Death Falls Lightly

dir. Leopoldo Savona
1972 / Agata Films / 85′
a.k.a. La Morte Scende Leggera
written by Luigi Rosso and Leopoldo Savona
cinematography by Luciano Trasatti
music by Coriolano Gori
starring Stelio Candelli, Patrizia Viotti, Veronika Korosec, Rossella Bergamonti, and Tom Felleghy 

Warning: It’s impossible not to talk about the film’s ending when talking about its strengths and weaknesses, so the following will enter spoiler territory.

After returning home from a business trip Giorgio Darica (Stelio Candelli) finds his wife dead in her bedroom with a slit throat. Giorgio does not report the murder to the police, for his business trip was of a type one just can’t use as an alibi, unless one is a big fan of spending time in prison. Instead, Giorgio goes to a judge (or lawyer, the fansubs aren’t quite sure about that one, though I’d go with judge) he is working with. Giorgio’s business, you see, is to smuggle drugs for a conspiracy of corrupt judges, cops and politicians who buy position and influence with the money they make from the drug trade (and clearly, any form of corruption that’s profitable). Even though that’s not something you want to say aloud in a murder trial, it is very much something a man like Giorgio is willing to say in a murder trial if his rather well-positioned “friends” don’t help him out of his problematic situation.

Because nobody wants to risk to have Giorgio arrested or questioned, and even just killing him is deemed too risky, his partners hide Giorgio and his girlfriend Liz (Patrizia Viotti) in a big, empty hotel building, while they put their influence in action and make further plans that may or may not be meant to exonerate Giorgio.

The couple’s stay at the hotel isn’t too pleasant. Giorgio’s new position in life as a murder suspect does not make Liz happy, especially since she isn’t quite sure her lover didn’t actually kill his wife, so there’s a lot of squabbling and hysterics going on between the two. That, however, is before the hotel turns strange. Music plays in rooms where there shouldn’t be any music playing, and noises hint at other people staying where there shouldn’t be any. It’s as if the hotel were haunted by ghosts peculiarly in tune with Giorgio’s troubles. Things turn even stranger, when a group of people appear who claim to be the hotel’s owners. It doesn’t take long until Giorgio isn’t sure what’s dream, what’s reality and what’s delusion.

  
  

Leopoldo Savona’s Death Falls Lightly is a more interesting example of the giallo than it at first seems to be. The film’s first half is more than a bit slow going, and even though its rather sardonic comments on the state of Italian judicial and political culture are not completely without relevance for anyone curious about the political climate surrounding early 70s Italian genre cinema, it’s also not exactly a riveting first half. Especially the whole “lovers flip out on each other after spending about one day alone together” angle is just not very convincing, and while the secrets and lies which these scenes disclose as the basis of Giorgio’s and Liz’s relationship will be important later on, I could think of less artificial ways to expose them.

However, once that (expository) hurdle is taken, Death takes a turn for the weird I can only describe as delightful; at least if your definition of “delightful” fits a series of scenes that turn a character’s inner workings into simply yet effectively realized metaphors and nearly drive him insane in the process. I find especially lovely how organic the film’s turn from the semi-realistic tone of its beginning to the weird and possibly supernatural is, with Savona using the empty hotel as a place that – even when we are nominally still in the “realist” part of the movie – does more belong to the realm of dreams than to that of reality as we usually understand it. Savona emphasises this by lighting and blocking everything that takes place in the hotel quite differently from the rest of the film, suggesting the claustrophobia and spacial and temporal disjointedness of a dream.

Of course, and somewhat disappointingly, all the supernatural occurrences will later turn out to be no such things at all in a last act twist that is not exactly to my taste – as I prefer the supernatural in my narratives to stay supernatural, or at least ambiguous – but that works too well to ruin what came before. Mostly, this part of the movie works well enough for me because Death - quite surprisingly for a giallo – does play fair with its audience by featuring a killer whose motivations you can discern from the clues the film delivers, as well as by using a device for its plot twist whose cause you have actually witnessed and (hopefully) just forgotten as one of these random flourishes giallos tend to include. Of course, even though the twist’s set-up makes sense seen from that perspective, it’s still quite difficult to buy it as anything any police force, even one as corrupt as the one shown in the movie, would actually be involved in; on the other hand, it’s thematically and atmospherically so fitting to the film at hand, I can’t find it in me to see that fact as a problem for anyone who doesn’t insist on absolute realism – and therefore boredom – in her movies.

I, for one, am happy to have found another giallo that succeeds at wedding rather sardonic politics with moments of dream-like beauty.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Sexy Killer (1976)

If these crudely animated titles from Shaw Brothers don’t have you craving an old-school exploitation fix, nothing will. Sun Chung (Human Lanterns) directs this sleazy story of a nurse (Chen Ping, The Big Bad Sis) who takes violent shot-gun revenge against the drug lord (Wang Hsieh, The Super Inframan) responsible for the self-destruction of her sister.

You can read our review of the film here.

The Alcove

a.k.a. L’alcova
rating:
company:
Filmirage
and Golden Hawk
year: 1984
runtime: 93′
country: Italy
director: Joe D’Amato
cast: Lilli Carati, Annie Belle,
Al Cliver, Laura Gemser,
Roberto Caruso, Nello Pazzafini
writer: Ugo Moretti
cinematography: Joe D’Amato
music: Manuel De Sica
disc company: Severin Films
release date: February 23, 2010
retail price: $29.98
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / dual layer
video: 1.85:1 / anamorphic / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic English
subtitles: none
reviewed from a screener provided
by Severin Films LLC

order this film from Amazon.com

Plot: A military officer brings an African princess home with him to act as a domestic servant, only to have her take control of the seedy goings ons at his Italian villa.

1984 was a slow year for low budget exploitation guru Joe D’Amato, with this and the infamous The Blade Master – the sequel to Ator the Fighting Eagle, best remembered for being MSTied under the title of Cave Dwellers – being his only releases for the year.  While The Blade Master sets the benchmark for zero-budget spaghetti in-adventure, D’Amato appears to have focused more than his usual share of attention to the direction of The Alcove. It ranks as one of the better of his nearly 200 films, not that those of you of more discerning taste will find much consolation in that.

The period story takes place entirely, with the exception of two or three brief scenes, at the isolated villa of Ello (Al Cliver, Zombie, Devil Huner), an officer just returned from duty in Africa.  Along with a hefty assortment of souvenir trinkets, Ello brings an African princess named Zerbal (Laura Gemser, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead), gifted to him by a chieftain, into his household.  Wife and mistress of the household Alessandra (Lilli Carati, Escape from Women’s Prison) is none too happy to have a savage in her midst, a view echoed by Wilma (Annie Belle, Black Velvet, Horrible), a secretary with whom Alessandra has been having a lesbian tryst in her husband’s absence.

Zerbal is equally unhappy with her new position in a “cultured” society, and wastes no time in making trouble.  She wiggles her way into her own relationship with Alessandra, using her new status as the mistress’ preferred pet to take more control around the household.  Wilma is spurned while Zerbal and Alessandra ride the high life on cocaine and champaign bubbles, ignoring the fact that Ello’s finances are teetering on the brink of complete collapse.

The story by Ugo Moretti (Orgazmo) slogs along at a snail’s pace, wading through poorly written melodrama to get to the all important naughty bits.  Things take a turn for the interesting only in the final half hour, when Ello comes up with a scheme to make money fast by producing his own pornographic films starring the women of the house.  D’Amato takes the opportunity to dress Alessandra up for some nunsploitation-by-proxy, spicing things up with a brief but hardcore vintage short.  Even the villa gardener (Nello Pazzafini, The Pumaman, Star Odyssey) gets in on the action, exposing his member while Alessandra’s nun squats over a restrained Wilma and Zerbal looks on with a whip!  It may not be sexy, but it’s more than enough to validate The Alcove‘s sleazy reputation.



I’ve never been a terribly big fan of D’Amato muse Laura Gemser, who has appeared in just about every sub-genre the director dabbled in but is most remembered for her turns in the Black Emanuelle series.  Her performance here is as bland and uncharismatic as I’ve come to expect, though I doubt anyone is coming to The Alcove to admire her acting chops anyway.  All fans need to know is that she bares her physical assets early and often, as does the rest of the female cast.  Al Cliver’s pants remain firmly in place for the duration, thankfully.

The Alcove makes its first appearance on domestic DVD in fine form, and is one of the better of Severin Films’ recent SD releases.  The 1.78:1 (listed as 1.85:1 on the case, which also says the running time is 97 as opposed to the actual 93 minutes) transfer may be cropped a bit too tightly for this European production, but D’Amato’s compositions don’t seem to suffer any ill effects.  Progressive and anamorphic, the transfer faithfully represents the diffused style of the film and presents with good detail when the situation calls for it.  Colors are strong, though contrast is a little flat, and grain (and some video noise, particularly in darker scenes) is present throughout.  I have no doubt that it’s a competent representation of how the film would have looked theatrically, and I’m pleased overall.  Audio is a decent Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic English dub, though the mixing of the original master seems to have been less than stellar.  I found myself cranking up the volume to hear dialogue, only to have to turn it down again whenever Manuel De Sica’s score kicked in.  There are no subtitles.

Supplements are sparse, but Severin looks to have dug deep to find even this much.  The primary extra is a supplement listed as Talking Dirty with Joe D’Amato on the case, actually an unnamed 11 minute snippet of an interview with the director from the mid 1990s.  Quality is a little iffy on the tape-sourced interview, here pillarboxed into a 16:9 enhanced frame, but that’s not really a problem – fans of the director will want to see it either way.  The only other supplement is a tape-sourced trailer in pretty bad shape, blown up to no good effect to fit a 16:9 frame.

And that’s it, I think.  The Alcove is another in a long line of generally drab and occassionally raunchy Joe D’Amato softcore efforts, but it’s better than most of the same.  There are certainly moments to recommend – the absurd homemade pornography scene and the exploding film can finale in particular (remember kids, porn kills!) – and it’s worth checking out for those keen on the genre.  There’s nothing wrong with the Severin Films release, due out the 23rd of February, and Gemser fanatics will want to indulge.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

postera.k.a. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
company: Millennium Films
and Saturn Films
year: 2009
runtime: 122′
country: United States
director: Werner Herzog
cast: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer,
Eva Mendes, Feiruza Balk,
Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif,
Michael Shannon, Shawn Hatosy
writer: William M. Finkelstein
cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger
music: Mark Isham
out in limited release
pre-order the film from Amazon.com:
DVD | Blu-ray


Warning: This review probably contains some spoilers.



Plot:
A police lieutenant is hampered by drug addiction, local gangsters, and an ever-loosening grip on reality while heading up a homicide investigation in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is, in a word, unlikely.  A reboot in name only of the 1992 cult picture Bad Lieutenant produced more than 15 years after the fact with Nicolas Cage in the starring role and Werner Herzog in the director’s chair, its very conception seems suspect, and yet it’s here all the same.  Herzog has taken the script by William M. Finkelstein (writer for N.Y.P.D. Blue and L.A. Law, amongst other television shows) and made something special, a darkly comic tale of corruption, addiction, and redemption and one of the best films of the year.

Herzog’s sense of location is as impeccable as ever, and he makes the depopulated ruins of New Orleans parishes, crumbling in the shadows of the glass towers of the city proper and festering with all manner of crime, as much a character as any other in the film.  Set only a few months after the disaster of Katrina, Herzog’s New Orleans is a place already forgotten by those on the outside – a near-apocalyptic landscape that can’t help but be the birthplace of monsters.

One such monster is newly promoted police lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Cage), a pitiable creature whose chronic pain has led him into addictions to heroin, crack, and cocaine.  McDonagh is an undeniably talented officer, seen at one point single-handedly apprehending a suspect while a SWAT team waits outside, but his tunnel vision starts to get the better of him after his promotion.  As he tells a suspect he’s arresting, “it’s amazing how much you can get done when you’ve got a simple purpose guiding you through life.”  Unfortunately for McDonagh, securing a constant supply of illicit drugs has become that simple purpose.

Things go well for a while.  McDonagh subsists off the steady stream of cocaine and prescription drugs filtering into the evidence room of his department and even finds a kindred spirit and devoted lover in high-class prostitute Frankie (Mendes).  But the life can’t last, and soon he’s betting on football games with money he doesn’t have and getting in trouble with the local mob.  The hallucinations – particularly of ambivalent iguanas on stakeouts – don’t help.  McDonagh hits rock bottom hard, forced to make an uneasy allegiance with the local gangster responsible for the homicide he’s investigating after the case falls apart due to his own negligence.

Herzog keeps the audience aware of the fact that, in spite of all the snarling, screaming, and frequent insanity, McDonagh is ultimately just a decent human being in the midst of making the worst decisions of his life.  The accident that led to his chronic pain was the result of his rescuing a suspect, left behind after the waters began to rise -  no good deed goes unpunished.  Herzog allows McDonagh to commit (and get away with) truly despicable acts on the shaky road to redemption, but always leaves ample room for forgiveness, never letting McDonagh succumb to mortal sin.  The lieutenant  even goes so far as to save the life of murderous gangster Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) from his depraved partner Stevie (Kilmer).

I never thought I’d find myself praising a performance from Nicolas Cage, but here it’s deserved.  Kudos to Herzog for allowing the actor to flex his professional muscles, which have gone so underserved by recent efforts like Next, Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, and on and on and on.  Cage lurches through the film like an old-school Universal monster, retaining that all-important note of tragedy while on his drugged-out rampage.  It’s the best performance that’s been seen from the actor in years, and a welcome respite with crap like Ghost Rider 2 (I suppose even Cage has to eat) on the way.

Herzog keeps up his well-earned reputation for experimentation and even finds room to dabble with surrealism in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.  McDonagh’s highs are amplified with operatic outbursts of handi-cam wildlife close-ups (notably of an iguana and an alligator) while another  scene has the youthful soul of an aged hit man break dancing after the man himself is killed.  The ambiguous fish-tank ending will leave many viewers scratching their heads, though it seems entirely appropriate in the context of the film.  Herzog always has had an affinity for being strange just for the sake of being strange, and that’s just fine with me.

Teaming up with Herzog once again is cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (Encounters at the End of the World, Wheel of Time, and Invincible to name a few), and his presence is welcome here.  Frequently working with natural light alone, Zeitlinger ensures Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ place as one of the best photographed pictures of the year.  Composer Mark Isham (Invincible, The Black Dahlia) provides the exceptional score, its themes rich in accoustic guitar and augmented with occasional explosions of harmonica.   Here’s hoping a CD release is on the way.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is out in limited release in the States with simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD releases slated for April of next year from distributor First Look Films (this article will be updated with a disc review at that time).  This is, for my money, one of the best films I’ve seen all year – old or new.  Herzog is still a master of the craft, and his latest comes very highly recommended.

The Sexy Killer

postera.k.a. Du hou mi shi / The Drug Connection
company: Shaw Brothers
year: 1976
runtime: 88′
country: Hong Kong
director: Sun Chung
cast: Chen Ping, Yueh Hua,
Tung Lam, Si Wai, Wang Hsieh,
Tin Ching, Chan Shen
writer: Ki Kuang
cinematographer: Lam Nai-Choi
limited availability
(IVL disc is OOP)

Plot: A nurse whose sister is destroyed by the illegal drug industry poses as a prostitute and infiltrates the upper echelons of a Hong Kong gang in order to get her bloody revenge.

While my taste in film has shifted more towards the serious as of late (not that my reviews here do much to evidence this), there are times when nothing hits the spot like a good, trashy exploitationer.  Shaw Brothers’ The Sexy Killer is just such a film, careening through such saucy subjects as drugs, prostitution, and sado-masochistic sex on its way to a shotgun-fueled finale that plays like a candy colored scope re-envisioning of Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller – A Cruel Picture.

The story concerns Wanfei, a nurse in Hong Kong who gets a nasty wake up call when her younger sister is tempted into the sordid world of heroine abuse and sex trafficking.  Wanfei involves herself with a shady celebrity, whose strong public posturing against the exploding drug industry makes her blind to the fact that he’s nothing but a paid cover for the cartels, while simultaneously seeking her own revenge against the gangsters who defiled her sister.  Her policeman friend Weipin is fighting his own losing battle against corruption in the department, realizing that a presumed friend is on the cartel’s payroll only after his reputation for drug busting almost gets him killed.

001 002
003 004

It doesn’t take long for Wanfei to find out that drastic action is required if she’s to move up in the ranks of the mob, and she begins moonlighting as a prostitute for the higher ups.  She’s found out when an attempt on the life of the Boss of the operation (a sexual sadist with a dungeon in the back of his bedroom) goes wrong, and dragged off to the edge of the city for disposal.  But it’ll take more than a few moronic henchmen to stop this lady scorned and it isn’t long before she’s driving right through the front door of the Boss’ house, blasting holes the size of dinner plates into every gangster she can find.

The Sexy Killer is a prototypical Shaw Brothers exploitation vehicle, of which they produced a slew throughout the ’60s and ’70s along with their better known martial arts product.  One can expect to see lots of bare human flesh by the end of things, much of it belonging to lead Chen Ping.  The company obviously understood the dual functionality of the heroine, and the intended audience should have no trouble getting behind Ping’s lust for vengeance while oodling over her extensive physical charms.  The highlight of the picture is inarguably her delivery of deliciously violent final justice, and I can think of few actresses capable of handling a shotgun so deftly while donning a pink polka-dotted dress.

Keeping things interesting in the dry spells between senseless acts of depravity are a stable of unusual characters made all the more unusual by the audaciousness of the performances behind them.  Wang Hsieh (the Professor in The Super Inframan) steals the show as the depraved Boss, gleefully twirling his cane betwixt the legs of his favorite whore and whipping her while who-knows-what spools through a collection of film projectors in his bedroom.  Just as memorable is Tin Ching as the happy-go-lucky sex trafficker Ma-Yuan, who gets his just deserves when Wanfei convinces the Boss of his usurptuous intentions.

005 006
007 008

Direction by Sun Chung is as adept as necessary for the material in question (scripted by Ki Kuang, Human Lanterns), and he keeps the material from becoming draggy even in the slower spots.  Cinematography by Lam Nai-Choi (director, The Story of Ricky) is questionable, and his overuse of wide angle lenses often gives the impression that we’re watching a film shot through a goldfish bowl – not that it does a thing to dampen The Sexy Killer‘s potential to entertain.

There’s only one DVD release of The Sexy Killer I’m currently aware of, from IVL’s extensive line of Region 3 Shaw Brothers titles.  The disc presents the film in a decent, if slightly soft, anamorphic widescreen transfer in the original 2.35:1 Shaw Scope ratio.  Audio is Mandarin, augmented with optional English and Chinese subtitles.  Extras are typical – stills, production notes, and a collection of trailers for other IVL releases.  The disc is currently listed as being temporarily out of print by the company, though copies are still easy enough to come by on eBay.

I enjoyed the hell out of this one, though my mindset at the time undoubtedly had a lot to do with it.  This is trash, pure and simple, but of the brightly colored and irresistible variety only the Shaw Brothers can provide.  Keep your expectations in check and know what you’re in for – the screenshots here should be enough to convince of whether or not The Sexy Killer is for you.  As for me, this one comes recommended.

009

Hanna D. – The Girl From Vondel Park

a.k.a. Hanna D. -  La ragazza del Vondel Park
company: Beatrice Films
year: 1984
runtime: 87′
countries: Italy / France
director: Rino Di Silvestro
cast: Ann-Gisel Glass, Donatella Damiani,
Tony Serrano, Sebastiano Somma
dvd company: Severin Films
retail price: $29.95
release date: October 27, 2009
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / Dual Layer

subtitles: None for feature
Order this disc from Amazon.com
reviewed from a screener provided
by Severin Films LLC

Hanna (Glass) is a sells her body to keep her alcoholic and nymphomaniacal mother afloat.  One day Hanna meets a pimp on the lookout for a fresh young whore to take him to the top of the food chain – guaranteed a healthy percentage of profits, more than enough to keep her newfound heroine addiction flowing, she signs on with him.  But soon Hanna meets Axel, and a love triangle laced with arrest and vomit-filled withdrawl begins.

001I’m relatively certain that a serious film pertaining to the self-destruction of a young woman through prostitution and drug addiction shouldn’t illicit laughter from its audience, but Rino di Silvestro’s [WEREWOLF WOMAN, WOMEN IN CELL BLOCK 7] incompetent ode to the renowned CHRISTIANE F. – WIR KINDER VON BAHNHOF ZOO manages to do just that.  HANNA D., a lower tier exploitation co-production between Italy’s Beatrice Films and France’s Le Films Jacques Leitienne, aims for prescence and shock value but only squeaks by with a few moments of sleaze and a mountain of unintentional hilarity.

To be fair, there is some good to be found in HANNA D., namely director Silvestro and cinematographer Franco Delli Colli’s [DJANGO, KILL! IF YOU LIVE SHOOT!] collective eye for composition.  There are a number of interesting photographic setups to be had throughout, and they keep the film at least visually interesting even with the frequent irritation of Bruno Mattei’s [HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD, VIOLENCE IN A WOMEN'S PRISON] blunt editing.

002Cinematography aside, this is pretty miserable fare.  The script by director Silvestro and co-writer Herve Piccini [MONSTER SHARK] is as drab as they come, and more or less flings its characters at a procession of ill-connected scenes as opposed to creating an even semi-coherent story for them to exist within.  Out of place amidst the mess of drug use and prostitution is a downright cheerful ending that has a addiction-free Hanna prancing through Amsterdam with her beau Axel after the dramatic suicide-by-drowning of her pimp (!).

There’s little here that will shock most exploitation fans, save a brief close-up of a jailed prostitute removing a canister of heroine from her ass.  There’s certainly plenty of on-screen nudity to be had, but little sex and even less of any sordid nature – the less socially-acceptable requests of Hanna’s customers are implied rather than shown.  The frequent heroine injections are graphic in so much as many of the extras appear to really insert the needles, but their devotion to realism adds little but cringe factor to the proceedings.  Star Ann-Gisel Glass stares bug-eyed throughout, undoubtedly wondering if her acting career can possibly recover (it does).

003This is another bottom-barrel production [along with PAPAYA LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS and DEVIL HUNTER] picked up for domestic home video distribution by Severin Films, who have recently impressed this reviewer with their new line of Blu-rays.  Their dual-layered (6.9 GB) presentation of HANNA D. is, like the film, rather disappointing.

The feature receives a progressive and 16.9 enhanced transfer in the proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio and a healthy encode, but something just doesn’t feel right.  The unrestored image looks to have been digitally manipulated, with both edge enhancement and DNR in evidence.  Colors and contrast are dull, and transfer looks thin overall.  Damage is present throughout at varying levels, from minor speckling to more noticeable scratches and beyond.  Audio is reasonably reproduced, presented in Dolby Digital encoded monophonic English.  There are no subtitles.

004The supplemental package is heftier than one might imagine, and dominated by a 42 minute (!) interview with recently departed director Rino Di Silvestro titled The Confessions of Rino D.  Silvestro shows an understanably biased perception at the importance of his film, introducing it as a story he felt he “had to tell”.  There’s a lot of good information here for those interested, though Silvestri tends to ramble a bit.  The only other extra is an original theatrical trailer in rough shape.

HANNA D. is a pretty disappointing effort all around, though I’m sure it (like everything else) has its particular audience.  The Severin Films DVD is a letdown as far as the image is concerned, but is still the best option for fans who simply must own it on home video and the lengthy Silvestro interview is a definite plus.  A high retail price tag should be enough to dissuade more casual buyers.  I’m giving this one a rent-only – not recommended.

End of the World

company: Ace Books, Inc.
year: 1962
pages: 128
author: Dean Owen
order this book from Amazon.com

From the back cover:

When the H-bombs struck America, they wiped out not only the cities but law and order and inhibitions.  The few who survived were faced with a fierce fight for SURVIVAL.

For Harry Baldwin, survival meant responsibility he had never known.

For his wife Ann, it meant a new kind of fear.

For his son Rick, it meant strange prey for his new rifle.

For his daughter Karen, it meant shock, terror – and rape.

And for too many others, survival meant the beginning of an open season on plunder, murder, and assault – as civilization had ceased to exist!

Despite the disparity in title, END OF THE WORLD is a novelization of the American International Pictures production of Ray Milland’s PANIC IN YEAR ZERO from the same year, barely adapted by Dean Owen from the screenplay by John Morton and Jay Simms.  The irony of the situation is that the story for PANIC IN YEAR ZERO was culled lock, stock, and barrel from the pages of John Christopher’s ecological disaster novel NO BLADE OF GRASS and Ward Moore’s tales of atomic apocalypse, LOT and LOT’S DAUGHTER, making END OF THE WORLD doubly redundant as literature.

The novelization follows the Morton and Simms screenplay to a T, relating PANIC’s tale of the Baldwin family roughing it in the aftermath of the bombing of Los Angeles with a minimum of embellishment.  The only thing I found to be missing was a radio announcment about the calendar being turned back to year zero, a minor point that may not have made it into the screenplay until after Owen had finished his adaptation.  The substantive content of the book only runs 121 pages and can be read in about as much time as it takes to watch the film.

Owen does his best to make sense of the rapidly shifting morals of lead Harry Baldwin [played by director Milland in the film - Milland's name appears larger than both the title and the author on the cover of the book], and allows for numerous moments of introspection.  That’s not to say that his frequent digressions into outright lawlessness gel any better with his condemnation of the same here.  Harry wastes no time in announcing that civilization has been lost and the rule of law ursurped after a nuclear attack on Los Angeles, and when a radio announcer reports that the penalty for looting is death he glibly responds, “That’ll give ‘em something to think about,” apparently having forgotten that he had himself robbed both a gas station and hardware store earlier.

001_S

Still, the story benefits from the addition of some background for its lead, making Harry a World War II veteran [having served on both the Italian and African fronts] and a champion of racial equality [it is noted that the only time he'd previously fought a man hand-to-hand was to defend the honor a fellow soldier, a black man, from a racist in his unit].  Owen goes out his way to ensure that we know that Harry is at least troubled by the things he finds himself doing, particularly after he executes a couple of “punks” for assaulting his daughter.  It’s unfortunate that none of the other characters are granted similar treatment.

END OF THE WORLD obviously panders to a male audience, depicting its female characters’ frequent mood swings as un-understandable nonsense that grates at Harry’s nerves more than the prospect of world-wide thermonuclear destruction.  Worse are Owen’s descriptions of the same.  The wife of the owner of the robbed hardware store is described thusly – “She was a redhead, with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose.  In plaid shirt and jeans she looked more like a high school senior than Ed’s thirty-five-year-old wife.” Others receive the same treatment.  More disturbing is the seeming lack of empathy for the two rape victims of the story.  Harry’s son Rick is unable to comprehend why orphaned farm girl Marilyn, freshly rescued from a gang who had spent the past several nights molesting her, doesn’t approve of his sexual advances.  When he talks to his dad about his troubles Harry responds, “It’ll take a long time for her to forget what happened.  She’ll come around.”

One of the sillier aspects of the story is the nature of its threats.  The bombs go off early and are said to be of low radioactive content, making them far less troublesome than the other two bogeymen of the book – bad drivers and drug addicts.  It’s on this first point that Owen elaborates most extensively, and Harry Baldwin is involved in dozens of near-catastrophic traffic incidents before his tale is told.  But its the rampaging narcos [all three of them] that cause the most distraction for the family, terrorizing them on the highway early on and raping daughter Karen later on.

Owen’s writing style is as obvious and uninspired as is to be expected given the nature of the book – I can’t imagine him taking it any more seriously than was necessary to receive his paycheck.  Typical for this style of writing, the women are attractive [an adjective Owen uses repetitively], the men strong and handsome, and the baddies irredeemable no-good thugs.  When introducing Carl, leader of the gang of punks that rapes Karen and Marilyn, Owen notes that “Harry could see the pinpoint pupils of his yellow-brown eyes.  This Carl was under the influence of narcotics.” Carl’s henchmen are almost comically drawn – what self-respecting early 60′s nuclear family wouldn’t feel threatened by a pair of teens with bleached hair, a penchant for rock-and-roll and faces that suggested I.Q.s “at the lower levels”?

It seems important to note that I did enjoy END OF THE WORLD, for all of its shortcomings, and it’s certainly no worse than the problematic film it was written to promote.  That said, it is what it is, and doesn’t offer up anything of much interest beyond what you’ll find in PANIC IN YEAR ZERO.  If you can find a copy cheaply enough [mine was around $4, more than I'd like to have paid but not enough that I regret it] then it may be worth picking up, and keeping expectations low won’t hurt.

Charisma

Nikkatsu Co. / King Record Co. [1999] 104′
country: Japan
director: KIYOSHI KUROSAWA
cast: KOJI YAKUSHO, KIROYUKI IKEUCHI,
cast: REN OSUGI, YORIKO DOUGUCHI

While negotiating a hostage situation between an environmental activist and a government official, Yabuike (Koji Yakusho) has a brief moment of uncertainty that results in both men dying. Given , he leaves a brief message with his family and has one of his colleagues drop him off at long abandoned bus stop outside of Tokyo.

Written a full 10 years prior to making it to the screen, CHARISMA is without a doubt one of Kurosawa’s most bizarre films. Whereas the blend of story, location, and meditation on various social concerns are well balanced in films like CURE [1997], KAIRO [2001], and DOPPELGANGER [2003], the latter of the two take hold early on in CHARISMA and rarely, if ever, let the first get in their way. The result is an intelligent and utterly compelling film that manages to remain nearly completely incomprehensible for the duration of its running time. Kurosawa himself admits that he has come to no clear conclusions as to what the film means – leaving CHARISMA well open to varying interpretations.

The screenplay for CHARISMA, first completed in 1989, earned Kiyoshi Kurosawa a spot at the Sundance Workshop – an experience that he described as a ‘ precious and special time’ for him. It also taught him the differences between film making in American and film making in Japan, particularly in regards to characterization. Particularly in the case of CHARISMA, the main character quite often has no set goal or reason for what he is doing. He simply exists while various polarized factions (we’ll get to them in the synopsis shortly) run amok around him. This was in direct contradiction to the standard operating procedure in American film making, where the action a character takes is typically to progress the story or his character towards a specific place.

Continue reading

Last House on the Left

Lobster Enterprises [1972] 84′
country: United States
director: WES CRAVEN
cast: DAVID HESS, SANDRA CASSEL,
cast: JERAMIE RAIN, MARC SHEFFLER

Wes Craven’s freshman effort is, in a single word, notorious – when released theatrically in 1972 the film was subjected to all manner of censorship at the hands of theatre owners, projectionists, and seemingly anyone else who could get near it with a pair of shears. The original version, purported to have had a running time of 91 minutes, is lost forever to the sands of time. But MGM, seeing a market for one of the most infamous of American exploitation films, saw fit to release the most complete version of the film currently available (84 minutes) in 2002.

The story is basic: It’s Mari’s 17th birthday – to celebrate, she and her friend Phyllis drive to New York to see one of their favorite bands play. Along the way they get a hankering for weed and become entangled with a group of four homicidal delinquents, led by the monstrous Krug, who molest Phyllis before locking both in the trunk of a car and heading out into the countryside. When the car breaks down, Krug and company head into the nearby woods – ironically right across the street from Mari’s house – with their human catch and proceed to humiliate, assault, and, ultimately, kill them.

Continue reading