunt each other.” Fulci overlaps design (the inside of Freudstein's house looks like the inside of the Seven Doors Hotel), actors (MacColl, specifically), music, and cinematography (although Salvati went for look that's just a touch different with this one, they all definitely feel like some kind of eerie continuum, working together to fuck with the viewer) that give all three films a sense of déjà vu.

As I watched The House by the Cemetery again, I really began to notice how it shares a lot of the same eerie and atmospheric exterior shots as City of the Living Dead, or how it shares the kind of “I dare you to look at this” mentality of drawn-out gore scenes that are downright sadistic and nightmarish in how slowly they play out found in The Beyond. Scenes from each film become more intense and resonate more deeply because of our knowledge of the other films in the series. Because of this, I was able to appreciate House on a much different level than I had in the past; it unnerved me more because I was able to see how it worked in conjunction with the other films in the series, which gives it this kind of cross-tension that is unsettling because even though we aren’t watching the other films, they’re still affecting us. Prior to this viewing, I was always indifferent towards The House by the Cemetery; now, however, I think it rivals Don’t Torture a Duckling, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, and Zombi 2 as a candidate for Fulci’s second best film.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Shock (aka Beyond the Door II)

“Death is a part of life, and we must learn from it”

That line is uttered by Dora Baldini (Daria Nicolodi), a tormented mother , to her son Marco (Davin Colin Jr.) about the mysterious death of her abusive husband, Marco’s father. This line echoes throughout Mario Bava’s Shock, and sticks in our mind until the film’s devastating denouement. Death is indeed a daily part of Dora’s life as it makes it presence known in every scene; it is also the driving force behind Shock’s primary theme, which is much more focused on despair and anguish than many of his films from the 1970s.  Even though Shock was peddled to American audiences as a sequel to the cheap Exorcist ripoff Beyond the Door, it is so much more than that — laying claim to some of Bava’s best moments (especially regarding the late-era Bava of Five Dolls for an August Moon and Lisa and the Devil) — as it has nothing to do with Beyond the Door (aside from having Davin Colin Jr. play a character that interacts with ghosts), nor is it merely a Suspiria clone as its detractors claim. Shock is one of my favorite Mario Bava films. Yes, it gets a little repetitive at times, but the final sequence, and its buildup, is one of the best things Bava ever filmed.

Shock’s story centers around newlyweds Dora and Bruno (John Steiner) and Dora’s son, Marco, as they move back into Dora's former home. Dora is returning from a stay at a mental institution (the aforementioned mysterious death of her first husband drove her there) where she received electroshock therapy. Immediately, on the day of the move, Dora is getting bad vibes from the house, which Bruno disregards as silliness, and that once she’s been in the house for awhile, her bad vibes will go away. However, Bruno isn’t there for long stretches since his job, a commercial airline pilot, keeps him away from his wife and her otherworldly inklings. So, with Bruno gone for long stretches, Dora is left alone with Marco in the house that is a constant reminder of death. It isn’t long before Dora freaks the hell out and begins to slowly piece together the events of her husband’s death (clouded by the electroshock therapy, no doubt).

Haunted by these visions (filmed with a filter to suggest the subjective point of view of an LSD user), Dora’s insanity only grows (there is a moment where a dresser opens and a disembodied hand gives her a box cutter that is one hell of a scene), and the longer she is left alone in the house with her son, the more and more she is convinced that Marco is possessed by the spirit of her dead husband. This all eventually leads to Dora finding out the truth behind her husband’s death, why Bruno seems so flippant towards her ever-growing fears, just what in the hell those visions are all about, and whether or not Marco really is conversing with the spirit of her dead husband (or is it all in her head?). I dare not reveal more (I am assuming this is one of the lesser scene Bava films), for the buildup — and payoff (I love that final shot!) — to the final sequence is so damn good I dare not even hint at it.

Before I get too effusive with my praise, let me be clear: there are weaknesses in the film. Particularly in the repetitive nature of the screenplay. Sometimes the monotony of the script works in its favor in a “lull you into a false sense of security” kind of way; other times, it’s maddening. For example, there is a pretty noticeable cycle of events throughout the film where, to some effect, you have the following occur: Dora gets an odd feeling, we get a flashback, we cut to Marco who does something odd and then runs away from his mother, Dora searches for Marco when something weird happens, cue Dora telling Bruno, cue Bruno’s disregard for such silly things, Dora has a strange vision, she wakes up screaming from a nightmare, repeat. This is no doubt the part of the film Bava dedicated the least amount of attention to; however, it’s not a lethal detriment as the film’s final 30 minutes (save for one effect that just doesn’t quite work) are some of the finest to grace a 1970’s Bava film.

The reason for the repetitive screenplay, though, and Bava’s seemingly disinterested approach in his narrative, is because a lot of Shock was a collaboration with Mario’s son, Lamberto, who actually co-wrote the film (and co-directed, albeit in an uncredited manner, just as Riccardo Freda gave Bava the chance to co-direct I Vampiri). So it’s pretty apparent that even though the aesthetics remind us of Mario, the screenplay is certainly atypical for a Mario Bava film.

(From this point on, to avoid confusion, I'll refer to the Bava's by first name)

The story goes that Lamberto wrote the screenplay for his father in hopes of giving him a project that had a little bit more of a contemporary feel to it (Lamberto and co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti were heavily influenced by Stephen King’s The Shining). Mario also wanted to give his son a shot at learning how to direct, so Mario would sketch out the shots and lay out the scenes in the morning, work with the actors and crew, and then leave for the day in order to allow Lamberto to execute Papa’s vision. It’s probably why some of Shock doesn’t really feel like a classic Mario Bava film (there are certain moments where it looks more like an 1970's American horror film rather than an Italian horror film directed by the great Mario Bava).

Mario’s work had become a little stale in the ‘70s, and even though his detached and darkly comic Twitch of the Death Nerve is an Italian horror classic (and paved the way for what would be the Dead Teenager slasher film), I don’t find it nearly as interesting (both aesthetically and in the performances) as Shock. The ‘70s, for Mario, brought with it a lot of films with studio interference (most notably Lisa and the Devil and Kidnapped), but that wasn’t the case with Shock — what we see is what Mario wanted us to see. And even though he knocked off work early and had his son film the majority of the scenes, it still looks very much like classic Mario Bava, with it’s roaming camera and all. The only thing that is un-Mario like is that the film primarily takes place during the day — which is a bummer because, c’mon, Mario Bava and the dark go hand-in-hand, but I’m a sucker for horror films that don’t feel they have to rely on the dark to be scary, so I was okay with the broad daylight horror scenes.

About that camera: Just as Mario did in his best films of the ‘60s (and Lamberto employed in his early films Macabre and A Blade in the Dark), he moves the camera throughout Shock brilliantly and effortlessly through Dora’s house so that every little nook seems ominous. We hear things creaking and cracking, and instead of keeping the camera static — so as to give one the feeling of Dora’s claustrophobic terror — and relying on close-ups to heighten the state of insanity, Mario keeps his camera at medium shot for a lot of the film (there is a brilliant shot in a hallway that looks so normal and unassuming, but when a character ducks out of frame, it turns into one of the film’s best scares), but when he decides to get that camera moving, it's as if it simply wafts through the large house; it’s not obtrusive or showy in the way it moves, which sets us on edge even more than had the camera banged around from extreme close-up and loud noise to the next .

No, we’re not on edge because we’re thrust via close-ups right into the mind of a woman who seems to be losing it (although Mario does employ some masking/distorting techniques to suggest this); we’re on edge because the camera allows us, the viewer, to feel as if we’re roaming through the large haunted house peaking around corners and peering through obstructed views, afraid of what we’ll hear or see.

And it should be noted that Shock is just as impressive aurally as it is visually. The sound throughout, especially the final 30 minutes, is really something else. Taking a cue from Argento, Mario here uses a rock group, I Libra (a band that featured former Goblin drummer Walter Martino), to score the picture. Their pulsing and effective faux-Goblin soundtrack, which alternates between piano music and electronic passages (at times it sounds like an arcade game with its bleeps and blips, which is oddly unsettling at the end), is one of the best things about the film (however, it still falls in a tier below Goblin or Fabio Frizzi’s work). I believe it’s also the same theme Umberto Lenzi ripped off (his version sounds more like carnival music) for his awful Ghosthouse.

As previously mentioned, the denouement is so brilliant, and the buildup is one of the best things Mario (and Lamberto, for that matter) has done; it was a worthy final chapter to his amazing career. The sheer lunacy and intensity of those final moments — brilliantly played by Nicolodi, who is just fantastic throughout — is simultaneously unnerving and poignant as we see the unraveling of our protagonist’s psyche. It’s all punctuated with a final moment that is a bit cheeky, sure, but I can’t think of a better note for Shock to go out on — and it makes those words that Dora utter (quoted at the beginning of this piece) resonate even more deeply.

Shock is a must see for horror fans, Italian horror fans, and especially for Mario Bava fans. I don’t care that some say (mainly the film’s detractors) it isn’t technically a Mario Bava film. It has his aesthetic stamp on it throughout (or at least I feel like Lamberto was able to execute what his father laid out for him) while feeling different enough to standout from a lot of the similar and safe films he was making in the ‘70s. Certainly there are better Mario Bava films than this (I don’t think it’s even debatable that most of his horror films from the ‘60s are better than anything he produced in the ‘70s); however, I find myself admiring Shock the more I watch it (I’ve seen it three times now, and I find something new with each viewing) and the more I think about it (goddamn that ending is good). It’s the best horror film Mario made in the ‘70s, and it’s absolutely one of my five favorite Mario Bava films.

Note: The only trailer I could find was in Italian. There is a TV ad for the film under its American title Beyond the Door II, but it gives away one of the best scenes of the movie, so I won’t be providing that for you here. Anyway, enjoy the Italian trailer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Zombi 3 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters 2)

It may seem odd to some readers that during the four years I’ve done this blogathon, I have never done a proper review for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 — one of the most famous of all Italian horror films. So now would seem like as good a time as any to get it out of the way, right? However, for this reviewer, Fulci’s failed sequel seemed like a more interesting film to tackle for a couple of reasons: one, I hadn’t yet seen the film; second, I wanted to make sure I got to at least one Bruno Mattei/Claudio Fragasso (the brain trust behind Troll 2) collaboration for this blogathon. Finally, how often does one get to tackle all three filmmakers — Fulci, Mattei, and Fragasso — with one review? So I decided to move forward with a review of Zombi 3, an horrible attempt from a filmmaker trying to reclaim his glory from earlier in the decade and a depressing avatar for the dying days of Italian horror.

Lacking hardcore gore and an atmosphere of dread, Zombi 3 plays more like Mattei’s Italian action films than a legitimate sequel to Fulci’s famous film — something fans of the film noticed immediately and booed accordingly after the film premiered in Italy. In fact, it plays more as a sequel to the Mattei/Fragasso shitfest Zombie Creeping Flesh. The film that actually plays more like a natural successor to Zombi 2 was actually Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (aka The Nights of Terror), what with its emphasis on makeup and gore effects. At least Bianchi’s film — despite how goofy it is in parts — wanted to be a serious (a relative term, I know) horror film like Zombi 2. Fragasso and Mattei’s film just plays like any other ‘ol Bruno Mattei movie with its horridly bland exterior medium shots, flippant attitude towards mise-en-scene, pedestrian pacing (there are no painfully tense moments like the “splinter in the eye” scene to be found here as scenes of “tension” are over before they begin), and shoehorned action scenes (often ideas for scenes that were left over from his countless action films that he would film simultaneously in one location).

Quickly, the plot: Zombi 3 opens with a man stealing an experimental chemical weapon known as "Death One"  (which isn’t as good as previous Mattei/Fragasso chemical weapon name “Operation Sweet Death” from Zombie Creeping Flesh) from a lab. As the authorities chase after the thief, they accidentally shot the container of “Death One”, spilling it all over the thief. The wounded thief flees to the nearest hotel to hide before turning into a zombie. As the military descends upon the hotel (dressed up in white suits with gas masks a la the military from Romero’s The Crazies, which isn’t the first time Mattei stole this image), they shoot and kill the thief, burning his body per the orders of the US General responsible for “Death One.” The scientists working on “Death One” advise against this since the ashes could get into the air and infect the locals. The General will have none of this talk from a scientist, and orders the body to be burned, outbreak be damned.

Well, as you probably can guess, the body is burned, and the ashes are released into the atmosphere, causing hundreds of people to turn into zombies. As was the case with Mattei and Fragasso’s previous zombie film, a random group of military men (GIs? Mercenaries?) happen upon the region and meet up with an RV filled with women and Patricia, who has lost her boyfriend to the zombie plague. They eventually make their way to the hotel where the outbreak initially occurred, running into a bunch of zombies. This is all cross-cut with the scientists (who are outraged that they had to work on such a dangerous assignment...because I guess the name “Death One” wasn’t a big enough tipoff for them?) arguing the military officials about the best possible way to stop the outbreak.

After several years of promising a legitimate sequel to Zombi 2, Flora Film announced Zombi 3 with Lucio Fulci as director. This would no doubt excite fans of the horror film (who hadn’t seen a good, serious zombie movie for quite some time), but more specifically it would invigorate Fulci acolytes (who admittedly weren’t as large a group in 1988 as it is now; however, fans of  the director still very much existed, and they still hadn’t seen a good Fulci film for almost seven years) whom Flora was expecting to flock to see the film — after all, Zombi 2 was one of the most popular and profitable horror films to come out of Europe during that era (in the extremely rare case of a domestic film making more money than an American import, it out-grossed Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, titled Zombi in Europe) — so it wasn’t like the people at Flora were grasping at straws, here. The only problem was that the people at Flora hired the hackiest hack of them all Claudio Fragasso to write the script, and what he produced was a script that Fulci abhorred, causing him to abandon the project.

Now, there are so many conflicting rumors regarding the making of Zombi 3. In Jay Slater’s book Eaten Alive! he interviews Fragasso who claims that Fulci was ill and the film was supposed to be a direct sequel to Fulci’s Zombi 2 (okay, but then why was the script so dissimilar to Fulci’s first film?). Later in the same chapter of Slater’s book, he mentions an interview with cast member Beatrice Ring who recalls very little about the shoot and which director shot which scenes, only remembering that the shoot was a complete disaster and utterly chaotic, claiming that Mattei didn't know what the hell he was doing. In Stephen Thrower’s book Beyond Terror (hard to find, but I highly recommend it for Fulci fans), he cites an interview with Fulci and Fulci’s daughter who both debunk the most popular rumor that Fulci couldn’t complete the film because he was deathly ill. In fact, Fulci claims he was not critically ill — although he was uncomfortably ill at the time of the shooting due to the tropical climate of the Philippines — he was just fed up with Fragasso’s script and Flora’s unwillingness to all him to alter the script. All of this led to Fulci walking off the set, forcing Flora to turn to Fragasso’s buddy and hack extraordinaire (yes, a hackier hack than even Fragasso): Bruno Mattei.

One can guess by taking a look at the final product that it was evident Fulci’s frustrations also stemmed from that fact that he was sorely missing the technical crew he employed on Zombi 2 (most important being his longtime DP Sergio Salvati, who never worked with Fulci after The House by the Cemetery, but also composer Fabio Frizzi and makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi), and the film was cast with awful actors that give the whole thing a “don’t take this too seriously” vibe (say what you want about Tisa Farrow and Ian McCulloch, but hot damn are they Oscar caliber actors compared to what we have here) — its tone is all wrong and actually is more akin to Dan O'Bannon’s spoof Return of the Living Dead (they even ripped off the theme of that movie) than anything resembling Fulci’s classics from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.

The amount of footage that Fulci shot that ended up in the film is debatable (some claim as little as 20 minutes, others claim as much as 70 minutes), but it’s certainly clear where Fulci’s footage ends and Mattei’s begins. Fulci preferred to film on a set, and the graininess/brightness juxtaposition is indicative of how the film was shot and by whom (Fulci’s scenes look like film; Mattei’s footage looks like video). Also, exteriors, when used, are lit in such way as to give them a kind of eerie City of the Living Dead feel. The scene where the zombie birds attack some poor anti-environment schmuck definitely feels like Fulci (although it is disappointingly subdued for a Fulci “animal attack” scene). As does the scene where one of the girl’s falls into some water and zombies emerge from a cave, shrouded in fog (copious amounts of fog, I should add, that seems so out of place, as if he just had some left over from Conquest and decided to use it up here) and back-lit by an eerie green light — that feels like Fulci, too.

One scene that was kept that Fucli definitely shot — and that he absolutely took credit for — was the flying zombie head scene. In one of the film’s most asinine moments, a zombie removes their head and places it in a refrigerator in order to fool an unsuspecting female victim. The person then opens the refrigerator door only for the zombie head to come flying out — but only as a distraction, mind you — as the beheaded body of the zombie leaps out and tries to kill the poor woman. Apparently Fulci was very proud of the flying zombie head scene, claiming it as one of his very favorite moments put to film. That should give you some insight into Fulci’s creative thought process in 1988 — the Lucio Fulci of The Beyond, this ain’t.

As for what we can claim as Mattei’s footage: well, as previously mentioned, Mattei’s aesthetic preference was in exterior shots (so he could mask how cheap his film looked), and in random action scenes and horror setpieces that are over before they begin, so it’s pretty easy to spot his footage there. The fast, Nightmare City-esque zombies well-versed in jujitsu rolling definitely feels like a Mattei addition. The action setpiece at the hotel is obviously Mattei. And the odd shift in tone from wacky zombie movie to nihilistic horror film at the end of the film with the dudes dressed up like characters from The Crazies (a look Mattei would use as well in Rats: Nights of Terror...yeah, I don’t know why I know that, either) killing humans in a case of mistaken identity is all very much Mattei.

Look, though, weapon-wielding zombies that move fast and do karate isn’t the reason Zombi 3 sucks (in fact, one could argue that Mattei’s additions are simultaneously the best and worst things about the movie).  I mean Fulci did have a zombie fight a shark in Zombi 2, for Christ’s sake, so he wasn’t averse to asinine ideas, and, as previously discussed, one of Zombi 3’s most asinine (and memorable) moments is a scene with a freaking flying zombie head. Just one loo at some of the bizarre setpieces that Fulci lazily implemented and executed in his post-House by the Cemetery films shows a once great director devolving into hackdom. So, no, Fulci isn’t free from criticism here; there is plenty of blame to go around for all parties involved. We can’t just assume that the old Fulci would have returned (no matter many of us wish it could have been so) and turned this steaming pile of a script into gold had he seen the project through.

What made Zombi 2 so great beyond the gore effects was the unbearable tension and dread that Fulci fills the frame with. There’s something so much more ominous about the voodoo plague infiltrating the East Coast shores of America than the silly premise of zombie ashes in the atmosphere. And that blame squarely lies on the shoulders of Fragasso and his awful script. As big a fan I am of Zombi 2, it may have just been in Floras best interest to leave well enough alone. Look, I love a “so-bad-it’s-good” movie as much as the next person (hell, I actually love how off-the-wall the Mattei/Fragasso collaboration Zombie Creeping Flesh is; it’s one of my favorite “so-bad-it’s-good” movies), but this goes beyond that fun category into ignominy; there is no “so-bad-it’s-good” or “guilty pleasure” vibe that emanates from this piece of schlocky trash.

One more Zombi film followed (there is another called Killing Birds that had the Zombi name tacked on to fool what little consumers were left that were interested in this series) in the series — directed by Fragasso and written by an even worse writer than he (spoiler: it’s his wife) — and it plays as something even hokier than Zombi 3, making for a viewing experience where one longs for a wooden splinter in their own eye.

This is such a depressing movie to think about, for Zombi 3 could have been so much more than what it was; it could have meant so much to Fulci’s future (Fulci died eight years later but not before making eight more movies), it could have meant so much to the future of the subgenre, and it could have been something that was a definitive moment for theatrical Italian horror, proving that the gory, ethereal spectacles that Fulci helped popularize in the early ‘80s was still a valuable commodity in Italian moviehouses. But, the producers waited nearly a decade to make this “sequel", and in doing so, wasted a great opportunity on a horror movie that people wanted to see; and instead, they produced what is without a doubt one of the most miserable horror experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Killer Crocodile (aka Murder Alligator)

One of the staples of 1970’s/80’s Italian cinema was the cheap knockoff of a popular American blockbuster. These American films would infiltrate Italian cinemas and put all kinds of thoughts in the heads of struggling producers of Italian genre films. The general consensus was that aping these blockbusters was the surest way to financial success. Not completely destroying the industry—but certainly hampering its creativity—these knockoffs pretty much dictated what Italian horror directors could make. Certainly the big names like Bava, Fulci, and Argento could do what they wanted, but even they weren’t immune to this craze. Whether it’s Beyond the Door (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby), The Night Child (The Omen, The Exorcist (again)), Absurd (Halloween/Halloween II), Great White (Jaws), or something like Tentacles (an odd amalgam of Jaws and American disaster pictures like Airport), the idea behind these films was that whichever popular American blockbuster had been imported at the time could be copied, made on the cheap, and turn a profit for little-to-no effort.

These knockoffs weren’t just relegated to the horror genre, though, as countless Mad Max, Conan the Barbarian, and Sly Stallone clones popped up with the likes of The Raiders of Atlantis, Conquest, and (a personal favorite of mine) Black Cobra.  Some of these films try to disguise themselves as being original, others are blatant ripoffs that just piggy-back off a popular title despite either having nothing to do with the original (Fulci’s Zombi 2 did this — and is probably the only film to be successful and original in doing so — whereas other filmmakers like Umberto Lenzi gave his film, Ghosthouse, the title of La Casa 3 simply to trick people into thinking it had something to do with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, which was titled La Casa in Italy) or not getting permission (my favorite might be the very unofficial sequel to the ozploitation favorite Patrick, Patrick Still Lives!), and some even steal from their countrymates (Fulci’s Aenigma is nothing more than a poor facsimile of Argento’s much better Phenomena).

Whew. All of that to say: I watched Killer Crocodile — a film surprisingly fun and professionally made (its 35mm look honestly shocked me) for not only being a bad knockoff of Jaws, but also being an Italian horror film made in 1989 (by the way, just what in the hell are they still doing making Jaws knockoffs in 1989 anyway?). Everyone has their own opinions about these kind of so-bad-it’s-good movies, but, hey, I had fun with what I was given, and if you’re a fan of said so-bad-it’s-good genre flicks, then there’s probably something for you to enjoy with Killer Crocodile.

In what would be another eco-themed horror film from the late ‘80s in Italy, Killer Crocodile opens with...oh, who am I kidding? It’s a Jaws knockoff; I’ll give you all one guess how it opens...



..., yeah, we have ourselves bad soundalike musical score, a woman skinny dipping while her doofus boyfriends sits on the beach aloof, subjective underwater camera, yadda yadda yadda. After the opening scene, we’re introduced to a group of environmentalists that arrive at the delta town where the killer crocodile (or MURDER ALLIGATOR! as the alternate title suggests) is running (swimming?) amok. For you see, there are some bad guys dumping waste in the water. About these villains: they’re hilariously cartoony and not the least bit menacing. Here, take a look:

Anyway, the film’s threadbare plot is essentially about those meddling kids, headed up by Kevin (played by Anthony Crenna, son of Richard), investigating the goings-on of this town and thwarting the polluting villains at every turn (with plenty of eco-conscious exposition along the way) as if it were an episode of “Captain Planet.” Every now and then the film takes a break from the team of ecologists yelling at the villains (one is a shady judge played by Van Johnson) about the damage they’re causing by polluting the waters to show us the killer crocodile (MURDER ALLIGATOR!) chompin’ on some townfolk. The characters are always finding interesting ways to fall into the water (the ecologists, especially, because I guess you have to be in the water to test it?). In particular the moment where a little girl on a dock hangs on for dear life and a man (her father?) tries to rescue her, but instead of pulling her up, he climbs down and attempts to push her up to safety, resulting in him falling down into the awaiting chompers of the killer crocodile (MURDER ALLIGATOR!). The whole thing is preposterous, yet it has the look and feel of a setpiece they were building their film to; instead, it ends up coming off as hilariously awful due to the obvious lack of budget as the film just speeds through the scene (there’s also little-to-no gore effects).

There’s also a subplot about a grizzled croc hunter named Joe that has to teach those pansy ecologists a lesson in killin’ not preservin’; they, of course, being the good liberals that they are, object because they’re “against killing of any kind” (this line is offered to you in the trailer below so that you can bask in Anthony Crenna’s wonderfully monotone delivery). However, when ol’ grizzled Joe gets injured, and is relegated to watching the rest of the film from the banks of the river, he must pass the torch to Kevin,(and he does this by throwing him his hat in a moment that plays like something of “The Simpsons” episode where they go see the The Poke of Zorro; I was half expecting the character grab the hat and yell, “yes!” before the credits rolled), who swallows his morals and gets the job done.

Killer Crocodile had some famous names working on it: Its director (working under the pseudonym Larry Ludman) is none other than genre producer extraordinaire Fabrizio De Angelis (who produced almost all of Fulci’s best work), the screenplay was co-written by arguably the most famous Italian horror screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti (some of his screenplays include: Twitch of the Death Nerve, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, Cannibal Apocalypse, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, The House by the Cemetery, Demons, and many more), and the crocodile effects were done by Giannetto di Rossi (the man who was responsible for the makeup for Fulci’s Zombi 2; he also directed Killer Crocodile 2).

Obviously these guys are talented — or at the very least have done a good job of surrounding themselves with talented people — yet Killer Crocodile is so obviously tired and uninspired that one is left wondering what the hell happened. The lack of a legitimate director seems like the most likely explanation. Everything points to this being a case where a successful producer on a very popular film looks at the director of his film and thinks, “I could do that,” and then falling on their face when it comes time to do a little directing.

This isn’t the first time De Angelis went outside of the realm of producing and ended up making a film that was total crap (he watched Fulci closely on Zombi 2 and then proceeded to write a script for what would become the awful Zombie Holocaust, using the same actors and sets as Fulci’s film). Killer Crocodile ended up being the best thing he would direct, though, as he moved away from horror and onto bad action movies with the likes of all six Karate Warrior movies and, my personal favorite, Karate Rock (do yourself a favor and click on that link). As for the rest of the trio: Sacchetti was most likely just a consultant (but there his name sits, so “credit” where it’s due), and di Rossi was most likely hampered by lack of budget because his killer crocodile (MURDER ALLIGATOR!) looks really silly.

Many familiar with this blogathon know that I like to feature one goofy, “pizza and beer” movie. In the past it’s been films like Burial Ground, Contamination, Absurd, or Nightmare City (warning: some of those links will take to reviews from when I first started this blog, so...potentially awful writing awaits!). And so this year, I offer Killer Crocodile; it’s fun trash and should be seen as nothing more. Granted, your mileage may vary on a film like this, but in a subgenre rife with lurid trash that (at times) makes you feel icky, sometimes a goofy little number like Killer Crocodile isn’t such a bad thing, you know.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: Spasmo

Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo is one of the most gonzo-gialli I’ve ever seen. In fact, don’t let the labeling on the cover of the DVD fool you, this is not a “giallo classic.” Oh, that’s not to say it isn’t good; it’s just that I don’t think I would go as far as calling Spasmo a classic...or even a giallo, for that matter. At least not a giallo in the traditional sense, for Spasmo is more a psychological thriller than a black-gloved-killer-stalks-promiscuous-women horror film. And in fact, Spasmo is surprisingly tame for a film directed by Lenzi (more on that later), and maybe that’s why I liked it so much. I will freely admit from the onset of this review that I am perhaps overrating Spasmo because I was okay with its goofiness, and I found myself just having so much damn fun with it.

Trying to sum up Spasmo’s plot seems like a pointless endeavor, what with all of its convoluted twists and turns (I read a handful of synopses after I watched the film to try and get it straight, but I wasn’t sure I still got everything), but here goes: A young couple is making out on a deserted road when their afternoon delight is interrupted when the man notices a woman hanging from a tree. Naturally this ruins the mood, but as the couple moves in to get a closer look, they realize that the dead woman is really just a well-made, extremely lifelike rubber dummy. And then the film begins proper. This opening hints at things to come, but Lenzi interjects these moments with people finding these dummies as a break from the primary story. At first, we’re not sure what these fake murder scenes with the dummies mean (some are found on the beach, others in the woods; some have knives inserted them, others are smeared with fake blood), but to give credit where it’s due, Lenzi finds a meld these interjections into his primary mystery.

As for the primary plot: Christian (Robert Hoffman), an heir to an industrial fortune, meets a women named Barbara (Suzy Kendall), who seems to have some kind of sexual power over him as he instantly becomes obsessed with her. It doesn’t take much convincing from Christian before she takes him back to her apartment where Christian is sure to get some as long as he shaves his beard. And, no, that’s not a joke; there is a line in the film where she tells him he’ll get lucky so long as he shaves his beard off. So,  while in the bathroom, Christian is attacked by a gun-wielding stranger, who he ends up killing. When Christian rushes out of the bathroom to tell Barbara about what has gone down, she suggests they go back into the bathroom to get some evidence. However,  when they return to the bathroom, the man is gone, suggesting that the whole thing was just in Christian’s head.

And so Spasmo goes. The rest of the film consists of Christian trying to convince others of what happened in the bathroom; he and Barbara taking shelter in what is supposed to be an empty seaside castle that belongs to one of Barbara’s friends only to come across two total strangers (what would a seaside castle in an Italian horror film be without strange goings-on, though, right?), one of which is a woman that seems eerily familiar to Christian; and Christian following the mystery of the identity of his killer (who is now stalking him at the castle) all the way to its shocking conclusion (like any good giallo, Christian is the everyman character that takes the investigation into his own hands). Not to mention the bizarre scenes of the dummies being found hanged and stabbed across the countryside interjected throughout the film.

There’s so much more, but I’ll stop with what I have. Coming from the director of such trash as Cannibal Ferox, Welcome to Spring Break and Ghosthouse, it’s hard to remember a time when Lenzi really cared about his craft (Seven Bloodstained Orchids, a film I reviewed last year for this blogathon, is another great Lenzi giallo), but he seems to really be trying with Spasmo. There isn’t much evidence (aside from his Italian crime movies) to suggest that Lenzi was anything more than a hack, but films like Seven Bloodstained Orchids and Spasmo suggest, at the very least, a capable filmmaker that was wanting to try for something different with the giallo, a subgenre that was losing steam by 1974.  

Once again (just as we discussed yesterday with What Have You Done to Solange?), a director is given a mighty assist from Ennio Morricone, whose score here is one of the film’s highlights, beautifully underlining each scene with the appropriate displacing score or musical cue that suggests Christian isn’t sure of what’s real and what isn’t. After all, a film where lifelike, human-sized dolls keep popping up in ersatz crime scenes requires an off-kilter score, and Morricone delivers in spades. Perhaps more than any other genre composer, Morricone is as important to the film's tone as any other member of the crew.

Aesthetically, Lenzi does something interesting with this one in that it’s not shot like most gialli; there is no black-gloved killer lurking in the shadows, there is no subjective POV of the killer menacing nude women, there is no amateur playing detective and solving the case before the police do, and (perhaps most surprisingly considering this is Lenzi we’re dealing with) there aren’t those gratuitous, lurid moments of exploitation. In some cases, that’s disappointing because that lurid exploitation usually comes off as great cheese — especially when Lenzi does cheese (see: Hitcher in the Dark and Welcome to Spring Break) — and makes for entertaining trash at times. However, Spasmo plays it straight, and as far as a legitimate mystery, I was shocked by how into I was and how (sort of) neatly and (sort of) logically it all wrapped up.

All that to say: the film is fairly subdued and straight forward in how it’s shot. Lenzi does a good job of hinting at Christian’s possible insanity (the trailer is more gonzo than the film) with little camera tricks here and there, but outside of the requisite 1970’s zooms (not just relegated to Italian horror, mind you), Lenzi lets his story do the heavy lifting.

And this is what I alluded to in my review yesterday: A lot of people find gialli boring because the majority of them are the antithesis of what so many associate with the great Italian horror films of Bava and Argento and Fulci, where ethereal aesthetics take precedence over logical storylines (this is more applicable to the latter two filmmakers than the former). Don’t get me wrong, Spasmo has energy, but it’s in the narrative (even if the opening bits are kind of a muddled slog) not the aesthetics. A rare thing, indeed for Italian horror. But every now and then, I’m in the mood for that kind of Italian horror film, and I caught Spasmo on the right day.

So, this review is getting as jumbled as the plot to Spasmo, so I guess I should wrap this up. Here’s the best way to approach Spasmo: like the majority of Italian horror, the viewer needs to leave their logic at the door and just enjoy the ride. But unlike most (popular) Italian horror, the film is light on atmosphere and crazy aesthetics that detract from the illogical narrative. Spasmo is an head trip, for sure — a psychological thriller more than your average stalk-and-slash giallo/Krimi procedural — and Lenzi wants us to pay attention to his crazy mystery. And because of that fact, I really dug it.  I love what Lenzi does with the first half of his film (even though it doesn’t make a lick of sense), and I was pretty floored by the miraculous feat Lenzi is able to pull all off in melding the majority of these insane elements together into some kind of coherent ending. But it will take patience on the viewer’s end; the film borders on excruciating tedium in that first hour, but if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded with one of Lenzi’s best efforts, and, really, one of the best and most fun of the later era gialli that you’re likely to come across.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Italian Horror Blogathon: What Have You Done to Solange? (aka Cosa avete fatto a Solange?, Terror in the Woods, The School that Couldn't Scream, The Secret of the Green Pins)

I think of Italian horror in stages: you have your Gothic stuff from Bava, you have your ethereal horror a la Suspiria, you have your cannibal subgenre, you have your cheap knockoffs of popular American films, you have your zombies, and you have your gialli. It is this later category that Italy is most known for. Sure, anti-narrative fare like the Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is what stands out the most to fans, but it is those early gialli — with their whodunit, Edgar Wallace-esque narratives and block-gloved killers — that most people think of when the topic of Italian horror comes up. The sheer volume of titles that continue to be unearthed, cleaned up on DVD, and presented to American audiences is staggering. There are still so many gialli that I’ve never even heard of that I continue to come across every year I do this blogathon. These films have a higher percentage of being terrible because if the mystery isn’t engaging, there usually isn’t a whole lot about the film’s aesthetic that engages me. Whereas with a film like City of the Living Dead, for example, may confound me and even make me laugh at how silly it all is — but damn does it look great in stretches. This is not always so with a giallo — where if the narrative is a slog, then the entire film is usually a slog because there usually just isn’t anything too pretty to look at (unless, of course, you’re Mario Bava) to distract you from how boring the film is.

All of this is to say that when Dario Argento burst on the scene in 1970 with the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, there was a bit of resurgence for the giallo — a subgenre that dominated Italian horror for much of the ‘60s. It would only last until Argento (and American horror films like The Exorcist that were hugely popular in Italy) changed the game years later with Suspiria. All of this is to say (and here I am nearly two paragraphs in, and I haven't even mentioned the title of the movie I'm talking about yet) that when I popped in Massimo Dallamano's What Have You Done to Solange? for this blogathon, I was absolutely floored by how into it I was. It's one of the better gialli I've seen.

I'll make the plot synopsis brief since (even though the film is 40 years old) nobody wants a good mystery ruined for them. The film opens with a man and a woman makin' whoopee in a rowboat. The man in question is Enrico Rossini (Fabio Testi, who later starred in Fulci's Contraband and other poliziotteschi), an Italian gymnastics instructor who has moved to London, with his German wife, to teach at an elite Catholic girls school. His wife, Herta (Karin Baal), is also a teacher at the school, but alas, it is not her who is in the rowboat with Enrico...that rapscallion. Italian stereotypes aside, Enrico is the youngest teacher at the school and the girls love him. Some are even in love with him, and Enrico, never one to disappoint his students, begins an affair with Elizabeth (Christina Galbo), an 18 year-old senior whose family is very prominent in the community.  

So, back to the rowboat: Enrico and Elizabeth are necking in the rowboat when Elizabeth swears that she has seen an heinous action on the riverbank. This ruins the mood (Enrico isn't convinced and thinks she's just trying to play defense against him) and acts as the catalyst for our mystery as the next morning Enrico reads the newspaper, learning that there was indeed a murder in that location the day before. Even more worrisome to Enrico is that the victim was a fellow student of Elizabeth's. What makes the mystery so intriguing at first is that it's a balancing act between Elizabeth's vision and Enrico trying to hide his infidelity when the police come snooping around the school.

Naturally Enrico doesn't want his affair with a student to get out, considering it could ruin the school's reputation and his marriage. But when more students end up dead (the method of which, a knife through their vagina, is rather gruesome), Enrico has to give in even though he maintains that the information he has, and what little Elizabeth actually saw, can't really help the police with their investigation. In typical giallo/Krimi fashion, Enrico fears that the investigation is focusing too much on him and not trying to find the real killer, so he takes matters into his own hands and begins investigating the murders. This "everyman as police investigator" is a required element in these kind of films, and even though most gialli have convoluted mysteries with huge plot holes, Solange is surprisingly adept. Enrico's investigation leads him to the truth  before the police, natch (with one of those wonderful bits of exposition found in almost all gialli where he says, "the revenge he planned was symbolically obvious..." while gathered with the police around the dead body of the killer), but the reveal of the film's central mystery is at once horrifying and surprisingly poignant.

Solange's director, Massimo Dallamano, was most known for his work as DP on Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. The only film of his I was familiar with prior to this film was the The Omen rip-off The Night Child, whose trailer pops up a lot of on exploitation trailer comps (spoiler: it's no good). But I have to say, Solange makes me more than curious about his other work (only The Night Child and his earlier Devil in the Flesh constitute horror), especially his poliziotteschi since the mystery in Solange is so solid. Here, he shows enough restraint during the murders that the film doesn't come off as lurid trash, and with a big assist from Ennio Morricone's score (with its great opening theme, posted for you below), he's actually able to pull off a poignant coda; a rare thing, indeed, for a giallo.

As I mentioned earlier, there usually isn't much aesthetically going on in these giallo/Krimi films, and Solange is no different. There are exceptions to be sure (anything by Bava, Argento, Martino), but the real joy and craft is in how well the filmmakers unfold their mystery and whether or not they can successfully pull the rug out from under the viewer. However, the look of Solange is surprisingly coherent, never getting in the way of the central mystery. It's surprising because the DP is non other than Aristide Massaccesi (better known to Americans as Joe D’Amato). This isn't the zoom-obsessed (although it is 1970's Italian cinema, so there are going to be zooms whether you like it or not) Massaccesi who would become the hack we love to rib on this blog; no, this was before the days of filling up his CV with crap like Emmanuel and the Last Cannibals, Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals, Sexy Nights of the Living Dead, and Porno Holocaust. His camerawork here is more than serviceable, and it suggests the sort-of-capable filmmaker we would see in spurts in Beyond the Darkness and Anthropophagus (the only two films of his I've had anything positive to say about).

Perhaps the best part about Solange is that it's interested in all kinds of little details that move the mystery along. There are Red Herrings, to be sure, but they're quickly dealt with, as it really comes across as Dallamano and co. were sure not to insult the intelligence of the viewer (there's an interestingly self-aware line at the beginning of the film when Enrico says, “a suspicious wife is a very boring character," essentially eliminating his wife as a potential suspect) by paying more attention to the nuances of the mystery. This made me giddy, for it is a rare thing indeed for a giallo not to completely fall of the rails logically.

“If I’ve seen one giallo, I’ve seen them all” is a common sentiment among horror fans, and so as I wrap this post up I just want to throw my weight behind the film and urge those that think all gialli are the same to give this one a shot. Even for those that are squeamish and don't like Italian horror because of its penchant for the grotesque, really, with the exception of one gruesome looking x-ray and a flashback that is admittedly disturbing (although free of blood), Solange is light on gore, and contains one hell of a mystery. In fact, it's the rare '70s giallo that is more interested in its mystery than gruesomeness. See it; it's well worth your time.