The Alcove

The Alcove (Joe D’Amato, 1993)

 In 1936 Italy, Elio (Ali Cliver, ZOMBI 2) returns home from Africa with a present for his wife in the form of Zerbal (Laura Gemser, BLACK EMANUELLE), the daughter of a tribal king.  Unbeknownst to him, his neglected wife Alessandra (Lili Carati, CANDIDO EROTICO) has formed a lesbian relationship with Elio’s otherwise frigid secretary Velma (Annie Belle, LAURE) who is less than pleased at Elio’s return (especially when he gets drunk and forces himself on her).  Neither woman immediately takes to Zerbal nor Elio’s disapproving son Furio (Roberto Caruso, THE CHURCH) who is quietly attracted to Velma.  Elio turns Zerbal over to Alessandra “body and soul” and she becomes Alessandra’s model while Velma is busy transcribing Elio’s memoirs (the proceeds from which he will pay off his many creditors).  Elio – who is making little progress with his manuscript – returns the belongings of a fallen comrade to his widow only to discover that the dead man was a stag filmmaker and decides to produce some of his own to make money with Alessandra, Velma, and Zerbal as the cast.  Slowly, the subservient and much-abused catalyst Zerbal gains sexual and psychological dominance over Elio, Alessandra, even managing to turn them against Velma who becomes an unwilling participant in one of his stag films directed by Zerbal.  Velma in turn appeals to Furio to free Elio and Alessandra from Zerbal’s influence.

Although regarded as one of the D’Amato’s best Filmirage-era erotica entries, THE ALCOVE is a frustrating movie.  Scripted by Ugo Moretti (Lenzi’s ORGASMO), the period detail is well-sustained and the cast is attractive but the plot takes a sudden hypocritical turn from Gemser doing her exotic femme fatale giving the despicable Elio, racist Alessandra, and jealous Velma what they deserve (this is certainly no BLACK EVA) to a gallant Furio comforting Velma and rescuing his father and stepmother from the evil influence of Zerbal who may be nefarious but her comeuppance is not so satisfying since she’s had our sympathy for the first half as the exploited victim.  Early on, the script is fairly sophisticated for softcore erotica.  Zerbal is constantly underestimated as being “just a savage” and “a feline creature” who doesn’t know what she is doing or why.

As it progresses, we start to wonder if Zerbal’s “Go and get yourself fucked” is simply her misuse of one of the phrases Elio taught her or her intended greeting to Alessandra and if her acquiescence to Elio’s turning her subservience over to Alessandra was ever sincere.  During a discussion with Furio of Elio’s African victories which upsets Zerbal, Alessandra points out that history is shaped by the victors and no one takes an interest in the perspective of the losers only after she has become enchanted by Zerbal’s body.

While Gemser is a commanding presence as always, Cliver is rather nondescript without Nick Alexander’s dubbing while Belle’s presence is diminished by the covering of her trademark short, cropped hairdo (whether dark as in LIPS OF BLOOD or platinum blonde as in LAURE and HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK) with a more period-suitable long wig.  Carati fares better in later scenes when Alessandra is totally psychologically dependent on Zerbal.  Instead of Filmirage regular synth composer Carlo Maria Cordio, Manuel de Sica (DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE) contributes a suitable-to-the-period score.  The Filmirage erotica entries were divided between modern-day entries of lesser quality such as the dire TOP MODEL and ELEVEN DAYS, ELEVEN NIGHTS and better period entries including this, THE PLEASURE (also featuring Carati), ROOM OF WORDS (a New Orleans-set version of the Henry Miller/Anais Nin story popularized by HENRY & JUNE), PEEPSHOW (a take on BELLE DU JOUR), and one or two others.  While the sex scenes are very standard for eighties softcore erotica, the stag film footage crosses the line into hardcore (and probably was cut from the UK release).  Although flawed, THE ALCOVE has the best combination of elements in terms of casting and settings.

Severin’s anamorphic widescreen transfer of the English version of THE ALCOVE is a satisfying rendition with a clear transfer (excepting the intentional softness of Joe D’Amato’s cinematography, here billed under his Filmirage cinematographer pseudonym Frederiko Slonisko) and good mono audio (dialogue is clear and hiss is only apparent during passages with only music).  Grain is heavy enough in some interiors and dark exteriors but that is likely the original cinematography.  Although a 1.66:1 aspect ratio would have offered a bit more headroom in some of D’Amato’s artier compositions, the 1.78:1 matting is not as ruinous here as it was on Severin’s Filmexport-licensed THE ART OF LOVE and HANNA D.

The rare theatrical trailer is in worse condition and seems to be taken from an old videotape.  The English-language D’Amato interview comes from grainy, fuzzy VHS as well but it is quite interesting (the augmenting film clips range from VHS quality to newer digital masters which may explain why the 4:3 video interview has been inserted into a 16:9 palette). The film has also been released in Italy by Avofilm who distributed the film on VHS in the eighties but the quality of their DVD product has been spotty (including a panned-and-scanned NEW YORK RIPPER when the rest of the world had anamorphic widescreen editions) and in Germany in a 4:3 letterbox version with forced German subtitles when the English track is selected.  Although some may covet the German edition’s hardbox clamshell, Severin’s newer edition looks like the winner.

                                                                                                                          (Eric Cotenas)

 

Joy

JOY (Sergio Bergonzelli/Serge Bergon, 1983)

Joy (Claudia Udy, EDGE OF SANITY) is a fashion model with some daddy issues (her American father having walked out on her and her mother shortly after young Joy accidentally saw her parents having sex).  All grown up and on her way to stardom – in a chick-with-a-gun action film being shot in New York by a director named George Miller (not that one), she leaves her current rock star boyfriend Alain (Manuel Gelin, whose SLOGAN character was similarly cast off by Jane Birkin in favor of the more worldly Serge Gainsbourg) for older, wealthy Marc (Gérard-Antoine Huart, who later made the erotica rounds in EMMANUELLE IV and the film of LE DECLIC) who she believes may be the perfect man for her.

They cruise the neon-lit Paris nightlife in Marc’s Jag and visit various underground S/M clubs (Marc takes Joy for the first time in front of a video camera on a robotic chair in a private studio for the viewing pleasure of some wealthy friends.  Joy’s relationship with her mother is strained not only because of her attachment to her absent father but also because her mother blames her whenever her current stepfather gets a little handsy.  While in New York starring in a chick-with-a-gun action flick (directed by George Miller, but not that one), Joy meets New Agey Bruce (Kenneth Langolois) who introduces her to Tantric sex (and starts looking for Joy’s father behind her back after her tearful confession that “the love of my life is a ghost”).

She continues her search during her modeling assignments (including a dalliance with a Lebanese photographer during an island shoot) but Marc seems open minded; especially since Joy is open to multi-partner sex until she realizes that he sees her as nothing more than a whore (“You are not the type of girl men marry…”).  A surprise phone call (and a convenient telegram) steer Joy to confront her past.

Purporting to be the scandalous memoirs of a pseudonymous French model Joy Laurey, JOY was the first of a series of erotic novels which was adapted to screen and later as a series of softcore cable movies produced by Alain Seritzky; much like the THE STORY OF O, the EMMANUELLE novels and LE DECLIC comics.  Directed by Italian exploitation director Sergio Bergonzelli (as Serge Bergon since this is a French/Canadian co-production), JOY is slick if a little over-long but Bergonzelli knows how to continually top himself with erotic set-pieces; piling more and more lathered and tanned naked, gyrating bodies upon each other once the constant sight of Udy’s perpetually erect nipples starts to lose its novelty value.

Looking like a cross between a young Goldie Hawn and Farrah Fawcett, Udy isn’t a particularly compelling presence (then again, the film doesn’t really have that compelling a plot) but Bergonzelli lets shots of her face and body smooth over the transitions from one set piece to another.  The film is gorgeously photographed throughout by Canadian film industry stalwart Rene Verzier who employs color gels and various natural filters like mesh curtains, diaphanous clothing, and steamed windows rather to keep things visually interesting (late in the film he also uses a nice transitional matte effect and a split screen optical; although a final matte effect before the closing credits isn’t quite as well rendered).  Debbie Davis provides the cloying theme song (“Joy, for love is not a game, you play so he will hold you in his arms” and the like to very eighties French pop synths and electronic percussion).

I first experienced JOY on a Greek VHS of the 95 minute English version.  The print was so battered and the contrasts so harsh that Verzier’s photography looked dreary and murky.  While it is too bad the English track wasn’t also synchronized to this release, the fresh transfer of the 110 minute French version is quite the revelation.  Letterboxed at 1.83:1 and anamorphically-enhanced, Severin’s transfer has some edge enhancement but the grain and some softness in long shots (Verzier uses set decoration like steamed windows and meshed curtains and diaphanous costuming on the actors to diffuse the image rather than on-camera filters) seems to be part of the original cinematography.  There is a 2-3 frame encoding/authoring glitch late in the film (in the scene directly following the Tantric orgy).  The French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound is clear and the optional English subtitles seem error-free.

The only extra is an interview with Claudia Udy (who is American, not Canadian or French as her name might suggest).  She is lively and perhaps takes the whole project a bit too seriously.  She refers to the director under his French pseudonym and observes that he was not an actor’s director (just as well as the visuals are all the film really has going for it).  Well worth seeking out for lovers of European cinematic erotica and a very appropriate title for Severin who missed out on the EMMANUELLE films and THE STORY OF O but have given us some of their better rip-offs like VANESSA, FELICITY, and GWENDOLINE.

                                                                                                                      (Eric Cotenas)

 

Joy & Joan

Joy & Joan (Jacques Saurel, 1985)

Joy returns in this entirely French sequel (this time in the form of Jean Rollin muse Brigitte Lahaie) and she’s still having troubles with Marc (Jean-Marc Maurel) who is younger here and now a roving journalist rather than a businessman.  Joy’s modeling work suffers when Marc finally walks out on her and jets off to Bangkok.  Wealthy friend Bruce (Pierre Londiche) – less New Agey than in the original – offers Joy the world but all she wants is him to take her to Thailand.  Upon arrival, Bruce presents Joy with personal slave Millarca (Maria Isabel Lopez), a diamond ring, and a palace belonging to the creepy prince Cornelius (Jacques Bryland).

For her birthday, Bruce gives Joy 9,125 pearls (“I’ve lived for 9,125 days without you”) and “the gift of pleasure through others” (read: drugs her and makes her the centerpiece of an orgy for his rich friends).  Joy flees Bruce – although Cornelius is never far behind – and runs into Marc who takes her into a photo booth for a quickie before leaving her again.  Fleeing Cornelius, Joy meets tour guide Joan (Isabelle Solar).  Joan immediately confesses her love for Joy and they jet off to the Philippines where Joan’s old boyfriend (one of those eighties guys who thinks he can get away wearing pink tank tops) who owns a hotel.  He puts them up but arranges for them to be kidnapped and taken to a spa/brothel.  Cornelius disrupts the actions and Joan disappears.

Rather than taking her back to Bruce, Cornelius takes Joy to the airport (because she resembles a woman he was in love with; then he gets all creepy again just as we were beginning to feel some sympathy for him).  Joy gets back to Paris and back to work only for Joan to show up on her doorstep.  When Joy goes off for a four day commercial shoot, Joan meets Marc who showed up for a quickie just after Joy left.  Joan obliges him and then confesses to Joy when she discovers she is pregnant (she explains that she wanted to find out how Marc got under her skin).  Ever flexible, Joy finds a way to scrounge up a happy ending.

Jacques Saurel‘s follow-up to Sergio Bergonzelli’s JOY is also based on a novel by the pseudonymous Joy Laurey and is more plot-oriented than the original; but also even more absurd.  Whereas in the original, Joy’s adventures were confined to underground sex clubs and wielding a gun on the set of a cheesy action flick, here she is drugged, raped, kidnapped, and the like as if she were the heroine of one of the later EMMANUELLE film sequels.  Debbie Davis’ theme from JOY is reprised early on as Joy spots Marc on the dance floor of a club with another woman as if to remind us of their prior history but both characters are very different from the way they were in the previous film (besides being played by different actors) in which they had already split before the end.

New composer Francois Valery comes up with a new “Joy and Joan” theme song (“Call it love, call it fun, call it play…”) that plays throughout (even though Joan doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the running time).  Valery’s vocal “You Need Love” is a bit whiny but the instrumental version is nicely employed and recalls some of Pierre Bachelet’s themes for Just Jaeckin’s GWENDOLINE more than the setting recalls his EMMANUELLE.  Statuesque Lahaie’s doll-like inexpressiveness made her a simultaneously chilly and sensuous presence in her work for Jean Rollin (along with a well-cast bit as the Alida Valli-equivalent in FACELESS, Jess Franco’s sexy, glitzy reworking of EYES WITHOUT A FACE) but here her passivity cements her role as victim throughout (whereas Claudia Udy’s Joy was merely going with the flow for most of the prior film).

That’s not to say, Lahaie isn’t up to the role.  In the rare instances in this film where her expression does crack into a smile or a look of hurt, it is effective.  Solar fares a little better but she’s also a bit whiny in her proclamations of instant love for Joy.  Maurel as Mark has little to do than look decorative.  Still photographer Ian Patrick also plays the photographer in Joy’s opening modeling session.  The film is less visually interesting than the prior JOY film although there’s plenty of nice landscapes and costumes (the scenes in the misty French countryside towards the end of the film and the candlelit interiors of Joy’s country home are a lot more interesting to look at).

Having never seen JOY ET JOAN before, I am not sure just how much Severin’s transfer improves upon previous versions (although I’m sure the R2 French DVD uses the same master) but it is an anamorphic 1.62:1, progressive, single-layer transfer that seems to represent the original cinematography rather well (apart from some edge enhancement) from the bright Thailand settings to the misty and candlelit French chateau setting of the last section of the film.  There are no extras on Severin’s disc but it is recommended for fans of European softcore erotica – it’s not the best but it hits all the right notes – and a solid release from Severin.                                                                              (Eric Cotenas)

 

Hanna D

Hanna D (Rino Di Silvestro, 1984)

The Girl from Vondel Park

This Amsterdam-shot, Italian/French-produced rip-off of Uli Edel’s depressing CHRISTIANE F. opens with the seduction of schoolgirl Hanna (Ann Gisel Glass) in a train compartment by an older man while her father is elsewhere.  It turns out that Hanna is not-so-innocent as the man who seemed to be her father is actually her pimp and after the older man leaves, he’s got a three-way with a couple organized.  Hanna’s mother (Karin Schubert) is a drunken nympho whose toyboy Hans is constantly walking out on her and then coming back when he needs money (we learn in a flashback that Hans had tried to molest Hanna and that Hanna’s mother blames her for the incident and constantly sends her to get Hans back).

When Hanna gets fed up with whoring to support her mother – who blames her for her supposed loss of looks and her “beastly” body – she walks out and takes to the streets to turn tricks for her own profit.  Despite discovering the body of a friend overdosed on heroin and witnessing a strung-out man kill himself, Hanna also takes to the drug to deaden her emotional pain (though she is seen earlier sniffing coke).  Hanna is rescued from a scuffle with a territorial prostitute by motorcycle-riding Miguel (Antonio Serrano).

No sooner has Miguel wined and dined Hanna and taken her into his bed (in one of the film’s dissolve-heavy love scenes) than he is getting her into work in porn films with him as her manager.  Not one to put all his eggs into one basket, he also has her hooking by night to further supplement their income.  Things take a turn when Hanna meets Axel (Sebastiano Somma) who falls in love with her.  Things turn ugly when a romp through Amsterdam causes Hanna to miss an important appointment set up by Miguel.  While visiting a prostitute friend, Hanna is caught in a raid and jailed where she goes through withdrawal; fortunately, her fellow hookers have what she needs hidden in various orifices.  Miguel bullies Hanna’s mother into appealing to the judge’s sympathies and getting Hanna out of jail.  While explaining to Miguel why she missed the appointment and got caught in the raid, Hanna neglects to mention anything about Axel but Miguel already has his thugs finding out the truth.  Hanna tries to keep her distance from Axel but he persists and gets beaten by Miguel’s thugs for his efforts.  Hanna professes her love for Axel to Miguel who seems to have genuinely fallen for her despite his brutality and degrading remarks.  Hanna is sent back onto the streets as a prostitute by Miguel.  She is so strung out that she does not notice that her latest client is Axel who steals her away to his home and forces her into withdrawal and then goes after Miguel despite Hanna’s pleas.

Directed by Rino Di Silvestro (WEREWOLF WOMAN) under the name “Axel Berger” (but scripted under his own name), HANNA D. is a co-production between France’s Jacques Letienne and Italy’s Beatrice Film who produced several eighties films directed by this film’s editor Bruno Mattei including VIRUS, RATS: NIGHTS OF TERROR and the two Laura Gemser/Emanuelle prison movies.  Composer Luigi Ceccarelli (also a veteran of several eighties Mattei productions) provides a nice electronic score as well as a cloying theme song (actually not that bad in context).  The happy ending may seem inappropriate and a cop-out but director Di Silvestro reveals in the DVD’s interview his belief in redemption after a descent into hell.  Even without that context, it is obvious that the director feels great sympathy for Hanna (perhaps too much as there are so many shots in which the camera holds on beautifully lit “perfect” static shots of Hanna staring off into nothing whether drugged, delirious, devastated, or happy).  The participation of cinematographer Franco Delli Colli (WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO OUR DAUGHTERS?) also suggests the lofty aspirations of Di Silvestro and his producers Jacques Letienne and Roberto Di Girolamo.  Delli Colli’s lighting is consistently beautiful with even the sleaziest of Hanna’s sexual encounters bathed in warm gold light and the various warehouses the prostitutes hang out in streaked in blue light contrasting with the bonfires.  Some thought also seems to have gone into the colours of the clothing and set dressings as they also contribute to the pleasing compositions.  The opening credits also thank Italian clothier Francesco Casani for the tailoring of leather and furs for the film (and the prostitutes do look smashing in them throughout).

Glass (dubbed by Pat Starke) certainly possesses the angelic look that Di Silvestro says he was looking for when he picked a French actress and she acquits herself believably throughout (her abrupt changes of mood throughout can be blamed more on the editing which tries to surprise us by transitioning from scenes of Hanna in love to Hanna taking another shot of heroin in an eyelid or in her hair and vice versa.  Schubert (dubbed by Carolyn De Fonseca) gives her all as Hanna’s mother; doffing her clothes as usual but also getting to do a lot of crying and shouting.  Somma (dubbed by Ted Russoff, I think) is okay as Hanna’s true love but he is upstaged by Lombardi as Hanna’s pimp/lover Miguel.  As soon as Somma came onscreen, I kept wondering where I had seen him before but I could not place his face in any film but a look at his IMDB filmography reveals that he was the Swiss cop who talks to Cristina Marsillach in the last scene of Argento’s OPERA).

Severin’s DVD presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1) progressive scan transfer which looks quite good with ravishingly attractive colours and only the slightest bit of speckling in one or two shots that may be due to the processing rather than the age of the source.  There is a glitch in an insert shot during the jail scene shoot-up but that glitch also appears in the scene when it is repeated in the documentary so it may be evidence of damaged frames.  Audio is generally clear.  The constant cropping off of the top of heads suggests that a 1.66:1 aspect ratio might have been better suited to the film (it starts to become distracting once you first notice it) but the aspect ratio choice was likely the decision of the licensor Filmexport (from what I’ve been told about other materials acquired from them for another company) but the framing does not seem to obscure nudity which seemed to be the point of contention with the framing of the R1 transfer of Filmexport’s other Di Silvestro holding WEREWOLF WOMAN.  The music – both Ceccarelli’s score and the very eighties theme song – come through boldly while dialogue levels vary but are generally discernable and may be the result of the original mix.

An English language theatrical trailer gives us plenty of cringe-inducing shots of needles about to be injected into various places but holds back on the nudity and gore (the trailer and the film bear a disclaimer stating that the resemblance between those who suffer like Hanna is NOT casual).  Rino Di Silvestro provides a 45 minute interview (shot shortly before his death this year) in which he addresses the critical response to the ending, the casting of the French Glass over Italian actresses, his partnership with Roberto Di Girolamo (from which he likely met Mattei and crew), his working relationship with Delli Colli, the week-long location shoot in Amsterdam and trying to match it with the four week Italian shoot, and his philosophy of storytelling.  Di Silvestro does not mention CHRISTIANE F. but is adamant in stating that this was a story he wanted to tell despite the sources of inspiration that critics have ascribed to the film.

Matting issues aside, Severin Films’ DVD of HANNA D. is an exemplary release thanks to a beautiful transfer and an engrossing interview with the late director.  Di Silvestro’s genuine feeling for the script, the film, and his collaborators comes through not only in the film but also the quality presentation of the disc and its extras (certain other companies would do well to follow their example).  Viewers who think they have seen it all would do well to seek this film out (especially those that think Italian exploitation was already dead in the eighties).                                                                                                     (Eric Cotenas)

 

Crucible of Terror

Crucible of Terror (Ted Hooker, 1971)

 When backer Brent (Kenneth Keeling) is told he cannot have a mysterious bronze nude of a Japanese woman, he demands a return on his investment from gallery owner Davis (James Bolam, O LUCKY MAN!) before he returns from his business trip (we later see Brent break into the gallery to steal the bronze only to be murdered by an unseen assailant).  Davis decides that he must get his hands on more work by the artist Victor Clare (Mike Raven, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE) but the artist’s son Mike (Ronald Lacey, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) is reluctant to approach his father since he had stolen the bronze.  Davis suggests that cold hard cash might do the trick so he, his girlfriend Millie (Mary Maude, THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED), Mike, and his wife Jane (Beth Morris) head down to Cornwall to the artist’s remote home near a condemned mine where the artist lives with his wife Dorothy (Betty Alberge, who also appeared with Raven in DISCIPLE OF DEATH) who has been driven mad by his cruelty, family friend Bill (John Arnatt, HYSTERIA), and model Marcia (Judy Matheson, TWINS OF EVIL).

Davis discovers that Victor is a painter and learns from Mike that the bronze was his only sculpture, that the model Chi-San (Me Me Lai, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME) belonged to a strange religious cult that believed the dead could control the living and that she mysteriously disappeared after the sculpture was made (hmm…).  Although Victor is less than hospitable to his son, his daughter-in-law, and Davis, Millie catches his eye and he wants her to model for him (much to the annoyance of Marcia).  That night after a failed seduction of Jane by Victor, she is murdered and her body hidden.  Victor endeavours to separate Davis from Millie by telling him he’ll make a deal with him if he can get the cash right away.  Davis drives back to London to ask Brent’s wife (Melissa Stribling, HORROR OF DRACULA) for another loan.  Meanwhile, more houseguests are taken out by an unseen killer as Victor tries to convince Millie to model for his next sculpture.

The only directorial effort of former editor Ted Hooker, CRUCIBLE OF TERROR is a mess of thriller and supernatural elements.  We know who is responsible for the opening credits murder but then the film builds up suspense out of the subsequent killings with a bunch of suspects (dotty Dorothy with a fascination for razors, jealous Marcia, Bill polishing his Japanese swords) who are obviously red herrings.  Other critics have cited (in its uncut form) its seeming influence on the gorier Italian gialli of the mid seventies and onwards but the killer’s identity and motive here are linked to an early incident so trivial it is forgotten as irrelevant by the ending and it has to be explained with flashbacks by someone who was not present at any of those scenes.

Shot and produced by former cinematographer Peter Newbrook, the film wrings some wonderful atmosphere out of the Cornish seaside exteriors (although the incompetent use of a diffusing scrim in front of the camera lens makes one wonder if Newbrook actually looked through the lens to frame the shot).  Raven is not as menacing as he would like to be and Maude has little to do but run around (she fared better as the sadistic head girl in Narcisco Serrador’s THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED and in her witch-burner cameo in Norman Warren’s TERROR).  Only Alberge and Lacey make impressions as mad mother and drunk son but some of the killings are striking for an early seventies British pic and its certainly better than Raven’s self-financed 16mm blow-up period horror pic DISCIPLE OF DEATH.

Seemingly in the public domain, it appeared on several videotape editions in a horrendously cut version (whether this reflected a US theatrical version or a TV version is not known).  Even Video Gems’ lovely clamshell cased “UNCENSORED” version was the cut edition.  Of course, few were aware that this film had anything more to offer until it appeared on US DVD from Image Entertainment in 2000 with some rarely seen gore and extended scenes.  The colour and sharpness of that release was an improvement over previous versions but the unmatted (although framed at 1.44:1 with side mattes), single-layer image was interlaced.

Severin’s single-layer anamorphic version features a progressive image from a rare 35mm print that is a noticeable improvement over the Image release (reportedly loaned to Severin by “a Bodmin Moor coven”).  Audio is louder with some hiss and some rare high-end distortion on the score and sound effects.  References cite a 1.66:1 OAR but the 1.78:1 framing does not impede any of the compositions.  The disc has no extras while the earlier Image disc featured a Spanish track and a Music and Effects track (it’s really not that great a score).  The Image disc runs slightly longer due to the inclusion of the licensor logo.                                                                                                                  (Eric Cotenas)

 

Psychomania

Psychomania (Don Sharp, 1973)

 Upper class youth Tom Latham (Nicky Henson, WITCHFINDER GENERAL) is the leader of a bike gang called The Living Dead. His spiritualist mother (Beryl Reid, BEAST IN THE CELLAR) belongs to a frog-worshipping Satanic cult and apparently family butler Shadwell (PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY’s George Sanders) might be the devil. Tom’s dead father failed to complete a pact with the devil and Tom is obsessed with returning from the dead. He uses wry reports of his bad behavior and threats of more to come to cajole his mother into telling him the secret of eternal life. She and Shadwell allow him access to the locked room where his father died eighteen years ago where he sees in a mirror (the room’s sole piece of furniture) his mother signing a pact with a demonic figure (recognizable as Shadwell from the ring) at the motorcycle gang’s Stonehenge-like hangout “The Seven Witches” where it is rumored that seven devil worshipers were turned to stone after reneging on a pact. After he passes out, he overhears that his father died because he did not have the faith to come back. The next day, Tom tops off terrorizing the town square with his buddies by driving off a bridge into the water. Tom’s girlfriend Abby (Mary Larkin) approaches his mother and tells her that the gang would like to bury Tom in their own way (at the Seven Witches astride his motorcycle). Shadwell turns up with a frog medallion to be buried with him. Tom soon rises up, mows down a motorist who has cut across the Seven Witches after a flat tire, knocks off a gas station attendant, and three others at a pub (after a call to his mother “I’m dead, mother, but apart from that I couldn’t be better”).

The gang meet up at the Seven Witches after the fuzz have questioned them about the murders. Abby tells them that the description of the killer matched Tom. They discover that Tom’s grave is empty and believe they are being framed until Tom turns up dead and well and tells them the secret of coming back. Jane (Ann Michelle, VIRGIN WITCH) and Hinky (Rocky Taylor) are the first to take themselves out but Hinky was an unbeliever so only Jane comes back and she proves just as bloodthirsty once resurrected (jamming a knife into the spinning tire of a passing truck and sending it crashing off the road). The living members of the gang get jailed but Tom and Jane give the police chase and lead investigating Chief Inspector Hesseltine (Robert Hardy, DARK PLACES) to Latham Manor. When Tom’s mother learns of the killings and the suicides of two more of the gang, she is horrified but Shadwell convinces the inspector that she is overwrought. Tom and Jane bust the other gang members out of jail (and kill several policemen) followed by a montage of biker suicides played for humor. Abby overdoses on sleeping pills but survives. The Chief Inspector tells her that all of her friends have committed suicide and their bodies have disappeared from the morgue. He decides to set a trap by announcing that Abby is dead so he can catch whoever is taking the bodies and committing crimes in the guise of the bikers. Meanwhile, Tom announces to his mother and Shadwell that he and his gang are planning to do away with the every representative of The Establishment.

Scripted by blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters Arnaud D’Usseau and Julian Halevy (who also paired up to script the Spanish-lensed Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing pic HORROR EXPRESS, also forthcoming from Severin Films), Don Sharp’s finished film apparently did not live up to the script according to star Nicky Henson. The film begins with a wonderfully atmospheric title sequence featuring The Living Dead riding in slow motion around the misty Seven Witches site to John Cameron’s Pink Floyd-ish fuzz-guitar-hammond organ score and Academy Award-winning Ted Moore’s framing and filtering. Their initial examples of badass-ery include causing a deadly crash for a trucker on a moonlit road and riding through a shopping center to goose women, knock over vending carts, and sign-hanger’s ladders, and tripping waiters carrying stacks of pastry on trays. Tom’s funeral (he is buried sitting on his bike in the Seven Witches) is very much a “flower child” affair (spiked by a little pagan intervention from butler Shadwell who drives up in a Rolls Royce). Perhaps the schizophrenic nature of the upper class bikers’ rebellious pretenses is intentional rather than a misapprehension of the middle-aged screenwriters. That said, the script is still a mess.  It is never explained why Shadwell is still hanging around the Latham household after eighteen years (unless he’s waiting for Tom to make a pact).  Abby is the sensitive one but not much more identifiable (she seems horrified by the resurrected Living Dead acts of violence but not necessarily any of the injury and death caused by them when they were alive.

The police investigation plods along but there’s not much of a payoff (despite the neat use of a single-take 360 degree camera pan in the morgue). Sanders is wry as ever even while slumming in one of his last pictures and his scenes with Reid (as well as the Henson/Reid/Sanders scenes) make an interesting contrast to the Living Dead menace scenes and the police investigation bits. These exposition-heavy scenes are played for black comedy (when his mother tells him of receiving a call from the police, he replies “The word, mother, is fuzz” and when she says his behavior might get him arrested, he replies ‘The word, mother, is busted”). The film really belongs to Henson. He gets all the good close-ups, the widest range of emotion and some standout bits when Tom rises from the dead. As Henson’s love interest, Larkin pulls the right expressions but is nowhere near as fun as Michelle’s Jane, the first to follow Tom’s suicidal example (she does a fake hanging gag and rams a baby carriage during the supermarket seige). The normally bombastic Hardy (over-the-top in DEMONS OF THE MIND but appropriately so in ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL) gives a performance so toned down – his character is scripted as pretty ineffectual – that he doesn’t even get a death scene (his character could have done with some blustery outrage at the gang’s deadly shenanigans).

Severin’s PSYCHOMANIA kills in the extras, however. Stars Henson, Larkin, Dennis Gilmore (“Hatchet”), Roy Holder (“Bertram”), and actor/stuntman Rocky Taylor (“Hinky”) all are reunited for a 25 minute featurette of interviews called RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. They all mention their more prominent credits (only Gilmore seems proud of his cult appearances which also include VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED with Sanders and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW) and remark on the film’s faults (Henson finds it flat-out bad) but they respect its cult popularity. Henson (who was the only actor who could ride motorcycles) was primarily a theater actor taking day-long film jobs for extra money (he took a larger role in WITCHFINDER GENERAL because he was a friend of Ian Ogilvy). He immediately accepted PSYCHOMANIA because the script said they would be riding Harleys only to arrive on set to see “clapped out” AJS 350’s (I believe the last ones were built in the late 1940’s). Larkin (who saw the film in a theater full of bikers) remarks on how well-spoken their rebel biker characters were. They remember Sharp fondly but also despair of Reid and poor Sanders having to appear in such a film (text screens suggest that before Sanders took his own life in Spain, he had watched a rough cut of PSYCHOMANIA).

A 9 minute interview with composer John Cameron who elaborates on some of the pre-synthesizer tricks used to get the unusual sounds of the score and mentions that the first person to approach him about the score was Johnny Trunk of Trunk Records who wanted to put it out on CD (the film has recently appeared on LP and CD from Trunk who also brought us the official WICKER MAN soundtrack). He also plays the main theme on his modern setup and it compares poorly to the original sound. Singer Harvey Andrews appears in a 6 minute interview. He claims it took twenty minutes to record the song and relates his horrified reaction to seeing another actor miming to his recording over the funeral scene in the film. He then performs a bit of the song (on the original guitar) and his singing voice sounds exactly the same. Fangoria editor Chris Alexander provides an introduction to the film. It was the first film he ever purchased (like a lot of us, his introduction to Eurotrash was the budget and deleted VHS bins). It is a nonessential extra (it is nice that it is included in the extras section and not as a 5+ minute preamble to the feature) but he’s enthusiastic. An Easter egg (click on the eyes of the skull visor on the bonus menu) features Taylor talking about doing stunt work for Roger Moore and Sean Connery on OCTOPUSSY and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN.

On Severin’s web page, they mentioned that they had tracked down the rare theatrical trailers for HORROR EXPRESS and PSYCHOMANIA and had transferred them in high-definition.  The trailer on disc is indeed a thing of beauty and the lovely psychedelic renderings of the title onscreen look wonderful (as does the Scotia Brothers logo) although a pressing or authoring error causes the theatrical trailer to jump back to the menu at 2:19.  That the trailer looks better than the transfer (usually the other way around) is not entirely surprising since the trailer was in the hands of a private collector but there are more problems than simple wear on the feature. I figured that the interlaced, single-layer, Geneon disc was a port of the Image version but it runs 5 minutes shorter than the Severin version as it is missing the film’s opening seance (the Image disc times at 1:30:01 which is closer to the Severin running time). This shortened version also played on TCM recently and may reflect the US cut of the film. Severin’s progressive, anamorphic, dual-layer transfer is assembled from more than one source. The first reel is framed at 1.78:1 but switches over to 1.63:1 for the remainder of the feature (the aspect ratio is a vertically squished 1.81:1 throughout the Geneon presentation but there is a quality shift towards the better on the same shot – from scratchy and interlaced to spotless but interlaced).

Picture quality is variable on the new release. The first reel (which runs 5 minutes longer thanks to the restoration of this scene) looks better than it did on the previous release but goes from soft to over-sharpened while the 1.63:1 remainder has combing (although it is a progressive image) and variable sharpness. Severin’s transfer of the film may be disappointing but it has a great assortment of extras. It may be debatable if the transfer is better than the old one but it is certainly no worse.  Severin has assured us that the materials for HORROR EXPRESS (a fellow former-PD staple alongside CRUCIBLE OF TERROR and PSYCHOMANIA) are in better condition and that they are taking the necessary steps to ensure quality SD and HD releases.

(Eric Cotenas)

 

Horror Express

Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1972)

aka Pánico en el Transiberian

In 1906, British anthropologist Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee, HORROR OF DRACULA) discovers the frozen remains of a primitive man that he believes to be the missing evolutionary link. He crates it up and to take it back to England with him aboard the Tran Siberian Express. When a thief (Hiroshi Kitatawa) who tried to open the crate turns up dead with white eyes, Pujardov (Alberto De Mendoza, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN) – the confessor of fellow train passengers Count Petrovski (George Rigaud, MURDER MANSION) and his considerably younger wife Irina (Silvia Tortosa, THE LORELEY’S GRASP) – believes the contents of the crate to be something demonic. Curiosity gets the better of Saxton’s compatriot – and compartment-mate – Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) and he pays the baggage man (Victor Israel, THE WITCHES MOUNTAIN) to take a peak into the crate. When the baggage man disappears, Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) orders the crate opened, only to discover the baggage man’s white-eyed corpse and no sign of the ice man. An autopsy of the baggage man reveals that his brain is completely smooth, as if it had been erased.

The next victim is Natasha (Helga Line, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB), a spy who had boarded the train to break into the baggage compartment’s safe to obtain a jewelry bag belonging to the Petrovskis. Mirov shoots and kills the creature, and Wells’ examination of the fluid from the creature’s eye reveals not only pictures of dinosaurs but also the Earth as seen from space, proving that the creature was an alien life form that absorbed the thoughts of its victims (and Saxton wonders how such a creature could ever die). The jewelry bag turns out to contain a piece of steel and Petrovski reveals that spies are after the formula, which is only contained in the Count’s mind. Pujardov believes the beast is not dead, and he is soon proven right when more victims turn up. As the train passes through Siberia, a communiqué from the conductor (who promptly disappears) brings ruthless Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas, LISA AND THE DEVIL) and his soldiers onto the train to take over the investigation, but the creature – now inhabiting one of the passengers – has more brains on its hit list.

Although usually classified as a Spanish/UK co-production, the film was produced by blacklisted Hollywood writer Bernard Gordon, who was collaborating at the time with producer Philip Yordan (who fronted a number of Gordon’s Hollywood credits) and Samuel Bronston. The script was by blacklisted American screenwriters Arnaud D’Usseau (LADY SCARFACE) – the Los Angeles, California-born son of serial writer Leon D’Usseau and TV actress Ottola Nesmith – and Julian Halevy (CRACK IN THE WORLD), who had also scripted the Bernard Gordon-produced British supernatural biker film PSYCHOMANIA, and shot on the leftover train sets from PANCHO VILLA, Gordon’s previous production with Savalas, writer Halevy, director Eugenio Martin (A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL), composer John Cacavas (who wrote the theme song sung by Savalas; the score was written by BLIND DEAD series composer Anton Garcia Abril), and HORROR EXPRESS cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa (NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF). Yordan shared screenplay credit with Martin on his western BAD MAN’S RIVER (although Yordan’s authorship of many of his credited works has been in question for some time), but HORROR EXPRESS was apparently conceived and produced while Yordan was abroad promoting PANCHO VILLA (although Yordan apparently held the rights to HORROR EXPRESS when it was released on DVD at the dawn of the format by Simitar in an unsatisfactory but apparently copyrighted transfer).

There is a comic strain running through the film that is not normally encountered in Spanish horror. Lee and Cushing balk at the suggestion that one of them could be inhabited by the monster (“We’re British”) and when Wells asks his American colleague Miss Jones (Alice Reinhart, RAT FINK) for assistance, she takes in Wells’ comely dining companion Natasha and says “Well, at your age, I’m not surprised,” before he clarifies that he needs her to help with an autopsy, “Oh, well that’s different.” Irina also threatens to send the already-exiled Captain Kazan to Siberia. As most fans of the film and the Lee/Cushing pairing know, Cushing’s wife died right before the filming was to commence and he no longer wanted to do the film. Lee reportedly was the once who convinced Cushing to press on, and the film is one of the few collaborations where they are on the same side and get to gently spar off one another (there is also something very warm about the tight closing three-shot of Lee, Tortosa, and Cushing at the edge of the precipice regarding the burning remains of the train). As Wells’ comic foil, Reinhart’s Miss Jones is genuinely missed when the creature does away with her, as it would have been interesting to see her engaging in the discussion of the monster’s abilities.

Savalas gives a showy performance that is more than a cameo, but at times seems made up on the spot (director Eugenio Martin contrasted the comic styles of Lee and Cushing with Savalas, and described Savalas’ approach as more improvisatory from take to take). Tortosa’s countess is the damsel in distress, but more than a pretty face with her character’s wicked sense of humor and attempts to engage with Saxton that skirt the lines of proper behavior for a married aristocrat. Spanish genre fans will also get a kick out of seeing Alberto De Mendoza in a supporting role with some real meat to it (De Mendoza – possibly dubbing himself – deservedly receives third billing below Lee and Cushing in Spanish prints). Besides Spanish horror regulars Rigaud, Line and Israel, Barta Barri (WEREWOLF SHADOW) also turns up as a telegraph officer. Bit player Faith Clift had previously appeared in the Yordan-scripted Spanish western CAPTAIN APACHE and later turned up in the Yordan-scripted horror abomination CATACLYSM, footage of which was reworked into Yordan’s anthology film NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (which also featured footage from DEATH WISH CLUB and the unfinished SCREAM YOUR HEAD OFF). The cinematography of Alejandro Ulloa (THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF) is made up of handsomely lit studio train interiors and some somewhat reckless handheld exterior shots (possibly second unit). John Cacavas’ score (his first after penning the theme song for PANCHO VILLA, the actual score of which was composed by co-production quota talent Anton Garcia Abril [TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD]) is one of the most enduring elements of the film with its whistled main theme (also played on the piano by Irina) and the orchestrations built upon it, as well as electronic bits that accompany the red eye scenes, and the tragic fugue that underscores the climax.

Released on multiple PD VHS labels (as well as legitimately by Media Home Entertainment, and then later Prism Entertainment with a memorable clamshell cover) and then on multiple PD label DVDs, HORROR EXPRESS got its first decent release through Image Entertainment as part of their Euroshock collection. Although interlaced, the 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer was a major improvement and also featured the Spanish mono dub and an isolated music and effects track (which featured some nonsensical alternate music in the scene where Irina plays the piano and hears the creature whistling). A very good fullscreen release (judging by screencaps) followed a couple years later in the UK from Cinema Club, and then another non-anamorphic widescreen release followed from Germany (this release first featured the opening shot that had been blacked out on most English language prints). HORROR EXPRESS is the most impressive HD remaster of Severin’s reissues of horror films originally released by Image – at the time, licensed from the Dutch company TV Matters – thus far (HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES is another upcoming title). Whereas PSYCHOMANIA featured a problematic master full of combing, poor detail, and switching aspect ratios, CRUCIBLE OF TERROR was at the mercy of its rare 35mm print source, and THE BABY’s matting was a little severe vertically and its black levels sometimes milky, HORROR EXPRESS features great black levels, fine detail, and great saturation of the striking blues and eye-popping reds that stand out amidst the burnished browns of the sets and the period checkered and herringbone wardrobe (themselves free of the rainbow moiré patterns evident on the Image Euroshock transfer and the various PD DVDs).

The print source utilized is the Spanish version of the film which restores the opening shot of the train rushing by the camera (the sound of the train is heard over black on the US prints, including the Granada production credit), which is the Spanish PÁNICO EN EL TRANSIBERIANO card (note that both the English and Spanish credits misspell Lee’s first name as “Cristopher”). Also restored to the end of the film is the scrolling cast list in place of the extended black screen that accompanied the music for quite a time after the FIN card. The English mono and Spanish mono tracks are in good condition, although Severin has not included English subtitles for the Spanish track. This is the first Severin DVD + Blu-Ray combo pack and the Blu-Ray sports a 1080P AVC-encoded transfer. Some speckling during the opening credits is more apparent in the HD version, but A/V enthusiasts are more likely to be disappointed by the lossy Dolby Digital audio tracks (encoded at the same 192 kpbs bit-rate as the DVD edition, although the Severin Blu menu insists that the Spanish track is stereo while the DVD identifies it as mono), although these options should not hinder ones enjoyment of the film. Severin has dropped the music and effects track, but have provided a wealth of new extras, starting with an alternate audio track which features an eighty-minute 1973 interview with Peter Cushing. The interview covers everything from Cushing’s admiration of Tom Mix (he wanted to be a cowboy before he wanted to be an actor), looking for theatrical work while working a desk job, breaking into movies, and eventually to his Hammer and Amicus work. It is a warm and humorous discussion with some questions and answers later in its length (when asked about films that have scared him, he cites the recent THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, which did not so much frighten him as had him gripping his seat). The interview has been subjected to digital clean-up and the voices are always audible and clear, but there is an occasional loud clicking sound.

As with Severin’s DVD of PSYCHOMANIA, Fangoria editor Chris Alexander provides a brief but infectiously enthusiastic introduction to the film, which delves back into the dawn of video and his discovery of the title before providing some background on the film itself (including Alexander’s observations of how Lee’s concern over his recently widowed friend Cushing translated itself to the screen in this film). Director Eugenio Martin provides a pleasant English-language interview in which he creates a vivid picture of the energetic atmosphere of the production from scripting to shooting (here’s hoping that some enterprising company picks up A CANDLE FOR THE DEVIL and gets his input). He is very specific in his recollections of Lee, Cushing, and Savalas (one wishes that he had been prompted about some of the Spanish cast members). When speaking about the special effects, he recalls how he, Cushing, and Lee played with the electronically-controlled model train, and how the zombie actors’ difficulty of working with the blank contact lenses. The late producer Bernard Gordon is featured in a half-hour interview. HORROR EXPRESS is never mentioned at all (other than in a text screen of Gordon’s credits added by Severin) because the interview was shot back in 2005 to be included in a planned box set of Samuel Bronston’s films (the project was eventually shelved). As such, Gordon – who had been involved in unionizing screenwriters – speaks about being blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (in 1999, Gordon lead the protest against the honorary Academy Award that was presented to director Elia Kazan, who had named names), his first few credits, and his collaboration with Bronston and producer Philip Yordan, who fronted several of his writing credits (and whose several other writing credits have come into question). Gordon is frank about Yordan as a producer, and the egos of several of the stars and directors he worked with. He respected director Frank Capra, but called his script for the Bronston-produced John Wayne film CIRCUS WORLD incomprehensible (Capra was fired and it was eventually directed by Henry Hathaway from a script by Halevy, Ben Hecht, and James Edward Grant from a story by Yordan and Nicholas Ray). Gordon also is candid about Charlton Heston’s jerky behavior towards Ava Gardner that caused her to leave the production early (and Gordon’s workaround for her early departure).

Composer John Cacavas appears in a brief interview called “Telly and Me” that discusses his career in the context of his friendship and working partnership with Savalas. Cacavas’ first scoring assignment was the theme song for PANCHO VILLA which was sung by Savalas (co-production requirements disallowed him from scoring the rest of the film), followed by HORROR EXPRESS. Cacavas went to Spain to score the picture while it was in the editing phase and spent most of his fee on a small orchestra (without a violin section) for the project. He briefly mentions scoring THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (and does not mention other prominent scoring assignments like AIRPORT 1975, AIRPORT 77, and the memorable TV horror movies NO PLACE TO HIDE and CRY FOR THE STRANGERS) before moving onto his further Savalas assignments like the entire series run of KOJAK. An Easter Egg features a minute-long visit to the train station location (now a museum) and is scored with a stereo version of Cacavas’ main theme – probably from the Citadel CD soundtrack, which paired the score with Les Baxter’s rescoring of CRY OF THE BANSHEE – that is so rich, it makes one wish for a surround remix of the film’s soundtrack. The film’s rare 35mm theatrical trailer (which made its debut on a couple of Severin’s recent horror titles) and trailers for PSYCHOMANIA, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (another forthcoming release), and NIGHTMARE CASTLE round out the extras.

With their first Blu-ray+DVD combo release (I hope this will be a trend for Severin), Severin have finally done the PD/VHS standard HORROR EXPRESS justice in a time where other labels are not so willing to take on titles that have had prior releases (even if they have the opportunity to do them right). The delays from the original street date (rumours of an unacceptable HD master) have proven to be worth the wait with an exquisite looking transfer – viewers who know this film from TV and the dawn of video tape will appreciate this – and extras that convey affection for the film from the makers and its fans (rather than some of the “Look how terrible this old film is” ones that grace other exploitation films of this era). Here’s hoping that Severin tackles some more guilty pleasures of video yesteryear in addition to expanding their diverse catalogue of the art films and slick and sinful erotica.

(Eric Cotenas)