Thursday, October 12, 2017

FANGO BOLLENTE - BLU-RAY REVIEW

A well-made, thought-provoking social drama, Vittorio Salerno’s FANGO BOLLENTE (1975) is usually regarded as a poliziesco, simply by virtue of its urban “street” setting and the inclusion of Vittorio’s brother Enrico Maria Salerno, a distinguished actor who became inseparable from the genre after his defining performance in Carlo Vanzina’s ground-breaking FROM THE POLICE… WITH THANKS (a.k.a. THE EXECUTION SQUAD, 1971). While the present film was difficult to see for years, genre specialists Camera Obscura have remedied this oversight with their prestigious new Blu-ray edition, which not only looks spectacular, but sheds further light on this entertaining and alarmingly prescient title.

In the city of Torino, Ovidio Mainardi (Joe Dallesandro) and his co-workers Giacomo (Gianfranco De Grassi) and Peppe (Guido De Carli) suffer from the drudgery of the everyday rat-race. Working as a computer technician at a government-run statistics bureau, Ovidio observes a bunch of lab-mice as they tear each other apart when he over-crowds their shit-strewn cage. Wondering whether people would respond in the same way under similar overcrowded conditions, the presiding scientist responds confidently, “There’s always one who starts biting the others.”  In a nicely-measured bit of cutting, the action then shifts to a soccer stadium, packed with enthusiastic fans, where Ovidio and his pals incite a riot, an incident of hooliganism that leaves one participant dead and injures forty more. In the chaotic aftermath, the instigators steal a Ferrari and then side-swipe a motorcycle and speed off on that. Their crime spree soon escalates to murder when, in one of the film’s defining moments – shot in super slow-motion – Ovidio sticks a truck driver with a screwdriver during a motoring altercation.

Meanwhile, inspector and ex-Flying Squad member Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno) is assigned to the ongoing case, and he firmly believes these ‘incidents’ are not politically motivated, as his superiors would have him believe, but merely a result of ordinary people breaking under the strain and stresses of living in modern society (“We’re always under pressure. It might be the stress, the mistreatment,” he surmises). Under the capable direction of his kid brother Vittorio, E.M. Salerno contributes yet another committed, believable characterization as the run-down but determined Inspector. This middle-aged, game-legged character, still clinging tenaciously to his once honourable profession (“My balls are exploding!”), might almost be seen as an extension of Salerno’s Insp. Bertone from THE EXECUTION SQUAD.

Locandina courtesy of Peter Jilmstad.
A succession of murder and sexual assault continues for much of the film’s running time, with the rogue trio going on to beat and viciously stab a pimp in the groin with his own switchblade, and then – off-screen – rape one of his hookers. The very next day, they kidnap a pair of ‘upper class’ women (Carmen Scarpitta and Ada Pometti) and again have their way with them during a sequence which ends in a particularly gruesome fashion.  It turns out one of the victims was the wife of a highly influential government official, so at the behest of the deputy minister, the apprehensive police commissioner (Luigi Casellato), offers Santagà a deal: clean things up as quickly and quietly as possible!

Punctuated by a terrific progressive rock score from Franco Campanino, who also scored Dallesandro’s first foray into Italian crimeslime, Pasquale Squitieri’s superb THE CLIMBER (1975), Vittorio Salerno’s FANGO BOLLENTE appears to be – on the surface, at least – yet another entry in a short-lived subgenre of mid-’70s Italo ‘youths-run-wild’ films, featuring themes which were further explored in such polizieschi as Romolo Guerrieri’s upscale YOUNG, VIOLENT, DESPERATE (1976), Renato Savino’s bottom-of-the barrel I RAGAZZI DI ROMA VIOLENTA (1976) and Segri & Ferrara’s lowly VIOLENCE FOR KICKS (1976). In spite of their boyish looks, these are not the usual spoiled, bored rich kids with negligent parents unaware what their offspring are up too. Ovidio, Giacomo and Peppe all have regular jobs and ‘normal’ unassuming lives, but are simply bored by it all. Never fully-explained or expanded upon, the jaded trio’s collective boredom may be the main perpetrator of their initial crime spree but, in an interesting turn of events, their inherent sadistic streak is antagonized by the aggressive environment in which they live, just like those desperate lab-mice at the start of the film; the over-crowded cities add further fuel to their fire as everyone tries to defend their ‘space’ or personal ambitions, without even considering the possible consequences of their actions. In a further example of this, Ovidio’s wife Alba (Martine Brochard) will stop at nothing to further her medical career by sleeping with her boss (Claudio Nicastro) without even a moment’s hesitation.

Better known as SAVAGE THREE (its English-language export title) to the few who have actually seen it, FANGO BOLLENTE was barely released on video outside of Italy, but thanks to Camera Obscura, it’s great to finally have this noteworthy film show up in such a fine-looking edition. In what has now become customary, CO’s 1080p Region B Blu-ray features yet another superior transfer, with optimally balanced colours, strong contrasts, excellent black levels and a nice, consistent amount of film grain; it looks just about perfect.  The DTS-HD MA mono audio, which features both German and Italian language tracks, also sounds perfectly balanced and clear throughout. English and German subtitles are provided.

Extras begin with an audio commentary from genre specialists Pelle Felsch and Christian Kessler, wherein they discuss the social climate at the time in Italy and the violence associated with it; the film’s director and its numerous stars and co-stars, Campanino’s unique score and the film’s primary themes. As usual, it’s a thorough, comprehensive listen from a pair of film scholars that really know their stuff. In the first featurette, Rat Eat Rat (39m08s), produced by Freak-O-Rama, director Vittorio Salerno and Martine Brochard discuss how the film came about, as well as the formation of Comma 9, an independent production company which, along with Salerno, comprised directors such as Squitieri, Francesco Barilli and screenwriter Massimo D’Avack to name a few, which unfortunately only ever produced just this one film. Further topics of discussion includes Goffredo Lombardo’s Titanus distribution company; some of the film’s locations in and around Torino; and the casting of Dallesandro (“I like his somewhat weird face”). In The Savage One (40m56s), yet another Freak-O-Rama-produced featurette, Severin’s David Gregory interviews Dallesandro in what is essentially a career overview, beginning with his early years working on Andy Warhol pictures, and just about every other facet of his time working in Europe, including all his poliziotteschi; not afraid to tell it like it is, Dallesandro even refers to his SEASON FOR ASSASSINS (Marcello Andrei, 1975) co-star Martin Balsam as a “knucklehead!” He also discusses the political turmoil in Italy at the time during the proliferation of the “Brigate Rosso”, and that they were (quote) “scary times”. A liner notes booklet with an essay (e.g., “With sticky fingers in hot mud”) from Robert Zion is also included, and it even features a nice reproduction of the misleading artwork that once adorned the now-exceedingly-rare Greek VHS videocassette edition.

A far more incendiary film than your average Italocrime effort, it’s great to finally it back in circulation, and thanks to Camera Obscura’s superb Blu-ray, it’s unquestionably never looked better. Order it from DiabolikDVD.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Two years before his international, Oscar-winning sensation INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION (1970), director Elio Petri directed this very offbeat horror effort, a strange amalgam of experimental film, arthouse aesthetics and wacked-out gothic chiller, which could only have been made at the tail-end of the ’60s (i.e., at the height of the so-called “Psychedelic Era”).  In their continuing forays into the MGM vaults, Scream Factory have now decided to revisit this riveting film on Blu-ray, in an edition which also includes some illuminating extras.

Franco Nero stars as Leonardo Ferri, a talented avant-garde painter who is, quite clearly, going through a mental breakdown and is suffering from a number of nightmares, usually revolving around his lover and manager, Flavia (played by Vanessa Redgrave, his long-time real-life main squeeze). On her half-hearted and rather deceitful recommendation, Leonardo leaves the hustle’n’bustle of big city life to set up shop out in the idyllic countryside at a rundown villa, a place which he finds himself inexorably drawn too. However, instead of focusing on his work here, he instead obsesses over the villa’s previous owner—as well as a potentially spectral apparition on the premises—as his dreams and reality collide and coalesce into a living nightmare…

The opening credits set the quirky, unconventional tone by immediately drawing the viewer into the film’s skewed version of reality.  Jump-cuts, scratches on the emulsion, erotic artwork and random bits of film leader unspool against one of Ennio Morricone’s more outlandish film scores; as Troy Howarth points out in his excellent commentary, anyone expecting a conventional horror film will surely be disappointed.  Petri’s film is filled with enigmas, which may—and probably will—confound many viewers who are searching for a more standardly linear and coherent narrative. Particularly perplexing is the first act, in which Nero’s character lapses into and out of his various dream states, hallucinations and other inexplicable situations (“I don’t know what’s happened to me! I’ve got to get away!”).  There’s an interesting dynamic going on between Nero and Redgrave as well, with Nero as the tortured, mentally-unstable artist and Redgrave as the somewhat unscrupulous capitalist who doesn’t seem all that concerned with her client’s / lover’s increasingly unhinged condition, just so long as he keeps on painting. Although usually regarded as a ‘horror’ film—there is a spooky séance which amps-up the horror aspect considerably—Petri’s unique take on the material (based on British author George Oliver Onions’ 1911 novel The Beckoning Fair One) is quite unusual, almost experimental in nature and quite chaotic at times, qualities which definitely augment the potency of Nero’s unbalanced character.

A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY (1968) first appeared on DVD in 2007 through the Italian label Eagle Pictures, but as expected, the disc only had an Italian language option.  In 2011, MGM (through their “Made-On-Demand” program) released it as a DVD-R, containing a very handsome 16x9 transfer which retained the film’s original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Said disc also featured the English-dubbed version (whereon both Nero and Redgrave each provided their own post-synched voices), as well as an Italian-language version with English subtitles too. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray is a welcome upgrade from MGM’s now-obsolescent DVD-R edition, and the jump to HD is a noticeable improvement. In spite of some speckles and instances of dirt here and there, it’s difficult to gauge the immediate improvement during the film’s distinctive opening credits, but it’s definitely sharper, with punchier colours.  The DTS-HD MA mono audio also sounds clear and free of distortion, and it only enhances Morricone’s highly unconventional if wholly appropriate score.

Extras include the aforementioned feature-length audio commentary courtesy of author and film historian Troy Howarth, who discusses all sorts of details about the cast and personnel, as well as aspects of the film itself.  He talks about Onions’ novel (“a classic of its kind”) and how director Mario Bava also expressed interest in adapting it for the screen, but as Howarth points out, Bava thought that Petri’s film (quote) “was quite beautiful” even though it bears little to Onions’ original story. He goes on to discuss the characters’ various motivations, including Nero’s (quote) “mental anguish” and Redgrave’s (quote) “real and selfless” character motivations. It’s another excellent fact-filled commentary, and an essential listen to help unravel the film’s rather labyrinthine structure.  In Journey into Madness (32m07s), an on-camera interview produced by Freak-O-Rama and directed by Federico Caddeo, Franco Nero discusses his early years in the business and how he was persuaded to star in Sergio Corbucci’s DJANGO (1966) at the insistence of Petri; plus how shooting with Petri was (quote) “a great experience” and how each of his films differ distinctly from one another.  He also speaks warmly about his long off-and-on relationship with Redgrave; relates some funny anecdotes about painter Jim Dine, who was hired as a consultant to help Nero learn how to paint; and Sergio Corbucci’s THE MERCENARY (1968), which was originally slated for direction by Gillo Pontecorvo and was due to star James Coburn in a role which ultimately went to Tony Musante.  The interview concludes with Nero’s expressing his reverence for Petri, including saying that “his movies will stay [i.e., be around] forever”.

Even if A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY may be a disorienting and baffling viewing experience for some, it’s great to see most of Elio Petri’s eccentric filmography finally making its way to U.S. shores with the respect his films so thoroughly deserve, of which Scream Factory’s newest Blu-ray is no exception. Order it from DiabolikDVD or Amazon

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

THE SLAYER - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Unavailable for years in anything resembling a decent presentation, J.S. Cardone’s atmospheric slasher film, THE SLAYER (1982) has, thanks to Arrow Video, finally arrived in what is easily its best—and no doubt definitive—incarnation on home video.

Kay (Sarah Kendall) suffers from horrific, realistic nightmares, many of which involve some sort of sinister creature (“I was having that nightmare again… Something was after me!”), which has begun to affect her work as a prominent painter.  Deciding to get away for a much-needed vacation, Kay and her husband David (Alan McRae) agree to accompany her brother Eric (Frederick Flynn) and his wife Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook) to a secluded island, but once there, Kay’s visions (“I feel like I’ve been here before.” She nervously intones) and nightmares begin to take more and more of a hold on her and, unfortunately for the others, begin to manifest themselves in actual reality rather than only in her mind.

Although produced at the height of the slasher boom, THE SLAYER isn’t your typical ‘body count’ outing of the kind that was so prevalent at the time, and while it does feature some exceptional horror set-pieces, Cardone’s intimate setting and minimal cast allows for a far more interesting take on the genre, which is also helped along by the desolate and striking island locale.  But what is probably the film’s biggest, and certainly most interesting plot development, are Kay’s dreams, which eventually reveal themselves to be the driving force of the film (“My life will be gone! Dreams will have taken its place!”).  It’s difficult not to think of Wes Craven’s seminal ’80s scare-film A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) when hearing such choice dialogue as, “She’s convinced if she goes to sleep, we’ll all DIE!”, but at the very same time, the film also bears some similarities to John Hancock’s sombre—and highly effective creeper-sleeper—LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971), which also delved into the unexplainable while focusing on the title character’s (brilliantly portrayed by Zohra Lampert) breakdown and her inability to make sense of anything around her—a kind of waking nightmare, if you will.  Like Hancock’s film, Cardone’s first feature film also has an unsettling quality to it; a disturbing atmosphere that slowly builds as Kay’s unresolved neurosis begins to take over the narrative.  In the present film, Sarah Kendall’s fragile, confused and equally terrified Kay has much in common with Lampert’s detached Jessica, and just like her, Kay reluctantly tries to escape these disturbing ‘nightmares’ by taking a sabbatical—or, as Jessica does, relocating to Connecticut from New York City—but instead, the tranquil (if equally distressing) island setting brings out the worst in Kay’s ongoing state of mental anguish…

While THE SLAYER did garner a stateside theatrical release courtesy of 21st Century Distribution Corporation, who also handled similar neglected favourites such as Eddy Matalon’s CATHY’S CURSE (1976), most people caught-up with this film either through Continental Video’s U.S. ‘double-feature’ VHS videocassette (which paired it up with Fred Olen Ray’s SCALPS [1983] and shortened the film by almost 15 minutes in order to fit both films on one tape) or Canada’s Marquis Home Video.  The muddy, unattractive transfers of those versions did the film no favours and THE SLAYER, despite garnering a fairly strong fan following, subsequently disappeared from circulation for decades.  Working with the original camera negative, Arrow Video commissioned a brand new 4K (!) scan, and it’s quite miraculous just how good it all looks.  Detail is perfect, colours are rich and naturalistic, and all of the film’s previously troublesome nighttime scenes are now made abundantly clear, and this development comes as a real revelation for seasoned viewers of the film who are used to seeing it in far-less-than-optimal form.  This is easily one of the more attractive restorations of a low-budget film this year.  Utilizing the original optical negative, the LPCM mono audio also sounds impeccable, which only enhances Robert Folk’s (quote) “lush, orchestral” music.

Beginning with a very informative audio commentary with director Cardone, production executive Eric Weston and star Carol Kottenbrook, disc producer Ewan Cant nicely moderates the discussion during which Cardone talks about his Val Lewton influences and much of the film’s subtle foreshadowing; Folk’s (quote) “atypical score”; Sarah Kendall’s (quote) “strange quality”, which suited the film perfectly, and Kottenbrook chimes-in about the rest of the cast members; Cardone and Weston go on to talk about some of the difficulties of filming with only four actors, which allowed him to take advantage of the striking location on Georgia’s Tybee Island and (quote) “fill the gap”.  It’s a wonderful talk, and he too is very happy that he can finally (quote) “see it” as he applauds Arrow’s new restoration.  In the second audio commentary, The Hysteria Continues wax nostalgic about some of the film’s VHS releases and their memories of renting said tapes, including Continental Video’s promotional compilation cassette, TERROR ON TAPE (1985), which featured most of THE SLAYER’s gory ‘highlights’; they also talk about the film’s place amongst the U.K.’s ‘Video Nasties’ furor and Vipco’s VHS and DVD releases. In addition, they casually chat about some of the film’s similarities to both John Hough’s INCUBUS (1982) and Percival Rubens’ THE DEMON (1979),  then go on to cover plenty of details about the film, including its unhurried pacing—which they’ve since gone on to appreciate—as well as the film’s (quote) “middle-aged cast”.  On yet another audio ‘interview’ (50m22s), Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher talks with the film’s composer, Robert Folk.  Initially wanting to be a songwriter and (quote) “pop musician”, he decided to attend New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, where he began studying classical music and obtained his doctorate.  Some of his first work included scoring documentary features for the prestigious IMAX. Then, after moving out to L.A., he composed his first feature film score for Robert Collins’ SAVAGE HARVEST (1981), on which, quite incredibly, he had the good fortune of working with London’s National Philharmonic Orchestra.  For his SLAYER score, he had John Williams’ work in mind, and in particular Pino Donaggio’s (quote) “melodic approach” to film scoring, and these influences only enhance and underscore the psychological themes of the film.  The interview with the composer is followed by ‘Isolated Score Selections’.

In what is undoubtedly the film’s biggest extra, Red Shirt Pictures’ Nightmare Island: The Making of The Slayer (52m54s) is a very thorough documentary from Michael Felsher (produced with Arrow Video), which gathers together just about everyone involved in the making of the film, including director Cardone, writer/producer Robert Ewing, production executive Eric Weston, DP Karen Grossman and camera operator Arledge Armenaki, plus special effects creator Robert Short and creature performer Carl Kraines.  Everyone talks very fondly of their experiences on the film, including their time on Tybee Island, which at the time was a (quote) “resort summer community” that was also used as a location for Burt Reynolds’ GATOR (1973).  The participants also discuss the film’s (quote) “certain pace” and many of the film’s effects work, one of the film’s showstoppers included, which they did in one take.  They also briefly touch on 21st Century’s shady dealings with the film’s distribution, which was quickly released into theatres from a (quote) “non colour-corrected answer print” that eventually made its way to home video, which only makes Arrow Video’s new restoration all the more remarkable to behold.

Other extras include Red Shirt Pictures’ Return to Tybee: The Locations of The Slayer (13m18s), hosted by Arledge Armenaki, which is an excellent tour of the film’s many—still-extant—locations.  In The Tybee Post Theater Experience (17m50s), Ewan Cant moderates a Q&A session with Armenaki following a special screening of the film at the newly-refurbished Tybee Post Theater.  And, in yet another feature-length audio track (!), Arrow also includes this special screening’s audience reactions.  Other extras include the film’s original theatrical trailer (“What you’re about to see may shock you!”) and an exhaustive stills gallery (running a whopping 9m55s!) which includes numerous behind-the-scenes photos and promotional materials.  Additionally, as with all of Arrow Video’s first pressings, a thick liner-notes booklet is included, containing an insightful essay by author and film historian Lee Gambin as well as Ewan Cant’s recollections of first seeing the film and his visit to Tybee.

Perfect in every way, Arrow Video’s Dual Format Blu-ray / DVD combo of THE SLAYER easily ranks as one of the most impressive restorations of the year and is well worth revisiting!  Order it from Amazon or DiabolikDVD.