Macumba Sexual

Macumba Sexual (Jess Franco, 1981)

 

After years of strict censorship under General Franco’s regime, Spanish cinema went through a big change when censorship was finally lifted in 1977 – two years after Franco’s death. The dictator’s namesake, prolific Spanish director Jess Franco, had been spending most of the 1970s making movies in other European countries like France , Switzerland and Italy , but chose to return to his homeland in the early 1980s. Here, Franco would make use of the newfound filmic freedom in Spain to make a number of strong erotic films, among which MACUMBA SEXUAL is one of the most revered by Franco fans.

Once again, Franco casts his life partner and muse Lina Romay (credited here as ‘Candy Coster’) in the leading role. Romay plays Alice Brooks, an attractive real estate agent who is vacationing in the Canary Islands with her novelist husband (Franco favorite Antonio Mayans – credited under his usual ‘Robert Foster’ moniker). They relax, enjoy the sun and have lots of sex but at night, Alice is haunted by a recurring sexual nightmare. In this vivid dream, she encounters a striking black woman named Tara (Ajita Wilson), who keeps a crawling naked man and woman on leashes, as if they were dogs. Tara then lets her “pets” loose and laughs creepily as they attack and ravage the screaming Alice .

In the middle of her holiday, Alice receives a phone call from her boss, who tells her that a certain Princess Obango is interested in buying one of their properties in Atlantic City . Since the princess is living close to where Alice is vacationing, Alice ‘s boss wants her to secure the business deal, to which she agrees. But once she meets with Princess Obango, Alice is shocked to see that the princess is the sinister black woman from her nightmares. Poor Alice is powerless against the princess’s dark powers and quickly falls under her seductive spell. Little does she know about the frightening fate Obango has planned for her…

With a filmography as immense as Jess Franco’s, it goes without saying that different fans are going to like different films. Some may prefer his early Dr. Orlof films, while others may like his Swiss films better, and others yet may have a penchant for his films with Soledad Miranda etc. Personally, I tend to prefer the films Franco made in the late 1960s and early 1970s; particularly the ones he made for Harry Alan Towers . His work from the early 1980s and onwards, however, is quite erratic. Sure, Franco enjoyed more freedom to make the films he wanted during this period, but many of these projects are plagued by the fact that Franco was starting to get a bit too productive. He was churning out up to eight movies a year and not really taking the time to polish one film before starting to shoot the next. And whereas his earlier films had been made with decent means, many of these 80s productions were obviously made on poverty-row budgets – typically taking place in minimal surroundings and inhabited only by a few (mostly naked) actors. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t – resulting in some rather carelessly made films. Fortunately, though, MACUMBA SEXUAL is one of Franco’s films from this period that really works. It manages to betray its low budget by shooting in the beautiful Canary Islands ; putting the picturesque locations to great use and cleverly throwing in all sorts of interesting stuff that happened to be there: beautiful buildings, exotic African statues and figurines etc. Franco’s trademark zoom lens is also present but it doesn’t matter as Juan Soler’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; showing great detail for both composition and visual flair as he captures the atmospheric surroundings.

Plot-wise, MACUMBA SEXUAL is pretty much a remake of VAMPYROS LESBOS (1970), one of the most popular films in Franco’s oeuvre. This is nothing new as Franco has always been fond of reworking many of his plots and themes in different films. However, not a whole lot actually happens in this film but it still works pretty well because of its eerie atmosphere and visual style. The opening third is especially impressive; setting the tone early on with Alice ‘s unsettling and bizarre sexual nightmares. The pace does slow down a bit in the middle act but there is still a lot to enjoy as the film is full of arresting images, such as Alice struggling as she runs through the giant sand dunes, her husband being locked up in a big bamboo cage, and an amazing sequence where Princess Obango descends into complete delirium by sucking on a phallic figurine while frenetic drum music plays. Eventually, dream and reality are successfully blended together; leaving the viewers confused about what is real and what isn’t.

In an inspired choice of casting, Franco awards the role of Princess Tara Obango to Ajita Wilson, a prolific actress in numerous erotic European films (both soft and hard), who had already acted for Franco in his sleazy WIP flick SADOMANIA (1980). Much of Ajita’s popularity throughout Europe (she worked regularly in Italy , Spain and Greece ) was no doubt a result of both her uninhibited nature and her fascinating personal life as she was reputedly a post-op transsexual. Unfortunately, Ajita died in an automobile accident in 1987, and her personal life remains a fascinating enigma to this day. As Franco himself states in the interview on the DVD, Ajita was really more of a presence than an actress but what a mesmerizing presence! Her enigmatic real-life personality lends an aura of mystery to her character and she is nothing short of the perfect embodiment of the dark, frightening sexuality the film deals with.

I must admit I’ve never really understood why so many fans worship Lina Romay as an outstanding cinematic beauty. Frankly, she always struck me as rather mousy and plain-looking in several of her 1970s films. In my eyes, Lina only gradually grew more attractive towards the end of the 70s, and in this film she looks the most appetizing and sexy I’ve ever seen her – wearing a blonde wig that really becomes her. Like Ajita, Romay is perhaps a better presence than she is an actress, and manages to emote immensely through her expressive sexuality. Romay’s big, vivid eyes are very telling too, and she’s extremely effective as the victimized Alice – delivering a strong and sometimes unsettling sexual performance.

The sex scenes are very strong and explicit overall, and although this is a softcore flick, some of the sexual going-ons look as if they were non-simulated. Just keep your eyes peeled and you’ll catch some brief naughty bits in the scene where Alice is giving her husband a blowjob. Playing the role of the husband is Antonio Mayans, another frequent Franco collaborator since way back in the 1970s. Mayans is usually a welcome sight but here he plays an awfully boring character and is actually given very little to do. He gets to participate in several sex scenes, though, and has a pretty nice THE SHINING-inspired moment where he keeps typing the name ‘Tara’ over and over and over again on his typewriter. And as usual, Franco gives himself a supporting role; playing a sweaty and creepy hotel manager. It’s more or less the same character he played in VAMPYROS LESBOS but he’s somewhat more sympathetic this time around.

Previously available mostly through fuzzy-looking, unsubtitled bootlegs, Severin’s DVD release of MACUMBA SEXUAL is a true revelation. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, it looks absolutely stunning, with striking colors and no print damage in sight. The Spanish mono audio sounds very clear and nice even though the actual dubbing could have been better (Romay’s moans during sex scenes are never all that convincing). Optional and easy to read English subtitles are also included.

There’s only one extra but it’s a good one: a 22 minute feature named “Voodoo Jess”, in which Franco (speaking in accented English with available subtitles) and Romay (who speaks in Spanish with English subtitles) recount their experience with working on the film. Franco talks about his returning to Spain and how he feels the two things necessary to make a good film are simply a camera and freedom. He also praises Ajita Wilson and even draws some comparisons between her and Christopher Lee. He is somewhat unsure about whether or not Ajita was a transsexual, but Romay (who got ample opportunity to inspect Ajita’s private parts during their lesbian scenes) confirms that she definitely was.

All in all, this is an extremely satisfying package. Severin have given us a fantastic DVD release of one of Franco’s best films of the early 1980s. Like most other Franco films, MACUMBA SEXUAL isn’t for everyone’s taste but for fans of Jess Franco and Ajita Wilson, this is an essential purchase.

(Johan Melle)

 

Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals

Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals (Joe D’Amato, 1978)

aka Papaya dei Caraibi / Caribbean Papaya

Industrialist Vincent (Maurice Poli, RABID DOGS), in the Caribbean to erect a power plant, runs into reporter Sarah (Sirpa Lane, THE BEAST) at a cockfight. Their hotel tryst is interrupted by the discovery of the charred body of one of Vincent’s associates left for them to find in his hotel room. Vincent and Sarah decide to get away for a couple days and explore the area where the plant is supposed to be built. They pick up sultry Papaya (Melissa Chimenti, REVELATIONS OF A PSYCHIATRIST) who, unbeknownst to them, was the lover of the dead man (we, of course, are privy to this thanks to the opening Stelvio Cipriani-scored bump-and-grind session capped off by the sort of mutilation one comes across often in cannibal-themed films) who asks them to take her to her village where the “Feast of the Round Stone” is supposed to take place.

They spy her again in the midst of a parade and surmise that she wishes them to follow her to the secret location of the ceremony (which they do despite revealing to us that the village they are in is populated by those who had to leave the site of the future power plant). Vincent and Sarah are given a hallucinogenic drink (director/cinematographer D’Amato catches their reflections in the red liquid as they raise it to their mouths) and participate in the ceremony which includes the gutting of two already (thankfully) dead pigs, followed by the subsequent gutting of a white male.

The ceremony then segues into what has been described elsewhere as the “disco blood orgy” and, having seen it, there really is no other way to describe it; Cipriani’s score is disco as are the not-particularly-tribal gyrations (the only thing missing is a mirrorball). Vincent and Sarah wake up to the bedside manner of Papaya who even bathes them. While Papaya makes love to Vincent, Sarah is abducted by the other islanders (whose numbers include the police) who are much more strategically organised than Vincent and Sarah (and the audience) had realised. Sarah escapes but is unable to convince Vincent that Papaya has similar plans for him as she did for her previous lover.

With PAPAYA, D’Amato provides an interesting twist on not only the voodoo/cannibal genre in general but also his own Caribbean films. Although both opposing sides in the film make the tradition versus progress argument, the white characters are slaves to their primal desires and the natives are well organised like an action committee that one wonders how much of the Feast of the Round Stone is tradition and how much of it is for the benefit of their exotica-seeking targets. As such, it plays more like a thriller than D’Amato’s other voodoo-flavoured erotica. While there is copious nudity, the sex scenes linger only long enough to spice up the scenario and the cannibal element is even more peripheral (seeming like a concession to make it saleable as both erotica and as an Italian cannibal film). D’Amato’s style as cinematographer in conjunction with editor Vincenzo Tomassi–who was just as much a D’Amato regular as he was a collaborator with Fulci–provide us with the type of dynamically-edited sex scenes regular viewers of D’Amato’s films are familiar with from his BLACK EMANUELLE films.

Severin’s DVD seems to be the first time the English language version of PAPAYA (bearing the title CARIBBEAN PAPAYA) has been available (legitimate or grey market); even the scarce English dub of D’Amato’s PORNO ESOTIC LOVE scored a Greek tape release. The usual suspects of English dubbing are here: Lane is dubbed by Carolyn de Fonseca and Poli by Ted Rusoff (who was still dubbing lead roles as recently as Bruno Mattei’s DV movies). The previous DVD from X-Rated Kult Video presented the film in with German audio only and lacked the title sequence (Video Search of Miami’s tape/DVD-R release added English subtitles to the German version). The English titles seem to have been overlayed a few minutes too late. After two minutes of Chimenti sunning herself on the sand to Cipriani’s score, as soon as the title card appears the score fades and the rest of the credits appear over the first scene. Since the titles sequence itself runs 2 minutes, I’m led to believe that the titles were meant to be overlayed at the start of the film.

The anamorphic 1.78:1 image probably looks as good as it can as the quality seems to vary depending on the likely amount of control D’Amato as cinematographer had on the lighting (i.e., the Italian soundstage interiors and sunny Caribbean exteriors look sharp and colourful but grain pops up as soon as the camera pans into the shadows cast by the palm trees). The back cover has a Dolby Surround logo and a diagram suggesting 2.1 audio but the audio reads as 2.0 audio. Other reviews refer to it as mono audio but the reviewers might have missed those details on the cover (I didn’t really notice much directional effects but the audio is full-bodied). The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

(Eric Cotenas)

 

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)

 

Last House On The Beach

Last House On The Beach (Franco Prosperi, 1978)

aka La settima donna / Terror

In yet another Italian riff on Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, three bank robbers (Ray Lovelock, Stefano Cedrati, and Flavio Andreini) hide out in a seaside mansion occupied by a group of Catholic schoolgirls and their teacher, Sister Cristina (Florinda Bolkan), rehearsing for a performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in between bouts of swimming and sunbathing. The girls soon suffer various types of abuse at the hands of the three – Cedrati and Andreini seem to vie for the Krug role, while Lovelock spends much of his time intimidating Bolkan – including a couple of rapes and the murders of the housekeeper and the postman. It is not until one of their number is brutally murdered, however, that Bolkan dons her habit and plots gruesome vengeance (she is forced to wear the habit earlier on for purposes of humiliation by the robber-rapists and to fetishise her appearance for the film’s audience too).

As with Ruggero Deodato’s HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and Aldo Lado’s NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS, Prosperi’s film is glossier and tamer than Craven’s gritty original but creates a palpably sleazy atmosphere and is the farthest removed from Craven’s supposed inspiration: Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING. While Craven’s band of wackos were somewhat grounded in reality (a snuff reality?), the villains of these Italian films are generally weirder. This quirkiness is epitomised in Prosperi’s film where one of the rapists dons women’s make-up before brutalizing one of the girls.

Lovelock’s ringleader demonstrates a tad more sensitivity than the others  and this creates an interesting chemistry between him and Bolkan’s nun. The retribution is less resonant than in the Deodato and Lado films; perhaps it’s because Prosperi overly depends on the editor and the composer to inject more momentum into the climax. The film’s ending makes short work of two of the rapists saving itself for the prolonged – though thoroughly ridiculous – attack on Lovelock. In addition to Lovelock and Bolkan, Eurocult regulars Laura Trotter (NIGHTMARE CITY) and Sherry Buchanan (an actress often on the receiving end of Italian-style gore FX in films such as WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? and ZOMBI HOLOCAUST) co-star as two of the girls.

Cinematographer Cristiano Pogany (son of Gabor Pogany who shot Aldo Lado’s LAST HOUSE ripoff) constantly fills the scope frame from side to side, from foreground to background with the sizable (for a chamber piece) cast amidst Dario Micheli’s (BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE) set dressing which perhaps aesthetically demands a certain formal distance from the rough content. Roberto Pregadio delivers a funky score with Edda dell’Orso and Ray Lovelock contributing vocals – with Lovelock’s contribution, a song called ‘Place For A Landing’, having a sax riff that bears a striking similarity to the one used by Roxy Music in ‘Let’s Stick Together’. Romano Migliorini (co-writer of Bava’s KILL BABY KILL and LISA AND THE DEVIL) contributed to the screenplay.

Severin’s delayed DVD represents the film’s third release on the format. The first was a Japanese import from Media Suits. This was taken from an Italian print, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, a choice of either English or Italian audio and supported by Japanese subtitles. Taken from a PAL master, the standards conversion to NTSC resulted in ghosting during horizontal movement. Extras included an Italian trailer and a lobby card gallery. The second release was Sazuma’s much heralded German 2 disc release of a cleaner 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen Italian print (the Japanese release was slightly brighter but that may have been fading) with German and Italian audio, English and German subtitles, and a hidden English audio track accessible from your remote. Extras included a subtitled interview with Ray Lovelock, German and Italian trailers, German opening credits, and a second disc containing the film’s soundtrack. The English title TERROR shows up only in the German trailer (and not in the German opening credits).

(Please click images to see comparison grabs – Media Suits top, Sazuma Middle, Severin Bottom)

Transfer wise, Severin’s new release appears to have been properly converted from PAL to NTSC, and as one would expect, has a longer running time (1:29:39) when compared to the PAL German disc (1:26:09) and the PAL-converted Japanese disc (1:26:10). The disc also features a progressive image properly flagged for pulldown on hardware DVD players, unlike their progressive, but not properly converted, disc of THE PSYCHIC. Results are acceptable given that the bitrate was lowered to fit the trailers and interview onto a single-layer disc (the German DVD was dual-layered; the Japanese disc was single-layered but featured fewer extras) but colour saturation favours the Japanese disc with the German disc being a happy medium between the two. The German disc also reveals more information at the bottom of the frame than the other two transfers. The master is likely to be the same as the one provided to Sazuma, as Severin ports over many of the extras from that release minus the German titles and the CD soundtrack. Severin’s disc also drops the Italian track and English subtitles in favour of the English dub. While the German DVD remains the definitive release so far, the Severin disc is well worth purchasing for those who don’t want to seek out the import.

(Eric Cotenas)

 

Devil Hunter

Devil Hunter (Jess Franco, 1980)

aka Sexo canibal / El cannibal

Scouting locations for her new film, actress/model Laura Crawford (Ursula Buchfellner, LINDA, HELLHOLE WOMEN) is kidnapped from her bubble-bath and carried off into the jungle to be held for ransom by her former assistant (Gisela Hahn, CONTAMINATION, MR. SCARFACE), suave Thomas (Antonio de Cabo, A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD, CECILIA) and unstable Chris (Werner Pochath, MOSQUITO). While Laura spends most of the time chained up naked and under threat of sexual violation, Vietnam vets Peter (Al Cliver/Pier Luigi Conti, ZOMBI 2, LAURE) and pal Jack (Robert Foster/Antonio Mayans, MACUMBA SEXUAL, CECILIA) are dispatched to rescue her. Complicating matters is a seven foot, bulging-eyed, buck naked, cannibal revered by the locals as a god (cue zoom into hilariously fake totem pole) and regularly supplied with fresh, nubile – though not necessarily virgin – sacrifices and Laura seems like the likely next candidate after the requisite number of second-string good and bad guys are picked off by cannibal or gunfire.

Criticized as another racist cannibal film (probably mostly on the basis of its alternate title MANDINGO MANHUNTER and its “Video Nasty” status in the UK), Franco’s DEVIL HUNTER aka EL CANNIBAL is really too ridiculous to take seriously; even in a politically correct context. Like Franco’s other cannibal films of the period, it’s more of a throwback to the jungle epics of thirties and forties (even Sergio Martino’s better-budgeted, khaki-and-pith-helmeted throwback MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD has more in common with the more exploitative and casually racist MONDO CANE-influenced Italian cannibal sub-genre). A co-production between Eurocine and Julian Esteban’s JE Films – producer of Franco’s superior EROTISMO and another Eurocine co-production SEXUAL ABBERATIONS OF A HOUSEWIFE (the longer French Eurocine revision of which is available from Blue Underground as CECILIA) – and Germany’s Lisa Film, it seems to be generally agreed that this is the better of Franco’s cannibal films and having seen WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN (on DVD from Blue Underground in an undeservedly flawless transfer as CANNIBALS) I’m inclined to agree.

In addition to Cliver, who had also starred in Franco’s other cannibal film, the film features a higher profile cast including Playmate Buchfellner and German actor Pochath. The cast also includes infrequent Franco collaborator Muriel Montrosse/Vicky Adams (CECILIA, INCONFESSIBLE ORGIES OF EMANUELLE) and Franco regulars (both in front and behind the camera) De Cabo and Mayans. The gore is nowhere near as “accomplished” as DEVIL HUNTER’s Italian competitors and even the raison d’etre sex scenes seem more gratuitous than usual (Montrosse and Mayans seem to have been cast simply to couple and be killed). What positive qualities the film possesses lie with such familiar presences and the attractive cinematography of Juan Soler (hampered as it is at times by that ridiculous monster POV smeared lens that even extends to shots preceding the monster’s appearance in the scene and shots including him) whose talents are better served in some of Franco’s more personal eighties works. Franco and longtime musical collaborator Daniel White provides an undistinguished electronic score all-too-typical of their eighties’ work.

Although licensed from Eurocine, the Spanish-language credits suggest that this was at least partly sourced from Spanish elements (note the JE Films logo rather than the more familiar block-lettered “EUROCINE presents”). I cannot be entirely sure about this as my only other source of reference was Video Asia’s absolutely horrid bootleg disc – which paired a rip of the optically-fogged Japanese tape release with a ridiculously large bottom matte to cover up the subs – which cut off the opening credits but featured the Spanish end credits; Eurocine may penny-pinch with production costs but they always created French and English credits for their films (as well as creating new ones in preparation for video releases in the eighties and DVD in the nineties). As the film was shot in the early eighties so there are no concerns of alternate clothed takes which one usually runs into with Spanish films of the seventies.

On the other hand, DEVIL HUNTER has been available in a number of cuts over the years; none of which could be deemed integral nor apparently could they be described as butchered (save the Japanese fogging). With several versions to consult, Severin has utilized every single scrap Eurocine had available (as such, most of the rediscovered footage are lengthier views of writhing naked ceremonies. Letterboxed at 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement, Severin’s HD transfer does have some contrast issues with hazy shadows. Ghosting and saw-tooth artifacts suggest that the HD master was downconverted to PAL before standards conversion to NTSC (which is disappointing given that Severin’s LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH DVD was progressive and time-corrected unlike the previous Japanese NTSC release). English and French audio tracks are included along with English subtitled. No theatrical trailer seems to have been available but Franco contributes another typically engaging interview in English with helpful English subtitles.

(Eric Cotenas)

 

Bloody Moon

Bloody Moon (Jess Franco, 1981)

aka Die Säge des Todes / Colegialas violadas

In a pre-credits flashback, a disfigured young man Miguel (Alexander Waechter) does a Michael Myers by stealing a Mickey Mouse mask from a disco pool party and using it to trick a bubbly coed into thinking he is someone else and is invited into her bungalow. When she pulls off his mask, she is repulsed. He grabs a pair of scissors and stabs her to death. Cue title with strange music sting. Years later, Miguel’s cousin Manuela (Nadja Gerganoff) retrieves him from a mental institution. The doctor (Jess Franco) says that he is basically cured but she must keep her eyes on him and watch for anything that might trigger his psychosis.

The estate on which Miguel and Manuela live with the wheelchair-bound Countess Maria (Maria Rubio) have as part of its grounds, the bungalows and facilities on which an international language school run by Alvaro (Christoph Moosbrugger) has just been established. Countess Maria makes it perfectly clear that she doesn’t like Manuela and plans to leave all of her money to Miguel and is promptly burned to death by an unseen assailant. Meanwhile, the blonde, mostly Teutonic, coeds have arrived to hang out by the pool and learn Spanish in their free time. Angela (Olivia Pascal) has already had a run-in with Miguel on the train and is stalked by him periodically throughout the film. When her classmates start dropping dead, Angela is the only witness but the corpses keep disappearing. Angela herself seems to be more of a plaything for the killer who leaves messages for her on her language tapes and engages her in a couple near-death dodges while he continues offing her classmates.

Although made with German funding, BLOODY MOON is set in Spain with several German actors playing Spaniards and a mostly German crew behind the camera. One can assume the film’s producers went with Spain because it would seem more exotic to German audiences. Although capitalising on the slasher craze, BLOODY MOON is really an old fashioned thriller spiced up with gore. While the victims are largely coed bimbos, the Nancy Drew-ish heroine is equally threatened by falling boulders and speeding automobiles. The motive for the killings lies not with the traumatically arrested development and/or insider/outsider status of the killer but with a drive the recovering mad person mad again and pin the murders on him so we can inherit the money plot chestnut. As such, it does not even evince the influence of the giallo genre. The poetic shots of Manuela standing topless in her window as if hypnotized by the moon and the various goings on in the Contessa’s seaside castle also hark back to the gothics.

That said, Franco had obviously seen enough slasher films to lampoon the false scare trait. Here, he turns all of his false into cheap laughs. The joke is on Manuela when she comes across Miguel in the doorway of a train compartment and sees a scarf hanging from the open window only for Angela to pop up from the seat opposite and wonder why they’re gawking at her. In her bungalow, Angela walks slowly towards the huge silhouette standing outside her door only to open it and discover a little boy. A lot of the film’s outrageous gore is hilariously fake; especially a head decapitated by a huge circular saw (this after the bimbo victim-to-be allows herself to be tied up by an assailant whose point-of-view the audience shares).

While German sexploitation composer Gerhard Heinz’s electronic score is suitably atmospheric (especially in the more gothic scenes), Frank Duval (who composed several songs for the long-running Horst Tappert detective show DERRICK) contributes a horrid disco track “Love in the Shadow” that is plaid throughout ad nauseum (even on the heroine’s record player) and never fails to get a mention in the film’s reviews.

I saw this film several years ago on tape from Trans World Entertainment and again as a DVD rip of that tape. I had no interest in seeing again when I heard it was coming out on DVD but am glad I had the opportunity. The new HD transfer looks beautiful and adds layer upon layer of atmosphere to the film which was shot by Jess Franco’s regular DP during the eighties, Juan Solar (who had also acted in some of his films during this period as Juan Cozar) and is a typically attractive example of the cinematographer’s use of lighting, colour, and judicious use of filters.

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation has strong mono audio and features the German main title DIE SAGES DES TODES and German end titles (the US tape had the English language BLOODY MOON title but the end credits were in German). A few shots missing from the HD source were restored from a paler, scratchier broadcast master but the body of the film is ravishing to behold. A nice English language theatrical trailer is included (I’ve never come across one before for this film so it’s cool to see how it was sold). Jess Franco also provides another typically endearing interview in English. The interview begins with an amusingly cute picture of domestic bliss as Lina Romay (who served as A.D. on this film) in the background grabs her purse and keys and heads out while Franco and the cameraman are setting up. Franco seems to have had some creative freedom on this film as he says the producers didn’t know what they wanted other than a horror movie. He does mention that the producers promised him Pink Floyd for the film’s score. That might have been interesting but I think Franco’s best scored work comes from his interaction with the composer, when he knows what stock music he’s using, or when he’s scoring the film himself (or in collaboration) and likely seems to know roughly how the sequences will look edited and scored. It always impresses me how well Franco comes across in English.

Other than his thick accent (English subtitles are provided), his English is grammatically correct and he seems as comfortable as a native speaker. I don’t mean this in a “his English is very good for a foreigner” kind of way. As someone who is used to hearing him talk about his films in Spanish or French (as he did in his earlier Blue Underground interviews for JUSTINE and EUGENIE) or in more halting English as an actor in some of his DTV films, its quite a surprise to hear him especially when being humorous about the behind the scenes anecdotes and frank in his assessment of his own work.

All in all, Severin’s disc is an impeccably-presented release of a minor Franco film. Obviously, to Franco’s legion of loyal fans, BLOODY MOON is an essential purchase but both disc and film may also sate that appetite of those in search of some horror kitsch.

(Eric Cotenas)

 

 

The Sinful Dwarf

The Sinful Dwarf (Vidal Raski, 1973)

aka Dværgen

THE SINFUL DWARF begins with a long shot of a gangly, pony-tailed girl playing hopscotch when a creepy dwarf (former child star Torben Bille) approaches and attracts her attention with a yapping dog toy (he gives her the dog to hold but maintains hold of the leash). He leads her to a boarding house and up into the attic where he knocks her out with his cane. CUE CREDITS over shots of other mechanical toys. Our protagonists are a whiny, newlywed British couple Mary and Peter (Anne Sparrow and Tony Eades) looking for cheap digs who stumble upon the boarding house of Lila Lash (Clara Keller), a scarred former actress who spends her less-depraved moments entertaining other old biddies in her parlour. They are given a cramped but cheap room on the top floor where they promptly have sex (they even whine during sex) and are spied on through a peephole. Turns out, old Lila’s the mother of the Dwarf who is running a sex slave ring up in the boarding house’s attic (and yet the couple don’t hear any of the screams during the night; then again, they don’t notice the peephole into their apartment in the upstairs corridor) where paying customers can rough up drugged girls.

The middle of the picture is a rather predictable cat and mouse game of the dwarf spying on Mary, Mary investigating strange occurrences while her oblivious husband is at work (“There are your strange noises; it’s Mrs. Lash singing,” he says) – interspersed with the sort of lengthy, graphic-though-softcore, non-consensual sex scenes one expects from a Harry Novak production/acquisition performed by a cast of uninhibited (though not all attractive) Danish performers – until Mary is finally captured by the dwarf and her husband realizes that something strange “is” indeed going on.

The plot is your template “young couple in a strange apartment building”, with wife noticing weird things while hubby is off at work. The wife is either not believed or endangered because she does not want to press awkward situations. In ROSEMARY’S BABY, it was a Satanic cult; in the craptacular TOOLBOX MURDERS remake, it was the immortal, decaying, devil-worshipping owner claiming sacrifices; in THE SINFUL DWARF, it is the aforementioned sex slave ring full of nude actresses who one is not entirely sure whether they are supposed to be playing naïve, adolescent girls, or developmentally-disabled teenagers even before they are drugged up (perhaps it’s the height difference between these supposed “girls” and the dwarf). Still, there is something disturbing about the depraved-looking dwarf luring girls up to his attic with cute toys; but once the clothes are off and the hair is mussed, they look no different from any other mattress-carpeted roomful of 70’s softcore extras. All of the actors seem to be speaking English.

Bille (whose resemblance to Jack Black is remarked upon in the press release) is perhaps more disturbing because he is not dubbed and seems to be having the time of his life here (a “T. Bille” is also credited with set decoration). Sparrow is nice to look at and is convincing enough when being tormented and groped by the dwarf. Kellar does a show-stopping cabaret number early on in the film (she does another one later accompanied by the whipping of one of the sex slaves). Although the main couple are a little wet, the depraved mother/dwarf team give their all here in roles where they are actually expected to ham it up. Fans of light-hearted Eurotika might balk at the non-consensual sex scenes (more disturbing than anything Joe D’Amato handed out in his BLACK EMANUELLE offshoots and the like) but SWV/Box Office International fans should be pleased and the European setting (dreary as it is) makes a nice change from the usual Southern California settings.

Although Severin’s DVD and press release tout the film as having been restored from “a 35mm print discovered hidden in a janitor’s closet at the Danish Film Institute” the print begins with Harry Novak’s Box Office International logo which looks as immaculately colourful as the feature itself (the logo’s rainbow of colours look comparatively dull in the theatrical trailer with the final “Box Office International, Inc” looking like dried blood compared to the cherry red on the film’s opening while the regal yellow of “A Harry Novak Presentation” on the film has a greenish tinge on the trailer). The picture is grainy as hell but that’s the original cinematography and thankfully no extreme measures have been taken to smooth out the picture. Compared to the SWV version (sourced from more worn elements provided by Harry Novak), the colours are more saturated (some eye-popping against the dingy surroundings) and time image sharper and largely free of blemishes but for the usual reel change marks and some dirt and hair that was likely in the camera gate during shooting. The 4:3 frame appears uncropped for the most part (SWV’s previous tape/DVDR transfer was also fullframe) and is very likely the original aspect ratio. The master was apparently telecined (or at least down-converted from HD) in NTSC as the Another World Entertainment Scandinavian 2 disc set has the shared transfer of the softcore version in NTSC as well while the hardcore version is in PAL (Severin’s hardcore version – unavailable for review – is supposed to use the softcore version as the basis for most of the composite since the hardcore version has burned in Danish subtitles). Thus, the progressive single-layer transfer is excellent with no noticeable faults.

Extras consist of THE SEVERIN CONTROVERSY, a humorous though at times taxing puff-piece about the outrage around Severin’s release of the film (some of which was viewable some time ago on YouTube). The aforementioned Box Office International theatrical trailer is under the alternate title ABDUCTED BRIDE and looks very Grindhouse in terms of content and picture quality. Rounding out the extras are a 30 second and a 60 second radio spot under the SINFUL DWARF title. Unless Severin are planning a separate release pairing the hardcore and softcore versions together, then Severin’s release of the soft-core cut is an essential purchase for fans who do not own the AWE two-disc set and have found other previous editions lacking (including SWV’s transfer). First time viewers are liable to either be pleasantly surprised or wonder what all the fuss is about. Torben Bille is truly disturbing as the titular dwarf but he’s just a twist on the usual formula seen in a glut of American Harry Novak titles like A SCREAM IN THE STREETS and BEHIND LOCKED DOORS.

With THE SINFUL DWARF, Severin have not only provided fans with an excellent transfer of a film that seemed destined to remain a grey market title (SWV had the rights when they distributed it but this was never going to be an Image/SWV DVD though Severin could have taken a lesson from them with some like-minded shorts and trailers) they are also continuing to break away from the niche distributor label (some of their upcoming titles include two Patrice Laconte titles). Don’t get me wrong, I hope to see more Francos and Borowczyks (along with Dallamano’s VENUS IN FURS which seems inevitable given the name Severin); but with their releases of this film and wacky gialli such as IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH and the more austere THE PSYCHIC and the upcoming EXPOSE, Severin is continuing to surprise a wider audience with its unpredictable catalog — could some Umberto Lenzi/Carroll Baker gialli be in the pipeline? Or some neglected Rivette or even Robbe-Grillet?

THE SINFUL DWARF XXX

The XXX version of THE SINFUL DWARF has been issued by Severin under their Private Screening Collection sub-label (distributed by CAV after some other label Ryko carried got in a snit about a Severin release with XXX content) but, like Blue Underground’s unsigned XXX releases, Severin’s aesthetic look is all over the Private Screening menus and cover. Unlike the AWE 2 disc set that featured a Danish (not Dutch, I do read feedback) hard-subbed print (the only existing print of the XXX version), Severin’s techs have composited the hardcore footage (which feature no dialogue, hence no burned in subs) into the HD transfer of the softcore version. The XXX footage is in rougher quality and contrasty; looking very much like previous transfers of the softcore version. The difference between the two versions amounts to just over four minutes and consists entirely of coupling between the extras in the attic dungeon (the lengthy and explicit-looking coupling between the main couple is the same as in the softcore version). The hardcore footage is not inserted; the same actors perform in both versions and the editing of the softcore version is such that it is not apparent that anything has been cut (the explicitness of the soft sex scenes is comparable to those seen in other Harry Novak releases). While the HD transfer has been down-converted to NTSC at the correct framerate (the AWE disc of the soft version is also NTSC), Severin have also taken care to slow down the hardcore footage to the correct framerate so there is no ghosting during these sequences. There are no extras on the Private Screening disc, just the play feature and scene selection but it is unmistakably a Severin disc. It is difficult to recommend the XXX version of THE SINFUL DWARF as an essential purchase as the presence of XXX footage does not make THE SINFUL DWARF any sleazier than the more familiar version (the on-set footage are not mismatched like the inserts in EMANUELLE AROUND THE WORLD and do not destroy the integrity of the film like the inserts in 99 WOMEN). While SINFUL DWARF fans might want both (and probably have both thanks to the AWE 2 disc), I’m sure most viewers could do with either version – if not for the distribution hassles, Severin would have been better off doing either a two disc or a single disc with branching to make both available. Viewers who held off on getting THE SINFUL DWARF until now are probably better off with the XXX version (or whichever version is more easy to acquire through ones’ usual online DVD sources).

(Eric Cotenas)

 

The Hairdresser’s Husband

The Hairdresser’s Husband (Patrice Leconte, 1990)

 aka Le mari de la coiffeuse

In THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND, Jean Rochefort (MY MOTHER’S CASTLE) plays Antoine, an old man with a fetish for getting his hair cut due to a pubescent crush he had on another hairdresser as a child (humorous flashbacks interspersed throughout show Antoine going for a haircut every chance he gets). As an adult, he becomes infatuated (or obsessed) with gorgeous hairdresser Mathilde (Anna Galiena of Tinto Brass’ SENSO 45). Although Antoine’s father has drilled into him that “women are like crosswords; the harder to get, the sweeter they are,” Mathilde does not require much pursuing to get her to wed Antoine. They marry in the salon (Mathilde even gives a customer a shave during the festivities). Antoine spends his days ogling his wife while she works in the salon and Mathilde seems to get as much pleasure out of being intensely watched while serving a handful of quirky customers (a man who decided to shave off his beard because he is told it makes him look sad discovers that he still looks sad without it). Antoine even pleasures Mathilde while she is shampooing a customer. Antoine also has a fetish for Arabic music (the film opens with the child Antoine dancing the width of the scope frame with a towel wrapped around his head to a Middle Eastern tune on a record player) which provides the couple with a sort of exhibitionistic reversal as Antoine’s dances to both amuse and arouse Mathilde. Things go swimmingly until Mathilde – who has been visiting the retired hairdresser Isadore (Maurice Chevit) who gave her his shop in a rest home – starts to realize that her clients are getting older and she grows fearful of the time when Antoine will stop loving her whereupon things take a tragic turn.

Despite its reputation, Leconte’s film is nowhere near as outrageous as the “sex is funny” art films of the likes of Bigas Luna, Pedro Almadovar, or the classy erotica of Tinto Brass. Indeed, there is very little actual nudity in the film. Like those films though, it embodies that effortless sensuality that feels equally organic in a European comedy, thriller, or tragic love story (a la BETTY BLUE). As far as comedy, there are no sight gags (unless you count a pair of woollen swimming trunks with cherry pom-poms) but there are some lines delivered in an understated manner (mostly from Rochefort) that nevertheless provoke laughter (when a customer’s irate wife comes in and slaps him, he explains “She never misses. She used to play table tennis. We still have the cups.”) and Roland Bertin is funny as Antoine’s father in the flashbacks (when Antoine tells his father he wants to marry a hairdresser when he grows up, his father slaps him and then asks his wife and other son why he did it).

There are also some moments that start out comically but become heartbreaking (for instance, the child Antoine’s peaking through the shop window at the exposed thighs of the seemingly asleep hairdresser only to discover that she is dead). Mathilde’s musings at the various indications of encroaching infirmity in some of her regular customers (like the folds of a customer’s jacket indicating stooping) Rochefort (so good in Leconte’s excellent, underrated MAN ON THE TRAIN) is both funny and believable. When first seen, Antoine looks frail and austere but he appears to become more spry and youthful as his relationship with Mathilde progresses (including a standout dance performance at their intimate wedding to her amusement and their guests’ bewilderment). Galiena (in a role that is quite a contrast to her saucy villainess in Bigas Luna’s JAMON JAMON) is sweet and affecting as well as sensual without losing her skirt. It goes without saying that Serra’s cinematography is stunning whether presenting panoramic seaside views or the expanse of the salon set lit either by warm sunlight or nourish blue and bottomless blacks. Anamorphic distortion and even some subtle matte-box vignetting is apparent during the seaside flashbacks but this may be an aesthetic choice as the film does not seem technically under-equipped elsewhere. Nyman (who also scored Leconte’s MONSIEUR HIRE but is probably most well known for his score for Jane Campion’s THE PIANO) proves once again here that he is criminally underrated outside of the art film genre.

According to Severin’s press release, THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is the second of Leconte’s “Obsession Trilogy” starting with the Simenon adaptation MONSIEUR HIRE (currently being mistreated on R1 DVD by Kino and available in a reportedly better transfer from Second Sight in the UK – the French disc is unsubtitled) and preceding Severin’s other upcoming Leconte release LE PARFUM D’YVONNE (unreleased theatrically or on tape previously in the US but available subtitled from Second Sight; the French disc is not subtitled). Severin’s press materials tout this as being the first ever release on DVD in America though the film was previously issued on tape by Columbia/Tri Star which apparently has fetched “upwards of $75 for used VHS copies on Amazon.” For overseas viewers, Severin’s disc is not the film’s digital debut. Gaumont’s OOP French R2 disc sported an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer with English subtitles (for the feature only) along with a 50 minute interview with director Laconte and one of 11 minutes with cinematographer Serra (WINGS OF THE DOVE and Chabrol’s most recent films starting with THE SWINDLE [1997]) and the short silent film “Le Batteur de Bolero” which was subsequently reissued by sell-through label DVDY (this is the version floating around eBay France at the moment sometimes paired with DVDY’s reissue of the English-friendly Gaumont release of Andrzej Zulawski’s underappreciated LA FIDELITE for roughly $20). The film was released twice in the UK with subtitles but the Tartan disc was non-anamorphic (and cropped to about 2.20:1) while the more recent Second Sight disc is also non-anamorphic and further cropped to 1.66:1 or thereabouts!

I have not seen any of those releases but Severin’s DVD is reportedly a new transfer. The disc is letterboxed at 2.35:1 with 16:9 enhancement. The image is progressive and the 81:21 running time is more than 3 minutes longer than the reported PAL approximate running time of 78 minutes so it has been transferred at film speed. If I’m not mistaken, it also seems to be Severin’s first dual-layer disc although the film itself is only 4.28 GB which makes me wonder if they planned a single-layer release until they added the two interviews could have been encoded at lower bitrates (the Laconte interview runs 36 minutes but is almost 2 GB). While it would have been nice for Severin to have done a dual-layer encode of the 82 minute film (an 82 minute film at full bitrate would be 5.83 GB), the single-layer-sized transfer is gorgeous (only some brief fine detail banding is evident in Galiena’s wedding veil). Although the disc cover sports a Dolby Surround logo and says the film is in stereo, the film is in mono but is quite bold with special emphasis on Michael Nyman’s (THE PIANO) score and the Arabian music heard throughout the film.

The 36 minute interview with Patrice Leconte is the first section of a two-parter (the second is on the upcoming disc of YVONNE’S PERFUME). A former comic book artist, Leconte made several short films before his first film with Rochefort. The piece is more of a career overview as the title ‘Leconte on Leconte Part 1’ suggests. Actress Anna Galiena is interviewed in the 17 minute ‘The Hairdresser’s Recollections’. She speaks in English and mentions that she had just finished working on Chabrol’s QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY and wanted to work with Leconte after seeing MONSIEUR HIRE (the clips in the interview have English subtitles in a different font than those seen in the film). She says that she believed Ornella Muti would get the role instead of her. The film’s theatrical trailer (cropped to anamorphic 1.85:1) rounds out the extras.

Severin’s release – especially in the states where it didn’t seem to soar in popularity until its tape release went out of print – is a respectful presentation of an acclaimed though neglected art film (nominated for 7 César Awards) which they likely chose for its erotic reputation (though I’m very happy they did and cannot wait to see LE PARFUM D’YVONNE). Then again, perhaps we should not be surprised given their presentations of more explicit fare like Borowczyk’s IMMORAL WOMEN, the anthology PRIVATE COLLECTIONS, and Franco’s classy-despite-expectations SEXUAL STORY OF O: perhaps Severin might seek out some of Bigas Luna or Eloy de la Iglesia, next. Although THE HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is not a very explicit piece of erotic cinema, viewers who pass on this film (and this soon-to-be-readily-available release) are surely missing out.

(Eric Cotenas)

 

Erotic Adventures Of The Three Musketeers

Erotic Adventures Of The Three Musketeers (Paul Norman, 1992)

The setting: Medieval France. The scheming Cardinal (Chet Anuszek aka Jon Dough, looking like he was costumed by Andy Milligan) has his eyes on the throne. He starts off by manipulating a tryst between the Queen (Martine Helene aka Deidre Holland) and English ambassador Duke Desmond (Steve Drake). Then he expresses his concerns about her fleshly transgressions to the queenish-King (Larry Paciotti aka Chi Chi LaRue) but he doesn’t seem the least bit surprised (“We don’t… you know…”). The Cardinal suggests that people are questioning the King’s ability to control the country if he can’t control his wife. The Cardinal is unable to catch the Queen and Duke in the act but discovers that the Queen has given the Duke a five-stoned emerald necklace as a keepsake before he returned to England. The Cardinal enlists the aid of Lady D’Summer (Britt Morgan) to go to England and steal two of the jewels from the necklace (“When the queen arrives at the ball, the king will expect her to wear it,” he says. “He’ll probably want to wear it himself,” she replies) but the queen fortunately overhears their plans. Lady D’Summer takes off to England (the next room, I guess), seduces the Duke, and makes away with the jewels. Meanwhile, Alexandra (Tracy Wynn) wants to join the Three Musketeers (Marc Goldberg, Jonathan Morgan, and Dino Alba – all porn stars acting under pseudonyms). She proves to be an excellent fighter but not quite a match for their bawdy behaviour. When the Queen comes to them asking for help to get the jewel back from Lady D’Summer, it is up to Alexandra since D’Summer prefers female company. Can she finally prove herself a musketeer?

Although produced by one David Goldstein, the film looks very much like one of David F. Friedman’s period erotic films from the late sixties and seventies. In fact, had Norman’s film been a little more graphic and gritty in its softcore sex scenes, it would not be out of place being shown alongside THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF ZORRO and THE NOTORIOUS DAUGHTER OF FANNY HILL; while those films lingered on clumsily choreographed faux sex scenes without regard for hiding the naughty bits, Norman’s film is obviously a softcore cut of a hardcore feature (the XXX version was released on tape as a two-parter as THE THREE MUSKETEERS but it does not seem to have made the jump to DVD).

Morgan and Dough are engaging in their scenes together but most of the performances are not so much hampered by the accents but by the raised eyebrows and “mannered” delivery of dialogue which is very high school play level. The fine cinematography is credited to prolific TV cameraman Tom Fraser (THE UNNAMABLE) but he also shares camera operator credit with the late exploitation cinematographer/director/adult filmmaker Gary Graver; however, like much of the cast, most of the crew are either one-offs or hidden behind pseudonyms. Had the film been shot as a softcore comedy, it might have played better than this. As such, it is only intermittently entertaining in between the boring sex scenes.

Private Screening Collection’s DVD is typical of their product in that it is a barebones presentation featuring a solid transfer of a video master (most of the Private Screening Collection releases that were original Private Screening titles were shot on film but edited on video so there are likely to be no film masters). Designed with television (in its cable softcore version) and video (In its hardcore version) in mind, the film is shot full frame and does not look cropped.

Shot on video, the extra digitization of DVD is not kind on complexions all the time. The mono sound is clear. As there is no hardcore material, the DVD is distributed by Ryko (Severin/Private Screening Collection seems to have found CAV to distribute their hardcore content titles). Although most will find the retail price of $29.95 ridiculously expensive for this title alone, Private Screening Collection has made the film available in a two-pack with Claude Mullot’s BLACK VENUS as SKIN CLASSICS VOLUME 1 for $29.95, but one has to wonder why they didn’t pair this with the American LOVE SCENES and BLACK VENUS with the Spanish CHRISTINA.

(Eric Cotenas)

 

The Art of Love

The Art of Love (Walerian Borowczyk, 1983)

 Borowczyk’s THE ART OF LOVE takes the “make love not war” message to Ancient Rome (as Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA did for the Greeks).  After a title sequence depicting a bathing Marina Pierro (the most memorable and beguiling of the director’s screen muses), Borowczyk quickly sets up his oppositions.  General Macarius’ (Michele Placido, LA ORCA) return to Rome from Gaule with fanfare but his thunder is stolen by Ovid (Massimo Girotti, BARON BLOOD) whose class – instructs his students in the “art of love” from wooing to copulation – draws the attendance of much of Rome’s young population (and Ovid must close the shutters to prevent the marching band from drowning out his lecture).  At home, while a restless Macarius is seen unconscious stroking the feathers of his helmet by his bedside, his wife Claudia is in the throws of an erotic dream.  Both are woken by the pet parrot Telemachus’ cry of the name Cornelius.  Macarius’ homecoming it turns out is only brief as is shortly to return to Gaule leaving Claudia supposedly in the company of his mother Clio (Laura Betti, TEOREMA) only.  What he does not know is that the aforementioned Cornelius is one of Ovid’s students decided to put his master’s teaching into practice in wooing Claudia with the help of her housekeeper Sepora (Mireille Pame) who arranges for their clandestine meetings.  When Macarius finds out that he is being cuckolded, Ovid’s fate is sealed (the film is set in 8 AD, the year that Emperor Augustus had Ovid banished to the Black Sea because his works including “The Art of Love” promoted adultery which ran counter to the Julian Marriage Laws of 18 BC).

The plot is pretty straightforward but Borowczyk’s treatment of it is the point of interest as usual.  He is less concerned with the narrative than the opportunity it provides to examine the sexual obsessions and erotic material culture of the setting.  One of Claudia and Cornelius’ escorted meetings takes place in a museum of erotic statuary Sepora for which shows a tactile appreciation (she also keeps the statue of a phallic god in her cabinet for worship).  Claudia writes a message for Cornelius on Sepora’s back in invisible ink.  One of Claudia’s daydreams has her inside a hollow cow statue to be mounted by a man in a bull mask.  Other episodes include the initially funny cuckolding of a general (Philippe Lemaire, THE BLOOD ROSE) by his much younger wife which ends in murder to Macarius’ own mother (what did you expect with Laura Betti in the role?) pawing a drunken youth as well as a pregnant widow (Placido’s wife at the time, Stefania Stefanelli of THE GODFATHER) who attends Ovid’s class and gives birth during the apocalyptic finale.

Despite Borowczyk’s usual attention to such detail, THE ART OF LOVE is not one of his best films.  It lacks the audacity of THE BEAST or IMMORAL TALES or the intimacy of his later THE STREETWALKER and LOVE RITES (also featuring Pierro) and fits in with middle-of-the-road fare like IMMORAL WOMEN (well, the second and third tale, the first is a masterpiece), his contribution to PRIVATE COLLECTIONS, and BEHIND CONVENT WALLS.  Performances cannot be faulted (Pierro, Placido, Girotti, Pame, and Betti are all excellent) and the cinematography is up to Borowczyk’s usual standards (not slick and not intended as such but with an eye for composition and delicate lighting) though Luis Enrique Bacalov’s (DJANGO) score is not particularly memorable aside from a disco tune that plays out on the end titles (which is inappropriate to the period but fitting in the context of eighties Euro erotica).

According to IMMORAL TALES, there was quite a bit of producer interference in the making of the film including faked letters from Borowczyk giving the producer’s permission to add mismatched orgy footage from Joe D’Amato’s CALIGULA 2 (present here in coarser condition and lacking the more explicit shots although this seems to be common to all English versions) although this footage is framed as Macarius’s repressed dream so the mismatched footage may work for some.  While the film’s modern epilogue could have used book-ending prologue footage, it doesn’t really make much sense either way as it features archaeology student Claudia being woken up in her car by a priest (Macarius) who then gives him a lift only for him to discover a newspaper article about a love triangle involving Claudia, another archaeology student (Cornelius), and an archaeologist (Ovid) that ended in the murder of the latter.

Serverin’s DVD of THE ART OF LOVE is not the expected improvement over previous transfers.  Although anamorphic, the picture quality is not much better than the previous non-anamorphic Greek newsstand (which I own) and Dutch DVDs (going by the comparison screencap at DVDBeaver).  As with Cult Epic’s DVD of LOVE RITES, Borowczyk’s deliberately soft-focus cinematography and diffuse lighting styles are always going to play havoc with MPEG2 encoding – particularly on a single-layer disc – but the quality of the master may also be to blame.  The disc does run at the correct 24 fps running time (1:36:24 versus the Greek discs 1:32:33).  The 1.77:1 is also too severe and throws off Borowcyzk’s careful compositions (the Dutch DVD was letterboxed at 1.60:1 and the Greek at 1.64:1).

As with HANNA D., we can probably blame rights holder Filmexport for the cropping.  Audio quality is comparable to the older transfers in that dialogue and music are clear but the dubbing really takes away from this one (although Marina Pierro is dubbed by Pat Starke on the English track).  Extras on the Severin disc are limited to a poor quality Italian theatrical trailer (also present on the Greek disc) which is 4:3 letterboxed (looking a bit cropped) within a 16:9 frame.  Interestingly, while the film’s credits state “Ugo Tucci presents” the trailer says “Ugo Tucci e Camillo Teti presentano” (Teti is known to Eurocult viewers as the director of THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US).

Although Severin’s DVD is imperfect, it is probably the most accessible disc of the English language version as the typically overpriced Japanese DVD was optically fogged (and, like the Dutch DVD, is long out of print) while the Greek disc was only distributed on news-stands but pops up infrequently on eBay (though when it does, its relatively cheap).

 

(Eric Cotenas)