A Black Veil for Lisa

a.k.a. La Morte non ha Sesso
directed by
 Silvio Amadio
1968 | Filmes Cinematografica | 92′ 

Warning: there will be spoilers

Hamburg’s drug scene is hit by a series of professional killings. All victims are enemies of drug kingpin Schürmann (that’s the way you’d actually spell it in German, not the way the film spells it), so the police seems to have their work cut out for them.

Unfortunately, whatever investigating Inspector Franz Bulon (John Mills) does leads him nowhere. Witnesses disappear, or are murdered just after Bulon first hears of them. Why, one could think there’s a mole in the police force very professionally delivering vital information about the investigation to Schürmann. But that’s not the only problem with Bulon and his investigation. The aged cop is driven to distraction by outbursts of insane jealousy for his much younger wife Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi), whom he met during a criminal investigation where she was suspected of being involved in the drug trade somehow. Lisa is understandably dissatisfied with the way her husband treats her. But then, she’s acting in ways to not only make a paranoid old cop wonder, so the way Bulon treats Lisa is still quite insane but also not very surprising. Later developments will even make it clear that Bulon isn’t actually wrong about Lisa. This doesn’t make the cop’s behaviour any more sane, though.

After many a false trace and despite all jealous fuming, Bulon – who must have been a ruthless yet effective cop once – finds the professional killer who does Schürmann’s dirty work. Max Lindt (Robert Hoffmann), as he is called, is just about to leave Hamburg forever when Bulon catches up to him, having his own troubles with his boss. And that would surely be that for the case, if Bulon didn’t see something that convinces him absolutely of Lisa’s cheating ways right when he is hauling Max in. Why not offer the killer freedom in exchange for murdering Lisa?

Bulon’s insane idea results in further complications. Lindt, beginning to enjoy himself, decides to first make contact with Lisa before killing him. Making contact with Lisa and falling madly in lust with her is (and I won’t say that I blame the man) a question of minutes. From here on out, things proceed rather a lot like anybody not one of the film’s characters would expect.

 
 
 

Massimo Dallamano’s A Black Veil For Lisa starts out as that most curious of things, a police procedural I actually enjoy watching, spiced up with at first little yet ever more frequent occurrences of giallo elements. Once Bulon decides – if you can call something based on pure irrational rage a decision – to have his wife killed and betray everything he must have believed in once in the process, the police procedural completely transforms into a very noir-ish giallo, the orderly, sober-minded world of the police procedural turns crazy and emotional.

I particularly love how Dallamano and his four co-writers decide not to use a sudden turn from police procedural to giallo here but show the film’s style slowly turning from police procedural to giallo, as Bulon’s state of mind and morals slowly deteriorate further (he’s already deeply compromised in the film’s beginning) until he reaches a breaking point that finishes the transformation. It’s not difficult to interpret this approach as a political statement that also tells the audience something about the central character (or the other way around): chaos and disorder are living especially under the veneer of pronounced orderliness and discipline, and are all the more explosive in the proponents of order because they repress and deny them. Even though order – such as it is – is restored in the end of the film, it’s an ending that comes with a heavy price, leaving questions unanswered and the world only set right again in the most superficial interpretation.

One of the most interesting questions is how calculating a woman Lisa truly is. The film never really makes clear if she only married Bulon to milk him for information from the very beginning, or if it was Bulon’s inability to have any faith in her that drove her to it. I’m glad the film leaves this aspect to open, because it also leaves room for Lisa being an actual human being instead of the mythical femme fatale. The film’s ending really suggests the more human interpretation, too, but it leaves enough of what happened between Lisa and Bulon in the past untold to make this question unanswerable for any outsider.

This might have something to do with the next interesting aspect of Dallamano’s film: unlike many mysteries – be it giallos, police procedurals, cozies – the film is not at all interested in judging its three central characters. Bulon, Lisa and Max are all three capable of committing – and are in fact committing – various amoral, illegal and horrible acts, yet the film just isn’t willing to judge them for these acts at all. Instead, there’s a feeling of unsentimental sympathy for all of them running through the film, as far from the cynical sneer the giallo often loves as it is from staunch moralizing or singing hymns to vigilantism. In that sense, this is as humanist a giallo as I can remember seeing, which might be what happens to a film that is as carefully concentrated on understanding its characters as A Black Veil is.

In his project of keeping his characters human, Dallamano is helped along by very strong performances from Mills, Paluzzi and Hoffmann. On one hand, the actors manage to fulfil the expectations an audience will have for the mystery archetypes they embody, yet on the other they give them a subtle and believable humanity and complexity that makes them more than mere archetypes.

Dallamano’s visual treatment of the film is often equally winning as the acting and the script are. The director gives even the rather talking head bound early phases of the film a high degree of dynamism, as if to demonstrate that yes, you can film even a brown and bland office that is quite believably German, and therefore particularly brown and bland, in interesting yet not distracting ways. Dallamano actually uses quite a few flashy techniques, but he puts them so organically in service of the film’s plot and characters you have to watch out for them to realize what he’s doing. It’s pretty fantastic.

Which also turns out to be a fitting description of the film as a whole. Where else will you find a humanist, elegant, and subtle noir-influenced giallo than here?


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.

Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete

a.k.a. Teseo Contro il Minotauro
directed by
 Silvio Amadio
1960 | Gino Mordini | 92′ 

Life isn’t pleasant in Ancient Crete. For a generation or so the Cretans have made yearly human sacrifices to the Minotaur, whom its priesthood sees as a protective godhood rather than a monster with a tragic backstory roaming a labyrinth. Crete’s king Minos (Carlo Tamberlani) changes his mind about the whole human sacrifice thing when his wife begs him on her deathbed to abolish the practice. After all, she even has proof the god’s don’t care about these sacrifices, seeing as she secretly hid away one of their twin daughters with foreign peasants to protect her from being sacrificed as the later born of every twin pair in Crete should be, and was not punished by the gods for it.

That argument is enough to convince Minos, and while he’s planning on breaking with traditions, he also decides to bring that twin daughter, Ariadne (Rosanna Schiaffino) to court. Alas, his other daughter Phaedra is not very happy with another claimant on a throne he already sees at hers, and the man Minos sends out to find Ariadne, Chiron (Alberto Lupo), is all too willing to fulfil her wish to see her sister dead rather than rescued.

Chiron’s tactics as a political assassin are bad, though, for instead of locating Ariadne and then silently letting her disappear, he hires a horde of bandits to snuff out the whole village where she lives. Fortunately for the forces of justice, hero and prince-of-Athens Theseus (Bob Mathias) and his best buddy, the Cretan noble Demetrius (Rik Battaglia), are in the area. As Greek heroes, they are quite willing and able to push back a mere horde of bandits, even though Ariadne’s adoptive parents and a lot of villagers die in the attack before the duo can get in on the action.

Since Ariadne is a bit of a stunner, and Theseus really a nice guy, he takes the now orphaned girl to Athens to be taken into his father’s house and romanced. Demetrius’s confused reaction to the girl looking exactly like his princess our hero just laughs off.

Of course, this won’t be the last attempt on Ariadne’s life, and of course Theseus and Demetrius will sooner or later have to set out to set things right in Crete. However, things will become more dangerous and complicated than anyone could have expected, with Phaedra falling in love with Theseus, the involvement of the Cretan resistance of people who sit around drinking wine instead of acting, and war and doom coming for Athens.

 
 
 
 

Silvio Amadio’s Teseo came as a bit of a positive surprise to me. I do love my peplums, but I generally don’t expect too much of them, so when a film delivers so much more of interest as this one does, I tend to get a little giddy. It’s only fair, too, for there is much to be giddy about here.

Some of the film’s positive aspects are easily explained by the fact that it came relatively early in the peplum cycle, when the budgets for films of the genre often were a bit higher, and the productions could afford to hire extras for mass scenes and put more effort into their production design, which is always helpful in films as soundstage based yet in need of spectacle as these tend to be. Consequently, there are often more people on screen here when the script needs it than one would expect, giving the handful of battle scenes and the obligatory storming of the bad guys’ throne room (though it’s the sacrifice chamber here) a bit more weight and believability through the sheer number of participants. Compared to classical Hollywood monumental epics, there aren’t still all that many participants, but when you have seen enough of these films, you get rather thankful when an army consists of more than ten people. Depending on your taste in historians, you may even see the not quite as large armies as more realistic, though I doubt anyone involved here was interested in historical authenticity as much as in producing as much of a visual spectacle as the budget allowed.

Weight and a bit more believability seem to have been important when it came to the production design too, for every set and every costume is created with a love for telling details, from the walls of the houses of nobles actually being adorned with pictures and wall hangings, to the ubiquitous minotaur and bull depictions in Crete. This extra effort helps make the film’s Mythical Greece feel more like a world with its own coherence and its own rules than a series of sets.

Yet even an army of extras and the most beautiful production design in the world need a director equal to the task of using them properly. Amadio is more than equal to the task, with a sometimes painterly eye for the staging of scenes to the greatest visual effect, and a wonderful sense for the use of vivid colours. Amadio’s Mythical Greece may not be as dream-like and magical as that of Mario Bava, but it never is bland or colourless, and always vivid and larger than life.

The word “bland” unfortunately does lead me to the film’s greatest weakness, Bob Mathias as Theseus. His performance isn’t bad at all, but rather painfully neutral, as if that awesome (in the classic sense of the word) hero Theseus the other characters are speaking of had just stepped out for a moment only leaving his body there. Mathias’s blandness isn’t enough to ruin the film or even to annoy me much, yet it may be a stumbling stone for some.

The rest of the cast is much stronger, with Schiaffino able to play her double role well enough to keep Phaedra and Ariadne believable as two distinctively different persons; even though the script tends to make Ariadne a bit too virtuous and Phaedra a bit too evil for my tastes. But that sort of thing is part of the genre, and on the other hand, Ariadne is a bit spunkier than peplum heroines usually are. It’s probably not necessary to mention that Alberto Lupo could play the type of heel he’s playing here in his sleep; he’s clearly not asleep here.

On the script side, the film underplays the mythological elements of the story for most of its running time, making this a very entertaining and melodramatic story of Mythical Greek palace intrigues with an influx of swashbuckling, that just happens to include a surprise rescue by Amphitrite, and the battle against a not very threatening but rather lovely Minotaur with a very mobile but also very confused looking face. I also have to applaud the writers for their use of interesting and not always the most obvious parts of Greek myth here. They take their freedoms with it, but they sure do seem to know what they are doing and why.


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.

Gladiators 7

a.k.a. I sette gladiatori
directed by
 Pedro Lazaga

1962 / Atenea Films / 93
written by Sandro Continenza, Bruno Corbucci, Alberto De Martino, Giovanni Grimaldi, and Italo Zingarelli
cinematography by Marcello Giombini
starring Richard Harrison, Loredana Nusciak, Gérard Tichy, Edoardo Toniolo, José Marco, Barta Barri, and Nazzareno Zamperla

After being let go from a Roman arena thanks to a very tenacious performance during a fight that was supposed to kill him for helping in the escape of five other gladiators, noble Spartan Darius (Richard Harrison) returns home, fully expecting a more pleasant rest of his life.

But things have changed in Darius’s years of absence: his father – a very democratically minded leader beloved by all – has been murdered by the evil would-be tyrant Hiarba (Gérard Tichy) who made the whole thing look like a suicide committed because Dad was supposed to have ambitions on becoming a tyrant. Before Darius has even really arrived home, and has been warned off by his wet nurse, Hiarba sends some of his men to secretly assassinate the ex-gladiator, but the blackguard has not counted on his enemy’s superior fighting abilities, nor on the fact that the son of Darius’s wet nurse suddenly pops out to lend a sword.

Hiarba is a flexible guy, though, and, once he’s realized Darius has the curious yet strangely plot-convenient habit of letting his sword – even if it’s the only thing he inherited from his father – stick in the dead bodies of his enemies, changes his plans to frame Darius for murder, the sword standing as proof enough for the young upstarts clear evil. While he’s at it, Hiarba also uses said weapon to kill the father (also a co-conspirator in changing the murder of Darius’s father into a suicide who now starts to develop a conscience) of Darius’s childhood love and woman-Hiarba-would-like-to-marry-if-she-just-weren’t-so-devoted-to-Darius Aglaia (Loredana Nusciak). Getting rid of a less than enthusiastic confidant, giving Aglaia reason to hate Darius, and framing his rival for murder all in one stroke is not a bad result of a failed assassination attempt, or so Hiarba smirks to himself while trying to woo the now Darius-averse Aglaia next to her father’s corpse. In a surprise to sociopaths all over the world, that wooing attempt does not endear him to Aglaia very much.

Of course, the tyrant may be smirking too soon anyhow, for Darius escapes all attempts to arrest him, and spends the next half hour riding through the countryside, recruiting the five former gladiators (remember them?) who owe him their freedom as his own, private, tyrant-crushing fighting force. These five – the thief, the pretty one, the strong one, the alcoholic, and the bald one who doesn’t like shirts – plus Darius and wet nurse Junior make up the seven gladiators of the title (even though wet nurse Junior technically never was a gladiator), and are all too capable of fighting through whatever Hiarba throws at them.

  
  
  
  

The title of Spanish director Pedro Lazaga’s Gladiators 7 (an Italian-Spanish co-production that for once really seems to belong to both countries on a creative level, too) may suggest a peplum variation of the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven school of films, but it’s not a film that keeps as close to the structures and motives of its predecessors all of the time as to be called a rip-off. Sure, there’s the number of heroes, and the ritual assemblage of the group by Darius well-known from other movies of this type. The rest of the plot, however, is more in a typical peplum vein than in that of a Whatever Seven films; there is, at least, no poor village that needs protecting.

And, unlike those other films, Gladiators 7 is strictly centred around its hero Darius, with the rest of the gang getting somewhat effective one-note character types and no character development whatsoever. Six of these seven are strictly there to have characteristic fighting styles that make the action sequences more interesting and let Darius look like a more rounded character. Look, he even has friends!

While I prefer the slightly more egalitarian ways of those other Seven movies, as well as their interest in questions of personal morality (something the film as hand just waves away with a disinterested expression), I’m certainly not going to call Gladiators 7 a bad movie, for it is a film doing perfectly well what it actually sets out to do: using the story of one shirt-hating guy’s personal vendetta against an evil tyrant to show off some quite exciting, diverse, and often shirtless action sequences in front of very photogenic sets and locations, spiced up with scenes of typical, competent melodrama. The film fulfils the action part of its agenda without much visible effort. There’s an obvious influence of the fights from swashbuckling adventure movies on display, so there is none of the lame action choreography many peplums suffer from (alas also none of the pillar wrestling), and instead there’s a lot of jumping, swashing, and buckling, all performed by actors who may not be the greatest thespians on Earth, yet sure know how to look as if they knew how to handle a sword. Which, of course, is something you expect from a film starring Richard Harrison, who has never been known to be much of an actor, but always was quite an action actor.

Gladiators 7 also features manly belly-laughs, jokes that aren’t completely horrible, and an entertaining bad guy whose particularly evil brand of evilness I attribute to Bruno Corbucci, one of the Scriptwriters Five responsible here. If someone wanted to call Gladiators 7 the platonic ideal of the non-mythological peplum (for alas, gods, rubber monsters and destructible buildings have no place in it), I would not have it in me to disagree.


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.

Étoile

dir. Peter Del Monte
1989 / Gruppo Bema / Reteitalia / 101′
written by Peter Del Monte, Franco Ferrini and Sandro Petraglia
cinematography by Acácio de Almeida
original music by Jürgen Knieper
starring Jennifer Connelly, Gary McCleery, Laurent Terzieff, Charles Durning and Olimpia Carlisi

American ballerina Claire (Jennifer Connelly) travels to Budapest for an audition for either a role in “Swan Lake” or a place in a ballet academy (as about other things, Étoile is decidedly unclear about it, but it really doesn’t matter in the long run). When her time to audition comes, though, Claire has a sudden case of nerves and flees, getting lost in the belly of the theatre the audition takes place in, until she comes to a stage where she, of course, begins to dance.

Claire is witnessed by the ballet troupe’s director (Laurent Terzieff), who for some reason that will become clear later on calls her by the name of Nathalie. Which, of course, again drives Claire to flight.

Later, our heroine, in an understandably bad mood about her own behaviour, tries to distract herself by talking a walk through Budapest. She meets fellow American Jason (Gary McCleery) – with whom she had already met-cute before – and proceeds to do some of that earnest falling in love in minutes young people in movies are so fond of; though it has to be said that Jason seems much more smitten with Claire than she is with him, for Claire has after all already found the love of her life in form of dancing, as she explains to him. Not one to be discouraged by that sort of thing, Jason promises to return to the theatre with Claire the next day to try and get her a second chance for her audition.

That very night, though, Claire is so disturbed by a nightmare about characters from “Swan Lake” the audience also already knows as part of the dance troupe she decides to just pack her things and fly back to the USA at once. Before she can escape whatever she’s fleeing from, though, Claire’s identity (and probably her reality, too) begins to shift. She signs a form with the name “Nathalie Horvath”, and follows a call for a person of that name to the airport’s information booth, from where she is directed to a car waiting for Nathalie/her. Not surprisingly, the car is driven by the dance troupe’s factotum who brings Claire/Nathalie to a rather dilapidated mansion she had already entered once while cavorting with Jason.

From that point on, Claire becomes Nathalie, the prima ballerina of the dance troupe, and spends her time staring at swans in the park, rehearsing for “Swan Lake”, and looking pretty zoned out.

On one of her outings to the park, Nathalie is observed by Jason, who had been pretty frustrated by her supposed return to the USA. When he tries to talk to her, Nathalie doesn’t recognize him. Jason is understandably confused by the whole affair, and begins obsessing about Claire/Nathalie, follows her, sneaks around, succeeds in a Library Use roll, and eventually stumbles on a peculiar and rather horrible truth about his beloved’s coming appearance in “Swan Lake”. If Jason can’t rescue Claire, a past tragedy will repeat itself.

  
  
  

To get the obvious question out of the way first, yes, there are clear parallels between Italian director Peter Del Monte’s Étoile and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but even though both films share certain thematic interests (loss or fluidity of identity of a young woman), and – obviously – “Swan Lake” (a ballet made to explore shifting identities if ever there was one), both directors have very different approaches to their material that can’t all be explained by the different eras their films were made in. Where Aronofsky’s idea of the irrational is grounded in very traditional psychological models (bringing the dreaded bane of “realism” even into a film about somebody losing touch with reality), Del Monte goes a more European way. The Italian is not very interested in realistic psychology, and instead aims for the archetypes found in fairy tales and myths, where symbols and the things symbols are supposed to signify are often one and the same.

It’s difficult to ignore the influence Hitchcock – especially Vertigo – seems to have had on Del Monte’s movie. Watching the film, I was frequently reminded of a less hysterical twin to Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock-influenced (some people would argue ripping off Hitchcock; these people are wrong) phase, an impression that certainly did not decrease through the themes and visual cues these films share. The clear parallels to Hitchcock and De Palma are a bit of a problem for Étoile from time to time, pushing me to comparisons that make it look worse than it deserves. To use an easy example, Gary McCleery sure is no James Stewart (not even a Cliff Robertson).

It would probably have been better to cast the leads five to ten years older, which probably would have made them too old for the fairy tale parallels, but could have improved one of the film’s weak spots to no end. Don’t misunderstand me, McCleery isn’t bad, and young Jennifer Connelly does dreamy, dream-like and beautiful very well indeed, but he is lacking the edge his more obsessive scenes need, and she is not at all convincing in the scenes when she takes on the role of the black swan, both things somewhat more experienced actors could have sold better.

These problems on the acting side aren’t what will make or break Étoile for most viewers though, I think. Basically, the potential audience of Étoile will encounter (or enjoy) the same problems-that-aren’t-actually-problems-but-parts-of-the-general-aesthetic many of my favourite European films of the fantastic show: the languid pacing and ambiguous working of space and time that have more to do with the structure of a dream than that of a textbook narrative; the characters that don’t pretend to function like real people; the emphasis on mood possibly to the detriment of believability and clearly to the detriment of realism. Of course, all these things belong in a movie with no interest in picturing reality, or being “believable” as a depiction of consensus reality.

Generally, Del Monte seems to have control over his film (not something I’d say about all movies in this style) until we come to the climax, that is, when trouble rears its head. Let’s just say that the scene of Jason fighting a giant black swan clearly oversteps the line between the dream-like and symbolic and the painfully ridiculous, and that a dramatic highpoint should probably not be a film’s worst scene.

For most of its running time, though, Étoile plays out like a dream, with all the symbolism and all the ambiguity of symbols that implies. I suspect most of the film’s viewers will either adore – like me – or hate that dream-like mood dominating it; I don’t feel neutrality to be an option.


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.

Island of the Living Dead

Year: 2006  Runtime: 94′  Director: Bruno Mattei
Writer: Antonio Tentori   Cinematography: Luigi Ciccarese   Music: Bruno Mattei, Daniele Campelli
Cast: Yvette Yzon, Gaetano Russo, Ydalia Suarez, Jim Gaines, Alvin Anson

After accidentally depositing the treasure they were trying to take from the bottom of the sea deeper on it, a hapless yet heavily armed gang of treasure hunters lead by a certain Captain Kirk (Gaetano Russo) gets into even more trouble. While piloting their ship through a thick fog, our heroes (cough) collide with rocks where there shouldn’t be any, and will have to do a few repairs before they can get anywhere else again.

Fortunately there’s an uncharted island nearby where the crew will try to scavenge provisions and do a bit of treasure hunting while one lone idiot stays behind to do the repairs. Little do they expect that the island has been populated by the undead for a long time now. Soon enough, our heroes by default find themselves under attack. Oh, and the treasure hunters’ boat explodes when repair guy pushes its self destruct button once he is attacked and surrounded by zombies.

At first, our now well and truly stranded heroes have only minor problems surviving the attentions of the zombies who may have been running around since the 17th century but still look pretty good for their age. Later on, scriptwriter Antonio Tentori decides that normal zombies are boring, and so the undead start getting pretty darn talkative, trying to drive the characters to kill each other by playing dumb mind games. Or something. From your standard zombies we then go to skeleton monks, hallucinations, a curse, and what might be vampires, too. How will designated final girl Sharon (Yvette Yzon) survive?

After a pause of half a decade, Italian movie god Bruno Mattei resumed his work of blowing minds and keeping under budget with the beginning of the 21st century, shooting as many movies until his death in 2007 as the direct to DVD market would allow. Even though late period Mattei isn’t quite as mind-blowingly crazy as he was when he was still working with Claudio Fragasso, Island of the Living Dead (shot in the Philippines like in the good old times of AIP) has much to recommend it, at least to an audience consciously seeking out Bruno Mattei films; in short, people like me.

Instead of ripping off plot, structure and dialogue of his movie wholesale from a single, artistically slightly more successful source – that technique will have to wait for the sequel – this ripe effort sees Mattei stealing bits and pieces from other movies in a way that could be construed as homages by an alien unsure of how homages work. Apart from a translation of the early graveyard scene from Night of the Living Dead into scenery-chewerish and dumb, there are scenes and set-ups lifted from Zombi and really everything else with a zombie in it, as well as the Demoni movies. John Carpenter’s The Fog is the source for the backstory to the whole undead invasion, with the little difference that Carpenter’s curse makes a certain degree of sense where Mattei’s doesn’t. Instead of making sense, Island‘s curse produces a tinted sea-to-land battle that I suspect to be stolen from a much older feature.

  
  
  

In his many years of experience as a director of crap, Mattei has mastered some impressive techniques. I especially admire the anti-dynamic editing that seems to be designed to create a structure for the film that consciously destroys tension. Zombie attacks are intercut with hot Latin reading action, and scenes of “characterisation” are broken up by shots of zombies crawling around somewhere else for no good reason whatsoever, as if the whole affair had been directed by a highly distractible child.

The film’s action scenes are nearly as great as the editing, seeing as they are clearly staged to suggest that most of the characters have the ability to teleport (which fits in nicely with the film’s utterly random day and night cycle that suggests that the whole film takes place over either one day or five, possibly just four – it’s difficult to say when day and night are this random). Alas, the characters are always teleporting towards the zombies instead of away from them, but usually only get killed once they’ve decided to sacrifice themselves for their friends in situations that don’t afford this kind of suicide at all. But hey, somehow the ridiculous action movie one-liners need to get on screen, right? (It CAN be done). It’s pretty awesome, really.

Equally awesome and/or awe-inspiring is the collective inability of the cast to emote even in the slightest like normal humans beings do. Dialogue is mangled as if the speakers were trying to fight off a man in a gorilla suit, and scenery is not chewed, but head-butted until it stops moving. I especially approve of the effort of Ydalia Suarez who plays Victoria. Never has she met a line she does not want to shout in an overenthusiastic fashion. Look Ma, she’s in a real movie now!

As if all this wasn’t enough to kill the few brain cells that survived my encounters with other Mattei films,Island is filled to the brim with compellingly idiotic details. Early on, there’s a random martial arts versus zombie scene that doesn’t end well for the martial artist because he decides to sacrifice himself for no good reason while kicking one single zombie in the crotch. This is followed by scenes featuring zombie conquistadors wearing plastic conquistador helmets as probably found by the production team in a souvenir shop, zombies that take naps and growl into the camera, characters willing to drink wine from an open cup that must have been standing around openly for a few centuries, that boat self-destruct button, an eye patch-wearing head rotating inside of a treasure chest, really religious undead skeleton monks, the all-important Lovecraft shout-outs, a zombie flamenco dancer, and music that often sounds as if somebody were just playing musical cues from other films (even Star Wars for a few seconds) on a cheap synthesizer, which is exactly what’s happening.

Island of the Living Dead truly is everything one could hope for in a movie directed by Bruno Mattei: it’s dumb, it’s inept, it’s utterly shameless, it makes no sense at all – it’s like a bad photocopy of a crassly commercial movie that is just too stupid to actually know how commercial movies work and nearly becomes experimental filmmaking through sheer wrong-headedness. In any case, Mattei’s film is entertaining in a crazy way Italian movies have seldom been in the last decades. It might be great for all the wrong reasons, but as Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham say: if loving a Mattei movie is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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

Miami Golem

Year: 1985  Runtime: 85′  Director: Alberto De Martino
Writers: Gianfranco Clerici, Alberto De Martino, Vincenzo Mannino
Cinematography: Gianlorenzo Battaglia, Paolo D’Ottavi   Music: Detto Mariano
Cast: David Warbeck, Laura Trotter, John Ireland, Loris Loddi, Giorgio Favretto, Giorgio Bonora

War correspondent turned local TV reporter in Florida Craig Milford (David Warbeck) is sent to film the newest experiment of scientist Dr. Schweiker (Sergio Rossi), whom everyone calls – smiling as if it were the best of jokes – “that filthy Nazi”. Schweiker has cloned and somehow genetically manipulated cells that were found inside of a meteorite. Schweiker’s goal is to, um, you got me there.

A malfunction during Craig’s highly scientific looking attempt at filming the alien cells nearly ends the film early by killing the poor dears. Fortunately, the cells miraculously revive and Craig is distracted from that particular strangeness by vague looking projections swirling around the lab, talking to him in a language he doesn’t understand.

Our hero’s not too fazed by stuff like this, shrugs the David Warbeck shrug, and goes home. Shortly after he’s gone, Schweiker and his whole team are assassinated by the henchmen of evil rich guy Anderson (John Ireland), and the cells are stolen. Anderson has a fiendish and absolutely sensible plan: to grow the cells into a monstrous creature completely under his control he will then use to blackmail governments into doing whatever he wants them to do, like giving him contractual work. I think bribery would be an easier way to achieve that goal, but then I’m not an evil capitalist. For some reason, Anderson thinks Craig – and not sanity – is a threat to these plans and commands further henchmen to kill the reporter too.

But Craig, once he’s heard of the murders, gets himself a gun and demonstrates that shooting down helicopters with a revolver and being an all-around action hero are among the skills you learn as a war reporter.

When Craig’s not involved in chases and shoot-outs, he tries to find out what the strange swirling things were trying to tell him. Fortunately, he meets Joanna Fitzgerald (Laura Trotter), a very helpful woman who recognizes the message as being in the language of sunken Atlantis. Or aliens. Or both.

In fact, Joanna is secretly working for a group of benevolent aliens who give her fantastic psychic abilities (none of them protecting her from a gratuitous shower scene, alas). The aliens have decided that Craig is The Chosen One™, destined to destroy the cells which of course belong to the most horrible and destructive creature ever to live. It’s all in a day’s work for David Warbeck, I suppose.

  
  
  

Quite at the end of his career, Italian director Alberto De Martino had to work from confusing scripts bizarrely unfit for someone who was always at his best when directing straight action material. Miami Golem‘s confusing and generally random mix of Science Fiction, horror, action, and all kinds of 70s crackpottery (in the mid 80s to boot) isn’t as drugged up as that of De Martino’s Pumaman was – but what is? – yet it’s still pretty darn weird.

The film’s first fifty minutes or so consist of cheap and silly but also pleasantly tightly realized action scenes, which are regularly broken up by long sequences of characters talking reams of ridiculous poppycock at each other. There’s bad science, Atlantis, telepathy, telekinesis and people talking in that lovely Italian dub job manner that makes everyone sound as if they had learned cursing by watching Ed Wood movies. It’s enough to let anyone who has a heart and a brain cry tears of laughter and delight.

After those first fifty minutes are over, though, Miami Golem gets really weird. De Martino still shakes things up with decent action sequences, but most of the rest of the film is dedicated to melting its audience’s brains with as much dead-pan ridiculousness as it can possibly offer.

Among the film’s greatest moments belong a scene where an alien explains Craig’s role as The Chosen One™ by stopping time and drawing our hero into a mirror dimension (or something) where it can take on Craig’s appearance to talk to him, making the film’s main expository scene one of (an obviously pretty amused) David Warbeck discussing THE END OF ALL CREATION with himself. No no no, I’m sure he’s completely sane. Other high points of this phase of the film are many, many, many shots of actors and the embryo rubber doll in a jar that is the titular Miami Golem using mental powers at each other – leading to some lovely facial expressions and much VERY HARD STARING. And a blinking rubber embryo.

Even better are probably the scenes where the Golem/rubber embryo attacks Craig and Joanna with telekinesis, which is of course mostly demonstrated by the actors jumping around in the style of mildly excited St. Vitus’s dance sufferers and stunt doubles looking nothing like the actors catapulting themselves against walls. This, dear friends and readers, is exactly what movies were invented for.

Miami Golem‘s air of heart-warming wonder is further strengthened by an acting ensemble willing and able to say the most ridiculous things with the straightest of faces and what looks like real enthusiasm to me. His enthusiasm is of course what made David Warbeck such a likeable leading man in most films of the Italian phase of his career. He clearly realized that he was usually acting in ridiculous nonsense, but didn’t let that hinder him from putting as much energy into what he did on screen as possible, seemingly always having fun with his lot. If there’s an ability ideally suited to letting a grown man upstage a rubber embryo in a jar, as Warbeck does here so beautifully, it is the man’s gift of throwing himself into the job of having serious fun on screen.

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

Maya

Year: 1989   Runtime: 96′  Director: Marcello Avallone
Writers: Marcello Avallone, Andrea Purgatori, Maurizio Tedesco  Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti
Music: Gabriele Ducros   Cast: Peter Phelps, Mariellia Valentini, Erich Wildpret, Cyrus Elias,
Mariangélica Ayala, William Berger

A small town in rural Mexico is predominantly inhabited by descendants of a Mayan tribe who are still holding to some old traditions. Once a year, the townsfolk celebrate a ritual, symbolic sacrifice of a child on top of the local pyramid to keep the ghost of the evil Xibalba (or Xibalbai – the voice actors are of more than one opinion), whom the townsfolk’s ancestors murdered, at bay. Of course there’s a prophecy that the dead guy will some day return to cut out every tribe member’s heart.

Some time before the newest celebration is supposed to take place, US expat Salomon Slivak (a very sweaty William Berger) stumbles onto the top of the pyramid after meeting a strange, big-haired girl child, mumbling an off-screen monologue about crossing some sort of “border to the other side”. Slivak sure seems to have crossed over to somewhere, for something or someone kills him up there by cutting out his heart.

A few days after the old man’s death, his daughter Lisa (Mariella Valentini) arrives in town. The more Lisa hears about the circumstances of her father’s death, the more disquieted she becomes, until she kinda-sorta begins to try and find his killer herself. This being the sort of film that it is, Lisa isn’t actually doing much more than walking around, asking weird questions that are answered in even weirder ways, and doesn’t appear for large parts of the plot (such as it is). She also kinda-sorta falls for another local US expat, restaurant owner, gambler, bum and all-around jerk Peter (Peter Phelps), whose best trait probably is his hatred of wearing shirts.

While Lisa and Peter aren’t doing much, further killings hit the town. An invisible force murders people in various, creative ways, but never misses out on cutting out the hearts of its victims afterwards.

The whole affair culminates (as far as a film told in a way as roundabout as this one can be said to culminate) on the night of the big ceremony. Will our protagonists actually do some protagging for a change?

Marcello Avallone’s Maya is a pretty weird film that will grow on a certain, very specific and very small sub-set of fans of Italian horror like green fungus on bread, while the rest of the world will look at it – if it’ll realize its existence at all – with a mixture of boredom and exasperation. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to find out to which of the two groups you, dear reader, will belong. Just try and imagine a film indebted to the style and rhythm of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, transplanted into Venezuela standing in for Mexico, tarted up with some barely understandable and badly explained bit of fictitious mythology, with less gore and more interrupted rape scenes (three, by my count), and made by a director who isn’t quite as talented (or mad) as Fulci at his best, but is really trying to be. If that thought makes you happy, or at least a wee bit interested, than there’s a good chance that you’re either me or belonging to the group of Italian horror fans in need to watch out for fungus attacks. Otherwise, you better stay away from Maya, because it’ll only bore you.

  
  
  

For us, the un-bored and un-boreable, Maya is a bit of a treat, especially since there aren’t all that many films actually inspired by more than just the gore of Fulci’s best films. As I said, Avallone’s movie is much more restrained in the gore department than Fulci’s movies generally were, but the murder scenes share the near-arrogant apathy towards the laws of physics and logic with the maestro’s work. The murders are very much at the heart of the movie, too, establishing the proper mood of the unreal, of the breaking-in of the illogical into the world as we know it, at a place where the borders between the quotidian world and the beyond have grown thin and weary.

The parts of the film’s running time that aren’t spent on the murders show the town (most of the time, it actually looks like a village, but some scenes seem to establish it as slightly larger with a slightly less rural feel – you could certainly put it down to sloppy direction, or you could see this imprecision as just another way Avallone uses to rattle the audience’s securities) as a place whose inhabitants are generally closer to acts of madness, violence and irrationality than is typical. Interestingly enough, Avallone uses two (horribly acted) wandering rapist Texan punks on vacation to make it difficult to read the townsfolk’s irrational tendencies as an expression of his film’s racism (though it’s clearly not a filmwithout any problematic ideas about race) but rather as a consequence of the place’s closeness to the other side, as if a door had been standing open just a tiny bit for centuries, letting something unhealthy and destructive cross over that infects (perhaps calls to) anyone coming into contact with it, in small and large ways.

Maya’s plot – as far as you can actually speak of a plot, which you probably can’t – has the stop-and-start quality of the Fulci films it is so obviously inspired by, the same sense of rambling and meandering that is hypnotic to some, and just boring to others, but that seems to be just the logical way to plot a film that is in part about the absence of the sort of order “tight” or just technically competent plotting would suggest.

The movie’s characters, all – as is tradition in Italian genre cinema – either chew scenery as if they’d never eaten anything better or seem passive and listless as if the only emotional reactions they have ever been able to show is sweating. And there’s a lot of sweating done by the whole cast, adding to the air of heaviness and oppression. Maya‘s script includes some minor attempts at giving its characters something akin to development, but most of it is buried under the murder scenes and the sweating, and obstructed by the film’s slow, slow rhythm.

I’ll certainly always prefer Fulci’s big three of gory, dream-like horror to Maya, for Fulci’s just a better, more daring director than Avallone.Maya, however, is still a minor pearl that puts such a heavy, honest emphasis on a mood of weirdness and slight alienation that it would be quit impossible for me not to love it.

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

Una Iena In Cassaforte

Year: 1968   Runtime: 91′  Director: Cesare Canevari
Writers: Cesare Canevari, Alberto Penna  Cinematography: Claudio Catozzo   Music: Gian Piero Reverberi
Cast: Maria Luisa Geisberger, Dimitri Nabokov, Ben Salvador, Alex Morrison, Karina Kar, Cristina Gaioni

Eleven months after the deed, a group of intrepid robbers and their backers come together in the villa of one of their own, Boris, to divide up the diamonds they stole out of a Swiss vault. The diamonds are hidden away in a safe that in its turn is hidden away in a pool of water, only to be lifted by some sort of hydraulic device, and not openable through explosives because it’s somehow built with uranium inside™. Said safe can only be opened with six keys, one of which should be in the possession of each robber.

Of the original robbers, only Steve (Dimitri Nabokov), Klaus (Otto Tinard?) and Albert (Alex Morrison) are left, though. Boris has died (and is entombed in his own backyard) and is represented by his wife Anna (Maria Luisa Geisberger) whose frightening fashion stylings will delight and/or horrify the audience for the rest of the movie, while another of the original robbers has lost his key gambling to a certain Juan (Ben Salvador). The final robber is hiding from the police and has sent his girlfriend Carina from Algiers (Karina Kar). Because two women aren’t enough, Albert has brought his fiancée Jeanine (Cristina Gaioni, doing her best Brigitte Bardot impression) to the party.

Alas, things are not going as smoothly as everyone present had hoped. Just when the group is about to open the safe, Albert realizes that he has lost his key. The others don’t believe his story and begin to first try to find the key on Jeanine’s body and then – after that doesn’t lead to anything but a woman at once sticking out her décolleté and cupping her breasts – decide to torture Albert for a night by not giving him his favourite drug and puttering about on a piano.

  
  

Once that is over, leading nowhere, somebody shoves Albert down a balcony. Obviously, this won’t be the last murder in the villa, because soon enough, everyone is at each other’s throats, and everyone’s trying to get the diamonds for his or herself.

Una Iena In Cassaforte belongs to that school of the giallo that doesn’t see its own lack of a budget as an excuse for not being a mad and stylish concoction of luridly glowing pop particles. As giallos go, this one’s most definitely far on the mindless pop and pulp side of the equation, and not at all interested in (even pop-)psychology, social commentary or depth. Instead Una Iena is a film working hard to keep its audience entertained by throwing as much exciting and crazy shit at it as the money allows, in a style closer to the weirder eurospy films than most other giallos.

The whole story is presented with all the sensibility and subtlety of a fumetti (I’d be very surprised if “make it look like a comic” wasn’t scrawled on the first page of the script), with caricatures instead of characterization, delights through weird flourishes like the “uranium in the safe” business, and is dominated by a mood of overexcited playfulness that seems to have infected every part of the movie.

  
  

The actors (most of them having only this and one or two other films in their filmographies) are inhabiting their one-note roles with great enthusiasm, as if they were born into them (and I’m not too sure they weren’t), and – when the situation affords it – can go from comparatively normal acting to wild scenery chewing at the drop of a hat. Especially Geisberger and Gaioni are fantastic that way. As a special bonus, the former actress does all her freak-outs wearing clothes and make-up that many of the more exalted drag queens would reject as a bit too tacky and bizarre, as if the guy responsible for her wardrobe were a Martian visitor trying to get his three brains around the concept of a “vamp”, at once failing and succeeding incredibly well.

There’s something wildly inventive (always bordering on hysteria, but only succumbing to it from time to time) about Cesare Canevari’s direction too. Canevari seems to have gone into the film with the determination to do something visually interesting or outright bizarre with every single shot (possibly to distract from the small number of locations). Sure, some of his ideas of the bizarre and the interesting are quite clearly part of the generic visual language of the pop cinema mainstream of his time, but Canevari manages to build a beautiful little freak out of these more generic parts and his own ideas. Plus, the generic of 1968’s pop cinema is pretty damn colourful.

Una Iena In Cassaforte (yes, as far as I understand, the film’s title really translates as “An Hyena in the Safe”) is not only an extremely fascinating and fun film to watch, it’ also a film that can make for an instructive hour and a half of “guess the influences”. Elements like the water death trap garage seem to point either at the Bond movies, the eurospy film, or Rialto’s Edgar Wallace krimis as sources and influences for the film at hand, but it’s neither impossible, nor unlikely that these influences did run in more than one direction, and this small and unassuming film influenced later films of the respective series back. We are talking about pop cinema after all, and one of pop cinema’s most noble activities is to go through an endless cycle of films borrowing ideas other films took from somewhere else, that will in turn be borrowed again by other films, and then by other films again, until it becomes difficult, possibly even absurd, to find an original source, or anything amounting to a state of authenticity.

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

Zombi Holocaust

a.k.a.: Zombie Holocaust, Dr. Butcher M.D.
Year: 1980  Company: Flora Film, Fulvia Film, Gico Cinematografica   Runtime: 84′
Director: Marino Girolami   Writers: Fabrizio De Angelis, Romano Scandariato, Marino Girolami
Cinematography: Fausto Zuccoli   Music: Nico Fidenco  Cast: Ian McCulloch, Alexandra Delli Colli,
Sherry Buchanan, Peter O’Neal, Donald O’Brien, Dakar, Walter Patriarca, Linda Furnis, Roberto Resta
Disc company: Media Blasters / Shriek Show   Video: 1080p 1.78:1    Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 06/28/2011   Product link: Amazon.com

Let me put this as simply and directly as I know how – Zombi Holocaust is a stupid, stupid film.  This is not opinion, but incontrovertible truth.  It may also be the quintessential example of the cannibalistic tendencies of the Italian genre film movement of the ’70s and ’80s, in which past successes were imitated and emulated as early and as often as possible.  Zombi Holocaust is one of the more shamelessly commercial of the lot, a transparent re-working of Fulci’s 1979 opus Zombi 2 and Deodato’s grotesque masterpiece Cannibal Holocaust, which saw release less than two months before this film in 1980.

Though its chief inspirations are two of the undisputed classics of Euro-shock cinema, it should come as no surprise that Zombi Holocaust is rarely anything more than cheap and silly.  The story, credited to director Marino Girolami (father of Italian cult cinema icon Enzo G. Castellari), producer Fabrizio De Angelis and assistant director Romano Scandariato, concerns a New York City Department of Public Health investigation (led by Brit Ian McCulloch, star of Zombi 2, and sexpot Alexandra Delli Colli, The New York Ripper) into random acts of cannibalism within the city.  The investigation leads McCulloch, Delli Colli and company to a remote South Seas island where primitive cannibals roam free and a mad doctor (Donald O’Brien) works to create an army of undead slaves.

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A Whisper in the Dark

a.k.a. Un sussurro nel buio
Year:
1976    Runtime: 103′  Director: Marcello Aliprandi
Writers: Marisa Teresa Rienzi, Nicolo Rienzi  Cinematography: Claudio Cirillo  Music: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Nathalie Delon, John Philip Law, Alessandro Poggi, Olga Bisera, Joseph Cotten, Lucretia Love

A rich Italian family lives the life of the rich and idle in their palatial mansion in the country. Things aren’t quite as perfect as they seem, though. It’s not just that family father Alex (John Phillip Law) is something of a jerk who cheats on his wife Camilla (Nathalie Delon) with a friend of hers who is staying as a house guest, or that the regularly visiting grandmother is a nasty old bint hiding her unpleasant interior behind impeccable manners, or that the family’s two daughters make eardrum-shattering screeching noises whenever they open their mouths, or that Camilla’s nerves are so on edge that she’s bound to become the sort of hysteric that only exists in the mind of Freudians and filmmakers one day. No, all that is minor trouble when compared to the family’s true problem.

Their little son Martino (Alessandro Poggi), you see, has an invisible friend called Luca on whom he seems to be more fixated than can be seen as healthy, but, quite unlike most invisible friends, Luca has a way of making his presence known physically. Luca moves objects around often enough to have Camilla and the nanny Francoise (Olga Bisera) believe the invisible child is more than just a figment of Martino’s imagination. What’s even more disturbing for Camilla is the fact that the name her son has given to his invisible playmate is the same she and Alex had given the stillborn boy they had before Martino, something the kid shouldn’t know about at all.

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