Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COGS, SPOOLS & ½” TAPE #10 - SPACE MASTER X-7 VHS REVIEW



Reviewed by Steve Fenton.


I originally saw this movie on VHS tape way back when via the domestic Movies Unlimited label, but it later showed up on late-night TV in Canada on Toronto’s own SPACE station. As of this writing there was at least one version – ripped from a videotaped copy of an American TV airing – at YouTube, and one copy of that aforementioned VHS version was up for sale on Amazon. Comics legend and respected cult movie fandom scribe Stephen R. Bissette gave it some much-needed exposure in a recent issue (#8) of Monster! digest zine, so I thought I’d also give it some coverage here at Unpopped Cinema. A modest, little-remembered if by no means entirely worthless movie like this needs all the publicity it can get!


The title of this pretty much forgotten 1958 SF item – which was filmed in a nominal photographic process called “RegalScope” – seems to be promising some sort of high-flying intergalactic adventure (possibly something much along the lines of Kurt Neumann’s “lost in space” classic ROCKETSHIP X-M [1950]). This advance initial impression is further strengthened by the film’s spacey opening titles, which are laid over a star-field and set to ominous music (much of which saw later reuse in Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD [1968], which is definitely of historical note). What follows is a wholly fictional if “factually” presented, docudrama-style narrativesundry stock footage is used, which further adds to the documentarian tonethat often comes across as too academic, with an air of cold clinical detachment that sometimes serves to distance itself from the viewer. Of its typethere were precious few other attempts then being made at serious adult-oriented science fictionit is rather well-done, and, while the action does remain firmly down here on terra firma rather than zooming off into outer space, as well as being a pseudo-“blob” entry this film is a minor if at times quite engaging forerunner of Michael Crichton’s The ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971).

S.M. X-7 opens with a dry explanation from an authoritative scientific type: as America’s answer to the Soviet Sputnik, the “Space Master XM-712” (its full official title) was recently launched into orbit some 1000 miles above the Earth.


Stentorian-voiced trailer-narrating great Paul Frees (1920-1986) here gets a comparatively rare onscreen acting role as egghead Johns Hopkins biologist Dr. Charles T. Pommer, who hopes that the returning titular satellite may have collected some extraterrestrial microorganisms during its spaceflight, thus providing conclusive confirmation as to the existence of life in outer space (an obligatory throwaway comment is at one point inevitably made regarding “Little green men in flying saucers”). It soon develops that the Space Master has indeed brought back alien life-forms with it, but they are much smaller than even little green men: try tiny red microbes! Dubbed “Blood Rust”, a parasitic form of fungal plant life, this heretofore unknown organism rapidly reproduces itself via microscopic spores, proliferating exponentially in a brief span of time.

Embroiled in a marital dispute that involves a custody battle, Frees’ character is a pompously arrogant authoritarian who thinks with his little head as much as his big one. While he is conducting his experiments with it, the Blood Rust gets out of control and proceeds to spread like wildfire, claiming the scientist’s life in the process. It’s a shame that Frees is killed-off in the first quarter, as – insufferable bastard though he is – his is the film’s most offbeat and interesting character; and it’s nice to see the face that goes with his distinctive speech pattern for a change. Once heard, his voice becomes easily recognizable thereafter, and there’s no mistaking it if you ever hear it again; indeed, he had such a distinctive one that other narrators of movie trailers sometimes tried their best to emulate his delivery, albeit usually only sounding like cheap imitations of the real deal.

Paul Frees as biologist Dr. Charles T. Pommer.

Presented as “pulsing”, rubbery mats of protoplasmwhich, as “monsters” go, frankly makes for a rather inert and unintimidating menacethe ever-multiplying, protein-absorbing Blood Rust quickly becomes a deadly blight on humanity itself; threatening to proliferate unchecked and inundate our entire globe if not dealt with immediately and with extreme prejudice. Along with low-ranking military everyman Pvt. Ratigan (Robert Ellis), main hero John Hand (Bill Williams) attempts to incinerate the fatal fungus. It becomes a desperate race against time by the authorities to ensure that every last trace of the carnivorous spores has been eradicated in order to prevent global contagion of pandemic proportions. That aspect of the plot makes it rather topical in these modern times of societal anxiety about potential deadly infections being spread from nation to nation (fears about such events seem to have eclipsed anxiety about the possibility of nuclear holocaust in the minds of the masses today).

Because she had come into contact with the Rust and become a carrier (“…a thousand Typhoid Marys rolled-up into one!”), a massive manhunt is mobilized to track down the late Frees character’s missing ex, Laura Greeling (Lyn Thomas), who unwittingly threatens to spread the infection if she is not apprehended and decontaminated ASAP. The Blood Rust multiplies in the baggage compartment of an airliner in mid-flight. Little real suspenseful tension is generated, even when the much-too-lifelessly-listless Blood Rust begins to bubble, BLOB-like, into the passenger cabin and crawl all over the plane’s outer fuselage. Coming as no surprise to anybodyit was, of course, a foregone conclusionboth the airplane and the world are ultimately saved.

The film was directed by-the-numbers if adequately enough by Edward Bernds, a long-time director of comedy shorts and features starring The Three Stooges (in all their various lineups). Here flying solo from his usual two nutty buddies, moonlighting former-and-future #1 Stooge Moe Howard (1897-1975) puts in an amusing “straight” cameo as a smart-mouthed cabbie named Rettlinger, who is at one point heard making the obvious in-joke, “I’m all by myself!” (Similarly, former replacement 3rd Stooge Joe Besser [1907-1988] also flew solo to do a quickie cameo in Gene Nelson’s lesser-seen, downbeat man-into-monster movie HAND OF DEATH [1962].)

By no means as dull as dishwater, if sadly lacking in much genuine imagination and excitement or any sense of either humor or wonder, the matter-of-fact and efficiently methodical SPACE MASTER X-7 largely registers like an episode of Dragnet with mild sci-fi elements as the Office of Internal Security strives to solve the pressing problem in time for the final reel to unroll through the sprockets. Diehard, completist adherents of ’Fifties SF might well derive some benefit from this, but insomniacs with a low tolerance for the more naïve filmic fare of yesteryear might want to take it like cinematic Sominex instead, because it will surely have them catching some ZZZ’s in no time.

NOTE: Although it had nothing whatsoever to do with the movie and evidently only stole its name because it sounded catchy, SpaceMaster X-7 (a.k.a. Space War) was a sci-fi-themed shooter video game cartridge created by Sirius and put out by 20th Century-Fox for the Atari 2600 and Sears systems in 1983.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

COME CANI ARRABBIATI - BLU-RAY REVIEW


Never released theatrically outside Italy and barely released on video (except for a shoddy, almost unwatchable Greek VHS tape), Mario Imperoli’s COME CANI ARRABBIATI (1977) finally gets a much-needed upgrade from über- specialist label Camera Obscura.

Export pressbook synopsis: ‘Episodes of robbery with violence plague the city.  Inspector Muzi suspects a group of idle young playboys.  His superiors yield to influential pressure from the youths’ parents and take him off the case.  But he continues his investigation privately with the help of Germana, a woman detective.’

Made a year before Imperoli’s equally cynical but less politically charged CANNE MOZZE (1977), this is yet another variation on the many polizieschi that focused on “troubled youths”.  Although this was a rather common subplot of most polizieschi, a small group of films made it their predominate focus.  Titles such as Segri & Ferrara’s (co-directed by Sergio Grieco & Massimo Felisatti) gleefully sadistic VIOLENCE FOR KICKS (1975), Tano Cimarosa’s lowly DEATH HUNT (1977) and Romolo Guerrieri’s more upscale and thought-provoking, YOUNG, VIOLENT AND DESPERATE (1979) are just a few examples. 

Opening at a soccer match as a rather jaunty Italian tune plays over the credits, a group of hooded men in matching jackets rob a cashbox and carelessly kill a security guard during the ensuing chaos.  Detectives are soon on the case looking for information, and then, in an interesting bit of cutting, a woman is seen plummeting from a window during an apparent act of suicide; she actually turns out to be the wife of the slain security guard.  Next up, shots of butchered meat fill the screen as commissario Paolo Muzi (Jean-Pierre Sabagh) follows potential leads at the local zoo.  In a nice, but somewhat heavy-handed touch, the zookeeper feeds ‘Sandokan the tiger’ and calmly remarks, “In Italy, meat is permitted”, an obvious metaphor for the rampant corruption and crime that plagues most Italian citizens.

It’s soon revealed that Tony (Cesare Barro), Rico (Luis de le Torre) and their female accomplice Silvia (Anna Rita Grapputo) are responsible for the sudden rash of robberies and murder.  Paolo suspects Tony but due to his “influential” and wealthy father Arrigo (Paolo Carlini), he can’t prove anything.  Arrigo simply visits Paolo’s superiors and has him taken off the case because he’s a “real pain in the ass”.  At one point, Paolo vents his frustration with Germana (Paola Senatore), a fellow poliziotta, (“It’s not knowing the rules. You have to change them.”), but even her outlook is equally pessimistic when she remarks, “Maybe this is how bad society has become.”  Nevertheless, Paolo teams up with Germana in the hopes of capturing Tony and his cohorts “in the act”.

Quite different from ‘traditional’ Italocrime efforts, at first this appears to be a lesser effort due to the relatively unknown Jean-Pierre Sabagh – he subsequently appeared in Imperoli’s CANNE MOZZE – who headlines the relatively obscure cast.  However, Imperoli isn’t interested in another Franco Nero or Maurizio Merli clone, even though his film does display enough customary earmarks typical of the genre.  The tone is spiteful and depressing, and Imperoli chooses to explore the darker aspects of criminality, and even more specifically, the rich and politically motivated upper classes that simply bend the rules whenever it suits them and the people it ultimately affects.  Many polizieschi have explored these class struggles quite prominently, but Imperoli and Piero Regnoli’s script places these obvious subtexts at the forefront, which, at times, even highlights the ethical ambiguity of the ‘good guys’.  Paolo is usually presented with a simple black-or-white moral compass, but even his character comes into question a few times.  When Tony viciously kills a prostitute, Germana agrees to go undercover – much to her hesitation but Paolo’s insistence - in the hopes of luring Tony out in the open.  When she is almost beaten and raped by Tony and his crew, Paolo puts her trauma aside and even manipulates her into sex later that night, which she consents to just the same.  Soon after, Paolo succumbs to Silvia’s alluring charms in the hopes of gleaning some info on Tony, and even though he suspects she may be involved, he doesn’t hesitate to sleep with her just the same, but Silvia turns out to be much smarter and more manipulative than Paolo may have initially believed.  In fact, both of the principal female characters are assertive and strong-willed and can definitely hold their own in the predominately male-oriented criminal underworld, but it also doesn’t stop Imperoli from having them strip down to their birthday suits in many of the film’s highly exploitable scenes.  Other more prominent, equally assertive female characters also turned up in many of the more respected polizieschi efforts, including Mariangela Melato in Stefano Vanzina’s prototype of the genre FROM THE POLICE…WITH THANKS (1971) and Giovanna Ralli in Massimo Dallamano’s superb poliziesco/giallo hybrid WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (1974). 

Another interesting, but somewhat underdeveloped character, Tony’s father Arrigo is only in a few key scenes, but his rather harsh and unforgiving philosophy has definitely corrupted his son.  When Arrigo attempts to give Tony some much needed advice (“The final move in life is victory.”), he essentially allows him to do as pleases as long he gets away with it.  Rich and bored, Tony and his cohorts even taunt their victims in a couple of uncomfortable scenes that also stem back to the class struggles of Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and similarly-themed Italian films, including Aldo Lado’s NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS (1975), Franco Prosperi’s LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH (1977) and Ruggero Deodato’s HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980).  But, as in Aldo Lado’s film, Imperoli flips the dynamic, with the affluent tormenting the lower classes as Tony and his partners-in-crime treat their victims like “meat” to serve their basest desires. At one point, Tony and his crew inadvertently kidnap a young woman (Gloria Piedimonte) who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and instead of just letting her go once they made their getaway, they bring her back to their hideout.  With her hands bound and mouth gagged, she desperately tries to escape as she maneuvers through the house, while eerie horror-tinged music plays.  It actually plays out much like a horror film as Tony, Silvia and Rico stalk her.  They eventually corner her in the bathroom, where she is stripped and continually degraded before having her brains blown out.  It’s an uncharacteristically nasty scene, which seems to have ventured in from another film; even Mario Molino’s sub-Nico Fidenco music makes it feel like some Joe D’Amato sleaze flick.

Shot in expansive 2.35:1 “Technoscope”, Imperoli’s regular DP Romano Albani - he also shot CANNE MOZZE - makes good use of the format with some interesting compositions considering many scenes unfold in cramped quarters.  Moody lighting highlights a few scenes, including the aforementioned stalking sequence, which is then punctuated by some rather stark, but wholly appropriate, fluorescent bathroom lighting, which concludes the entire sequence with a real gut-punch nastiness.

As per their usual standards, Camera Obscura has fashioned another standout release in their “Italian Genre Cinema Collection” and, despite the unavailability of most of the participants, they have included a number of worthwhile extras.  Exclusive to the Blu-ray, the first extra “When a Murderer Dies” is an in-depth interview with recently deceased DP Romano Albani put together by film expert Fabio Melelli.  The other equally illuminating extra, “It’s Not A Time for Tears” is an on-camera interview with assistant director Claudio Bernabei.  Usually associated with Joe D’Amato’s hardcore output in the early '80s (he co-directed many of these under his Alexandre Borsky pseudonym), Bernabei has plenty of interesting facts regarding this film’s production and his career in general.  On top of all this, Camera Obscura veterans Christian Kessler and Marcus Stiglegger once again provide another entertaining commentary (in German with English subtitles) while a trailer, a poster/still gallery and a 24-page liner notes booklet entitled 'A Muzzle for Rabid Dogs' by Kai Neumann is also included.  As you can imagine, this comes highly recommended and is an absolute must for fans of polizieschi. Order it at Diabolik DVD.