Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A LOOK BACK AT FRANCIS D. LYON'S CULT OF THE COBRA


Reviewed by Steve Fenton.

Directed by Francis D. Lyon in 1955, here we have some vintage Universal Pictures cheese-kitsch, this time with a pronounced – if resoundingly tame – “horror” angle (of sorts).  I originally saw this back in about 1978 on a regional Saturday late-night horror host show called Count Zappula’s Horror House, which I received over the airwaves – often with really poor reception! – via rabbit-ear antenna up in Northern Ontario (the former uranium mining boomtown of Elliot Lake, to be exact), piped in from Traverse City, Michigan.  Even back then when I was but a mere teenager who hadn’t seen anywhere near as many horror movies as I have by now, I recognized COTC for what it was (and still is): namely a lukewarm would-be thriller with very little in the way of any genuine style or pizzazz.  Indeed, it must have looked pretty dated even on its initial release, but has since, if not actually improved with age, then at the very least grown a bit more bearable (at least to me).  I viewed it a couple more times during the ‘80s and ‘90s courtesy of Toronto telly (on the local channel CKVR as a really beat-up TV release print, as I recall), then I never saw it again until, back in around 2009, I picked up Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s 10-film DVD box set “The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection”, which included the film more or less as filler; even though there is nary a true science-fiction element to be found in it and it is strictly of the supernatural spooky fantasy school, with mild (very mild) horror aspects.  That said, kind of like I was seeing it in a whole new light almost as if for the very first time again, it wasn’t until I saw it in this pristinely presented digital disc format that I was finally able to better appreciate the film’s relatively genuine virtues, that were at least brightened and made more apparent by the optimal presentation; which, conversely, also tends to accentuate its more negative qualities too.

After bribing a native snake-charmer named Daru for the privilege, five American servicemen stationed in the Middle East and led by wholesome hero Tom Markel (Marshall FIRST MAN INTO SPACE / FIEND WITHOUT A FACE Thompson) spy upon a forbidden sacred ceremony of the secret snake-worshipping cult of “Lamians”.  No less than Get Smart’s future “Chief” Edward Platt of all people fills an uncredited bit part as the cult’s leader, who delivers the snaky curse down on the interloping Yanks’ heads with extreme prejudice (“The Cobra Goddess will avenge herself! One by one you will die!”).  Upon being discovered, the Yankee infidels are cursed to suffer the wrath of the shape-shifting serpent sect.  After one of their comrades is struck down by what appears to be a deadly cobra – and indeed is, as well as something more besides – the rest return Stateside to civilian life following the war (WW2).

In Noo Yawk City, Thompson meets his new neighbour, a mysteriously exotic, sultry woman calling herself Lisa Moya (smoky dark brunette Howard Hughes protégé Faith Domergue, who is arguably best known for her leading lady turn in Universal’s big-budget sci-fi adventure THIS ISLAND EARTH [also from ‘55]), with whom he quickly becomes infatuated, despite her initial icy aloofness towards him; indeed, she acts this way with most everybody she meets.  She remains distant and anxious about allowing a romance to develop – and with good reason, as it happens.  More murders of Thompson’s ex-Army buddies follow (including ‘70s TV’s future Harry O, David Janssen), and it is soon revealed that Faith is responsible: being able to revert to cobra form in order to fulfill her destiny as harbinger of the Lamians’ lingering vengeance (her condition was facetiously dubbed “cobranthropy” by Tim Lucas in an old issue of his Video Watchdog zine).  Vampire-like bite marks are left on the necks of her/its victims.  Investing a faintly eerie tone into the generally bland and largely non-atmospheric proceedings, the weresnake’s ‘fish-eye’ lens P.O.V. shots are reminiscent of those previously used to represent the view through the eyes – sorry, eye – of the cyclopean alien xenomorph in Jack Arnold’s Unipix sci-fi classic IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953).  In another still more direct connection to that earlier film, second female lead here is filled by peppy blonde Kathleen Hughes, who had performed a similar function in IT.  For CULT, sorely torn between which hunky he-man hero to marry, rather than choosing Thompson’s really boring character, she instead opts for the ever-so-slightly less boring Paul Able (Richard – known for short as “Dick”! – Long [!!]).  As the perky, pointy-chested, tight-topped Julia here, like a model auditioning for a toothpaste commercial she smiles way too much, which was possibly a directorial decision intended to provide ‘vivacious’ night-and-day contrast with Domergue’s gloomy, sullen character, who scarcely ever cracks a smile.

 As the cold-blooded if not-hearted snake girl, Domergue gives cats, dogs and horses alike the willies, and even secondary hero Long gets a bad vibe off her, presumably just because he’s so dang wholesome he can sniff-out badness from a mile off; and he can smell it all over Domergue’s moodily melancholy character like stink on shit.  An attempt is made to generate some pathos for her lot (i.e., is dictated by the Lamian cult’s influence) rather than being a conscious choice on her part.  For the film’s sole decidedly lame ‘transformation’ sequence, we simply see Domergue’s shadow thrown in profile on a wall while ‘changing’ into that of a stiff rubber cobra via a crude now-you-see-her / now-you-don’t dissolve technique which was old news even in Georges Méliès’ day.  It was for this seeming laziness and indifference in the SFX department why I’ve so long considered COTC largely such a non-event, simply because, if they had at least injected a bit more creative energy into the more fantastical components of the narrative it might have been one whole helluva lot more consistently entertaining than it is (or rather isn’t, for the most part).

In some scenes it is positively painful to watch how hard Long is trying not to crack-up while delivering his dialogue (but with a handle like Dick Long, he’s one to laugh!  And what better name for playing hero in a snake movie; even if it is perhaps more suited to a porno star!).  David Janssen fills a supporting part as Italo-American bowling alley proprietor Rico Nardi, who gets fatally snake-bit while driving (indicative of the low budget imposed on this lesser league Universal horror, a shot of his flipping automobile was merely stock footage spliced in from another film which evidently dated from back in the ‘40s sometime.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before somewhere along the line, but I couldn’t place it).

Like Alfred Shaughnessy’s substantially superior Brit thriller CAT GIRL (1957), starring future Hammer glamour puss Barbara Shelley in the equivalent Domergue part, CULT OF THE COBRA is largely a quickie redo of Lewton’s influential CAT PEOPLE (1943), with the sexually-repressed anti-heroine (“She who is a snake, and yet a woman”) changing into a vengeful animal whenever she dares heed the natural human feminine urges throbbing within her loins; although this fermenting erotic undertow is decidedly downplayed here so as not to risk offending even the average all-American girl-next-door’s upstandingly upright and uptight great-grandmother back in ultrasensitive McCarthyist Middle America.  However, Domergue’s volcanically smouldering presence and a frantic native dancing girl undulating slinkily about in a condom-snug “snakeskin” body stocking provide the requisite helping of cheesecake, and that dancer’s floorshow – seen early into the action – makes for about the film’s liveliest sequence, simply by contrast with much of the dreary goings on elsewhere in the runtime.  As with other “animal girl” entries of the era (e.g., Susan Cabot’s The WASP WOMAN [1959] and Coleen Gray’s The LEECH WOMAN [1960], the latter another Universal pic included with the same DVD set cited above), Faith’s bestial inclinations eventually prove to be her undoing, which comes as no surprise to anyone…apparently not even she herself.

Dick Long and the cobra.

True to its emulative Lewtonesque roots, the film even includes a so-called “bus” shot (i.e., false scare); which was thus named after the famous scene in CAT PEOPLE where – right at a key moment during the suspenseful build-up – a bus unexpectedly and jarringly pulls into the frame and noisily slams on its airbrakes, causing untold numbers of viewers to jump clear out of their seats upon the film’s original release.  Back in the ‘40s, such a technique was still relatively fresh, although by now it has become old hat (virtually every so-called horror film nowadays contains more than one such ‘false alarm”, that’s how much the gimmick has been done to death and then some since).

As for CULT OF THE COBRA, like I said above, my initial exposure to the film was more than 30 years ago, and even back then I was left distinctly underwhelmed by it.  While its new millennial disc release has improved its standing somewhat in my eyes, it still registers for the large part as none-too-exciting.  But for me, probably just due to simple nostalgia, it has acquired a strange sort of ambiguous reputation in my memory, and I have come to regard it with roughly equal parts affection and contempt.  So you could say it had at least some sort of an effect on me, for what it’s worth, be it for better or worse…probably a bit of both.  If that sounds like some sort of backhanded compliment, it’s about the best I can do, I’m afraid.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

COGS, SPOOLS & ½ TAPE #12 - SEAGULLS FLY LOW VHS REVIEW


In SEAGULLS FLY LOW, one of the more elusive entries from Maurizio Merli’s extensive crimeslime filmography, here Merli stars as Jeff Jacobsen, a Vietnam veteran trying to transcend his squalid lifestyle.  Often referred to as “The Mechanic” (à la Charles Bronson?), and appearing rather scraggly here, he arrives in Italy to do a ‘favour’ for industrialist Roberto Micheli (Mel Ferrer, in a part originally envisioned for Ray Milland); by killing Mauro Martini, one of his business associates who “wanted to testify before the commission”.  Greeted at the airport by two of Micheli’s goons (including Franco Garofalo [dubbed by Mike Forest]), he does his job quickly and efficiently.  Troubles begin almost immediately when he is suddenly traumatized by flashbacks; cheaply executed through stock-shots of war atrocities tinged with a blood-red filter.  Realizing the trouble he’s in, he begins to regret his actions almost immediately.  He returns to Micheli, who hesitantly agrees to help him.  He creates a new identity for him (basically just cuts his hair and shaves his mustache!) and arranges a new passport under the name Albert Morgan.

Everything seems to be proceeding smoothly, but Micheli’s other business associate is getting nervous, and employs Micheli’s own men to take out both of them.  When ambushed at Micheli’s house, Micheli is shot while Jeff manages to escape with his life.  Hiding behind his shaky identity, he continues to run for most of the film, but through Amparo (Dagmar Lassander), a highly-connected individual and a friend of Micheli’s, he realizes that “The Smoker” (Red Martin) is holding his new passport. While at Amparo’s, he conveniently meets Isabelle Michereau (Nathalie Delon), and together they seek the Smoker on the tiny island of Ponza. 

Sight unseen, this mundane melodrama has all the makings of a prime piece of crimeslime, but it’s all so uniformly stale that even the few bursts of action and cynical ending don’t help alleviate the overall blandness.  Although it has moments that are quite obviously inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful Le SAMOURAÏ (1967), the story is far removed from your standard poliziesco, substituting tawdry melodrama for the usual crime film staples.  The typically over-enthusiastic Merli (dubbed by the ever-reliable Ted Rusoff) is also wasted in a vapid role that gives him very little to do except lament his situation and get smitten with Delon.  On their way to retrieve his passport, they observe the title scavenging shithawks (“They’re always looking for something more to eat, and this sea of garbage is their only happiness”), and then, later that night, Isabelle and Jeff share a tender moment in a cheap motel; a truly vomit-inducing scene intercut with Isabelle’s panting dog! 

Seasoned thespian Mel Ferrer doesn’t fare much better (at least he dubs his own lines, though), giving the kind of wooden performance that dominated most of his Italian career.  Dagmar Lassander provides the film’s sole interest as the owner of a nightclub who is also a prominent figure within the Italian underworld.  (“She’s a regular hellcat!”  remarks one cop). Strangely, la polizia are virtually absent from the entire film, except for the occasional scene with a solitary commissario (played by Venezuelan character actor Orlando Urdaneta). 

Directed under his ‘George Warner’ pseudonym, not very much is known about director Giorgio Cristallini, and, even though some of his earliest credits go back as far as 1948, his career was spotty at best.  He is probably best remembered (particularly by spaghetti western fans) for a couple of late-entry, no-budget spaghetti westerns: FOUR GUNMEN OF THE HOLY TRINITY (1971), with Peter Lee Lawrence, and YOU’RE JINXED, FRIEND…YOU’VE MET SACRAMENTO (1972), with Ty Hardin.  Like his westerns, his work here is that of somebody simply going through the motions, with plodding direction that generates little interest, which is a shame considering the decent cast he was fortunate enough to assemble.  Also, the derivative score from Roberto Pregadio is also reminiscent of maestro Stelvio Cipriani’s lesser-known works, alternating between some funky, disco-inspired cues and cheap synthesizer work; which, in all honesty, seems as if much of it was simply laid over the film without any thought whatsoever.  Lethargically paced, the film slows down considerably during Jeff’s beleaguered search for his passport, and never fully recovers until the last few minutes during the requisite car chase.  The inevitable but much-appreciated climax ensues, but it’s simply a case of too little, too late.  In the end, SEAGULLS FLY LOW is a disappointing and instantly forgettable mishmash of crime film aesthetics and melodrama that may at least be of intermittent interest to diehard crimeslime fanatics for its recognizable cast.

Also known under its original Italian release title of I GABBIANI VOLANO BASSO, SEAGULLS FLY LOW was never released on home video in either the US or Canada, and originally appeared on Italian videocassette courtesy of Domo Video.  Later, with easier access to multi-standard (i.e., both PAL and NTSC-compatible) videocassette recorders, this once-elusive film showed up on Greek videotape on the Video Alsen label.  Like most Greek tapes, the picture quality was just average, but it was in English, and that’s all that really mattered.  As of this writing, SEAGULLS FLY LOW hasn’t turned up on DVD in any language and continues to remain just as elusive as it did during the VHS era.

Friday, February 13, 2015

LOVE CAMP 7 - DVD REVIEW


Australian DVD ad-blurb: “Before there was Ilsa, there was LOVE CAMP 7!”

Long before Ilsa inflicted her own brand of pain and punishment in Don Edmonds’ now infamous ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1974), prolific producer David F. Friedman, who produced ILSA under the guise of Herman Traeger, also produced one of the earliest examples of this dubious subgenre, Lee Frost’s LOVE CAMP 7 (1968).  Produced alongside frequent collaborator Bob Cresse (billed here as R.W. Cresse) and Frost’s usual producer of choice, Wes Bishop, LOVE CAMP 7 was yet another ’60s ‘roughie’ (a subgenre of exploitation cinema that featured equal doses of sex mixed with violence) set against the backdrop of a Nazi brothel.  Along with Edmonds’ ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, and, to a lesser extent, Liliana Cavani’s considerably more up-market The NIGHT PORTER (1974), Lee Frost’s LOVE CAMP 7 became the prototype of this usually scorned genre and paved the way for a quick succession of Nazi-themed sleaze pictures in the ’70s (predominately out of Italy), beginning with Tinto Brass’ lavish but highly sleazy SALON KITTY (1976) and followed by an entire slew of like-minded sleaze, including Sergio Garrone’s back-to-back shockers SS EXPERIMENT LOVE CAMP (1976) and SS CAMP 5: WOMEN’S HELL (1977), Cesare Canevari’s The GESTAPO’S LAST ORGY (1977), Mario Caiano’s (hiding under his usual pseudonym of William Hawkins) NAZI LOVE CAMP #27 (1977), and what is probably the nadir of the entire genre, Paolo Solvay’s SS HELL CAMP (1977).  Of course, there were numerous others, but you get the idea.

The story of LOVE CAMP 7, such that it is, revolves around two WAC lieutenants (Maria Lease and Kathy Williams) who are sent to a love camp to contact Martha Grossman, a former German engineer who has helped devise a revolutionary aircraft engine but, because of her Jewish background, she’s been sent to one of these camps and, naturally, the US Army wants to retrieve her.  You have been brought here for one purpose and one purpose only: that is to please the frontline officers of our armies!” exclaims the Commandant (also essayed by producer R.W. Cresse), who seems to partake in or at the very least oversee most of the humiliation and torture while grinning and cackling in ecstatic glee.  Of course, once our heroines arrive at the camp, the narrative takes a back seat as torture, degradation and abundant nudity fill the screen – all typical staples of the ‘roughie’. 

Both Cresse and Frost, through the their production company Olympic International, were quite prolific during the ‘60s beginning with their nudie-monster romp HOUSE ON BARE MOUNTAIN (1962), and then, along with LOVE CAMP 7, they produced HOT SPUR (1968) and The SCAVENGERS (1969), a couple of western-themed ‘roughies’, which also turned out to be some of their most popular films.  Both Frost and Cresse would team up once again (pseudonymously) a few years later on A CLIMAX OF BLUE POWER (1974 – released in ‘75), a very bleak hardcore effort, which apparently, Frost put together while he was busy working on RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) for 20th Century Fox, which, in the end, was handed over to director Jack Starrett. 

Although directed by Frost, LOVE CAMP 7 is pretty much the brainchild of writer/producer Bob Cresse, and, to this very day, remains an effectively nasty piece of work.  In fact, when Something Weird Video initially planned to release this on DVD in the US via their distribution deal with Image Entertainment, they simply rejected it due to subject matter.  Despite the 1968 production date, LOVE CAMP 7 still delivers a number of rather eye-popping BDSM tableaus, which usually revolve around pain and restraint, with one particular flogging that lasts uncomfortably long in duration; the entire film is like one of those adult pocket books from the ’60s come to life.  In fact, the film is still banned in the UK because of “eroticised depictions of sexual violence and repeated association of sex with restraint, pain and humiliation.”  On the flipside, many of the performances also vary wildly and the German ‘accents’ are equally all over the place, which definitely helps lighten the overall tone of the film, and even though nudity abounds, the various sex scenes are hilariously tacky. As well, all male members (pun intended) of the cast keep their pants on; yet another staple of mid-’60s sexploitation, this as a result of stringent laws at the time forbidding male full-frontal nudity.  Also, keep your eyes peeled for Mr. Friedman as a cigar-chomping General who ogles and gropes one of the many unfortunate women stuck in the camp.     

Although never released in the US, this was made available from Something Weird Video in Australia in 2005.  Distributed through Siren Visual Entertainment, LOVE CAMP 7 appeared on DVD in a decent transfer, which looked noticeably sharper than Something Weird’s domestic DVD-R and VHS tapes, but unlike many of their other releases (including the Australian ones), this particular DVD was a no frills affair.  This now out-of-print disc contained 14-chapters with titles such as “Bootlicking” and “Servicing the Guards,” and, despite the lack of extras, is worth picking up, if you can still find it.