Wednesday, March 22, 2017

12 Cool/Weird Italian Films (Streaming up the Amazon)

Amazon Prime just keeps getting better and weirder. Recently a whole plethora of great Japanese and Italian titles have come tumbling forth (just ask.... the Axis), in all shapes, sizes, aspect ratios, language/subtitle variations, and restoration quality levels. It will take many posts to even detail a sliver of the vast tumbling canon, layers upon layers. So let's start on the Italian side: there's giallos, Gothic chamber horrors, peplums (i.e. biceps and sandals), westerns, action-buddy comedies (starring Terence Hill and Budd Spencer); a few weird Raiders of the Lost Ark action-western-sci-fi imitations; Road Warrior 'tricked-out vehicles in the desert'  impressions; Eurocrime (polizetti) thrillers; unbearably patriarchal-half-assed spy spoofs; and cheap-jack war surplus action, and of course fusions of each to each.

It's all in such vast array, so many unfamiliar titles, it might remind you of the first time you wandered into a major video rental outlet's horror section and thought you'd entered an alternate reality - having no idea so many strange films could even exist. Dizzy from the sudden surge of imagery and options, you nearly fainted (this being before the age of the internet or access to most movie guides, aside from maybe Leonard Maltin's (who came out only a few years into the video boon), who either ignored or panned them all based largely on the terrible dubs. Watching these now you realize you might be the first person to ever see them in this new format. Many have never been available in the US, or on VHS, DVD or TV.

So forget about Netflix and its 'originals' - Prime is in the midst of its Psychotronic-Internationale golden age!

But--as happens when spending too long in that video store, looking for your fix amidst all the fading-to-blue, tattered, thumbed clamshells as the afternoon, too, fades to sickly gray clouded evening--ennui waits for the unwary. SO PICK FAST AND STICK WITH YOUR CHOICE AND GET THE HELL OUT before you get stuck, chained to the rocks of options.

 The best of the Italian genre imports are usually well known, while the dregs are dregs for a reason. So be warned. Shot quick, cheap and crazy, they're wildly hit and miss. A good many are transferred incorrectly or from bad video dupes, so either look irregularly thin or else comes cropped, with colors turned to muddy streaks. Some titles are in Italian and don't have subtitles (and Sony DVD players are compatible with Amazon's CC option); some have subtitles burnt-in but are the English dub version which leads to wild discrepancies.

Some are so obscure they have to Amazon reviews at all, so dare to be the first.

But, even eliminating all the victim of these issues, there are still hundreds of titles the average American viewer has never heard of or seen that look lovely and beg a visit from the curious traveler. So, just for you, dear reader, I've assembled an even dozen -- three westerns, three giallos, three weird horror films, plus a Polizetti, one peplum and one sci-fi action. The juvenile comedies and Bud Spencer/Terence Hill joints I leave to God or whatever devil will have them. (Not that they're not a riot).

NOTA: Each post details the story as much as can be revealed without undoing the precious WTF? element. The musical scores are highlighted for they are always the key to unlocking the joy of Italian cinema, for they use ironic counterpoint, groovy jazz, and layered humor so deftly they put our 'telegraph' composers like John Williams and Howard Shore to deserved shame. I've assembled Spotify playlist with most of the film's scores embedded at end. Bon fortuna!

AKA Demons 6: De Profundus 
(1989) Dir. Luigi Cozzi
**1/2 (Amazon Image: B-)

A parallel program to the Argento-Bava-Soavi school, this unofficial sequel to Argento's SUSPIRIA (and sixth in the catch-all DEMONS series) is by the 'great' Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH, HERCULES) and factors in post-modern self-reflexivity to keep you guessing. It's the story of the making of a SUSPIRIA sequel. Screenwriter Marc (Urbano Barberini) writes a treatment for the story of a witch named Lavania, who he doesn't know is real, and rising from her grave a little farther every time her name is mentioned. Her face and hands are grotesque pustules (ala Lamberto Bava's first two DEMONS films) and she begins to take over the mind of Marc's wife, Anne (Florence Guérin). A hot local psychic busts out her big volume of Suspiria de Profundis which mentions the curse of Lavania. She encourages Marc to change the character's name to something else, lest the wrath descend. He won't of course, and we learn that the three mothers concept comes from an unfinished story by opium-fiend Thomas de Quincey. Argento is name-checked and there's even some familiar Goblin cues from SUSPIRIA. Meanwhile, without even knowing the story and busy with their newborn baby, Ann starts to demand to play the role, saying she "is" Lavania. But what about sexy Caroline Munro, luring Marc into the sack for the Lavania part? Michele Soavi plays the director. I didn't even mention the undead financial backer! Confused? Join the club. Still I'd rather go on a Cozzi ride, even if its rickety, campy, confusing and falling apart, than play it safe on some competent piece of junk like STIGMATA -hai capito?

The quality of the stream is as good as can be foe non-anamorphic full screen source. It was probably a direct to video entry, since by 1989, America's drive-ins--where Italian horror thrived-- were all but dead and Blockbuster was hitting its stride. Still, there's a lot to to love and the colors are nicely popping, like when Anne falls into dream worlds (or vice versa) and the windows glow bright yellows, blues, green, and reds (the whole last 2/3 is really all dream world or rather reality and dream unite and never more asunder be). The end goes all MANITOU and there's even an 'inner' child (literally, as in innards erupt) counseling Anne from inside the TV (see top of this post, center). Surely the meta-refractive horror levels make this a forebear to THE RING along with FREDDY'S NEW NIGHTMARE. Oh, and DEMONS of course. Sorry. I forgot, DEMONS did it first! This was DEMONS 6, as well as other things, so it makes sense to stick a meta motif up in there.

As for the music, well, even if it's not Goblin or Ennio Morricone, Vince Tempera's 'shoot for bodacious, settle for bemusing' score is certainly better than Keith Emerson's clueless melange in Argento's own SUSPIRIA follow-up, INFERNO. One caveat: why in the name of all that's unholy was this film's title changed to THE BLACK CAT? It makes finding it so confusing. There is a cat watching the action in some cutaways, but that's all. Meanwhile Italy had way too many "The Black Cat" adaptations: Argento's own adaptation of Poe's original story could be found in TWO EVIL EYES, and then Fulci did a BLACK CAT in 1981! YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972) is also a kind of "Black Cat" adaption. Italians were "Black Cat"-crazy! I know Italians love to wall people up, but jeeze! Their collective obsession with the title maybe explains why it took me so long to catch up to this Cozzi curio, as I mixed it up with the other versions, which I don't much care for. This, though, I love. Get 'em Lavinia!

AKA I predatori di Atlantide
(1983) Dir. Ruggero Deodato
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B-

The unexplored gold mine cross shaft between Italy's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE ROAD WARRIOR, BLADE RUNNER, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE WARRIORS and CONAN homages (circa 1979-84) has hundreds of sub strains and offshoots--a lot of them right here on Prime--all repurposing custom cars, old gladiator, western and war movie wardrobes and sets, all meshed 'post-futuristically' together for films that look more expensive than they were. Even better, as there's no CGI yet, or safety oversight in Italy, you can feel the heat of the fireballs reflecting up from the asphalt and singing the hair of the stuntmen, and know for sure there's no blue screen, these people really are (In this case) jumping out of helicopters onto the tops of speeding busses, and/or falling off. Let yourself be swept along in the madness and you might think you're catching this on late-night TV when late-night pay cable channel was still an exciting, strange, dangerous place (or at the very least, unintentionally hilarious) place to be.

So Mike (Christopher Connolly) and Washington (Tony King) are a pair of close-knit mercs who open the film by abducting some well-protected hombre from his well-guarded beach mansion hideout, the fee for which is $50,000, which the pair plan to spend frivolously down in Trinidad (they got a boat). Meanwhile, Gioai Scola is an ancient symbology expert flown over from Machu Picchu to decode a strange rosetta stone-style relic uncovered by a scientific team (led by a nicely laid-back George Hilton) who are in the midst of raising a downed Russian sub from atop a rickety mid-ocean platform. They raise it all right, but also cause Atlantis, in its protective bubble, to rise as well, creating a tidal displacement that smashes the platform, knocks Washington and Mike's ship off course, freaks everyone out with weird clouds, and activates some trigger in the minds of certain members of the populace, inspiring them to unlock the cabinet, put on their crystal skull masks, get on their tricked-out bikes and jeeps and kill everyone in sight who isn't similarly triggered.

At the end there's some INDIANA JONES-style booby traps (laser-eyed pharaoh heads, fan blades) but mostly there are great gunfights and stunts; endless molotov cocktails tossed out of windows and hapless stuntmen flying every which way. "Good" survivors are picked up along the way and die as fast. One great scene has one fighter realize the other must be 'okay' when they both fight to reclaim a dropped wad of cash (the Atlantean biker/zombies don't care about money, nor do they talk). All sorts of great little moments like that, just keep coming, and there's even alcohol and cigarettes.

As with all the best cross-genre Italian films of the 70s-80s, there's the sense they wanted to do more than the budget allowed so the big climax feels kind of undercooked but so what? Don't be difficult. You should have checked your brain at the door long ago, and at any rate how can you not love watching our two macho heroes flinging each other from side to side of the tunnel, gamely pretending like any minute they'll be sucked through the whirring fan blades during the climactic Atlantis inner sanctum breech? Like some scenario you dreamt up in your imagination one rainy day with your disproportioned action figures and an indulgent babysitter after you'd just seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at the local theater for the 10th time.

PS- If you love JC's GHOSTS OF MARS (2001) you should know this has a strangely similar plot, right down to the archaeologist chick, the big daddy Mars type leading the planet-reclaiming marauders, and nonstop marauding stuntmen who wave their arms and go "Yaaarhg!" when blown up. One imdb user review (Celluloid Rehab) calls RAIDERS, Assault on Drug Store 13.  Brilliant.

Guido and Morizi de Angelis' 80s synth score is repetitive and video game-ish but bound to hit that nostalgic pang if you're in the demo. The Amazon image is a little faded and blurry but is probably as good as it ever looked outside of whatever theater actually showed it before it went to video and TV. It's never been on DVD for some reason, but one or two people clearly have seen it and embraced its lovely quintessentially Italian-made, Philippines-shot glory. I guess I'm the third. Will you be the fourth? I still won't see Deodato's cannibal movies, but at least here I can report that no animals appear harmed (or at all), but man you can bet some stuntmen got un po 'bruciacchiato. 

AKA I lunghi capelli della morte
(1964) Dir. Antonio Margheriti
**1/2 / Image - B+

This black-and-white Gothic ghost tale is full of devious supernatural Poe-style traps, long hair, bare, lovely alabaster arms holding candelabras, and long skulking camera tracking movements following the various devious players as they weave in and out secret passages, crypts, and tapestry-bedecked boudoirs. Directed by the the marvelous Margheriti (put a little music in it), there's never a dull moment and Barbara Steele gets to really sink her teeth into a double (kind of) role. She was doing a lot of them in the wake of her florid turn in Bava's seminal Black Sunday (a clear Hair inspiration) but she really makes an impression here. I started watching halfway through (I recommend this approach), then watched the beginning a few weeks later ---this made Steele's character that much more enigmatic - like she just appeared out of a dream.

Curiously, Amazon's Prime streaming version has burnt-in English subtitles but is dubbed in English as well! Sometimes there's a really telling discrepancy between the dubbed words and the subtitles, as if one is being translated by a nervous diplomat. Curiouser, the cover thumbnail on the site shows a woman in a (faded) red dress pointing a torch accusingly.  The film is, thank heaven, in black and white. Helping immeasurably to the Gothic vibery, Carlo Rusticelli's score throbs with eerie theremin, slow ominous bass notes and slow-moving orchestral swells, situating this ancient tale of witchy vengeance with just a dab of razor blade modernism.

The story involves a spoiled baronet named Kurt (George Ardisson), who poisons all those standing in the way of the family fortune and/or his lustful longings for long-haired brunettes. He even lugs corpses down masterfully-lit secret passages in order to be with ethereal (and long-haired) strange Barbara Steele; does she remember her mother was burnt at the stake by Kurt's father for a crime Kurt himself committed? Kurt's wife (Halina Zalewska)--who he personally entombed--disappears. Are all the servants gaslighting him by mentioning they saw her? There's also an outbreak of (offscreen) plague and a Wicker Man-esque final moment. Hey, Zalewska and Steele are gorgeous and enigmatic, with super long black, straight hair down to their waist and super pale skin, super long bare alabaster arms; I could watch them waft in and out of eerily-lit tombs and corridors forever. They're everything you'd want in a movie called Long Hair of Death, twice over. And Ardisson is a great villain, trading off his usual typecasting as a handsome hero to become an immature monster; part Richard III, part Bluebeard, part Rhoda Penmark, he genuinely thinks he's the good guy as he follows each obsession to the bitter end.

AKA La mala ordina
(1972) Fenando di Leo
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

I try to avoid the movies that get too misogynist or cruel to animals (the suffocated kitten in SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER) so I have to applaud the genial bear of a pimp played by German Fassbinder regular Mario Adorf (LOLA) for being nice to the junkyard cat in Fernando de Leo's propulsive minor masterwork, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION. Fingered by the local mob boss for their own sly ripping off the New York family's heroin delivery, Luca (Adorf) finds himself hunted on all sides as the don wants to off him before two slick American hit men (Woody Strode and Henry Silva)-- sent over to rattle the cages of the Milano chapter, confirm his innocence. Considering Luca is just one lowly pimp, silencing him shouldn't pose such a problem but they don't bet on just what a hard-headed badass he turns out be, or maybe the local mafia is only good at tormenting women. It's pretty thrilling watching Adorf, this bulky monster of ugly-sexiness, bash his way up the hierarchal chain, all while being kind and good-natured with animals and women. A sexy Maoist who used to work for him, lets him hide out there during a party (her walls are covered with slogans painted on posters vis-a-vis Situationist detournement). Meanwhile, posing as a couple of New York 'tourists', Strlde and Silva are shepherded through all the seedy pimp haunts by Luciana Paluzzi (the hottie SPECTRE agent in THUNDERBALL). Adolfo Celli (Largo in that same Bond film) is the Milan don, so you know Di Leo is a Bond fan).

Eurocrime movies like this one, modeled after THE FRENCH CONNECTION were required to have extended, furiously intense chase sequences halfway through the film, and this one has a real lulu. Moving from a chase down the Milano streets to hanging onto a speeding truck, to a backyard swimming pool, to the street, climaxing with Luca using his head as a windshield battering ram! There is some unsettling misogynist violence as when a pair of goons roughs up Luca's live-in prostitute girlfriend (Femi Benussi), pinching her and smacking her around, etc. but at least Luca's wife and child are run over, rather than mauled. I also love that there's no 'learning curve' to be endured. There's waiting for everyman Luca to shed his civilized family man veneer. He'd rather be nice to broads and cats instead of being misogynistic with a room full of loud cigar-smoking idiots, but that doesn't mean he's not tougher than everyone else. A great pumping badass 70s cop show funk score from Armando Trovajoli puts it all over the top, and of course, as always, there's an auto wrecking yard climax, this one comes replete with death by claw machine.

this is a real man - nice-a to animals
Also Recommended in this genre: two more good transfers of Fernando de Leo films, SHOOT FIRST DIE LATER (though kittens get less kindness), and THE BOSS. For an informative and fun (albeit burdened by a lurid section on misogyny) documentary, EUROCRIME: The Italian Cop and Gangster Films the Ruled the 70s.  All on Prime.

AKA ¡Mátalo!
(1970) Dir. Cesare Canavare
**1/2/ Amazon Image: B-

One glance at Claudia Gravy (above) in her buckskin minidress, grinning wildly, playing swing set pit and the pendulum with a hunting knife and a tied-up preacher's son, you know that this movie came out in the bloody wake of Dario Argento's BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. And BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID's success meant the Italian westerns now all had to have at least one anachronistic pop song, a bicycle, and a menage-a-trois. The new reality of the post-Manson era added that extra ingredient that make MATALO! sing: cute, deadly young hippie girls and their blue-eyed psycho gurus.

Looking/acting like a rabid Michele Carey (Joey in EL DORADO) fused with Tiffany Bolling, Claudia Gravy as outlaw moll Mary brims with lysergic guile and a feral sadistic sunniness, using her wanton wiles to keep the men in her gang at each other's throats, all of them held smitten in her steamy orbit. Fans of Seijun Suzuki abstractions like BRANDED TO KILL, or the existential 'between life and death is better than either life or death' macho Orpheus meditations of Boorman (POINT BLANK) and Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY) will find much to love here too, as will anyone who always wanted to see a spaghetti western movie filmed at the Spahn Ranch by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Set almost exclusively in a  dried-up ghost town, where our bandits hide out with their stash of stolen gold, the familiar plot takes a back seat to weird artistic moments thanks to director Canavare making full use of the vast empty, eerie, wind and and sand-swept exteriors. Termite close-ups, freeze frames, a swing set in bad need of some WD-40, a harp parked too close to an open parlor window's billowing curtains, all take precedent over the banal triangles. Then Mario Milgardi's electric guitar score exits Ennio Morricone wah-wah valley and moves to Hendrix watchtower, there to gaze in wild wonder at a town swallowed up with summer heat and sadism. If, in the end, it doesn't really add up to anything, at least the druggy use of slow-mo puts us ably in the heat-distorted minds of our crook trio and the dying-of-thirst boomerang guy they torture. (Fists in the Pocket-ed Lou Castel)

The other male actors are an odd-looking bunch, too: The leader, middle-aged Phil (Luis Davila), sacked up with Gravy (left), sports a terrible red wig parted on the side in a way that reminds us of all the terrible toupees to come in the vainglorious macho 70s; the gang's pretty boy (Corrado Pani) flashes steely blue eyes and a self-adoring grin, cocking his head like he thinks he's Steve McQueen (he's not but he is almost Adam Roarke); low man on the pole, Antonio Salines, looks like a droopy mix of Will Forte and John Cazale, wearing the least straight of all the gang's signature red wigs; Gravy likes to torture him with her steamy sexiness, leading to much sulking and beating up on hapless prisoner Castel, an innocent chump who just wandered into town looking for water. You'll want to beat up Castel too, because Gravy is so fine and so homicidally sexy. Castel--with his giant forehead and lack of firearms (he only uses boomerangs)--is just begging for abuse. Good enough at keeping WTF attention you may as well stick around for the gun vs. boomerang fight finale, with the bad guys patiently waiting for each of Castel's boomerangs to weave its way back before they return fire. In the end, Castel is saved by a very supportive and resourceful horse! Successful only in obfuscating how its success might be measured (we'd have to know what it's trying to do), Matalo! is nonetheless a film resolutely of its time and the Prime print looks perfect.


AKA Cosa avete fatto a Solange?
(1972) Dir. Massimo Dallamano
**1/2 / Image: A

What might be a kinky sex murder giallo (with a ripping Ennio Morricone score) turns out to be something quite different (a bizarro murder mystery) albeit one tempered by as nasty a misogynist MO as giallo has to offer. The murdered girl was from a local girl's prep school, and the prime suspect is a very sexy teacher there, Enrico (Fabio Testi), who can't admit he witnessed the first killing as he was with a very sexy student on a 'romantic' and very sexy boat ride. Is he being set up by his pissed-off 'androgynous-sexy' teutonic fellow teacher wife (Karin Baal)? Enrico is way too well-laid for the sex criminal type but the fact he needs to hide his witnessing the murder leads to suspicion. If it adds up to little more than a surprising twist denouement, at least you won't have the furthest guess who did it along the way.

The melancholic Morricone score sounds, in parts, like a cat fell asleep on the keys of a mellotron, and in others slinks with bass run single hand piano honking trumpet. Ennio did over 20 other scores that year alone. Maybe that's what happened - he fell asleep at the keyboard and just said 'good enough.' And he was right. Morricone's every note is so recognizably iconic, so perfect, that even when whole passages are little more than atonal palm mashes you can't imagine it done any other way, ever. At time he seems to be conducting three scores at once - a cop show bongo track an Hermman-esque suspense track and the product of their union - an avant garde industrial car crash.

Director Dallamano got his start after garnering notice as cinematographer of the first two films in Leone's big-breaking "Man with No Name" trilogy. He knows his way around a gorgeously composed shot, that's for sure. Amazon's streaming image appears sourced from the recent Arrow Blu-ray (which I have, and is recommended) with dusky deep blacks and vivid deep colors. Even a protracted scene at confession works because it's so gorgeous, girls' faces so luminous, and Ennio's toss-off incidental church organ melody indelible.

(1973) Dir. Luciano Ercoli
*** / Amazon Print - A

A typically complex entry in the Edgar Wallace-Italian-style thriller tradition: Nieves Navarro  (Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) plays the worldly nightclub performer daughter of a notorious jewel thief. How many times does she have to tell her mysterious caller: she's not involved in her father's affairs!?! She knows nothing of a package of missing diamonds, she says, though the voice on the phone doesn't believe her. Soon she's nonetheless embroiled in a complicated web of Charade-y intrigue, jealousy, extortion, mistress alibi-covering, beach house-spying, fisherman harpoon-skewering, corpses attached to sunken ice slabs to confuse time of death, and a blind witness. A bit too far on the macho cop procedural side for a true giallo, the action alternates between Simón Andreu slapping around peeping-tom sailors and a homicide detective (Carlo Gentili) in a white raincoat--with a suspiciously effeminate sidekick in tow--trailing after him. There's cross dressing afoot and we know an ice vendor is gay because he never stops sniffing a giant flower. Sigh. We're still there, are we?

The print Amazon streams off is clearly the recent Arrow remastering or something and it looks divine, darling - which is 60% of what makes a great Italian film - the other being the score, and this one is by Stelvo Cipriano which is code for high female vocals cooing wordlessly over jazzy drums and electric harpsichord. The dresses and make-up are more for comfort than color. There are only a few women in the cast, alas, to wear them anyway, but nowhere near the dearth we find in our next entry...

AKA I giorni dell'ira 
(1967) Dir. Tonino Valerii 
**1/2 / Image: A

Lee Van Cleef plays a tough gunfighter out to collect an unpaid debt: his share of an old gold robbery - he never got his cut and he aims to get it one way or another. To this end he kills nearly everyone in a small western town. The end. Or is it? Scott (Giuliano "Ringo" Gemma) is the town's handsome young orphan garbage collector/stable boy with a great gun arm (and teeth that would blind Erik Estrada). He teams up with Van Cleef and together they set about blasting all the corrupt heads of state in various towns and any amount of hit men said towns care to throw at them. Scott gets cocky and the old timer ex-gunfighter-turned-pacifist stable master, who taught Scott to shoot during their downtime, tries to explain killing is wrong, yawn.

Sexy Christa Linder shows up out of some Suspira-esque brothel doors, as one of the only women characters (though she gets only one or two lines in a single scene, it's still nice to see her.)
What counts here isn't the trite kung fu movie plot but that there's probably over 30-50 gunmen dead by the end of movie, and Van Cleef is unusually awake. In fact, he seems to be having a surprisingly good time, much more so than I've seen in any of his other pictures. It's been well restored (I took these screenshots to indicate woodwork and colors, stained glass and door frames that caught my eye) and composer Riz Ortolani adroitly fuses the flavors of classic Morricone ala THE BIG GUNDOWN and Nelson Riddle ala EL DORADO --both of which came out the same year! Can you imagine that drive-in bill?

Other Recommended Italian westerns on Prime: COMPANEROS: Great Ennio score --good looking transfer, though it seems very letterboxed / non-anamorphic. I haven't seen Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE but the Amazon streaming print looks good, as does the one for THE GRAND DUEL, which I've seen elsewhere and liked but don't remember. Then again, I already don't remember DAY OF ANGER even having literally just seen it, but that's par for the course. I think.

I do remember I found nothing in it to dislike, and--at my cranky age--that's everything. 

AKA Ercole al centro della Terra
(1961) Dir. Mario Bava
*** (Amazon Image - D)

Their quality is generally far below the rest of the Italian films on this list but I couldn't let you go without mentioning at least one 'peplum' film, and naturally it's Mario Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961), available in its old blurred cropped form on Prime, and in a fairly decent anamorphic DVD from Fantoma. Hopefully it will one day have a Tim Lucas commentary Arrow Blu-ray remaster like the great recent BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

But in the meantime, you can at least follow the story here, and since Bava does make a nice picture, it looks good even in the shitty cropped dupe. See it this way and wonder, if you dare, how we ever used to enjoy watching films that looked this bad.

The story finds a (tragically dubbed by someone else) Christopher Lee putting a spell on Hercules' (Reg Park) girlfriend, Princess Deianira  (Leonara Ruffo) while his demi-godliness out doing his mighty labors. Herc needs a certain golden apple to save her but it's hanging on a lonesome tree in the depths of the Underworld and all sorts of crazy trials, monsters, and hottie temptations await. His travel buddy, Theseus (George Ardisson --LONG HAIR OF DEATH) meets and falls in love with lovely under-underworld denizen Aretusa (Marisa Belli) and smuggles her out in their boat home with the apple. Her father, Hades (unseen), is pissed. Plagues (unseen) descend upon the land, and Herc realizes he has to return Aretusa to the land down under.  Theseus, I don't want to fight you! You can guess the rest, right down to the tired comic relief (a dork sporting one of the worst haircuts in film history who invites himself along), but along the way there's a big terrible rock monster (who declares Theseus is too short and proceeds to try and stretch him out like rolling dough), a gaggle of imprisoned sirens, Christopher Lee and his skeleton hand dagger trying to sacrifice Deinaira in a groovy graveyard (echoes of Bava's BLACK SUNDAY from the previous year) and Bava's great painterly gels. The robust classical score is by ever-reliable Armando Travajoli (who you'll remember from ITALIAN CONNECTION). See this crappy version long enough to realize you must get the DVD and get to praying for Hades to release the negative unto golden Arrow.

(1966) Dir. Sergio Corbucci
*** / Amazon Print - B

I can't tell if this is slightly cropped, but either  way, Amazon's picture is clear and seems lifted from the Blue Underground DVD, which I watched religiously.... long ago. BUT they only have the English dub option and its very weird hearing this square VO artist's half-assed Clint Eastwood imitation coming out of Franco Nero. He matches the lips rather than the mood, so makes Django sound slightly robotic. As we all know Franco Nero can do his own English dubbing in a very sexy accent, so it's most annoying. Luckily we can ease our frisson through Corbucci's fetish for lurid sadism: Whippings, mud wrestling, hand-smashing, and a guy being forced to eat his own ear,  Hey, them sadists all get their comeuppance, so no worries. And when they die they all jump in the air and fall backwards in bloodless pirouettes and our hero can wipe out six men at a time in a single quick draw of his revolver. And once he gets his Browning machine gun out of its coffin holster he can decimate whole armies.

There were about 300 'sequels', almost none with an actual character named Django and certainly not starring Franco Nero, who was pretty busy in an array of other genres and roles (such as the half-breed KEOMA--also on Amazon in a good looking print). Still, DJANGO is the role that made him an international star. And if you don't have an affection for all the hammy unrealistic mass death Django causes while hand-holding a Browning machine gun then you must have had parents who wouldn't let you play war with realistic cap guns in the back yard. And that's a shame, sez I, for in pretending to get shot and die on a regular basis a child loses some of his fear of death while also understanding its inevitability and social importance. Being able to do a flamboyant death when shot by a cap gun or just a plastic tommy gun or even just a kid making machine gun noise is much more important than playing it safe and living past the credits, as if there ever really is such a thing.

It's relevant to note DJANGO came out three years before THE WILD BUNCH so one wonders if Peckinpah got the idea for his big balletic Browning decimation climax from this film (he made sure to pay attention to the need for a tripod, and the hassles of belt-loading). The outdoor stuff is muddy and cloudy but there's lots of nice lighting in the cathouse and the girls are all allowed to have unique characters, interesting dialogue, and chutzpah to spare. The memorable theme song is by Luis Bacalov, sung by 'Rocky Roberts', re-used by Quentin Tarantino, of course.

(1987) Dir. Dario Argento
*** / Image - B

Argento still had some good films in him by 1987, though many people consider OPERA his last success (I still like TRAUMA). Even so, it's got issues: opera diva Betty (Christina Marsillach) seems much too thin and wan to be a believable opera star (she'd be a believable music student though, like Eleonora Giorgi in INFERNO) but she's great in the horror clinches. Some deranged opera fan is stalking her, slashing up her costumes and/or forcing her to watch him murder her friends by taping needles to her eyes in a kind of bloody lash guerrilla performance art. He's hoping to inspire her Lady Mabeth performance, or something. Argento's camera never stops prowling around in gliding POVs of the killer, and the temperamental diva whose car accident enables Betty's big break, ravens, etc. Some of the murders may or may not be fantasies of the killer (depending on your interpret the 'pulsing brain' shots). "Whenever a woman has a problem, men presumes its love," bemoans Betty

As with many other Italian films from the Argento-Bava horror complex, there's instances of very dated heavy metal on the soundtrack during the murders, but there's also cool Hitchcock references, and an unkindness of ravens whooshing around the giant opera house during a live performance of MACBETH in a kind of KENNEL MURDER CASE-ish gambit, though then even that is kind of undone by the tacky whooshing eye-view camera; in other words, Dario's every genius step into the broken mirror has a backwards stagger.

The Amazon stream image isn't the best, kind of blurry, and the photography has the grungy color-drain look that was big in the late 80s-early 90s, but the cold gray is contra-stepped by the film's warmly familiar (to Italian horror fans) cast: Urbano Barnerini is the blonde inspector; Asia Argento's mom, Daria Nocolodi is Betty's buddy; Barbara Cupisti is the wardrobe mistress; Ian Charleson is the Argento-ish opera director. Francesca Cassola is the rescuing Newt / Alice type neighbor girl who spies on all the apartments through a passageway in the vents and helps Betty escape the slowly stalking killer with her timely whispers, leading to the scariest and most fairy tale dream-like (and therefore best) segment of the film; When the score's not Verdi there's some interesting synth stuff from Brian Eno, Roger Eno, Claudio Simonetti and Bill Wyman! Can't really go wrong, unless you're also using some hair metal growling from a forgotten Swedish metal outfit called Northern Lights for the 'kills'. Oh Dario... your inner dirtbag is showing!

AKA La morte ha fatto l'uovo
(1968) Dir. Guilo Questi
*** / Amazon Image - C+

Questi's seemingly benign tale is rife with weird flashbacks, twists, and ragged editing of an almost Bill Gunn-style sideways termite-Eisenstein off-the-cuff brilliance. Bruno Madera's patchwork soundtrack plunges down in the atonal piano mash abyss one scene and sashays up in bossa nova and Anton Karras zither the next, with shoutings in German over Brazilian violins during the lovemaking, adding to the off-kilter vibe. Story has Alain Delon as Bruno, a bitter pretty boy gigolo married to futuristic chicken coop CEO Gabrielle. He does a lot of skulking around the all white henhouse plotting to take over with hottie personal assistant Ewa Aulin and maybe killing prostitutes with Zodiac scarves. There are egg-related objets d'art-decorated offices and plenty of real eggs in rows. Gabrielle and Anna start dressing up like whores and frequenting Bruno's secret haunts to try to get to the bottom of his mysterious tomcatting. Or do they? (more)

AND HERE, THE SCORES ON SPOTIFY, to accompany your deep elbow bending:

SEE ALSO ON PRIME (Vedi anche su Primo):
10/16: 13 Best or Weirdest Occult/Witch movies on the Amazon Prime
10/16: Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime: 12 Psychotronic Vampire Films on Amazon Prime
12/16: I never said it wasn't terrible: 10 Sci-Fi Curious worth streaming on Amazon Prime

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

10 Reasons LIFEFORCE (1985)

True story - I was staying with my buddy Alan at his grandparents' cottage in Cape May for the summer of '85 and they dropped us off to see LIFEFORCE, by which I mean, to see THE GOONIES which was playing in the adjacent theater of this old Cape May dual-plex out there - gone by now I'm sure, we had to buy tickets for that as we lacked ID and LIFEFORCE was R (we had to sneak across the lobby to the theater, but we were masters of that by then). Anyway, we couldn't have known then that the film was the shorter American cut. We just knew it seemed put together by a sugar-addled Armenian (and we knew one, Peter Oskanian) with no regard for pacing or tone. We agreed the babe was hot, but the rest was ridiculous --I forgot all about it by the end of the week. I still refuse to see THE GOONIES though. It felt then, and still does, like some contrived Raiders of the Lost Ark Jr. League edition, shamelessly marketed to those too young to realize they were being pandered to, for whom RAIDES OF THE LOST ARK was too scary but who liked the ride. (I'd also been burned by TREASURE OF MATECUMBE nine years earlier, which I saw as a double feature matinee with (wait for it...) SONG OF THE SOUTH, at the Plymouth Meeting Mall as a kid with mom. TREASURE was Disney's bait-and-switch promise of Pirates of the Caribbean style skeleton pirates and delivering banal plotting I was too bleary from Uncle Remus to follow. The skeleton just being one cutaway shot to one in a corner of a cave.

With the advent of widescreen HD however, especially now that the longer British cut is more widely available, well, it turns out Alan and I were wrong. LIFEFORCE is very memorable. It still seems rushed, but it's a little funnier--in a deadpan manly way--and better every time I see it. The sugar-addled Armenian has been replaced by a very deadpan Ukranian. As with other 'Ten Reasons' films like DREAMCATCHER and 1978's  THE LEGACY it might not hold up to logic's cold light but I'd watch it a fourth or fifth time over sober, logical better-made inquiries any old time. Still ain't seen THE GOONIES though. No director's cut shit gonna change that. 

I should preface that, even for its longer cut, LIFEFORCE has issues: dried corpses come to life are just painted body stockings over what looks like half-inflated sex dolls are used on some of his zombie/vampire undead --they look worse even than some of the corpses in Hopper's next film, TEXAS CHAINSAW 2. And the intro is pretty slow, though the VO about the "Minerva Engine" and its constant acceleration creating gravity deflects our attention into thinking, especially with the thunderous Mancini score, that this is going to be an old-school space adventure rather than.... what it is. I wish the score was more analog synth, not that Mancini's score isn't full-bodied and bold as love and way better than anything we might hear from John Williams (love those gongs!)

1. Mathilda May as the Space Girl

For these alluring sirens archetypes to function properly, the girl has to be mad hot, young, and visceral, so she overloads a straight male's circuitry and leaves him exposed to danger. When there's someone like Natashsa Henstridge in SPECIES or Matilda May in LIFEFORCE: impossibly young, perfectly formed, as if from heaven's mint, then it all works (and when there's someone like Liz Taylor in DOCTOR FAUSTUS, it doesn't). I mention all this not to seem sexist or ageist but because nature and the unconscious is sexist and ageist. Whether we're 17-18 (as I must have been) or 80 we know we'd damn our souls to hell and jump off a cliff or whatnot if Henstridge in SPECIES or May beckoned. We'd have no choice. 

That's why, when Scott shouts in her face during the climactic soul drain, "WHAT ARE THESE FEELINGS?!" it's gut-bustingly funny. He seems to react towards her touch by screaming at the top of his lungs. A lot of time she has no real acting to do, just a wolfish smile and eyes that dilate and occasionally widen (with spiral irises!) as if throwing a lot of invisible carnal force in these male's directions. You can feel it. You can feel why she scrambles these men's senses so completely. She's "totally alien... and totally dangerous."

2. Ancient Alien Hypothesis explaining the Periodic Reality of Vampirism via Halley's Comet

Several steps ahead of our current internet paranoia dot-connectors (myself included), Dan O'Bannon's (the co-creator of ALIEN) adaptation of British mystic Colin Wilson's novel is adept at connecting ancient vampire lore with pre-Halley pass excitement. Here it turns out vampires are ancient aliens who basically ride around in the wake / gravitational drag of Halley's comet, deep in hibernation until they get near enough on the long orbit to sense the brain waves of life forms to feed on, then draw them close and assume the forms they most desire so they'll get brought in. Jungian archetypal psychology, ancient alien theory and Bob Lazar's Area 51 statements (how we're a soul farm, and aliens want to make sure no extra-planetary force damages their harvest's 'containers'), and even Cronenberg-Romero-style outbreaking (the emptied containers come back and have an hour or so to try and 'fill up' again or they exploded in a shower of dust, ditto their own victims, etc.,) all ties in perfectly with the 1986 (then a year away in real life) arrival of Halley's comet. as explored in another personal favorite, from the previous year, 1984's NIGHT OF THE COMET. It's all connected. By Halley.

3. Addiction 

The same year LIFEFORCE came out, 1985, saw Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (by then I had just started drinking and smoking weed-- what a year!), and as opposed to Romero's slower, downer, DAY OF THE DEAD (also '85), there's a sense of real junkie madness in O'Bannon's zombies in both films. His zombies are the only ones who talk, and who eat only brains, and moan for "more brains!" But what stands out is their crazed desperation, the agony that devouring brains or electromagnetic soul energy can allay, even temporarily. That terrifying sense of junky withdrawal agony and its prolonged, gathering intensity-- to the point you'd cut off your own hand to be free of it for even a few minutes--is something I've recently directly experienced (what a year!) and can vouch for O'Bannon's monsters doing it better than anyone, in both films.

4. Michael Gothard as Dr. Bukovsky

One of the few scientists in Britain's space building who gets the full Mathilda May sex treatment but survives, our Bukovsky is left a shivering wreck. That he can't help the investigation as he's too worn out from almost hooking up would be either laughable or idiotic in lesser hands, but Gothard, with his great deep actorly voice, masterfully makes his declaration both hilarious and deadpan believable. Too bad he barely got to speak as the Germanic assassin in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY! Most of his other credits seem to be in long-forgotten BBC shows and direct-to-video OOP stuff. 

Gothard, you're so good here you deserve better! I love his reactions to all the veiled disses from the other guys, ala 'you were overpowered by a cute young naked woman who'd just come out of a long coma?' And he's like 'yes.' You also have to like how his groovy space center is in, like, the heart of London, and guarded at night only by a few bumbling security guards, when compared with, say Area 51 and the military fuss we'd make over a similar alien body find.

5. The Col. Caine / Quatermass Connection

With his dope name offset by his halo of blonde curls, Peter Firth (EQUUS) is in rare form as the 'what you haven't heard of me?' Col. Caine, the big MI6 or Special Service guy called in on these spook details. Once the space girl busts loose and the body count's too big to cover up, Caine's the man they send for, and we're treated to his spirited cut-the-shit/ solve-the-problem attitude with the scientist survivors. Curly tow-headedness or not, Firth slams it out of the park. 

Note: don't watch EQUUS (1977) the same night as LIFEFORCE, or ever.

6. The comical reaction cutaways.

Throughout there are cutaways to reaction shots so absurdly mismatched you can tell they were edited in half tongue-in-cheek (I imagine Hooper shouting at the actors off camera during their close-ups: "now you're scared,  now some bright light is shining, cover your eyes! Look! You're scared again! Oh no!") and the actors trying not to smile or look too unmanly (one shining reaction shot of Firth is soooo fey it's like one of Price's Phibes pantomimes). Maybe these were taken out of the original American release to make it less funny? At any rate, I'm glad they're back.

7.a. Ellen, EXTREME masochist: 

In my favorite scene, Railsback interrupts an interview with the nurse to grab her and start slapping her around: "This woman is a masochist!," Railsback shouts. "An extreme masochist! She wants me to hurt her!" How he knows this is a mystery (or I forget). Maybe it's the David Bowie poster on wall, the Hallmark store harlequin decor like it's her junior college one-bedroom, bespeaking the nature of the nursing profession in the world of socialized medicine. Railsback's abuse of this poor lady, all but 50 Shades of Gray-molesting her right there in her room while Firth looks on, trying to seem more concerned than kinkily turned on ("I'm a natural voyeur") is a true highlight of the genre, highlighted by when Railsback screams in her face, "Are you IN THERE???" - I've seen this movie a dozen times and I'm always in hysterics at that. Not to mention pretty soon he's pumping Patrick Stewart the same way.

7.b. Railsback's make-out sesh with Patrick Stewart, in whom the Space girl is hiding (?) so Caine can drug him/her so she can't escape. Wait, so she isn't bound to any one body (?). The rules of the plot don't necessarily make sense by then but who cares? Think of this scene as forerunner to when Stewart channels Jean Grey's romantic goodbye to a crying Cyclops in XMEN 2 and you realize old Patrick Stewart is the go-to sci-fi channeler of psychic babes!

8. Headlong Momentum

With no adamant denial and military bullshit obstructing things (the way Qaatermass and the Pit had to contend with the dogmatic skepticism and paranoia of the aptly named Col. Breen), no one challenges each others' authority or theories here. There's no time. Thus a cool boy's club network of brains and quick thinkers make it hum: Gothard and Frank Finley carry the first chunk of the film once we're back on Earth, before Railsback and Firth take over; then  Aubrey Morris comes in! The way these three jet around in the helicopter makes for some highly amusing and very British business. We're spared all the laggy elements, needing to convince the PM, etc. --yet the pace is never too choppy and forced. I like for example that all of London goes to shit in the time it takes Caine and company to chopper over to the looney bin and back. In other words, like only a handful of other films in its genre, there's a sense that events progress with or without our heroes witnessing it, and faster than they can really control or halt with any effectiveness.

9. Great ensemble of adult males who like to scream a lot: 

Aubrey Morris (yessss?)! Patrick Stewart! (Arrrgh!) Frank Finlay ("here.. I .... go") --all sublime. The amount of first-rate British male acting muscle here is pretty substantial, they have a great rapport, and I love little bits all over this movie, like Col. Caine's asking of normal questions, and the pained but polite answers of Gothard's Bukovsky and death-studying doctor Kulada (Frank Finlay), or the way Aubrey Morris' govt. man just rolls with the weirdness, looking up to these taller actors with a kind of puppyish adoration, trusting their thespian chops to get him out of any bad script scrape and just covering his mouth with a hanky when he starts to 'break' (as in burst out laughing). Deadpan dialogue is punctuated by screaming hysterics (at least four male actors scream at the top of their lungs for several consecutive breaths - with Stewart and Railsback taking at least two turns). With only two women with speaking parts in the whole cast (one on the space crew is basically an extra), it's very much a story of male sexual panic, but so cloaked in British reserve that the deadpan hilarity magnifies with every new beat, not unlike the ever-accelerated Minerva engine! Scream your heads off, men! Here she comes again!

A rose by any other name would still carry deep post-Giger fallopian resonance

10. The odd mix of super low budget with big budget sequences.  
All the money must have been spent out in space, the effects are all cool if it's a bit slow (and the British-style space suits evoking Kubrick more than Ridley Scott) so that by the time we get to the climax of all the dead hanging around outside London's Carfax Abbey or St. Paulie Girl Cathedral or wherever, London is represented by basically just one big alleyway of writhing extras, all crowded together to seem like all London is just stairs and back alleys, going up in smoke; again we get a QUATERMASS AND THE PIT evocation for that film too tore down a small section of London outdoor space to evoke the whole, and in the end, it's tough to tell which side won. I love it for that.

The ship, full of captured souls like a trunk full of groceries, heads off to deep space once more, until the next time Halley runs past, which should be in a mere 41 years!! If I'm still alive, I hope they make a sequel, or if I'm not, that they 'wake' me up!

I didn't even mention the groovy score! No time! ARGGGHGHHH!

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