Category: Film Reviews


samuraicopFor some reason, Amazon Video have acquired a package of streaming rights which include the complete American films of Iranian film-maker Amir Shervan. A director in his home country since the late 60s, Shervan moved to the US after the revolution of 1979 and latterly became a director of low-budget action films. These have developed a sizeable cult following due to recent DVD releases, and their further dissemination in HD on streaming platforms will surely only increase their notoriety.

Shervan’s films are appalling. His direction is slapdash and his editing incompetent. Even the bare minimum requirements of a feature film such as scene continuity and synchronous dialogue and sound effects are casually dispensed with. The dialogue is terrible and borderline offensive when it handles race or gender. They’re also a lot of fun to certain kinds of modern audiences, as examples of a kind of kitsch and campy 80s aesthetic. Even though they do share certain similarities with late 80s action movies, the films they more closely resemble are the modern works which seek to emulate the look and feel of “bad” 80s action cinema – Kung Fury (2015) and the films made the “Astron-6” collective, such as Manborg and Father’s Day (both 2011).

Given that such retro-cinema efforts are designed to parody a genre, rather than individual films for the most part, it’s curious that one film-maker so embodied the tropes and foibles which became the hooks on which future homages were hung. If we’re looking for reasons beyond the limitations of budget (for example, Shervan doesn’t shoot at night – no lighting; doesn’t record sync sound – no equipment), we may be tempted to assign credit for these qualities to cultural differences. As a middle-eastern emigree with apparently limited English, Shervan may have had difficulty working with cast and crew, but also in understanding the demands of contemporary US action cinema. Shervan’s films are extremely reductive – they feature a dumb lunk battling racial stereotypes, killing them all and remaining bafflingly attractive to a collection of blonde, Playboy-esque female characters. While Shervan can’t afford stunts or spfx his films are extremely violent and his cop heroes display a casual disregard of life and law which would have made Dirty Harry gag.

In Electric Boogaloo (2014), Mark Hartley’s excellent documentary on the rise and demise of the Cannon film group, the point is made on several occasions that the Israeli duo of Golan and Globus continually misjudged the audience. Despite initially thriving in a market set afloat by demand in the early days of home video, these Hollywood outsiders misread the appeal, approach and market for genre cinema – leading to expensive decisions such as paying Stallone $13m to appear in a film about arm-wrestling. There’s something implicitly racist in these kinds of accusations – that foreigners are incapable of understanding the cultural works and practises of indigent film-makers. However, perhaps it’s instead the case – as Clive James has claimed – that foreigners can better read foreign cultures. The likes of Cannon and Shervan just took at face-value the ridiculous excesses of US action cinema. Their crime was to replicate it without any of the hypocritical neutering of the hard ages of racism, sexism and jingoism demanded by Hollywood, the MPAA and, ultimately, audiences. Shervan’s further crime was that he, unlike Golan and Globus, couldn’t afford explosions.

pensionepauraThe second and final theatrical feature from Barilli, this is often referred to as a “giallo”, alongside his first effort, Il Profumo della Signora in Nero (1974). Despite containing a scene which features a figure in disguise killing one of the characters, it is, however, more of a thriller and a character study, as well as a handsomely-staged period piece. It also shares much with Barilli’s first feature (also, arguably, not a traditional giallo) in focusing on a psychologically-damaged female character, battling an obsession with a departed parent, and an ominous cabal which is slowly closing in on her.

Set in a lakeside Italian hotel towards the end of WWII, the film follows Rosa (Leonora Fani) who daydreams about the return of her idealised father, who has joined the partizans in the battle against the Nazis. In the meantime, she works alongside her mother to meet the largely unreasonable demands of a small group of hotel guests, including a man creepily obsessed with his dead family, a mature woman and her younger lover (the splendid Luc Merenda) and various spivs, collaborators and their molls. Also hidden away in the attic is a man on the run from unspecified forces (Francisco Rabal), who is having an affair with Rosa’s mother, much to her disgust.

Rosa is harassed by the guests on a seemingly daily basis – particularly by Merenda’s sleazy gigolo character. Her only respite, beyond dreams of her father, is the occasional trips to town where she meets with a young boy with whom she is starting a tentative relationship.

Following Il Profumo… Barilli shows great skill in exploiting location and the faded glamour of the lakeside hotel is exploited for maximum effect. The horror of the cumulative privations endured by even the comfortably-off during wartime are skillfully portrayed. The hotel is hit by power cuts which prompt a number of nighttime scenes shot by candlelight which give a great sense of the threat under which Rosa moves through its corridors.

The cast are uniformly excellent – Barilli extracts powerful performances from veterans Merenda and Rabal – but it is the central performance from Fani around which everything else turns. Concerns may be raised about the way in which Barilli (and Italian thrillers from the period in general) seem to delight in subjecting woman to an escalating series of trials and humiliations, but taken at face-value in this instance, the events befalling Rosa can be seen as just part of the dreadful collateral damage of war. Unfortunately, Fani did not seem to profit to any great extent from her excellent performance here and a few years later was – like many of the surviving actors of Italy’s last great period of film production – appearing low-rent gialli such as Giallo a Venezia (1979).

Though the plot does share many similarities with Il Profuma…, Rosa is spared the fate Mimsy Farmer endures in that film. Though her father does not return a proxy figure does make a late entrance to effect some vengeance for the indignities she has been subjected to, but in a pleasing coda she rejects the request to leave the hotel – opting to remain and await the never-returning father figure. It could be argued that she remains wedded to the patriarchal ideal, but it is made clear that she is beholden only to promise she made to her father – a promise that survives his death and is only more important to her, surrounded as she is by so many who are willing to immediately abandon all principle and humanity in the face of tyranny and war.

p9505920_p_v8_aaThis late-period de Palma film is something of an anomaly in that it is a remake of a successful foreign language film released only a couple of years earlier. This would place it within the small sub-genre of such efforts from the period, where a recurring crisis of lack of imagination seemed to result in a casting of the net to foreign shores in search of stories to recast in the Hollywood mould. From the slew of remakes of Japanese and European horror (Ju-on, Ringu, Martyrs, etc.) to curious efforts such as Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games (2007), the period from the turn of the century until the recent mini-renaissance of Hollywood was peppered with remakes of foreign films in a variety of genres.

De Palma, of course, is no stranger to the lure of commerce. Starting out as a quirky independent voice before graduating to the status of something of a Hollywood auteur – albeit one constantly under attack for a supposed slavish devotion to the cinematic tricks of major figures such as Hitchcock and Antonioni – the director suffered an eventual slide into sometimes bland, occasionally disastrous, major picture assignments. At the time of this film’s production he was stung by the negative reaction to his recent staging of the Black Dahlia murder and the rather more positive – albeit politically controversial – response to his digital war polemic, Redacted (2007).

It’s interesting to consider whether his decision to venture into the euro-remake was influenced in any way by David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – an effort by a  similarly auteur-ist filmmaker, which had received positive critical and audience response. Crime d’Amour (2010) may have seemed the perfect property to allow de Palma to ride the coattails of a recent trend while accommodating just enough of his trademark concerns for it to bear the stamp of his authorship.

I have to point out that I haven’t seen Crime d’Amour, so will have to take Passion on its own merits and as nothing other than a Brian de Palma film, which it certainly is. In fact, and this is something which I’m sure is familiar to many observers of his work, the indelible stamp of the de Palma hand is – as in so many of his minor works – its greatest virtue and its greatest fault.

First of all, some of the details of the production have an impact on the overall experience. This is a European co-production, shot in Germany, with a smattering of European actors supporting a (at the time) emerging Hollywood talent in Rachel McAdams. The production has a cold, clinical look which is familiar from the tropes of the then-emerging field of “skandi-noir”, reinforced by the presence of Noomi Rapace. A number of the minor European players appear to have been dubbed, or at least somewhat carelessly looped, given some of the dialogue an airless, unreal feel. In addition, some of the dialogue, especially anything associated with the office machinations of the advertising agency, seems divorced from anything any actual office workers may have experienced. The film strains against the mundanity inherent in daily concerns and strives instead for high-melodrama, something which is underscored by a typically melodious and mischievous score from de Palma’s regular composer Pino Donaggio.

These scenes and others constantly reminded me of the late-period, rather down-at-heel work of de Palma’s fellow-traveller in the world of the violent, misogynist-tinged, thriller genre, Dario Argento. De Palma’s discomfort and impatience with the details of office politics are similar to Argento’s handling of police procedural scenes in films such as The Card Player (2004) and Giallo (2009). The mangling of accepted norms and patterns of storytelling through the quirks and obsessions of these auteur figures are similarly mirrored in stark, medium-budget limitations of the kind of fluid, mobile and sometimes flat-out overwrought camera techniques which are signatures of both.

Peculiar to de Palma and here in spades is the director’s mischievousness (as opposed to Argento, a filmmaker who – when forced to watch his own films – admits to doing so through his fingers). At points where the film quotes his own work (which often quotes others’ work of course) or gleefully departs from reality, such as the extended dream sequence which ends the film, I could almost feel de Palma in the room with me – watching for a reaction, waiting for the moments of recognition that I was being pranked. Similarities to Dressed to Kill (1980) abound – psychiatry, showers, lifts, costumes, etc. – to the extent that the shell of the plot becomes more of a anecdote which allows de Palma to free-associate through his usual concerns, or at least those of previous high-points in his career.

As a fan of the early work, you would find it hard not to be amused. As a general viewer, you would probably just be frustrated, as would appear to have been the case, given the lacklustre box-office returns. It would have been interesting to hear the response from de Palma’s investors and producers. It would be another long wait for a new film – we wait to see what this year’s Lights Out brings – more of the same smart-alec self-referentiality, or a return to form?

The Humanoid (Aldo Lado, 1979)

Aldo Lado is best known in cult movie circles as a director of giallo films – the particular strain of violent Italian thriller popularised by bravura technicians such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Sergio Martino – so, quite frankly, WTF was he doing directing this Star Wars rip-off? Couldn’t they afford Antonio Margheriti? Did Luigi Cozzi want to avoid getting type-cast, so soon after the amazing Star Crash (1978)? Whatever the reason, given that Lado also co-wrote the script, he has to take the lion’s share of the blame for turning out such a maddeningly frustrating film – a potentially great science fiction romp, utterly ruined by a single, stupid idea.

So, let’s look at the potential – go on, scan those credits: Aldo Lado, himself – director of greats such as Who Saw her Die? and The Short Night of the Glass Dolls; a score by Ennio Morricone, no less; Silvano Ippoliti, Tinto Brass’ talented DoP; makeup by Gianetto de Rossi; Enzo Castellari on 2nd unit duties; special effects by a team including the aforementioned Margheriti, something of an Italian sci-fi specialist; a cast including Corrine Clery, Barbara Bach, Arthur Kennedy, Ivan Rassimov and … wait a second… Richard Kiel? Yep, there we have it – the proverbial fly in the ointment. It’s Jaws from those Bond movies – something of a comic relief villain, who was, the same year, to be turned into a comic relief sidekick in Moonraker. Kiel’s inability to act may not have proved terminal in a Italian sci-fi knock off, but in a role which both plays off his supposedly threatening demeanor and bulk and encourages pathos in his plight, it blows what might otherwise have been an entertaining enterprise out of the sky.

The ‘Great Brother’ rules the former planet Earth – now renamed Metropolis, which makes about as much sense as renaming it, I dunno, ’roundabout’ or ‘suburban allotment’. His brother – the evil Lord Graal (Rassimov), who controls an army of soldiers in lawsuit-baiting black leather and buckethead costumes – launches an attack to capture a chemical element which can turn men into indestructible monsters. During the attack, virtuous scientist Barbara Gibson (Clery) receives a telepathic warning from Tom Tom, her ward (I guess?) – an Asian boy who possesses mystical powers and is protected at all times by a pair of light-bow wielding, teleporting guardians. She escapes the carnage, but the chemical is stolen and transported to Graal’s home planet, where insane scientist Dr. Kraspin (Kennedy) uses it to transmute the kindly Golob into an UNSTOPPABLE KILLING MACHINE to be unleashed on the people of ‘Out-of-town Car-park’, sorry – Metropolis.

Right off the bat, let me draw your attention to an innovation. Lucas is sometimes mocked for the silly names with which he saddles his one-dimensional characters – Leia, Solo, Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi, etc. Lado, perhaps foreseeing this, perhaps suffering some sort of brain aneurism, gives his characters names which make them seem like they work in real estate. Barbara Gibson? The universe’s only hope, apparently. Especially so when she teams up with the head of the Imperial guard, who is called Nick. I personally think Nick is too heroic and Lado should have gone with Brian, which to my mind expresses a kind of quiet dignity. Seriously though, lines like “And remember to kill that Barbara Gibson” had me smiling from the start – not since ‘Dan the antichrist’ (see earlier review of Nero Veneziano) has Italian cinema so tickled my funny bone with the stupidity of its character names.

Until this point, translation quirks aside, The Humanoid is a solid romp, with some surprisingly good model effects and sets – certainly not in Star Wars’ league but not an embarrassment in comparison either. What tips the whole shebang over the edge is the UNSTOPPABLE KILLING MACHINE. When Golob is hit by a missile containing the chemical he undergoes a profound change – physically and mentally. Physically, he loses his beard and a tiny green dot appears on his forehead. Mentally, his prior big, dumb, lunk persona is utterly transformed to big, dumb lunk who talks a bit less and occasionally throws people around. Presumably unable to afford additional action scenes, Lado appears to have concocted a plot device which allows his central ‘battle’ to involve Richard Keil marching into the Metropolis’ capital single-handed, while laser beams bounce off him from every angle. They can’t even afford to establish his status as the UNSTOPPABLE KILLING MACHINE, as an attack using “micro-nuclear” shells occurs off-screen, leaving the viewer instead with endless scenes of redshirts running up to Kiel and being tossed aside in a decidedly PG manner, while the womenfolk (all of whom sport a range of Leia-approved braids) run around in panic. You really do wonder if this film is a remake of Eegah! rather than Star Wars.

It’s not all bad though. The film does rally for a fairly rousing shoot out on the enemy planet, although this does require a scene where Kiel is un-Humanoid-ed, turning back into the kind of good-humoured brute soon to appear in Moonraker. As I said, some of the sets are very good – the matte paintings which depict the desert landscape of Metropolis in particular are lovely. Clery and Bach are beautiful and the latter actually puts in a decent performance as the evil queen who preserves her youthly beauty with Bathory-style transfusions. And the whole high-camp sci-fi knockabout antics are no more offensive than in Flash Gordon or modern day pap which mines the same territory, such Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It’s just a shame about Keil. They should’ve left the humanoid out of The Humanoid.

An undeservably obscure late entry in the line of medical-themed horror films common in the late 70s and early 80s, this is the only genre entry from hardworking TV director Sheldon Larry – a name more familiar from shows such as Knot’s Landing. Occasionally cited as a slasher film, the high-tech medical background, strong female characters and conspiracy elements place it more strongly in the tradition of films such as Coma and The Stepford Wives, where intelligent, spunky women confront out-of-control science. The slasher comparison probably derives from the sometimes bloody death scenes and pacing which spreads these out in the first half of the films, which is very similar to slasher film mechanics and is probably the contribution of co-writer Peter Lawrence – who worked on the screenplay for the slasher movie The Burning (1981).

The horrific result of the wrong dosage

Set in the kind of sterile, high-tech clinic familiar from the early films of David Cronenberg, Terminal Choice follows the story of Dr. Frank Holt (Hill Street Blue’s Joe Spano) and clinic computer technician Anna Lang (The Insider’s Diane Venora) as they investigate several suspicious deaths at the institution. Holt is an alcoholic with a history of malpractise and is smarting from the collapse of his relationship with Lang. After one of his patients bleeds to death, alledgedly because of a misdiagnosis, he becomes the subject of an internal investigation and, following other incidents involving suspected malfunction of the computer systems, teams up with Lang to clear their names and track down the real culprit.

Defibbed to death

This is a skillfully directed thriller, something that is remarkable when you consider that most of the victims are unconcious and confined to hospital beds. Many of the deaths result from supposed computer malfunctions, with intravenous drips, artificial respirators and mechanised defibrillators turning deadly in a manner which simultaneously exploits the viewer’s fear of both hospitals and technology. The impersonal, mechanised manner of much of the violence and the harrowing, extended and – frankly, sadistic – staging predates the modern-day Saw series. Witness the scene near the end of the film, where Lang has to frantically try to shut down the system, as the computer slowly twists the prostate Holt’s broken leg in traction, before administering an attempted lethal dose through his drip and then trying to shock him to death with the defibrillator. The soundtrack also works to ramp up the threatening nature of the computer as synthisised drones are combined with crys and moans and Larry’s camera prowls behind the blinking lights of the banks of computer circuitry.

Doctors - place your bets!

The film begins with a view of a monitor as an off-screen voice negotiates a series of bets with the HAL-like computer. It is revealed that several of the hospital staff are placing bets on the medical outcomes of patients. Though the film tries to have its cake and eat it by initially suggesting that the computer itself could be acting as bookie and murderer, Holt and Lang’s investigation uncovers Dr Rimmer as the ringleader of the betting activity. It’s still unclear whether he is involved in the actual murders or whether the head of the clinic – played by David McCallum – is using the activity as a cover to conduct further research into his failed anti-stroke drug. As the hospital is shut down and the patients are moved out, the leads become trapped in the building as the killer tries to clear up any remaining evidence.

Ellen Barkin undercooks some sausages

It’s possible the film has simply fallen into obscurity (it’s not available anywhere on DVD, to my knowledge) due to the fact that it falls between two stools – being neither an out-and-out slasher horror film nor a medical conspiracy thriller. Though Larry’s background in television leads to consistently good performances from the cast (which includes a very early role for Ellen Barkin), the cruel and explicit death scenes were probably a turn-off for casual viewers first time around. However, for those who have a soft-spot for hospital themed horror (Halloween 2, Visiting Hours, etc.) and a nostalgic love of the 70s-era conspiracy thrilers from the likes of Michael Crichton, I’d urge them to seek out this curio.

OMG!!!

An absolute supernova of a bad film, this Filmirage production manages to top the company’s usual output (including, lest we forget, Troll 2) by roping in the dubious talents of Linda Blair and David Hasslehoff. Giving the former an obligatory possession scene and allowing the latter to adlib to embarrassing effect, the usual delights of Aristide Massacessi’s horror productions – overlit studio interiors, bewildered no-name American actors, badly-translated Italian dialogue, gloopy effects – are here dunked in an enormous vat of fondue designed to delight lovers of 80s cheese.

The Hoff!

Filmirage – an Italian production company usually associated with low-rent erotic thrillers, terrible horror films and gob-smackingly awful dramas – here jumps on the Evil Dead bandwagon. Raimi’s films were released in Italy under the titles La Casa 1 & 2 and the company follows in the grand tradition of Italian exploitation by simply appropriating the title for some unrelated sequels. Hence Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse (1988) became La Casa 3 and this film – released in international territories as Witchcraft became La Casa 4. Aside from a residential setting – something that could be said to be true of the majority of features – and plots which revolve around demonic forces and bodily possession, the films bear no similarity with the hyperkinetic Evil Dead franchise, but Laurenti’s film has a manic charm of its own.

Pea soup alert!

The film’s bears a script credit forAmerican screenwriter Harry Spaulding – who, curiously, penned a 1964 film entitled Witchcraft – but the dialogue and story bears all the hallmarks of a cheap Italian genre production, with the frequently confused-looking US cast spouting inane, nonsensical lines while a series of barely-connected events move the plot from one bizarre set-piece to another. The story isolates three groups of people on a Pacific island during a storm: a young woman studying witchcraft and the origins of a house on the island and her photographer boyfriend (the Hoff himself); a dysfunctional family, including a pregnant Linda Blair and a precocious young boy, who are interested in buying the property; and the estate agents, including a woman played by the then Mrs Hasslehoff – Catherine Hickland – who would in future go on to marry a man called, I kid you not, Michael Knight.  Over the course of the evening, the assembled cast are sprited away by the spirit of the previous owner – a Garbo-like foreign actress – to a cut-price Hades where they are subjected to a variety of latex-rupturing effects. Blair is possessed so she can redo her Exorcist role, the Hoff gets his shirt off and his girlfriend wanders the house reading random passages from a supposedly ancient German text which may hold the key to foiling the resurrection of the witch-actress via Blair’s baby.

Going to hell

Apart from the sheer joy of watching Hasslehoff and Blair on screen together (for trash-mavens, a pairing suerly on a par with De Niro and Pacino), the film delivers the cracked goods in spades. Witness, for example, the majesty of the scenes where characters are transported to the evil dimension by standing still and waving their arms while a swirling red graphic is overlayed on their screaming mugs. Or the evil dimension itself, which appears to have been built by an Italian set designed in around 3 mins out of some 2-by-4 and some black bin bags. Some of the special effects are pleasingly gloopy, especially the demise of the father, as the stabbing of a voodoo doll causes ruptures in a series of vains. The film bears Filmirage’s usual cruel sense of black humour, with the mother with her mouth sewn shut, hung in the chimney to be burned alive by her family.

Elsewhere budget restrictions mean that a plot which requires its cast to be stranded by a ferocious storm, has no actual shots of said weather – with a placidly undulating sea hardly justifying the lack of rescue. The father of the young estate agent spends much of the film arguing with local law enforcement to stage a recovery attempt, which finally pays off when a helicopter is procured. The subsequent scene, where the father who has been passionately arguing that his son may be in danger, meekly gives up the chase when the house shows no sign of occupation, is just one of the examples of the twisted logic of Filmirage’s output. The actor – one timer Frank Cammarato – is one of the badly-dubbed non-US cast members. It’s unfortunate that heroine Leslie Cumming is not also dubbed, as her mumbling, incoherent delivery renders much of her dialogue unintelligible and makes her scenes with Hasslehoff even more one-sided. Perhaps she was intimidated.

One of the first Spanish films to be shot in English for the international market, this first theatrical outing for director Serrador must have been an influence on Dario Argento, sharing several striking similarities with Suspiria (1977). It’s an incredibly distinctive and impressive effort in its own right, however.

A young girl and her guardian arrive at a remote French chateau – a private school for “troubled” young girls, run with more than a firm hand by a strict governess and her coterie of favoured senior students. Left to settle in, Teresa is quickly introduced to the quirks of the institution, which include a creepy handyman, the local lusty woodsman and the governess’s overprotected son Luis, who has secret relationships with several of the girls and longs for escape. When the most recent of Luis’ girlfriends disappears – presumed absconded – Teresa becomes increasingly suspicious of the governess and begins to be targetted by her favoured pupil Irene.

Governess and guardian in the greenhouse

The plot, then, is very similar to Suspiria, but in most other ways La Residencia is a very different film. It is shot in scope, but unlike Argento’s starkly lit film, Serrador and his immensely talented DoP Manuel Berenguer, give the film a subtle, pastel-textured look, which imparts a nice tonal shift to the gothic night-time scenes. The scenes set in the greenhouse, in particular, are a riot of colour.

A similar departure from Argento is the performance of the international cast who are uniformly excellent, from the experienced Lilli Palmer to Mary Maude – a minor British television actress who appears in a couple of genre films in the 1970s but otherwise seems not to have fulfilled the promise vividly shown here. As Irene – the favoured girl – she is alternately terrifying and heartbreaking, as she bullies Teresa before finding that her position doesn’t exempt her from the threat lurking in the dark corridors.

Res2

The death of Isabelle

Essentially a gothic mystery, the film does contain a couple of nasty murders, which are shot with a skill and sense of style that points to Serrador’s inate understanding of the mechanics of visual horror. Following this film’s release, he made several other genre films – most famously, Quien Puede Matar a un Nino? (1976) – but is perhaps most known in his own country for the groundbreaking TV series Historias para no Dormir which he hosted and wrote for in the manner of Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock (and, of course, Dario Argento, who presented La Porta sul Buio in 1973). The slow-motion stabbing of one of the girls in the greenhouse at night, which is intercut with blood on white roses as the soundtrack slowly slides to a halt is expertly rendered and must have been quite shocking for the time.

The governess forced to view her handiwork

The film also contains some daring sexual content, with the suggestive lesbian relationship between the governess and her charges. After one girl is punished by whipping the governess mops the blood from her back and bends over briefly to kiss the girl’s wounds. The girl later removes the smock the girls wear to protect their modesty in the communal showers and taunts the governess. There are hints that the governess has an impure relationship with her son Luis, who is himself depicted as a voyeur. The girls either submit to the advances of the governess to gain favour – as Irene has done – or content themselves with Luis or the regular visits from the local woodsman, the privilege to go to the woodshed being decided by drawing lots. As one girl meets with him, Serrador focuses in on the other girls performing needlecraft in class, their looks of boredom and frustration building with the sounds from the woodshed until one girl symbolically pricks her finger, drawing blood.

If the murders themselves were not shocking enough for 1969, the film’s ending with its mix of incest and necrophilia must have been overwhelming and it still packs a punch today. The film’s high production values, excellent camerwork and strong performances combine to convey a sense of a prestige production which little prepares the viewer for the exploitative content which follows.

A major achievement in the horror genre and a film which urgently needs a properly restored release on DVD.

Just one of many Italian rip-offs following in the wake of The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, this tardy effort from occasional director Liberatore is at least enlivened by an off-kilter, almost throwaway, attitude to plot development, some nasty moments and a mildly original – and effective – final act.

Set in the rather grubby, down-at-heel Venice of Giallo a Venezia, rather than the glamarous city seen in films such as Don’t Look Now, the plot follows blind teenager Mark and his far-from-affectionate sister Christine, orphan siblings in the care of a strict and religious aunt. Christine’s boyfriend Giorgio wants her to move in, but there is no room at his sculptor’s studio for Mark, and no money to support them.

The most combustible clothing in cinema history

When the aunt is burned to death in an accident inadvertantly caused by Mark, they are sent to relatives operating a run-down hotel, who receive them with a lack of enthusiasm. Encouraging Christine’s efforts to make the hotel viable again, her uncle begins to warm to the children, but the death of his sickly wife leads him to suicide in the attic and the children are left to fend for themselves. The local priest takes a keen and slightly sinister interest in Christine, especially when a mysterious guest seduces her and she finds herself pregnant. Mark suffers from a series of visions which suggest that his sister is the focus of a Satanic cult. It seems that only Mark and Giorgio are aware of – and can stop – a sinister plot to engineer Satan’s reincarnation on Earth.

Though this is a film which contains rather too much plot for ninety minutes, what first appears as slapdash editing – with many scenes ending just as crucial lines of dialogue are delivered – contributes to a sense of psychological disorientation. With Mark as a protagonist, what first appears as a straightforward retread of The Omen, becomes something more perverse, complex and effective as his status as unreliable narrator is revealed.

The birthday party

The revalation that Christine has turned the hotel into a brothel is thrown away in a single line of a phone conversation – though, in retrospect, a plot point which may suggest Christine’s increasing corruption may have been subtlely downplayed to suggest Mark’s paranoia. Christine’s boyfriend Giorgio moves from co-conspirator in the plot against Alex, the new-born spawn of Satan, to helpless witness, chronicling the events in a diary he christens the “Gospel of Alex”. Mark’s final act is both shocking and, ultimately, futile as his true part in the plot is revealed.

Bright light and "woosh"-ing noises as Mark has a vision

There are some mis-steps which mar the film. Pino Donaggio’s score is lush and broad in scope, but the soundtrack is marred by some hideously cack-handed ‘zingers’, usually emphasising Mark’s blindness, as he stumbles into a succession of doors, windows and other characters.

The decision to name the Satan character “Dan” leads to a few unintentional giggles too, with the power of the final reveal  somewhat lessened by the prospect of mankind at the mercy of the “Son of Dan”. Renato Cestie’s performance is a little uneven too, with an occasionally whiny, unsympathetic portrayal which unbalances the film.

The refusal to fully exploit the beauty of Venice’s waterways can only be assumed to be intentional given that the film is otherwise handsomely shot – with several interior scenes displaying impressive use of lighting. The candlelit birthday party for Alex, featuring the women of the brothel dancing together wearing a succession of masks is particularly affecting.

Dan works his devilish mojo

The film doesn’t shy away from the sleaze common to Italian genre pictures of the period, with Niehaus in particular spending much of the film is various states of undress. The violence is occasionally very explicit too, but is used sparingly for maximum effect – which is certainly the case in the final scenes.

A better, more honest effort, to reply to Hollywood’s blockbuster ‘devil’ movies then. And one which has an Italian character all its own.

A strange mix of hypnotic mood piece and all-out zombie movie from the people later responsible for Howard the Duck, this has long been a staple of public domain collections and early streaming sites. This review is based on the revalatory DVD from Code Red, which restores a film which relies on careful composition to its proper ratio.

http://www.amazon.com/Messiah-Evil-Second-Michael-Greer/dp/B002HJMDDY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1288727146&sr=8-1

A young woman travels to a remote town in search of her artist father, whose letters to her have become increasingly deranged. Arriving at his deserted beachside house, she sets off on a search which brings her into contact with an aristocratic drifter and his two female companions, the suspicious and aloof townfolk and constant reminders of her father and the bizarre circumstances of his disappearance.

Arletty wanders her father's mansion

This is a film dominated by a central location – the home of the missing father is a cavernous mansion which is both sparsely furnished and claustrophobically-decorated with a large number of murals. These paintings – several of which contain threatening figures which peer out at the viewer – play with the geometry of the locations in a Caligari-esque way, with characters passing through impossible spaces and threatening to become lost in the mise-en-scene.

These early scenes are possessed of a dream-like, deliberately-paced atmosphere which recalls similar lost-girl genre films such as Carnival of Souls. However, once Arletty encounters the drifter Thom and his two female familiars, the film encounters a series of set-pieces as the true nature of the townsfolk is revealed. Firstly, in perhaps the films most famous scene, Anitra Ford is hunted by raw meat-devouring townies in a late-night grocery store – a nightmareish scene which uses the bright, familiar setting as a spectacular counterpoint to the horror.

A late night buffet for the townsfolk

Then, the boyish Joy Bang is stranded in a cinema which gradually fills with the zombie-like denizens, who sit silently watching the film or turn to look at her with bleeding eyeballs. Both of these scenes stand alone from the main narrative and, indeed, the almost hermetically-sealed atmosphere of the mansion. The character’s are almost literally trapped in this central location and leaving it can only trigger death – or at least a living death. Arletty’s father eventually returns to tie-up the casually-developed plt strands and threaten an act of infanticide, following a bizarre scene which sees the artist smear himself in blue and red paint.

Arletty's father fails the Blue Man Group audition

Surrounded by the portentous monochromatic figures in the murals the father staggers towards Arletty as a multicoloured aberration, before she despatches him in a burst of flame. Shortly after, she mistakes Thom for one of the townspeople and stabs him in the arm – an act which dooms him to drown in the ocean as the frantically swim for safety from the rampaging population. Arletty herself is saved and delivered to the asylum from which she has told the tale in flashback. As the film ends she warns the people of the cities that the contagion is spreading as she paints in the sunshine of the asylum garden.

Not to be confused with Renato Polselli’s 1972 giallo, this is an extremely bizarre genre hybrid which appears to have been stitched together from several different films. It’s part slasher film, part political conspiracy, part right-wing revenge film, part police procedural and part post-Vietnam film. It’s also all wrong – none of these elements being done with any level of competency.

“St. Louis, 1977”, a  car drives to a bridge and two men dump a body over the edge. It’s night and you can barely see what’s going on. Following this non-sequitor, a woman retrurns to her apartment to find her room-mate stuck to a door with a six-foot spear. Some extremely unsympathetic policemen arrive, who proceed to grouse and joke in full earshot of the traumatised girl. It turns out that her room-mate went home with a guy who had earlier in the day been interviewed by her boss for a job. So begins a terrifyingly casual investigation which will scare viewers more than anything else in this film.

We’re then introduced to our killer – a guy named Charlie, who spends the next 30 minutes pointlessly running from no-one (the cops spend most of their time chatting to women or sitting around the office drinking coffee) and occasionally killing random women.

It’s at this point that the film’s schizophrenia becomes most apparent.

Plot 1 – in this film Charlie carries out a few murders until he’s surprised in a house by a returning husband and is shot by the wife. The British VHS I watched is very badly censored, with various stabbings, pitchforkings and shootings abruptly cut. In the full version – and stretched to feature length – this would be a grade Z slasher film, albeit an interesting early example.

Plot 2 – in this film the police lean on the girl’s employer, who obviously knows more than he’s letting on. It turns out that he’s a member of an underground right-wing group who employ old army guys as vigilantes. Led by a Rod Steiger type, these businessmen occasionally meet in an underlit cellar to pass judgement on various rapists and murderers who’ve escaped the clutches of the coffee-drinking, skirt-chasing lawmen. Stretched to full length this would be a grade Z vigilante movie.

Stitching together the two plots requires Charlie to run around experiencing massively cheap Vietnam flashbacks. Those who have seen the flashback scenes in Combat Shock will know what to expect. Despite some unconvincing gore, these look to have been shot in someone’s back garden on a spare Sunday afternoon, but at least feature the same actor.

It all culminates in a shootout at the vigilante group’s hideout, with Rod Steiger experiencing more Vietnam flashbacks as the police take him down in a hail of bullets. The hideout itself has been located by the girl, who the police have encouraged to endanger herself by spying on her boss. It was a massive disappointment to me that the two cops on the case emerged unscathed from the gunfight at the end; in fact, the youngest guy emerges with the girl. There truly is no justice.