Tuesday, November 27, 2018

MEMORIES WITHIN MISS AGGIE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following the enormous success of director Gerard Damiano’s dark and brooding porno-chic hit THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES (1973), he decided to return to similar, even darker territory with his horror-infused psychosexual shocker MEMORIES WITHIN MISS AGGIE (1974). Based on an original story by Ron Wertheim, Damiano’s film more or less mimics the general concept of Nunnally Johnson’s THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957) while simultaneously incorporating key elements from Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960). It’s a memorably bleak little film, which for decades was difficult to see outside of crummy bootlegs, so like most of their adult titles, Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray / DVD combo is yet another stellar restoration, which will certainly please adult film devotees and, quite possibly, fans of regionally-shot horror cinema as well. 

Aggie (Deborah Ashira), an aging woman living in a desolate country farmhouse, muses over her past sexual experiences (“Somethin’s comin’ over me…”) while Richard (Patrick L. Farrelly), who is presumably her husband, calmly sits in front of the fire in his wheelchair. But as she recalls each encounter, trying to determine how she ended-up with Richard, in flashback scenes that are rather cleverly recreated using different actresses (Kim Pope, Mary Stuart and Darby Lloyd Rains), it becomes more than clear to us that poor Aggie has lost her grip on reality, and that (to quote she herself) “Somethin’s hidden, about to come out.”

Unfolding in a cold, wintery landscape, MEMORIES WITHIN MISS AGGIE is quite a departure from the usual hardcore fare, with a well-developed if simplistic plot that actually plays better as a horror film. Unlike Damiano’s weirdly anemic LEGACY OF SATAN (1974), his attempt to deliver a ‘straight’ non-sex film, MWMA is more attuned to his erotic sensibilities as he explores far darker territory without the all-neat-and-tidy resolution that mars the otherwise exceptional Joanne Woodward headliner THE THREE FACES OF EVE. Derived from a script by Wertheim (who also co-penned Jonas Middleton’s equally dark and grim horror-sex opus THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS [1976]), MWMA has far more on its mind than merely mindless sex, but coming as it does from such a connoisseur of the medium, sex scenes do nevertheless remain an integral part of the action, and are used to underline the heroine’s confused state of mind. Envisioning herself as either a princess (“Sparklin’ eyes…”), a lustful farmgirl or a sexually voracious prostitute – porn stereotypes all – the sex scenes provide the necessary licentious behaviour, but also evoke our empathy when it becomes readily apparent to we the viewer that these perceived flashbacks may not actually be ‘memories’ after all, but merely wishful fantasies conjured-up by the imagination of a lonely, sex-starved spinster. 


Languorously-paced, MWMA’s almost dreamlike state is well-anchored by the convincing portrayal by Deborah Ashira (who doesn’t appear in any of the explicit stuff) of an emotionally lost and sexually-repressed woman well past her prime, while the isolated, snowy countryside provides the ideal melancholic backdrop. In spite of this film’s humble origins, it is handsomely lensed by Damiano’s regular DP João Fernandes (once again using his amusing “Harry Flecks” pseudonym), who also adds immensely to the film’s gloomy scenario with his nicely-nuanced, moodily-lit cinematography, bringing-out the appropriate ambiance necessary to each vignette and also giving a realistic, warm-and-homey glow to Aggie’s farmhouse where, shut away within, she feels safe and secure from the anxieties of the outside world. 

Village Voice newspaper ad (July '74).
Judging from the film’s VHS-sourced trailer (3m11s) which accompanies this disc, Vinegar Syndrome’s new 2K scan from (quote) “16mm archival negative elements” is quite remarkable. Presented in its intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio, everything looks well-balanced compositionally, which only adds greater resonance to the film’s bleak and barren surroundings. In spite of the inherent grainy appearance, colours and detail appear spot-on and, as expected, this also leaves little to the imagination during the sex scenes’ mandatory ‘close-ups’. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio is also free of any issues, and although it’s generally a relatively quiet film, none of the dialogue is inaudible and Rupert Holmes’ minimalist score sounds terrific. As usual, VS have also provided SDH subtitles. Aside from the aforementioned trailer, the only other extra is a stills gallery (2m34s), which also includes a number of newspaper articles highlighting some of the film’s various issues with local censors (e.g., “Witnesses say movie obscene”) and legal battles. As is the norm now, Vinegar Syndrome have also included newly-created artwork highlighting the movie narrative’s puzzle-like structure, as well as MWMA’s rather striking French promotional art. Vinegar Syndrome’s initial 1000-copy print run also included a nicely-designed slipcover, which is now out-of-print. Highly recommended! Order the standard edition from Vinegar Syndrome or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

GOLD - BLU-RAY REVIEW

A long-time victim of shoddy, unauthorized video releases, Peter Hunt’s appealing and highly-prescient adventure thriller GOLD (1974) finally arrives on North American Blu-ray in yet another first-rate release from the ever-prolific folks at Kino Lorber Studio Classics. 

Unfolding in South Africa at the height of the Apartheid regime, GOLD gets off to an equally exciting and disturbing start when a major cave-in at the Sonderditch gold mine not only threatens to halt production in its tracks, but also results in the general manager being killed. In the ensuing chaos, Rod Slater (Roger Moore), one of the company’s more rebellious, risk-taking foremen, is primed to take over the dead boss’ position. However, unbeknownst to Slater, it’s all just a ploy so he can be used by his employer as a patsy to take the blame for an elaborate scheme to flood the mine, which was slyly orchestrated by its managing director Manfred Steyner (Bradford Dillman) and an unscrupulous group of financial investors, led by Farrell (Sir John Gielgud); an intentionally-fabricated disaster which, in turn, would cause the going rate of gold to skyrocket to astronomical levels on the world market.

Although that’s the main crux of the film as based on Wilbur Smith’s bestselling novel Gold Mine (1970), GOLD has plenty more on offer as it weaves its way through the conspiracy angle of its script, whose subject matter remains every bit as topical today as it did back then. In what amounts to a glorified cameo, respected thespian Sir John Gielgud’s Farrell is undoubtedly one of the more frightening characters in the film, who keeps everyone (i.e., his fellow financial investors) in check by means of his quiet resolve and obvious superior intellect. Playing one of the criminal scheme’s prime architects, Bradford Dillman’s restrained performance as Manfred Steyner is soft-spoken throughout (albeit menacingly so), and his character’s actions are motivated by pure avarice and the promise of still more wealth and power than he already possesses; so much so that when his adulterous wife Terry (Susannah York), daughter of the mine’s cantankerous owner Hurry Hirschfeld (Ray Milland), begins an illicit affair with Slater, he represses his obvious anger, knowing full-well that Slater’s recklessly impulsive nature will come in handy when they conspire to implicate him with the flooding of the mine. In what would normally be a superfluous diversion, this romantic subplot becomes one of the film’s main narratives, and at one point, it even resorts to showing a montage of them flying in her single-engine Cessna light airplane high above the stunning South African landscapes (beautifully shot by veteran DP Ousama Rawi) and visiting one of her father’s wildlife reserves. These picturesque detours in the narrative puts the already laidback pace still further at risk. It’s all so well-realized, though, that it never detracts from the viewer’s overall enjoyment of GOLD

A tremendous opening and final act frame the film beautifully, which not only depict the harsh, unforgiving reality of working down the mines (a stunning static shot looking above as an elevator [known as ‘the cage’ in mining vernacular] descends into the mineshaft is particularly frightening), but just how precariously life hangs in the balance that deep underground. At the outset, men are horribly crushed by falling rock, their faces smashed into pulp, while one poor miner’s leg is irremovably trapped amongst the rubble, which results in an impromptu emergency amputation that seriously pushes the envelope of GOLD’s PG-rating. The film’s climactic flooding also doesn’t hold back in showcasing additional moments of bloody mayhem. 

Shot in South Africa (and at Pinewood Studios in London), further violence ensues due to the obvious rising racial tensions, which is represented by the extremely challenging working conditions in the mine itself and the ongoing scuffle between Kowalski (Bernard Horsfall), a racist white foreman (“You hit them because they can’t hit back! …The next time you touch a face darker than mine, you’re OUT!” exclaims Slater) and Big King (Simon Sabela), a seasoned and exceedingly skilled mineworker who even receives an award for courage and (quote) “the saving of human life”. In an interesting aside, the ‘harmonious’ viewpoint of the Sonderditch mine proves to be nothing more than a cynical public relations façade, and outside of the very few (including Slater, who obviously represents the filmmakers as well), Apartheid’s multi-tiered system of segregating the races into separate castes is still very much in evidence, with most of the native Africans in the film being treated as nothing more than expendable beasts of burden. 

Sandwiched between Roger Moore’s starring roles as James Bond in Guy Hamilton’s LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and THE MAN WITH THEGOLDEN GUN (1974), GOLD likewise borrows plentiful elements of the 007 franchise, including Slater’s ability to be rough-and-tough when needed one moment and then dapper and dashing the next. He’s charismatic as hell and has great chemistry with his co-star Susannah York, so even when the film focuses its attention on the far-less-exciting romantic subplot, the action never really flounders. Outside of the Moore connection, director Hunt also worked on a number of Bond pictures, firstly as an editor on the early Sean Connery classics (such as both Terence Young’s DR. NO [1961] and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE [1962]) and then graduated to directing when he helmed the superb – and once-controversial – ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969), starring one-time-only 007 George Lazenby, so it comes as no surprise that GOLD is very much in the same vein. Even Maurice Binder, a veteran of over a dozen Bond films, designed the simplistic, yet impressive title sequence, which is perfectly accompanied and complemented by Elmer Bernstein’s remarkable score.

After years of substandard DVD releases from such dubious outfits as Diamond and Platinum, Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ Blu-ray is a very welcome edition indeed! Remastered by Pinewood Studios (which may have been carried-out as far back as 2013 for Odeon Entertainment’s All-Region U.K. BD), Kino’s MPEG-4 AVC 1080p disc is a hugestep-up in picture quality, but the transfer’s biggest asset is its retaining the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which finally allows viewers to appreciate the full scope of the film, as well as many of the intricate details in the mines themselves, which are far easier to make out this time around. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio also sounds solid, with a nice range between many of the film’s action scenes and the contrasting quieter, insidious moments in the boardrooms. Kino have also included English subtitles for the hearing impaired. 

As nice as the transfer is on Kino’s new disc, they’ve also included an audio commentary with film historians Howard S. Berger and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, and for anyone that has listened to any of their previous commentaries will undoubtedly find plenty to enjoy here once again. Their love for the film is evident right from the start, which they both saw as youngsters and it was the film’s tough violence that left an indelible mark on their impressionable psyches, which they now claim to be one of the (quote) “harshest PG films of the ’70s”. They go on to discuss the film’s unusual genesis; the film’s aforementioned many Bond series connections; some of the (quote) “adults-only stories” between Moore and Milland (many of which are recounted from Moore’s various autobiographies); the interesting character arcs; and of course, the claustrophobic mine settings themselves. All-in-all it’s a great listen, and makes an ideal extra for an already topnotch Blu-ray. An original trailer for the film (“Four tons of rock produce one ounce of the most precious metal in the world: GOLD!”) as well as trailers for some of Kino’s other titles – such as Bryan Forbes’ Roger Moore headliner THE NAKED FACE (1984) and Ray Milland’s Roger Corman-directed pre/post-apocalyptic survivalist drama PANIC IN YEAR ZERO (1962) – finish off the extras. Completing the package, Kino also provide reversible artwork, both of which are excellent. Order it from Amazon here.

Friday, October 12, 2018

THE HOUSE ON TOMBSTONE HILL - BLU-RAY REVIEW

One of the many low-to-no-budget, regionally-shot Troma pickups from the late-’80s, James Riffel’s THE HOUSE ON TOMBSTONE HILL (1988) – or DEAD DUDES IN THE HOUSE, as it’s more commonly and funkily referred to – was released straight-to-video under that completely misleading latter title coupled with an even more blatantly misleading ad-campaign. Thanks to the efforts of Vinegar Syndrome and their on-going attempt to release a good deal of mostly forgotten Troma-related titles, THE HOUSE ON TOMBSTONE HILL has never looked better in this slick-looking new Blu-ray / DVD combo package.

A group of friends arrive at a dilapidated old house in hopes of renovating it. However, Mark (Douglas Gibson), who has purchased the property for next-to-nothing, is completely unaware of its horrific past. Before they know it, they all become trapped inside the place as its previous owner, a craggy ol’ hag (Gibson again, under heavy makeup) with a penchant for murder, kills them off one-by-one. But, in an unexplained plot twist, the victims proceed to come back from the grave, not to party but to help her finish the job… 

Originally released as THE DEAD COME HOME (the current title on VS’ print) before Troma gave the film its belated home video release on VHS tape back in 1999 (early into the ‘DVD era’), the film – had it been released a decade-or-more earlier, during that format’s heyday – might have garnered a much more appreciative and affectionate audience; something which VS’ new disc release will undoubtedly do now (better late than never, as they say!). In spite of the film’s highly – if unsurprisingly – deceptive ad campaign, which makes it look like some early-’90s hip-hop teencom (?!?!), the film’s one-note structure (without doubt inspired by Sam Raimi’s still-influential THE EVIL DEAD [1981]) works surprisingly well, and although its supernatural elements are only flimsy at best, this fact doesn’t hinder its basic entertainment value any. The numerous gory set-pieces provided by New York-based makeup F/X guys Ed French and Bruce Spaulding Fuller are certainly technically competent and compelling enough, with most of the, uh, ‘disposable’ cast members meeting some sort of horribly grisly demise every few minutes; which also includes an exceedingly gory bodily bisection care of a supernaturally-propelled windowpane. 

As with their other Troma acquisitions, VS have once again given this little-seen film a complete – and very welcome – overhaul, from top to bottom. THOTH has been (quote) “scanned and restored in 2K from its 16mm original camera negative”, and the results are most impressive, to say the least. Of course, there is simply no comparing it to any of the previously-released – and awfully drab – VHS and DVD releases. Visual details are far more defined, naturalistic and colourful (e.g., with nice bright, deep reds!), and this is especially pertinent to the movie’s many over-the-top gore scenes, for obvious reasons. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is also clear and robust and, although it falls somewhat short of being demo-quality material, it nonetheless sounds terrific given the film’s poverty row pedigree. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included.

Extras begin with Three Dead Dudes (29m14s), which features on-camera interviews with three of the film’s stars: Mark Zobian, Victor Verhaeghe and Douglas Gibson. All three of them have plenty to say about their experiences including how they landed their roles; the Cherry Valley, New York locations, including the film’s titular house; the laidback shoot; and also the numerous Ed French makeup F/X. In the next extra, Temple of Schlock’s ever-knowledgeable Chris Poggiali conducts an audio interview (which plays over assorted still shots from the film) with the film’s director, who discusses much of the film’s pre-production phase; the cast and crew; Troma’s ad campaign, which was initially modeled after The New Kids On The Block; the changing industry; as well as how he at one point confronted some bootleggers who were selling his film on eBay. In addition, a generous – and supercool! – behind-the-scenes still gallery (4m33s) is also provided, but it’s too bad VS couldn’t locate Troma’s original trailer for the film, which would have been interesting to see, just for an added bonus. And speaking of bonuses, VS have, as per usual, also provided the package with reversible cover art, which includes both Troma’s misleading DEAD DUDES poster art and a 1,500-unit Limited Edition slipcover designed by Earl Kessler, Jr., and this edition is still available from Vinegar Syndrome

Monday, October 1, 2018

KIDNAPPING ...A DAY OF VIOLENCE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Early English export ad-line, from Foreign Sales Italian Movie Trade (January 1977): “Another hallucinating page in the black annuals [sic] of crime.”

One sociopathic scumbag, to another: “I don’t give a shit about cops!”            

Exaggeratedly touted by Subkultur Entertainment as “A tour de force of horror”, Luigi Petrini’s KIDNAPPING …A DAY OF VIOLENCE (1977) was one of many ‘teenage crime wave’ scenarios, which proliferated at the peak of Italocrime’s popularity, of which Romolo Guerrieri’s YOUNG, VIOLENT, DANGEROUS (1976) is probably the best-known example. More commonly known as simply DAY OF VIOLENCE, Subkultur’s Blu-ray / DVD combo is yet another highly attractive release of this genre obscurity. 

After getting thrown out of an upper-class house party, which underlines the mandatory generational gaps (“These young folks don’t have any taboos anymore!”), two-bit punk Paolo Soprani (Mario Cutini, who at times bears some resemblance to Helmut Berger) meets up with Jo Arbelli (Marco Marati), who is demoralised because he was unable to make love to his girlfriend Anna (Maria Pia Conte). After forcing their way into Anna’s house, they rape her and, to make matters worse, in the ensuing scuffle, they murder her next door neighbor on top of it. On the run, they attempt numerous petty crimes to try and earn some fast cash (“With money, you can fuck the whole world in the ass!”), but after some dubious inspiration, they decide to hold-up an upscale restaurant and take the clientele hostage. Negotiating with Insp. Aldovrandi (director Mario Bianchi in one of his few acting roles), they demand $1 million in gold ingots and safe passage in exchange for the hostages, but as tensions mount, Aldovrandi also has to wade through plenty of bureaucratic red tape. 

Originally (circa 1976) announced as STORIA D’AMORE IN GIALLO (trans: “Thrilling Love Story”), but eventually retitled OPERAZIONE KAPPA: SPARATE A VISTA!! (trans: “Operation K: Shoot On Sight!”), this film was initially hoped to star George Hilton, Cutini, popular softcore starlet Gloria Guida and ex-peplum star Roger Browne, a more upscale cast which may have given the film a bit more prestige. Cutini was the sole actor to wind up in the finished film, however. (Lucky him!)

Italian 2F manifesto courtesy of Steve Fenton.
While basically a subgenre of the poliziesco, most of these Italo-JD pictures came in the wake of the infamous Circeo Massacre in September of 1975, wherein three young men brutally raped and tortured two teenage girls outside of Rome. Films such as Sergio Grieco’s and Massimo Felisatti’s VIOLENCE FOR KICKS (a.k.a. TERROR IN ROME, 1976) and Mario Imperoli’s COME CANI ARRABBIATI (1976) began to focus predominantly on disillusioned, violent youth, a subject which integrated well with the established Italocrime genre. In the case of DAY OF VIOLENCE, Petrini’s crude messaging (“I fear the future!” exclaims one hostage) is peppered throughout the film, which even includes a title song with some typically strained lyrics (“We loathe war in the city” / “We want a peaceful city”), but like most discount exploitation films, it also wallows in the excessive violence and sleaze it so passionately condemns. Following the example of these earlier films, originality was never one of Petrini’s strongpoints, and in a brazen – or just plain desperate? – attempt to add at least some substance to his meagre scenario, the film also structurally replicates Sidney Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), but without any of the emotional conviction a situation such as that depicted in the film requires and, if anything, it continues to highlight the misanthropic/chauvinistic excesses of the leads. 

Petrini’s film is a generally downbeat, grubby affair, but as with their earlier Italo-crime Blu-ray of Marcello Andrei’s SEASON FOR ASSASSINS (1975), Subkultur’s Region B Blu-ray really looks terrific. The remastered image is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is very clean, and apart from a softish opening credit sequence, the rest of the transfer is razor-sharp, with stable colours that really pop off the screen amidst the dreary urban setting. As a side-note, Subkultur have also included a “Grindhouse-Version”, which is essentially an unrestored version of the film. The DTS-HD 1.0 Mono audio is provided in both German and Italian with optional German and English subtitles with the German audio sounding a little canned, but being an Italian crime film, most English-speaking viewers will undoubtedly choose the latter.

Italian soggettone courtesy of Steve Fenton.
The most significant extra is an on-camera interview (7m42s) with film composer Fabio Frizzi, who was one of three composers (the others being Carlo Bixio and Vince Tempera) that made up the collective calling themselves Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera. Speaking in English, Frizzi talks about the Circeo Massacre; the (quote) “not-so-exceptional” cast and how Marco Marati got his role through his connections to the Bixio family; he also discusses the failed attempt of creating Magnetic Systems, a rock band very much in the vein of Goblin, but Frizzi doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the film itself, unfortunately. Other extras include a couple of trailers for DOV, alternate opening and closing credits, and a 10-page booklet with an essay from Thorsten Hanisch, which is in German only. Although Limited to 500 copies, Subkultur have decided to offer two distinct cover choices, which are still available via Amazon Germany here and here and it's also available from DiabolikDVD.

Thanks to Steve Fenton for additional comments and research.

Monday, September 10, 2018

GIALLO IN VENICE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

How do you follow-up the wild excesses of Andrea Bianchi’s sordid Gothic soap opera MALABIMBA (1979)? Returning producer Gabriele Crisanti definitely gave it a try when he decided to bankroll Mario Landi’s GIALLO IN VENICE, an overtly sadistic and dingy giallo, which turned out to be one of the more notorious entries the genre has to offer. Most viewers caught up with this film via shoddy grey-market bootlegs, but now, thanks to Scorpion Releasing, this once-difficult-to-see film finally makes its North American Blu-ray debut, and – for lack of a better word – it looks superb.

Even before the credits roll, a man is repeatedly stabbed in the gut while a woman drowns in one of the Floating City’s many canals. Through the efforts of Inspector De Pol (American ex-pat Jeff Blynn), the deceased pair in question at the outset turn out to be Flavia (Leonora Fani) and Fabio (Gianni Dei), a married couple whose sexual proclivities were always centered around Fabio’s penchant for voyeurism and rough sex, albeit much to Flavia’s chagrin. With the help of her friend Marzia (Maria Angela Giordano), Insp. De Pol continues gathering info on the couple’s shady past, but, complicating matters still further, a rather cagey fellow (Michele Renzullo) in mirrored sunglasses continues to terrorize Venice…

Despite the in-your-face title and its vicious mean-streak, Mario Landi’s GIALLO IN VENICE does, at times, almost appear to be a parody of the genre as it gleefully (and gratuitously) wallows in many of its clichés and excesses, but with none of the style or mystery that made these films popular in the first place. As with Mario Gariazzo’s squalid PLAY MOTEL (1979), another sexually explicit, lowly giallo– which even had hardcore inserts added for some theatrical bookings – Landi’s film doesn’t quite go all the way in its depiction of graphic sex. However, unlike PLAY MOTEL’s rather tepid murders, which almost seemed like afterthoughts, while depicting his killings in GIV, Landi doesn’t hold back anything at all. Although perfunctory in their execution, the kill scenes remain some of the most gruesomely graphic to be found in the genre; including a jarring crotch-stabbing (which Crisanti and Landi managed to top the following year in PATRICK STILL LIVES [1980]!), plus a prolonged, and quite harrowing, dismemberment. On the other hand, much of the film also seems to be poking fun at the genre as represented by Inspector De Pol, an inquisitive, shaggy-haired detective dressed in a casual sport coat and baggy white pants whose penchant for eating hardboiled eggs must be some sort of joking reference to all those hardened, jaded film noir detectives of yesteryear. At one point, De Pol questions Flavia’s ex-boyfriend Bruno (discount spaghetti western star Vassili Karamesinis), a fumetti artist whose misogynist artwork greatly interests the police, as it prominently features scissors, one of the killer’s preferred murder weapons, but as Bruno smugly points out, “Sometimes reality exceeds fantasy”. And is it just a mere coincidence that both Flavia and Marzia prominently wear yellow dresses in a couple of key scenes? Subtlety is definitely not one of the film’s – nor producer Crisanti’s – strongpoints, but it’s this lack of restraint that makes it stand out from the norm. 

Largely-seen on VHS through one of the film’s initial home video appearances on Star Video, a Swiss-based company that specialized in Italian language films, GIALLO IN VENICE began to make the rounds in VHS trading circles throughout the ’90s via bootleg copies in either un-subtitled or subtitled editions and, although dubbed from Star Video’s tape or the longer Greek videotape, these second-or third-generation dupes of a poor, cropped transfer of an already dreary-looking film left plenty to be desired. 

In 2016, Germany’s X-Rated Kult released GIALLO IN VENICE as part of their “X-Rated Eurocult Collection” series of flashy Mediabooks. Numbered 26, this Limited Edition Blu-ray / DVD combo went OOP very quickly, but in early 2017 as part of their “X-Rated Italo-Giallo-Series”, they revisited the film and packaged it in one of their familiar oversized hardboxes in multiple-cover editions. Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, X-Rated’s Blu-ray looks excellent, and although it does feature some brief instances of dirt and scratches, it appears that some very slight digital manipulation may have been performed. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is offered in both German and Italian, the latter of which is presented with English subtitles, which is obviously the preferred option. For the record, extras include an audio commentary with film historian Kai Naumann as well as on-camera interviews with German voice talent Vera Bunk (10m01s) and Nicolai Tegeler (12m50s), all of which are in German language only. Other extras include an “audiotrack” suite (5m37s) featuring Berto Pisano’s languid, pieced-together music; the logo for Stefano Film (18s), which were the film’s original distributor; and trailers for Enzo Milioni’s THE SISTER OF URSULA (1978) and Francesco Barilli’s THE PERFUME OFTHE LADY IN BLACK (1974). 

For its North American Blu-ray, Scorpion Releasing prepared a (quote) “Brand new 2018 HD scan with extensive color correction here in the U.S.”, which appears to be the same film print as X-Rated’s release, so it also contains some speckling and such, but unlike the X-Rated edition, it appears a tad sharper here, plus doesn’t have any sort of digital tweaking at all; anyone even remotely familiar with all those dreadful bootlegs will quickly realize just what an eye-opener Scorpion’s new disc is. Audio is provided by an Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track with (quote) “proper English subtitle translation”, which differs slightly (for the better) from X-Rated’s disc. The most substantial extra included with Scorpion’s new Blu-ray is an audio commentary with So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films author Troy Howarth, who approaches the project with a good deal of exuberance, all the while taking proverbial swigs of J&B Scotch throughout. He immediately points out that GIALLO IN VENICE is (quote) “many things, but DEEP RED [D: Dario Argento, 1975] it ain’t!”, and even though he has plenty to say, he most certainly doesn’t defend the film but instead discusses many of its (quote) “extreme situations” and just how (quote) “grubby and tasteless”, the entire endeavour is, which is precisely why it has endured over the years. Some of the other topics discussed include De Pol’s head-scratching infatuation with hard-boiled eggs (which infuriates Troy!); the film’s haphazard script; the dubious porno giallo subgenre; the various edits of the film over the years; as well as many of the actors and technicians who worked on the film. A triptych of trailers for Lucio Fulci’s THE PSYCHIC (1977), THE GATES OF HELL (1980) and MURDEROCK (1983), as well as Dario Argento’s OPERA (1987) and Alberto Negrin’s ENIGMA ROSSO (1978), finish off the extras.

At this point, the initial 1000 print run of GIALLO IN VENICE (which includes reversible cover art, a nicely-rendered but appropriately lurid slipcover featuring artwork by Devon Whitehead, and a bonus poster) has already sold out via Ronin Flix, but Scorpion Releasing have already arranged to print an additional 500 units, which should be available via Ronin Flix and DiabolikDVD in the near future, so keep checking their sites. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

ENTER THE DEVIL - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Prior to its 1996 VHS release from Something Weird Video as part of Frank Henenlotter’s essential “Sexy Shockers from the Vault” series, Frank Q. Dobbs’ regional rarity ENTER THE DEVIL (1972) could have almost been construed as a lost film. While not to be confused with Mario Gariazzo’s THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW (a.k.a. THE SEXORCIST, 1974), which was also released in the U.S. as ENTER THE DEVIL, Dobbs’ film was never even mentioned in such early iconic publications as Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983, Ballantine Books) or Phil Hardy’s Aurum Film Encyclopedia Volume 3: Horror (1985, Aurum Press). While SWV’s transfer was a perfectly serviceable edition of the film, Massacre Video have decided to give this atmospheric sleeper the full red carpet treatment, including a brand new 2K transfer, which thankfully never sacrifices the film’s original dusty, gritty veneer. 

Driving through the barren Texan desert, an amateur rockhounding enthusiast (Happy Shahan), becomes the victim of a devil-worshipping cult, which in turn precipitates a missing person investigation by the Sheriff of Brewster County (John Martin). Since there can be (quote) “No open cases on election day”, the Sheriff assigns Jase (David Cass), one of his best State troopers, to look into this mysterious disappearance in Big Bend Country, which leads him to Villa de la Mina, a remote hunting lodge run by Glenn (Josh Bryant) and his rather guarded Mexican workforce. As Jase conducts his investigation, not only does he find the skeletal remains of the missing man, but one of Glenn’s visiting hunting group also goes missing. Then, in a late development, Dr. Leslie Culvert (Irene Kelly) inadvertently joins the investigation as she researches (quote) “weird cults” and deduces that these strange disappearances may be attributed to a fanatical portion of The Penitentes, a centuries-old fraternal brotherhood still operating in the Texan desert. 

Also known as  DISCIPLES OF DEATH, this is a surprisingly effective horror movie grounded in a reality that is not usually seen in such low-budget affairs, right down to some of its peripheral characters, such the politically-minded sheriff, or even the concerned doctor (Carle Bensen), who simply want to (quote) “keep the slate clean” and gain a few more votes in the upcoming election. Although centered around a secretive cult that perform ritualistic human sacrifices, the film never comes across as overly far-fetched, and although some of the rituals do appear a tad cliché (i.e., members wearing hooded robes, carrying torches and chanting incessantly), they remain wholly effective in their straightforward approach; a central sequence is particularly gruesome when a young women is nailed to a stake and burned alive. Also adding immensely to the film are the vast desert locales and abandoned mercury mines, which are stark and inhospitable; the scenes at night are especially unnerving and, in one of the film’s best realized sequences, Jase ventures out into the desert at night, culminating in a highly unexpected twist. 

Released as a ‘Limited Collector’s Edition’ Blu-ray / DVD combo, this minor, almost-forgotten film looks very impressive here thanks to the efforts of Massacre Video. Detail gets a massive improvement over SWV’s scratchy DVD-R, which features a nicely nuanced transfer, highlighting not only the foreboding, arid landscapes, but the film’s numerous nocturnal rituals as well; colours are also stable and naturalistic, and many of the film’s nighttime sojourns into the desert reveal much more detail than previous versions on offer. Presented in its assumed theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Massacre Video’s 16x9 enhanced Blu-ray does mask some image information from both the top and bottom of the frame when compared to SWV’s open-matte transfer, but at the same time, it also offers a fair amount of the picture on each side of the frame as well, and is far better compositionally by eliminating so much extraneous headroom. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio also sounds fine considering the film’s low-budget nature while adding further prominence to Sam Douglas’ first-rate score. SDH subtitles are also provided.

Extras begin with Disciple of Death (11m29s), an on-camera interview with actor David Cass, who discusses some of his early film roles and his association with “The Duke” himself, John Wayne; plus the Texas film scene at the time and his lifelong friendship with filmmaker Frank Q. Dobbs, whom he describes as a (quote) “consummate movie man”. Of course, he also goes on to discuss his time working on ENTER THE DEVIL and the contributions of producer and DoP, Michael F. Cusack. In Video Nasty Scholar (5m40s), which is an excerpt taken from Marc Morris’ and Jake West’s exhaustive, follow-up documentary VIDEO NASTIES THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE: PART 2 (2014), author and film historian Kim Newman discusses the film and its silly inclusion in the U.K.’s so-called “Video Nasties” furor. In an added surprise, in trying to pack as many extras as possible onto their disc, Massacre Video have also included Dobb’s follow-up film, THE CALIFORNIA CONNECTION (a.k.a. THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF PETER GALORE, 1973), a rather ho-hum early adult feature starring Rick Cassidy as Peter Galore, who attempts to rescue a kidnapped girl (Shari Kay) from the clutches of a cartoonish villain and his gaggle of women holed-up in a desert getaway. Taken from a (quote) “uncut PAL VHS rip”, picture quality is, for the most part, quite poor, but it makes for a welcome and curious extra just the same, and don’t forget to ‘stay tuned’ after the credits for a rather unexpected trailer.  A stills gallery (1m39s) and a couple of trailers for some of Massacre Video’s upcoming releases finish off the extras. As with their earlier ‘Limited Collector’s Edition’ Blu-ray of Jag Mundhra’s HACK-O-LANTERN (1988), the first pressing of ENTER THE DEVIL also includes a variation of the film’s rather striking artwork as a limited O-Card. Order your copy from DiabolikDVD, and for you Canadian readers, visit Suspect Video.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Although more commonly associated with the so-called “Schoolgirls in Peril” giallo trilogy, which also included Massimo Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE (1971) and Alberto Negrin’s The RED RINGS OF FEAR (a.k.a. TRAUMA, 1976), which Dallamano co-wrote, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? was also the third film in Roberto Infascelli’s loosely-related “Polizia” trilogy for Primex Italiana, which was preceded by both Steno (a.k.a. Stefano Vanzina)’s FROM THE POLICE… WITH THANKS (a.k.a. EXECUTION SQUAD, 1971) and Infascelli’s RANSOM! THE POLICE ARE WATCHING (1973), a pair of trailblazing polizieschi, which helped redefine and popularize Italocrime films during the ’70s.  Thanks to Arrow Video's Blu-ray,  this polizia/giallo hybrid finally receives its long-awaited home video release in North America.

A 15-year-old girl named Silvia Polvesi (Sherry Buchanan) is found hanging in the attic of a dodgy sublet, the victim of an apparent suicide, as is deduced by Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf). However, Assistant District Attorney Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) thinks otherwise, and her suspicions are further substantiated by the autopsy results. This precipitates the arrival of seasoned homicide detective Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli), who, quite conveniently, just happens to catch a man snapping photos from across the street during his initial investigation of the crime scene.  However, it turns out that this (quote) “damn peeping tom”, one Bruno Paglia (Franco Fabrizi), also happened to snap some revealing photos of the recently late Silvia in the company of a young man, whom the police quickly track down, only the lead goes nowhere, as their sneaky suspect proves to have a rock-solid alibi.  The slimy Paglia is eventually released thanks to his resourceful lawyer, but the police receive another tip-off, which leads them to a secret (if deserted) high-end brothel which proves to have possibly been the scene of still another murder when they discover its bathroom awash in blood.  A few days later, an abandoned car is found containing the mutilated corpse of Tallenti (“Now we know who was cut-up in the bathroom”), a private investigator who had earlier been hired by Silvia’s parents (Farley Granger and Marina Berti) to provide them with surveillance of her clandestine activities. Then Tallenti’s girlfriend Rosa is stalked by a killer clad in black motorcycle leathers and a matching dark-visored helmet (the German title translates as “Death Wears Black Leather”), who is searching for missing audio tapes which expose an underage prostitution ring that could quite possibly implicate some very powerful people…

Released by NMD Films in 1980 as The CO-ED MURDERS stateside where, by that time it was clearly trying to grab a share of the slasher-movie craze, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? has always tried to capitalize on the more lurid or ‘horrific’ elements within its basic framework including a couple of vicious murders and a prototypical stalking sequence recalling any number of gialli, but, upon closer scrutiny, it displays many more characteristics to that of a poliziesco.  As the increasingly frustrated commissario (“It’s your methods I disagree with!”), Claudio Cassinelli is determined to solve the case, but is saddled with issues which are emblematic of virtually all other Italocrime efforts as he receives “pressure from the ministry” or even from the press, the latter of which he at one point uses to his advantage. Considering the bleak subject matter, the cynical conclusion is also indicative of the genre, which involves “names that can’t be touched”, an aspect which draws still more attention to, not only the corrupt bureaucrats of the time (or pretty much any other time, too), but of an entire country poised on the brink of implosion.  Featuring all the usual genre tropes – including an extended car-and-motorcycle chase – the film is at its most-effective (and chillingly disturbing, even to this day) whilst Silvestri and Stori listen to graphic reel-to-reel audio tapes of the girls consorting with their so-called “johns”.  Depicted utilizing deep-focus in a single long static shot showing the tape reels spinning in the foreground while Cassinelli and Ralli are seen standing in the background, Dallamano lets this scene play-out quietly as their characters react with gradually mounting disgust, exchanging not a single word; all amounting to an extremely powerful and utterly devastating sequence. As is described in “Eternal Melody”, one of the disc’s many extras, Stelvio Cipriani composed the main theme of the film as a sort of “lullaby” – intended to accentuate the “vulnerability” of the female victims – a piece which, after viewing this powerful scene, adds further resonance to Cipriani’s incredible and unforgettable score.  

Elsewhere, the film makes direct references to the gialli with its cleaver-wielding, bike-riding killer, who is presented as an almost unstoppable force, and succeeds on numerous occasions in completely eluding the police.  It’s an interesting character: a faceless fusion of the classic giallo-inspired black-clad killer with a purse-snatching delinquent zipping around on a motorcycle. Yet he too is revealed to not be of any great significance within the plot; merely small-fry among a much larger and far more powerful group of ‘untouchable’ bigger fish.  Although The RED RINGS OF FEAR is a loosely-connected follow-up of sorts (indeed, almost a partial remake, in some respects), the popularity of WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? also spawned an unofficial rip-off a year later; Mario Caiano’s WITHOUT TRACE (a.k.a. CALLING ALL SQUAD CARS, 1975), which not only nicks the underage prostitution ring idea, but also casts Luciana Paluzzi opposite tough-guy commissario Antonio Sabàto. 

In 2016, those ever-reliable perfectionists at Camera Obscura were the first to debut the film on Blu-ray. Labeled number 20 in  their long-running, and indispensable, Italian Genre Collection, this is yet again another high quality release that puts all former versions to shame.  Previous VHS and DVD versions were either incomplete or not presented in their proper aspect ratios, and always appeared rather drab and lifeless, so CO’s Region B disc is a real sight for sore eyes.  Taken from the original Italian camera negative, the film’s presentation is absolutely first-rate without resorting to any unnecessary digital manipulation whatsoever, resulting in a perfectly natural picture.  The DTS-HD Mono 2.0 soundtrack is also available in either Italian, German or English, and all sound very good, but the English one is, in this editor’s humble opinion, the best, and it also preserves much of the English voice-talent like Susan Spafford, Michael Forest, Pat Starke and Tony La Penna, to name a few.  

This 2-disc set – which is spread over one Blu-ray for the main feature and one DVD for additional extras – also includes a number of revealing supplements, which begins with an audio commentary (subtitled in English) from Dr. Marcus Stiglegger, and is this time joined by German filmmaker Dominik Graf, who go on to discuss most of the principal actors in the film, it’s strong connection to the poliziesco genre, plus many other interesting facts.  One of the more bizarre – and certainly eye-opening! – extras on the first disc includes some heretofore-unseen and unused sex footage, including some non-simulated activity; which, in all honesty, wouldn’t really add anything to the film at all, but it’s an interesting extra nonetheless. However, the most significant extra (on disc two), is the aforementioned “Eternal Melody”, a 47-minute interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani, who discusses the bulk of his career, including his humble beginnings as an accomplished pianist (he actually sits in front of his piano and occasionally plays some of his more memorable work herein); his initial meeting with Tomas Milian, which led to his very first score, for the fine spaghetti western The BOUNTY KILLER (a.k.a. The UGLY ONES, 1966); and how he’s inspired and interprets the classical works of Mozart, Debussy or Bach into many of his scores.  Produced by Freak-O-Rama, it’s an amazing overview of the maestro’s career, and makes for a stellar featurette.  Next up, editor Antonio Siciliano discusses his work in “Dallamano’s Touch”, another Freak-O-Rama production, which focuses on his long working relationship with Dallamano following the success of WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE? and his surprise over the additional sex footage, which he is shown during the interview.  As usual, an informative booklet of liner notes with writing from Kai Naumann is also included, while German, English and Italian trailers, as well as a thorough poster/still gallery finish off the extras.  

Following their impressive 2015 Blu-ray of  WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, Arrow Video brings Dallamano’s sequel-of-sorts to Blu-ray in what is the film’s first-ever legitimate home video release in the U.S.A. and Canada. Utilizing the same 2K restoration courtesy of Camera Obscura, the transfer looks identical in terms of PQ, and as revealed above, it's a revelation for anyone that has had to suffer through innumerable bootlegs and so-so releases over the years. In terms of audio, Arrow provides both English and Italian tracks in LPCM mono, and both sound excellent, without any issues whatsoever. Respectively, English SDH subtitles and properly-translated English subtitles are also provided. 

Locandina courtesy of Peter Jilmstad and Steve Fenton.
Thankfully, for anyone without Region B capabilities, Arrow’s Region A Blu-ray carries-over the essential Freak-O-Rama productions “Eternal Melody” and “Dallamano’s Touch,” and it also includes the “Unused Hardcore Footage”, but all-new to this edition is an audio commentary from film historian and author Troy Howarth, who goes on to discuss many of the film’s merits and how it straddles the line between the giallo film and the then-burgeoning poliziotteschi, which at the time were beginning to gain in popularity at the Italian box office. He goes on to discuss many of the film’s excellent performances, which are given (quote) “more depth” than usual and how Cassinelli (quotes) “anchors” the film, and just what a (quote) “remarkably well-made movie” it is, which makes some of the film’s more exploitable moments that much more (quote) “unsettling”. Of course, he also goes on to discuss the film’s (quote) “dynamic sounding music”, which remains one of Cipriani’s best scores, even though much of it is nicked from earlier films, such as RANSOM! THE POLICE ARE WATCHING; it’s a great, easy listen full of interesting details, and well worth your time. Also new to this edition is Master & Slave – Power, Corruption and Decadence in the Cinema of Massimo Dallamano (19m44s), an audio essay from author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine, Kat Ellinger. In it, she discusses Dallamano’s career at length and how he was (quote) “a director who was driven as an auteur and a pusher of boundaries”, which includes numerous clips, trailers and stills from just about his entire career with an emphasis on both SOLANGE and DAUGHTERS and the (quote) “tumultuous cultural climate” they were made in. It’s another wonderful supplement that will make you want to explore Dallamano’s career with a far keener eye; he was far from merely a work-for-hire director. Rounding-out the extras is the film’s English-language credit sequence, a poster/still gallery and the film’s Italian-language trailer (with English subtitles). In the first pressing, a 23-page booklet includes a well-researched – and nicely-illustrated – essay from Michael Mackenzie, and, of course, Arrow Video also provide a reversible sleeve, including original eye-popping art from Adam Rabalais. Both the Camera Obscura and Arrow Video editions are available to order from DiabolikDVD, while Canadian readers can order the Arrow Video Blu-ray domestically from Suspect Video. Whichever edition you choose, both are absolutely stellar, and a must-own!