Monday, March 30, 2020

Slide, Vaquero! SHIP OF MONSTERS (1960)

It's spring in the pre-or-post disease era and, if you love bizarre old classic sci-fi musicals, time to crack open the YouTube and dive into my weirdest/best Mexican cinema discovery since La Maldicion del la Llorona (1963). Long unavailable on DVD, in English either dub or subtitles, it's now got quite legible subtitles on El Youtube -aqui!

For fans of classic matinee sci-fi/horror who'd rather have va-voom classic sex appeal in their sci-fi western comedies, rather than hokey Gene Autrey tunes (as one finds in that hokey 1935 serial The Phantom Empire - which is actually the closest thing this film has to a hermano), Mexico delivers Rogelio Gonzalez's Ship of Monsters. The plot: two glamorous Venusians coming home from a long quest rounding up fit male specimens from the galaxy to repopulate their female-only planet, make an emergency landing in Chihuahua, Mexico for their robot to make repairs. Perhaps you've guessed the rest. A freewheeling vaquero wins one of their hearts with his songs? Si, naturalmente, claro! 

I won't bore you with a list of the legion of 50s comedians who've gone to the moon or Venus to find all sorts of babes suffering from an extreme hombre shortage. Everyone from the Stooges to Abbot and Costello to Sonny Tufts went up to space and tangled with them. And that's the key difference - the ladies come here and meet the fabulous singing vaquero Eulalio González! Ay dios mio!  Pipporro! And he's cool!

Possessing a genuinely disarming smile, a naturalness in his awed reactions, a dewy twinkle in his dark glassy eyes, and a gently lilting yet masculine baritone voice that deepens to a questioning smolder at the end of every sentence, "Pipporro" has a great natural ease, a kind of twinkly-eyed singing caballero version of young Bob Hope; he also has a great kind of hippity-hop Elvis tango dance style that smolders while still being funny. An inexplicable juke box in his kitchen provides the instrumental back-up to his songs, which he performs to the agog wonderment of his alien women visitors (while their robot plays with his little brother outdoors). Gonzalez shows a great way with each of the ladies in turn: he's passionate, smitten, confident, and a little confused with the nice one; flattered but firm in his 'no!' to the (vampiric) one who comes onto him later. He holds fast in his ardor; if a spark flies, it's true love and worth being faithful for even if you just met them both at the same time. I never understood why Flash would turn down Aura when Dale is just some blonde earth woman he barely met an hour earlier.. until now. 

Ana Bertha Lepe is Gamma (the good one) and Lorena Velázquez is Beta, the bad one (she played many vampires and wrestling women in the course of her illustrious career, battling everyone from Santos to the Aztec Mummy). These ex-Miss Mexico beauty queens wield ray guns and rock tight-fitting uniforms and generally strut about the Chihuahua flats and into Pipporro's life in a way that puts most American beauties to shame. The alien monster male samples kept on ice from other planets are each unique and cleverly-if-cheaply--constructed. All are done with a mix of art class-level papier mache and giddy imagination. And they talk! They make rational decisions, and can make love as easily as they kill. Even a sabre tooth tiger skeleton man gets his opinion considered (and has a great Tom Waits-style croak of a voice). But the alien girls are always in control, able to pause Emilio in mid sentence to check up on the words he uses that they don't understand, accessing what we in our futuristic world might call Alexa reading from Wikipedia. My favorite line is when the narrator of the video they're watching on their laptop to learn about Mexico notes (while showing scenic travel footage) that's it's a lovely country and "for all they've tried, the Mexicans haven't been able to destroy it."

I have fallen in love with this film so much I don't even mind that Lauriano (Gonzalez's character's name) has a little brother, Chuy, (Herberto Davila, Jr) with whom he lives alone on a big ranch outside Chihuahua. I generally can't stand sci-fi films set in southern climates as they always have cute impish kids in them, but Chuy is no imp who should be in school instead of acting as guide for the American hero. Chuy is an able assistant around the ranch, going off to play with the robot when the talk gets adult but when the monsters fly into action, Chuy even tackles and kills one of the monsters all by himself with the fury of one of the kids in Over the Edge or The Bad News Bears! Imagine Abbott and Costello doing anything but running in a similar situation and you begin to understand what the males of America are up against. And these two women aren't afraid to either kick ass or make love to the monsters right there on camera.

That's basically all there is... what else... hmm, some outfits worthy of Artist and Models (I could see this film as a collaboration between Tashlin and Bunuel) and some lovely female flesh on display--but each woman is resourceful, intelligent, strong and assertive. There's never a thought of turning the good one into a household drudge at the end, the way there would be in a Hollywood product. No, amigo. Would it was available on one of those great discs from the (now sadly defunct) La Casa Negra DVD label. Or, ideally, Criterion!

Man, am I losing my mind? I've been watching Tarkovsky, Godard, and Suzuki on Criterion too. I swear ta god: I'm fancy. I'm a highfalutin' intellectual.  Criterion should have me do one of their "Adventures in Moviegoing" collections. I'd frickin' nail it.  Ship of Monsters - front and center. This is Erich saying, I'm losing my mind and in the process found something better.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Gettin' Ripped: Luigi Cozzi's PAGANINI HORROR (1989)

If ever there was a time to order Blu-rays of things you want to see on your desert island after civilization's you-know-what, it's now, for the canon of Luigi "The Italian Ed Wood" Cozzi is nearly all fully available from one label or site or another. I've already blathered praise for his two masterworks Starcrash and Hercules.  Now the lunatic eye slash-cum-time warp-devil-dipped and Pleasance-lipped, slippery dippy house bash Paganini Horror (1989) is available on a stunning Blu-ray (via Severin), so the circle is complete (almost). I hope, by the way, you don't think my praise of his crude genius is snide or mean-spirited - quite the opposite. If we can't laugh at Italian versions of our basest music class fears, see them bounced hurly burly into cosmic prisms, fall into slime pits in a universe where time loops are illustrated by giant floating hourglasses and spray-painted physics equations on the drywalls, we may as well hang shop and close up ourselves. 

It's as threadbare a production as they come. It's clear the money ran out somewhere along the line for Paganini Horror in ways it didn't for his other 1989 masterpiece, The Black Cat. Still, budget be damned, no way is Cozzi going to just give us girls in a rock band disemboweled with a bladed violin. L'Italiano Wood has bigger things on his mind. Tell him to make a cheap slasher movie that ties in Paganini to get some free associative publicity from a big budget Paganini biopic in the works at the time and he'll give you the universe. No budgetary constraints can stop him from grabbing at the cosmic ring, even if he knows his horse is out miles too far for his budget's arms. 

Maybe you saw the DVD cover, with the skeleton playing violin (left) and drew some cheap late-80s punk-meets-slasher impression from it. Maybe you figured it would be the usual tactless ladle of topless broads and denim-jacketed idiots offed gorily in some house where money for the electric bill grows on trees. Your conclusions couldn't be more wrong. Instead, Busto Arsizio's favorite son delivers all his usual tropes and tics: plenty of strong women with wild hair, planetary shifts, portentous gazes into nowhere; lasers, wild light effects, godawful dubbing, spiritual homage-paying (the spirits of Jack Kirby, Ray Harryhausen, Alex Raymond, and Bernie Krigstein all watch over Cozzi's shoulder in numb surprise), only in a 'house' that's really more like a half-finished set, drywall only half-painted, buckets laying around, sheets everywhere....  Man, I am talking myself into watching this all over again.... again? 

Bad though it is, in many ways, Paganini Horror is never dull or lacking for color. As in the same year's Black Cat, it reaches a climax at around ten minutes in and just keep building from there until we're too far out in space, riding a cosmic hourglass around the moon, through the moldy mud, through to the same room we left, only now covered in candles. And then someone stabs us with a violin. 

Dario Nicolodi gets star billing as Sylvia, the owner of the fabled "House in the Key of G" (where Paganini lived) which she rents out for cash. This week she's hosting a music video shoot for "Paganini Horror" the new song based on the mysterious last piece of written music by our titular virtuoso. Goosing up the atmos, Nicolodi announces Paganini conducted black mass rituals here in the 19th century. He disemboweled his bride and used her intestines as strings for his Stradivarius! That's how he hit those weird notes only he could hit! It's the screams of his bride forever trapped in the strings! Lead singer Kate  (Jasmin Maimone) exclaims that their 'House in the Key of G video' will be "like Michael Jackson's Thriller!" Bitchy manager Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) hires horror director Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi, who plays the same character in Black Cat) who decorates the shoot by spray painting the song title onto white sheets on the wall. Their most bodacious of bassists, Rita (Luana Ravegnini) wears a devil mask; there's also all-seeing eye lamp, a cosmic hourglass Cozzi must have brought from home, and candles. There's a mention of substituting mannequins as the band members start to disappear, but there's no time to follow up on that, as the disappearances keep happening as more and more people are sent off to look for the missing.... until everyone is being lured into the evil Paganini's clutches.

There are two real crimes to this movie. One, is that most beautiful bassist in all the world, Rita, is the first to die. Why her?  Why not literally anyone else in the cast? It seems very spiteful of our Paganini! Every second with her is precious. The doe-eyed assistant manager boy is next (lured to his death by a wet-haired version of Rita's ghost); but soon there's way more going on than just violin stabbings and standing around, with lots of weird mask cutaways. Holes open up under people's feet; electric energy pulses through those who fall into it or who try to escape the force field surrounding the house. Meanwhile Albert Einstein looks on, balefully, from a tacked-up poster, tongue hanging out in mock disapproval. Just to let you know, weird physics be happenin'.

As for that final piece of music, the one Paganini supposedly wrote that the doe-eyes assistant pays a fortune for from Donald Pleasance, well, no one ever called the film's composer Vince Tempura a modern Paganini. He does okay with the non-diegetic part of the score, not so much the Paganini-attributed song, though it is serviceable certainly. If Paganini is the Jimi Page of his era, this would be the theme from Death Wish II. 

Paganini himself is really the weakest part of the film: naturally the knife he uses has a treble clef-shaped handle, and also his metal Stradivarius switchblade likes to stick into expose bellies, i.e. sweet, sweet Rita's. He also has a huge cello case (no cello) to lock up our final girl and it's then set on fire. In addition, guitarist Elena (Michel Klipstein) gets infected by "a special fungus... like they discovered in the 1800s, on logs... floating along...  certain European rivers," notes Lavania. 'This infected wood.. was used to make a special kind of violin, the Stradivarius." Elena becomes a hideous fungus-covered monster; Lavinia says "this is the fungus, for sure... I saw it... magnified... in a TV documentary." 

Music is magic. We get an update on the harmony of the spheres. As with everything in the Cozzi canon, we get way more than you might expect. It may not all fit, but everything's here - even Cozzi's beloved cosmic hourglass! The name Lavania is also similar to Lavana (from The Black Cat). It's all here. 

If an analyst tells you why all traumatic childhood flashbacks occur in
 red bathrooms, kill them instantly.

We open on the ominous synth notes dotting along as a strange young girl rides up a foggy Venice canal; we dig the look of satanic royalty in the way she sits, with the violin case in her lap, the gondola like some kind of fast moving sea serpent, snaking through the lonely mist as Vince Tempera's soundtrack pulses like Tangerine Dream guiding Roy Scheider's nitro truck through the Sorcerer mud. At home, amidst her collection of weird dolls, the music echoes with vocals, the girl picks up a Barbie-sized doll with a brown skull face and long white hair (a ringer for the Paganini spirit to come) and stirs mom's bath with it. A stark red wall is behind them...

After the untimely death of Rita, the second most unconscionable choice is that Donald Pleasance is dubbed by someone else!! His replacement does an okay enough job - especially in his rant about demons as he climbs up to the top of an under-reconstruction clock tower in Venice and throws all the money he got for the Paganini score to the wind, trying to keep a straight face while talking to money ("fly away, demons, so the real ones can take your place... so what happens with Paganini will repeat itself.... extracted by the one to whom it belongs, his majesty, Satan!") makes for a pretty well modulated rant, but what's the point of even having the Donald in a film if not for that deliciously silken, fearful but scarily seismographic voice?

All of the dubbing is pretty bad in both the Italian and English versions. English dubs especially have been Cozzi's Achilles' heel - be it the lame Texas accented robot and shrill Stella Starr of Starcrash, or the grating storytelling narrator in Sinbad and the Seven Seas, the result is that kind of lazy mixing where everyone sounds like they're right up on the mic in a quiet sound booth rather than out in the actual environment depicted. One side effect of it all is the hilarious near-constant screaming of Cozzi's nearly all-female cast. There is so much screaming that the actresses seem to be running out of breath; their screams trail off into hysteria, like they're barely trying to keep a straight face, the way a child who's been crying for hours starts to almost laugh with their crying voice. 

What makes it a true gem is Cozzi's infectious, palpable love and respect for fantasy, for strong women, and moviemaking.  When Ravegnini and the other girl band members gaze into the camera for their music video, you can tell they're feeling happy and part of the Cozzi family pack; they're not taking it very seriously but they love it.  There's no vibe of having to fight off pervy producers or rote macho objectification. These girls glow. Franco Lecca's deep yellow and red-accented cinematography makes everyone seem lovely with natural skin color (rather than the ghastly pale or gaudy tan we sometimes get in Italian horror films) and the Venetian architecture hums in burnished oranges and browns. 

Too bad when they go outside it's all bad day-for-night that makes everyone look purple and green. Why?

Ugh, why, Paganini, why kill Rita first? Why not get Pleasance to do his own dub? Why the bad day-for-night? Why the bad vibe ending? If it didn't have these things I would have seen it a dozen times already, instead of only twice.

Regardless, there are still enough gateways to other dimensions, electrical charges, melting hands, green glowing lights, and strange doorways to hell and all the other Cozzi trimmings to make six ordinary movies, even if full half the film is just one girl or the other walking up and down stairs and down halls, or screaming. We can't blame the master if some turkey distributor who didn't get what he wanted, so took out all the cosmic cutaways. We sure can wish for a full restored director's cut. Wishing is free.


There's a nice interview with Cozzi at his sci-fi store; and the footage excised by the producer fills in a lot of the blanks  (would there was a copy with all the original shots -love the hourglasses floating in space - recycled from Hercules) and an explanation of why that too-trusting kid assistant would shell out a bag of money to some sinister Hobbes Lane type for an alleged authentic Paganini score.

Anyway, Severin has done wonders with what they got (Did the color grading just give out for the exterior shots, or was it supposed to look like that?) All we need now from Severin (here's hoping it's coming soon) is Cozzi's unofficial meta-Suspiria-sequel (recently re-available on Prime), The Black Cat (aka Demons 6: Anus Profundis) from 1990. (PS they released it this year, 2021!). 

And while we're on the subject, what about that crazy shot-on-video quasi-autobiographical Blood on Melies' Moon? (PS it came out this year, 2022! I'm quoted on the back label!)  I saw a clip wherein the great one himself ruminates in his bedroom about coming to terms with being labeled "The Italian Ed Wood." I guess I'm not the first to call him that. But hey Luigi, if you're reading this, know that a lot of us fans love Ed Wood way more than a more highly regarded artist like, say, Fritz Lang. I have a billion theories why that is but the main one might be the Brechtian distancing opening us up to the interplay of our own imagination, like having the curtains around your favorite play suddenly flung open. We get a bit of that in, say, Bergman's Magic Flute or Olivier's Henry V but it's intentional and hence a little pompous compared to the accidental Brechts like Wood and Cozzi (Godard--erasing his auteur footsteps around the sudden exposure of Brechtian mechanics as if Danny Torrance slinking backwards in his own tracks--is the Mr. In-Between.)

Maybe it's all too short with a hyper-ironic, unsatisfying ending that makes all the parts click into perfect place, the way some insane carnival ride turns out to be "Take the A Train" all along in a Charles Mingus composition. Maybe it was trimmed of its cosmic portent, maybe Rita died too soon, maybe Donald doesn't dub himself, but the Cozzi magic is still there and this film must to be treasured for a lifetime of Cozzi binges to come. Who knows how long that lifetime will be? Einstein on the poster knows! He says, honey, you better pounce while you still have all your own strings. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Retreat to Move Forward: YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983)

We live in a mighty strange time but, when things look bleakest, don't forget about our ace in the hole: a movie from 1983 laden with strangely wondrous lines like "we learned a lot about you from your medallion," "Damned talking box!" and "The machine speaks the truth!" YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) is a stellar example of Italy's low budget post-CONAN barbarian surge. When we were still crawling out of the slasher mire with the help of Conan and The Road Warrior the year before, Italy was already looking ahead, splitting the difference so that pre-diluvian and post-apocalypse touched to a wild hair metal anthem. Now that the social sphere has shrunk to no bigger than a snapchat window, let YOR come smash it wider! Whooo

Antonio "Anthony Dawson" Margheriti ("Mar--garehhh-tee") directed, so you can bet its slam bang action will come to you buoyant but deadpan, guileless if sincere but and bedecked with dinosaurs and lasers, mirror halls, and gorgeous and interesting girls--in other words everything and anything men aged 10-18 will love well into their 50s. File it next to FLASH GORDON (1980), THE APPLE (1979), and SHE (1982) and you'll never want for giddy (but too deadpan to be straight-up camp) qua-glam rock-and-roll, post-reality, early-80s sci-fi action madness.

There's no explaining it to those who don't get the need for a good stone knife plunged between the eyes of a dinosaur. Paleontologists never tire of reminding us cavemen and dinosaurs lived millions of years apart, so I always wondered why-60s/70s Hammers like ONE MILLION BC, WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, and PREHISTORIC WOMEN foolishly tried to appease them, filling their films with too much ponderous and dour tribal place-jostling, celebratory dancing, and savage landscape wandering as if solemn grunting would convince archaeologists of their sincerity and merit. On the other hand, that approach has aged way better than the campy winks, bad puppets and augmented cleavage of later caveman/dinosaur opuses. YOR is the only one of the type who sees beyond both pitfalls. It swims in a world where past and future happen at once, and there's no time to (conspicuously) leer at boobies (ala Olen Ray) or argue with the tribal elders (ala Chaffey, and even Corman). Instead it just hangs glides into a den of homicidal purple-faced ape giants on the wings of a giant dead bat, while 80s rock suddenly surges on the soundtrack. 

The moment the "De Angelis'" rock opera anthem theme song churns to life you know this here's a special ride: "He is a man from the future / a man from yesterday / his game is destiny!" You start making room for the film in your top ten of emotional rescue go-tos almost at once:
Proud and we desire (..?)
He's never seen the sun!
He's always on the run!
The list goes on and on.
Barely have the opening theme's last chords ended when Yor (Reb "the real Captain" Brown) has already killed a life-size papier mache triceratops/stegosaurus combination monster in a vivid, up-close battle. It's one of the best, most realistic struggles between man and dinosaur ever. Yor is right in there, stabbing away, blood dripping down, its eyes wild with fear and fury. We feel complex emotions-- it's a stegosaurus and thus a plant eater, merely trying to protect its young cub caught in a trap set by some gateherers. It's a tough world. At least Yor's kill of the big beast feeds the whole village. Woo-hoo! He eats the heart and cuts the "choice" meats. He and his new friends dance around licentiously and party in ways that the grunting bunch of neanderthals in ONE MILLION BC never would.  You can't help but feel Yor is having a good time, genuinely. And it's terrific because hey, it's rare in this murky kill-and-be-killed era. Conan smiles what, one time in the whole movie? It's rare too to see a bro like Yor rocking out and not kind of think he's a tool. But Brown, with his big Treat Williams jaw and blonde hippy hair pulls it off. He can still drop his bowl and pick up his stone axe if the tall ape men decide to raid. It's all in the balance. He conveys that switch on moment when the first flush of whiskey hits and people around you go from strangers to friends in a celebratory alchemical instant.

It's clear though he loves to rock out, Yor doesn't quite fit, because, you see, he's blonde and everyone else is brunette - and what's that strange medallion on his neck? He doesn't remember. He's got some weird past he has to find out about. But for moment - Woo! Some celebratory dancing, crazy drumming, and licentious bonding with the statuesque if slightly weatherbeaten Corinne Clery as Kalaa (!), and we're already feeling the love.

Kalaa's guardian is the trusty Pag (Luciano "Italian Peter Lorre" Pigozzi) who ambles along on the adventures, rounding out their new wandering threesome. Over desert hill and rolling cliff they wander, meeting new faces all the time, and if the goddess of fire worshipping lepers Roa (the comely and overly-made-up Aysha Gul) turns out to be a real hottie, if you'll forgive the expression and if, like Yor, she thought she was the only blonde with a round medallion in the world, then nature must take it's course. Paag reminds Kalaa that in this realm a man may take many wives (Woo!). In other words, this is Flash Gordon if Flash wasn't such a prude, i.e. so he'd throw Aura, Ming's sexy daughter, a well-deserved lay, instead of refusing her come-ons out of loyalty to a jealous Earth girl whom he literally just met only hours beforehand. Yor's no prude, bro. He's got time for everyone. This is Italy, or Israel, or somewhere sex isn't for lewd snickering or indignant eye rolls. it's just a thing that happens and is ver-a sexy when it does.

There will be other women in Yor's life before it's all over: Carol André shows up in the third act, on the mysterious island where lasers and complex machinery rule the day. And the beguiling Marina Rocchi, whom Yor saves from a (again admirably life-size) dimetrodon, of the shell people. Yor has time for all! 

One thing that stands out, that really makes this unique is the use of life size dinosaurs, all of which seem very much in their natural element. A lot of the stop motion dinosaur action we get, via Harryhausen, for example, can err on the side of simplicity for staging: we see dinosaurs fight and hang out in the midst of barren desert, i.e. how their habitat looks now, all these millions of years later, making us wonder how they can possibly survive with no vegetation or cover. In YOR, the beasts emerge from behind rocks and jungle canopy and it's hard to tell where they end and their surroundings begin at first. Their natural camouflage means they strike from within deep thickets and pond murk, with Yor and Kala climbing all over these giant (life-size) heads, hacking away, the beasts dying but slowly, from loss of blood, savagely stabbed (or shot with Pag's arrows) in their soft tissue areas. There's no glamorous Harryhausen flourishes to their death rattles - these things don't go down without a fight, leaving everyone involved doused in gore by the end.

Man, what a film. Where has it been all these years? I remember the commercial for Yor! One Saturday morning or late Friday night in the 80s and thinking: Conan with lasers, dinosaurs and Reb Brown hang gliding off a dead bat creature into the thick of a bunch of ape men, looking kind of like the Marvel character Ka-Zar. I mean, I could tell it was pretty low budget, but its imagination and gonzo gumption was clear. We who loved bad sci-fi and dinosaur movies could hardly believe it would ever be as great as it looked. And then, after that one ad, we never heard from Yor again until it showed up on Amazon streaming 30 years later. Had he just been a foolish dream>

Hell, 30 or so years isn't too long and ten bucks ain't too high.

In short, Yor- your time has come. If you love ConanFlash Gordon, and even--despite its dour tone--the 1966 remake of One Million BC, as much as I do... and if you sneered like Johnny Rotten when when someone tried to fob some hyper-banal mainstream imitation like Ladyhawke or Legend off on you instead... now is your time of deliverance.

Competition of Kalaa (from top); Marina Rocchi, Aysha Gul, Carol Andre

And like Luigi Cozzi's so-bad-it's-sublime Hercules, YOR scores big with me as there are more women in the cast than men, or it's at least the numbers are even. And though they do get rescued now and again they nonetheless are warriors, net-weavers, and/or holding significant scientific positions. 

A special shout to Reb Brown as Yor! He would have been perfect as Flash Gordon, as he lacks the kind of self-conscious aww-shucksitude apparent in Sam Jones' twinkly eyes. Not that that film isn't the best or that we don't all love Sam Jones, but Reb Brown would have crushed it. There's not a gram of self-consciousness in him. I dig that he also encourages those he meets to drink the blood of the slain triceratops in a dim nod to Siegfried. "Drinking the blood of your enemy gives you their power." It's just one of the fantastic little details Marghareti peppers the film with. Not all his films hit the mark but over the years he sure has given us a still under-appreciated canon of energetic termite art. Woo! Proud and we desire!  We have all the time in the world to scan their silver discs and figure out if they are our grandfathers or are great-grandchildren. At this point in human history, we could go either way and still be proud to have a YOR in the tree. John Steiner, you're once again going down! 

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