Tuesday, September 12, 2017

RED ROSES OF PASSION - BLU-RAY REVIEW

In what promises to be an exciting new line of titles in Vinegar Syndrome’s ever-exponentially-expanding film catalogue, Joe Sarno’s RED ROSES OF PASSION (1966) is the first release in their “Sexploitation Signature Series”, and is yet another sparse but typically tense melodrama, augmented by a hint of the supernatural. 

Carla (Patricia McNair, hiding behind the alias “Laurene Claire”), along with her friend and co-worker, Enid (Carol Halleck), visit Martha (Helena Clayton), a tarot reader who turns out to be the high priestess of a shadowy cult that worships Pan, a (quote) “deity from ancient times.”  Believing that the spirit of Pan exists in all men and women, Martha and her followers indulge in spiritual unions where they indulge in the wine of Delphi and the touch of a rose, a process which unleashes the ultimate ecstasy or (quote) “the sweetest torment.”  Carla, who lives with her rather smug Aunt Julie (Liz Love) and cousin Tracey (Laura Landon), who just happens to be dating ‘nice guy’ Jay (Judson Todd), is fed-up with their conservative views and sneakily administers the wine of Delphi to them in their tea, which unleashes their innermost wanton desires…

Simplistic in its conception, Sarno’s film is at odds with its economical approach and rather silly premise, which allows him to veer into unexpected, and most-welcome directions.  Relegated to just a couple of interior sets and a few brief exteriors – which were probably shot in a day – RED ROSES OF PASSION has plenty of dramatic tension, and despite some of the one-note performances (particularly Clayton’s), they actually work in the film’s favour, accentuating their characters’ unending devotion to (or perhaps possession by?) the Cult of Pan.  Building upon this, Sarno explores the sexual anxieties seething just below the surface of that period in time, which are laid bare with the mere touch of one of the title flowers.  The aptly-named “Liz Love” as Aunt Julie is especially convincing in her transformation who, like a drug addict, eagerly awaits the next delivery of those proverbial roses.  Patricia McNair also imbues Carla with ample amounts of curiosity and eagerness, which is quickly dispelled by desperation and fear when she is inducted as a priestess of Pan during what amounts to one of Sarno’s most deeply haunting and unforgettable conclusions.

This is the second Joe Sarno film – following ALL THE SINS OF SODOM (1968) – to be released by Vinegar Syndrome, and it’s just as stunning a presentation, featuring another dazzling transfer.  This Dual Format Blu-ray / DVD combo is taken from a newly-scanned 2K transfer of the original 35mm camera negatives and boasts superb, deep black levels, which only accentuates Anthony Lover’s high-contrast photography, revealing every minute detail.  The DTS-HD MA mono audio also sounds impeccable, especially given the low-budget nature of the production. 

Unlike on their earlier Sarno Blu-ray, VS has here included Supernatural Sarno: An Interview with biographer Michael Bowen (20m49s), a much-welcome discussion which not only provides a number of details surrounding the production, but also puts RED ROSES OF PASSION into context within the rest of Sarno’s prolific career.  Bowen cites RRoP as (quote) “one of his favourite Sarno films…a transition film,” and goes on to talk about its problematic distribution history; its producer Gabriel Cicale, who also produced three other Sarno films (including FLESH AND LACE [1965]); plus plenty of background information about many of the film’s cast members. 

Limited to a mere 2000 copies, this will undoubtedly sell out fast, so grab a copy of this compellingly offbeat film, which proves to be one of Joe Sarno’s most-alluring and distinctive films.  Order it directly from Vinegar Syndrome or DiabolikDVD.

Monday, August 28, 2017

EXPLOSIVE EUROCRIME DOUBLE FEATURE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Never before made officially available on North American shores, both Marino Girolami’s prototypical Italocrime meller SPECIAL COP IN ACTION (1976) and Mario Caiano’s ambitious actioner WEAPONS OF DEATH (1977) have been paired together for Dorado Films’ long-awaited Explosive Eurocrime Double Feature Blu-ray, which is an absolute must for fans of the form (we here at Unpopped most definitely included!), and hopefully it is only the first of many more such releases to come from Dorado Films.

In the wake of Enzo G. Castellari (a.k.a. Enzo Girolami)’s enormously popular HIGH CRIME (1973), which starred genre top gun Franco Nero as blonde-haired Commissioner Belli, veteran director Marino Girolami – and Enzo’s father – was put at the helm of VIOLENT ROME (1975), an equally-popular ‘copycat’ poliziotteschi of his very own, which cast Nero ‘lookalike’ Maurizio Merli as the similarly-named Commissioner Betti; it represented that now-iconic actor’s debut appearance within the Italian crime movie genre, and he would go on to appear in around 15 more such films, in scenarios and as characters which were oftentimes virtually interchangeable with one another (which is by no means to imply that many of said movies don’t make for totally kickass entertainment).  In response to Nero’s staunchly determined Belli character in HIGH CRIME—for which his normally dark hair was only dyed blond for the occasion—Merli was largely cast in VIOLENT ROME due to actually having fair hair and for his at-best-only-minimal facial resemblance to Nero, but Merli’s strong screen presence and his various rogue cop characters’ hard-nosed approach to fighting crime proved an instant hit with Italian audiences, after which he rapidly became the ‘face’ of poliziotteschi for about the next half-decade or so, and his reputation lasts to this very day, both in Italy and abroad. In fact, while Nero is himself quite rightly identified with Italocrime flicks (typically those of more ‘upscale’ origins), to an ever-growing legion of fans worldwide, it is Merli (whose own outings were generally more lower-budgeted affairs) who most personifies the genre. In Mike Malloy’s meticulously-constructed, mandatory documentary EUROCRIME! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s (2012), it’s truly touching to see Nero giving his late ‘impersonator’ a gracious and well-deserved shout-out, which is a pretty classy thing for him to do, for sure.

And now on to the movies in the Blu-ray set under review…

Once again directing under the pseudonym “Franco Martinelli”, SPECIAL COP IN ACTION (1976) was Girolami’s rapid-fire follow-up to the sizeable local hit VIOLENT ROME (which, in addition to Merli, also catapulted English character actor John Steiner into the limelight, resulting in his being cast as heavies in a number of subsequent poliziotteschi), but this was actually the third time that Maurizio Merli essayed his staple Betti character, whom he had previously played in Umberto Lenzi’s equally exhilarating street-crimer VIOLENT NAPLES (a.k.a. VIOLENT PROTECTION, 1976); as with Girolami’s films, it was likewise co-produced by Edmondo Amati’s prolific FIDA Cinematografica outfit.  In fact, VIOLENT NAPLES was initially announced as a sequel to VIOLENT ROME, with Merli in the lead and “Martinelli” directing, and later, in mid-’76, the project was re-announced as VIOLENT ROME – PART II, co-starring Merli and American actor Leonard Mann (another of EUROCRIME!’s many interview subjects), the latter of whom did not ultimately appear, but instead went on to co-star alongside Henry Silva in WEAPONS OF DEATH, another FIDA-produced film.

Transplanting its action from Torino to Milan then eventually to Genoa, SPECIAL COP IN ACTION (whose Italian title is ITALIA A MANO ARMATA, which loosely translates to “Italy Takes Up Arms” or variations thereof) is, much like VIOLENT ROME, a little episodic in structure, but don’t let that stop you.  At the outset, a robbery occurs at the Bank of Torino and a school-bus full of children is hijacked almost simultaneously, which gets things rolling pretty quickly and also aptly illustrates what a crime-infested country Italy once was.  Naturally, Betti (his surname subtly changed to “Berti” on English-dubbed prints) is furious, declaring, “This kidnapping of children is the worst kind!” Aided by his trusted partner Ferrari (Aldo Barberito) and Milanese Insp. Arpino (Raymond Pellegrin), they get a break in the case when one of the kidnappers, Salvatore Mancuso (Sergio Fiorentini), attempts to rape a local girl, which enables Betti/Berti to trace the kidnappers to an abandoned farm, and even though they do manage to get away, Mancuso is later found reduced to ashes inside a burnt-out car.  Betti believes all this rampant crime to be the work of Jean Albertelli (John Saxon, who thankfully dubbed his own characteristic voice hereon), an underworld kingpin whose far-reaching influence is obvious. However, due to a lack of evidence, Betti is unable to make any of the charges stick.  

After a longstanding career, in a typically slightly ‘surreal’ bit of English-dubbed dialogue, Insp. Arpino refers to having his (quote) “balls in pieces”, so he employs Fabbri (Massimo Vanni, alias future action star “Alex McBride”), an undercover cop whose cover is eventually blown (“Some stoolie must’ve blabbed!”), who is subsequently tied and dragged behind a car at a remote quarry, which immediately places Albertelli right at the top of Betti’s lengthy (quote) “shit-list!  However, because Betti is deemed (quote) “too hot-headed” by Albertelli, he’s set-up for the murder of Lazzari (Adolfo Lastretti), one of Albertelli’s many underlings, and this trumped-up charge eventually lands him in prison (a diversionary subplot which was completely excised from Master Video’s long-out-of-print Italian-Canadian VHS cassette), enabling Albertelli to follow through with a proposed major drug deal at the Genovese docks with the help of the French mob, led by one Forestier (Stelio Candelli).

Clocking-in at just over 100 minutes, SPECIAL COP IN ACTION crams in plenty of plot developments and loads of action - including the compulsory car chases, natch - with Merli usually giving chase while unloading his Beretta .44 at the very same time.  There’s also an exciting foot chase along a steeply-angled roof lined with typical Italian terracotta tiles - which isn’t easy to navigate if you happen to be wearing loafers, like Merli is! - resulting in a nail-biting scene which leaves our Merli hanging precariously from one of the wobbly rain gutters.  Expertly and efficiently cut by Vincenzo Tomassi, who also worked alongside Lenzi for most of his similar Italocrime films, Girolami and Tomassi keep things moving at a swift pace even during some of the slower stretches as Merli contemplates a life of peace and tranquility outside the police force (“Time is passing, but you’re still young,” says Arpino) with Luisa (Mirella D’Angelo) as his potential love interest.  This being the third outing in the unofficial ‘Betti trilogy’, the character is definitely becoming a little world-weary, and even a little wistful; a characteristic which was explored more deeply in some of Stelvio Massi’s late-entry poliziotteschi, such as THE REBEL (1980).

Mastered in 4K from a 35mm film print, SPECIAL COP IN ACTION looks excellent in this 1080p rendering, which features the film’s original 1.85:1 framing and no discernible digital manipulation or colour correction, a fact which may be a turn-off for viewers (unrealistically) expecting absolute image perfection.  At times (particularly during the opening credits), colours are a little washed-out, but for the most part the picture is sharp and film-like, and easily the best it has ever looked on video. And, unlike some previous VHS editions—of which various alternate edits were released in different parts of the world—it’s completely uncut to boot.  The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio is presented with both English and Italian language options with dialogue, and such crucial sound effects as squealing tires and gun-shots all sounding well-balanced. As an added plus, Dorado have also added optional English and Italian subtitles as well.

As with SPECIAL COP IN ACTION, Mario Caiano’s (directing under his “William Hawkins” handle) WEAPONS OF DEATH (or NAPOLI, SPARA! as per the film’s Italian title), also begins with a catalytic bank robbery, this time at the Banca Fabbrocini.  In an ingenious move, the getaway driver (“Just keep driving, you turkey!”) poses as a member of the local Squadra Volante (“Flying Squad”), but Insp. Belli's (Leonard Mann - his name once again altered to “Bidi” on English prints) intuitive nature and stubborn determination keeps him one step ahead of the baddies at all times.  Far more volatile is Santoro (Henry Silva) and his crew, who brazenly rob the Roma Express and steal a half-million in cash from the Poste Italiane, leaving many dead in the aftermath, one of their own included. “The group is as organized as they come,” remarks Belli, and he knows only too well that Santoro is untouchable because (quote) “He’ll have at least ten people to vouch for him.”  Although treated like his very own son by the powerful Don Alfredo (Tino Bianchi), the arrogantly assured Santoro is running rampant throughout Naples, resulting in tensions between some of the other underworld bosses, including Calise and Licata (respectively played by familiar faces Tommaso Palladino and Enrico Maisto, each of whom appeared in their fair share of Italocrimers [about a dozen apiece in total]).  Following one of the obligatory car chases on the outskirts of Naples, Santoro is left with an ideal opportunity to get a shot at Belli, knowing full-well that, if kept alive, Belli’s superiors will finger him as a potentially corrupt cop and discipline him accordingly; which leaves Belli no choice but to bring Santoro in alive, but this proves trickier than expected, that is, until he comes into contact with Luisa Parise (Ida Galli, a.k.a. “Evelyn Stewart”)…

Playing-out in a similar milieu as this disc’s above-discussed co-feature, WEAPONS OF DEATH’s numerous tangential subplots feature plenty of action, including a hair-raising bit of stuntwork on the part of Mann as he precariously clambers over a speeding tanker truck.  In a cheeky bit of casting, Jeff Blynn (blond-haired passable ‘Merli lookalike’ who would go on to appear in Alfonso Brescia’s THE NEW GODFATHERS [1979]) is cast as Giudi (renamed “George” on English prints), a secondary protagonist who leads a group of Squadra Volonte cops working undercover as ostensible Neapolitan cabbies.  In a bout of desperation, Belli even has the Squadra Volonte rob a high-stakes poker game in order to get some evidence against Santoro; in retaliation, one of the plainclothes cops is gorily decapitated on his motorcycle by a strategically placed wire stretched across the road.  In one of the film’s many plot tangents, a pedophile (Adolfo Lastretti) is attacked in a public park by outraged parents after trying to snatch a young girl, only to subsequently be castrated in prison by other convicts (“You ain’t never gonna use it again, you fucker!”).  Of course, being as this is also set in Naples, Massimo Deda returns as street-kid Gennarino (renamed “Johnny/Gianni” on English prints) – bum leg and all – in a bid to recapture some of that winning chemistry from Lenzi’s VIOLENT NAPLES.  Mann as Belli is like a surrogate father to Gennarino and continuously warns him of the threat of reform school whenever he’s caught stealing tires or selling phony sparkling water to unsuspecting customers.  In a daring bit of self-assurance, Gennarino even steals a promotional race car and careens through the streets of Naples in it (“That car is a real bomb, man!”) as Francesco De Masi’s mandolin-infused music plays cheerfully in the background.  Other than for this jaunty, carefree number, De Masi’s otherwise somber, jazzy score is a real treat, amounting to one of the great composer’s underrated gems.

Constantly puffing on a cigar, American-born lead Leonard Mann is sufficiently engaging as Belli who, although it’s never made clear, seems to have gained his current position recently; a go-getter who’ll stop at nothing – up to and including the law – to nab Santoro. Henry Silva also possesses much the same – if far more ruthless – driving ambition (“I’m a successful man in life because I never give up!”), resulting in a few tense standoffs. These include an attempted hit on Santoro, who is not only saved by his bulletproof car, but by an unsuspecting Belli (“If I knew it was you…”).  Usually relegated to inconsequential throwaway bit parts, most female characters – Barbara Bouchet from MILAN CALIBER .9 (1972), notwithstanding – are mere window-dressing in poliziotteschi, and Caiano’s film is no exception.  In the present film, the third-billed Evelyn Stewart essentially appears in little more than a glorified cameo towards the end of the picture; whereas Kirsten Gille, one of cabbie/narc Giudi’s fares, sticks around long enough to provide some full-frontal nudity.

WEAPONS OF DEATH first appeared on Italian DVD from the budget label Quinto Piano in what was a heavily-compromised release which was both cut and not English-friendly.  Fortunately, Dorado Films’ Blu-ray sports an all-new 4K remastered version, which retains Pier Luigi Santi’s original 1.85:1 framing and is thankfully uncut. Although the image is quite sharp with a healthy amount of natural film grain on view, it should be noted that the opening credits appear almost sepia-tone for a short while, but once the film begins proper, however, it all looks fairly vibrant, sharp and colourful.  The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio also sounds excellent, in spite of the typical tinny canned dubbing, but the disc also features Italian audio and comes with optional English and Italian subtitle options.

As a very worthwhile special bonus, Dorado Films have also included a DVD of Alberto De Martino’s THE COUNSELLOR (a.k.a. COUNSELOR AT CRIME [1973]), a remarkable genre highpoint – and quite possibly one of De Martino’s best – revolving around mafia in-fighting, which features standout performances from both Martin Balsam and Tomas Milian.  For a full review, click here.  Trailers for all three films in this set are also included, as well as a pair of liner note booklets containing incisive essays courtesy of Roberto Curti on ‘The Italian Crime Film’ and the individual films in question.  To top it all off, a nifty, full-colour reproduction of the original Italian WOD pressbook is included, too.

All-in-all, Dorado’s “Explosive Eurocrime Double Feature” is an outstanding package, and it makes a terrific primer for anyone wishing to dip their toe into the tough-as-nails world of Italian poliziotteschi before hopefully taking the plunge headfirst.  Order it from DiabolikDVD.

Note: If you purchase a copy and experience a sluggish menu, visit Dorado Films’ blog for further information.