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.

Hunchback of the Morgue

a.k.a. El Jorobado de la Morgue
directed by
 Javier Aguirre

1973 / Eva Film / 79
written by Paul Naschy, Javier Aguirre and Alberto S. Insúa
cinematography by Raúl Pérez Cubero
starring Paul Naschy, Maria Perschy, Rosanna Yanni, Alberto Dalbés, Victor Alcázar, María Elena Arpón, and Ángel Menéndez

The picturesque Bavarian mountain town of Feldkirch has everything a movie town needs: a surprisingly big hospital, a system of catacombs that has been used by the Templars and the Inquisition, and a reform school for young women. It would probably be a fantastic place to live in, watching shower scenes and listening to Wagner all day, if not for the fact that basically everyone in town is a mean, mad bastard in one way or the other.

Hard-working, not particularly clever, hunchbacked, ugly (at least that’s what everyone says: Naschy isn’t wearing any “ugly” make-up, looking just like he does in other movies where he’s supposed to be a handsome lady killer) morgue assistant Gotho (Paul Naschy) is the favourite victim of everyone in town. His daily routine seems to consist of being insulted, slapped around, and made fun of, his only recourse being a mad expression when he cuts corpses into parts (which is something you do in this particular hospital morgue). The only one treating Gotho like an actual human being is Ilse (María Elena Arpón), but the girl is lying on her death bed with a lung disease (must be consumption), and all the flowers the really rather sweet Gotho can bring her won’t keep her alive.

When Ilse dies, Gotho cracks. The mild-mannered man turns a bit murderous, first killing two other morgue assistants who are trying to rob his dead sweetheart with a conveniently placed hatchet, then dragging Ilse’s corpse down into the catacombs hoping she’ll awaken one day. Afterwards, it’s off to another revenge murder.

And that’s how things could continue for Gotho, if not for the resident mad scientist, a certain Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbés). With the help of his assistant Dr. Tauchner (Victor Alcázar), and Tauchner’s girlfriend the reform school head (I think) Dr. Meyer (Maria Perschy) Orla is trying to create artificial life, but Orla’s total lack of scruples and his need for fresh body parts cost him the co-operation of the hospital.

 
 
 

So it’s pretty much like Christmas and his birthday falling on the same day for Orla once he realizes where Gotho is hiding. The catacombs will make a fine laboratory for the secret continuation of his experiments, and Gotho is easily swayed to help with acquiring body parts once Orla has promised him to revive Ilse. Soon enough, Gotho’s new duties will involve grave robbery, murder and the kidnapping of fresh girls from the reform school (for Orla’s experiment turns from a mass of cells into a hungry monster); the only hobby they leave room for is kissing the feet of reform school co-head Elke (Rossanna Yanni) and getting romanced by her in return.

Of course, things can’t stay this paradisiac forever, and Gotho will have a violent discussion with Orla’s monster (which just happens to look like the Oily Maniac) soon enough.

Even for something taking place on Planet Naschy (the great man of Spanish horror cinema course being co-responsible for the film’s script as well as playing the male lead), where the bizarre is actually the quotidian, El Jorobado is a pretty wild concoction. Where else, after all, would a story about a mistreated hunchback with certain necrophiliac tendencies taking vengeance on his tormentors be just too normal not to need an infusion of a gorier variation of the classic mad scientist story at about the half-way mark? I am, of course, not complaining about this broadening of the narrative (such as it is) for it’s exactly things like this that give most of Naschy’s films their charm and their weird energy.

That energy comes especially to the fore here, in a film that eschews the usually languid pacing of many of Naschy’s scripts for something much snappier. Which isn’t to say the script doesn’t have many of the usual flaws in a Naschy film, namely, that most characters act like complete idiots (would you believe it’s a bad idea to tell the mad scientist your plan to out him to the police?), and that some of the connective tissues one is used to from a professionally written movie are missing, so it’s always a possibility the film’s not going to show an important development at all but prefer to just talk through it later on; possibly for budgetary reasons, possibly because Naschy hated proper transitions. If one wants to enjoy El Jorobado - or most of Naschy’s other movies – one has to accept that things don’t work in quite the same ways on Planet Naschy as they do in our world or in the movies in our world.

 
 
 

On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine a more “normally” structured film having the time for all the small digressions and suggestions of various kinks El Jorobado has – some torture, a random whipping, the quite clearly suggested necrophilia, the fem dom whiff of Gotho’s feet kissing or just the suspicion that Elke falls in love with Gotho because she’s into men with physical disabilities for the disabilities’ sake and not the men’s, or else really has a thing for guys who kiss her feet for little reason; it’d probably make for an awesome porno.

This being a horror movie instead of pornography, though, the film is much more interested in crude yet entertaining gore effects, most of which ooze a classic carnival charm I found myself unable to resist. The only problematic scene in this regard is when Naschy fights some rats who are nibbling on Ilse’s corpse. At first, they “jump” (that is, are thrown at him with great force) our hero – the sort of thing that’s always good for a laugh, but then, we’re attacked by pictures of actual rats being burned alive with a torch. Like all real animal violence in the movies, that’s just completely out of ethical bounds for me, and makes it difficult to still call the film’s fake violence “good-natured” and “silly” as I else would have had.

Nearly a thousand words in, I still haven’t mentioned El Jorobado‘s director Javier Aguirre. That’s because there really isn’t much to his direction. Despite the moody assistance of an awesome mountain village, a spooky ruin, and some fine catacombs, Aguirre’s direction just doesn’t do anything memorable at all, certainly nothing even vaguely comparable to the weirdness of the script. On the other hand, Aguirre is also not doing anything that’s actively bad, so it’s difficult to criticize him for anything but being not as crazy as the script he’s working with and shooting it like a straight little horror movie.

If you’re willing to ignore the fate of those poor rats, El Jorobado De La Morgue is a perfectly entertaining piece of Naschy craziness, containing everything I love and hate about the man’s work, plus (at least in the Spanish language version) a small nod towards the Necronomicon that will make all co-Lovecraftians happy, too.


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.

With Death on Your Back

dir. Alfonso Balcázar
1967 / Bengala Film / 86′
a.k.a. Con la Muerte a la Espalda
written by Alfonso Balcázar, José Antonio de la Loma and Giovanni Simonelli
cinematography by Victor Monreal
music by Claude Bolling
starring George Martin, Vivi Bach, Rosalba Neri, Daniele Vargas, Klausjürgen Wussow, and Michel Montfort

A gang of international evil-doers has invented a drug that can be used to provoke completely innocent members of the military into pushing the Big Red Button that would loose the Big One. Does it show I’m so old I even remember the Cold War?

Anyway, that drug may not sound all that useful to you or me (for what good is destroying the world, really, unless you’re an insane cultist of some eldritch god?), but “the third power” we will certainly not call China (oops) is very interested in acquiring it.

Fortunately, our international evil-doers make a very public test run of their drug, giving one of those professors of every discipline you can imagine called Professor you often find in these films enough data to develop an antidote against it. For once, the Americans and the Russians (as represented by agents called – I kid you not – Bill and Ivan) are of one mind, and are even willing to share the antidote with each other, if with gnashing teeth.

For some reason, the good guys ship the Professor and his assistant Monica (Vivi Bach) off to Hamburg, where he is supposed to give a suitcase containing the antidote and/or the formula for the antidote to the proper authorities during some rich woman’s party. Of course, the international evil-doers get wind of that particularly useless plan, and gun down the Professor. If not for the intervention of suave/smarmy thief Gary (George Martin) who just happens to be a sucker for beautiful women and suitcases containing valuables, they’d be able to kill Monica and steal the suitcase too.

Having acquired Monica and the suitcase, Gary isn’t quite sure what to do with them – sell them on to the Chinese? The Russians? The Americans? Be a gentleman thief and protect Monica? It would be nice if our hero (or not) had some time for further deliberation, but each and every faction who knows about Monica and the suitcase wants to capture, kill or buy him, leaving the poor jerk hardly a second to breathe or put the (horrible) moves on women. What’s a thief to do?

 
 
 

It has always been one of the pleasures of the Eurospy genre for me to encounter unexpectedly fun films like With Death On Your Back. Its director Alfonso Balcázar is one of those workhorses who spent much of their career during the 60s and 70s churning out films in the popular genres of the day, trying their best to craft fun movies out of clichés, pieces taken from other movies, and actual talent. In Balcázar’s case, a lot of his work took place in the Spaghetti (or is it Paella in this case?) Western, but I have to admit I don’t remember having seen a single one of them, which may either speak against their quality, my memory, or my knowledge of European genre films of the 60s and 70s.

Be that as it may, With Death On Your Back seems to be the director’s only Eurospy film, which is a bit of a disappointment given how entertaining the film is. Sure, much of what happens on screen is the usual mixture of a suave/jerk-y (why do these words seem to be synonymous to me by now?) hero charming the ladies in improbable ways, punching goons in the face (or whatever other body parts look most punchable), and going through various chase sequences to acquire and keep a McGuffin, but Balcázar just as surely knows how to make the generic just pretty darn fun.

For me, the light variant of the Eurospy movie to which With Death certainly belongs has a lot in common with the comedy genre. Both don’t thrive as much on originality as on an ability to make the well-known and expected feel new and exciting, and both genres often survive problematic plotting through the timing of their delivery. Balcázar’s movie is nothing if not good at timing and pacing, letting hardly a second go by that doesn’t have something exciting happen in it, never stopping for longer than a joke or a kiss until its hero stumbles into the next punch-up or the next chase, keeping the audience hooked through breathlessness and – always an important factor in a genre movie – a willingness to entertain that makes it easy to just overlook minor flaws like the fact that the scriptwriters don’t always seem to realize Hamburg is situated in Northern Germany and not in Bavaria or the silliness of most everything going on.

Balcázar is helped in his endeavour of keeping the audience away from thinking about plots, plot holes and other dumb stuff like that by an ultra-generic – or archetypal – soundtrack by Claude Bolling that’s just bound to swing things along, a cast – also featuring Rosalba Neri and a very unexpected Klausjürgen Wussow as mid-level baddies – that has no problems at all to go with the silliness instead of against it (there is, as you probably know, not much worse than an actor trying to be all thespian-like in what is basically an adventurous romp), and some very decent stunt work.

Plus, there’s a scene documenting the eternal struggle between earthbound human and small plane (hello, Mister Hitchcock), guest starring machine pistols, so what’s not to like?


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.

Horror Express

a.k.a. Panico en el Transiberiano
Year: 1972  Company: Benmar Productions / Granada Films   Runtime: 87′
Director: Eugenio Martin   Writers: Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet   Music: John Cacavas
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Pena, Angel del Pozo, Telly Savalas, Helga Line, Alice Reinhart, Jose Jaspe, George Rigaud, Victor Israel, Faith Clift, Juan Olaguival
Disc company: Severin Films   Video: 1080p / 480p 1.66:1   Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 / DVD9   Release Date: 11/29/2011
Reviewed from a screener provided by Severin Films (thanks Nicole!).
Available for purchase through 
Amazon.com

The last of a three picture deal between American producer Philip Yordan (Crack in the World, 55 Days in Peking) and Spanish director Eugenio Martin (The Ugly Ones), and conceived largely as a means of making use of the expensive passenger train sets devised for the epic Poncho Villa, 1972′s Horror Express is a compact and economical slice of Euro-cult mayhem that benefits from the recycled illusion of production value and a magnificent headline cast. The inimitable duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing join forces once more as a pair of catty, big-headed men of science who must contend with a supernatural sci-fi menace on the Trans-Siberian Express.

The story, penned by the men behind the devilish British actioner Psychomania, follows professor Sir Alexander Saxton’s (Lee) discovery of a 2 million year old ape-man frozen in the chilly north of Manchuria. Determined to provide the remains as proof-positive of the theory of evolution, Saxton loads the crated beast onto the next train towards Europe – a train populated not only with hundreds of disposable personalities, but Saxton’s professional rival Doctor Wells (Cushing) as well.  Soon after the train departs on its long snowbound journey the baggage man is found dead, his eyes a boiled to a ghastly white. Saxton’s empty crate provides ample evidence for the cause – his 2 million year old specimen was not so dead as had been presumed, and had awakened from its frosty slumbers and murdered the baggage man. With the creature at large a concerted, but quiet, effort to find and detain it is mounted, but it soon becomes obvious that there’s more to the monster than meets the eye.

Once the beast is tracked down and killed things take a turn for the decidedly silly. An impromptu dining room investigation of its eye fluid reveals a host of unlikely images suspended there – images of our planet’s biological past, including a brontosaurus and pterodactyl, and a mysterious view of Earth from space. Further autopsies on the creature’s victims, whose brains appear to have been scrubbed clean of all knowledge, leads to an astounding conclusion: The ape-man discovered by Saxton was not the monster, but merely a shell for some malignant alien force capable not only of absorbing the intelligence of others but of possessing their bodies as well.  With the truth of the matter revealed doctors Saxton and Wells are faced with a terrifying fact – not only is the extraterrestrial menace  quite comfortably alive, but it’s hiding in the guise of one of the Trans-Siberian’s passengers!


This film’s got stars, and dinosaurs, in its eyes…

Playing a bit like They Came From Beyond Space by way of Who Goes There by way of Murder on the Orient Express, Horror Express is an uneven genre pastiche that never really capitalizes on its own capacity for thrills, chills, mystery and paranoia. Rather than focus on the mechanics of the genre, writers d’Usseau and Zimet instead lead viewers on a string of oddball diversions that include a bit of international espionage and the ravings of a mad monk in the mold of Rasputin (coincidentally, a part played by star Christopher Lee in an earlier Hammer production). None of it ever amounts to much, but it does pass the time between the various monster attacks and ludicrous plot developments. To be fair, d’Usseau, Zimet, and indeed the whole cast and crew, seem perfectly aware of the absurd nature of the project, and an underlying sense of good humor on the part of all involved goes a long way towards keeping Horror Express from feeling so tired, pointless, and repetitive as it easily might have.

Indeed, stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing look to have had a wonderful time with the alternately strange and hilarious material, particularly when it offers them an opportunity to needle one another. The two also bring a wealth of genuine thespian ability to the production, largely occupied with overdubbed Spanish performers otherwise, and each is possessed of that unique talent for making even the dumbest of lines sound reasonable – a skill that’s indispensable to a film that so frequently asks its audience to believe the darnedest things. The supporting cast is largely disposable with the exception of Alberto de Mendoza, who all but steals the show as an insane monk who drops his godly ways and starts following the alien “devil” at the drop of a hat. Telly Savalas (TV’s Kojak) received high billing in the films advertising and is listed third on this video edition, but only appears briefly as the memorably crazy Cossack Captain Kazan. Savalas’ dialogue is perhaps the most ungainly of the whole script, and while none of it makes much sense on its own terms the actor’s unhinged delivery gives it plenty of oomph.

Horror Express will never be confused for great filmmaking, and is possessed of the same cold and languid quality that makes much of the Spanish exploitation of the time so unappealing to me, but its excellent casting and proclivity for the humorously bizarre make all the difference. As a film about an eye-boiling brain-stealing alien intelligence loosed upon long-distance rail travelers it remains the best, and only, of its kind, and genre aficionados should find it well worth checking out.


There’s something about that guy that just doesn’t look right to me…

Taking a cue from a good number of independent English video labels, Severin Films have chosen to present Horror Express as a combination Blu-ray and DVD package. While we’ll be covering the latter later in this section it is the former, with which the film makes its high definition debut, that rightfully commands the most attention. Severin present Horror Express on Blu-ray in full 1080p at its native theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, sourced from a positive 35mm Spanish print of some dubious lineage (provided you believe the packaging, it was unearthed in a Mongolian film depot…). The print is in decent shape if far from pristine, though I don’t know that anyone was honestly expecting better.

In addition to some printed white damage and splice marks, the print also presents with a healthy assortment of darker debris, scratching, and even the odd tear here or there. This may distract some viewers, but I’d argue that it’s just part and parcel for this sort of low budget exploiter. The source also has its weaknesses with regards to color reproduction and contrast, the latter of which can vary quite a lot depending on the original photography. The image has obviously aged a good deal in the nearly 40 years since Horror Express was originally produced, with the color shifting, at times quite heavily, to the red. I’m not sure what the original photographic intentions were on the part of the director and cinematographer, but it’s impossible for me to believe the flat, over-warm appearance Horror Express currently exudes is accurate. An ounce of restorative attention – some color grading here, some tweaking of the contrast levels there - could well have helped to mitigate the issues with the color and contrast, but these film-based limitations are still far from fatal flaws.  Unfortunately that’s not the end of the story.

Limited though Horror Express‘ source materials may be Severin Films look to have managed a decent high definition transfer of them, particularly in terms of detail. It’s all the more a shame, then, that they’ve bungled things so badly with regards to its presentation on-disc. The numbers hint at the bad things to come – Horror Express limps onto Blu-ray at a total disc size of 21 GB, with a paltry 11.7 GB of that dedicated to the feature and its three accompanying audio tracks. The AVC encoded video averages out at a middling bitrate of just 17.2 Mbps, well less than half of the format’s potential, but even that low figure doesn’t  account for such dreadful results. This is one of the poorest high definition encodes I’ve seen in a while, and it presents with a laundry list of defects that distracted from my viewing at every turn. Most notable in motion are aliasing artifacts that are every bit as frequent as they are ugly. The hounds tooth patterning on Christopher Lee’s suit provides the most obvious examples, with the encoder failing time and again to properly resolve it.


A rough approximation of how this disc’s encode made me feel.

More frustrating on closer examination is the encode’s treatment of the transfer’s grain structure, and vicariously its fine detail. The long and short of it is that there just isn’t much grain or fine detail, as the majority of it has been obliterated by persistent blotchy digital artifacting. The final comparison set below demonstrates the problem most obviously, with the details of the wooden floor disappearing into blotchy artifacts and patches of digital noise, but it is evident to some degree in every shot in the film. There are even some chroma aberrations to be found, tucked away in the lines and patterning of people’s clothing. It’s a hell of a mess all told, and certainly not what I was expecting for a release so oft-delayed as this one – surely in all the months since Horror Express was officially announced someone could have been bothered to check the disc encode? It’s impossible not to feel as though Severin have dropped the ball here, and hard, leaving the video side of the Blu-ray’s feature presentation a very tough sell in spite of some modest improvements over the DVD.

The accompanying DVD is something of a technical improvement given the constraints of its format, but still far from ideal. The disc is sourced from the same hi-def transfer at the same aspect ratio (16:9 enhanced 1.66:1) and features the same inherent deficiencies with regards to color and contrast. Fortunately this disc is dual-layered, a step in the right direction, and while the image still looks substantially weaker than I’d have expected it to (things just aren’t as well resolved as they should be) at least it doesn’t show its artifacting to the same degree as the Blu-ray.  Unfortunately both editions showcase many of the same ugly digital pox marks, as evidenced by Christopher Lee’s suit in the first and next-to-last comparison sets. I’d say it’s a draw as to which is the better way to view the film – the better encoded but visually flat DVD, or the better-resolved but awfully encoded Blu-ray – with neither being particularly appealing in the long run. Amusingly (or distressingly, depending on your frame of mind) both the DVD and Blu-ray share the same menu designs to the point of failure – whoever authored the Blu-ray either forgot or purposefully neglected to include even the most rudimentary pop-up menu during feature playback. That alone is barely worth mentioning, but it is indicative of the breadth of shortcomings that hamper what had the promise of being a fine release.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool.  DVD screenshots were captured as uncompressed .png in VLC media player, and are provided here in both their native resolution (compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool) as well as upscaled 1920×1080 (scaled in GIMP, saved as .png, and converted per the rest to .jpg) to offer the best range of comparison.
DVD 480p | DVD 1080p | Blu-ray 1080p

While the Blu-ray video was impaired to the point of distraction, at least it got the bump to HD. No such luck is to be had with the audio. Horror Express is accompanied in each of its video iterations by lossy Dolby Digital tracks, either 2.0 monophonic English or 2.0 stereophonic Spanish, each at 192 kbps. John Cacavas’ interesting musical score is served best by the better-preserved 2.0 Spanish track, but both sound flat and unremarkable otherwise. I’m not sure that a lossless encoding could have improved much upon that in the Blu-ray edition, but as things stand now I’ll never know. Adding to the disappointment is Severin’s failure to include any subtitles whatsoever, making the secondary Spanish audio track more a vestigial feature than a legitimate viewing option for the majority of the release’s potential audience.

With the feature presentation a disappointment on practically every front, I’m very happy to report that the supplemental package is quite exceptional. Things begin with Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express, a 14 minute interview with director Eugenio Martin. Though Martin’s accent is thick and his handling of English at times lacking, the information he provides is all quite good. Next up is a wonderful half-hour archival interview with late screenwriter Bernard Gordon (The Day of the Triffids), who served as producer on Horror Express, in which he discusses the Hollywood blacklist, his involvement with producer Philip Yordan and his work on the Samual Bronston epics of the ’60s. There’s nothing whatever about Horror Express here, but I couldn’t be bothered by that – it’s a fantastic interview. Telly and Me grants composer John Cacavas a few minutes to talk about his friendship with actor and singer Telly Savalis and their work toghether on this film and elsewhere. The undisputed king of the supplements is an interview and question and answer session with the inimitable Peter Cushing, circa 1973, which runs for a whopping 80 minutes (!) and serves as a sort of commentary track for the feature presentation. I’ll not spoil any of the goods here, but Cushing fans will be over the moon – the disc may be worth picking up for this alone. An introduction to Horror Express by Fangoria editor Chris Alexander (6 minutes), a theatrical trailer, and three trailers for other Severin titles (Psychomania, The House That Dripped Blood and Nightmare Castle) round out the disc.

Horror Express is a fun little footnote in the annals of Euro-horror, and one that I remember seeing many, many times on discount video racks as a kid. I had exceedingly high hopes for this release from Severin Films, hopes that were effectively dashed as soon as the Blu-ray disc began to play.  The issues with the feature presentation are so distracting as to make a recommendation on its merits difficult, but the supplemental package certainly makes this release tempting.  Given the low asking price it currently commands (just $13.99) fans will likely want to indulge for that reason alone.

in conclusion
Film: Good silly fun  Video: Fair +  Audio: Fair   Supplements: Excellent
Harrumphs: You’d do better to ask what isn’t wrong here.  The wealth of supplements is the saving grace.
Packaging: Standard two-hub Blu-ray case.
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

The Horrible Sexy Vampire

a.k.a. El Vampiro de la Autopista / Le Mania di Mr. Winninger Omicida Sessuale
Year: 1970   Company: Cinefilms / Fida Cinematografica   Runtime: 90′
Director: Jose Luis Madrid   Writer: Jose Luis Madrid   Cinematography: Francisco J. Madurga
Music: Angel Arteaga   Cast: Val Davis (as Waldemar Wohlfahrt),  Barta Barri, Anastasio Campoy,
Susan Carvasal, Victor Davis, Kurt Esteban, Luis Induni, Patricia Loran, Jose Marco, Luis Marugan
Available in the Undead: The Vampire Collection bargain-bin DVD set from Mill Creek Entertainment.

As a prime example of the boring and under-achieving co-produced European horror cinema of four decades past, 1970′s The Horrible Sexy Vampire is, well, boring and under-achieving.  Funded with pocket change forked forth by Spain’s Cinefilms and Italy’s Fida Cinematografica and filmed in Germany, Vampire is a pulse-free skin flick that tries to excuse itself with a tiresome Gothic horror framework.  The only noteworthy aspect of the production is its own inherent awfulness, for which the title gets things at least partly right – it’s certainly horrible.

The story, credited to director Jose Luis Madrid (7 Murders for Scotland Yard), is as generic as they come.  Bleached Count Oblensky (Val Davis, The Lustful Amazons) inherits a spooky German mansion around which a series of strange murders have been taking place, and begins to suspect that his ancestor Baron Winninger, long thought dead, may be responsible.  A crusty old inspector investigates the murders, badly, while Oblensky tries to save his similarly bleached lover from becoming a footnote in a case file.

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Swamp of the Ravens

a.k.a. El pantano de los cuervos
Year: 1974   Runtime: 83′   Director: Manuel Caño
Writer: Santiago Moncada   Cinematography: Manuel Merino    Music: Joaquín Torres
Cast: Ramiro Oliveros, Marcia Bichette, Fernando Sancho, Toni Mas

By day, scientist Dr. Frosta (Ramiro Oliveros) works a boring, mechanical research job under a boss who seems to hate him. In the evenings, Frosta visits a woman named Simone (Marcia Bichette) with whom he has an unhealthy, borderline abusive relationship ever since he stole her away from her American lounge singer boyfriend Richard by staring at her very hard. At night, he works in his hidden lab hut in the swamps on experiments meant to explore the boundaries between life and death – sometimes even successfully, going by the abused biological robot working as his assistant. For his work, Frosta needs bodies that have been dead for less than eight minutes, so the only reasonable way for an upstanding mad scientist to get his research material is to decimate the local population of pan-flute playing homeless lepers. The scientist also steals drugs he needs for the experiments from his day job.

Alas, many of the good doctor’s experiments tend to fail, and now the swamp in front of his house is full of dead people who pop their heads out of the water from time to time. Despite nature’s useful garbage can, the Doctor’s dead assistant still manages to lose body parts where others can find them from time to time, so that the police is slowly getting wise to the fact that something’s not right in their beautiful city.

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A Coffin for the Sheriff

postera.k.a. Una bara per lo sceriffo / Lone and Angry Man
year: 1965
runtime:
95′
country: Italy /  Spain
director:
Mario Caiano
cast:
Anthony Steffen, Armando Calvo,
Luciana Gilli, Fulvia Franco, Arturo Dominici
writers: Guido Malatesta, David Moreno
not on home video in the USA

A scruffy and unwashed man called not Ringo, not Django, not Sartana, but Shenandoah (Anthony Steffen) rides into a small frontier town. The place has some troubles since the gang of bandit Lupe Rojo (Armando Calvo) has put their base of operations into the area around town.

Shenandoah seems to have something in mind with the gang, though. At first, he does the usual “let’s compare our penis sizes” bit by playing the always lovely “poker leading to fisticuffs” game with some of the gang members.

A little later, he subtly interferes with a bank robbery in town, carefully constructing an opportunity to grab a wounded gang member and rescue him from the law. It seems like he wants to join up with the gang.

Unfortunately, Rojo isn’t just letting anyone join his merry band of slobbering psychopaths. There is a rather ill-advised membership test in form of a deadly game of hide and seek with guns against one of the original gang members for the potential newbie to survive.

Shenandoah is rather good at the game, though, and uses the possibility of a slowly dying bandit right at his feet to ask some questions about a stagecoach robbery and a murdered woman in Omaha two years ago. Alas, he doesn’t get the answers he seeks.

At least, his life’s dream of being one of a group of psychopathic bandits who are bound to die rather sooner than later is fulfilled. Nevertheless, he continues to ask pointed questions about the Omaha business. One could get the idea that it is somehow a lot more important to him than raping and pillaging. It might just be possible that our unshaved hero is out for revenge for a certain murder in Omaha.

All goes swimmingly, until Rojo decides to plunder the ranch of a local rancher named Wilson (George Rigaud). Wilson is an old friend of Shenandoah, and the gunman can’t help himself but warn him and his pretty daughter (Luciana Gilli) of the ensuing attack.

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The following debacle for the gang and Shenandoah’s not exactly inconspicuous behaviour weakens his position as a big bad bandit decisively, though, starting off his obligatory torture and the typical finale of bloody vengeance.

If the plot synopsis of A Coffin For The Sheriff (and no, I have no idea what the title has to do with the film) makes it sound as if the typical fan of Spaghetti Western had seen this all before, that impression is perfectly true. There truly is no original bone in Mario Caiano’s film’s body, but while watching it, I didn’t find myself holding that against it.

It is a very thin line which divides the realms of the cliched and of the iconic. Caiano’s film mostly dances directly on the line, doing too much of the expected in the expected manner to come down on the iconic side, yet doing it with too much panache to result in the let-down of the too cliched.

A Coffin For The Sheriff succeeds as a very pleasant example of its genre (and this isn’t exactly typical of the usually rather scattershot Spaghetti Western) mostly through the tightness of its script and Caiano’s drive in executing it. While the usual assortment of side characters (with three women fawning over our hero) with their little side plots is there, the film integrates them into the mainplot in a sensible way instead of going for a smoke and letting the side plots take over from time to time. This gives the film a sense of wholeness one seldom finds in the genre outside of the work of the Sergios.

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But it would be unfair not to give Caiano his fair share of props. Having gone through a very typical career for an Italian director of the time by working in every genre that was popular at the moment, Caiano obviously picked up quite a bit about keeping his plots moving and cutting down on filler while letting his film look much more costly than it probably was through judicious use of rather impressive outside locations. As an old pro (his first writing and assistant directing credits come from the 50s), Caiano doesn’t miss out on adding stylistic elements typical of the Spaghetti Western, elements which might still have looked vaguely original to an audience just one year after A Fistful Of Dollars. It is an excellent example of how fast some of the things Leone and Corbucci did visually became part of the visual language of Italian filmmakers trying to make a quick buck off of their successes.

So, friends of frightening close-ups of ugly, sweaty, unshaved men won’t miss out here.

Also not atypical for an early Spaghetti are the acting performances. Steffen is (as was often the case with him) a little bland, yet as solid as someone with seemingly total facial paralysis can be, while the bunch of half-remembered character actors playing the bad guys are chewing the scenery nicely.

A Coffin For The Sheriff is probably not the sort of film I’d recommend to a Spaghetti Western beginner. There are just too many excellent films to see first before starting to waste time on one which is “just” very good, but when one has reached the point where one has worked through the classics and semi-classics of the genre, films like this are the little gold nuggets hidden in the dust and mud of the genre.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?