Interview with Nicholas McCarthy – Director of THE PACT

THE PACT is one of those low budget horror success stories that comes along every so often and manages to strike a chord and cross over into the mainstream. Shot on an extremely low budget, director Nicholas MCarthy’s film was given a wide release in the UK when it opened at the beginning of last month.  

Nicholas very kindly agreed for us to interview him and, as you’re about to see, Euro Cult films (and their makers) occupy a very special place in his heart…

I would automatically assume that you’re something of a film buff. Please can you elaborate on the films that formed a significant part of your education as a filmmaker? 

I’ve always liked all kinds of movies.  When I was a little kid ANYTHING was worth seeing, even movies that were way over my head.  But horror got its grips in me early.  I grew up in New Hampshire and we had a black and white TV set that got about 6 channels and used a rotating antennae on top of the house.  Occasionally I could catch Godzilla movies playing and the concept of monster movies began to obsess me.  I used to pour through the TV listings to find evidence of anything horror-related.  There was this mysterious channel that we didn’t receive, out of Boston–Channel 56–they were always airing films on Saturday afternoons with titles like IT!  THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE or DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.  What were these things?  I could only imagine.  Then one day all of a sudden we were able to get Channel 56 over our set — they must’ve boosted their signal.  I waited all week to see the two movies they were showing, which I soon learned was their programming block called “Creature Double Feature.”  That weekend they showed a Toho monster movie I now can’t remember followed by the completely bizarre FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER.  Viewing that second movie was a life-changing experience.  It was “bad,” but at age 8 I had no measurement of bad.  It was shot in Puerto Rico and there was no Frankenstein monster.  Most of it was post-dubbed.  I could hardly make sense of it.  It had a scene where a robot, who was running amuck, threw an axe in someone’s face.  Those 90 minutes changed my life forever.

As I got older I started to watch all kinds of films in the genre and outside of it.  But the dark and strange always stuck with me, and that’s always the stuff I liked best.

I think you’ve just described how many of us became so enamoured with film, Nick! We had only four channels when most of us were growing up here in the UK, so we had far less horror on our screens, with the notable exception of the double bills that were screened over weekends and Alex Cox’s excellent Moviedrome series. The advent of rental VHS opened things up a lot wider and horror became far more accessible (until the introduction of Britain’s draconian Video Recordings Act!). Do you have any fond memories or standout experiences from the time when you were introduced to video?

Video was so important to me growing up.  I saved up my own money to buy a VCR.  It was a used, giant top-loading JVC model.  Like so many other horror fans, an entire world of the genre was opened up to me with that machine  It was all the more exciting back then because there was so much less context for what was out there — the video shelves were like a wild west, “respectable” studio product right alongside the sleaziest no-budget horror movies imaginable.  I started to program all night marathons for my friends and we would watch both the stuff I wanted them to see, along with cult and horror movies I had read about and thought might be great – sometimes they were, sometimes they weren’t.   I also began taping things off late night TV back then, which is how I caught favorites like SHOCK WAVES or ZONTAR: THE THING FROM VENUS.  That old VCR was how I saw so many of the great and awful films that I still love.

I’ll also say this about watching movies on home video — it’s STILL something I’m amazed and grateful for, because I remember when I was first introduced to this concept — that just because you’re thinking of a movie could now mean you could choose to watch it, then and there.  That is an amazing luxury.  The other luxury is the huge mine of cinema history that opened up with the ability to cheaply acquire and watch older movies.  In the Euro Cult world I’m always impressed how we can pour over these films that never really were meant to stand some kind of test of time – but that’s one of the qualities that make them so special.   These films were made with an urgency because there was a market that was just hungry for more and more movies, coming at a time of real inventiveness in cinema.  When I made my own movie, that urgency was something I kept in mind–THE PACT was not made after 10 years of developing it–it was written in six weeks and shot in 18 days!  But with the budget so low the financier was basically like “just go do it” and I had no time to think too much about anything beyond trying to make this weird little movie I had imagined in my head just weeks before.  Some might criticize that approach, but I wouldn’t have traded that freshness for anything.  The whole thing was just full throttle, the same way that guys like Enzo Castellari operated, back in the day.

Did reading about the way in which Italian filmmakers made their films or even watching the special features on the DVDs have any impact on how you’ve honed your skills as a filmmaker? You mention Castellari, but did he or any of the other prolific filmmakers of the period make an impression on the way you made your film on such a tight schedule?

One of the things that I’ve come to really admire about many of the directors from back then was how prolific they were.  I mean, a guy like Castellari had a film coming out every 6 months in the 70s!  And in all different genres — westerns, crime films, comedies…  As I said earlier, I think there’s strength in making things quickly, to attack a script and move on.  It can produce all kinds of films — some terrible, but also some that are masterpieces.  And that’s not limited to exploitation — many of the titans of the “art film” did the same thing — Bunuel, Bergman, Fassbinder… they just made film after film after film.  That’s something I aspire to do.

The circumstances of the Italian film industry in the 70s are exceptional, there’s no going back to that time economically or culturally.  But the more of the films from the period that I watch the more in tune I feel to that urgency that went into making them, and it in turn, that inspires me to create something.  Their energy is contagious.

Are you a big fan of Euro Cult cinema? If so, please can you touch upon the genres, films and filmmakers that have inspired you as an artist? 

The first Euro Cult films I saw were, like a lot of other fans, viewed on cropped VHS tapes. Probably the first Euro genre title I ever saw was Fulci’s GATES OF HELL aka CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD.  I was about 13 and probably read about it in Fangoria, which obsessed over how much blood was in a movie, therefore it paid special attention to this title.  It was a little boring at that age, but strangely fascinating.  It came from another world, outside of American cinema.  It had a whole different cinematic language.  And it was disgusting.  I was interested.

It wasn’t until a few years later, at age 16, that I truly “discovered” Euro Cult, when I went to see a 35mm screening of SUSPIRIA.  I knew next to nothing about this movie going in, maybe just that it was an Italian horror movie.  I was nearly all alone in the theater, by myself, mid-week, during a hot summer.  The sound was LOUD.  When the film finished my mind was shattered.  I had never seen anything so scary, so cinematic, so strange.  I wanted more. Since then I’ve watched Italian, French, and Spanish genre movies non-stop.  My next obsession after Argento, of course, was Mario Bava — his work blew me away, I loved exploring film after film of his, each one so different and amazing.  As I got older I developed a soft spot for gialli and the whole spectrum of crime films.  Probably my favorite giallo is STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH, but I’ve seen dozens and loved many of them, from the beautiful ones like LE ORME to the cruddy insanity of Umerto Lenzi’s EYEBALL.

Crime films it’s the same thing — I’ve been enthusiastic about the classier examples, like MACHINE GUN MCCAIN, but also loved the trashiest of the trash, like the movie I first saw on a double bill with MCCAIN — ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON aka ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH.   That movie is batshit crazy.

SUSPIRIA seems to be an entry level title for many EuroCult fans, it was one of the first Italian horror films I saw too. You mention ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH, again this was one of the first poliziotteschi films I caught and, like my friend who introduced me to them, I stumbled upon the genre because I found myself seeking out the work of the directors of Italian horror movies – was this the case with you? Looking at the work of directors such as Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino in particular as both dabbled in many different genres, do you have a preference to a particular type of film that they made?

Yeah, horror was my entry point and I think it’s true for a lot of fans.  What I discovered was that really there are so many more interesting European thrillers and crime films than horror movies.  It’s fun to trace the careers of a lot of these directors because you see their strengths and weaknesses, but I also have learned that the strength of the work often has a lot to do with the circumstances of both when the movies were made and how well they were produced.   When Sergio Martino made STRANGE VICE… it was at the very beginning of the giallo flood and for me it feels like the quintessential movie that defined the cycle after Bava and Argento put the elements together.  For that reason it seems like everything falls into place for Martino on that movie and I’ve watched it many times.   In the same way, with Lenzi’s films, I first heard about him because of the notorious, sloppily made horror movies from the later part of his career, but when I saw his late 60s giallo ORGASMO with him working with a stronger budget and just at a different pop cultural moment I was like “wow!”  That film is one of the all-time classic Euro Cult titles to me.  Then I started seeing his crime movies in between and I was like “holy shit, this guy is crazy!  Who knew he could do that too?”

Have you paid homage to any of your favourite films or directors in THE PACT?  

Well there’s a lot of different genre films that influenced the movie, and there’s a lot of Euro Cult in there.  There’s a shot at the beginning that is a direct reference to SUSPIRIA, where the camera rises up and peers down at the actress through a hanging lamp.  In Argento’s film they’re on some crazy crane, while we just used the boom arm on the dolly, but it was a total homage.  I showed my director of photography Bridger Nielson sequences from SUSPIRIA to give him an idea of how we wanted to establish camera movement.  It was funny, the film is like a sacred text to me, and Bridger thought it was cool, but he kept pointing out how bumpy Argento’s dolly shots were!

The mystery plotting of the movie was inspired completely by the Italian giallo film.  There’s a kind of fetishy attention to detail in those movies that I tried to get in THE PACT, with lots of close ups of clues.  There’s also a murder sequence in the movie where all you see is a hand with a knife and the audience doesn’t see who’s holding the knife.  The concept for the scene came from the classic giallo template, and for reference I actually showed our makeup FX guy and my DoP a murder in Argento’s OPERA. There are tons of dolly shots in the movie following people around.  Part of it was inspired by the classic, poetic horror movies of Val Lewton, but the look and size of the shots came from the park sequence in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET.

Finally, there’s a long daylight sequence in my movie that is entirely modeled on the look and feel of Antonioni’s BLOW-UP.  I was watching that movie again a few years ago and realized how much Argento took from it for BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE – the movie that kicked off the wonderful wave of all those gialli.  So it’s a kind of Euro Cult reference in a more oblique way.

BLOW-UP is a wonderful film and one that gets better with each subsequent viewing. Were you aware of the importance of creating a work that stands up to the scrutiny of repeated viewings and did you deliberately make choices that would allow for things to go unnoticed when the viewer watches THE PACT for the first time?

I was just concerned with trying to create the movie in my head, which on our budget meant trying to get as many different shots as we could every day.  I really feel like you can’t think about the future when you create something like this, you never know how it will be received or who will like it.  One of the things that’s been cool about getting the film out there is some of the people who I respect, horror fans with blogs, genre savvy writers like Kim Newman in particular, have given the movie props.  But in no way did I ever try to calculate or predict that sort of response.  I was just trying to make my first movie.  I hope that some people will return to it.  Lord knows there are a lot of films that I’ve watched again and again where the creators never imagined people would see it more than once, like so many of the Euro Cult titles we love.

Thank you, Nick, it’s been great chatting with you.

Dario Argento: The Man, the Myths and the Magic – FAB Press (Alan Jones)

Profondo Argento, now fully updated, re-named and re-issued with brand new chapters!

Limited Edition, available in hardback only!

Features full-length interviews with: Asia Argento, Claudio Argento, Fiore Argento, Lamberto Bava, Roy Bava, Simon Boswell, Michael Brandon, Chiara Caselli, Luigi Cozzi, Liam Cunningham, Keith Emerson, Franco Ferrini, Jessica Harper, Udo Kier, Daria Nicolodi, Stefania Rocca, George A. Romero, Gianni Romoli, Dardano Sacchetti, Julian Sands, Tom Savini, Claudio Simonetti, Michele Soavi, Sergio Stivaletti, Max Von Sydow, Ronnie Taylor, Luciano Tovoli.

All-new illustrations! Never-before-seen behind the scenes photos, exclusive shots specially produced for this book, rare artwork and stills.

This book features full coverage of Argento’s new film Dracula 3D.

Full details and pre-order info at the FAB Press website HERE

What Have They Done To Your Daughters?

What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (Massimo Dallamano, 1974)

aka ‘La Polizia chiede aiuto’ / ‘The Coed Murders’

The giallo and the Italian cop film (or poliziotteschi), having both been introduced during the sixties, really hit their stride at the beginning of the next decade. With scores of the films being released each year, it wasn’t long before enterprising producers and screenwriters were sifting through the best attributes from each genre and combining them to create something more provocative, in a desperate bid to revitalise an industry that was beginning to falter. While there’s no doubt that some earlier poliziotteschi had gialloesque flourishes, and many gialli had a police procedural plot at their core, writer/director Massimo Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (Original Italian title: Cosa avete fatto a Solange?) would define and usher-in the giallo/poliziotteschi hybrid once and for all and lead other filmmakers to try their hand at some genre splicing of their own, such as Umberto Lenzi’s excellent SUSPECTED DEATH OF A MINOR and Dallamano’s own follow-up film, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS and its Alberto Negrin-directed “sequel” RED RINGS OF FEAR.

With a lullaby-like Stelvio Cipriani music cue juxtaposed against images of young girls frolicking as they leave school, the audience is immediately lulled into a sense that there is a world of discovery awaiting these seemingly innocent teenagers and that the film will play out like some rites of passage melodrama. However, no sooner have the credits rolled, the body of a pregnant schoolgirl is found hanging from the rafters of a bohemian loft and it soon becomes clear that cause of death is murder. So begins Massimo Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS; one of the finest entries in either the giallo or poliziotteschi genres. Claudio Cassinelli stars as Inspector Silvestri; a determined sleuth that will stop at nothing to blow the lid off the case and catch the culprit responsible. Aided by an assistant district attorney (Giovanna Ralli), Silvestri’s enquiries lead him through a typically labyrinthine plot of intrigue that involves a peeping tom, a hatchet-wielding biker and a teenage prostitution racket; all the requirements necessary for an evening of EuroCult fun. 

While WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS has an aura of sleaziness about it, there’s no denying that the film is an exceptionally well-crafted piece, both in its plotting (the screenplay was written by Dallamano and Ettore Sanzò, based on a story by the latter), Antonio Siciliano’s excellent editing and Dallamano’s interesting use of angles and handheld photography. The film certainly has a distinctive look; one that elevates it higher than many of the films by Dallamano’s contemporaries, simply because it aspires to be more than just a film adhering to the conventions set down by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and for that it should be applauded. WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS is a rare example of all the elements coming together to produce and an exceptionally satisfying whole; the aforementioned attributes are commendable, but when you add pleasing turns from Cassinelli and the ever-reliable Mario Adorf (who is criminally underused; the film’s one bum note), some taught action sequences involving Alfa Romeos and an unforgettable Cipriani score, you have a EuroCult film that entertains on every possible level.

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS was originally released on UK DVD by Redemption/Salvation, way back in January 2000, and while it was great to see the film in its original ratio, the non-anamorphic framing and washed-out print left a lot to be desired, so I’m happy to report that this new releases from fledgling EuroCult specialist Shameless Screen Entertainment is a vast improvement. The Shameless disc presents the film in its original 2.35:1 ratio and is enhanced for widescreen displays. The print itself is leaps and bounds ahead of the Redemption release, with colours looking a lot more vibrant. Though there is some grain evident, it isn’t distracting and one would expect that this is probably the best a film of this vintage is ever going to look on a standard DVD release. The sound is presented in English and again, seems to be superior to the Redemption release which sounds tinny and muffled by comparison. Inline with other Shameless discs, the film’s trailer is included, along with previews of other recent or upcoming releases.

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS is an exceptional film that should find a place in any serious EuroCult aficionado’s collection. If you already own the Redemption release, it’s time for an upgrade, as this is a double dip that is strongly recommended.

(Paul Alaoui)

The 11th Fantastic Films Weekend – ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ in 35mm


The line up for this years Fantastic Films Weekend in Bradford was announced this week and yet again shows a strong assortment of classic horror and sci-fi that should see any genre fan happy. One stand out screening is a rare outing for an original 35mm print of Dario Argento’s FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET which is being shown on the final day of the festival.

For the full listing of what’s on and booking info check out the official website at this link

Redemption to Unleash the Power of Bava and Franco on Blu-ray

The US division of Redemption has been issuing its library on Blu-ray at quite a pace and things aren’t set to slow down, as a host of Mario Bava’s finest films will join those of prolific Spanish cult filmmaker Jess Franco before the end of this year. While exact dates and disc specifications have yet to be announced, you can expect to see HD versions of the following: BLACK SUNDAY, LISA AND THE DEVIL, A HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, FEMAL VAMPIRE, EXORCISM and VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. The first titles are expected in Spetember/October.

Source: Blu-ray.com

 

My Dear Killer

My Dear Killer (Tonino Valerii, 1972)

aka Mio caro assassino

The Italian murder mystery (better known to Euro Cult aficionados as the giallo) is a well-worn genre. For every exemplary giallo, there are three or four that are mediocre at best, but almost all of them have one thing in common; an effortless sense of style, and Tonino Valerii’s MY DEAR KILLER is no exception. While it’s not an exceptional film it’s certainly above average  and true to the spirit of a pantheon of films that is synonymous with black leather glove-clad killers, obtuse camera angles and operatic music scores.

Valerii—like many of his brethren–was something of a journeyman throughout his career in the Italian film industry. Having established himself as a sometime writer and assistant director to Sergio Leone (no small feat when you consider the so-called ‘Father of the Italian Western’ had taken the same road and without doubt, must have been a hard man to please) the young filmmaker soon began to carve out a career as a director and, like his mentor, would make the spaghetti his staple. Valerii’s ascension to the director’s chair was fairly typical of the era, as many emerging filmmakers were given the chance to cut their teeth on Westerns simply because there were more projects than there were directors, but the films of Valerii (and, like the work of fellow Leone alumni Duccio Tessari, Massimo Dallamano and Sergio Corbucci) managed to rise above the deluge of functional or sub-par efforts that were becoming the staple; the crescendo of which was his 1969 effort, THE PRICE OF POWER (Il Prezzo del potere); a film that transposes the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination to the Old West.

After the Italian Western began to fall from prominence in the early 70s, Valerii, like many of his peers, ended up drifting from genre to genre but unlike a lot of lesser filmmakers, seemed to make a success of whatever he turned his hand to. MY DEAR KILLER marked Valerii’s first and only foray into the giallo, which is a shame because he certainly exhibits a strong understanding of getting the most out of the format, effortlessly juxtaposing roving killer point-of-view shots with gratuitous nudity, gore and an atypically low-key Ennio Morricone score.

Inspector Luca Peretti (George Hilton) is called to the scene of what appears to be an accident: an insurance investigator’s body lies decapitated; the victim of an apparent mishap with a digger and all fingers point to the machine’s operator; a man who appears to have vanished. It’s not long before the digger driver’s body is found hanging from a ceiling. The driver had accidentally killed the insurance investigator, fled the scene and had killed himself when he realised he could no longer live with the guilt; an open and shut case? Not as far as Peretti is concerned and the dedicated cop is soon uncovering a labyrinthine plot that becomes intertwined with the kidnapping and murder of a young girl.

What sets MY DEAR KILLER apart from more formulaic gialli is that its greatest attribute is its strong narrative. Many gialli rely on the flimsiest of contrivances to propel their narratives but Valerii’s film (which he co-wrote with Roberto Leoni, Franco Bucceri and José Gutiérrez Maesso) has some genuinely surprising and more importantly, credible twists and turns.

The transfer on Shameless’ recently released region free disc is certainly a step up from Shriek Show DVD, with the picture looking a lot brighter than that of its American counterpart. Print damage and grain are both evident, though typical of a film of MY DEAR KILLER’S vintage. The sound is presented in English mono and is perfectly fine. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included, along with previews for six other Shameless releases.

 

MY DEAR KILLER is a good, solid giallo and should find a home in the collection of all self-respecting genre enthusiasts. While the US disc has been available for some time now, Shameless’ disc presents the film, in my humble opinion, in a better transfer and is definitely worth an upgrade if you’re not content with Shriek Show’s darker image.

(Paul Alaoui)

The Sister Of Ursula

The Sister Of Ursula (Enzo Milioni, 1978)

Enzo Milioni’s first film as a Director sees Barbara Magnolfi as Ursula, who along with her sister, Dagmar, checks into a beautiful hotel on the coast of sunny Italy. The two girls have barely finished unpacking their suitcases when other guests begin to be murdered by an unseen assailant wearing black leather gloves. Ursula, being a touch neurotic due to the trauma of her father’s recent death, has a bad feeling about the hotel and some of the guests, especially the shady Fillipo (Marc Porel), drug addict boyfriend of the hotels resident cabaret star Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow). Stella is also the world’s worst cabaret singer; she can’t even mime to her backing tapes competently. I’m not lying when I say that her lips barely move as she performs her act. It’s pitiful. But it’s also very funny.

The story on the whole is very thin on the ground; it’s the basic killer on the loose premise with the killer using the usual sex equals death motive for picking out the victims. Accompanied by the requisite 70’s style porn film music, the sex scenes are dropped into the film at regular intervals, each one followed by a murder. So at least you know what to expect. Sex is followed by death, which in this case is dealt out via a huge phallic ornament and you can work out for yourselves how it’s used on the victims(!)

Competently made, with some fantastic locations, ‘La Sorella di Ursula’ features some terribly lazy work from Marc Porel. Looking like he really can’t be bothered most of the time; the fact that his character is a hopeless junkie seems to eerily mirror his own predicament at that time. In fact out of all the cast it is only Magnolfi who looks like she’s taking her role seriously, turning in a solid performance.

Severin has done a great job bringing this film to DVD, finding the best vault elements available and transferring them to disc in a sharp, colourful, anamorphic widescreen transfer. There’s minor traces of damage to the print in the shape of light scratches here and there but this in no way detracts from the sleazy fun to be had from watching it. Audio is provided in the form of the original Italian language track, with optional English subtitles. Extra features consist of a 30 minute interview with Director Enzo Milioni and the theatrical trailer; fans of naked ladies will be pleased to know that almost every female character in the film disrobes at some point, something the amazingly exploitative trailer shows off with gay abandon.

All bases are covered in the interview featurette with the Director offering up plenty of information on how he managed to stop Marc Porel’s drug habit ruining the shoot – he gave the actor instructions to request two day breaks any time he needed to ‘get his head together’ – how the hotel used for filming was actually under construction at the time of the shoot and how it never actually opened once finished. Milioni comes across as a decent enough guy and has nothing but good things to say about the actors and actresses involved in the film especially Porel and Magnolfi who he considered good friends after filming completed, when he discusses the events leading up to Porel’s death and Barbara’s subsequent disappearance from the movie world he genuinely looks saddened by the whole affair.

‘La sorella di Ursula’ is definitely in the category of ‘so bad it’s good’, terrible lip synching by Stella Shining, borderline hardcore sex scenes with atrocious music and a black glove-clad killer with a terrifying huge wooden dildo. It’s late 70’s sleazy gialli at its best… or possibly worst depending on your taste in movies.

(Jonny Redman)

 

The Designated Victim

The Designated Victim (Maurizio Lucidi, 1971)

aka La Vittima designata / Murder By Design / Slam Out

In the annals of Italian cinema Maurizio Lucidi’s THE DESIGNATED VICTIM is something of a standout when you consider the period in which it was made. Shot in 1970 and released in Italy early the following year, it pre-dates the poliziesco explosion by a couple of years but doesn’t fit perfectly within the confines of the genre anyway: nor does it play like the gialli that were typical of the period either; it’s far closer to thrillers such as Elio Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (aka INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION) and therefore would seem more like an attempt at serious filmmaking, rather than the exploitationer that its credentials would suggest.

Lucidi’s plot (co-devised by Augusto Caminto, Aldo Lado and Antonio Trioso) owes its central conceit to Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and foreshadows Dario Argento’s own homage, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? Tomas Milian stars as Stefano Argenti: a fashion designer stuck in a loveless marriage to Luisa (Marisa Bartoli). While he tends to the day-to-day running of her business he becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of confidence she has in his capabilities. With a buyer lined up to purchase a sizeable amount of the company’s shares, Stefano becomes incensed when Luisa refuses to allow him to sell, thus scuppering his plan to pocket the money and disappear with his mistress, Fabienne (Katia Christine). While on a short break with Fabienne in Venice, Stefano meets Matteo Tiepolo (Pierre Clementi) a mysterious count who offers him a solution to his problems: Matteo is happy to kill Luisa if Stefano is prepared to return the favour by murdering the Count’s bully of an older brother.

Though Matteo’s plan seems like an obvious solution to Stefano’s problems, the designer declines the Count’s offer and returns to his wife. However, Matteo continues to court Stefano, seemingly desperate to eliminate his brother who has now taken to physical violence. Stefano refuses once more which results in Matteo killing Luisa and him being blackmailed into upholding what the Count believes to be the designer’s side of the bargain. With Matteo doggedly pursuing him and planting crucial evidence, and the police closing in, time is clearly running out for Stefano…

THE DESIGNATED VICTIM is a cracking thriller. Lucidi and his writers establish their plot early on, leaving the stage clear for some tremendous sparring between Milian and Clementi, both of whom deliver first rate performances. Milian’s Stefano is at first confident and calculating but becomes much more sympathetic as the narrative unfolds and the actor nails both of these dispositions perfectly. In contrast to Stefano, Clementi’s Matteo is the complete antithesis: we are introduced to a softly-spoken, sensitive and frail Count whose devious plan is borne out of desperation. But as his manipulation of Stefano amps up in the second half of the film, we begin to see a much darker side of his character. Such complicated characters live and die by the actors that play them and if either of them had been inhabited by a weaker actor, the film would never have reached the heights of intelligence and plausibility that it maintains throughout.

Though the acting and dynamic between Stefano and Matteo–that is clearly derived from the script–is the essence of what makes THE DESIGNATED VICTIM such a great film, Lucidi’s role as director also brings a great deal of prestige to the proceedings and is certainly the best example of his work that I have seen. Having directed spaghetti westerns such as A STRANGER IN TOWN and HALLELUJA FOR DJANGO before THE DESIGNATED VICTIM and the likes of STATELINE MOTEL and SICILIAN CROSS after it, nothing else on his directorial filmography would appear to be in the same class. That said, many of Lucidi’s key contributors add a great deal of elegance to THE DESIGNATED VICTIM too. From Enrico Sabbatini’s sublime and heavily-stylised production design to Aldo Tonti’s formidable cinematography, the film manages to gel on every conceivable level. The ever reliable Luis Enríquez Bacalov also delivers another memorable musical score that stands among the likes of DJANGO and MILANO CALIBRO 9 as the composer’s best work.

Coming almost two years after the German release and English-language DVD debut from New Entertainment World, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Shameless’ recently issued UK disc would be ripe for overlooking but you’d be wrong. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and framed in the original 2.35:1 ratio. While the quality of print isn’t as good as some of the company’s better releases, the print is serviceable and slightly better than the NEW release to my eye. However, Shameless have gone the extra mile by adding some of the elements that were missing from the print found on the German disc. Although the inserts do come from a noticeably inferior source, they are brief and detract from the sudden scene cuts that plagued the NEW release. There is also the choice of either the original Italian soundtrack (accompanied by English subtitles) or the English language dub. Extras include a gallery of artwork, deleted scenes the trailer and the now obligatory selection of previews for other Shameless releases. Best of all however, is a text-based fact track that unspools during the film. Written by Stefan Novak, the track mines much information regarding the differences between versions released around the world and trivia surrounding the filmmakers and actors. Definitely worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time.

Shameless have delivered the definitive version of an excellent film. THE DESIGNATED VICTIM transcends the limitations that pigeon-holed many of its contemporaries. It’s a sterling feature film and one that stands up to repeat viewings.

(Paul Alaoui)

 

Four Flies On Grey Velvet

Four Flies On Grey Velvet (Dario Argento, 1971)

aka Quattro mosche di velluto grigio

…and it was well into the thirteenth year in the life of the DVD format when the powers that be finally granted Dario Argento’s third feature, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET a legitimate release. To say it’s been a long time coming is something of a massive understatement. With so many rumours and false starts over the years, many of us had all but given up hope of a release. For those that are not aware of the film’s chequered history, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET was a joint venture between Universal in France, Paramount Pictures in the US and an Italian production company. There’s been all manner of speculation surrounding the unavailability of the film–it was released theatrically in the US, but outside of France, Greece and Belgium it had never been officially issued on any home video format—one such rumour is that the Italian production company became bankrupt and its share of the film’s rights were tied up in a legal litigation that prevented any release. Many US and UK companies valiantly pursued various avenues in order to untangle the red tape the film’s rights seemed buried under: William Lustig of Blue Underground, Optimum Releasing, Marc Morris; these are just a few of the people and organisations that endeavoured to get FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET out on DVD, though none of them were able to overcome the seemingly labyrinthine licensing issue.

In December 2007 a grey market outfit called Retromedia operating out of Germany issued an all-regions disc of the film. Although the print sourced for release was infinitely superior to the godawful 16mm dupe that had been doing the rounds as a bootleg for many years, it was still plagued with excessive grain, hampered by an abundance of print damage and worst of all, missing quite a few shots throughout: these missing shots and small sequences were replaced with footage taken directly from the 16mm dupe and looked nasty, but this was the only way for the film to be seen. Argento’s legion of fans—myself included—embraced the release but held-out hope that a legitimate, fully remastered release would follow one day. When that day finally came it was not one of the established, genre stalwarts that ushered in the release, rather a new company that had seemingly come out of nowhere: Mya Communications. In truth, the company wasn’t as naive as it looked as it had been set up by some the now-defunct US division of NoShame’s ex-employees.

Now the film is finally here, many of those that have never seen it are probably in for a bit of a disappointment, in all honesty: years of unavailability and anticipation for a decent release probably haven’t done the film many favours. Of Argento’s original trilogy of gialli (this was the third following THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and THE CAT O’NINE TAILS), it’s probably on a par with the second film: It’s beautifully shot—Argento and his cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo create some wonderful compositions: many of which utilise the frame in some incredibly bizarre ways—and features probably my favourite Ennio Morricone score composed for a giallo but its storyline leaves a lot more to be desired. The plot is simple: successful drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon – TV’s DEMPSEY AND MAKEPEACE) finds himself at the centre of a blackmail conspiracy after he inadvertently kills the shadowy assailant who has been stalking him. Murder and mayhem ensue, with Roberto seeking help from the enigmatic Godfrey (Bud Spencer – BOOT HILL, DOUBLE TROUBLE) and a distinctly camp private eye (Jean-Pierre Marielle – THE PERFUME OF YVONNE, HOLD-UP).

While FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET is undoubtedly one of Argento’s weaker efforts it is still a solid effort within the giallo genre. There’s still plenty to admire in the film: the aforementioned photography and music, the use of some tremendous locations—the dilapidated theatre seen in the film’s opening and Roberto then-ultramodern apartment—and a rather quirky comical undercurrent that runs through scenes featuring Spencer, Marielle and a rather put-upon postman. In fact, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET is definitely a film that improves upon repeat viewings: once you’ve overcome any initial disappointment, it’s certainly a film that will grow on you. Having seen the film four or five times now, I can categorically state that I’ve never enjoyed it as much as I did when I saw it again for the purposes of this review: many would argue that seeing the film presented in a decent transfer would be the reason why one would enjoy it more, but there’s definitely a likability that is borne out of a familiarity with its plot and characters.

So for those that have seen the film before and have had to endure unwatchable dupes or scratchy grey market releases, how does the Mya Communications release measure up? In a word: remarkably. The progressive image—which I viewed upscaled to 1080p on a 46” display—looked marvellous: it’s not only the best FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET has looked, it also gives some of the leading companies’ best transfers a run for their money too. There’s so much to celebrate in the picture quality. For a start, there’s a vast amount of detail—check out the close-up on Brandon’s face in the opening scene: every freckle and blemish on his skin can be clearly seen—and colours are rich and vibrant. Granted, darker scenes aren’t quite as sharp but this is a very small complaint. If every EuroCult release could be afforded the same level of gorgeousness, the cognoscenti would have nothing to complain about again.

But be warned, the Mya release is a mixed blessing. While the picture is sublime, the sound quality is a different story, however. The Italian language track (which isn’t accompanied by English subtitles) is great and everything one would expect from a mono track of its age but the same cannot be said for the English dub. The English track is fine for the most part, though I did struggle to hear some dialogue but the disc’s biggest problem is that it suffers from a rather distracting distortion audible whenever Morricone’s signature cue plays out. Again, this isn’t a massive issue and when weighs up the pros and cons between this and the German grey market release, the Mya disc is most definitely the one to go for. It’s also worth noting that like the Retromedia release, there are minute passages of the film that are absent from the Mya release and these sections differ from those missing from the German disc. These missing elements include the introduction to the scene just prior to Roberto meeting with Godfrey for the first time and a line of dialogue between the same characters at the end of the film, after Nina walks out the door. There’s also a colour grading issue in the scene in which the housemaid waits for the blackmailer in the park: the scene was obviously shot day for night with the intention of correcting the colour in post-production. In the Retromedia release there is a gradual descent into darkness, whereas the Mya release lingers in the daylight before making an abrupt transition into darkness when the maid is chased through the park’s gardens. Again, this is a minor issue but one that could have been so easily avoided by those overseeing the transfer.

So there you have it. One of the most sought-after home video releases finally debuts on a flawed but essential disc. While the film is most likely to fall short of the expectations of those watching for the first time, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET is definitely a grower and I urge anyone that’s only seen it once to give it another go. Mya Communications must be applauded for delivering this elusive title in such a wonderful way. Long may they prosper.

(Paul Alaoui)

 

 

Sleepless

Sleepless (Dario Argento, 2001)

Turin, March 1983. A young boy lurks in the shadows, petrified and inconsolable. Having just witnessed the brutal murder of his mother, he finds solace when a kindly police inspector vows to find the responsible party. Flash forward to present, a prostitute, stricken with disgust and fear, proclaims she is not prepared to indulge her client’s inaudible requests. Later, she gathers her things as he sleeps and makes a hasty exit from the apartment. In a secluded carriage on a night train, the prostitute discovers that in her hurry to leave the apartment she inadvertently packed a blue file. Upon opening the file she discovers clippings and photographs that may link her client with several grisly murders. Petrified that the “killer” may be in pursuit, she calls a friend and asks to meet her at the station she plans to alight. When both the prostitute and her friend are killed in the most shocking fashion, the police begin an investigation that uncovers a connection between the murders of the women and that of a spate of killings seventeen years before. The original case had been closed supposedly when the chief suspect, a dwarf called Vincenzo, had been found floating in a canal with a bullet in his head. Although now retired, the detective who had been involved in the earlier case, Ulisse Moretti (Max Von Sydow – THE EXORCIST, THE SEVENTH SEAL) decides to look into the new case himself, and enlists the son of one of the victims to help…

So begins SLEEPLESS, a film that is rightly considered by many to be Argento’s return to form after a somewhat patchy period of films in the 1990s. SLEEPLESS also marked Argento’s return to the giallo after a hiatus that encompassed THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (which had elements of the giallo but is, for all intents and purposes, more of a psychological thriller) and the woefully misguided PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. From a screen play co-written by Argento, Franco Ferrini (who had collaborated with Argento on numerous occasions before, including work on films such as OPERA and PHENOMENA) and Carlo Lucarelli (better known in Italy as a novelist), SLEEPLESS at times feels like an homage to the director’s better work, incorporating plot devices from many of his earlier films. One cannot help but think that this was an attempt on Argento’s part to reconnect with those fans and critics that had written him off after enduring close to a decade of lesser works. The result is something of a blessing and a curse, and while SLEEPLESS has all the hallmarks of a giallo from Argento’s vintage period, the recycling of ideas and themes from other films lends something of a familiar feel to the proceedings. This is however not a bad thing, because by fashioning  a straight giallo, Argento managed to steer himself clear of the many trappings that has led much of his post-TENEBRAE output into a corner that’s dated the films badly. For example, there is none of the reliance on technology or hair-brain “scientific discovery” that has hampered the likes of PHENOMENA and TRAUMA since the dust settled after their release. SLEEPLESS really is a back-to-basics affair that has afforded the film to weather the time since it came out a lot better.

Aesthetically speaking, SLEEPLESS is something of a mixed blessing too. The film reunited Argento with British cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, the pair previously having worked together on OPERA and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Taylor’s photography is assured when it comes to the roving point-of-view shots that one expects from an Argento film, but the image itself lacks the sumptuousness of many of the director’s best loved work, with an altogether flat, underwhelming look. SLEEPLESS also marked Argento’s collaboration with Goblin on a complete score for the first time since TENEBRAE, and this is somewhat more of a successful union. The film’s main theme is memorable and there are other distinctive cues that arise throughout the film’s duration, though there are also some techno-heavy pieces that do the film no favours.

Arrow’s disc, released under their new ‘Masters Of Giallo’ imprint is a strong release. While I never saw the previous UK release that was put out by M.I.A. in 2002, I understand that it was vastly inferior to the Italian disc from Medusa. The video, mastered in anamorphic widescreen, compares favourably with the Medusa release and serves Taylor’s cinematography well. While there is some grain evident in darker scenes, one would assume that this is how the film was originally intended to be seen and I would guess that there’s very little room for improvement here. The image is solid and flesh tones appear natural. The sound, which is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1, services the film well and creates a nice, enveloping ambience but is not the type of mix that’s going to give your system a thorough workout. The review copy I was sent features what appears to be the same English 5.1 mix that appeared on the Medusa disc and while the score and foley tracks are distinct, the dialogue is often a little hard to make out. Rest assured, I have been told that this mix is going to be reworked before the film is officially released, so this slight quibble should be eradicated by then. Arrow has also includes some interesting features. These include  a stills gallery, the original Italian trailer and a behind-the-scenes documentary that was made at the time of the film’s release. Said documentary is in Italian with English subtitles. It’s quite an interesting piece and Argento talks quite candidly about his return to the giallo. There’s also a brand new featurette that examines the genre itself and SLEEPLESS’ place within it. This is a great piece for those  discovering the giallo for the first time, but most many seasoned fans will probably not take much away that is new.

So, Arrow has done a fine job of this release. Minor flaws aside, the film itself is still an enjoyable giallo and sadly, it’s Argento’s last decent film. Incidentally, SLEEPLESS was the first part of a projected trilogy that was to have been immediately followed by DARK GLASSES. Due to a dispute over rights, the second film was not to have been, but it does make you wonder how different Argento’s subsequent work would have been had he continued on this trajectory. I guess we’ll never know.

(Paul Alaoui)