Tuesday, May 23, 2017

THE NIGHT OF THE SCORPION BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following hot on the heels of their first, and very praiseworthy Blu-ray of Jess Franco’s Forgotten Films Vol.1, those fine individuals at Dorado Films decided to grace EuroCult fans with yet another rarely seen obscurity on Blu, Alfonso Balcázar’s Spanish/Italian giallo, THE NIGHT OF THE SCORPION (1972).  Released in Spain under the equally illogical title of LA CASA DE LAS MUERTAS VIVIENTES (trans. “The House of the Living Dead”), Dorado’s new 4K transfer, which was taken from the original 35mm film print, definitely adds considerable vigour to an already compelling, Gothic-styled giallo.

As the film opens at a funeral for his wife Helen (Gioia Desideri) on a grey, overcast day, Oliver Bromfield (José Antonio Amor) is plagued by disturbing images concerning her death.  Also attending are Oliver’s youngish mother-in-law Sara (Nuria Torray), who also has a rather ‘unnatural’ attraction to him and his sister Jenny (Teresa Gimpera).  In the wake of this tragic event, Oliver decides to leave his familial estate, and during his time away, he meets Ruth (Daniela Giordano) – their courtship effectively and efficiently portrayed over the opening credits – and eventually marries her, after which he returns to his family home; a large, foreboding castle situated high atop a mountain, where Sara and Jenny still reside.  As expected, Ruth is met with hostility upon her arrival, which eventually prompts her to begin her very own investigation, but which also sets in motion a black-gloved killer…


At the time, Italy reigned supreme with this particular brand of cinema, but Spain also produced its fair share of similar films – many of which were co-productions with Italy – such as Juan Bosch’s THE KILLER WORE GLOVES (1974) and THE KILLER WITH A THOUSAND EYES (a.k.a. ON THE EDGE, 1974) and Javier Aguirre’s lone Spanish production, EL ASESINO ESTÁ ENTRE LOS TRECE (1973).  Much like Bosch’s efforts, THE NIGHT OF THE SCORPION was also a Spanish/Italian production, this time between Balcázar’s own Producciones Balcázar S.A. and International Apollo Films, who scored a sizable hit with Lucio Fulci’s A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971) a year earlier. 


Simplistic in its execution, with a passing resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940), a similarity which author Troy Howarth also points out in his insightful and detailed commentary, Balcázar’s film utilizes the Baroque-styled castle to excellent effect with its isolated locale and spacious, empty rooms, wherein any number of secrets might be hiding or kept hidden.  In spite of the film’s leisurely pace, Balcázar continually draws our attention to the untwining story, successfully balancing the past and the present and slowly unravelling each character’s deeper, darker secrets and possible motives. Adding to the film immeasurably, is the relatively unknown but insatiably adulterous cast – especially in this uncut version, where just about the entire female cast drops their tops – whose suspicions and general mistrust propel the action forward.  Everyone is harbouring dirty secrets, and even Oliver is completely unsure of himself as he wanders the castle in apathy, while Ruth, the feisty newcomer, eventually hires Uncle Edward (Osvaldo Genazzani), a private detective, to try and keep her own – and very genuine – suspicions at bay.


Difficult to see, let alone uncut, fully-scoped and in English, Dorado’s Blu-ray of this nearly forgotten Spanish-lensed giallo looks fantastic.  Although awash in a rather restrained colour scheme with lots of browns, burgundies and moldy blues, Dorado’s new 4K transfer is sharp and very film-like, plus it’s also great to finally get to see it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  The English 2.0 audio sounds clear and free of distortion, and Dorado have also included optional English, Spanish and Italian subtitle options.  The biggest extra here is a feature-length audio commentary from SO DEADLY, SO PERVERSE author and film historian Troy Howarth.  He discusses numerous topics, including the development and history of the giallo and the differences between the Italian and Spanish varieties, and also remarks that Spanish gialli (quote) “tend to have an overtly misogynist bent.”  Other topics discussed include background information on many of the principal actors (including English-language dubbing artist Edward Mannix, who dubbed Uncle Edward), director Balcázar, and even famed composer Piero Piccioni, who provides the moodily-melancholic score.  The disc also includes a trailer-reel (53m) of sorts with many of Dorado’s acquisitions, including a Spanish-language trailer for Jess Franco’s CAMINO SOLITARIO (1984), which is also coming soon to Blu-ray from Dorado Films; an excellent trailer for Massimo Pirri’s TUNNEL (a.k.a. FATAL FIX, 1980); numerous rarely-seen and mouth-watering Sergio Bergonzelli films, and many more rarities, which won’t be revealed here and are best left as a surprise. Dorado have also included a couple of nicely illustrated liner booklets with writing from Bryan Martinez of The Giallo Room and EuroCult genre expert, Robert Monell.

Although never regarded as a top-tier giallo, THE NIGHT OF THE SCORPION still remains an engaging whodunit, which is made all the more watchable thanks to Dorado Films’ excellent presentation.  Order it from Diabolik DVD.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

DOUBLE EXPOSURE BLU-RAY REVIEW

Based on an original story by director William Byron Hillman, DOUBLE EXPOSURE (1983) also incorporates many elements from his earlier film, THE PHOTOGRAPHER (1974), which likewise centered around a shutterbug and a string of homicides. Essentially reprising the same role, Michael Callan once again returns as Adrian Wilde, the tortured fashion photographer, who, this time around, may or may not be involved in a recent spate of murders plaguing Los Angeles.  Although tenuously connected to the ’74 film, DOUBLE EXPOSURE can almost be taken as a prequel of sorts, and thanks to the first-rate work of Vinegar Syndrome, this rather intriguing film receives its best transfer to date.

After a promising opening wherein an undercover cop—dressed in drag!—is brutally killed by an unknown assailant, who seems to be focusing his attentions on L.A. prostitutes (“Bizarre killings continue to plague Los Angeles!” scream the headlines), a pair of cops (Pamela Hensley and David Young) assigned to the case swear they’re (quote) “…gonna nail him!”  Meanwhile, Adrian Wilde (Callan), a prestigious photographer is suffering from vivid, horrifying nightmares in which he murders his models; but worse yet, he’s having a hard time deciphering the difference between his dreams and reality… especially after a number of these models start turning-up dead for real. 

Hovering conspicuously between a slasher film (“Smile, and say ‘Die!’”) and an erotic thriller, DE benefits greatly from some energetic performances, including that of Hollywood vet Callan as the conflicted and utterly-confounded lead.  At times, he’s quite over-the-top, which only adds to the confusing structure of the film, and in fact, his baffling mood-swings definitely work in favour of the film.  During frequent visits to his shrink, Dr. Frank Curtis, (the great Seymour Cassel), Wilde strives to get a grip on his situation, to no avail. “Listen man, sometimes, it’s gettin’… like the dreams… I can’t tell when they’re real and…”, he exclaims, much to Doc Curtis’ bafflement.  Sure enough, even Curtis begins to doubt Wilde’s sanity as more and more women turn up dead.  For the most part, much of the acting is uneven, but again, this shortcoming actually compliments the far-fetched plot, which also allows director Hillman to seize the opportunity and include some ’80s-style sleaze and violence, which, to be honest, almost seems out-of-place at times: a nude woman getting startlingly and viciously slashed with a knife comes readily to mind.  In lesser, if no-less-significant roles, frequent TV star Joanna Pettet as Wilde’s girlfriend (“You’re the first stranger I ever picked-up!”) also instills a believable vulnerability into her character, even going so far as to provide some surprising nudity while Cleavon Little as a clichéd police chief is always entertaining no matter how small the role. The remainder of the cast is also made up of many familiar faces, including Misty Rowe, who is probably best remembered from Ferd and Beverly Sebastien’s THE HITCHHIKERS (1974), along with Michael Miller’s slasher spoof, CLASS REUNION (1982); the burly Robert Tessier, a distinctive veteran stuntman and character actor who, at the time, probably had his biggest public exposure on television as the Midas Muffler man; as well as future Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland as a prostitute. 

Initially released by BCI in both their After Dark Thrillers and Blood Chills box sets, DE later resurfaced via Millcreek’s Drive-In Cult Classics 32 Movie Set, but all these collections featured an incorrectly-framed transfer that was closer to 1.85:1.  In 2012, through their “Katarina’s Nightmare Theatre” line of DVDs, Scorpion Releasing took their stab at it, finally presenting the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  No surprise, Vinegar Syndrome’s All-Region, Dual-Format Blu-ray / DVD combo is a noticeable step-up in terms of picture quality, boasting sharper resolution and more subdued colours, which makes for a far clearer, better-defined image.  The DTS-HD English audio track also sounds terrific, and as an added bonus, Jack Goga’s score is also offered as an isolated option. 

Unlike Scorpion’s DVD, which featured two commentary tracks (one with actor Callan moderated by Scott Spiegel and the other with DP R. Michael Stringer), that disc also featured an on-camera interview with Callan, which Vinegar Syndrome didn’t port-over for this release.  For their edition, VS has recorded an ‘all-new’ commentary with Stringer, as well including an assortment of newly-produced extras.  Moderated via telephone – or possibly Skype - with VS’ Joe Rubin, Stringer discusses the DE’s relationship to Hillman’s earlier film THE PHOTOGRAPHER and why he chose to shoot the low-budget feature in scope; he also discusses his wide-ranging career and the fate that befell the project at Crown International Pictures, the film’s U.S. distributor.  In the first on-camera interview, Exposing Double Exposure (29m28s), Stringer discusses his beginnings in the industry working as a PA (production assistant) and at various jobs in the camera department, as well as his earlier stint as a DP on Alain Patrick’s BLUE MONEY ([1971] also available from VS).  He also discusses the genesis of DOUBLE EXPOSURE, along with some of the issues he had shooting with anamorphic lenses.  In the second on-camera interview, Staying on Task (19m21s), script supervisor Sally Stringer talks about her early career in theatre and her subsequent migration to L.A. where she met her future husband Michael; her chance meeting with legendary director Orson Welles while she was a stage manager, which eventually led to her working as a script supervisor with Welles; and also, some of her work alongside both her husband and director Gary Graver.  Other extras include the original theatrical trailer and a ‘promotional still gallery’.  In addition, the first 1,000 copies come with a thick O-card featuring some striking cover art courtesy of Derek Gabryszak; a limited edition which, according to VS, has been selling very well—so grab one here before it disappears!


All-in-all, DOUBLE EXPOSURE is interesting stylistically, and thanks to a highly-capable and game cast, is quite engrossing, while occasionally bolstered by bouts of nudity and graphic violence, those enduringly-popular exploitation staples.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE - DVD REVIEW

Reviewed by Steve Fenton.

In this cost-conscious if lovable moodily-monochromatic 1959 British creature feature directed by Robert Day, American leading man Marshall (CULT OF THE COBRA [1955], BOG [1979]) Thompson oversees government-funded rocket testing, wherein an astronaut (who ‘just happens’ to be his kid brother, played by Bill Edwards) pierces the ionosphere and soon becomes the character referred to in the title. However—big surprise!—something goes horribly awry, and said astro-bro returns from the outside edge of space to good old terra firma, where he subsequently degenerates into a sociopathic, horrendously mutating monster with a penchant for offing minor cast members regular-as-clockwork. Set for the most part in “Mexico,” though actually entirely lensed in the UK—as a few of the rather dodgy faux ‘foreign’ accents testify—FMIS is capably-enough-fabricated that it may be regarded as a minor gem of ’50s pulp sci-fi/horror.

Soap opera is added to the plot in the tension often generated between the two brothers: Thompson, the staid and stuffy, by-the-book officer and Edwards as Dan, the reckless, good-time test pilot whose unquenchable jones for high-speed thrills sometimes overtakes his basic common sense (as here). Some surprisingly well-executed rocketship FX, with coldly clinical ‘scientific babble’ kept to a restrained minimum, add to the generally taut, ominous mood.
Mexican lobbycard courtesy of Steve Fenton.

Edwards’ ship (the ‘Y-13,’ clearly based on the real-life X-15 in name, if not design) passes through what resembles a spatial snowstorm, an unforeseen development which brings an abrupt end to the mission before it’s barely even gotten off the launch-pad. The disabled rocket then drops back down to Earth, where Thompson heads a desperate countrywide search for his missing junior sibling, hoping to save him before time runs out. Italian actress Marla Landi, playing the downed astronaut’s concerned earthbound girlfriend, pulls in a few plot strings that are highly reminiscent of situations in Val Guest’s THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (a.k.a. THE CREEPING UNKNOWN, 1956), as she blames his onscreen big brother Thompson for her sweetie’s predicament, when in actuality Edwards’ character had largely engineered his own unenviable predicament by not sticking to the carefully-planned itinerary and foolishly veering-off on an unplotted course of his own right in mid-flight.

Before long, ‘eerie’ music starts up, and we are given fleeting glimpses of the formerly wholly-human Edwards’ ever-transforming gurgling / growling / shadowy / lumbering form. And the body count soon begins to rack-up: a nurse and some cattle are left ‘slaughtered’—albeit all ‘conveniently’ off-screen—leaving formulaic dialogue to bear the burden of instilling suspense (e.g., “What could’ve caused such wanton destruction?”). The usual horrible wounds and traces of an alien substance are found on the bodies of victims.

About halfway into the narrative, we finally get a good gander at the culprit: namely baby brother’s mutated, warty, semi-monstrified self. Admittedly moody (though derivative in the extreme) passages detail the crud-encrusted creature’s grumpy antics. Before too long, hero Thompson comes to the unpleasant realization that that blood-drinking, meteorite-dusted monster roaming the countryside is none other than his poor sibling, Dan (not to mention a hulking great extra doing his absolute worst Glenn Strange-impersonating-Karloff impersonation). When the monster is revealed for too long at a stretch, as is often the case, the impact is lessened, and the comedic level upped; this is helped none by constant outbursts of lurid, pulpy scriptwriting. But you takes what you can get, as they say, and FMIS has plenty to like about it, so cut it some slack, okay? Chances are if you’re in any way, shape or form a fan of old school monster movies that you’ll find more than enough in the way of entertainment value here.
U.S. lobbycard courtesy of Steve Fenton.

Dan progressively becomes more and more alien in both appearance and behavior, the latter due to his mind gradually becoming absorbed and assimilated by the extraterrestrial sentience which has taken possession of his brain matter. He—er, better make that it—invades the scientific research complex to go on a stiff-limbed, mummy-like vandalism spree, while his former colleagues valiantly seek to reason with him despite his ever-failing human faculties as the more bestial alien side of his mutating nature gains ever-greater dominance. Big brother Chuck ultimately saves the day… if unfortunately not his brother, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion anyway, so his demise comes as no big surprise to us at all (hence, no ‘Spoiler Alert’ was given here in advance of me divulging at least part of the big reveal!).

While there are certainly more memorable flicks of this type (William Sachs’ THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN [1977], a fittingly trashy ‘homage’ to the subgenre, most readily springs to mind), it’s always fun watching Marshall Thompson do his earnest if bored-looking best while trying to sort-out things that are way beyond his ken to understand. Individual scenes certainly stick in your brainpan afterwards, and the screenplay offers up enough neat touches and little ironies that you can’t help but radiate a modicum of fondness for FMIS.

Previously issued on DVD—during the format’s infancy—in 1998 by Image Entertainment, the film got a nice overhaul in 2007 courtesy of the Criterion Collection as part of their 4-disc Monsters and Madmen collection.  Once again shown in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, FMIS now looks considerably sharper here than ever before, with easier-to-make-out details and healthier blacks. As expected for a film of this vintage, the original mono audio won’t be demo material, but it sounds clear throughout, without any hiss or other such issues.

As expected, Criterion includes some nifty extras on their disc, beginning with an informative commentary by producer Richard Gordon and film historian Tom Weaver, who go into all sorts of detail about the production and its principal players.  Both men have plenty to say about this modest production, ensuring a solid listen.  On-camera interviews with director Robert Day and actress Marla Landi are also included, as are the theatrical trailer, some radio spots and a stills gallery, too.

Sure, that overused, gung-ho ‘Let’s-start-all-over-again’ ending has worn a mite thin over the intervening decades, but FIRST MAN INTO SPACE is one which any lover of cheapjack ’50s monster schlock will be happy to plug into. The same team’s FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958) is lots better, though; although I do so hate playing favorites when it comes to this sort of thing, because they’ve all got their places in the great scheme of things, and there’s plenty of room for everybody, after all. Order FIRST MAN INTO SPACE here.