Wednesday, November 23, 2016

WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Although more commonly associated with the so-called “Schoolgirls in Peril” giallo trilogy, which also included Massimo Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1971) and Alberto Negrin’s The RED RINGS OF FEAR (a.k.a. TRAUMA, 1976), which Dallamano co-wrote, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? was also the third film in Roberto Infascelli’s loosely-related “Polizia” trilogy for Primex Italiana, which was preceded by both Steno (a.k.a. Stefano Vanzina)’s FROM THE POLICE… WITH THANKS (a.k.a. EXECUTION SQUAD, 1971) and Infascelli’s RANSOM! THE POLICE ARE WATCHING (1973), a pair of trailblazing polizieschi, which helped redefine and popularize Italocrime films during the ’70s.  Available since the early days of DVD, this polizia/giallo hybrid finally receives its best incarnation on home video to date thanks to the ever-reliable perfectionists at Camera Obscura.

A 15-year-old girl named Silvia Polvesi (Sherry Buchanan) is found hanging in the attic of a dodgy sublet, the victim of an apparent suicide, as is deduced by Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf). However, Assistant District Attorney Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli) thinks otherwise, and her suspicions are further substantiated by the autopsy results.  This precipitates the arrival of seasoned homicide detective Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli), who, quite conveniently, just happens to catch a man snapping photos from across the street during his initial investigation of the crime scene.  However, it turns out that this (quote) “damn peeping tom”, one Bruno Paglia (Franco Fabrizi), also happened to snap some revealing photos of the recently late Silvia in the company of a young man, whom the police quickly track down, only the lead goes nowhere, as their sneaky suspect proves to have a rock-solid alibi.  The slimy Paglia is eventually released thanks to his resourceful lawyer, but the police receive another tip-off, which leads them to a secret (if deserted) high-end brothel which proves to have possibly been the scene of still another murder when they discover its bathroom awash in blood.  A few days later, an abandoned car is found containing the mutilated corpse of Tallenti (“Now we know who was cut-up in the bathroom”), a private investigator who had earlier been hired by Silvia’s parents (Farley Granger and Marina Berti) to provide them with surveillance of her clandestine activities.  Then Tallenti’s girlfriend Rosa is stalked by a killer clad in black motorcycle leathers and a matching dark-visored helmet (the German title translates as “Death Wears Black Leather”), who is searching for missing audio tapes which expose an underage prostitution ring that could quite possibly implicate some very powerful people…

Italian fotobusta courtesy of Peter Jilmstad.  Photoshop restoration by Steve Fenton.

Released by NMD Films in 1980 as The CO-ED MURDERS stateside where, by that time it was clearly trying to grab a share of the slasher-movie craze, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? has always tried to capitalize on the more lurid or ‘horrific’ elements within its basic framework including a couple of vicious murders and a prototypical stalking sequence recalling any number of gialli, but, upon closer scrutiny, it displays many more characteristics to that of a poliziesco.  As the increasingly frustrated commissario (“It’s your methods I disagree with!”), Claudio Cassinelli is determined to solve the case, but is saddled with issues which are emblematic of virtually all other Italocrime efforts as he receives “pressure from the ministry” or even from the press, the latter of which he at one point uses to his advantage.  Considering the bleak subject matter, the cynical conclusion is also indicative of the genre, which involves “names that can’t be touched”, an aspect which draws still more attention to, not only the corrupt bureaucrats of the time (or pretty much any other time, too), but of an entire country poised on the brink of implosion.  Featuring all the usual genre tropes – including an extended car-and-motorcycle chase – the film is at its most-effective (and chillingly disturbing, even to this day) whilst Silvestri and Stori listen to graphic reel-to-reel audio tapes of the girls consorting with their so-called “johns”.  Depicted utilizing deep-focus in a single long static shot showing the tape reels spinning in the foreground while Cassinelli and Ralli are seen standing in the background, Dallamano lets this scene play-out quietly as their characters react with gradually mounting disgust, exchanging not a single word; all amounting to an extremely powerful and utterly devastating sequence.  As is described in “Eternal Melody”, one of the disc’s many extras, Stelvio Cipriani composed the main theme of the film as a sort of “lullaby” – intended to accentuate the “vulnerability” of the female victims – a piece which, after viewing this powerful scene, adds further resonance to Cipriani’s incredible and unforgettable score. 

Elsewhere, the film makes direct references to the gialli with its cleaver-wielding, bike-riding killer, who is presented as an almost unstoppable force, and succeeds on numerous occasions in completely eluding the police.  It’s an interesting character: a faceless fusion of the classic giallo-inspired black-clad killer with a purse-snatching delinquent zipping around on a motorcycle. Yet he too is revealed to not be of any great significance within the plot; merely small-fry among a much larger and far more powerful group of ‘untouchable’ bigger fish.  Although The RED RINGS OF FEAR is a loosely-connected follow-up of sorts (indeed, almost a partial remake, in some respects), the popularity of WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? also spawned an unofficial rip-off a year later; Mario Caiano’s WITHOUT TRACE (a.k.a. CALLING ALL SQUAD CARS, 1975), which not only nicks the underage prostitution ring idea, but also casts Luciana Paluzzi opposite tough-guy commissario Antonio Sabàto.

This is labeled number 20 in Camera Obscura’s long-running, and indispensable, Italian Genre Collection, and yet again this is another high quality release that puts all other versions to shame – it really does look that good.  Previous VHS and DVD versions were either incomplete or not presented in their proper aspect ratios, and always appeared rather drab and lifeless, so CO’s disc is a real sight for sore eyes.  Taken from the original Italian camera negative, the film’s presentation is absolutely first-rate without resorting to any unnecessary digital manipulation whatsoever, resulting in a perfectly natural picture.  The DTS-HD Mono 2.0 soundtrack, which is available in either Italian, German or English, all sound very good, but the English one is, in this editor’s humble opinion, the best, and it also preserves much of the English voice-talent like Susan Spafford, Michael Forest, Pat Starke and Tony La Penna, to name a few. 

This 2-disc set – which is spread over one Blu-ray for the main feature and one DVD for additional extras – also includes a number of revealing supplements, which begin with an audio commentary (subtitled in English) from Dr. Marcus Stiglegger, this time joined by German filmmaker Dominik Graf, who discuss most of the principal actors in the film, it’s strong connection to the poliziesco genre, plus many other interesting facts.  One of the more bizarre – and certainly eye-opening! – extras on the first disc includes some heretofore-unseen and -unused sex footage, including some non-simulated activity; which, in all honesty, wouldn’t really add anything to the film at all, but it’s an interesting extra nonetheless.  However, the most significant extra (on disc two), is the aforementioned “Eternal Melody”, a 47-minute interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani, who discusses the bulk of his career, including his humble beginnings as an accomplished pianist (he actually sits in front of his piano and occasionally plays some of his more memorable work herein); his initial meeting with Tomas Milian, which led to his very first score, for the fine spaghetti western The BOUNTY KILLER (a.k.a. The UGLY ONES, 1966); and how he’s inspired and interprets the classical works of Mozart, Debussy or Bach into many of his scores.  Produced by Freak-O-Rama, it’s an amazing overview of the maestro’s career, and makes for a stellar featurette.  Next up, editor Antonio Siciliano discusses his work in “Dallamano’s Touch”, another Freak-O-Rama production, which focuses on his long working relationship with Dallamano following the success of WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE? and his surprise over the additional sex footage, which he is shown during the interview.  As usual, an informative booklet of liner notes with writing from Kai Naumann is also included, while German, English and Italian trailers, as well as a thorough poster/still gallery finish off the extras.  It goes without saying (but I will anyway) that this is a total must-own! Order it from DiabolikDVD today.


Friday, November 11, 2016

MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Made at a time when feuding kinfolk, car chases and scantily clad “100 Proof Women” dominated the box office, Gus Trikonis’ MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS (1977) is yet another film adhering to the specific template set out by many of its contemporaries, and as such is a well-made, well-acted “hicksploitation” film – as they are now more commonly referred to.  While it hasn’t been seen on video since the early days of VHS, Code Red has finally made this “drive-in classic” available once again via a limited edition Blu-ray.

When ambitious moonshiner Pap Hammer (Fred Foresman) is ruthlessly killed by a rival, local outfit led by Jack Starkey (William Conrad), who is eager to monopolize Pap’s highly illegal but financially prosperous “shine” business, he didn’t expect Pap’s three daughter’s Dot (Susan Howard), Betty (Claudia Jennings) and Sissy (Maureen McCormick) to continue in their father’s footsteps.  Of course, this leads to the inevitable conflict, so they enlist the help of J.B. Johnson (John Saxon), an aspiring stock car driver and former moonshine runner.

Although Arthur Ripley’s THUNDER ROAD (1958), with Robert Mitchum, seemed to set the template for this particular genre of filmmaking, it was during the ’70s that it gained more momentum, with such early forerunners as Richard Quine’s The MOONSHINE WAR (1970), co-starring Patrick McGoohan and Alan Alda; Lamont Johnson’s highly-underrated The LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973); Joseph Sargent’s WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) and Gy Waldron’s MOONRUNNERS (1975) – latter of which served as the basis for The DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979 – 1985) TV show.  Financed by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS was filmed concurrently with Hal Needham’s SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) and, given Corman’s penchant for taking advantage of any particular trend, MOONSHINE premiered a week after BANDIT’s enormous box office success; it too reaped sizable box office returns.  In a rather brazen bit of marketing, Corman’s poster art also features the very same – and now-iconic – 1977 black Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am from SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, even though it never actually appears in the present film!

Taking a cue from Lamont Johnson’s aforementioned film with Jeff Bridges, writers Hubert Smith (who also wrote Bob Kelljan’s BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY the same year) and David Ansley, “borrow” quite a bit from Lamont’s film, and much like Elroy Jackson as played by Bridges, John Saxon for all intents and purposes plays the same character right down to driving a Ford Mustang.  Although he doesn’t have a personal vendetta to pursue, Saxon rather begrudgingly agrees to help out Dot and her sisters (“I knew the minute Dotty brought me out here, I’d end up in a blaze o’ shit!).  The Brooklyn-born Saxon would seem to be rather cast against type as a “good ol’ boy”, but as the overconfident ex-bootlegger with bigger aspirations, he pulls off the role quite well while veering between alliances with Starkey and Dot, who refers to him as a (quote) “smilin’ skunk”.  Future DALLAS (1979-1987) star Susan Howard is also excellent as the tough and equally-resilient Dot (or Dotty), who simply won’t give-in to the demands of Starkey and his ruthless henchmen, led by the sadistic Sweetwater (Morgan Woodward).  She rallies her kid sisses Betty and Sissy, who are pretty handy with a shotgun themselves. While Jennings was already a veteran of such drive-in fare as Ferd and Beverly Sebastian’s ’GATOR BAIT (1974) and Mark L. Lester’s TRUCK STOP WOMEN (1974), she really gets an opportunity to show off her acting chops here without having to resort to any of her customary nudity; she went on to star in David Cronenberg’s race car drama FAST COMPANY (1978) – again with Saxon – before her untimely death in 1979.  Ex-BRADY BUNCH (1969-1974) star McCormick is also cast against type, but unlike her more revealing role in Gary Graver’s TEXAS LIGHTNING (1981), she does keeps her clothes on for the duration, but it’s still certainly a long way from The BRADY BUNCH! 

William Conrad, who had recently wrapped-up a five-year stretch on the popular TV series CANNON (1971-1976), virtually oozes slime as Starkey, the hateful and all-controlling boss, who has everyone in his pocket, including the local deceitful preacher, Hagen (Jeff Corey) and just about anyone else who crosses his path.  When Scoggins (Len Lesser), a local business owner, endorses Dotty’s new shine, he’s promptly delivered a message via a well-concealed bomb, which seems rather extreme, but Starkey rules with an iron hand, which even leaves Sheriff Larkin (Albert Salmi) at a loss; that is, until he connives a deal with J.B. and the girls.

Gus Trikonis began his long and varied career as an actor, and is probably best-known for his role as Indio in Robert Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY (1961).  He would later appear in Wise’s The SAND PEBBLES (1966) before moving onto lower-budgeted fare, such as Robert F. Slatzer’s The HELLCATS (1968).  He would eventually move into directing, and would helm a number of memorable films during the ’70s and ’80s, including The SWINGING BARMAIDS (1975), NASHVILLE GIRL (1976), The EVIL (1978), and TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT (1981), one of his most-popular titles, whose smash success propelled him into the mainstream.  Like most directors of the period, he eventually settled into television work, directing numerous shows, including episodes of BAYWATCH (1989-2000).

Taken from the “only surviving vault elements”, Code Red’s All Region Blu-ray sports a “brand new HD master” in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and, while this is never going to be demo material, it’s a nice sharp transfer nonetheless, and miles better than that seen on Warner’s muddy old VHS tape.  While some of the colours are a tad muted, it’s all very naturalistic.  The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound comes through loud and clear, accentuating Jeff Werner’s exciting score (full of typical C&W instruments like banjo, fiddle, dobro and pedal steel guitar).  There are no real extras to speak of included with the MCE package other than a few trailers for some of Code Red’s other current and upcoming titles, including David Winters’ MISSION KILL (1986), Burt Brinckerhoff’s ACAPULCO GOLD (1976), Richard Compton’s MANIAC (a.k.a. ASSAULT ON PARADISE, 1977), Sergio Martino’s HANDS OF STEEL (1986) and Paul Glickler’s RUNNING SCARED (1980).  Check DiabolikDVD for their current stock of Code Red titles or for you lucky U.S. based readers, order directly from Code Red’s Big Cartel site.