Monday, April 18, 2016

Dial: Help (1988)

AKA Minaccia d'amore (Menace of Love)

Having a film that goes down in history as a result of becoming infamous the instant its released can be a blessing and a curse for some directors. On one hand, its nice to have a film that is sure to never be forgotten however on the other it can lead many to paint with a broad brush and expect the exact same types of films. While most hardcore Italian genre film fanatics are familiar with the entirety of Ruggero Deodato’s filmography, there are some who expect all his films to be in the vein of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and to a lesser extent The House on the Edge of the Park (1980). Not only is that unfair to the rest of Deodato’s output but those who do so are only doing a disservice to themselves as Deodato’s body of work is incredibly versatile. Following The House on the Edge of the Park, Deodato put his stamp on a number of genres and subgenres like Body Count (1986), Deodato’s take on the summer camp slasher, the off-center giallo Phantom of Death (1987) and the erotic giallo The Washing Machine (1993). Then there’s a film like Dial: Help. Certainly one of the most bizarre Italian horror films from the 80’s, Dial: Help is also a wholly original film that is all too often put down by those who sadly can’t see past its unusualness.

While trying to call her agent, Jenny (Charlotte Lewis), an English model living in Rome accidentally dials a wrong number and soon after begins receiving phone calls with nothing on the other line but strange noises and unfamiliar voices calling out her name. Even after getting a new phone the calls continue and soon Jenny’s friends begin getting murdered and Jenny finds herself in psychical danger. Jenny discovers that she is being pursued by phantoms whom have taken possession of the telephone lines, and with the help of her new neighbor Riccardo sets out to uncover the reasoning behind what is happening to her in order to save herself.

Along with its outlandish storyline, Dial: Help is also unique when compared to the rest of Deodato’s body of work on account of it being one of Deodato’s most fantasy and supernaturally based films. At first glance a film with this type of story is probably a bit difficult to take completely seriously, however Deodato does indeed handle the majority of the film with a straight face which actually works in the films favor making it all the more beguiling. As loopy as it is, the source of the haunted phone lines and Jenny’s ensuing investigation is rather intriguing and the film moves at a brisk pace helped immensely by the presence of Charlotte Lewis who, like Deodato, seems fully committed to the material no matter how odd it gets (doing a striptease for a phone while in a trance for example) and the relationship that develops between Jenny and Riccardo throughout the film is quite sweet. Visually the film is incredibly slick with Deodato’s precise camera movements and the production design, making the film an interesting time capsule with the interior of Jenny’s apartment being a snap-shot of late 80’s chic and there are some pretty interesting looking telephones on display as well. The films premise also gives way to some very innovative set pieces, all involving telephones of course, the highlights being a possessed pay phone spitting coins out at high speed, Lewis being strung upside down by a phone cord and in a fairly fetishistic scene, bound by magnetic tape.  

The film also features a score by legendary Italian genre film composer Claudio Simonetti. It was Simonetti’s second time working with Deodato having previously done the scores for Cut and Run (1985) and Body Count. Simonetti would also provide the music for The Washing Machine. Per usual with Simonetti the music is excellent, much like the look of the film the sound is also very much “of its time”, very 80’s electronic and synth based yet entirely appropriate considering the films chic aesthetic. At one point during the possessed pay phone scene the music even resembles electronic punk rock. Its worth noting that that Charlotte Lewis kept a fairly high profile around this time having appeared in the Eddie Murphy comedy The Golden Child (1986) two years before taking the lead in Dial: Help so this was a pretty interesting role to take at this point in her career. Her first role was in Roman Polanski’s swashbuckling epic Pirates (1986). These days, Dial: Help doesn’t seem to get much mention save for the occasional (mostly negative) review here and there, however those fed up with the constant stream of unoriginal hackwork’s currently plaguing horror should find Dial: Help to be a fun and refreshing watch. It might not contain the savage nihilism that defined some of Deodato’s other films, but for an original film ripe with off the wall ideas, look no further.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Black Demons (1991)

AKA Dèmoni 3 (Demons 3)

The world of European genre and cult film can be a bit confusing at times to someone who’s just getting into these types of films in that many films have been released under multiple (oftentimes absurd) titles and in some cases renamed to be marketed as sequels to films with which there is no connection. The Italians are particularly good at this with probably the most famous example being Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979) being released as Zombi 2 selling it as sequel to Dawn of the Dead (1978). Umberto Lenzi has suffered at the hands of the re-title several times which has led to some confusion. His first collaboration with Carroll Baker, Orgasmo (1969), was later released as Paranoia while his next film with Baker, A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) was originally titled Paranoia, not to be confused with Oasis of Fear (1971) which is also known as An Ideal Place to Kill along with Dirty Pictures! Lenzi’s 1991 voodoo/zombie film Black Demons can also be added to the list of films released as sequels as it was marketed as the third film in the Demons series. Black Demons might not have anything to do with Lamberto Bava’s first two Demons films, but it is however a wholly original take on zombies and an excellent Italian horror film from a time where most had all but declared the Italian horror industry dead.

While vacationing in Brazil with his sister Jessica and her boyfriend Kevin, Dick, an American tourist, attends a voodoo ceremony where he becomes overtaken by a powerful evil macumba spirit. The following day, their jeep breaks down in the middle of nowhere where two locals happen upon them and invite them to stay at the property they’re renting nearby. That night while wandering the property in a trance, Dick stumbles upon an old graveyard. Compelled by the spirit that's taken possession of him, Dick plays the tape recording of the chants he recorded at the ceremony, resurrecting the bodies of six slaves who were executed years ago as punishment for trying to escape the property and begin exacting their revenge on the current inhabitants.  

Black Demons is the best of both worlds when it comes to zombie films. On one hand there’s the standard “back from the dead” zombies yet on the other there’s the element of voodoo which is of course where the origin of zombie mythos is rooted as seen in films like I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988). The addition of a possession angle is a bonus in an already ripe subgenre smorgasbord. The possession aspect of the film is interesting in that for the most part Lenzi keeps it on the sidelines, having it come in at just the right moments while at the same time never letting the audience forget the spell that Dick is under. It works well when coupled with the voodoo while still making sense within the context of a zombie film. Naturally Lenzi keeps certain things regarding the possession a bit ambiguous particularly as it relates to the zombies but the lack of explanation was wise as irrationality always works best when dealing with the supernatural. The film benefited greatly from being shot on location in Brazil and from a strictly visual standpoint the film is one of Lenzi’s best with the setting and surrounding areas being perfect for such a story and as with all things voodoo related there is a strange ambiance to the area. The zombies themselves look fantastic and are quite striking when filmed in the right light and are responsible for some fairly memorable death sequences.  

Lenzi was clearly unhappy with the change of titles saying “This is really awful. Its absurd. I have never seen Bava’s films and in any case his are set in a different cinema milieu. This film of mine was entitled Dèmoni 3 by a producer who was trying to exploit the title. Clearly my film has nothing in common with Lamberto Bava’s films…” Lenzi was also disappointed in the way the final film turned out as the shoot was anything but smooth. According to Lezni neither of the actors got along and the actress who plays Jessica was a last minute replacement whom Lenzi didn’t get along with at all (he also claims she was unattractive and too short for the role) and later got seriously ill after drinking unpasteurized milk and was hospitalized which disrupted the production. Hilariously, one of her doctors suspected that she could have AIDS of all things. The acting is one of the things the film gets criticized the most for so perhaps all the tension between the cast affected the film. While they might not be the most experienced of thespians they’re hardly the worst. So while it might not have turned out like Lenzi had happed, Black Demons is nonetheless a highly enjoyable 90’s Italian horror film and considering the overvaluation of bland zombie fare in recent times, should be considered a breath of fresh air.