Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

International Hallucinosis Part 1: 12 Cool/Weird Italian Films Streaming Free on Amazon Prime

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). So many it will take many posts to even detail a sliver. So let's start on the Italian side. There's giallo and sometimes Gothic, too many peplums (i.e. biceps and sandals) to count, sex, western, and cop buddy comedies, about a hundred ramshackle adventures of a big slovenly Italian named Bud Spencer and his blonde two-fisted compatriot Terence Fisher; weird Raiders of the Lost Ark action-western-sci-fi imitations, Road Warrior imitations, giallos, Eurocrime (polizetti), spy spoofs, peplum (Hercules, Maciste, Samson, etc.) spaghetti westerns, juvenile comedies, all in such vast array it's like wandering into some never-ending videophile fantasia. It might remind you of the first time you wandered into a mom and pop video rental horror section and thought you'd entered an alternate reality. So forget about Netflix and its 'originals' - Prime is in the midst of its golden age!.

That said, the golden age soon gets ennui-ridden. The best of the Italian genre imports are usually well known, while the dregs are dregs for a reason. Shot quick, cheap and crazy - the best way to consider Italian genre films are as halfway markers between the drive-in and the TV show, for Italian TV of the era was very sparse - barely two channels and two movies a week at the most. So going to the movies was what one did almost every night (I learned this watching EUROCRIME - also on Prime --see below). Many of the titles on Prime have, I'm fairly sure, never been on video in the states, and are probably transferred (incorrectly) from PAL. The widescreen look irregularly thin, or else comes cropped, with colors turned to muddy streaks. Some are in Italian don't have subtitles; some have subtitles burnt-in but are the English dub version. Some are so obscure they have to Amazon reviews at all.

But even eliminating the titles that fall victim to these issues there are still dozens of titles the average American viewer has never heard of or seen that look lovely and beg a visit from the curious traveler. So I've assembled one such dozen, as if donuts - there's around three or four of each genre -- three westerns, three giallos, three weird horror films, one 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.

NOTA: Each post details the story as much as can be revealed without undoing the precious WTF? element so key to Italian cinema. The musical scores are so key for 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. I don't recommend listening to it while reading this post, I INSIST on it. You belong to us, Faustine! If you don't have Prime or Spotify, well, when some of these a trackable elsewhere I'm sure. Bon fortuna, Jack!

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

A parallel program to the Argento-Bava-Soavi school, for this unofficial sequel to Argento's SUSPIRIA (semi-sequel six in the catch-all DEMONS series), the great Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH, HERCULES) rings in the third of the 'three mothers' trilogy -or at least a post-modern riff thereon. Here screenwriter Marc (Urbano Barberini) has conjured a film about an ancient witch named Lavania, who he doesn't know is real and that she rises from her grave a little farther every time her name is mentioned (ala Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY if media attention was blood); her face and hands that are all 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), who's keen to play her. A local psychic busts out her original copy of Suspiria de Profundis to encourage Marc to change the name. Argento and Thomas de Quincey are name-checked and there's even some familiar Goblin cues from SUSPIRIA. Meanwhile, without even knowing the story, Marc's wife--busy with their newborn baby--starts to demand to play the role, saying she "is" Lavania, which is not a wise career move. But what about sexy Caroline Munro, luring Marc into the sack for the Lavania part, and Michele Soavi himself as the director! I didn't even mention the shady, possibly undead, financial backer! Confused? Join the club! Still I'd rather go on the wild ride a Luigi Cozzi film offers even if its rickety, campy, confusing and dangerous, than play it safe on some competent piece of junk like STIGMATA or LOST SOULS -hai capito?

The quality of the stream is dependent on the source which is pretty good for full screen, probably direct to video entry, since in 1990 the drive-ins were  all but dead and Blockbuster was still a thriving industry. By then, too, the whole 'fiction intrudes on reality' self-reflexive angle was insufferably pretentious, but the colors are nice - when Anne falls into dream worlds the windows glow bright yellows, blues, green, and reds ala Argento. The end goes all MANITOU! There's even an 'inner' child (literally, as in innards) counseling Anne from within/without the TV (see top). Surely the meta-refractive horror levels make this a forebear to THE RING along with FREDDY'S NEW NIGHTMARE.

As for the score, well, even if it's not Goblin level, Vince Tempera's 'shoot for bodacious; settle for bemusing' score is certainly better than Keith Emerson's clueless melange in INFERNO. Still, it begs a question: why in the name of all that's unholy was this film's title changed to THE BLACK CAT? There is a cat it barely figures! This same year also saw the release Argento's own adaptation of Poe's story in TWO EVIL EYES, and then Fulci did a BLACK CAT in 1981. I know Italians love to wall people up, but their obsession with this one story is pretty stupid, and maybe explains why it took me so long to catch up to this as mixed it up with the other two versions. Considering it has the great Caroline Munroe (who worked with Cozzi on the awesome STARCRASH) and doesn't have Marjoe Gortner (the worst part of STARCRASH), I'd say pounce. At the worst, it's just incoherent; at it's best, it's so bonkers--especially once things bounce up to the moon--that it approaches the sublime.

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

The early 80s indie drive-in / video clamshell box era endures today like an old gold mine with no ore unearthed from the deeper nooks and bowels with every new risky excavation. And no vein is still so rife for tapping than the Italian cross-pollination rip-genre, located in the cross shaft between 1980-82: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE ROAD WARRIOR, BLADE RUNNER, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE WARRIORS and CONAN. Reconfiguring the previous decade's peplum, western and WW2 props, sets and wardrobe with some silver spraypaint and football pads and leather studs, a whole league of retro-punk futuristic gang bikers flowed out anew, and now--years later--the effect isn't scary or ominous, but adorable. It's so non-CGI tactile, we can feel the heat of the fireballs on the asphalt. Let ourselves be swept along and we might think we're catching this on late-night cable back when we were 12-15 with our friend/s, and late-night cable was an exciting, strange, dangerous place (or at the very least, unintentionally hilarious).

Christopher Connolly stars as a mercenary Mike, who-- along with his fellow badass Washington (Tony King)--open the film by abducting (rescuing?) some well-protected hombre in a sequestered beach mansion, the fee for which is $50,000, which they plan to spend wildly after they take their boat down to Trinidad. Meanwhile, Gioai Scola is an ancient symbology expert flown over from Machu Picchu to decode a strange rosetta stone-style relic uncovered by a team (led by a nicely laid-back George Hilton), raising a downed Russian sub from 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, letting them know it's time to put down their knitting, put on their crystal skull masks, get on their tricked-out bikes and jeeps and kill everyone in sight.

At the end there's some INDIANA JONES-style boobytraps (laser eyed pharoah heads, fan blades) but mostly there are great gunfights on top of speeding busses, dangling from helicopters; endless molotov cocktails are tossed out of windows (each given a holy blessing) and each sends at least one hapless stuntman flying. "Good" survivors are picked up along the way and die as fast, one great scene has one fighter realize Marc must be 'okay' when they both fight to reclaim his wad of cash after it falls out of his shirt during their brawl (the Atlantean biker/zombies don't care about money, nor do they talk or fear death). All sorts of great little moments 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 so they don't sucked through the fan during the climactic Atlantis inner sanctum breech? It all seems so familiar, like some scenario you dreamt up in your imagination one rainy day with your mismatched action figures and indulgent babysitter after you'd just seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at the local theater for thee 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 Crystal skull-led 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.  Rehab: it's so right, though drugs would have helped - at least the cool chopper pilot smuggled in a flask.

Guido and Morizi de Angelis did the 80s synth score, repetitive and video game-ish but bound to hit that nostalgic pang like a real drug would. 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 but people clearly have seen it and embraced its lovely badness as someone posted copious quotes from the film in imdb - Atlantis bless them. I still won't see Deodato's cannibal movies, but at least here I can report that no animals appear harmed (or at all) in RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS, but man you can bet some stuntmen got un po 'bruciacchiato. 

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

Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (AKA MASK OF SATAN) made a huge impact in 1960, and never more so, clearly, than with the ever-imitative (but less innovative) peers, like Antonio Margherita, whose CASTLE OF BLOOD is better known but I find quite tedious. But this is--now that there's a good print available for streaming--this is his best work--outside of maybe YOR--clearly. Full of skulking camera movements as devious players weave in and out secret passages, crypts, and tapestry-bedecked boudoirs, there's never a dull moment and Barbara Steele gets to raise the ruckus in a double (kind of) role; even when you don't know what the hell's going on, it's a helluva thing. I started watching halfway through (I recommend this approach to all of life, and especially exploring Prime so you don't need to endure 10 minutes of tags and credits only to find the heads are too thin or the colors too washed or it's in Italian niente sottootitoli), then watched the beginning a few weeks later, which made Steele's enigmatic character that much more ambiguous.

Curiously, Amazon's version actually has burnt-in English subtitles but is dubbed in English and sometimes the words onscreen and dubbed vary in weirdly abstract frisson kind of ways, as if being translated by a nervous diplomat. But Carlo Rusticelli's memorable score (with its eerie theremin, slow ominous bass notes and slow-moving orchestral swells) perfectly situates the onscreen Gothic events. A spoiled baron, Kurt (George Ardisson) poisons all those standing in the way to the title and lugs corpses down masterfully-lit secret passages in order to be with ethereal (and long-haired) strange Barbara Steele. But the wife (Halina Zalewska) he thought poisoned and entombed disappears; does she remember her mother was burnt at the stake by Kurt's father for a crime Kurt himself committed? There's also an outbreak of (offscreen) plague and a WICKER MAN-esque final moment to center it all as a classic of its genre. Above all, both the girls have super long hair and super pale skin, long bare arms and hair down to their waist, wafting in and out of eerily-lit tombs and corridors -- it's everything you'd want in a movie called LONG HAIR OF DEATH, blow-dried to a tomb-y chill.

AKA La mala ordina
(1972) Fenando di Leo
*** / 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 have to applaud the genial bear of a pimp played by German Fassbinder regular Mario Adorf (LOLA) being nice to the junkyard cat in Fernando de Leo's propulsive minor masterwork, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION. Fingered by the local mob boss as the fall guy for their ripping off the New York family's heroin delivery, he finds himself hunted on all sides as two slick American hit men are sent over to make an example of him and rattle the cages of the Milano chapter. Woody Strode and Henry Silva are pretty badass as the New York 'tourists' shepherded through all the seedy pimp haunts by Luciana Paluzzi. She was the hottie SPECTRE agent who got Bond in bed and then chased him through the Nassau parade in THUNDERBALL, that movie's main villain, Largo, Adolfo Celli is also here as the Milan don. Considering he's just one lowly pimp, silencing Luca shouldn't pose such a problem but they don't bet on just what a hard-headed toughass 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 chain, all while being fairly nice and good-natured with his women, even making non-business friendships with girls he's helped out of bad situations, like the sexy Maoist who lets him crash over when he needs to, and whose walls denote the key difference between hippies in Rome and Paris vs. San Francisco, the unrepentant Maoism; jer walls are covered with slogans painted on posters and it all seems to exist mainly for the trailer or for Fernando's Marxist signature ideological interjections.

Highlights include a great long chase scene when he goes after the schmuck who runs down his wife and kid. He chases him from truck to street, to truck to pool to street again, climaxing with Luca using his head as a windshield battering ram to get at the culprit. Eurocrime movies modeled after THE FRENCH CONNECTION were required to have super long furious intense chase sequences, but there's nothing quite like this. There is some unsettling misogynist violence as when the mob 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 cleanly and not tortured. And there's no 'learning curve' by whihc Luca becomes more of a badass. He is one, he'd just rather hang out with his broads, and what's wrong with that if he treats them right? the saddest part is the tawdry club with its low basement roof - and not near enough cigarettes. A great pumping badass 70s cop show funk score from Armando Trovajoli helps it all along, and of course, the requisite auto wrecking yard climax, replete with death by claw machine.

this is a real man - nice-a to animals
Also Recommended: two more good transfers of Fernando de Leo films, SHOOT FIRST DIE LATER, and THE BOSS and 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. 

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

One look at the image above of sexy Claudia Gravy, winding up a game of swing-set pit-and-the- pendulum with a tied-up preacher's son (Lou Castel) and you know that this movie came out in 1970, i.e. shortly after the Manson murders made the world realize cute hippie chicks could be more sadistic and violent than even Russ Meyer dared hope. The spaghetti western was beginning to vanish in the acid sunset; anachronistic cool, free-love, women's lib and psychedelic influences were giving it one last blaze of setting sun electric guitar sting glory. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was coloring all the last westerns in Italy with anachronistic pop songs, free love, and cultish druggie youth.

Looking/acting like a rabid Michele Carey (Joey in EL DORADO) fused with Tiffany Bolling, Claudia Gravy as outlaw moll Mary is the best part of MATALO; brimming with lysergic guile and a feral sadistic sunniness, using her wanton wiles to keep the men in her gang trapped in an understandably steamy orbit, sort of like a homicidal version of Grace Slick with the boys in The Jefferson Airplane. Fans of Seijun Suzuki abstractions like BRANDED TO KILL, or existential 'between life and death is better than either life or death' meditations of Boorman (POINT BLANK), Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY) will find much to love, as will anyone who always wanted to see what a spaghetti tripper western would be like if fused to the 'home invasion' framework (of say KITTEN WITH A WHIP) with the peyote western ala EL TOPO (which came out the same year). The story involves a ghost town, some outlaws using it as hiding place, a big gold shipment, and--well, ambience. Weird close-ups, freeze frames, a swing set in bad need of some WD-40, and a harp too close to a billowing curtain rod, wryly tweak the Sergio Leone-style and Antonioni ambiguity while Mario Milgardi's Hendrix-style electric guitar score throws caution to the wind. We've exited Ennio Morricone wah-wah land and entered the post-Manson / Altamont LSD youth scene, where hippie chicks aren't all honey and smiles, but will carve the baby right out of your womb while singing "Look at Your Game Girl." If doesn't really add up to much, at least the druggy use of slow-mo puts us ably in the distorted minds of his crook trio or the dying-of-thirst boomerang guy they torture. W

Corrado Pani is Bart, who begins the film grinning as he's led off to be hung in a small town about to be overrun by Mexican bandits. With his flashing blue eyes and self-adoring grin he cocks his head like he thinks he's Steve McQueen-meets-Adam Roarke, and he almost is, especially in the nice juxtaposition of his relaxed poking around town while all around him his rescuers slaughter everyone (except a confused, oblivious preacher). Antonio Salines is the sullen, lovesick wingman who looks like a mix of Will Forte and John Cazale, wearing--as seems to be the trademark of the gang--a terrible blonde wig. Sulking and scowling, and beating on hapless Lou Castel, due to his lovelorn longing for Claudia Gravy (who's currently in bed with the eldest in the gang, Phil [Luis Davila]). You'll want to beat up Castel too, because Gravy is so fine and so homicidally sexy, and Castel--with his giant forehead and lack of firearms-is just begging for it. Needless to say there's a gun vs. boomerang  finale, luckily the bad guys don't mind waiting for each individual boomerang to weave its way around before returning fire, and Castel has a very supportive and resourceful horse.

AKA Cosa avete fatto a Solange?
(1972) Dir. Massimo Dallamano
**1/2 / Image: A
Director Dallamano got his own directorship 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, and What might be a weird-ass misogynist sex murder giallo (with a ripping Ennio Morricone score) turns out to be something quite different in this bizarro murder mystery, as a series of cute girls at a local girl's prep school are murdered with a blade to the uterys, as nasty a misogynist MO as giallo has to offer.

Sexy Fabio Testi as Enrico, the sexy (married) man teacher, as the culprit (he can't admit he saw the first killing as he was with a sexy student on a 'romantic' boat ride). The cops peg him as the main culprit. Was he set up his pissy 'androgynous-sexy' teutonic wife (Karin Baal)? It could certainly be a kinky sex thing as misogyny seems rampant in this cloistered Catholic repressive hothouse, but Testi is way too laid for that, the fox in charge of the henhouse who coughs out feathers at every lecture. Why do girls' schools even hire hot male teachers? Seems like they're asking for trouble, but it sure is fun when it happens, unless you're on the receiving end of the killer's gynophobic knife as an indirect result. If it adds up to little more than a surprising twist, at least you won't likely guess who the killer is. The melancholic Morricone score sounds in parts like a cat fell asleep on a mellotron, and maybe that's what happened; Ennio did over 20 other scores that year alone. Whatever he was on at the time, I want some, as his every note is so recognizably iconic, so perfect, even when whole passages are little more than atonal screeches. Oy, would we even appreciate any of these old pictures without him to lead the way?  The image appears sourced from the recent Arrow Blu-ray (which I have, and is recommended).

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

Typically complex entry in the Edgar Wallace-Italian style tradition, with the daughter of a jewel thief mixed up in a complicated web of intrigue, jealousy, mistresses, a beach house, fisherman, ice slabs, and the witness to a shooting being a blind man who heard the clickety clack of high heels right before the shots. Kind of on the macho side we alternate between the giallo favorite son, George Hilton slapping around peeping tom sailor witness/suspects as he seeks out who killed his ex-girlfriend, and the homicide detective in the white raincoat and his suspiciously effeminate young sidekick. There's cross dressing afoot and we know an ice vendor is gay because he never stops sniffing a giant flower. 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 Stelvo Cipriano's swanky score --the high female vocals cooing wordlessly along amidst the jazzy drums, pipes, and electric harpsichord; the dresses are all in that peel-away Diana von Furstenberg-esque zone of Euro-rotic comfort and color, though there are only a few women to wear them, still... there's 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 is a tough gunfighter out to get paid some past debt on an old gold robbery or something by killing nearly everyone in a one-woman town. Scott (Giuliano Gemma) is ther handsome young orphan garbage collector/stable boy (the stables must have a great dental plan cuz his teeth are flawless). He winds up Van Cleef's star pupil and eventual rival. Turns out Scott's a quick learner (the stable master is a master gunfighter and together they take over the town, killing all the corrupt heads of state and any amount of henchmen and hit men the heads care to buy and throw at them. But the old gunfighter stable operator plays all holier-than-thou and tries to reign them in. It's a common enough plot in both western and Eurocrime drama, but what counts is the that the the action flows fast and furious. There's probably over 30 dead by the end of movie, and Van Cleef is unusually awake. In fact, he seems to be having a rather good time, more so than usual. The picture has been well restored (I took these screenshots to indicate woodwork and colors, stained glass and door frames that caught my eye) and Riz Ortolani adroitly fuses the flavors of classic Morricone ala THE BIG GUNDOWN and Nelson Riddle's slinky work on EL DORADO (both of which came out the same year).   

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)

Also Recommended 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 GRAND DUEL, which I've seen and liked but don't remember. I don't remember DAY OF ANGER either, too similar to too many other of the 'older gunfighter + rash young mentee' spaghetti westerns floating around, but 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 managed to watch films that looked this bad, buying duped videocassettes from the horror convention grey market and never thinking twice about the terrible cropping and streaks.

The story finds a (tragically dubbed by someone else) Christopher Lee putting a spell on Hercules' (Reg Park) girlfriend, Princess Deianira  (Leonara Ruffo) while he's 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. Herc's 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. 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 (sporting one of the worst haircuts in film history), 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 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 rights and negativo unto 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 watch 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 la bocca del 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, 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; once he gets his Browning machine gun going he can decimate whole armies. There were about 300 'sequels' to this film, 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 all 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 really was 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 great one. Even so, it's got issues: opera diva Betty (Christina Marsillach) is 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, killing her friends and forcing her to watch the murders by taping needles to her eyes in a kind of bloody lash Ludivico on the Run live theater format. He's hoping to inspire her performance, or something. Classy! What undoes the very Italian opera aspect is the very dated use of heavy metal during the big murder 'set pieces'. The effect is like watching your classically-trained teenage daughter come home with a big gaudy tattoo and a biker boyfriend. Maybe metal doesn't have the same dirtbag stigma in Italy it does in the States, but to my jaundiced ears it seems like the best thing Dario could do would be to turn all music choices over to Claudio Simonetti and spend less time letting Swedish Metal bands pester him with their demos. Whew! Got that off my chest.

There's some nice Hitchcockian references, and the genius touch to have an unkindness of ravens whooshing around the giant opera house during a live performance of an opera version of MACBETH, 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 best buddy; Barbara Cupisti is the wardrobe mistress, and Ian Charleson as the Argento-ish 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 with 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 (they're doing his adaptation of 'that cursed play,' MACBETH), 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 Nordic shrieking from a forgotten Swedish metal outfit called Norden Light for the 'kills'. Oh Dario... your dirtbag is showing!

And man, would it ever more.

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 theater). One of the last movies I saw in such a way, i.e. sober, a child, rather than a stoner college student. Anyway, we couldn't have known then that the film was the shorter American cut, it seemed put together by a sugar-addled Armenian with no regard for pacing or logic, never stopping to see if anyone was along for the ride. We agreed the babe was hot, but the rest was ridiculous. I forgot all about it. With the advent of widescreen HD however, especially now that the longer British cut is more widely available, it works. It still seems rushed for all that, it's now most engaging - a little funnier and better every time I see it. As with other 'Ten Reasons' films like DREAMCATCHER and 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. Ed Wood meets Ridley Scott? Yes. Anytime.

I should preface that, even for its longer cut, LIFEFORCE has issues: terrible 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 animated 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 a mere Goldsmith wannabe, his score is full bodied and bold as love and way better than anything we might hear from John Williams (dig those groovy gongs).

1. Mathilda May as the Space Girl

For these alluring sirens things to work the girl has to be mad hot, not in the way where you can tell a woman or a gay man cast her, or the script was written almost mocking the star they thought they'd get (like Jean Brooks or Joan Crawford), but in a straight male way --we don't like hair all done up and frizzed out, that's a gay man/woman thing, that's just one example. When I see anima type characters, like say the weary-looking Liz Taylor in DOCTOR FAUSTUS, or Angelina Jolie in THE TOURIST knowing the overly-made-up, fussed-over extent to which they're trying to pass as irresistible then yes, it bothers me. But Natashsa Henstridge in SPECIES or Matilda May here, impossibly young, perfectly formed, as if from heaven's mint, then it all works and I mention all this not to seem sexist or ageist but because 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 here asked us to. We'd have no choice. When Scott shouts in her face during the climactic soul drain, "WHAT ARE THESE FEELINGS?!" it's gut-bustingly funny, but also so clearly Jungian it's sick, bro: "I am the feminine in your mind, Carlsen" she answers. Indeed, she's what every straight man's anima looks like (one of its guises anyway --it can also appear an evil crone). Her (unaugmented) allure is so all-consuming to us as well, we totally get it. A lot of time she has no real acting to do but a wolfish smile and eyes that dilate and occasionally widen as if throwing a lot of invisible carnal force in these male's directions.

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

With a spaceship like a giant polyp (or the hydra thing in NOSFERATU), and explanation that vampires are ancient aliens who basically ride around in the wake / gravitational drag of Halley's comet. The 1986 (scheduled) arrival of Halley's comet (which passes by Earth every 75-76 years) was prefigured by some mild doomsaying and sparks of sci-fi imagination (not unlike '2012' more recently) and also explored the in another personal favorite, 1984's NIGHT OF THE COMET. One or seven 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 so adept at connecting ancient vampire lore with pre-Halley pass excitement, 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. Thus....

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, less hilarious DAY OF - (also '85), there's a sense of real junkie madness in O'Bannon's zombies in both films. His 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 only brains can allay. This finds reflection in the reanimated shells of LIFEFORCE. That terrifying sense of junky withdrawal agony and its prolonged, gathering intensity is something I've recently directly experienced (what a year!) and can vouch for O'Bannon's zombies doing 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 May treatment but survives, he's left a shivering wreck, from a love and desire greater than any he's ever known. Having to explain 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 is masterful. 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. Sic temper brutus, Gothard, you're so good here you deserve better! Got to love his reactions to all the veiled disses from the other guys along the lines of so "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 sounding 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.

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 shot half tongue-in-cheek (I imagine Hooper just shooting the actor standing in the scene shouting at them MOS, "now you're scared, some bright light is shining, cover your eyes! Look! You're scared again! Oh no!" and them trying not to laugh and presuming most of it will go to the wrap party gag reel if anywhere, and then Hooper and the editors just going 'fuck it, let's use it.' 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: The dead serious tone with the sexual nature "This woman is a masochist!," Railsback shouts. "An extreme masochist! She wants me to hurt her!" How he knows this if his space girlfriend isn't inside her is a mystery (or I forget). Maybe it's the David Bowie poster on wall, the harlequin decor like it's her junior college one-bedroom, bespeaking the nature of the nursing profession in the world of socialized medicine in the UK, where staff have very little time to mature. Railsback's abuse of this poor lady, all but 50 Shades of Graying, molesting her right there in her dorm room while Aubrey Morris, Stewart and Firth look on, is a true highlight of the genre.  Then he 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 and Railsback drug him so she can't escape. Wait, so she isn't bound to any one body (?) it doesn't necessarily make sense but who cares? Think of this scene as forerunner to when he channels Jean Grey's romantic goodbye to Cyclops in XMEN 2 and you realize old Patrick Stewart is the go-to sci-fi channeler of psychic babes!

8. Careening 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 Col. Breen), no one challenges each others' authority or intelligence; the film posits a very cool boy's club network of brains and quick thinkers, from the astrophysicists flying American astronaut Railsback over to London the minute his capsule touches down in Texas, his partnering up with Caine, the way Gothard's Bukovsky carries the first chunk of the film once we're back on Earth, before Railsback and Firth take over, the first name basis with the boys in Britain, the crew of Aubrey Morris (govt), Railsback (astronautic / witness / the Mina Harker of the crew) and Caine as they 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 roster of Brit hams and droll under-actors: 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 and I love little bits all over this movie, like Col. Caine's asking of normal questions we might, 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).

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's 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. 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!

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