Monday, November 28, 2016

Waves of Lust (1975)

Ruggero Deodato has had a particularly interesting directorial career, especially when compared to careers of some of his fellow Italian genre masters. While it isn’t uncommon for directors to hone their craft in a multitude of styles before cementing their legacy in a particular genre, (this is especially true of say, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi) Deodato’s career path is nonetheless more curious than most. For starters, Deodato’s friendship with Renzo Rossellini, son of the legendary Roberto, led to Deodato learning from the master while doing second unit on some of Rossellini’s films. Deodato also made a comfortable living for himself shooting commercials, and eventually made his feature film debut, albeit uncreditied, with Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964). From then on he helmed a variety of films in different genres ranging from musical comedies to adventure/superhero films before taking a break from features in 1969 to concentrate on television work. It wasn’t until his return to features in the mid-70’s did Deodato enter the Italian genre market that was booming at the time and even still, Deodato’s work differed from the likes of Bava, Argento, Fulci and Martino just to name a famous few. Rather than throw his hat in the giallo ring, Deodato’s first thriller, 1975’s Waves of Lust was a sun baked Polanski-esque potboiler that really set in motion the types confrontational and pessimistic films Deodato would eventually become notorious for.

Vacationing couple Irem (Al Cliver) and Barbara (Silvia Dionisio) spot playboy George (John Steiner) and his girlfriend Silvia (Elizabeth Turner) water-skiing from a distance and are immediately intrigued by George’s demeanor and carefree attitude towards Silvia’s safety. Later in the day, Barbara encounters George and after a bit of flirting the two make plans for dinner later that night. Unbeknownst to George however it’s a ruse and all four find themselves together. Despite barely knowing each other, George invites Irem and Barbara to accompany him and Silvia on his yacht and the group set sail the next day. Almost immediately, George reveals himself to be a verbally and physically abusive tyrant, with Silvia essentially his slave. There is also an obvious attraction between Irem and Silvia as well between George and Barbara. Despite agreeing to lose all inhibitions, George’s attitude and increasingly erratic behavior become too much and it isn’t long until tension and jealousy erupt into violence.

Although nowhere near the savagery of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), Waves of Lust (Ondata di piacere) is still a nasty piece of business with Deodato’s nihilistic worldview in plain sight. It would be easy to describe Waves of Lust as simply “horrible people doing horrible things to equally horrible people”, although as is the case with Deodato nothing is ever that black and white and the shades of grey quickly become more defined. For a film that is so blunt in terms of eroticism, its also rather ambiguous when it comes to character motivations. Almost immediately its made clear that George is an insufferable bastard and his relationship with Silvia is dominant/submissive, what’s not so clear is Silvia’s true feelings on the matter. It would certainly appear that she is unhappy with the situations yet its also hinted at that she sticks around solely due to George’s wealth. What’s also left out in the open is Irem’s true feelings regarding the relationship that develops between him and Silvia. Does he truly care for her well-being or is it purely sexual? Even Irem and Barbara’s love  comes into question at times with it being hinted that, despite being together, it wouldn’t be a shock if one betrayed the other. Deodato brilliantly juxtaposes the misanthropic story with the films tropical locations and nautical theme song with the claustrophobic confines of the yacht and isolation of the open sea only adding to the already uncomfortably tense mood.

At the time the film was made, Deodato and lead actress Silvia Dionisio were married. When Deodato told her he was going to direct an erotic film with plentiful nudity Dionisio objected, that was unless she had a role in the film which is essentially how she got the part despite the fact that the role of Barbara was already cast. It might seem strange to think Deodato would be uncomfortable filming anything, yet Deodato admitted that he was incredibly nervous shooting the nude scenes and actually wasn’t all that interested in making an erotic film at all but rather wanting to make a straight-forward thriller. So even if it may have been accidental, the end result wound up being a mash-up of both. Deodato also expressed some reservations about the finished film, wanting to have shot more outside of the yacht but bad weather prevented it which actually worked in the films favor as again, the confines of the yacht made for many a tense moment. Its also worth pointing out that the film was the first screenwriting credit for Lamberto Bava. Waves of Lust is a film that any Deodato fan owes it to themselves to see as it establishes the attitude Deodato would adopt for his future films and really proves that (fans of the film with immediately understand) even when viewed upside down, the world looks just as sick.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The House of Witchcraft (1989)

AKA Ghosthouse 4: Haus der Hexen (House of Witches)

Unlike Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci who all excelled when dealing with supernatural themes, Umberto Lenzi is one Italian genre specialist that didn’t dive into the mystic nearly as much. Much like Ruggero Deodato, Lenzi preferred his horror and thriller films to be rooted in reality somewhat, focusing on the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on each other as witnessed in his early erotic jet set thrillers starring Carroll Baker such as Paranoia (1969), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970). Lenzi also showed a knack for psychological puzzle films with the bizarre giallo Spasmo (1974) and Euro crime classics like Almost Human (1974) and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977) display the gritty nihilism that Lenzi brought to a good number of his films. Still, Lenzi did on occasion delve into some otherworldly territory and even if his more esoteric efforts aren’t held in the same regard as some of his more renowned titles, they are nonetheless interesting films when viewed in the greater context of Lenzi’s entire body of work. In 1989, both Lenzi and Lucio Fulci signed on to direct two made for TV films under the banner of “The House of Doom”. The House of Witchcraft, Lenzi’s second film for the series is somewhat of a hidden gem and perhaps Lenzi’s most successful attempt at mythical and magical material.

Every night, Luke Palmer is plagued by a reoccurring nightmare. The dream is always the same, with Luke running through the woods into a mysterious house, into the kitchen where he meets a witch who promptly disposes of his head in a boiling cauldron. Following a nervous breakdown, Luke’s wife Martha suggests some time away at an estate Martha rented will do Luke good. Much to Luke’s surprise, the estate happens to be the exact same house from his dreams and sure enough Luke beings seeing the witch around the estate. Feeling uneasy and untrusting of Martha, Luke invites his sister in law Elsa and her daughter to visit and it isn’t long until they too, along with Sharon, the niece of the estates owner, find themselves trapped in a waking nightmare.

For a relatively low-key made for television production, The House of Witchcraft (La casa del sortilegio) is a fairly ambitious and mature endeavor, one which puts a fresh spin on various horror tropes. Even by 1989 the blurring of dreams and reality probably seemed a bit old hat but with the witchcraft angle Lenzi effectively avoids cliché in creating a sort of ambiguous world which may resemble reality yet may also be suspended between the waking and dream world. The film is basically split into three stages with the first two acting as a slow set-up, exploring Luke’s dreams as well as his for all intensive purposes defunct marriage to Martha, a fascinating character who plays a major psychological role in relation to Luke’s constant unease. Lenzi also makes creative use of another well-worn horror device, that being the house with a dark secret which again thanks to the element of witchcraft is given new life. When more characters eventually enter the fray the film essentially becomes a body count movie while all the while retaining its slightly surreal essence. The film is one of Lenzi’s most visually accomplished with the house and its surroundings shrouded in atmosphere with Lenzi wasting none of its potential giving way to such striking imagery like bleeding flowers and a decrepit, dungeon-esque basement suddenly being filled with snow. The witch herself has an interesting look. Perhaps a bit goofy looking at first she gradually becomes more and more grotesque and even a bit unsettling with each appearance.

Italian horror fans should get a kick out of Lenzi’s homage’s to his fellow countrymen during the course of the film, the most obvious being the character of Andrew Mason, the owner of the house the film takes place in, a blind man with a companion German Sheppard, a clear reference to Cinzia Monreale’s character of Emily in Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Mason was played by the legendary Jess Franco's favorite Paul Muller who would go on to appear later the same year in Lenzi’s Hell Gate (1989). One of the most interesting, and potentially confusing things regarding The House of Witchcraft is its German re-branding as Ghosthouse 4. Although its common knowledge amongst Italian horror fanatics, Lenzi’s film Ghosthouse (1988) is technically part of a series of unrelated films re-titled for their Italian release, the “La casa” (The House) series. The first in that particular series being The Evil Dead (1981) which was released in Italy as La casa. Lenzi’s film was released as the third La casa film with the fourth film to get the La casa tag in Italy being Witchery (1988) staring Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff, also known as Witchcraft, not to be confused with Lenzi’s film! The House of Witchcraft is a proper horror film, one that should be a treat for genre fans looking for something somewhat different, from both Lenzi and films dealing with witchcraft.



Monday, October 31, 2016

Oasis of Fear (1971)

AKA An Ideal Place to Kill (Un posto ideale per uccidere) and Dirty Pictures 

Although he’ll probably forever be best known, and perhaps rightfully so, for the radiation sickness outbreak epic Nightmare City (1980) and notorious cannibal classic Cannibal Ferox (1981), Umberto Lenzi doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the contributions to the giallo field. During the time period in-between Mario Bava’s jumpstarting the genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Dario Argento’s opening the floodgates with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Lenzi, along with many other filmmakers, was responsible for several thrillers that would continue to lay the foundations for where the giallo would eventually be headed in the 70’s. Long before the infamy of Salon Kitty (1975) and Caligula (1979), Eurotica maestro Tinto Brass delivered the Antonioni influenced pop art thriller Deadly Sweet (1967) which starrted Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin who would both go on to star in Giulio Questi’s bizarre and utterly singular Death Laid and Egg (1968). Even Lucio Fulci got in the giallo game early on with Perversion Story (1969). That same year also saw Lenzi began his string of erotic jet-set thrillers with the Carroll Baker led Paranoia (1969), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) which Lenzi followed up with 1971’s Oasis of Fear, one of his best thrillers and a film which see’s Lenzi putting an interesting spin on previously explored obsessions.

Dick (Ray Lovelock) and Ingrid (Ornella Muti), two young American tourists are financing their trip across Europe by selling pornographic photos of themselves. After running into some trouble with the law in Italy they find themselves with a 24 deadline to leave the country and their luck gets even worse after being ripped off by a gang of bikers, leaving them with no money and no gas. The two eventually stumble upon a seemingly abandoned large estate and in a move of desperation, attempt to siphon gas from a car in the open garage, although they are interrupted by Barbara (Irene Papas), the lady of the house. After explaining their situation, Barbara becomes sympathetic and even invites them to stay and the three have a wild night together. The fun is short lived however as Dick and Ingrid discover Barbara’s reasoning behind keeping them around is far more sinister than what she originally led on.

In many ways Oasis of Fear is a spiritual sequel to Paranoia with Lenzi once again utilizing somewhat of a home invasion angle, although here he reverses the roles with the younger generation being the pawns. Where the films differ is in Lenzi’s toying with audience expectations in regards to characterization. In Paranoia, it was obvious from the get go that Carroll Baker’s character would be the victim and therefore easy to sympathize with. With this film however Lenzi obscures the notions of “good” and bad” a bit, presenting the audience with a bit of a moral conundrum by leaving it out in the open as to whether or not Dick and Ingrid’s way of dealing with their dilemma is the best solution. This is were Lovelock and Muti really excel in their roles, perfectly capturing Dick and Ingrid’s youthful spirit early on in the film and also their naivety when things become dangerous. As Barbara, Papa’s is brilliant as the brooding and mysteries femme fatale with obvious ulterior motives yet there is also a seductive empathy about her which Lenzi exploits to gain a bit of uncomfortable sympathy from the audience due to Dick and Ingrid’s treatment of her. The class warfare and generational gaps between predator and prey that were prominent throughout Paranoia are even more pronounced here and it could be said that Lenzi’s outlook is more nihilistic this time around with the outcome of the film essentially mirroring what would very likely happen in a similar real life situation.

Given the release history of some of Lenzi’s previous thrillers, its only appropriate that Oasis of Fear would have some alternate titles liable to confuse some viewers. The film was released in Italy under the title Un posto ideale per uccidere or An Ideal Place to Kill. This is of course not to be confused with Lenzi’s A Quiet Place to Kill which was also released as Paranoia, not to be confused with Lenzi’s 1969 film Paranoia also known as Orgasmo! Lenzi would return to the giallo fold a few more times following Oasis of Fear, reuniting with Carroll Baker for the excellent Knife of Ice (1972) along with helming two films more in line with the direction the giallo would take as the 70’s moved forward, Seven Bloodstained Orchids (1972) and Eyeball (1975). Then there’s the bizarre Spasmo (1974), Lenzi’s delirious psycho thriller that in many ways almost dares to be classified as a giallo. In between all that Lenzi also found time to plant the seeds for the Italian cannibal film craze with The Man From Deep River (1972) as well as begin a series of films in the Eurocrime genre of which Lenzi is rightfully considered a master of. As far as his giallo/thrillers are concerned, Oasis of Fear is right up there with the best of them with a perfect cast as well as a fairly bleak world view.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Paranoia (1969)

AKA Orgasmo

The world of the Italian horror/thriller has seen many a memorable artist/muse collaboration over the years. One that springs to mind immediately would be the now legendary pairing of Lucio Fulci and Catriona MacColl with the trilogy of City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and The House By the Cemetery (1981). Another obvious one being Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi with Argento giving Nicolodi, his wife for a time, numerous roles in films like Deep Red (1975), Inferno (1980), Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987). Then of course there’s the king and queen of the giallo, Sergio Martino and Edwige Fenech who defined the subgenre with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). One of the more fruitful director/performer tag-teams to come from the golden age of Italian genre cinema would be Umberto Lenzi and former Hollywood blonde bombshell Carroll Baker, who from 1969 to 1972 made four films together after Baker relocated to Italy following legal troubles and a divorce, Paranoia, So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) and Knife of Ice (1972), with the first of these collaborations, Paranoia, being the best along with being one of the best Italian thrillers to come from this period and one of Lenzi’s finest films.

Kathryn West (Baker), a wealthy jet set widow retires to her estate in Italy following the death of her husband. One afternoon, Kathryn hears a car horn outside the gates and meets Peter Donovan, a young local who’s car has broken down and needs to use the phone. Peter returns later that night and Kathryn aggress to let him stay and the two begin a passionate affair with Peter eventually moving in. Not long after, Kathryn is introduced to Peter’s sister Eva whom Kathryn takes an immediate liking too and she too moves in. At first Kathryn feels reinvigorated, letting go of all her worries and having fun until she returns home one night to find Peter and Eva in bed together. Soon Peter and Eva’s sinister intentions behind befriending Kathryn dawn on her as she finds herself becoming a plaything for the two incestuous sadists amusement.

Featuring dialogue like “One has to be afraid of everything these days, especially when one’s happy” and “When I think of myself I want to vomit. But I’m happy because I realize it”, Lenzi makes no attempt to hide his nihilism throughout the course of Paranoia. Even by Lenzi standards Paranoia is a pessimistic gem, shining a light, albeit a highly eroticized and pulpy one, on some of the rotten things human beings are capable of doing to each other. As a thriller, the film works for all the obvious reasons although what’s interesting is that there really isn’t a sense of mystery to the film setting aside Peter and Eva’s end goals. Virtually every advertisement for the film made it glaringly obvious that Peter and Eva aren’t what they seem and in any other film a similar storyline probably wouldn’t have much momentum however in the case of Paranoia its what gives the film its wheels. This is mainly thanks to the wonderful performance of Carroll Baker who is sympathetic from the start of the film and only gets more so as the film becomes more mean spirited. Baker perfectly captured the devolution of Kathryn’s psychical and more importantly, mental state which Lenzi also perfectly translated visually by deliriously liberal use of the zoom lens. What also makes the film interesting is that underneath the main plot is a none too subtle element of class warfare and generational gaps which Lenzi would explore again in the similarly themed Oasis of Fear (1971).  

Paranoia is one of several Lenzi films that has a tendency to confuse some newcomers to the world of European cult cinema based on its title. The film was originally released in Italy as Orgasmo (Orgasm), however once it entered overseas markets the films title was later changed to Paranoia. One year later following this film and So Sweet… So Perverse, Lenzi and Baker teamed up again for what was originally released in Italy as Paranoia later became A Quiet Place to Kill. This particular re-titling can lead to some confusion of its own as the aforementioned Oasis of Fear is also known as An Ideal Place to Kill! Lenzi would encounter the re-title again and sometimes ironically as when his TV movie The House of Witchcraft (1989), part of the House of Doom project Lenzi did along with Lucio Fulci was released in Germany as Ghosthouse 4, despite having absolutely nothing to do Lenzi’s original Ghosthouse (1988). Then there was Lenzi’s underrated voodoo/zombie mash-up Black Demons (1991) which was renamed Dèmoni 3 and marketed as the third film in Lamberto Bava’s Demons series. Regardless of its title, what’s certain is that Paranoia or Orgasmo is a special film from an unusual yet surprisingly simpatico director/actress collaboration. Sexy, stylish, more than a bit misanthropic and featuring what has to be one of Carroll Baker's finest performances, Paranoia is unquestionably an essential Lenzi title.



Monday, October 3, 2016

Scorpion With Two Tails (1982)

AKA Assassinio al cimitero etrusco (Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery)

From 1971 to 1973, Sergio Martino was on a serious role, establishing himself as the king of the giallo. Together with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, Marino helmed the genre defining masterpieces The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and Torso (1973). Gastaldi and Marino continued to collaborate although either out of boredom with the genre or fear of burnout, Martino began to move away from giallo films and began working in a plethora of other genres like Euro crime with The Violent Professionals (1973) and Gambling City (1975), spaghetti westerns with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977), the cannibal epic Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), and creature features such as Island of the Fishmen (1979) and The Big Alligator River (1979), several of which feature writing by Gastaldi. In 1982, Martino and Gastaldi, along with fellow legendary screenwriter, former Lucio Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti, teamed up for Scorpion With Two Tails, somewhat of a return to the giallo for Martino but with a (literal) twist. Originally conceived as a mini-series then later edited down to a theatrical feature, Scorpion With Two Tails is often dismissed as a lesser Martino film when in fact its one of Marino’s most interesting and a unique spin on the giallo.

Soon after discovering a previously unheard of Etruscan tomb, Arthur Barnard, an esteemed archeologist is murdered by having his head twisted backwards, an ancient Etruscan method of murder. Prior to his death, Arthur’s wife Joan had a dream involving a ritualistic sacrificial ceremony taking place in the exact same tomb Arthur had discovered. Joan, along with two of her late husband’s colleges travel to Italy and come to find out that while in the tomb, Arthur uncovered a crate, the contents of which were very lucrative and not for Arthur’s eyes. Dissatisfied with the way to police handled Arthur’s murder, Joan decides to stay in Italy to so some investigating of her own and soon finds herself in the middle of a mysterious plot involving murder, drug smuggling and an ancient Etruscan treasure as well as coming to the realization that she may have more in common with the ancient Etruscans than simply knowing the language.

A strange mix of giallo, Euro crime and supernatural horror, there certainly is a lot to digest at once with Scorpion With Two Tails. Given that the film originated as a much longer mini-series, there are some points in the film where it becomes apparent that certain things were trimmed for time, for instance a very important subplot ending rather abruptly, however in the end Martino has the film come full circle with most of the loose ends being tied up. The things that are left unexplained mainly pertain to the films supernatural side and is here where the film really becomes interesting. Despite it being fairly obvious that Joan has some sort of connection to the ancient Etruscans, Martino wisely leaves it a mystery as to whether or not she actually is supernaturally inclined which leads to many a surreal moment expertly rendered by Martino in an appropriately dreamy fashion and often involving the memorable use of maggots. Of course being centered around the ancient Etruscans the film is ripe with stunning locations, the main tomb is an astounding site and Martino wastes none of its potential, particularly during the finale. What’s also unique about the film is the blending of various subgenres with the giallo/murder mystery elements leading to the more esoteric side of the film while the crime subplot makes both a bit more engaging and never once does one trip over the other which is again surprising considering that many things had to be omitted for a theatrical release.

The final theatrical edit of the film received several VHS releases around the world over the years and finally a DVD release from Mya Communications in 2006, however the original TV version has yet to be seen anywhere. As a bonus, the DVD included a few excerpts from the TV version which includes more screen time for the legendary John Saxon who plays Arthur. One of the many complaints leveled at the film is Saxon’s bit part and while more John Saxon is always a good thing, for the sake of the narrative his character had to be killed off early in the film so even if he was in the TV version longer he still probably wouldn’t have made it that much longer anyway. Lead actress Elvire Audray in the role of Joan is another big target of negative criticism. Her dubbing may be a bit off (not exactly her fault) but otherwise her performance was more than appropriate as she appears to be in a delirious state a good portion of the time which fit her character. For whatever reason, Martino signed the film with his “Christian Plummer” pseudonym. Perhaps he was unhappy with the final edit of the film but its hardly a film to be ashamed of. True, its not like his earlier giallos but its something a bit different and a good melding of distinctly European genre styles.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977)

Quite possibly Italy’s most popular contribution to the world cinema landscape, the spaghetti western was certainly one of the most lucrative subgenres to be born during a time of intense productivity in the Italian film world. There may have been an innumerable amount of films made in other popular Italian genres, namely giallo and poliziotteschi, but in terms of the sheer volume of films made during a specific time period, the spaghetti western trumps them all. While there were European westerns made before, clearly the film that jumpstarted the Italian western craze was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and from then on until the mid to late 70’s it seems as if virtually every Italian director tried they're hand at the western genre. This included many who would go onto to become horror maestro’s such as Giulio Questi, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi. Dario Argento even received a writing credit on Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Being the gene chameleon he is, naturally Sergio Martino spent some time in the wild west. Following his two mondo oddities Wages of Sin (1969) and Naked and Violent (1970), Martino made his narrative film debut with Arizona Colt Returns (1970) and would return to the west 7 years later with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, one of the best and more unusual films the spaghetti western genre has to offer.

A mysterious, hatchet wielding bounty hunter ominously known as “Blade” (Maurizio Merli) arrives in Suttonville, a corrupt mining town to collect the reward money for capturing a wanted man. Almost immediately after arriving however Blade runs afoul of Theo Voller (John Steiner), the ruthless right hand man to Ed McGowan, who rules both the mines and the town with a fanatically religious iron fist. Blade confronts McGowan, although things aren’t what they seem as Voller is soon discovered to be disloyal, kidnapping McGowan’s daughter with plans to take over the town which prompts McGowan to plead with Blade to deliver the ransom money Voller is demanding in order to save his daughter. Reluctantly, Blade agrees and sets out to get rid of Voller all the while confronting his own personal demons.

Mannaja is a deceptively unconventional film. To be sure, as far as western canon is concerned, Martino covers quite a few of the bases with the character of Blade being a fairly archetypical western hero, i.e. the mysterious nomadic drifter with a dark past who’s arrival disrupts the order of the town, plenty of bandits (which leads to a brilliantly composed stagecoach ambush) and vendetta’s to be settled. At the same time however Martino makes the genre his own and what really sets Mannaja apart from the majority of westerns, spaghetti or otherwise, is its mood, visual design and atmosphere. There is downbeat esotericism to the film with the preverbal dark cloud trailing both behind and in front of Blade and Martino essentially lenses the film as if it were a horror film which gives the film an air of surreality, with the town of Suttonville shrouded in rain, fog and copious amounts of mud. In proper western fashion, it’s a landscape as unforgiving as its inhabitants and one particularly unforgettable method of torture employed in the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jodorowsky or Arrabal film. Martino also masterfully utilizes slow-motion during the films memorable opening and a haunting shot of a near death driver manning the aforementioned stagecoach. A literal “phantom carriage” so to speak. The films odd theme song also bears mention as it features some of the most bizarre vocal styling’s heard in any spaghetti western theme song fitting in perfectly with the films other offbeat tendencies.

By the time Mannaja was made the spaghetti western was beginning to decline and interestingly Mannaja was one of the very last spaghetti westerns made. Martino assumes it was either the second to last or the very last of the cycle that began in the 60’s. Martino also insists that his casting of Maurizio Merli was not simply because of Merli’s resemblance to Franco Nero, a common criticism but rather because Merli was also an established genre star and was the right fit for the role of Blade. Martino has also explained that the films unique visual design relied heavily on environmental factors as the film was shot at Elios Studios near Manziana which was in a state of decay and rather than spend the money to repair it, Marino shot it as is which allowed him, in his own words, to portray a "ghost town". The weather also played a major hand with the constant rainfall leading to even more mud and fog. Despite the technical difficulties the area posed, in the end it contributed to the films singular look and feel. Despite being made when the spaghetti western was beginning to die off, Mannaja doesn’t at all feel like the product of a dying era. Thanks to Martino’s original stylistic approach and the films interesting tone, Mannaja is a must see for spaghetti western fans and a fairly essential Martino title.


Monday, September 5, 2016

Naked and Violent (1970)

AKA America così nuda, così violenta (America So Naked, So Violent)

Although pre-dated by the cautionary films from the 1930’s and 40’s such as Reefer Madness (1936) and Mom and Dad (1945), the “mondo” film is nonetheless one of the oldest subgenres in the exploitation field. Generally speaking, the mondo film in its classic form is very much an Italian creation with the main men responsible being Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara with their film Mondo Cane (1962), which caused a sensation worldwide and spawned numerous imitators. While Jacopetti and Prosperi continued to steer the ship with other infamous films like Africa Addio (1966) and Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), more Italian directors decided to throw their hat in the mondo ring such as the Castiglioni brothers Angelo and Alfredo with their series of African based mondos and Antonio Climati and Mario Morra with their “savage trilogy”. Of course there are other international examples of films that came in the wake of mondos, perhaps the most infamous being the Faces of Death series which in turn led numerous similarly themed imitators, however by and large, the exploitation documentary market was cornered by the Italians. Sergio Martino, an Italian master, began his directorial career in the mondo genre with Wages of Sin (1969) which he quickly followed-up with Naked and Violent, a stand out film in the mondo genre for its setting but also for being of the most bizarre films of its type.

Unlike other Italian mondo films of the time which mainly focused on Africa or other exotic locations, Naked and Violent is a travelogue across the United States casting its leery and often scandalous eye on a variety of topics ranging from the homeless, living conditions of the elderly, the hedonism of Las Vegas, hippies and the anti-Vietnam war movement, race relations, the sexual practices of the bored bourgeois, fringe religions, bikers, the plight of Native Americans and everything in between.

Taken at face value, Naked and Violent probably comes across as cynical and crass and in truth it is, however like the majority of mondo films the manner in which it approaches its subjects is so hyper sensational and over the top its impossible to take completely seriously. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that a good portion of what the film presents is accurate, although it becomes a guessing game of what is and isn’t as the film also makes use of another mondo trait, staged scenes. More often than not its fairly obvious to figure out what was staged, for instance the crew following the police to the scene of a “suicide”, a gang of rednecks attacking a black man or a hippie cutting off his fingers as to avoid the draft. There are however scenes in the film who’s authenticity is a tad more ambiguous. What really sets the film apart from other mondo’s is its sheer oddness with some “exposes” being so strange they almost cross over into surreal territory such as an African tribal ceremony being performed in New York City, a man getting close with a rather frightening looking blow-up doll, a bourgeois orgy where all the participants dawn grotesque masks and the obligatory satanic ritual featuring a sacrificial chicken. Of course there is “lighter” material like young hippies being “rented” by bored middle class ladies for a weekend rendezvous and the condescending Italian narration throughout makes everything a bit more humorous.

There are those who will no doubt be quick to label the film racially insensitive although such reactions are quickly dismissed considering Martino’s condemnation of the bastardization of Polynesian culture in Hawaii for tourism purposes, and the film does paint a fairly sensitive portrait of the struggle of the American Indian. Plus those with racist beliefs shown in the film are generally portrayed as backwards thinking and ignorant. Its bears mentioning that the film was scored by Bruno Nicolai who would go on to score Martino’s Arizona Colt Returns (1970), The Case of the Scorpions Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). Jess Franco fans will immediately recognize cues from Nicolai’s soundtrack for Franco’s Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) reused here during the satanic ritual which, despite being recycled was a perfect choice. Naked and Violent isn’t mentioned all that often despite having an official DVD release from Mya Communications. Like all mondo’s its bound to incite some sort of reaction, never apathy. Its an interesting look into Martino’s pre-giallo days and a fascinatingly weird film in general especially when compared to other mondo films. Those looking for a serious Italian critique of early 70’s America should know better, however as an exploitative freak show, Naked and Violent has all the bases covered.