Thursday, March 30, 2017

EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA - DVD REVIEW


Reviewed by Steve Fenton


In 1973 or thereabouts, René Cardona, Jr. (with an assist from his co-director thereon, Alfredo B. Crevenna) directed an action adventure called LA TIGRESA, co-starring the present film’s leading lady Irma Serrano, with Mexploitation superstar Mario Almada as its male lead. Originally known as SANTO Y LA ÁGUILA REAL (“Santo and the Royal Eagle”) but also retitled EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA (“Santo and the Tigress,” natch) for some release markets (which is what it’s known as on the disc under review) was either a forerunner, sequel or spinoff of that film, with Ms. Serrano again essaying the role of The Tigress (a character that has nothing whatsoever to do with Dyanne Thorne’s “Ilsa,” needless to say [but I will anyway!]). Because, back when Mexico actually had a viably vibrant national cinema industry to speak of, films were often released a year or more after they were actually shot, precisely dating them can sometimes be a tad problematic for us sticklers about such ‘trivial’ historical details. According to the IMDb – who routinely give release dates for Mexican films without giving their actual years of production, which can cause confusion to those who don’t know better – LA TIGRESA postdates EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA (which was supposedly released earlier than it in ’73), for what it’s worth. However, if I was to hazard an educated guess (which I’m gonna, be it right or wrong!), I’d say that said former title was actually produced prior to the latter one…but your guess is as good as mine. Whatever’s the case, IMDb does reliably inform us that both films’ leading lady Serrano (1933-), a ranchera / cabaretera songbird (and alleged self-proclaimed devout Luciferian!) of widespread popularity in Latin America, is affectionately known as La Tigresa de la Canción Ranchera (“The Tigress of Ranchera Music”) by her fans, hence her nickname in the films. She also had a series of fotonovelas (“photo-comics”) published by José G. Cruz; not coincidentally the same publisher who first made El Santo into a household name via a comic series of his own.

In addition to señora Serrano’s smoldering Latin good looks, wild mane of raven tresses and voluptuous figure, among her most identifying characteristics is a sizeable mole (“beauty mark”) situated slightly off-centre on her forehead, just to the right of where the hypothetical ‘third eye’ is said to be located. Herein, Serrano (“For others I’m ‘La Serrana’. Just like my eagle”) keeps an in-house female eagle named Serrana as both her house-pet and ‘watchbird’.
This sequel (or whatever the case may be) commences in rather cornball fashion, with Juan Gallardo regaling a señorita from below her balcony, launching his lilting – not to mention annoying – falsetto into the night while he strums on his guitar. How’s that for perpetuating the ‘Latin Lover’ stereotype?
Alternately-titled Mexican lobby card for EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA.
Thankfully cutting short the chintziest ‘magic organ’ interlude since LAS MOMIAS DE GUANAJUATO (“The Mummies of Guanajuato,” 1970), Santo and his long-time onscreen compadre/off-screen trainer/manager Carlos Suárez pull up in their silver roadster. Upon receiving an urgent incoming call on the car phone, they then proceed forthwith to the sprawling, luxurious hacienda of our heroine, the Tigress (you can tell she’s one fiery she-cat by her leather skirt and accessories, loud, tacky costume jewellery, and of course – most tellingly of all – her big bullwhip). Right off the bat, in the so-called Tigress’ own living room they are surveyed by mysterious eyes lurking behind a portrait, just to establish the extent of cliché at work here. Once again playing his long-recurrent Santonian sidekick character “Carlitos”, Suárez functions largely as comic relief and, while not exactly the most hilarious scenes ever committed to celluloid, they are at least relatively restrained and sometimes whimsically amusing enough not to grate on your nerves. And in such desolate wastes as these, they do provide some sort of momentary oases from the general monotony, at least.
The Tigress relates the tale of the untimely deaths of her father and brother, and, in flashback, we get the unsettling and obviously all-too-real death of a horse as it is rolled off a cliff along with its fake human ‘rider.’ (Never mind that damn dummy, Santo should perhaps have just thrown whoever was responsible for this needlessly inhumane bit of animal cruelty over the edge instead! Although, that said, the horse may well have already been dead before they threw it over, for all I know; in fact, on second thought after replaying the scene over, I’m glad to say I think it was. But even so…) This heralds the apparent start of a plot to kill-off Serrano’s remaining family (namely her), and that’s why the indomitable Santo’s been summoned, once again functioning in his frequent capacity as super-sleuth in this whydoit of a whodunit.
So far, no wrestling. However, a figurative catfight shortly segues into a literal cockfight (no, not that kind, you pervs!). The former amounts to a catty “sing-off”, a kind of battle of the bands in which, while backed by their respective loyal peon groups of mariachi musicians playing up a storm, the two competing local matriarchs (the other being her arch-bitch rival/neighbor, played by Dacia González) belt-out belligerent opposing verses at each other, may the best (not to mention loudest!) throat win. Following the ladies’ caterwauling, for the latter much more violent altercation, providing still more dubious mondo ‘thrills’ derived from the suffering of so-called lower life-forms than us (who should know better), La Serrana’s brave battling bantam bests her ranching rival’s by actually killing its li’l red rooster opponent for real; still another example of casual animal abuse in a film which includes way more than its fair share.

Along with her arrogant asshole boyfriend (played by Jorge Lavat), villainess González opposes the Santo/Serrano corner, and thus we are treated to numerous western-styled scuffles with hired gunmen and ranch-hands. For the most part EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA stays resolutely well within the boring bounds of plausibility, however tenuous the realism; so don’t be expecting any va-va-voom vampire vixens, long-pile werewolves nor hand-sewn tarpaulin ‘blob’-monsters here, more’s the pity! Almost as scary, old flames the Tigress and Santo strike up a whirlwind new romance, but it soon becomes apparent that some interested (if not particularly interesting) third party is out to cut short their fling by abbreviating Serrano’s life…
Alternately-titled Mexican lobby card for EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA.

As is often the case, sidekick Suárez provides periodic whimsy, in this case by comically wooing the Tigress’ housemaid. Thus, an unhealthy amount of screen-time is frittered away on the tomcattin’ Suárez’s tomfoolery. SEE! Carlitos riding a too-small pony with his feet almost dragging along the ground! SEE! Carlitos rolling his eyeballs and frantically crossing himself at sight of the dreaded subhuman!

“The subhuman?” you ask, your interest suddenly mildly piqued (don’t bother getting your hopes up too high though). Don’t ask me why, but I’m convinced that the producers of this feeble flick cribbed some ideas from the minor Brit thriller THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR (1971), which would’ve still been making the rounds at about the same time as EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA was in production. The plot takes a bit of an upswing when El Santo is jumped on and thumped on by some real grubby and unfriendly ‘subhumans’ (i.e., two not particularly frightening but highly unwashed-looking hombres, who after a shower and shave wouldn’t even raise your eyebrow, never mind the hairs on the nape of your neck, even if one of them is made to look taller by wearing elevator shoes like Karloff’s Frankie monster booties). Santo is lent a helping hand – or rather, two claws and a beak – when the Tigress’ pet eagle (as per the original ÁGUILA REAL title given above) launches an avian air raid on his opponents. The brutish attackers are thus forced to retreat back to their hidey-hole down in a gloomy subterranean catacomb.

Primed and ready for action now that he knows what he’s up against (i.e., not much at all, and nothing he can’t make short work of), Santo takes control of the situation. Thinking another attempt may be made on Serrano’s life – although, her being a ‘feline’ and all, wouldn’t she still have eight more to spare anyway? – Santo is forced to test the drinkability of some suspect vino. Thinking fast, he uses the maid’s cute pet tabby as an involuntary ‘volunteer’ wine-taster. Mewling pathetically, the poor thing instantly croaks (not to worry though, it only appears to have been heavily tranquilized rather than actually dead). Way to go, Santo! Wouldn’t it have been simpler – not to mention more humane – to simply dump the damn booze down the sink?
So far in this movie, the animal kingdom has fared most poorly indeed. That’s one horse, one fighting cock and one puddy-tat that have bitten the dust (though presumably they didn’t really off the latter with rat poison, but there’s no telling for sure). Before the welcome conclusion, a constrictor snake too gets killed by Irma’s overeager eagle, which is itself heavily abused (e.g., stuffed into a gunny sack, for one) before we say a fond final farewell to EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the incidental bunny-rabbit that gets blown away during a hunting scene elsewhere, too. What is it with all this animal abuse, people?!
More would-be killers crawl out of the woodwork, meaning Santo’s got his work cut out for him. One nocturnal intruder with a big Bowie blade turns out to be our gay caballero Gallardo, the crooner from scene #1. Seems he’d gotten jealous over the macho Santo’s horning-in on his action at the pussy-cat ranch, and his hot Latin hormones had gotten the better of his good sense.
Halfway through the 43rd. minute, Santo decides enough is enough already and hits the ring for a break. The wrestling action is by far the wildest thing about this Santo flick (even with a pair of quasi-brutemen [one of which proves to be fake] lurking about). The wildest thing, that is, except for an even wilder thing: Santo’s wardrobe… SEE! The Man in the Silver Mask, pure-white flannelette bathrobe and slippers! Incidentally, that said, the S-man herein – looking quite svelte, trim and “all-there” – at one points sports one of perhaps the coolest fashion ensembles of his entire career, a get-up which he should maybe have worn more often: namely, a stylin' aluminum-grey shirt with B&W pin-stripe panels and cuffs / form-fitting white drainpipe slacks and silver knee-boots combo, which sets-off his ever-present one-of-a-kind hood (“mascara”) just jim-dandy, with a big-buckled chromium steel championship belt around his midriff to tie things all together.

At least half of EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA is expended on endless dances and musical numbers. By the time all the festivities are finally over, you may think nothing can redeem this lower-echelon Santo effort, and you’re almost right. And, with a running time of slightly over 100 minutes, it’s just wa-a-a-a-a-ayyy too long. Come to think of it, I do believe it’s the lengthiest entry in the entire series, which is a noteworthy point but certainly no kind of recommendation for enduring it in its entirety. But by all means watch it with your thumb on the ‘Scan’ button, if you must. As for me, being such a completist Santophile and all, I simply have to watch every last frame from beginning to end, cuz that’s just how I roll.

A half-pint plot poured into a leaky ten-gallon sombrero, this is in its barest essentials—at least partly, anyway—a western involving a claim-jumping ranchero boss’ attempts to monopolize the local ranching scene (a plot straight out of innumerable Hollywood and Mexican oaters). Long-time Mexi-flexi veteran Fernando Osés appears in a bit part as one of the enemy ranch’s pistol-packin’ vaqueros, who in one scene well-past the halfway point accuses poor dumb Carlitos of horse-rustling. Just as Osés and his compañeros are in the process of lynching their falsely-accused captive from a tree, La Serrana the Tigress severs the noose with a well-placed slug from a safe distance (à la how The Squint does repeatedly for Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY), whereupon she and Santo charge the would-be lynchers on horseback, the latter launching himself out of the saddle like a human silver bullet while still at a gallop to head-butt a baddie in the belly (OOF!). However, the above-noted western land-grabbing angle doesn’t actually factor into the movie’s “big reveal” in the last reel, because, somewhere during its final third, the plot mosies off down a wonky whodunit trail from which it never gets back on track.
An unretouched, as-is sample frame from Vanguard's EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA disc.
And speaking of tracks, judging by the slight quivering strip of visual noise/distortion at the absolute bottom edge of the frame caused by mistracking, Vanguard Latino/JC Films’ 2004 domestic US-Hispanic DVD ‘master’ (digitally remastered, my ass!) was struck direct from an old pre-recorded VHS tape... hell, maybe even a Beta one, for all I know! The occasional drop-outs and fuzzy picture quality are further dead giveaways as to the source. The colour is so washed-out and anemic (see sample screen-shot hereabouts, which was snapped directly from the Vanguard DVD) that it oftentimes almost appears B&W. But the main plus – perhaps the only one – of this DVD is the presence of English subtitles, printed in easy-to-read bright yellow atop the action, just so we can’t fail to miss ’em. But even those have their downside, it should be said. For instance, in one scene (starting just past the 23-minute mark), an orphaned line of subs that comes from out of nowhere freezes on the screen for around 30 seconds, while other (consequently semi-unreadable) lines play directly over top of it. However, this thankfully only temporary glitch rights itself before it becomes too bothersome. Anyway, however “off” they so often also are in terms of their translations, at least we can make some sense of what’s going on… even if it really doesn’t amount to very much at all in sum total. The subs alone – more than comprehensible enough, if frequently typographically/grammatically incorrect – are sufficient to make this version minimally more endurable than viewing the old untranslated videocassette was for me. Even so, I must admit that it did take me fully three separate sittings to finally make it all the way through even the subbed disc edition. As you can well imagine with material that was already thin enough being stretched that much thinner still by under-editing, at just over 100 minutes total duration, things really slow to a crawl at times.
In summation, I must say that, even if it is ultimately definitely one of Santo’s lesser adventures when viewed in the great scheme of things, getting to finally see it for a second time with English subtitles (despite all their typos and frequent exceedingly awkward mistranslations) so many years later was a definite plus, as they do make what was otherwise an interminable experience in its untranslated form a hard slog to get through into a somewhat more enjoyable one.
Still too much fiesta filler for my tastes, though. Why not take a siesta instead. (ZZZZZZZ…)
NOTES: My thanks to Unpopped’s webmaster Dennis for picking me up a complimentary copy of it while on his travels.
The one-and-only user review of LA TIGRESA at the IMDb mixes-up that completely different film with the present one, claiming that it’s actually EL SANTO Y LA TIGRESA and co-stars Santo. Not!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

ÆNIGMA – BLU-RAY REVIEW

Following a flurry of activity in the early-to-mid-’80s, Lucio Fulci continued to endure – at least, to some extent – even as the once-prosperous, by-then-financially-floundering Italian film industry began to implode in on itself, with ever-dwindling budgets and fewer productions being made.  Produced in conjunction with Sutjeska Film (from the former Yugoslavia) and Ettore Spagnuolo’s A.M. Trading International, ÆNIGMA was an attempt (for what it’s worth!) at recreating some of Fulci’s earlier gory glory, but unfortunately, it’s a desperately derivative effort, which, if it hadn’t been directed by Fulci, would have surely been forgotten in no time at all.  Yet, as with their current spate of Italian Film Collection Blu-rays, 88 Films presents still another impressive release – even if it is minor Fulci, without a doubt – boasting vastly-improved picture quality, along with some solid extras.

A victim of a school prank gone horribly wrong, Kathy (Mijlijana Zirojevic’) lies in a coma at the nearby hospital as she plots her telepathic revenge on the many spoiled, entitled rich kids at St. Mary’s College, an affluent all-girls school.  Through the use of Eva Gordon (Lara Naszinski), the new arrival, Kathy uses her as a sort of conduit through whom to exact her own personal vendetta, but Dr. Anderson (Jared Martin), Kathy’s doctor, begins to notice parallels between the deaths at the school and Kathy’s sudden (quote) “violent emotions”, even though she is in a constant clearly comatose state.

The story (such that it is) was penned by Fulci in collaboration with Giorgio Mariuzzo – who also scripted Fulci’s much-beloved THE BEYOND (1981) – and is, most unfortunately, a feeble, unoriginal copy of those far better films, such as Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976) and Richard Franklin’s PATRICK (1978).  Of course, this particular plot derivation is fine in and of itself – for proof, check out Mario Landi’s similarly-plotted PATRICK STILL LIVES (1980), an unabashedly sleazy, gory take on the aforesaid Franklin film – but not only is ÆNIGMA decidedly ‘well past its sell-by date’, it’s also – much like the comatose Kathy herself – a lifelessly listless endeavour, which strives (however half-heartedly) to emulate Fulci’s past successes.  Taking further liberties from some of Dario Argento’s work – in particular SUSPIRIA (1977) – with its candy-coloured lighting scheme and all-girls boarding school setting, ÆNIGMA in addition borrows significantly from Argento’s admittedly silly PHENOMENA (1984), which also utilized some hoary telekinesis angles, which allowed its protagonist (played by Jennifer Connelly) to communicate with insects.


It’s now well-known that Fulci wasn’t in good health when he worked on both this and his troubled ZOMBI 3 (1988), and according to actor Jared Martin, as told to interviewer Dean Galanis in issue #19 of Steve Puchalski’s SHOCK CINEMA, he “got the feeling of a sadness about the man”; which arguably, permeates the entire production.  But despite the somewhat melancholic aura, like most of Fulci’s work from the period, he nevertheless succeeds in creating a few interesting scenes, but still, even these few-and-far-between highlights are derivative of other, better films.  In what is among the present one’s most memorable (but equally silly) set-pieces – itself an “homage” to the spider attack scene in Fulci’s aforementioned own THE BEYOND, involves a girl who is, quite literally, ‘slimed’ to death by voracious snails (!).  This sequence involving the “ghastly gastropods” is certainly a ‘unique’ one to be sure, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the ‘bite’ as was evidently intended.  However, in spite of ÆNIGMA’s utter unoriginality, the inherent premise still has limited potential to deliver some mindless fun, which it periodically does, but the film quickly runs out of ideas, even stooping so low and resorting to trashy daytime TV-style dramatics when Dr. Anderson and Eva begin an illicit affair while she is in the process of convalescing at a psychiatric clinic.  Even some of the more interesting ideas, such as the school’s creepy custodian – and Kathy’s mom – rapidly go nowhere despite their intrinsic ‘connection’, which is comically rendered (the focal point being a pair of superimposed glowing red eyes [guess whose!]).

Previously available on DVD as part of Image’s “Euroshock Collection”, this was a bare-bones affair for sure, and that edition wasn’t even 16x9 enhanced.  Like so many of Fulci’s films, due to his international fanbase, ÆNIGMA has also seen releases overseas on both DVD and Blu-ray since the VHS/Beta era, but none of them can compare to 88 Films’ superb Blu-ray; which, like Michele Massimo Tarantini’s MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (1985) and Joe D’Amato’s ABSURD (1981) and BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979), was also part of a highly successful Indiegogo funding campaign.  Restored in 2K from the original camera negative, Luigi Ciccarese’s efficient and colourful cinematography looks splendid here and, at the same time, the film’s new transfer successfully retains the original natural grain structure of the celluloid stock.  The LPCM 2.0 audio is also presented in both English and Italian. As an added bonus, newly-translated English subtitles are provided, which give the film a somewhat classier feel, although most viewers will undoubtedly prefer the Anglo dubbing track, featuring the voice talents of Pat Starke and Ted Rusoff, et cetera. 


The biggest extra is Aenigma: Fulci and the 80s (sic), a (quote) “feature length documentary looking at the twilight period of Lucio Fulci’s legendary career”, which features on-camera interviews with many of his collaborators of the time.  Interviews include: production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, composer Carlo Maria Cordio - who assures us of Fulci’s “musical competence” – and screenwriter / director Claudio Fragasso talks about Fulci’s (quote) “terrible experience in the Philippines” working on ZOMBI 3 and his admiration for Fulci’s DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), which he considers his best film. Other interviews include actor Marco Di Stefano, assistant director Michele De Angelis and director Gianni Martucci who believed Fulci was a “slave to his condition” while author and writer Antonio Tentori thought of his working relationship with Fulci as a “surreal” experience.  Rounding out the doc are interviews with cinematographer Alessandro Grossi - he shot Fulci’s CAT IN THE BRAIN (a.k.a. NIGHTMARE CONCERT, 1990) – and director Antonio Bido who recalls Fulci’s appreciation of his late-entry action flick, BLUE TORNADO (1991) with warm nostalgia.  Other extras include an original trailer, the Italian opening and closing credit sequences and a reversible sleeve featuring uncensored artwork.  All campaign supporters also received a limited slipcover highlighting the original uncensored artwork.  

Most casual viewers will quickly dismiss ÆNIGMA as marginal Fulci – which it is – but to be fair, it does contain a few ‘unforgettable’ moments interspersed amongst the tedium.  Regardless of the film itself, 88 Films delivers another terrific Blu-ray, which most Fulci connoisseurs will not hesitate to pick up.  Order ÆNIGMA from DiabolikDVD or 88 Films directly.