Saturday, March 30, 2019

INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS - BLU-RAY REVIEW

A long-time home video staple, Ed Adlum’s delightfully absurd INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS (1972) has both confounded and amused viewers for decades, and now, thanks to Severin Films, this lowly regional-rarity makes its Blu-ray debut in a stunning new transfer.

According to the film’s opening narration—which sounds uncannily like respected British actor James Mason (!)—the Druids are an ancient culture or (quote) “the secret people… the Sangroid blood-eaters” located in the (quote) “remote corners of the world”, one of which just happens to be upstate New York. After the town drunk stumbles into the local watering-hole and haemorrhages to death right on the barroom floor (“Somebody help that man in here! Sounds like he needs a drink!”), pathologist Dr. Anderson (Norman Kelly) and his assistant Don Tucker (Bruce Detrick) begin an investigation, during which they discover that the dead man’s blood continues to reproduce itself at an incredible rate (“His hemostatic balance was so disturbed… he blew himself to pieces!”). It’s soon revealed that a small offshoot of the Druids, led by Creton (Paul Craig Jennings) and his underling, Egon (Jack Neubeck), have been kidnapping and draining the townspeople of their lifeblood in hopes of finding a special blood-type with which to resurrect their long-dormant queen…

In spite of its deceptively tame PG-rating, INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS still manages to pack a visceral punch into its threadbare, convoluted narrative. The blood-draining scenes in particular are quite effective in their simplicity, taking place in a rundown dirty shack with the so-called “blood farmers” utilizing a rickety old pump—highlighted by a highly distinctive syphoning noise—to drain their victims of blood. A nasty eye-gouging, a bludgeoning and a shower murder (which inverts the usual stereotype by featuring director Adlum as the male victim) most certainly push the envelope of PG (“Parental Guidance Suggested”) even further. In between all the periodic splashing of blood, much of the film’s, um, ‘ambitious’ plotline is never really clarified. Completely defeated by the meagre budget, the proceedings are made all the more confusing by a number of either mismatched or improperly-developed ‘day-for-night’ scenes wherein dialogue alludes to it being the ‘evening’ or the ‘middle of the night’ when in actuality it’s clearly broad daylight in everyshot! All continuity inconsistencies aside, this slapdash approach only adds the to the film’s lovably schizophrenic nature. 

A popular title on home video around the world, it first appeared on VHS in the United States in 1984 courtesy of Regal Home Video in a big over-sized box and was subsequently rereleased in 1986 by Goodtimes Home Video (“Superior Quality Reproduction in Color” ha!), recorded at the—almost always untrackable—LP (“Long Play”) speed. IOTBF first appeared on DVD in 2001 courtesy of Retromedia Entertainment, whose non-amamorphic transfer left plenty of room for improvement. In 2013, Code Red issued the film on DVD as a double feature paired-up with Theodore Gershuny’s SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1971), and, while the transfer was 16x9, it was taken from a much darker, heavily-beat-up print, leaving it up for debate as to which edition was preferable in terms of image quality. As a nice bonus, the DVD also contained an audio commentary with Ed Adlum, moderated by Lee Christian. 

There’s no need for debate when it comes to Severin’s Blu-ray, which features an all-new scan taken from the original camera negative. The results are spectacular, to say the least! While limited by the film’s original humble, scrappy nature, the transfer is nevertheless clean, crisp and quite colorful—just about perfect, in fact. It should be mentioned that, from 29m52s-to-30m23s and 31m53s-to-33m51s, the film becomes slightly darker and coarser in tone. These visual variations seem to have been inherent in the film’s original materials themselves, as the same anomalies were also present in Retromedia’s earlier DVD too. Nonetheless, Severin’s new transfer is an eye-opening stunner. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is equally clean and free of any issues, while optional English SDH subtitles are also included. 

Showcasing brand-new bonus features, the most significant of these is an audio commentary with director Ed Adlum and his wife Ortrum Tippel (she also served as the film’s costume designer), which is effectively moderated by Kier-La Janisse, the author of House of Psychotic Women. The three delve into the film with all sorts of great anecdotes and facts related to low-budget filmmaking, including its short shooting schedule, which was shot over a period of just six days at Briarcliff Manor, New York in Westchester County. Adlum goes on to talk about one of his early concepts, which was conceived around the film’s memorable title (“The title is half the battle”) and co-written with Ed Kelleher, one of his associates from Cashbox, a music industry trade paper for which they both worked. He also speaks about everybody in the cast, including that mysterious James Mason voice-impersonator, who it turns out is Joel Vance, yet another Cashbox associate. Also, the misconception that it was actually Roberta Findlay who shot INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS is quickly dismissed; however, it is revealed that’s Roberta’s husband Michael did in fact shoot a number of (quote) “inserts”. Adlum also freely admits—and laughsat—his technical deficiencies and explains that the film (quote) “happened by accident”, going on to profess his love for trashy B-movies, such as Harmon Jones’ GORILLA AT LARGE (1954) and Colman Francis’ THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS(1961). 

Nothin’ You’d Show Your Mom (22m08s) is a wonderful career-spanning interview with Ed Adlum put together by Kier-La Janisse, wherein he talks about his love of movies and his dream of one day making one himself. But Adlum also talks about his brief recording contract at Atlantic Records, where he and his band, The Castle Kings, recorded the single “You Can Get Him Frankenstein”; his work at Cashbox and how most of his work associates funded IOTBF; his initial meeting with Mike Findlay, their collaborations and friendship (“We became drinkin’ buddies”), as well as his shock over Mike’s tragic death. Lastly, he goes on to talk about Replay magazine, a trade paper which he and his wife started about the jukebox and video game (a term that he created) industry, which made (quote) “nothin’ but money” during the industry’s golden age between 1978 and 1982. In Painful Memories (4m43s), Frederick Elmes, who has since gone on to become a major DP in Hollywood, briefly discusses his time on the film. In Harvesting the Dead (11m57s), actor Jack Neubeck talks about his introduction to the film’s production through actor Norman Kelley; the lack of a thorough script which resulted in a lot of improvisation; his “Eddie the Yeti” song from Michael Findlay’s notorious SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED (1973); and also relates his personal recollections of the Findlays. The film’s memorable trailer finishes-off the disc’s superb slate of extras.

Without question, Severin’s Blu-ray is most definitely the final word on this oft-released film, which can be ordered directly from Severin on both Blu-ray or DVD, or if you wish, via DiabolikDVD, or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following a lengthy hibernation from the home video market, James L. Wilson’s PG-rated horror anthology SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT (1979) has finally resurfaced on Blu-ray thanks to Code Red, and not only does CR’s restoration look terrific, it also features the long-unseen director’s cut too.

Exceedingly simple in its set-up, SOAWN serves as an interesting bridge between the more innocent horrors of yesteryear and the splashier, gorier ingredients found in the slasher films of the ’80s. Although far from a polished production, the film is also refreshingly ambitious (the director’s cut runs just over 118m!) and atmospheric, highlighted by a palpable air of impending doom.

Five college couples led by John (Matt Borel) are heading to his parents’ long-abandoned woodland cabin for a winter weekend getaway. Located on Lake Durand, which is better-known under the more colourful name of Coyote Lake (quote) “because of the weird noise the wind makes”, and according to an ancient Indian legend, this remote area is also supposedly home to ‘Shabata’, a (quote) “very evil, very powerful spirit”, which allegedly wreaked havoc in the past—a legend which Matt sneakily plans on exploiting for one of his (quote) “great stories”. 

Settling-in for the night, everyone sits around the fire drinking beer, and, thanks to Matt’s persistence, ‘entertain’ each other with a number of scary stories. These begin with Matt’s ‘The Moss Point Man’, an undemanding tale about a young couple who are terrorized by a strange sasquatch-type beast after their car breaks-down on a desolate woodland road. Next up, Matt’s friend Steve (Gil Glasgow) gets in on the act, telling a tale about an old—and supposedly haunted, natch—hotel, which is used for a fraternity initiation when three pledges are ordered to spend the night there, with uniquely disastrous results. In the third story (the one that was missing from Dimension Pictures’ original theatrical prints), Lauri (Jan Norton) reminiscences about an old Catholic cemetery in her hometown, which is haunted by the spirit of an old witch named Lorraine. “I think everyone is letting their imagination run away with them!” exclaims Elaine (Mary Agen Cox), the lone cynic amongst the group, who relates a far different tale about a young woman who, following an attempted rape, suddenly snaps and becomes a knife-wielding killer. So engrossed are they in their storytelling that the group fail to notice the howling and increasingly violent wind outside the cabin…

One of the more unique anthology films, SOAWN’s rudimentary premise is well-anchored by the film’s overall uncanny atmosphere, which commences in terrifying style. Simple, non-distracting white credits on a black screen unfold over the sounds of what seems to be a family besieged by screeching howls, deafening winds and their subsequent screams of terror (“John, it’s back! Don’t go out there!”); it’s an imposing and gripping opener, which sets the ominous tone wonderfully. In yet another cleverly novel concept, the four stories (which do build the film’s dramatic tension nicely) are also cast with the same actors from the wraparound story, which takes up quite a sizable portion of the film’s running time and actually turns out to be far more riveting than some of the story segments themselves.

Shot in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana, the isolated wooded locales, heavy with Spanish moss-covered, cypress swamp trees that are so prevalent to the area, add immeasurably to the film, especially during some of the cost-effective day-for-night photography. In an early scene at an out-of-the-way gas station (a typical horror movie trope), local colour is provided by William Ragsdale in an early role (the actor would go on to star in Tom Holland’s essential ’80s horror classic, FRIGHT NIGHT [1986]), and, according to an interview with actor Gil Glasgow (found elsewhere on this disc), the rather striking ‘giant’ seen lumbering around the gas station was actually the local real-life sheriff. 

Prior to Code Red’s Region A Blu-ray, the only game in town—outside of shoddy bootlegs—was VCI’s long out-of-print VHS videocassette of the theatrical version, which was issued in both a standard slipcase edition and in a large clamshell box, both of which commanded large sums of money within the collector’s market, but whose dark and murky panned-and-scanned transfers left a lot to be desired. Released earlier this year, Code Red’s long-awaited Blu-ray of this oft-requested title is taken from a (quote) “brand new 2K scan of the original 16mm A/B roll camera negative of the never-before-seen uncut 124-minute director’s edition”, which is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and, despite some inherent damage here and there, it’s miles better than its videotape predecessor and far easier on the eyes especially during many of the aforementioned day-for-night scenes. It should also be noted that, despite the “124-minute” running time listed on the packaging, this director’s cut actually only runs 118m44s. In terms of audio, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track also sounds quite good, which not only enhances the various and—all-important—sound effects, but Don Zimmers' effective score as well.  

The BD’s extras kick-off with an on-camera interview with actor Gil Glasgow (21m33s), during which he discusses how he initially became involved in the project, as well as discussing the film’s locations and the rest of the cast, plus the multiple characters they played and how James L. Wilson and writer / producer Richard H. Wadsack (quote) “were very hands-on, and learning as they went.” As an extra bonus, Code Red have also seen fit to include the truncated original theatrical version (91m29s), which was mastered from a worn print with duller colours and lots more print damage. It nevertheless makes for a terrific and welcome addition to the package. A rough-looking TV spot for the film finishes off the extras, along with a number of TV spots and trailers for some of Code Red’s other available and/or upcoming titles, including Eddy Matalon’s BLACKOUT (1978) and Lucio Fulci’s CONQUEST (1983). 

Although not out-of-print, Code Red’s SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT is only intermittently available through the Dark Force Superstore, so keep trying!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

THE POSSESSED - BLU-RAY REVIEW

While ostensibly referred to as a giallo in most circles, Luigi Bazzoni’s and Franco Rossellini’s stunning film THE POSSESSED (1965) is actually closer in spirit to a moody film-noir, and although it does feature a number of key elements specific to gialli, it feels wholly unique and is difficult to categorize. Highlighted by some truly outstanding photography, this shadowy, eerily menacing film has finally received its definitive release thanks to Arrow Video, which is further highlighted by a number of illuminating extra features.

Novelist Bernard (Peter Baldwin) breaks-up with his girlfriend Claudia over the phone, and even though he feels that he should—and wants to—love her, he still calls it quits just the same. Upon feeling compelled to visit a small lakeside town he used to vacation at as a child, he is this time lured by the prospect of meeting Tilde (Virna Lisi), a hotel maid who fleetingly caught his eye and with whom he has since become infatuated. However, upon his arrival, he learns from the hotel’s owner, Enrico (Salvo Randone) that she has since committed suicide, which prompts him to conduct his own investigation with the help of Francesco (Pier Giovanni Anchisi), a local photographer and journalist who believes Tilde was actually murdered. Confused and frustrated, Bernard is also haunted by fragmented memories, daydreams and an increasing paranoia as he gradually comes to suspect that Enrico, or possibly his edgy, brooding son Mario (Philippe Leroy), might be the culprit(s) behind Tilde’s death, which is further emphasized by Enrico’s daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese), whose jittery behaviour only confirms his suspicions. And just why is it that Adriana (Pia Lindström), Mario’s despondent newlywed bride, takes late-night walks alongside the ghostly, moonlit lake…?

This is a film filled with loneliness—despite all their daily social interactions, every character is consumed by it, either searching for something or someone. Bernard, a talented novelist, seems to have it all: a thriving career, a loving girlfriend, but there is nevertheless a void in his life (“I don’t feel anything, not for you, not for me, not for anyone,” he tells Claudia.). Hence, he hopes that Tilde may be the answer to his unhappiness. Enrico, the hotel’s middle-aged owner wanders the hotel entertaining his few guests as best he can (“If I were younger, I would have remarried myself. Women are a closed chapter…”), while Mario and Adriana are completely indifferent towards one another, despite having only just returned from their honeymoon. Adding to the overall bleak and lonely air, the unnamed Italian lakeside resort whereon the bulk of the action unfolds is also mostly boarded-up for the winter, with only a few remaining locals populating the town, which only seems to accentuate everyone’s unease. At one point, Irma confesses that there is “something very powerful hanging over me and my family” and how “we have no more guests,” revealing that she too is precariously on the brink. On the other hand, Tilde—who is only shown via photographs and some very brief flashback recollections (or are they fantasies?)—represents the sole glimmer of life and happiness in this emotionally barren landscape.

Released in Italy as LA DONNA DEL LAGO (trans: “The Lady of the Lake”), THE POSSESSED was adapted from a novel by Giovanni Comisso (also titled La Donna del Lago), which itself was inspired by a series of murders during the ’30s in Alleghe, a small town in northeastern Italy. THE POSSESSED was Luigi Bazzoni’s first full-length feature as a director and remains a remarkable accomplishment, which is simultaneously hallucinatory and meticulous in its approach to detail, its ambiance further highlighted by a number of significant, eye-catching images (including some almost otherworldly high-contrast photography) that captures the bleakness of the climate perfectly. Aided by stellar performances from American actor Baldwin and Italian character actor Randone, the film never wavers nor wastes any time, even when the narrative is toying with the audience as it moves between reality and Bernard’s subconscious. It is a thoroughly convincing and dramatically mesmerizing film! 

Previously available on untranslated VHS videocassette through the Canadian-based Italian-language label Master Video, the film eventually appeared on DVD in both Italy and Spain via Sinister Film and Filmax, respectively, but neither of those editions were English-friendly either. Sinister Film eventually released it onto Blu-ray, but once again it lacked any English audio or subtitles. In 2016, German label Koch Media released an elaborate 5-disc Blu-ray / DVD set of Luigi Bazzoni’s equally impressive, offbeat giallo FOOTPRINTS ON THE MOON (1971), which also included a Blu-ray of LA DONNA DEL LAGO, but it only included Italian audio with optional German subtitles. Thankfully, Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray, which features a (quote) “brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative” looks absolutely stunning in every respect. Audio is provided in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono in both Italian (including newly-translated English subtitles) and English (a long-unheard audio track), which doesn’t have the same resonance as the Italian one, but it’s a fabulous—and very welcome—inclusion just the same. SDH subtitles are also included for the English track.

Aside from the immaculate transfer, Arrow have also included a number of worthwhile extras, beginning with a feature-length audio commentary from Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas. He goes on to discuss the film in great detail in terms of its unique structure (and also its initial screenwriter Giulio Questi, future director of DEATH LAID AN EGG [1968]) and, in an apt comparison, he discusses many of the film’s similarities with Pupi Avati’s THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS (1976), another film about a small Italian town harbouring (quote) “terrifying secrets”. During his critique, Lucas also discusses just how (quote) “well-cast” the film is; much of the talented personnel behind-the-scenes and many of the details surrounding the real-life crimes in Alleghe, as well as how it was future director Pasquale Festa Campanile (at the time working for a newspaper), who encouraged journalist Sergio Saviane to investigate—and eventually expose the murderers—of this once long-forgotten case. This all makes for another thoroughly engaging and informative listen! 

In the first on-camera interview, Richard Dyer on The Possessed (25m12s), film critic Dyer focuses primarily on many of the film’s ‘arthouse’ traits, including some of its aesthetic similarities to Ingmar Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957). Next up we get Lipstick Marks (11m52s), an interview with makeup artist Giannetto De Rossi wherein he talks about his early career (although Bazzoni’s film is barely mentioned!) and many of his approaches to makeup effects in general, as well as relating a funny anecdote about Anne Parillaud on the set of Randall Wallace’s THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998). Also, in Youth Memories (16m20s), legendary production designer Dante Ferretti discusses his start working alongside his mentor Luigi Scaccianoce (the credited art director on THE POSSESSED) on a couple of Domenico Paolella swashbucklers, and how he went on to become of one Pier Paolo Pasolini’s regular crew members. In the final—and most substantial—featurette, The Legacy of the Bazzoni Brothers (30m36s), director Francesco Barilli talks about his relationship with both Luigi and Camillo Bazzoni and how they (and a young Vittorio Storaro) worked on Bernardo Bertolucci’s BEFORE THE REVOLUTION (1964), which is how everything began for them. He speaks most fondly indeed about these early days of his career, and can’t help but heap praise on both of them (e.g., “Storaro learnt everything from Camillo.”). Of Luigi’s debut feature THE POSSESSED, Barilli remarks, “The black-and-white is amazing and the atmosphere is malevolent.” The doc also features a number of clips from much of the filmmakers’ work, and is easily the best featurette of the bunch. 

Lastly, the Italian and English trailers for the film are also included, and in the disc’s first pressing, a hefty 38-page booklet includes essays from Andreas Ehrenreich and Roberto Curti, who give incredibly detailed accounts of the film’s production, the Alleghe murders and Bazzoni’s career in general, which serves as a wonderful bonus to what is already an outstanding package. As usual, Arrow Video includes a reversible sleeve highlighting the film’s original Italian art and Sean Philips’ outstanding new artwork, which only further strengthens the distinct film-noir connection. This must-have disc is available from DiabolikDVD or for you Canadian readers, Suspect Video

Sunday, February 17, 2019

THE IRON COMMISSIONER - BLU-RAY REVIEW

One of Maurizio Merli’s very few Italocrime films that was never given any sort of English release, Stelvio Massi’s rather economical poliziesco THE IRON COMMISSIONER (1978) has finally made its way to Blu-ray—in a showy Mediabook, no less!—for its first ever English-friendly release, ironically enough courtesy of the German label Cinestrange Extreme.

Merli stars as Maurizio “Mauro” Mariani, an overconfident (“I always luck out!”) police detective who, at the start of the film, thwarts a group of kidnappers and rescues a rich industrialist’s daughter at the behest of his superior Crivelli (Chris Avram). Urged by his colleagues to go visit his son Claudio (Walter Di Santo) on his birthday, Mauro also meets up with his estranged wife Vera (Janet Agren), who still resents him for putting his job before she and their son. Meanwhile, back at the station, Sergio Conforti (Massimo Mirani), an unstable young man who blames Mauro for killing his father, takes a group of his colleagues hostage, but when Vera and Claudio accidentally stumble into the precinct, Claudio is snatched for added security, and Mauro will stop at nothing to get him back…

Locandina courtesy of The Fentonian Institute.
Having already collaborated with highly-efficient actioner director Stelvio Massi on the stunt-laden car crash spectacular HIGHWAY RACER (1977)—starring Merli in a rare appearance sans his trademark ’70s-style ’stache—THE IRON COMMISSIONER is far more restrained than your usual Merli headliner. However, as the title suggests, Mauro never wavers in his fight to uphold the law… even when he himself is breaking it! Mauro’s almost habitual dissention is, for the most part, reluctantly accepted (“…you gamble with your life as if you were playing cards!”), but when Mauro’s son is kidnapped, even his CO Crivelli doesn’t hesitate to stop him (“I want my son!”). As with many of the subsequent Massi / Merli collaborations, THE IRON COMMISSIONER is at times actually quite introspective, not only waxing philosophical on the futility of the thankless job of law enforcement (a typical observation of most Italocrime films), but also the sheer loneliness of it; which, in this case, is further exacerbated by the possibility of Mauro losing everything (i.e., his son). This situation not only pushes him right to the very brink, but just about breaks his ‘iron-clad’ persona in the process.

Scripted by Roberto Gianviti, a prolific writer who worked alongside Lucio Fulci on a number of noteworthy projects (including A LIZARD IN AWOMAN’S SKIN [1971] and DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING [1972]), THE IRON COMMISSIONER was most likely far more ambitious in its conception than what actually transpires on screen. A subplot involving a kidnapping ring run by the “Moroccan” (amusingly played by Italian trash regular / typecast ‘lowlife’ performer Franco Garofalo) and his main squeeze Rita (Mariangela Giordano) accounts for much of the film’s compulsory action scenes (including a stylishly-realized shootout at a bottling factory). That said, a sizeable portion of the ‘action’ unfolds within the dreary confines of a police precinct, a fact which only further substantiates the film’s quickie status. However, usual bit-player Massimo Mirani is quite impressive as the tormented kidnapper, who seems to be trapped in a cycle of unending violence, and he invests all the necessary fear, confusion and desperation into his role. 

Italian newspaper ad - La Stampa, Jan, 1979
Announced in advance trade press notices as both THE IRON INSPECTOR and COP OF IRON, the latter possibly English-dubbed variant has yet to surface, but over the decades since the film’s original domestic theatrical release, the Italian version has been released numerous times on Italian VHS videocassette by the likes of Avo Film, Cine International and Video 7. Upon making its DVD debut in 2004 courtesy of Avo Film, it featured a solid 16x9 transfer which retained the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but, as expected, the only audio option given was a Dolby Digital Italian track, while the extras were limited to a brief photo gallery. In 2018, Cinestrange Extreme debuted this long-dormant Italocrime film on Blu-ray in its very first English-friendly edition under the German title KOMMISSAR MARIANI – ZUM TODE VERURTEILT (trans: “Commissioner Mariani – Sentenced to Death”). Numbered 02 in their ‘Violenza All’ Italiana’ collection, this Limited Edition Blu-ray / DVD Mediabook boasts an excellent HD transfer, which does its best to restore a little lustre to Sergio Rubini’s at times appealing photography. Both German and Italian audio options are offered in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, with a choice of either German or English subtitles, and even though many of the subs include a fair amount of grammatical errors, they’re intelligible enough and are greatly appreciated indeed during the film’s talkier stretches. 

The brief extras include a short 23-image photo gallery (still shots taken from the film) and a newly-created trailer, but as an added bonus, Cinestrange have also seen fit to include Lallo Gori’s uncharacteristic electronic score in its entirety (13 tracks / 33m02s), which was originally issued by Beat Records on CD alongside Gori’s score for Giuseppe Vari’s GANGSTERS (1977). A pair of other CE acquisitions are also highlighted with two trailers for Sergio Martino’s completely insane AMERICAN RICKSHAW (a.k.a. AMERICAN TIGER, 1990) plus three trailers for Karim Hussein’s experimental shocker, SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY (2000). Also housed within the Mediabook is a nicely-illustrated 12-page booklet with an essay by Leonhard Elias Lemke entitled “The Iron Detective and the Years of Lead”, but unfortunately, the article’s text is in German only. As with most of these Mediabooks, Cinestrange also offer two separate covers (Limited to 777 each), which are available on Amazon Germany here and here, while DiabolikDVD stocks Cover A.  

Sunday, December 30, 2018

UNPOPPED CINEMA'S TOP 20 BEST DISCS OF 2018

As streaming sites continue to evolve (many times notfor the better, sad to say), it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what movies will suddenly disappear from their ever-changing sites / playlists and, even though they do still offer plenty to enjoy in terms of original programming, film preservation is certainly far from their first prerogative. Thankfully, independent Blu-ray companies (and the odd big studio label, such as The Warner Archive Collection) continue to ‘fill the gap’ by offering superb restorations of either important classics such as Christian Nyby’s / Howard Hawks’ THE THING (1951) or previously-forgotten / barely-released films such as J. Lee Thompson’s THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD (1975). It’s definitely a great time to be a film fan, and without such companies as AGFA, Arrow Video, Blue Underground, Code Red, The Criterion Collection, Indicator, Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Massacre Video, Mondo Macabro, Olive Films, Scorpion Releasing, Scream Factory, Severin, Twilight Time, Vinegar Syndrome, The Warner Archive Collection and Wild East Productions, it’s doubtful many of these films would ever get released at all; for that, we should be forever grateful. The titles on disc listed below are a mere fractionof this year’s highlights, all of which come highly recommended, of course.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD [1968] (The Criterion Collection) – An undisputed classic, which, during the infancy of the home video boom at least, suffered from a number of poor transfers in indifferent releases by numerous cheapo fly-by-night companies who were merely capitalizing on the film’s public domain status. In 1994, Elite Entertainment provided the film with its first real restoration on laserdisc, and since then, NOTLD has appeared on numerous DVD labels, including Elite, Anchor Bay and even Miramax’s subsidiary, Dimension Extreme. And while most of these editions were fine, nothing can compare to Criterion’s 2-disc Blu-ray set, which not only features a stellar (quote) “4K digital restoration”, but also includes a workprint version entitled NIGHT OF ANUBIS, never-before-seen 16mm dailies, a number of interviews with the cast and crew, commentary tracks, a 2012 TIFF event hosted by former Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes, and so much more. A truly stupendous set, which is also beautifully packaged in one of Criterion’s fold-out digipacks. Needless to say, an absolute must-have!

THREADS [1984] (Severin) – Only shown sparingly on U.S. television, this haunting U.K.-based ‘nuclear panic’ drama has finally received the recognition it deserves thanks to Severin’s newly-restored, special edition Blu-ray. Shown in its intended 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the gritty, documentary-like approach is nicely preserved in Severin’s transfer and only adds to the film’s foreboding and unforgiving nature. Of course, Severin also includes a number of illuminating extras, beginning with an indispensable audio commentary by the film’s director, Mick Jackson, which is expertly moderated by Severin’s David Gregory and author Kier-La Janisse. The disc also includes a number of extra featurettes, including one with the film’s DP, Andrew Dunn. And for those wishing to really splurge, Severin have also issued the film as a limited edition Blu-ray with a lenticular cover. As the film’s tagline proclaims, it’s “the closest you’ll ever want to come to nuclear war!” I couldn’t agree more. Devastating and unforgettable!

THE INCIDENT [1967] (Twilight Time) – Never issued on DVD in the U.S. or Canada, Larry Peerce’s THE INCIDENT stars Tony Musante (in an electrifying debut) and Martin Sheen as a pair of ne’er-do-well troublemakers who board a New York City subway train and proceed to terrorize everyone thereon. A simple premise, which is grounded by a number of terrific, first-rate performances from the likes of Jack Gilford, Thelma Ritter, Ed McMahon, Diana Van der Vlis, Brock Peters, Jan Sterling and others. The stark B&W photography courtesy of Gerald Hirschfeld also adds immensely to the film’s grittiness and unflinching realism. TT’s disc contains a stunning transfer of this long-difficult-to-see film, which also includes an audio commentary from director Peerce moderated by Nick Redman. Needless to say, this limited edition (3000 copies) disc is likely to sell out in no time, so grab it while you can, as it’s well worth your investment.

ALMOST HUMAN [1974] (Code Red) – Despite directing a vast array of films from many different genres, director Umberto Lenzi has become best-known to those who care about such things (we at Unpopped very much included!) for his numerous Italocrime films, of which ALMOST HUMAN certainly ranks at the top while crawling along the gutters of crime-ridden Milan. Showcasing a jittery, paranoid, no-holds-barred performance from Tomas Milian and co-starring Henry Silva as the exasperated, outspoken commissario out to get him, this actioner barrels right along, ably aided-and-abetted by Ennio Morricone’s hard-hitting score. Previously available on DVD from No Shame Films, Code Red’s Blu-ray includes a superb HD transfer of the film, plus ports-over all of the extras from No Shame’s long-out-of-print DVD. As an added welcome bonus, Code Red have also seen fit to include Joseph Brenner’s U.S. edit in an appropriately beat-up scope print. WOW!! Read review.

NO DOWN PAYMENT [1957] (Twilight Time) – From producer Jerry Wald, who seemed to specialize in these ’50s-era ‘soaps’ (Mark Robson’s PEYTON PLACE [1957] and Jean Negulesco’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING [1959] are a couple of noteworthy others), NO DOWN PAYMENT is director Martin Ritt’s look at suburbia, in particular the lives of four couples living in Sunrise Hills, a new Californian housing development. Pat Hingle (who would later appear in Ritt’s NORMA RAE [1979]) and Barbara Rush (from Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE [1956]) are the standouts here, giving beautiful, multi-nuanced performances, but that’s not to say that everyone else isn’t fantastic too; also including stunning thesping from Tony Randall, Joanne Woodward and Cameron Mitchell, whose work not only draw attention to the allure of suburban life, but reveals many of the underlying secrets and/or imperfections associated with this supposedly, picture-perfect, squeaky-clean lifestyle. The slick B&W scope cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (he also shot Ritt’s THE LONG, HOT SUMMER [1958] the following year) looks dazzling on TT’s disc, which only further enhances the dreariness and thinly-veiled sordidity of these quickly-constructed neighbourhoods.

DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER [1973] (Arrow Video) – Joe D’Amato’s first official directorial debut (which he signed under his real name of Aristide Massaccesi) has suffered from a number low-grade, bootlegs over the years, but thanks to Arrow Video this latter-day Italo-Gothic has finally been given some much-needed respect with a spectacular 2K transfer taken from the original camera negative. The disc also includes a highly informative audio commentary from Tim Lucas, a nicely-produced on-camera interview / documentary about the film’s star, Ewa Aulin; a video essay by Kat Ellinger, and a most-welcome 43-page liner booklet with writing from Stephen Thrower and Roberto Curti, plus a previously-unpublished interview with the film’s assistant director, Romano Scandariato. What more do ya need?! Read review.

THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD [1975] (Kino Lorber Studio Classics) – Bypassing DVD altogether, J. Lee Thompson’s supernatural thriller had remained unavailable on home video since its long-gone VHS release from Vestron Video, so kudos to Kino for finally digging this out of the Paramount vaults! Transferred in 4K from the film’s original camera negative, Kino’s Blu-ray looks wonderful, with deep blacks and excellent detail throughout; a far-cry from Vestron’s muddy, pan-’n’-scan old tape! Kino have also included some choice extras, including an audio commentary from author and film historian Lee Gambin, who always has plenty of interesting things to say that reveal all sorts of interesting nuggets, and whose enthusiasm is always appreciated! Other extras include comparisons between the censored and uncensored scenes of Margot Kidder’s bathtub sequence, a number of stills galleries showcasing the film’s promotional materials, as well as trailers and numerous TV spots. It’s great to have this once-forgotten flick back in active circulation again! 

COMBAT SHOCK [1984] (Severin) – Buddy Giovinazzo’s unflinching portrait of a severely traumatized Vietnam vet has lost none of its power over the years and this Limited Edition Blu-ray certainly proves it! Scanned in 4K and including the full AMERICAN NIGHTMARE version, the disc also comes fully-loaded with extras. As an added bonus, Severin have also included the film’s first-ever soundtrack release on CD, original film frames from Buddy’s workprint, an autographed slipcover and a 96-page American Nightmares Scrapbook featuring the film’s shooting script, Buddy’s shooting diary and numerous on-set photos! Hard-hitting and fraught with desperation, Buddy G’s film continues to be an unnerving slice of cinema, and thanks to Severin, it can finally be viewed the way it was meant to be seen!

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? [1976] (Mondo Macabro) – 2018 was a very busy year for MM, with a number of outstanding releases from them. To be honest, just about everything they release deserves to be on this list, but Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (previously issued on DVD by Dark Sky Films) was the standout for me. MM’s new 4K transfer from the film’s negative is really quite a sight to behold and looks flawless and, to top it all off, the film is playable in no less than four (4) different versions (!), which include the full-length uncut version in both English and Spanish (with newly-translated English subtitles), as well as an alternate English version and AIP (American International Pictures)’s truncated ISLAND OF THE DAMNED stateside release version. Extras includes a wonderful audio commentary from Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, who not only discuss the film in question, but also Serrador’s long—and continuing—career in television. Numerous featurettes with the film’s director and DP José Luis Alcaine are also included, and for those lucky folks who scored themselves a Limited Edition ‘Red Case’ copy, it also contains mini-reproductions of the U.S. lobby card set and a nicely-illustrated booklet featuring an excellent essay by scribe Lee Gambin. Essential!

THE COMPLETE SARTANA [1968 – 1970] (Arrow Video) – One of the many antiheroes who populated the world of spaghetti westerns, although Gianni Garko had played an otherwise unrelated villainous character named Sartana in “Albert Cardiff”/Alberto Cardone’s $1,000 ON THE BLACK (a.k.a. BLOOD AT SUNDOWN [1966]), Garko was first ‘officially’ introduced as a new character named Sartana in “Frank Kramer”/Gianfranco Parolini’s IF YOU MEET SARTANA… PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (1968), and he is the actor most-associated with the title role (although George Hilton and other performers also tried their hands at Sartana’s persona, with various degrees of success). Of course, there were many subsequent—often in-name-only—rip-off’s (some good, some, um, not so good), but Arrow Video only includes the five official films, and for the record, they include Parolini’s aforementioned film as well as Giuliano Carnimeo’s (directing under his usual “Anthony Ascott” pseudonym) I AM SARTANA YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH (1969), HAVE A GOOD FUNERAL MYFRIEND… SARTANA WILL PAY (1970), LIGHT THE FUSE… SARTANA IS COMING (1970) and SARTANA’S HERE… TRADEYOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN (1970), with George Hilton assuming Sartana’s handle/mantle for that lattermost title. Each series entry is allotted its own separate Blu-ray and, outside of the first entry (which was transferred from a film chain and looks the weakest of the lot, but is still miles better than anything previously released), all the films look spectacular and include a multitude of extras. A thick booklet, which includes writing from author Roberto Curti, is also included. A truly wonderful—and essential—collection, this is!

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT [1972] (Arrow Video) – So many different editions and different versions of this oft-controversial film have come and gone over the years that it has become virtually impossible to choose the definitive one, but the fine folks at Arrow Video may have managed just that! A truly stupendous Blu-ray set in all respects, Arrow’s impressive 2K restoration looks fabulous, especially given the film’s low-budget origins and the grainy 16mm film stock, which also includes all three extant versions: the unrated one, the alternate KRUG & COMPANY cut, as well as the R-rated cut, spread over two Blu-rays. A massive amount of extras are also included, which are far too numerous to list here, but some of the standouts include a newly-recorded audio commentary with Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes from the Supporting Characters and Made for TV Mayhem podcasts, who both do stellar work here, shedding even more light on this significant film. David Gregory’s revealing doc Celluloid: Crime of the Centuryis once again included, as are a number of new and existing docs, location tours, over 45-minutes (!) of outtakes and dailies, plus tons more. Additionally, the film is packaged in one of Arrow’s sturdy hardboxes, which includes a thick booklet with writing from Nightmare USA’s Stephen Thrower, a doubled-sided poster, lobby-card repros and reversible artwork. Truly outstanding!

GIALLO IN VENICE [1979] (Scorpion Releasing) – Easily the most notorious giallo of them all, Mario Landi’s film gets a (quote) “brand new 2018 HD scan”, which is a real eye-opener for anyone who has suffered through all those dreadful bootlegs over the years. While it’s not the prettiest film to look at, the new-and-improved transfer makes a world of difference, and to top it all off, it’s uncut as well. Even though extras are limited, a fun, fact-filled audio commentary with author Troy Howarth is also included. The disc also includes reversible artwork, a nicely-illustrated—and appropriately lurid!—slipcover courtesy of Devon Whitehead, and a collectible poster too. Read review.

MEMORIES WITHIN MISS AGGIE [1974] (Vinegar Syndrome) – Difficult to see for years, especially in something even resembling a decent version, Gerard Damiano’s horror-infused psychosexual shocker receives the red-carpet treatment by VS. One of the more compelling hardcore films to emerge from the era of “porno chic”, VS’ new 2K transfer taken from 16mm archival elements brings out much of the film’s oppressive atmosphere, and is just about perfect, considering the film’s humble origins. A short-but-excellent poster/still gallery is also included with numerous articles related to the film’s controversial theatrical run, as well as a video-sourced trailer, whose lesser quality makes you truly appreciate just how good everything looks now. The initial 1000 print-run (now OOP) also included a collectible slipcover. Read review.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS [1957] (Olive Films) – With its potent and frightening themes of total collectivist dehumanization and loss of individual identity, this film remains as highly topical/relevant today as it ever was, if not even more-so. In what was surely one of the more anticipated releases of the year, Olive lent Don Siegel’s enduring sci-fi classic their ‘Signature Series’ treatment with a fine-looking HD transfer and a wealth of special features, many of which have been lying dormant since Paramount’s proposed DVD in 2006. These extras included excellent interviews with the film’s stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, both of whom have since passed away, and there’s a terrific audio commentary (also recorded in 2006) with McCarthy, Wynter and celebrated film director Joe Dante. Numerous other worthy extras are also included, which only sweetens the deal.

NIGHT OF THE DEMON [1957] (Indicator) – An absolutely stunning, topnotch 2-disc Blu-ray set that is a necessity for anyone’s collection! Based on M.R. James’ short story “Casting the Runes” (1911), superb filmmaking makes this a true gem if ever there was one. Indicator have really outdone themselves with this magnificent release of Jacques Tourneur’s occult masterpiece by including six (yes, SIX!) different editions of the film, along with so many extras it’ll make your head spin. 

THE BLOOD ISLAND COLLECTION [1959 – 1970] (Severin) – Encompassing not only Gerardo de Leon’s and Eddie Romero’s BRIDES OF BLOOD (1968) and MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1968), as well as Romero’s BEAST OF BLOOD ([1970] that is only available in this boxset), the three official films which constitute the “Blood Island” trilogy, Severin’s impressive set also includes de Leon’s and Romero’s TERROR IS A MAN (a.k.a. BLOOD CREATURE [1959]), their ‘downsized’ if nonetheless effective and atmospheric take on H.G. Wells’ influential 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Amazing transfers (including a stunning 4K transfer of MAD DOCTOR taken from the original camera negative) highlight much of this collection, with each film looking far better than any previous release(s), and of course, Severin also provides plenty of extras, including documentaries, commentaries, trailers and lots more! The initial 3500 print-run has already sold out, so if you luck into one at an old brick-and-mortar store or online for a decent price, snap it up!

TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE [1970] (AGFA / Something Weird Video) – Long thought to be lost, approximately 70 minutes of outtakes from this Edward D. Wood Jr. film were released onto VHS videocassette by SWV in 1995, but according to the audio commentary on this disc by director Frank Henenlotter, author and Ed Wood biographer Rudolph Grey and AGFA’s Joseph A. Ziemba, the only known 16mm print was obtained from actor / stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s son. The disc also includes the aforementioned outtakes and a decent 2K scan of Joseph F. Robertson’s THE LOVE FEAST (1969), which also co-stars cult poverty row filmmaker Ed Wood. A nice booklet with liner notes from Grey is also included in the package. 


THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS [1942] (The Criterion Collection) – Thanks to the imprudent studio bosses at RKO, Orson Welles’ film will never be reconstructed into its original form, but Criterion’s Blu-ray is yet another ‘magnificent’ 4K transfer of this heavily-compromised masterpiece, which, even in its bowdlerized version still leaves us so much to enjoy from the performances (Agnes Moorehead received an Oscar nod), Bernard Hermann’s music and the fluid photography. Lots of fascinating extras (including a 57-page booklet) are included, which further establishes Welles’ unfortunate luck with RKO. 

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD [1951] (Warner Archive Collection) – Christian Nyby’s and Howard Hawks’ tremendous, ground-breaking sci-fi film—one of the earliest ‘alien invasion’ outings—arrives on Blu-ray in a first-rate transfer without any of the noticeable quality disruptions seen in previous versions. Although it’s a relatively bare-bones disc boasting only a couple of trailers (the original and a rerelease trailer), this new-and-improved transfer comes as a real revelation. 

ZOMBIE [1979] (Blue Underground) – Pretty much available since the dawn of home video on a number of different formats from a whole slew of labels, Lucio Fulci’s most-iconic achievement has recently been released in what shall quite likely remain the definitive version. This 3-Disc Limited Edition (offering three different slipcovers to choose from!) assembles together extras from BU’s earlier 2-disc Ultimate Edition along with a number of new ones, including an audio commentary with Splintered Visions author Troy Howarth, plus a newly-shot on-camera interview with Beyond Terror author Stephen Thrower. And not only that, but you also get Fabio Frizzi’s complete soundtrack on an extra CD too! Read review.

HIGHLY HONOURABLE MENTIONS. 

ALICE, SWEET, ALICE (88 Films), BASKET CASE (Arrow Video), BEWARE THE BRETHREN (Vinegar Syndrome), BLOODLUST (Mondo Macabro), THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY (Arrow Video), BLUE COLLAR (Indicator – Region B), CHARLEY VARRICK (Indicator - Region B), THE CHANGELING (Severin), THE CHILDREN (Vinegar Syndrome), CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (Arrow Video – Region B), CREEPSHOW (Scream Factory), DEATH LAID AN EGG (Nucleus), THE DEVIL INCARNATE (Mondo Macabro), EATEN ALIVE (Severin), EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (Severin), ENTER THE DEVIL (Massacre Video), THE EXECUTION SQUAD (Al!ve / AG Films), EYEBALL (88 Films), FIVE TALL TALES: BUDD BOETTICHER & RANDOLPH SCOTT AT COLUMBIA, 1957-1960 (Indicator), GAMES (Scream Factory), GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS (AGFA / Something Weird Video), GOLD (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), THE GRISSOM GANG (Kino Lorber Studio Classics), HAMMER VOLUME TWO: CRIMINAL INTENT (Indicator), THE HIRED HAND (Arrow Academy), THE HOT ROCK (Twilight Time), IMAGES (Arrow Academy), THE INCUBUS (Vinegar Syndrome), LADY FRANKENSTEIN (Nucleus), MANIAC (Blue Underground / 3-disc Limited Edition), A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (The Criterion Collection), MAUSOLEUM (Vinegar Syndrome),  MURDER ROCK (Scorpion Releasing), ORGIES OF EDO (Arrow Video), PERVERSION STORY (Mondo Macabro), REQUIEM FOR GRINGO (Wild East Productions), SHAMPOO (The Criterion Collection), THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME (Severin), THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (Warner Archive Collection),SHOCKING DARK (Severin), SINFONIA EROTICA (Severin), SISTERS (The Criterion Collection), SNOWBEAST (Retromedia), THE SWINGING BARMAIDS (Code Red), THE TREE OF LIFE (The Criterion Collection), THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES (Twilight Time), THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (Scream Factory), THE WASP WOMAN (Scream Factory), WILLIAM CASTLE AT COLUMBIA, VOLUME ONE (Indicator) and ZOMBIE 3 (Severin). 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

THE EXECUTION SQUAD - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Reviewed by Steve Fenton, with Dennis Capicik
From Fanfare’s U.S. pressbook synopsis: ‘A continuous succession of misdeeds holds the city in the grip of an infernal vice.’
Enrico Maria Salerno, as Inspector Bertone: “I’m at the point of losing all conviction, all motivation. Ordinary police routine has become a farce. We’re practically powerless. The underworld buggers us, and the press rams it in deeper!”
Mario Adorf, as Assistant DA Ricciutti: “Are you nostalgic for the death penalty, Bertone?”
Vengeful cop, heard over squad-car radio: “We’ll see the murdering little bastard gets what he deserves: ‘An eye for an eye; a life for a life’...!”
At some point early in its genesis announced under the shooting title “REQUIEM FOR A CHIEF OF THE HOMICIDE SQUAD,” this film was also variously announced in the contemporaneous American trade-papers as “THE POLICE SEND THANKS” and “THE POLICE SAY THANK YOU,” both of which are simple translations of EXECUTION SQUAD’s original Italian title (i.e., La polizia ringrazia).
Several years after the fact, Variety (May 1975) reported that producer Roberto Infascelli was a “trend setter” and that this film had “opened a chapter full of law-on-the-skids pix.” Yes indeed, the Italian/West German co-production EXECUTION SQUAD ([1971] released as THE ENFORCERS in the U.K.) was largely instrumental in inspiring a whole crimewave of more exploitative, B-grade cops-’n’-robbers actioners on the Continent (in Italy especially), as well as any number of more ‘upscale’ genre entries by the likes of Damiano Damiani and Pasquale Squitieri. One of the earliest Italian ‘vigilante cop’ entries of the ’70s, ES officially marked the first time that its director—who is ironically better-known for helming sophisticated comedies under his usual pseudonym of “Steno”—signed a film, and a dead-seriously dramatic one at that, with his real name, Stefano Vanzina (1917-1988). It became a box-office smash on the Continent, and as a result was highly influential on the Italocrime movie front, prompting numerous imitations/emulations of variable quality. Dialogue-driven with unusually literate Anglo dubbing (some of the best ever heard in a foreign import, it should be said, despite the occasional ‘surreal’-sounding translated phrase), ES makes the ideal starting point for those interested in unearthing the more domestic roots of ’70s Italocrime cinema. If native filmmakers frequently took their cues from such outside influences as Popeye Doyle, “Dirty” Harry Callaghan and Frank Serpico, they found an equal kindred spirit in ES’ staunch and stoic Inspector Bertone, whose most lethal weapon is not a big gun but his own big mouth, which he shoots-off with unerring accuracy straight from the hip, seldom failing to hit the bull’s-eye (“I just find it hard to keep my mouth shut when punks like that go free!”).
An unprecedented nationwide crimewave grips Italy, but despite this ongoing societal crisis, Rome has been placed under a general criminal amnesty. Wealthy retired former Police Chief Ernesto Stolfi (Cyril Cusack) is most vocal about his solution to end the crimewave, and airs his ‘extremist’ views freely during a controversial TV interview. Since middle-aged Inspector Mario Bertone (the great Enrico Maria Salerno [1926-1994], dubbed into English hereon by voice specialist Edward Mannix), a 25-year veteran of law enforcement, assumed command of the Homicide Squad, there has been a marked increase in murders (“I feel that we’re on the edge of a wave of violence in this country that has no precedence”). Insp. Bertone had recently arrested a known gangster named Francesco “Bruno” Bettarini (Franco Fabrizi), who is suspected of involvement in an armed robbery that left an innocent watchman dead. Due to his sleazy lawyers exploiting a legal technicality—so what else is new?!—Bettarini is subsequently acquitted on all charges due to insufficient evidence, and released from police custody. Bertone officially protested the decision in the courts, only to incur the resentment of powerful magistrates within the judiciary for his outspokenness. Reporters flock to the controversial case like vultures, resulting in much unwanted publicity from the scandal-hungry media. 
Later, in the Piazza dei Fornari, (quote) “two pricks” on a big 750cc Moto Guzzi V7 rob a store, killing a man and woman in the process, only to then make their two-wheeled getaway with no loot to show for it. A largescale police manhunt is mobilized. Citizens complain that the police don’t protect them enough; cops complain that politicians forever keep their hands tied with red tape. Newspapers bleat on about the ineffecuality of the Law, then protest when police must out of necessity resort to using excess force to prevent crime. When the newly-acquitted Bruno Bettarini is apprehended at the airport carrying a gun of the same calibre as that used in the Piazza dei Fornari shootings, he is re-arrested as a prime suspect. He later claims the gun was planted on his possession and that he has been a victim of police brutality. Meanwhile, the two fugitive punks who were the actual perps remain at large. One of them, Michele Settecammini (shaggy-haired German Schlager singer/musician-actor and teenybopper heartthrob Jürgen Drews), a habitual repeat offender with a rap-sheet longer than the overreaching arm of the law despite his youth, makes a hostage of a nubile eighteen-year-old hairdresser named Anna Maria Sprovieri (Laura Belli, who does a purely gratuitous ‘top-and-bottom’ nude scene, albeit without revealing any pubic hair. The actress subsequently appeared as one of Tomas Milian’s victims in Lenzi’s ALMOST HUMAN [1974]).
(Attn: ***SPOILER ALERT!***) It eventually comes to light that a group of disgruntled ex-carabinieri, going about their unofficial business stealthily in big death-black unmarked cars with phony licence plates, have been taking the law into their own hands by arbitrarily acting as collective judges, jurors and executioners. First interrogating suspects ‘off the record,’ they function as what is basically a vigilante execution squad (as per the US release title). Killings are committed in an old fascist style, via makeshift firing squads of .38 Police Specials. In this fashion, the executioners make an example of Mario Staddarini (Piero Tiberi), Settecammini’s accomplice in the recent Piazza dei Fornari robbery. After the slippery Bettarini’s latest rerelease for lack of evidence, he is unofficially picked-up by the hit squad (“But, youain’t the fuzz!”). In retribution for the night watchman’s murder, Bettarini is methodically electrocuted against a hydro pylon (in certain other cases, strangulation and bludgeoning are the methods used). Following executions, victims are left dangling in handcuffs in plain sight so as to serve as a warning/deterrent to the general public at large. Bertone succeeds in linking the hit squad to an influential politician who has recently spoken-out in favour of restoring capital punishment to the land.
As a public relations ploy, Insp. Bertone treats key members of the press to a special guided bus tour of the Eternal City’s seamier side; for which he provides running commentary illustrated with authentic specimens of Roman ‘night life.’ Bertone describes prostitution as “the Swiss bank of the underworld,” raking-in an estimated 350-billion lire per annum (at early ’70s prices). The industry is protected by the so-called “Merlin Law,” which points out the bitter irony of a hooker’s lot: while she may well be entirely free to walk her beat in the eyes of the law, because of control by brutal pimps, she is far from at liberty to quit it. Easily exploitable if contradictory legal loopholes protect both the prostitute and her pimp from prosecution. Bertone winds-down his ‘in-the-field’ lecture by explaining that the prison system is overcrowded to bursting point with suspects; most of whom will wind up being released due to systemic impotence, procrastination and apathy within the judicial system. (Indicating that the general public at large are equally at fault, during opening armed robbery, Joe Blow bystander cautions his buddy, “Hey, man, don’t get involved!” A reporter subsequently gives his own cynical take on the situation [“In this city, the citizens are terrorized, and they don’t think the police are doing anything about it!”]).
Bertone leaks a strong suspicion to the press that a prominent city official with political ambitions has condoned the executions of two notorious criminals in order to win citizens’ support by currying their favour. For going public with this belief, Bertone is severely reprimanded by his superiors. Now affectionately christened the “Clean-Up Squad” by the media, the rogue cops step-up their busy execution schedule to include even minor offenders from the lowest rungs of the underworld ladder. Paranoia among the malavita (“lowlifes”) rises to such a pitch that criminals begin voluntarily delivering themselves over into protective police custody rather than risk a vigilante bullet. When Raf Valenti, “Public Enemy #1,” surrenders to escape execution, the Clean-Up Squad nevertheless succeeds in slipping him a hit of cyanide right inside the Questura.
Of the opinion that the ends justify the means—not to mention lighten their workload—other officers on the force speak out in open support of the Clean-Up Squad, and are reticent to see them arrested. Insp. Bertone reads his unruly-verging-on-mutinous subordinates the riot act, comparing the rogue cops—who had all been fired from active duty for using excessive force—to (quote) “common hitmen.” Meanwhile, Michele Settecammini and his teenage hostage are surrounded at their hideout by police. Assistant District Attorney Ricciutti (Mario Adorf) negotiates with the fugitive, arranging a getaway car, much to Bertone’s chagrin (“We can’t start making deals with these punks: they’ll walk all over us!”). With strict stipulations, Settecammini—fearing reprisal from the Clean-Up Squad—agrees to surrender himself into Bertone’s custody. While he is being transported to jail by Bertone, the Squad makes an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Settecammini, who is delivered alive—if not entirely unharmed—into Ricciutti’s care. (Attn: ***SPOILER ALERT!***) Grown jaded and disgusted with the status quo to the point of tendering his resignation from the force, Bertone realizes that the ‘deep state’ organization which financially sponsors the Clean-Up Squad possesses powerful sympathizers/supporters within the upper echelons of government… and even in the very Vatican itself; their mutual ultimate goal being complete inversion of the political order and a return to a Mussolini-styled totalitarian dictatorship!
Courtesy of the Fentonian Institute.
Bertone, who wryly refers to prisons as “State-run schools for criminals,” must constantly juggle all his conflicting loyalties and weigh them against his personal convictions, which don’t always balance themselves with the scales of Justice, which are constantly teetering at the tipping point. With his back pinned to the wall between a rock and a hard place, Bertone decries the flawed existing legal system yet still idealistically champions the concept of democratic law (“Whether we like it or not, one of our jobs is to protect swine like that from being lynched!”); case in point when he risks his own skin to defend a no-good dirtbag who has already murdered at least three people. If in his view the Clean-Up Squad operates at the extreme fringe of the Right Wing, Bertone himself still remains uncomfortably just left of centre, tightrope-walking precariously along the dividing line. For instance, during his epic speech about the prostitution industry, Bertone can barely contain his contempt for homosexual hookers; whom he unflatteringly describes as the type of individual who “earns his living with the sweat of his ass” (“a most unnatural act,” adds the confidently hetero Inspector regarding sodomy). Bertone’s ‘homophobia’ resurfaces on at least one more occasion (as a rent boy is heard to exclaim disgustedly to a jilted john at one point, “You faggots gimme a pain in the ass!” [pun intended!]). As if heeding some unspoken vicarious desire of the Inspector’s, the Clean-Up Squad eventually takes to killing the johns of gay hustlers (“pederasts”). EXECUTION SQUAD’s sympathies seem to shakily straddle the fence somewhere between dead centre and extreme right, leaving audiences to root for either Bertone or the Clean-Up Squad. While the script does play both sides, the film’s real heroes—without mentioning any names!—were obvious to probably the vast majority of viewers of the day… dare I say, perhaps even more so today, in these times of rebellious populist upheaval within the EU? (Thank you, Matteo Salvini!)
Closest that EXECUTION SQUAD ever strays to the Left is via Sandra (the big-eyed Mariangela Melato, sporting an unflatteringly tomboyish ’70s-style ‘scruffy-cut’ hairdo), a politically active—read: SJW—newspaper reporter whose more lenient views (“Criminals are human too. Criminals aren’t created ... it’s the fault of society”) sometimes come at odds with the justice-or-bust Bertone’s inflexible Quixotic quest (“tilting at windmills,” as an incognito interested party calls it). Even Bertone feels pangs of sympathy for the two misguided bike punks, who, without even a lone lira to show for their botched armed robbery, face complete contemptuous ostracism by the underworld. Indicating how much he flirts with her ideas, while off-duty Bertone dates the politically more liberal (dare I say ‘progressive’?) Sandra. Due to her ‘insider’ knowledge, he is not averse to manipulating Sandra—who functions as both his muse and foil to equal degrees—into playing police informant upon occasion, which might well explain his main interest in keeping her around at all. Because she is his most vocal critic in the press (“You are the typical professional cop!”), this might almost seem like a conflict of interest on both sides, and if nothing else it illustrates how opposites sometimes do indeed attract for the simple reason that they both have ulterior motives on one another, so conveniently rationalize the arrangement to suit themselves as well as each other.
Playing another man of unshakable integrity, the distinguished Assistant DA, powerhouse German co-star Mario Adorf—who unfortunately didn’t stick around to dub his own English lines in this instance—serves as the better angel of Bertone’s nature (i.e., his guilty conscience). Salerno commands authority in the Bertone role, but as Ricciutti Adorf is frankly rather wasted in a one-dimensional order-barking authoritarian part (he might have been far better cast in a meatier role, such as the smug, sneery slimeball Bettarini, perhaps?). Representing his worst devil on the other—make that Extreme Right—hand is Bertone’s intermittent unofficial advisor in the form of Cusack’s outwardly soft-spoken and benignant Stolfi character, who talks softly but carries a big secret chip on his shoulder. Early into the film, Stolfi facetiously compares crime to Pinocchio’s nose (i.e., always growing).
The Clean-Up Squad’s choice of victims is symbolic: so-called “degenerates” (such as hookers and homosexuals [YIKES!]) and subversive leftist extremists, all regarded as archetypal representatives of societal malaise and decay, and thus entirely disposable in the myopic gunsight eyes of the dirty arm of the Law’s itchy trigger finger. The Clean-Up Squad derives much wry propaganda from a public service poster distributed by the city council, which reads: Roma è anche tua aiutaci a tenerla pulita / “Rome is your city, and it’s your duty to keep it clean.” Ironically twisting its meaning to suit their own objectives, for extra symbolic effect the clique of grim-faced rogue ex-cops dispose of victims’ bodies in plain sight beneath copies of this poster pasted-up in various parts of Rome (“Looks like the ‘Clean-Up Squad’ has chalked-up another one, Inspector,” notes an observer). Seen elsewhere for added irony is a more familiar propaganda poster (‘La Polizia: troverai la specializzazione che desideri’, which roughly translates to “You will find the career you want in the Police Force”); a real-life recruitment poster seen on Questura walls in countless other ’70s Italocrime films… if not seen quite so often as J&B Scotch bottles were! (Just for the record, none of those latter ‘incidental props’ appear in the present film for the purposes of product placement.)
Interestingly enough for Italo cinema buffs, Settecammini’s late accomplice Staddarini had been temping as an extra on spaghetti westerns (many of which were still being produced in Rome at the time), but because of a recent work shortage in that area switched careers to eke-out a more dishonest living as a scippatore from the avails of purse-snatching. Bettarini meanwhile openly flouts his disrespect for the law. No sooner has he assaulted several cops than he is justifiably beaten-up by them in return, only to have his hotshot criminal lawyer Avellano (the portly, gap-toothed Corrado Gaipa, a near-future alumnus of Coppola’s THE GODFATHER [1972]) bear aural witness to this so-called ‘unprovoked’ police brutality over the phone. In Vanzina’s apparent attempt to illustrate that lawyers are often as bad as—if not worse than—their clients, Avellano (not “Armani,” as the IMDb claims!) also provides legal counsel for the Settecammini character, an incorrigible repeat offender who, due to technicalities in wishy-washy existing laws, has continually slipped through the much-too-coarse mesh of the legal net to commit new offences with great regularity. (Attn: ***SPOILER ALERT!***) During his latest and greatest crime, while being chased along the Via del Mare, Settecammini cruelly dumps his female hostage from the back of a speeding motorbike directly under the wheels of an oncoming police Giulia. This tragic incident once again forces Insp. Bertone to re-examine his troubled conscience to make a fateful personal decision...
Variety (May 1972) gave a positive progress report on this film’s “polemical treatment of a semi-official death squad assault on crime.” A prototypical effort for sure, ES launched a whole crimewave of ‘socially aware’ antiestablishment ‘police-are-powerless’ dramas. Interestingly enough, even Clint Eastwood/Ted Post’s later MAGNUM FORCE, released the following year in 1973, bears some rudimentary—if key—plot similarities (simple coinkydink, or…?). Following ES’ Roman premiere (in June 1972), Variety (“Werb.”) wrote: “Almost all of the ingredients in this ruthless and implacable film fall into place so neatly that foreign prospects are positive, including the U.S.” Sadly, this engrossing, superior entry (truncated from 98m to just 85m as EXECUTION SQUAD, although the most-recent BD releases thankfully contain full-length prints) evidently received only a spotty stateside theatrical distribution deal, it caused nary a ripple on this side of the Atlantic. It later (circa the ’80s) also turned up in English-dubbed, full-length, albeit only full-frame form on Dutch videotape from Video Star (under the Anglo export title FROM THE POLICE ...WITH THANKS), as well as being released widescreen in Japan by Pack-In Video (titled KUROI KEISATSU / “Black Police”), in Italian with Japanese hard-subs.
Producer Roberto Infascelli’s loosely-connected follow-ups, the first of which re-starred Enrico Maria Salerno in a different if highly similar role (as one commissario Cardone rather than ispettore Bertone), were THE GREAT KIDNAPPING(a.k.a. La polizia sta a guardare [1973]), which Infascelli himself also directed, followed by Massimo Dallamano’s slick hybrid giallo-poliziesco WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (La polizia chiede aiuto[1974]), co-starring the delectable Giovanna Ralli and the ill-fated Claudio Cassinelli. 
Even though, as mentioned above, EXECUTION SQUAD did garner a belated U.S. theatrical release courtesy of The Fanfare Corporation in 1975, in a hacked-down 85-minute version no less (it also played certain Canadian cinemas in 1976 thanks to Astral Films), this film, which is highly-regarded in its countries of origin, unfortunately never made it onto legit home video in either the U.S.A. or Canada. In the pre-DVD days, most people who saw it caught up with ES via bootleg dupes taken from the Netherlands’ Video Star VHS videocassette, which was an English-dubbed (with Dutch subtitles, ’natch) edition under its aforementioned original Anglo export release title, FROM THE POLICE …WITH THANKS. Of course, the English dubbing was most helpful, but the tape’s drastically-cropped image (from its original 2.35:1 Techniscope framing to something approximating 1.66:1) definitely made things far too cramped, seriously compromising much of Riccardo Pallottini’s carefully-composed camerawork. As mentioned above, during the ’80s, the film also came out on Japanese VHS videocassette in a highly presentable fully-letterboxed release from Pack-In Video, but alas that tape came only in Italian with burned-in Japanese subtitles. In 2003, the film’s first official DVD release also emanated from Japan courtesy of King Records, and although their disc was non-anamorphic, it did contain an English audio track and was properly framed at 2.35:1, even retaining the film’s exploitable Anglo export title. Later that same year, the Italian-based zine Nocturno released the film in Italy, but once again the DVD did not contain any English audio. 
In 2011, the German label Al!ve AG, in conjunction with Colosseo Film, tackled the film with an impressive 2-DVD set (encoded for Region 2) containing a superb 16x9 edition of the 2.35:1 film. Unlike previous transfers, which had a tendency to be dull and murky, detail this time around was far sharper, not only showcasing the appropriately dark black levels (especially evident during a few of the film’s nighttime scenes) but its properly-rendered colours as well, which really popped off the screen in scenes showing the film’s early-’70s interior décor. Of course, the gritty urban setting also comes through just fine, with plenty of suitably bleak and oppressive browns and greys (the firing squad-type execution of the Staddarini character on the banks of the Tiber most readily springs to mind). Audio choices for Al!ve’s edition included German, Italian and English, all of which were in Dolby Digital mono and sounded fine, without any discernible issues. Optional German subtitles were also included, while the only extra to be found on this first DVD release was the film’s original Italian trailer (3m36s). All of the extras were included with the second DVD but, it being a German release, none of them were English-friendly. The most substantial extra was The Way We Were (67m51s), which included interviews with the film’s producer Dieter Geissler, German writer / actor Peter Berling and two of the film’s principal actors: Mario Adorf and Jürgen Drews. Much of TWWW’s running time documents their careers and how they became involved in the film, and in the case of Berling, the general film scene at the time; their time spent in Rome; working with director “Steno” / Stefano Vanzina; and the many challenges of communicating in so many different languages on set (a commonplace state of affairs for a continental co-production). While much of the doc comprises talking heads, it also includes a generous amount of visual material and film clips from the film itself, as well as from some of Geissler’s acting roles, such as Pim de la Parra’s OBSESSION (1969); Mario Adorf’s other Italocrime film, Fernando di Leo’s MANHUNT (a.k.a. THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, 1972); and Peter Berling’s numerous stints in front of the camera, including on Werner Herzog’s Amazonian adventure epic AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972). Next up was yet another lengthy on-camera interview with co-star Jürgen Drews (55m36s), which, once again, isn’t English-friendly. Rounding-out the extras is a photo and poster gallery depicting many of the film’s press materials, including German plakats (posters), Italian fotobuste (XL lobby cards) and plenty of black-and-white stills. The 2-disc set came housed in a standard Amaray case with reversible artwork and a 12-page (in-German-only) booklet, all enclosed in a nice slipcover.
Courtesy of the Fentonian Institute.
Given its superior pedigree, it was inevitable that Al!ve AG and Colosseo would revisit the film on BD. Packaged almost identically but in a smaller Blu-ray keepcase, the set once again includes reversible artwork, a 12-page booklet (again, in German only) and a nice slipcover; the only difference being the inclusion of a 25 GB Region B Blu-ray, which includes a truly stellar MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encoding of an already-great-looking HD transfer. The upgrade to full HD serves the film well, with the added sharpness and clarity resulting in a far more consistent and detailed picture. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is once again offered in German, Italian and English, and it’s all nicely-balanced with everything sounding just fine, which is especially important for this dialogue-heavy film; and yes, Stelvio Cipriani’s now-iconic, first-class Italocrime score also sounds terrific! As with Al!ve’s DVD, the only extra on the Blu-ray is the film’s original Italian trailer (3m36s). Optional German subtitles are once again included, and once more, the extras are included on a separate DVD and are exactly the same as the aforementioned 2011 DVD package while a second DVD includes an exact replica of the Blu-ray in SD only.
Even if EXECUTION SQUAD doesn’t have the fast-paced, action-packed thrills of later Italocrime films along the lines of, say, an Umberto Lenzi or Fernando di Leo street-crimer, Stefano Vanzina’s film is nonetheless an engaging, sharply-written film that remains essential viewing, not only for the fact that it also helped instigate and mold an entire genre of Italian moviemaking. Order the Blu-ray from DiabolikDVD or Amazon Germany.
Trivial Footnote: As an intentional pun on the original Italo title of Vanzina’s famous and influential ’71 film, LA POLIZIA RINGRAZIA also became the title of a XXX hardcore Italian porn movie (ca. 2000) directed by “Frank Simon” and starring Ursula Cavalcanti.