Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or larger

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Happy Birthday Luigi Cozzi! HERCULES (1983), its Sequel (and the Cozzi Canon)


Luigi Cozzi is 72 years.... young today. Though he's not made a film in some time, how nice is it he's lived to see his most fertile period become immortalized, his place in the pantheon of trash auteurs assured thanks to the rise of cults like Alamo and boutique labels like Shout Factory? Truly a birthday wish denied to those who died too soon, like Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. Ignored, too poor to stay high, as if their cults couldn't rise except like not-so-virgin springs from their self-despoiled corpses. Today Cozzi drifts merrily through the DVD extras, palling around with Quentin and his great and terrible canon is, for the most part, available to all mankind (barring a few later works like The Black Cat/Demon 6 [1991]). Two are even on Prime (US). 

I mention Ed Wood for a reason: like his Bride of the Monster, Plan Nine and Night of the Ghouls, Cozzi's most iconic work was released in a very short period, approx. 1978-83--Stretching from Star Wars-influenced Starcrash in 1978 through to Alien-influenced Contamination in 1980, to the Conan-influenced Hercules in 1983 (and its sequel in 1985)And, as with Wood, we laugh at some of these film's bizarro anti-narrative flights of imagination, but it's the best kind of laughter for it's in a joyrful realization that the filmmaker genuinely loves his genre, maybe more than he should. He aims for the stars and so far and wide succeeding in total narrative 'immersion' on the part of the viewer is never fully demanded. We cheer the way his movies go racing through gonzo set-ups with clear love of the sources they borrow from (recognizing nods to Golden and Seventh Voyage(s) of Sinbad, the 1936 Flash Gordon, and Clash of the Titans.) We can watch Cozzi's films, over and over in ways we may not be able to do with the originals, or 'better' movies because his love of those referenced films is so palpable. More than just rip-offs or homage, they become like pagan idols, some kind bowing to down to the celluloid image, the kind of thing we see in the DIY recreations in Michel Gondry's work, or that 1989 Mississippi homegrown student film Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Not to say his work is amateur-ish, but rather it makes a kind of reverential ceremonial mimetic magic of celluloid. Unlike so many of his less genius contemporaries, Cozzi would rather fail on a cosmic stage than just show some fake-breasted frizzy-haired lady racing around an empty warehouse away from a shambling rubber monster. Cozzi's films never skimp on planets and ideas. He zips around from planet to planet, from labor to labor, packing vignettes with savages, monsters, gods, demons, and scheming bearded kings, and most of all... lovely women in strong roles. 

Cozzi loves strong women. There might be cleavage, but its not leered at, and it comes couched in stylish restructured costumes, and attached to strong, capable characters with Bechdel scores that outpace his better-known contemporaries. Far ahead of the curve on that aspect, Cozzi gives us a bevy of strong women space captains, CDC colonels, witches, queens, goddesses, and agents of chaos magic. For that alone, he deserves a special lionization.


So here's wishing you the best of birthdays, Luigi Cozzi. And to celebrate, a deep look into one of my recent discoveries, an unfairly ignored and forgotten relic from Cannon films in the wake of the post-CONAN sword and sorcery craze 

 HERCULES (1983)

When your only takable umbrage with a Cannon neo-peplum is a tacky corset worn by Sybil Danning (above) as the evil princess Adriana, then you know you are blessed by the refreshingly primitivist and un-tacky Coates once again.  File it, as I did, in my emergency reserves, right next to Plan Nine or Mesa of the Lost Women, something to bring on your laptop over Xmas when you need a break from your brother's loud shouting at Alexa to play various "An Eric Clapton Christmas" over and over. Most Hercules films are unpleasant to see once, let alone often (unless the gym muscle rainbow is enuff). But you can see Cozzi's Hercules over and over until the end of time. To get to the perfect 'all-flaw' gem facets of lovely classics like  The Car, The Devil's Rain, and Ghosts of Mars a sword and sandal film needs to have a wild imagination and a love of movies that overrides limitations. Cozzi would rather try for a time lapse change from an old witch face to a lovely enchantress than to just cheat it out with a reaction shot the way lesser directors would. No matter if it doesn't quite work, and better to have a hydra --even if it only has three heads, none of which move, except to slightly raise or lower the necks to breathe fire--than to have no hydra at all. Better to have Hercules stand semi-transparently in the middle of outer space, flexing his mighty self, then to just see him rolling around in the dust behind De Paolis. In each of his 'effects' Cozzi all but salutes some older movie he's clearly in awe of. Like Tarantino, he's a true fan of the genre/s. And if you have find memories of making movies as a kid (or now) and love seeing the seams, ala Ed Wood (like a magic show where the wires are visible), then you love Cozzi.

By now you guessed it. I love Ed Wood, and Cozzi  too. I got the double-sided disc of Cozzi's Herc films only last summer and I've already seen them both four times.

Alexa, play "Erich loves a Cozzi-clastic Christmas!"

The lightbulb claiming credit for electricity-
don't trust it's wattage down the mossy stair
to the couch-warm coffin,
where the slightest misstep is certain life!

Cozzi, the Coates-holding footman never snickers.
The electricity from his cracked glass shell,
the brilliance from his busted filament's flicker,
carries Tesla madness, not Edison's argon sanity!
Heed his gonging clarion bell,
the way to the woe-free Lite-Brite star-flecked city!

If you are afraid to eat the peach,
Cozzi cushions your woeful rise,
like dough left in a proving bin but briefly,
yet as as as leaden as the zeppelin's air,
(by which I mean hydrogen)
Each new pair of eyes
flying up by fathom-steep dark stairs, in shock, in awe,
in some surprise. What the fuck has Cozzi left there?

Mirella D'Angelo (Tenebrae) as Circe, the witch
disciple of Athena who helps Hercules
See, Hercules isn't just about a muscle-head smashing foes, there's also lessons in astronomy: we learn the planets were formed from broken shards of Pandora's water jar; we learn how the constellations got their names and shapes (they're all things Hercules threw into deep space during fits of rage), and that the four elements are: night, day, matter, and air. These planets and jars are all shot through with color spectrum prisms, flashing lights overlay people so they all fade like Bert I. Gordon giants. (If you get that reference, this is the movie for you).

We learn that the gods were the first beings fashioned on the earth, and they settled on the moon to better observe and judge the tests of mankind. Thus we find Zeus (Claudio Cassinelli!) refereeing a bout betwixt the astringent Hera (Rossana Podesta) and the compassionate Athena (Delia Boccardo) over Hercules' journey, sending in their respective servants on earth to aid or abet Hercules on his epic quest. Perfectly cast as the mighty Hercules, with his huge jaw, dead set against the world, Lou "The Hulk" Ferrigno (well-dubbed by familiar voice artist Marc Smith) has a gift, a way with seeming deep inside himself, unfazed by threats or challenges, but then reacting to stimulus with the sudden reckless energy of a five year-old. His eyes squint to indicate focus on some magical spectacle and widen when roused to sudden violence. When he hears his mother has been slain he drops his harness and shouts "WHAT?" like he just saw his car getting stolen, and goes racing across the fields with these little but super fast steps like a six year-old might run from a barking dog. He reacts quick, like a prize fighter as opposed to a dancer. In short, he is the perfect choice for Hercules because we like him, and he's not a good enough actor to hide his real self from us, so we know he's trying hard, giving it his all, but not trying so hard he casts a dour pall over things.

As Herc's romantic lead/ princess-in-distress, Anderson spends most of her scenes in sexy hanging white linens, wearing a trippy golden crown, natural breasts tastefully cupped by scallop shells (no leering, but beautiful side boobs seen only in passing) "sweet and submissive" thanks to the 'black lotus' (mmmm) waiting to be burned alive as "a bride" of Minos' captured firebird/phoenix. But both evil (agent of Hera) Danning and good (agent of Athena) D'Angelo are very much active in Hercules' life, as is, indirectly, Eva Robins as a glam chaos agent named Daedalus (above, left), with the ability to raise up giant monsters from an erector set series of toys atop her giant waxy head in the land between time and space. With her bat-winged gold lamé skullcap and a gold codpiece (carrying weird echoes of her 'heel'-work as the possibly trans girl in the flashback sequences of Tenebrae) its suitable that Daedalus, representing "chaos in the name of science! Science in the name of chaos!" collapses sexual boundaries while staying all the time beguilingly pretty, alighting the eyes of evil king Minos (William Berger) with the macabre delights of her monsters. As Daedalus tells him, time and space are relative, so that miniature mechanical toy monsters made by figures atop a normal skull size head can still grow as large as houses once 'subject' to the atmosphere of earth.

Though Cozzi stacks his decks with strong female characters there are also some cool characters on the male side, though their faces are often obscured by unconvincing beards: Gianni (Sartana!) Garko shows up in a crazy red and gold-winged refurbished centurion costume; William Berger (5 Dolls of an August Moon) is the evil Minos; Cassinelli should be familiar to Italian crime genre fans (though with his droopy white beard as Zeus he carries a kind of Linus Roche-ness); and Bobby Rhodes (the pimp in Demons) is the King of Northern Africa, who shows up on a rocky beach for one scene, after being called forth by Circe, to make a deal: Hercules will build his people a waterway in exchange for the magic chariot stashed in yonder cave ("and that's how, with the help of the Gods, Hercules created the great continents," intones the chorus-like narrator, "by separating Europe from Africa"). Rhodes has a pretty cool elephant skeleton litter, but Cozzi's budget couldn't swing a Pegasus, so mighty Hercules has to throw a big temple boulder out of orbit and have Circe fashion a magic rope to tie it to the chariot (there's a great stop motion bit where the rope ties itself into a very cool sailor's knot, seriously, that is some wild-ass knot). Soon Circe and Hercules are soaring across the solar system, completely out of our planetary orbit, being pulled along in an open air chariot by a giant.... rock. Does it get any better?  Lesser directors would never even dare try to get away with that, or using erector sets to make stop motion monsters (i.e. the budget didn't allow the clay most animators would put over the erector set frame).


As he did with Starcrash, Cozzi somehow even manages to get an A-list composer to deliver a dynamite full-bodied score to something that would normally be subject to "library" tracks. He got John Barry to outdo John Williams in intergalactic bombast with Starcrash. Here he gets the legendary Pino Donaggio to deliver a prime mythic, hugely entertaining, even more bombastic score, full of Rocky-style coliseum brass and moody deep string ominousness. Did Cozzi prevent him Donaggio from seeing the movie during his composing, like he famously did with John Barry? I'd almost wager... Otherwise they would have, at the very least, lightened the heroic mood. But it's just that heroic mood that makes it all work. A single wink and the whole thing would deflate like a soufflé.

The dubbing too is all first-rate too, even the minor characters get professional well-recorded treatment, with Donaggio giving every absurd action the benefit of the doubt. This is a film never tries to be realistic, it gets that it is myth in its purest form, and evoking the gods is seldom far from any characters' lips, as it would be in any Greek tragedy. The Gods sometimes even seem to address the camera directly, as if this pre-ordained saga, reflected in macro and micro dimensions as surely as any archetypal myth. This approach explodes the barriers between accidental Brechtianism, intentional Greek myth chorus-style theater and a child showing off his toy collection. Cozzi throws everything he has in the box at us, including Zeus-knows-what kind of filters and pieces of rainbow-reflective mylar held over the lens, mismatched matte paintings overlaid with multi-colored stars (white, red, blue, yellow, green, even purple). It's never too much or not enough; it is, in its sublime perfection, the very nature of magic and exactly what (Greek writer) Ado Kyru meant in his famous quote (1). It belongs in a Criterion Channel triple feature between Godard's Les Mepris and Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera. 

Then the sequel in 1985. Lots of light effects, overlays, fan art inspiration, clips from the last film, and everything a-nice.

ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1985)

Six viewings in and I'm still trying to stay awake through it all, and I don't mean that as uncomplimentary. For me, it's like falling into a peaceful dream, one punctuated by occasionally druggy reveries and name-that-influence excitement, like you'd get from a child proudly waving his tracing paper drawing of the Sinbad cyclops. My only caveat is the tired look of surprise in the 'Colin Ferrell as an old queen trying one last time to get into Studio 54 but his heart isn't in it'-red feather glam of the evil priest (Ventatino Ventinini) 00 but he's only around in a few scenes. Stay awake, and you'll get through him! There's also fire monster animation that seems rotoscoped from Forbidden Planet's Monster from the Id (i.e. tracing a trace) and when Hercules sends in his mojo to battle Minos they becomes a similar rotoscoped outline King Kong fighting the T-rex and the snake in the 1933 version!); there's also a claymation Medusa ala a DIY fan art version of the one from Clash of the Titans and plenty of Tron-like light video game effects. None of it seems like stealing, but homage in the most openly reverent form (like Ed Wood). The music is still great but the dubbing is way too-over-the-top and badly mixed and its jarring to hear different voiceover artists dubbing the same actors from the first film (Lou Ferrigno keeps Marc Smith, thank goodness, and he stays refreshingly deadpan). Once again there are no stuntmen or fight coordinators, so the battles have a home movie primitivism.

One other issue: all the costumes have grown massive shoulders, their costumes so layered and bulky they look like fairy tale theater refugees, cleaning out the soundstage costume dept. on their way off the lot. Dad Zeus is still played by Claudio Cassinelli but is not dressed as he was in the first film, and more's the pity. Instead of his simple tiara and droopy Merlin-style white beard, here he's encumbered by a big 'Santa Clause does Catholic christening' robe, a way-too-bushy Santa-style beard and a weird yarmulke crown. Not a good look. For anyone. Ferrigno however stays shirtless.


Daedalus and the evil Minos are back as the main villains, and played by the same actors with most of the same costumes, though they too look like the intervening three years have widened them (as in Deadalus' crazy grey cape, above). The lady playing Hera is different and suddenly we get Laura Lenzi (the cute mom in Manhattan Baby) as the goddess "Flora" (?) who thinks it's a good idea to revive the evil Minos (via that old upside down blood donor trick no doubt gleaned from Hammer's Dracula, Prince of Darkness) as he too has a grudge since Hercules killed him in the last film. Lots of rebel gods zap in and out of the dimensions of time and space, or stand on giant surrealist mesas above bubbling matte paintings and below rainbow starred outer space, evoking the weird trans-dimensional zones of 60s Jack Kirby comics. When mortal characters step outside space and time they wave their arms around to give off trippy trails, supporting my theory on where the many arms of Hindu deities come from (see my post on Dvinorum Psychonauticus).

In short, it's a gem with tons of hand-painted lasers and crazy light of effects, and a cast that's at least 3/4 women and none are ever being overly sexy or maternal (Bechdel A+!). Sure it's a step down for the mighty Cozzi after the 'heights' of the previous film, but priceless lines like "Quick! Step inside the stone mouth!" and "Grow, Hercules! Growww!" help smear over the wounds, as does the feeling of drifting dreamlike abstraction, the way it seems to veer at times off its own axis into the land of hazily remembered Saturday morning cartoons, albeit tinged with an indescribable mournfulness for the loss of big screen outdoor venues its like once greaces. If Cozzi's the Italian Ed Wood, this is clearly his Night of the Ghouls! Look fast for a shot of the rock-pulled chariot from the first film pulling into view from behind the moon during one of the many astral zip-arounds. Is it a sign Cozzi is using the same footage, or is Hercules truly outside of time and space, so the past and future exist simultaneously? Both? Hurrah for Cozzi!



 SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1989)

Lou Ferrigno is back in Cozzi country for this dopey but impossible to dislike entry in the pre-CGI fantasy genre. His dubbing is different, his hair makes him seem like a juiced-up Eric Bogosian (with earrings) and the sound is strangely mixed and burdened with an overly 'mommy'-like mom (dubbing Daria Nicolodi) narrating to her treacly child via a storybook, but it's still great - a mix of typically looney-tunes Cozzi (he shares the billing) and action-packed Enzo G. Castellari (1990: The Bronx Warriors and Warriors of the Wasteland). Castellari started it, I think, and the earlier (relatively) ornate village scenes and Thief of Bagdad setup seem his. My Cozzi-holic guess: the great Coates took over from around the 1/4-in point in, when suddenly Jaffar whisks Sinbad onto a wild fractured voyage to liberate various gems from inside various monsters (ala Zeus's thunderbolts in Herc 2!) so we got lots of crazy scenes of monster fighting with very little in the way of connectors and establishing shots (fine with me). Sometimes the dialogue and performance of John Steiner as the evil Jaffar veers far too close to self-aware camp, like telling his female bodybuilder ally, "you're really spoiling my biorhythm." And the implication is once again homosexuality as villainy, but they have a good time doing very little but toddering around a giant weird red geodesic set while watching Sinbad's adventures via crystal ball.  Ferrigno gets to do lots of flexing, as when he wrestles with animated bird cage (a very long sequence in which Ferrigno gives his all) or knocks heads off rock monsters, and has the habit of throwing his sword away at the first sign of trouble, so he can use his fists (though he can't be punching hard, as the foes just bounce back up and attack again). In the most justifiably famous climax, he fights himself --which side won? We did!


Alessandra Martines is the gorgeous princess Alina, whom Jaffar tries to make fall in love him by immobilizing her under conglomeration of tubes pumping red water which enable her to watch her own true love, Prince Ali, try to stand up to the awful temptation of the Amazon queen (Melonee Rogers), part of Jaffar's elaborate evil network. Sinbad gets his own girl, Kyra (Stefania Goodwin - Bronx Warriors), the fun and capable daughter (with refreshingly endearing, natural-voiced dubbing) of a terribly overacting Depp-x-Mike Meyers-ish wizard (with ze ridiculous mustache). There's some great footage inside what must be an actual balloon floating over the water, but just barely, while Sinbad blows into the balloons to keep them from sinking, and then spying Sinbad's boat below them, clearly real people on a real slim period boat, filmed from a real balloon, with the real actors in it.

 Little person Cork Hubbert is another comic relief member, and though forced into some ridiculous contrivances, is at least treated with relative dignity (that I remember); the crew is, as with most crews, a little too 'colorful' for their own good, each trying to make sure you get that this one is a Viking or Asian or Scottish, but hey, they all fight with rollicking good cheer and relative skill (were they stuntmen?) and they don't get in the way when its time for Ferrigno to do some wild feat, like break chains, run and swim in slow motion, knock a horse to the ground, climb up a ladder made of snakes, fight an empty suit of armor that shoots lasers out of its eyes, and fight various monsters, and the temptation of the Amazons!


And most importantly, as with other Cozzi gems, there are a lot of strong female characters, literally, in the case of the bodybuilder friend of Jafar's. Though she never actually gets to throw a punch (her arc fizzles out), Martines is a knockout even if all she does is lay around, and Kyra is a brawler, not afraid to deliver some serious punches and kicks in the battle with the gooey lepers. Did I mention the Amazons? Cozzi forever!!!! As with Starcrash (also with Amazons), the main issue that undoes it, Kyra's aside is a badly-mixed English dub that makes everyone sound like they're right up close to the microphone (i.e. voices not mixed in relation to character's distance). On the other hand, the cinematography is great, giving it a far more expensive patina than one would expect, the boat and balloon are real, right there on the water, and the scenery is gorgeous, that two tier red metal banded supervillain play pen / set is brilliant, and the colorful Middle Eastern decor is psychedelic, and, as ever, Ferrigno is impossible to dislike. So just get over it, whatever's bothering you, and savor the Sinbadness!


--


COZZI CANON CONT. 

STARCRASH (1978)

Starcrash moves so fast from cliffhanger to cliffhanger it has less to do with its obvious 'inspiration' and more in common with one of those compressed feature film versions of the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (right down the helmets, and the hero's escaping his/her stint shoveling fuel into the enemy blast furnace) crossed with the Golden and 7th Sinbad Voyages. And it has even less to do with actual science, which is a relief. The John Barry score is far better than John Williams' score for Star Wars; the sets, guns, and costumes are all super kinky and wild; outer space is laden with lava lamp overlays and stars as varied in color and size as a drunk Xmas tree. Christopher Plummer--decked out in a kind of Versace sci-fi hallucination-- gets to shout out to a far off space ship that he will now "freeze time itself!" and as his son, David Hasselhof has never looked prettier. Clearly Cozzi lavished attention on weird details like kinky cool costumes, crazy sets, and wild giddy imagination, but left choices for the clunky English dub, and editing, in less wondrous hands. The cast is great but only half of them, since the extra value they would have brought doing their own voices is lost. (Plummer keeps his though). There's also the issue of Marjoe Gortner who comes off like a tooth-whitened Vegas magician crossed with an over-caffeinated animatronic Peter Pan (and his hair is curly). Stella has a lot of sexy and slick outfits though, with wide Vampirella collars. The diaper/chastity belt thing is not a good look however. Released in America by New World Pictures, so as with their other films, it has to clock in at under 90 minutes irregardless of how many sets and action set pieces are going on, leading to a giddy rushed feel (Star Wars lest Roger forget, clocked in at a healthy 2+ hours)  (full review here)

CONTAMINATION (1980)

This Italian ALIEN-inspired sci-fi adventure gets a bad rap in some circles but I adore it. Rather than just have some amok alien eating crew members, this keeps itself on Earth in the present, and decides to focus in on the pod-to-stomach-stage, with rows of ugly watermelon slime pods that explode when ripe and cause instant explosions in the stomach of everyone in horseshoe vicinity. I dig the obvious phone book size padding under the victim's shirts before the explosions; I dig the traumatic Freudian-cave-on-Mars flashbacks; the unearthly humming whale-ish noise the pods make when they're fixing to blow. I dig the vibe between the NYC cop who discovers the initial shipment (Marino Mase), the female colonel (!) of the Army's special disease control unit (Louise Marleau) and the traumatized astronaut (Ian McCulloch). The three team up in a sexy 'gentleman's agreement' synergy and head down to Colombia where they're soon ensnared up in a big slimy alien's world domination plan, ala It Conquered the World. 

Louise Marleau's heroine finds a worth opposite number in lovely blonde Gisela Hahn as the evil mastermind's right hand, and I love the alien itself, especially that bicycle reflector eye and the glistening artichoke coloring. Lastly, what really earns my goofball admiration is the Goblin soundtrack. That late-70s-80s European prog rock style has aged well. I don't know what else you need to make you love this dumbass film the way that I do. Whatever's missing, you don't need it.

THE BLACK CAT 
AKA Demons 6: De Profundus  (1989)

A parallel program to the Argento-Bava-Soavi school, this unofficial metatextual sequel to Argento's Suspiria (and sixth in the catch-all Demons series) factors in post-modern self-reflexivity to keep you guessing, including the Mater Suspiriorum  source of sources (Thomas de Quincey's Confession of an Opium Eater). Argento is name-checked and there's even some familiar Goblin cues from Suspiria.Screenwriter Marc (Urbano Barberini) writes a treatment for the story of a witch named Lavania. He thought he made the name up. But there was a witch by that name, and she's rising from her grave a little farther every time the word 'Lavania' is spoken. Her face and hands are grotesque pustules (ala Lamberto's first two films), but she begins to take over the mind of Marc's wife, Anne (Florence Guérin) and causes her to hallucinate guts flying out of the TV. A hot local psychic encourages Marc to change the character's name to something else, but he won't.  Meanwhile, without even knowing the story he's writing, new mom Ann starts to demand to play the role, saying she "is" Lavania. How would she know? But what about sexy Caroline Munro, who starts luring Marc into the sack for the Lavania part? Michele Soavi plays the director. I didn't even have time to mention the undead financial backer! Confused? Join the club. Still I'd rather go on a Cozzi ride-- even if its bumpy, and dangerously near collapsing--than play it safe on some competent piece of junk like Lost Souls or Stigmata -hai capito? (full review here). 


NOTES:

1. "“I urge you to look at bad films, they are so often sublime.”– Ado Kyrou

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