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)

Ricco The Mean Machine

Ricco The Mean Machine (Tulio Demicheli, 1973)

 aka ‘Un tipo con una faccia strana ti cerca per ucciderti’

Recently released from prison, a year early for good behaviour, Ricco (Chris Mitchum) makes his way home to the family owned petrol Station only to find it closed for business. Customers pull up on the forecourt only to drive off when they realise there is no one around to serve them. His Mother and sister are both at home, trouble is that his sister is too busy having wild sex with her husband and his Mother is sitting in her wheelchair chugging down a bottle of J&B. Where’s the Father? He had his head ventilated just before the film’s title sequence…

It turns out Ricco’s spell in prison was due to him trying to attack a certain Don Vito (Arthur Kennedy), a notorious gangster who may have had something to do with Ricco’s Father’s murder. Naturally now he’s out of prison his mother is keen for Ricco to exact revenge, offering him his Father’s pistol so he can meet out family justice. Ricco refuses declaring that he’ll get Don Vito by his own methods. Scouring the streets for clues Ricco soon meets up with sassy scam artist Scilla (Barbara Bouchet) and between them the pair come up with a plan to infiltrate Don Vito’s mansion and get even with crime lord.

Not known for his great acting range Chris Mitchum started out in the film business as a gofer on his father’s films, progressing to acting alongside the likes of John Wayne and other old school Hollywood Western stalwarts and it’s easy to see where he got the idea of playing straight faced emotionless hard men from. All criticisms aside he does fare pretty well in this film especially taking into consideration his particularly wooden turn in Antonio Isasi-Isasimendi’s ‘The Summertime Killer’ the previous year.

With his hair slicked back and dyed dark brown, along with his eyebrows and moustache, the wonderful Arthur Kennedy rules the roost as the dreaded Don Vito and pretty much steals the scene every time he’s on screen.

Director Demicheli takes full advantage of Barbara Bouchet’s beauty with gratuitous close ups of her cleavage and backside and the foggy moonlit strip tease is pure exploitation heaven. Despite the bad acting and poorly choreographed fight scenes it’s the show stopping violence that makes Ricco an unforgettable film. Women get bitch slapped, men get bitch slapped and poor unforunates are reduced to sludge in vats of acid… Thoroughly remorseless in attitude and damned dirty with its aggro, Ricco is as morally wrong as it is wild.

Fans of the film have been denied for years the chance to see the fully uncut version, only an extremely rare Venezuelen VHS release contained the fully uncut version and copies of that were of such terrible quality that it rendered the film unwatchable. Dark Sky have now remedied this situation with a great looking 16:9 enhanced widescreen DVD that is fully uncut. Rounding out the package is an Italian language trailer and a featurette featuring an interview with Ricco himself Chris Mitchum, who turns out to be a great guy with a very lucid memory for the films he made so long ago.

A well overdue release but very welcome indeed and surely should be in the collection of every European Cult movie aficionado.

(Jonny Redman)

Note: Portions of this review were first published in the Midnight Media publication ‘Blazing Magnums vol. 1’ obtainable by visiting the link below.

Midnight Media

Return of the Zombis

Return of the Zombis (J. L. Merino, 1972)

ORGIA DE LOS MUERTOS / ORGIA DEI MORTI / THE HANGING WOMAN

After the sparsely attended funeral of the Count Mihajli, his daughter Mary (Aurora de Alba) sneaks into his tomb to recover a letter concealed on his person.  In doing so, she encounters a shadowy, heavy-breathing figure that strangles her, though not before she’s pumped several bullets into its body.  That evening, the count’s nephew Serge Chekhov (Stan Cooper aka Stelvio Rossi) arrives to hear the will.  He is unable to arrange transport to the village from the train station due to local superstitions.  Armed with a revolver, he makes the long, lonely walk to the village.  Hearing noises from the cemetery, he goes in to investigate but finds nothing.  When he comes back out of the gate, he backs into the hanging corpse of Mary.  He runs through the village looking for help but the locals will not open up until, by chance, he comes upon the residence of the Mihajlis.  The butler Ivan (Charles Quinney) is reluctant to let him in until ordered to do so by Doris (Dianik Zurakowska, looking like Teri Garr circa YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN).  She tells Ivan to go along with him to the mayor’s house but Serge sees Mary’s photograph on the wall and recognizes her as the woman he found in the cemetery which the count’s wife Nadia (Maria Pia Conte) identifies as her step-daughter.  After Mary’s autopsy—which is overseen by Doris’ doctor father (Gerard Tichy)–the local pipe-smoking detective (Isarco Ravaioli?) tells them that Mary’s death was suspicious as there are indications her body was dragged to the spot where it was found.  Serge becomes a suspect when he is named as the sole heir; much to the consternation of the countess and the doctor whose experiments the count was sponsoring.  The mayor and the inspector visit Igor’s cabin and find ladies underwear, photography equipment, and photographs of nude decaying corpses which make him a likely suspect.  Doris sees Igor spying on them and the men chase him to the cemetery but he disappears in the vicinity of the tomb.

After dismissing a disagreeable Ivan with some fisticuffs, Serge is shown to his room and is accosted by gravedigger Igor (a scene-stealing Paul Naschy aka Jacinto Molina; in a rare supporting role during this period) – who had previously visited Nadia to perform a pseudo-necrophilic sex act – who tells Serge that the dead killed Mary.  After a struggle in which Serge is injured, he ends up sleeping with Nadia, intercut with Igor pulling Mary’s coffin out from the other side of the tomb in the catacombs and feeling her up.  Meanwhile, the doctor shows his experiments in re-animating frogs with an electric charge to Serge and he agrees to keep the doctor on, which displeases Nadia.  Doris in unaware of this and offers her body to Serge to keep her father on but Serge stops her when he sees her reluctance (after allowing her to strip).  The two go to Mary’s room and find an entry in her diary in the count’s handwriting telling her about a letter with some incriminating information.  Doris distracts the guards at the cemetery and Serge sneaks into the crypt and discovers that not only is there no letter but there isn’t a body either.  Nadia suggests holding a séance to summon the count’s spirit.  The doctor will have no part in it but Serge and Doris participate and the resulting séance ends in the manifested count killing Nadia. When Serge leads the police to the tomb they find the count’s body back in place and Serge is now the suspect in three murders, which includes that of Igor who is found walled up, having written the clue “No 37” in his own blood).

This period piece zombie film is quite atmospheric with the Spanish locations looking appropriately Eastern European – the village is called Skopji so I’m assuming the film is supposed to be set in that area – and chilly enough to make for excellent late night or rainy day viewing.  Although the interior sets are overlit –including the nicely designed Mihajli crypt and some creepy catacombs littered with resting and wandering zombies–they impart a rustic feel more in keeping with Spanish horror filmmaking than Italian.  After the discovery of Mary’s body and a graphic autopsy, the film then takes its time getting to the zombies, which are pretty creepy creations.  During that time, it has the feel of one of the sixties Italian gothic horrors spiced up with seventies nudity and gore (indeed, Francesco de Masi’s score is a mix of some newer cues with decade-old ones from his score for Riccardo Freda’s LO SPETTRO; including that film’s music box version of the main theme).

Apart from a graphic decapitation, the rest of the film favours suspense over gore as Serge must convince the police about walking corpses, while Doris is trapped in the catacombs with the blind, walking dead.  Stan Cooper (Stelvio Rosi) is one of the few Italian actors in the film and he overacts a little (he approaches the action as if he would rather be in a swashbuckling movie and his exclamations of surprise are priceless). Cooper’s only other horror film was the Italian SOMETHING CREEPING IN THE DARK.  Dianik Zurakowska is mainly known to Eurocult viewers for several Spanish horror appearances; from her debut in the exquisite SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965) to the perpetually sunbathing Elga in the American/Spanish co-production CAULDRON OF BLOOD and Leon Klimovsky’s VAMPIRES NIGHT ORGY (like Rosi, her career soon fizzled out after Merino’s film).  Gerard Tichy had a few Spanish/Italian horror films under his belt by this time and a number of Italian westerns and spy films – including Alberto De Martino’s early THE BLANCHVILLE MONSTER, the co-production HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, SUMMERTIME KILLER, Jess Franco’s JUSTINE, and THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, and would go on to appear in Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES, Naschy’s BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD and Armando de Ossorio’s THE SEA SERPENT.  Aurora de Alba didn’t get to be one of the walking dead here but she played one of Leon Klimovsky’s giddy, slow-motion zombie women in the Paul Naschy vehicle VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES (after playing a vampire countess in Naschy’s first werewolf film MARK OF THE WOLFMAN/FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR) while Maria Pia Conte was a regular in Italian westerns and erotica during the sixties and seventies.  Charles Quinney makes an immediate impression as the butler (possibly because he’s been dubbed with a cockney accent that doesn’t really fit the surroundings) and had previously been the male lead of Merino’s SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER/IVANNA. He and Rosi had also previously made with Merino PIRATES OF BLOOD ISLAND, HELL’S COMMANDOS, and the Western MORE DOLLARS FOR THE MACGREGORS.

Like Merino’s SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER, this was a Spanish-Italian co-production, so the Spanish version features some covered takes and the Italian version features nudity and gore but that’s not where the differences end.  The film arrived in the States in two forms, the first was the R-rated theatrical cut–released in Canada by Unicorn Video as BEYOND THE LIVING DEAD, and like other Unicorn releases, this tape was also prevalent in the states–and as THE HANGING WOMAN from various labels including Neon Video and United Home Video.  This release was shorn of some nudity and gore and its opening title sequence completely missing. Instead, the film begins with the first shot after the credits, superimposes its title on the shot of Mary hanging from the tree branch and places the rest of its anglicized credits at the end.  The Wizard Video, big box release under the title RETURN OF THE ZOMBIES (onscreen title RETURN OF THE ZOMBIS)–-licensed from Europe along with the BLOOD CASTLE retitling of SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER–-featured the gore and nudity missing from the US theatrical cut but sacrificed several bits of useful expository footage to fit the film on a T-90 cassette. Missing footage includes the burial of Mary, the Mayor’s statement of the rumour that the dead hold orgies in the cemetery, an exchange between Doris and her father after she argues with Nadia, etc (There was once a section at Latarnia that charted the differences between the versions but I can’t find the link anymore).  The Wizard tape was more expertly edited.  While one feels like there is something missing from the R-rated version, the Wizard version does not feel incomplete unless you’ve seen the other cut; the cutting of entire scenes as well as the cutting of footage within some scenes is very well done.  Picture quality was better on the Wizard tape but pales by comparison to the Greek PAL and Japanese NTSC releases (the latter of which is victim of optical fogging) of the full export cut which are also more colourful (all versions under the RETURN OF THE ZOMBIS title have opening credits sequences in inferior condition compared to the rest of the feature).  All presentations are open matte and the fullscreen image is elegantly composed throughout, despite the flat lighting. The Japanese cut appeared on DVDR from Midnight Video, but this is now out of print.  There was talk of a German DVD release in 2007 but it has yet to materialise, though SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER was released in Germany with Italian and German audio only.

SPOILER ALERT: Gerard Tichy’s character goes unnamed until late in the film and revealing his name in either the Spanish or English version clues the viewer in at different points in the film.  In the English version, he is called Dr. Brakula (one of the alternate titles of the film is DRACULA AND THE TERROR OF THE LIVING DEAD) while in the Spanish version he is credited as Dr. Leon Droila, which is more fitting since Serge discovers the villain’s identity by writing Igor’s clue “No 37” and looking at it upside down.

(Eric Cotenas)

Mad Foxes

 

Mad Foxes (Paul Grau, 1981)

Hal, a stingray-driving playboy, goes out for some fun with his virginal 18-year-old girlfriend. They are attacked by a bunch of Nazi-bikers who beat him up and rape his girl. Hal calls a martial arts instructor friend for help. The same night, the teacher and his students attack the bikers and castrate their leader. A circle of vengeance has begun…

I’d be surprised if somebody told me these guys actually had a screenplay while shooting this. There is no plot at all: violent/gore scene follows sex/nude scene until the WTF ending. This is 100% exploitation in its most brainless form. The film features some totally idiotic lines: “The whole world is going to admire us” says one gang member to another after they have just stabbed and disembowelled a house maid.

Fast cars, Nazi bikers armed with machine guns, martial arts/kickboxing, loads of softcore sex, rape, gory killings, an old woman in a wheelchair, bondage/sadomasochism and a two minute rock n’ roll dancing number that looks like it’s edited in from a different film. The producers probably thought that it would be wise to throw in a little bit of everything in the menu for commercial reasons; it would be interesting to know just how MAD FOXES did in movie theatres.

Hal (the leading character, played by Robert O’ Neil of HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD and CONQUEST fame) drives a fancy sports car and has sex with a different partner every night; this is pretty much all the information we are given on him. A couple of platinum records can be seen above his head in one shot so viewers could assume he is a successful musician. No information is given on his background but his transition from playboy to vigilante takes place easily, within seconds. Hal is not your typical, moral, “revenge film” hero: he is about to have sex with an underage virgin without feeling guilty at all. As if that isn’t enough, he doesn’t seem too concerned about her being raped and even sleeps with a different girl on the same day. Shortly afterwards, he picks up a stranger from the street and takes her to his family home. Predictably, he ends up having sex with her.

There is a particular moment that indicates how pointless MAD FOXES really is: while taking a walk in the woods,  Hal fires at a passing airplane (!) in an attempt to impress the girl he has just picked up. She tries to stop him without even bothering to think that the plane is flying too high to be hit. Of course, the pair end up having sex, giving the director the opportunity to display some more naked male flesh.

There is no information on the background of the gang either. There is no reason for their criminal activities, besides fun; the brainless bunch seem to enjoy themselves a lot while killing. The film never bothers to explain the reasons for their Nazi allegiance; maybe the makers probably thought that Swastikas would make the gang look meaner. Needless to say they look like clowns, running around in camouflage outfits and constantly laughing like idiots. A couple of them often walk around without any clothes on – without any reason of course. Speaking of which, the makers certainly had a strange fetish for male nudity. There is a beach sequence where a middle-aged man’s arse is on display for two minutes. In another scene, Stiletto (Jess Franco regular Eric Falk) walks around naked for a couple of minutes while the rest of the gang members sit watching. Stiletto’s death scene is undoubtedly a hymn to bad taste: it takes place in a bathroom as he is taking a shit and, believe it or not, the director doesn’t hesitate to display a painfully long close-up shot of his penis as O’ Neil throws a grenade in the crapper!

The sudden finale of the film needs a special mention: the gang leader appears to be alive; the filmmakers seemingly forgetting the fact he had been castrated and disappeared for an hour of screen time! He is in Hal’s apartment along with Hal’s latest girlfriend (who had also reappeared after a long absence) threatening to blow the place up. And he does, allowing the use of an atrocious visual effect.

Leading actor Robert O’ Neil cannot act; just take a look at the scene where he cries over his dead mother’s body. The non-actors (some of which can also be spotted in producer Dietrich’s ISLAND WOMEN) that play the bikers were probably there just to drink a few beers and have some fun. They seem to have no idea of what they are doing and they constantly laugh, even when they are not supposed to. To make matters worse, the English dubbing is probably the most atrocious ever recorded for a European cult film, with the actors’ voices and the sound FX played out of sync.

Grau’s work could have been worse, considering how trashy the film is. Still, he does a lousy job with some obvious directorial errors. The film often gives the impression that he was bored (or unable) to change camera angles or cut to close-ups and would rather display all the action in one long shot. Technically speaking, Kurt Aescbacher’s cinematography is the best thing about the film, with most scenes being effectively lit. Visually, MAD FOXES is kind of attractive, although isn’t overtly stylish.

The remastered, widescreen video of the DVD release is a miracle. MAD FOXES is one of those guilty pleasures that nobody would ever expect to see on DVD; a similar case to Luigi Batzella’s THE BEAST IN HEAT. However, one cannot be sure if the re-mastering makes such ultra-trashy films look better or worse, as it often reveals flaws that were not visible before. There’s some semi-decent gore FX, such as the maid’s popping entrails and a guy’s death by garden shears. The hard rock/heavy metal song by Krokus (!) which plays during the opening credits scene adds even more trash value to MAD FOXES as if there wasn’t enough already. The funk/rock theme which plays during the rest of the film is silly with its slap bass and would be more suitable for a comedy or a 70’s porn film. The Greek DVD on the Dark Side/New Star label is obviously sourced from the Swiss ABC DVD, anamorphic widescreen at 1:85:1, with added Greek subtitles. Needless to say, the quality of the transfer is impressively good. No extras besides many trailers for other discs of the same company, including one for MAD FOXES.

Have you ever wondered how certain films could possibly exist while watching them? This is a question you will certainly ask yourself while watching this. Even movies such as THE BEAST IN HEAT often try to make the viewer take them seriously; this one doesn’t make a single effort. Something like RAW FORCE or any of Bruno Mattei’s movies are serious when compared to the madness of MAD FOXES. You will have trouble figuring out if the comedy was intentional or it was because the makers were retarded. This must be the trashiest revenge film ever made. Even the title points out how stupid the movie is and it’s obviously trying to exploit the success of MAD MAX. MAD FOXES has to be one of the most entertaining films you will ever see and has reserved a position in my Top 5 of trash masterpieces.

(Lefteris T)

La maschera del demonio

La maschera del demonio (Lamberto Bava, 1989)

Lamberto Bava’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Vij’ begins with the arrival by helicopter of eight twenty-somethings (including eighties horror regulars Mary Sellers and actor-turned-director Michele Soavi) onto a snow-capped mountaintop for some skiing. The earth opens up under them, plunging the group into an icy cavern containing the frozen corpse of witch Anibas (Eva Grimaldi, INTIMO) with a spiked metal mask affixed to her face. The removal of the mask coincides with bizarre behaviour by six of the group (one of whom is killed in a supernatural avalanche).

The two unaffected are young lovers Davide (Giovanni Guidelli, WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD) and Sabina (Debora Kinski aka Deborah Caprioglio, PAPRIKA) who has hurt her ankle in the fall. The group are taken in by a blind priest (Stanko Molnar) who lets them in on Anibas’ backstory as various members of the skiing party start demonstrating possessed behaviour and it becomes clear that Anibas has set her sights on the body of Sabina for her resurrection (hint, spell her name backwards).

Bava’s adaptation of the same source material that served as the basis for his father Mario’s official directorial debut LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (aka BLACK SUNDAY, 1960) is co-written by that film’s producer Massimo de Rita and co-writer Giorgio Stegani, and is somewhat more faithful to Gogol with flying coffins, witchly tauntings, levitations, and other flashy demonstrations of the witch’s power. Although it could be seen as a return to form by Bava after a series of TV movies produced by Reteitalia (including UNTIL DEATH and the not-bad THE OGRE), LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO (1989) could also be seen as an extension of Lamberto Bava’s own brand of horror with a better budget (with backing by Reteitalia and Silvio Berlusconi) and a little more inspiration as all of the eighties Italian horror standbys are here: composer Simon Boswell and cinematographer Gianfrano Transunto – who, respectively, scored and shot all of Bava’s “Brivido Giallo” telefilms), make-up artist Franco Casagni (OPERA and STENDHAL SYNDROME), and animatronics artist Sergio Stivaletti among others, who all put in great work here, though their contributions are not significantly different than on other, sometimes lesser or sometimes better, eighties Italian horror works.

Boswell’s synth and percussion score is effective, but it seems like the tracks could have come from unused cues in STAGEFRIGHT and DELIRIUM while Transunto’s cinematography is attractive (without the annoying gauzy filtering of much late eighties Italian horror) but too slick – including many sailing distorted POV crane shots – to rival Mario Bava’s contributions to the original. The sets of Giuseppe Mangano (assisted by OPERA’s Davide Bassan who has returned to working with Argento as production designer in the upcoming GIALLO) are exquisitely medieval.

Although Soavi (in a small role) and Sellers were familiar faces in the genre (Soavi also directed Sellers in STAGEFRIGHT), Stefano Molinari played a demon in EVIL CLUTCH and also had a role in Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS 2, while Ron Williams encountered more demonic forces in Jeff Kwitney’s Yugoslavian-shot, Italian-crewed BEYOND THE DOOR III. Caprioglio was a fresh face in Italian horror but achieved more notoriety for the later PAPRIKA (which also featured another of this film’s alumni Alessandra Bonarota) and Klaus Kinski’s PAGANINI while Colin Farrell lookalike Guidelli who ultimately has to face off with the witch and his former friends, now transformed into DEMONI-type creatures after much writhing around in human form.

Stivaletti also gets in a cool scene where Caprioglio shifts back and forth between herself and a shrivelled witch when Guidelli isn’t looking. The flashback featuring dark-haired Kim Basinger lookalike Grimaldi (the resemblance is more pronounced in the NINE ½ WEEKS-ish INTIMO) being lead to the stake by the villagers almost seems to have been more of an inspiration on the look of Tim Burton’s SLEEPY HOLLOW than Mario Bava’s film. Although it was the second time Molnar had played a blind man for Lamberto Bava, he looks completely different than he did in MACABRO and BLADE IN THE DARK (in which he played the red herring handyman).

The film was never dubbed into English and was only available to English audiences as a horrid-looking subtitled Video Search of Miami tape, though it seems to have been difficult to see elsewhere as well. The only official tape releases seem to have been in Japan (where it was retitled DEMONS V – THE DEVIL’S VEIL as a follow-up to DEMONS IV – THE SECT and DEMONS III – THE CHURCH, after the Lamberto Bava originals) and in Spain. The Japanese tape was fullscreen in Italian with Japanese subtitles and quite nice-looking. I have not seen the Spanish tape. The film was recently issued in Spain on DVD as part of a six disc two volume series called SABBATH that reveals that Bava’s film was actually part of a six picture collaboration between Reteitalia (Italy), Television Espana (TVE), Beta Film (German), SFP (Switzerland), FR-3 (France) and RTP (Portugal) that produced one film per country each. The other two on this first set were the Spanish LA LUNA NEGRA (there are no subs on the Spanish discs so I didn’t get all of the story but fans of more recent “restrained” Spanish horror offerings will recognize some elements of this one’s setup) and the German ANNA GOLDIN: THE LAST WITCH.

The films were shown in Spain under the series title SABBATH which explains why the Spanish film has filmed titles (except for the video introduction) while the Italian and German film feature video-generated Spanish language credits (the Japanese tape featured filmed Italian credits). Indeed, the VSOM tape grafted the Italian opening credits (but not the closing ones) from the Japanese tape onto the beginning of the Spanish TV broadcast which explains why their subtitled tape was in Spanish rather than Italian (since the only Italian source had burnt in Japanese subs). The Spanish disc obviously comes from a video master (likely a broadcast master than a VHS tape as there are fortunately no dropouts, tracking lines, or that little bit of noise at the bottom of the frame on most VHS to DVD recordings. The image is softish on progressive monitors but colours are still bold and the sound is really strong (especially the percussion of Boswell’s score).

With its combination of greater production resources and creative ambition, Lamberto Bava’s LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO should not be lumped in with his variable late eighties TV output. One thinks that had this film either been dubbed in English and had wider distribution it might have been seen as the real last gasp of traditional Italian horror. TVE/So Good Entertainment’s Spanish-only offering, with its tacky video generated titles, may not be the ideal way to see the film (though, really, neither is VSOM’s subtitled but putrid-looking edition). Given the availability of anamorphic transfers of Lamberto Bava’s Reteitalia TV movies, one would assume that they still have good film elements for this one.

(Eric Cotenas)

Mark the Narc

Mark il poliziotto (Stelvio Massi, 1975)

aka Mark the Narc

Packing a mean looking revolver and dressing in open-collared shirts and jeans tight enough to send your voice an octave or two higher, Commissario Mark Terzi (Franco Gasparri) is your typical mid-70s anti-establishment plain clothes cop. Drugs, namely heroin, are causing trouble on Mark’s patch and adding to the trouble is the return of Gruber (Carlo Duran). After a few years inside, Gruber’s a touch pissed off and going around town claiming back what was his, not thinking twice about cold blooded murder in order to speed things up. Heading up the heroin importation business is grumpy faced Benzi (Lee J. Cobb) a wealthy business man with a younger wife who has a penchant for expensive tiger skin capes.

With Benzi proving a hard character to pin any misdemeanours on and Gruber eluding capture whenever spotted by the police, Mark’s job is getting stressful but despite the pressure he graciously allows Irene (Sara Sperati), junkie girlfriend of a recent murder victim, a bed at his apartment in order to get her off the junk. Aided by his trusted colleague Bonetti (Giampiero Albertini), Mark goes out on to the streets in search of leads and after spotting a familiar criminal behind the wheel of an ambulance, he finally gets the break he needs. Chasing down the ambulance he discovers that it’s being used as a cover to transport fake oxygen bottles filled with heroin. Seeing an opportunity to trace the source of the drugs Mark ‘accidentally’ lets the driver escape knowing he’ll lead them to a much bigger fish. It’s not quite time to be patting each others backs yet though, as his junkie flat mate Irene has sneaked out of the flat and scored a large bag of smack that has OD written all over it…

Director Stelvio Massi’s fifth film– only his second foray into the Polizieschi genre after SQUADRA VOLANTE (1974)–sees ex-paratrooper and fotoromanzi model Franco Gasparri gain top billing status and the chance to show everyone what he’s made of. It turns out he’s actually pretty good, he’s certainly got the looks and he pulls off the action scenes without any problems whatsoever. Massi stages quite a few testing scenes for him too, with plenty of foot chases and a fair few bouts of fisticuffs. However, it’s the stunts with cars that really stand out; especially the set-piece where, faced with a getaway car full of armed bank robbers, Commissario Terzi stands his ground in the middle of the road, taking aim at the oncoming Alfa Romeo and shooting its driver. The out of control Alfa smashes into a parked car, leaps into the air, flipping on its roof as it lands and slides at speed towards Terzi, who casually side steps past the car as it slides by him upside-down.

Italian audiences must have liked what they saw as Massi, Gasparri and Lee J. Cobb all returned a matter of months later with a sequel, MARK IL POLIZIOTTO SPARA PER PRIMO (aka ULTIMATUM / MARK SHOOTS FIRST), which in turn was followed by MARK COLPISCE ANCORRA (aka MARK STRIKES AGAIN / THE .44 SPECIALIST) in 1976. With a successful trilogy of films under his belt it looked like a bright future for Gasparri, but tragedy struck in 1980 when he was paralysed after a motorcycle accident and confined to a wheelchair up until his death in 1999. The final film in the Mark trilogy was his last role in a feature film.

Cecchi Gori Home Video has released MARK IL POLIZIOTTO on DVD with a very nice 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced) transfer. There are hardly any flaws to note and it is definitely the best the film has ever looked on home video. Language options are limited to Italian audio, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and subtitles for the hard of hearing in Italian. Extra features consist of actor and director filmographies plus a 20 minute on-camera interview with screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti. Sacchetti talks about his work in the genre and the characters he helped create for actors such as Tomas Milian and of course Franco Gasparri.

While it is certainly not the best film by either the star or the director, MARK THE NARC is a thoroughly entertaining 88 minutes and comes highly recommended.

(Jonny Redman)

Oasis of Fear

 

 Un posto ideale per uccidere (Umberto Lenzi, 1971)

aka OASIS OF FEAR / DIRTY PICTURES / AN IDEAL PLACE TO KILL

After a credit sequence romp through the landmarks of Copenhagen, Dick (Ray Lovelock) and Ingrid (Ornella Muti) high-tail it to Italy, paying their way by selling pornography. When the money and stock runs out, they decide to make their own and are promptly arrested by the Italian authorities.

Given the chance to leave the country and not face charges they hook up with some bikers and find what’s left of their cash gone the next morning. After a gas station attendant mistakes them for a German couple mentioned in the newspaper as being wanted for robbery, they go on the run and eventually run out of gas at a remote villa (the ‘oasis’ of the title). They plan to siphon the gas from a Rolls Royce in the unlocked garage but are discovered by Barbara (Irene Papas). She is initially apprehensive about their presence but soon warms to their youthful exuberance and free love philosophy.

I’m with other reviewers on this one being a more cynical giallo than Lenzi’s previous entries with Carroll Baker (PARANOIA, ORGASMO, etc). It does however serve as a bridge between those thrillers and Lenzi’s later films SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS and SPASMO (a fight scene in an aviary anticipates the latter film which may have used some of the same bird sound effects). While PARANOIA was a bit more balanced in its presentation of the jet set, ORGASMO presented both the free-loving young and high-living old as equally corrupt. In OASIS OF FEAR, youth are amoral but also childlike in their enjoyment of life and sex, the old are almost universally corrupt in this film.

The buyers of the pornography Dick and Ingrid sell are older Catholic women who cross themselves while looking at the pictures as well as married fathers lured by Ingrid’s long legs (Muti was underage at the time and a body double was used for nude scenes). Barbara sees the spur-of-the-moment opportunity to set up the younger couple and seizes it, pretending to embrace their free love philosophy (using her body and sensuality towards Dick not unlike Ingrid with the various older men). The authorities really are the “finks” that Ingrid calls them. After fleeing Barbara’s house, Dick and Ingrid stupidly decide to stop for a swim at the beach. A police patrol car sights from a distance the young couple sunning on the beach and – rather than questioning why two murder suspects would take time to have a swim hours from the border – the cop radios in that a young couple on the beach might be the two suspects.

It is obvious that Lenzi enjoys working with his three leads. They all get great close-ups and opportunities to show off. Lovelock and Muti are engaging as the representatives of modern youth and Papas is better utilized here in the “Carroll Baker” role than in her supporting role in DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING. Once she, literally, lets her hair down and rocks out with Lovelock, its easy to see why he’s fascinated by her.

Alfio Contini (THE NIGHT PORTER, RIPLEY’S GAME) provides some attractive Technicolor-Techniscope cinematography of Copenhagen and Italy, favouring rack-focus compositions contrasting the young and the old (actors in the frame, actors and background/foreground sculptures and statues). Bruno Lauzi’s score is less interesting than Piero Umilliani’s work on ORGASMO, Gregorio Garcia Segura’s on PARANOIA (conducted by Umiliani with a title song written by Terry Umiliani), and Riz Ortolani’s for SO SWEET… SO PERVERSE. Like those films, however, OASIS OF FEAR has a theme song: “How Can You Live” heard in two different versions in the film. Whilst not as good as the other films’ title songs it’s still memorable, catchy, and thematically relevant. The song is credited to “I Leoni” and Lorenza Visconti. I’m assuming that the main title version is performed by The Lions  and the version heard during the montage of Dick and Ingrid living it up is sung by Lorenza Visconti. The theme also shows up again as an “Indian” instrumental that Ingrid dances to in one of her body double’s nude scenes.

Shameless Film Entertainment’s PAL Region 0 DVD is the second official release of Lenzi’s film on DVD. The film first showed up on an Italian R2 DVD from Alan Young Pictures in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer (the cover incorrectly states a 1.85:1 ratio) with Italian 5.1 and mono audio and Italian subtitles claiming to have been transferred from the original uncut negative. If this is the case, then this Carlo Ponti production has not been well-cared for. The image quality is more soft and grainy than one would expect even for a film of this age (especially compared to the excellent transfers of the older Lenzi gialli PARANOIA and KNIFE OF ICE). Shameless’ release utilizes the same master but is apparently not a direct port of the R2 disc as the titles are in English (obviously newly created over a textless version of the montage shown under the opening credits). This source looks similarly soft and grainy but the audio is quite vibrant. Two separate fan dubs of the Italian source led to the discovery of significant differences between the Italian and English language version which are not so simply explained by the notion that one is a rougher cut of the other.

First off is the presence of an opening narration by Lovelock’s character following the opening credits in the English language version. This narration begins abruptly on my source for the English version – The Greek-subtitled VHS release – because that release was apparently an early attempt to integrate the footage from both versions. The narration is not present in the Italian version and has not been included in the composite English track on the Shameless disc.

 Next is a brief shot of Dick and Ingrid driving to the gas station (the Italian/Shameless version cuts from Dick distracting some nuns while Ingrid is posing nude in the photo booth).

When Barbara asks Dick to go down to the garage and get some more cigarettes, there is a brief extension in the  Greek English language VHS version where Dick protests that it’s too far (the Italian/Shameless version cuts from her asking him to a shot of Dick opening the garage door).

The next extension is in the scene featuring Barbara’s accomplice (Jacques Stany, PARANOIA) after he gives a statement to the police about a road accident. Once he leaves, there is a brief exchange between the two cops which Dick stumbles across on his bike. He turns around and is about to ride off when one of the cops calls him over. The Italian/Shameless version cuts from Stany pulling away to the shot of Lovelock riding towards the roadblock. The Greek/English version features a reverse angle two shot of the two officers talking before Lovelock arrives.

Finally, the Italian language version as seen on disc fades the music out with the ending of the credits while the Greek tape (which has Italian credits) continues the music for twenty seconds on black.

The Italian version, on the other hand, features two exclusive Italian language scenes. The first is between Dick and Ingrid in the garage which is then followed by a scene with them and a bound and gagged Barbara. There are also some Italian only scenes with subtitles in the English language versions but those feature Italian characters conversing and those were likely included in the English version in Italian because the Greek tape features original English subtitles for those scenes (cropped by the panning and scanning and sometimes covered up by the Greek video subtitles). It is highly unlikely that Dick and Ingrid would carry out an entire heated conversation in Italian together in a scene meant for the English language version; the same goes for the scene that follows that with Barbara since she also speaks English throughout. English subtitles are provided for the Italian only scenes on the Shameless disc. Curiously, the print also features the burned in original English subtitles to translate the newspaper headings early on. The Shameless release did manage to restore a brief sequence in which Barbara’s body double gives Dick a blowjob (this body double is reportedly the same one used for Muti’s nude scenes). The quality noticeably decreases from the already soft and grainy look of the rest of the transfer and the sound becomes muffled. I’m not sure for what version this scene was shot for but its inclusion – while welcome – is abrupt and may have been scrapped rather than used for some alternate cut. It was hoped that the Shameless release would restore the other footage seen only in the English version but this did not transpire.

Extras include a text commentary track by Kevin and Nicholas Wilson – who “hope you don’t take it too seriously” – that is informative, sometimes humorous and sometimes a bit smarmy. They manage to clear up some historical facts that would have been unclear to many a viewer; for instance, the popularity of aural pornography early on after pornography’s legalisation when the waters were still being tested. The significance of setting the opening in Copenhagen, which was one of the first countries to legalise pornography, would have had meaning to the movie-going public as many an American and British exploitation filmmaker of the time would disguise their films as Danish productions to attract audiences. There’s also a lot of trivia that is more familiar to Eurocult viewers such as Ray Lovelock’s Italian/British parentage and early musical career with Tomas Milian. A newly constructed trailer is underscored by what the commentators refer to as “Italian bubble-gum music” (the music Dick and Barbara are seen rocking out to early in the film). Other newly created trailers one for Shameless’ restored version of the interesting-looking THE DESIGNATED VICTIM that touts all of its attributes (another text commentary, English and Italian audio, deleted scenes), Corrado Farina’s restoration of his film BABA YAGA (branded with the subtitle “Reloaded”), WATCH ME WHEN I KILL, THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN, along with original trailers for TORSO and STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER.

Shameless has not given us the definitive release of OASIS OF FEAR but it could be argued that the missing scenes do not hurt the film and the picture quality may reflect the condition of the available elements.  They have, on the other hand, put an admirable amount of work into the release (text commentary, a surprising recovered scene, subtitling much of the Italian dialogue including some not translated in English prints) and their showmanship is infectious with one of their best self-made trailers and cool – nay, iconic – cover art that makes use of imagery from the Japanese poster.  Eurocult enthusiasts – especially lovelockandload members – who have not seen this film would be doing themselves a disservice if they skipped out on the film just because of the discs minor demerits.

(Eric Cotenas)

Almost Human

 

 

aka Milano odia: la polizia non può sparare

Cinema trends in early 70s Italy saw to it that director Umberto Lenzi moved into the ‘Euro Crime’ or ‘Poliziotteschi’ genre and away from the once highly successful ‘giallo’ features. With 1973s GANG WAR IN MILAN (Milano rovente) considered a flawed but adequate first foray into the genre Lenzi sought out writer for hire extraordinaire Ernesto Gastadli who put together a simple but highly effective story for the director’s second ‘Euro Crime’ outing.  A simple tale of a small time crook who has delusions of grandeur and a kidnap plot involving a wealthy heiress. One slight problem is that he’s a pill popping loon with a manic personality disorder and a chronic facial tick.

Embracing the role of the nasty sociopath Giulio Sacchi is method actor Tomas Milian whose staple roles in many a spaghetti western had dried up at the start of the 70s, possibly one of the reasons he took on a role that many other leading men would probably pass by for fear of tarnishing their reputation. Imploring to his director that he needed to add realism to the role of Sacchi, Milian would stay true to his method training and get drunk on set where he saw it appropriate, in one of the films standout scenes he even went so far as to ply his fellow actor, and long time real life friend, Ray Lovelock, with copious amounts of whisky – (First time viewers: See if you can guess which scene that might be…)

Highly regarded as Lenzi’s finest venture in the genre, ALMOST HUMAN certainly lives up to its reputation with pretty much something for everyone, high speed car chases, violent machine gun shoot outs, naked ladies and some seriously fucked up moments – A male hostage forced at gun point to suck Sacchi’s dick anyone? The potent mix of Lenzi and a berserk Tomas Milian creates a true ‘Poliziotteschi’ classic; it really couldn’t have been done without either person’s input. Milian’s method acting sensibilities matched with Lenzi’s penchant for in your face, no nonsense, violence created a true classic that also makes a great starting point for anyone just discovering these films. Shameless made a wise decision testing the UK market out with this one.

Shameless has put together a great package that will suit established genre fans and newcomers alike. The transfer is solid with an anamorphically enhanced transfer in the original aspect ratio that’s sharp, detailed and full of colour, with barely any damage at all. In the audio department we get optional English or Italian audio tracks with English subtitles provided for the Italian option. There’s an excellent half hour interview with Tomas Milian who’s more than happy to talk about his ‘70s output and his films with Lenzi. Although the interview is ported over from the previous NoShame DVD release it makes a welcome return on this Shameless release because of the former release now being OOP and difficult to obtain for those without deep pockets. Also on board is a feature long ‘fact track’ by some fly by night character who provides a well researched set of subtitled factoids that appear along the bottom of the screen as the film plays. This track is perfect for the newcomers to this particular genre and comes highly recommended as it points out many films for the uninitiated to track down and should certainly see a lot of people coming away with a nice list of films that they will be itching to watch next. I have to stress though that the fact track shouldn’t be attempted on first viewing as you’ll miss key action scenes and plot points as you read the subtitles. Rounding the whole package off are two trailers, the original theatrical one plus the US ‘Grindhouse’ version, the usual Shameless trailer reel and ‘coming soon’ clips. Last but not least a PDF essay by the ‘Fact Track’ guy introducing the ‘Poliziotteschi’ genre (to be accessed via PC DVD drives). The usual yellow Amary case with double sided cover art is housed in an extremely novel lenticular ‘insert’ cover featuring some imagery I’d never dreamed of seeing on the shelves of HMV! DVD collectors do be aware that this special lenticular sleeved version is strictly limited to 1,000 units, so pick this one up fast before they go.

For what must be the first legitimate ‘Poliziotteschi’ DVD here in the UK Shameless has put together a great little package that is hopefully the first of many. With such a wealth of back catalogue titles in this genre to go at there’s certainly no shortage of films to choose from, it will certainly be very interesting to see where we go from here…  (Jonny Redman)