Monday, November 19, 2012

5 Dolls For an August Moon (1970)

AKA Island of Terror

Could it be that I’ve been operating this damn site for the better part of a year and have yet to discuss a Mario Bava film? It would appear so. Not that there’s any particular reason for that but lets be honest, you really don’t need me to tell you that Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), and Blood and Black Lace (1964) amongst many others are brilliant. Hundreds of others have already done so and have said it ten times better than I ever could. Having said that, I still don’t think a site like this would be “complete” with out at least one Bava flick in the archives, and even still I didn’t want it to be an obvious one either. While nowhere near as obscure as it was once considered to be thanks to DVD, 5 Dolls For an August Moon does seem to be an oddity in Bava’s filmography. Bava himself hated the film as he wasn’t fond of the script at all and the film was rushed into production so fast he literally had no prep time. Fans seem to be torn every which way when it comes to this film. There are those who love it, those who share Bava’s point of view and hate it, then there are those who are totally bewildered by it and aren’t sure what to think. Of all the stances one could take on this film, the third one is probably the most understandable as 5 Dolls is quite the head scratcher. Personally, I find myself in the first and third categories. Despite having revisited it several times after first watching it, there are still some things about it I still don’t fully comprehend, yet the film possesses an undeniable oddball charm, one that immediately drew me in and continues to warrant repeated viewings.

Millionaire industrialist George Stark has invited several of his fellow wealthy friends along with their wives and mistresses (one of which happens to be Euro goddess Edwige Fenech) to his island home for the weekend. The guest of honor is Professor Gerry Farrell, a scientist who has just discovered a revolutionary new formula for an industrial synthetic resin. Still in mourning over the loss of his partner who died during the development of the formula, Professor Ferrell isn’t interested in selling, although George and his fellow businessmen all want the formula and are making huge offers. Tensions soon grow as each man outbids and out offers the other. When George’s houseboy suddenly turns up dead and the boats which are the only means of leaving the island disappear out of the blue everybody is quick to point fingers, although the group quickly becomes smaller in numbers as more and more bodies begin to end up hanging in the freezer.

French poster and VHS under the Island of Terror (L'ile de l'epouvante)

With a title like “5 Dolls For an August Moon” (5 bambole per la luna d'agosto) you’d probably expect this film to be pure giallo, and while it does contain certain giallo elements, it wouldn’t be fair to classify it a such. It also wouldn’t be fair to call it a straightforward murder mystery either because to be honest this film isn’t really a straightforward anything. It’s as much a black comedy as it is a mystery/thriller, and “straightforward” is the last way you’d describe the way the film goes about it‘s business. With a storyline like this, there’s bound to be at least some intrigue, and indeed there is once we get to know these characters and all their eccentricities, so there is the feeling that it really could be anyone in the group, as most are pretty shady characters. The film does a good job at keeping you totally in the dark when it comes to the killers identity as the majority of the murders happen off screen, and along the way we’re thrown a real curveball making things even more confusing, and the sense that there could even possibly be more than one killer will possibly spring to mind. As I said above it’s the films overt quirkiness that kept me interested, and as the film gets weirder and weirder as it goes along the more you’ll wonder just where the hell it’s all going to end up, although once you get there there’s a chance you’ll be even more dumbfounded than you were while watching the film. Of course there’s also the darkly comedic elements, stemming from the nonchalant “another dead body, in the freezer you go” reaction the group has whenever finding one of their fallen friends, and it is chuckle inducing hearing the same piece of music played whenever the contents of the freezer are presented.

Even if Bava wasn’t entirely behind the story it’s apparent that he cared enough to make the film look as good as possible. Right after the opening credits Bava begins the film on a strange note with an extended party scene featuring the cast of characters basically behaving like jackasses, giving us a pretty good idea at the type of people we’ll be spending the next hour and a half with, complete with delirious close up’s, zooms and Edwige doing a much welcomed enticing dance all the while Piero Umiliani’s sexy  psych-lounge plays overtop everything. Bava makes excellent use of the island and beach locations, not just in the sense that they’re naturally amazing looking, which they are, but the way Bava uses them as a backdrop for little things he added on the fly to make the film more visually appealing (more appealing than he probably thought it deserved to be) like for instance, a creatively displayed body, and Bava’s brilliant use of color (for this film the focus is on blue) shines through during the nighttime exterior shots. Bava also benefited from having already stylish looking interiors to shoot in. The design of Stark’s villa is quite the sight, very “chic” and “modern“, if you will, for the time I suppose. There’s also the way Bava chose to hang the dead bodies in the meat freezer, making them look like a collection of prime cuts wrapped in plastic. The film may have been made in 1970 but there is an obvious aura of leftover psychedelia from the previous decade lingering throughout the film, aided by Umiliani’s aforementioned score, which as any fan will tell you is along with Bava’s direction, a main selling point of the film.

When 5 Dolls was initially released in Europe in 1970 the reaction was pretty apathetic and it wasn’t until 31 years later when Image released the film on DVD as part of their Mario Bava collection did the film finally see an American release. Hey, I say a mixed reaction 31 years later is better than no reaction at all. Also this is a totally random tidbit of information (which seems appropriate when considering the film) but the legendary doom metal band Cathedral cleverly referenced the film (“Five dolls for an August moon, on this island I await my doom”) along with several other films featuring Edwige Fenech in their tribute tune to the queen of giallo movies “Edwige’s Eyes” on their 2010 album The Guessing Game. Have a listen here. There are those who will tell you 5 Dolls For an August Moon is for Bava completists only. I say that’s a bunch of hooey. Granted it might be one of his most difficult to get into 100% in full during just one viewing, but it’s far from his worst film as he often considered it to be, and just a good example as any of Bava’s mastery behind the camera. Even if you end up not liking the film as a whole, there is a good possibility that something about it that will stick with you, and you might just find that something compelling enough to revisit the film again and again, finding even more things to like each time you come back. Plus the fact that it’s a film directed by Mario Bava that features Edwige Fenech should be enough to make you want to check it out.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Rampage (1987)

I confess that I’ve always been one of “those” weird people who’s always had a morbid interest and curiosity when it comes to serial killers. I’ve done my fair share of reading over the years on most of the “big” ones (you know, Ed Gein, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Zodiac, Dennis Raider (BTK), and Gary Ridgway (the Green River killer) just to name a few) not to mention having watched countless interviews, documentaries and TV specials detailing their cases, trials and the frenzy that usually comes with them. Can’t help it, there will always be something fascinating to me about what makes these people tick, and I’m obviously not the only one when you consider the extensive and more often than not sensationalistic media coverage these types of cases normally get. William Friedkin’s criminally (pun intended) under seen Rampage was loosely based on the real life case of Richard Chase AKA “The Vampire of Sacramento”. I knew next to nothing about Chase and his crimes, but that didn’t matter one bit in regards to me wanting, wait, scratch that, needing to see this film. As if a film about a blood drinking serial killer directed by Friedkin wasn’t enough, add the fact that Ennio Morricone did the score and you’ve got material that needs to be seen much sooner than later. Friedkin fan’s have been all about Rampage for years, although as most fans will tell you, much like the majority of Friedkin’s post-Exorcist (1973) output, Rampage is a film that still needs to be seen much sooner than later by a greater number of people.

During the Christmas season of 1986 in the community of Stockton, California, Charles Reece (Alex McArthur), the seemingly normal all American boy next door type, snaps and goes on a murderous rampage, killing four people. As a result of suffering from paranoid delusions, Reece drinks his victim’s blood, mutilates the bodies and harvests the internal organs. He is subsequently captured and brought to trial. The defense is claiming insanity, although the prosecuting attorney Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn) isn’t buying it, fearing that if Reece is found not guilty by reason of insanity there is a risk of him eventually being falsely declared “cured” by psychiatrists and re-released back into society. When faced with the brutality of Reece’s crimes and after meeting with the husband and son of one of the victims, Fraser vows to never let that happen and decides to seek the death penalty, going against his liberal beliefs, all the while coping with a personal tragedy of his own that has resurfaced as a result of the case.

Morricone's soundtrack
Part psycho-thriller, part courtroom drama, Rampage packs one hell of a punch. It’s a very balanced film in the sense that it gives us not only the visual horror of Reece’s crimes and their after effects, but the emotional horrors inflicted upon the victims (the time between Fraser and the husband of one of the victims is well spent) plus the moral tug of war we see Fraser go through by having his legal beliefs turned upside down. Fraser’s personal tragedy angle is played just right, giving us just the right amount of need to know information without interfering with the main storyline. For a film dealing with topics as heavy as the death penalty and the insanity plea, the film never comes across as preachy to me. Rather than being pro or anti, Freidkin treats the viewer as if they were a juror in the case, giving you the facts and having you form your own opinions regarding such issues. Friedkin presents everything with an in your face realism that’s quite raw and at times can downright nasty, mixed with moments of high style giving us a glimpse at Reece’s hallucinations where we briefly see though his eyes, and an expertly photographed scene taking place inside a church which makes particularly memorable use of the color red (the whole film makes particularly memorable usage out of that color as you can probably guess). Never once during the courtroom scenes did it feel like I was watching a movie. One scene always sticks out is when the defense attorney is grilling a psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution asking him if it’s true his nickname is “Dr. Death”. It may sound like a very cinematic and scripted line but I can totally see some hotshot lawyer making a statement like that hoping to get a sound byte or be quoted on the evening news. Morricone’s surprisingly subtle yet somber and unnerving  score works hand in hand with Friedkin’s visuals, amplifying the grim feelings of loss and grief felt throughout the entire film.

Something tells me Alex McArthur studied interview footage of real serial killers because everything from his mannerisms to his delivery is spot on. There’s almost a childlike quality to Reece which only fuels the question of his sanity in the legal sense of the word,  but then there’s also the way he calmly states, assembly knowing full well just what he’s saying, how he loves to cut people with a knife and watch their faces turn white, all the while with a smile on his own face. What’s even more striking is the resemblance he bears to the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez (who was captured two years before the film was shot) in the beginning parts of the film, what with the long hair and aviator sunglasses. Damn eerie. One of the greatest, most unheralded serial killer portrayals that’s for sure. Michael Biehn really gets to show off what he’s made of here, and I’d go so far as to call his performance in Rampage his finest hour. You’ll not only buy into the inner debate his character is going through, but feel it, particularly when his past comes into the picture. He especially shines during the trial sequences, always passionate, yet never once does he spill over into melodramatic territory. Totally pro. One of the coolest things about Rampage is it’s supporting cast which is made up of some pretty familiar faces such as legendary character actor Billy Green Bush who plays the judge overseeing the trial. To me though, he’s always be Jay Brown from the original Critters (1986). Twin Peaks fans will no doubt geek out over the presence of Grace Zabriskie, who plays Reece’s loopy prescription drug addled mother, and of course the son of one of Reece’s victims is played by Whit Hertford, probably best known to genre fans as Jacob, the titular “Dream Child” from A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 (1989).

Rampage had quite the release history. The film was shot in 1987 but before the film could make it to American theatres it’s distribution company De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt which caused the film to be shelved. It wasn’t until 5 years later in 1992 that the film actually saw a theatrical release and even then it seemed to fly quietly under the radar. Before the film made it to cinemas, Friedkin went back and re-shot parts of the film and changed the ending. Having seen both versions, I can say that I much prefer the later version, as I felt the original ending was somewhat out of place and didn’t really mesh with the rest of the film and it’s harsh realism. Of course the film isn’t officially available on DVD in North America, only in Poland and I have no clue what version of the film is used. Normally I’m a pessimist when it comes to things like this, but there was a time when fans thought the chances of Friedkin’s infamous Cruising (1980) making it to disc were slim to none, but that finally received a worthy DVD release a few years back, so I’m a glass (of blood) half full guy when it comes to Rampage hopefully receiving the digital treatment one day, and I know I’m not alone in thinking that it’s long overdue. Rampage is a real kick in the balls, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s rare to see a film tackle such subject matter the way this film does, and closely mirror reality in the process. Maybe even closer than some would rather admit. It isn’t always pretty, presenting you with things that I’ll wager a good number of people would rather not even think about, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Friedkin.