Interview with Nicholas McCarthy – Director of THE PACT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limited Edition, available in hardback only!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Flies On Grey Velvet

Four Flies On Grey Velvet (Dario Argento, 1971)

aka Quattro mosche di velluto grigio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Paul Alaoui)




Sleepless (Dario Argento, 2001)

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

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

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

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

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

(Paul Alaoui)