Monday, 27 June 2011

Video Nasty #11 - Cannibal Ferox

The name Umberto Lenzi has to figure prominently in any discussion of the Third World Cannibal film - Lenzi virtually invented the genre with his 1972 film Deep River Savages. The director returned to the jungle in 1980 for Eaten Alive, and made a third outing the following year for Cannibal Ferox, a film second only to Cannibal Holocaust as the most notorious of all the cannibal films.

In the film, Gloria, an anthropology student ventures into the Amazon jungle as part of her thesis refuting historical claims that natives engaged in acts of cannibalism. Accompanied by her brother and her friend, they chance upon two Americans in the jungle seeking their fortune. In fact both are on the run from some heroin dealers in New York and their brutal mistreatment of the natives, especially at the hands of the sadistic Mike, spells dire consequences for all involved...

Trashy, racist, campy and inept - just some of the criticisms applied to Cannibal Ferox over the years and while much of this sticks, the film remains one of the more enjoyable entries in the cannibal genre. Despite the fact that Lenzi wrote the screenplay, the director shows little affinity for this type of film - even the jungle vistas look dull and nondescript. Better fun is had from the cast which includes John Morghen and the delectable Zora Kerova. In recent years John Morghen has poured considerable scorn on the film, but his turn as the crazed coke-head Mike is one of his best performances from this era. Perhaps the film's biggest flaw is it's plundering of Deodato's film. The juxtaposition of the so-called savage society of Amazonia with the "civilised" Western society is well made in Cannibal Holocaust, but Lenzi's insistence on cutting from the jungle back to the violent streets of New York with it's cold blooded gangsters and overworked cops, just comes off as irritating and interrupts the flow of the film.

Whatever shortcomings the film has, Cannibal Ferox's raison d'être is its violence. Lenzi makes no apologies for being in the shock business and the abuse he dishes out to his cast is indeed ferocious - organs are dug out a stomach and devoured, an eyeball is plucked from its socket, limbs are hacked off, a skull is cracked open, and in the film's most notorious scene a woman has her breasts pierced by two iron hooks and hung up for a slow excruciating death. Had Lenzi afforded his special effects people a larger slice of the budget, such grueling scenes might have transformed Cannibal Ferox into a genuine stomach churner, but the splatter is often quite shoddy (but no less enjoyable). Be warned though, if you're sensitive to such things, the real killing of animals might get your juices flowing. But aside from the protracted killing of a small jungle raccoon by an anaconda, the scenes of animal slaughter are mercifully brief.

Grindhouse's US DVD looks comparable to their 1998 laserdisc - the image is grainy throughout but at least it's sharp and the DVD handles the darker scenes very well. Colors look very washed out at times but much of this seems to be inherent in the original film. The audio is fine and the film can be viewed in the English dub or Italian dub. I haven’t seen Sazuma's Ultrabit DVD but word is that this edition is by far the best as transfers go. Extras on the Grindhouse disc include a short interview with Lenzi, some international trailers, a gallery of promo artwork, coverage of a Grindhouse organized screening of the film in LA, and of course the now legendary dueling banjo commentary track featuring Lenzi and Morghen who offer widely different views of the film as it unfolds.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Video Nasty #10 - Cannibal Apocalypse

Cannibals in the streets as one alternative title for this much loved Italian film warned. Antonio Margheriti's 1980 film fixed upon the simple but great idea of taking the cannibal out of the wilds of New Guinea and letting him run loose in the urban jungle of big city America.

In the film some Vietnam vets go on the rampage in Atlanta carrying an infectious strain of rabies which causes it's host to engage in acts of murder and cannibalism. Led by former US captain Norman Hopper (John Saxon), the cadre of crazed vets pursued by the police must fight for their lives, once again behind enemy lines... Written by Dardano Sacchetti and Antonio Margheriti (here under his familiar pseudonym Anthony M. Dawson), Cannibal Apocalypse is a veritable Hydra head of different genre elements - it's part horror film, part actioner, with traces of the war film and zombie film thrown in for good measure.

Antonio Margheriti, one of Italy's busiest and best jobbing directors displays his usual flair for kinetic, action-driven Cinema and the film moves at a terrific lick with little time to scrutinize the admittedly absurd idea of cannibalism spreading like a disease. Of all the Italian films that soaked up the influence (and splatter) of Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Apocalypse remains the best. The debt to Romero's film is considerable - there's some meaty gore and there's even has a sequence where a motorcycle crashes into a department store, but the film as a whole shares the same bluesy sensibility of Romero's great 70's movies. The film's Atlanta locations are well chosen and watch how the terrain the vets make their way through becomes increasingly difficult, eventually winding up in the city's sewer system, a neat metaphor for the tunnel network used by the Viet Cong.

John Saxon heads up a very fine cast. Saxon himself turns in another great piece of work, his performance tinged with a palpable sense of melancholy, probably informed by the actor's own misgivings about the more exploitable elements of the screenplay. John Morghen plays another one of his doomed losers, and suffers yet another gruesome fate. Blaxploitation actor Tony King playing the third vet, brings real menace to the film, his character the most violent and unhinged of the group. Good stuff too from the minor players - there's some laughs from Wallace Wilkinson's cantankerous police captain, and Cinzia De Carolis, who appeared as Karl Malden's young niece in Cat O' Nine Tails some nine years previously, provides plenty of sizzle as a teenage tramp.

Image's US DVD of Cannibal Apocalypse is superb. The 1.66 transfer is crisp and colorful, once it gets past the slightly rough looking credits. Audio is very good for the most part, some of the dialogue loses a bit of detail when pitted against the score but it's generally fine. Extras include an excellent 50-min interview with Margheriti, John Saxon and John Morghen; a tour of the film's locations as they stand today, plus some trailers and an alternative credit sequence under the Invasion of the Flesh Hunters title. One of the few really essential Video Nasties, Cannibal Apocalypse is highly recommended.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Video Nasty #9 - The Burning

Unique among the 39 Video Nasties for having an Oscar winning actress among the cast, The Burning from 1981 is also notable for being the first film produced by the fledgling Miramax, a little known independent studio working out of New York.

The story concerns a summer camp janitor nicknamed Cropsy who's accidentally set on fire by some kids after a prank goes badly wrong. Some five years later Cropsy, now horribly disfigured returns to the camp to seek revenge... So far so Friday the 13th, but The Burning is a rare instance of a film lifting whole chunks from an earlier film and actually improving upon the original. Rare also is a horror film where all the elements fall perfectly into place. British director Tony Maylam's direction is classy, even at times stylish - look out for a great Argento-like shot early on in the film where a jet of blood hits a mirror, momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightning. Maylam maintains a furious pace throughout - even the film's most infamous sequence where some teens are slaughtered on a raft is furiously cut together, the five kills done and dusted within 30 seconds, lending the sequence a powerful frisson similar to the first murder set piece in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Tom Savini's make-up effects are riotously gory - Cropsy's weapon of choice, a garden shares (appropriate given his name) snips off fingers, and slices through throats. As was the MPAA policy towards the incoming tide of slasher films, the film was cut in the US to avoid an X rating. In the UK, the BBFC had much of the carnage removed but in a bizarre mix up The Burning's UK VHS distributor Thorn EMI inadvertently put out the uncut version and the film found it's way onto the DPP's list of obscene titles. Rick Wakeman who collaborated with Tony Maylam on an earlier film, the hard-to-see ski jumping documentary White Rock, returns for soundtrack duties and contributes a spellbinding synthesizer score, surely the best thing Wakeman ever composed.

The film is not without some blemishes of course, mostly to do with it's slavish adherence to the slasher movie formula - there are a few tiresome gags along the way, and the film sometimes adopts the none-too-subtle killer's point-of-view, whereby the camera lens looks smeared around the edges of the frame and Wakeman's score assumes a high-pitched drone. There's perhaps a little too much "C'mon you guys" dialogue but the cast of unknowns are actually quite likable and engaging for the most part. Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame makes an early appearance and provides some comedy, and among the young cast you might spot Holly Hunter who survives Cropsy's blades to go to make The Piano.

A definitive release of The Burning seemed a long time coming. In the UK, the first DVD edition had some cuts, and a European release though uncut featured a weak transfer. The 2007 US disc courtesy of MGM is the one to go for. The 1.85 anamorphic widescreen transfer is simply gorgeous, with excellent detail and fine, vibrant colors. The night time scenes which looked so muddy on VHS now look especially clear. Audio is absolutely fine, and for extras, there's a very good audio commentary by director Tony Maylam and journo Alan Jones, plus a very good featurette entitled Blood 'N' Fire Memories in which Tom Savini reminisces about the film and shares some video footage he shot on the set.

Originally the film was to be known as The Cropsy Maniac but the title was switched at the 11th hour to The Burning. Meanwhile another film was in production under the working title The Burning and had to be released under the alternative title Don't Go In The House. Joseph Ellison's film actually did some jail time with The Burning when it appeared on an early draft of the DPP's list, but was subsequently removed.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Video Nasty #8 - Bloody Moon

Given the roster of European Cult film makers on the Nasties list, something would be amiss if Jess Franco was not included in the DPP's line-up. In fact, two Franco titles secured a place on the list - The Devil Hunter, and this German production from 1981.

The first time I saw Bloody Moon - my first Jess Franco film, I wondered where were all the zooms - such was Franco's reputation for his trigger happy use of this much maligned film making aesthetic. Bloody Moon actually makes little use of the zoom and appropriately enough is a rather anonymous Franco film. The story is set in an isolated Spanish boarding school for young women. A maniac is loose on campus and is killing off the girls. One of the murders is witness by the slightly nervous Angela but none of her fellow students believe her and the bodies are beginning to pile up...

As slasher films go, Bloody Moon is a decent enough effort - Franco's producer obviously had Halloween and Friday the 13th in mind, and the film bears something of a giallo streak as well with its black gloved killer and the denouement of the story having to do with greed and an inheritance (shades of Bava's Blood Bath). The kills are gory as the unfortunate students meet with various sharp objects, including a particularly memorable decapitation by circular saw, but Bloody Moon, one of Franco's more polished films has a whiff of desperation to it. The film has a number of red herrings involving various characters who may or may not be the killer (one of them a ridiculous Igor type retard) and a scene where a brother and sister reminisce about their incestuous relationship, an intriguing idea, is casually tossed aside 1.

The film also has it's fare share of implausible moments, perhaps intentionally so. At one stage Angela is almost killed by a falling boulder, and the boneheaded blonde who allows herself to be tied to a slab by an anonymous masked stranger only to be fed to the spinning saw. Even more absurd that a disfigured man with a complex about his looks, seen in the opening sequence stabbing a girl, would choose to live in a school full of beautiful young women. Worth mentioning also the score for the film, a meld of cheapskate electronica and bizarre Pink Floyd pastiche 2. All told, Bloody Moon is by no means a bad film, but one best appreciated by Franco completest only.

Severin's DVD, available in the US and UK in identical editions is the definitive release of this Franco film. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer is a stunner, very sharp and sporting some very vivid colors. The print used was from the German release - the actual onscreen title is Die Säge des Todes (literally, The Saw of Death) - and some very fleeting additions were imported from a lesser quality source but overall this is a very fine effort. Audio is offered in English only and the track is perfectly adequate. Extras include the English-language trailer and a very good 18-min interview with Franco about the film. Franco looks rather frail and aged but his memory is good and reveals some interesting facts about the production. The interview is conducted in English, and rather helpfully Franco's comments delivered in a thick accent are subtitled in English.

1. It's strange that the incest angle was not exploited in the film considering Bloody Moon's producer Wolf C. Hartwig was responsible for the Schoolgirl Report films, which often dealt with the taboo, sometimes explicitly so.

2. In the accompanying interview with Franco, the director reveals that part of his reason for agreeing to do the film was that Pink Floyd had been commissioned to do the soundtrack and that they would be on the set. Needless to say this never happened and no mention of Bloody Moon exits in any Pink Floyd biographies.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Video Nasty #7 - Blood Rites

Question: Can you link Blood Rites director Andy Milligan with Akira Kurasawa within six degrees of separation ?

Everybody should see at least one Andy Milligan atrocity in their life and Blood Rites, Milligan’s film from 1967 is a good place as any to descend into the netherworld of the Staten Island auteur. The story concerns three estranged sisters who are requested to spend a few days at their family home with their husbands in “sexual harmony” (as instructed by their father’s will). However the blissful reunion doesn’t last very long when the lovers get picked off by a homicidal maniac…

In the Trash Cinema sweepstakes, Andy Milligan gives the likes of Ed Wood and Phil Tucker a good run for their money. Almost every aspect of Blood Rites is amateurish. Milligan could occasionally display some talent like the interesting 1965 gay short Vapors, and the stylish and eerie Body Beneath from 1970, but mostly the director churned out ultra-low budget exploitation films for the 42nd St. crowd. Blood Rites looks and sounds particularly impoverished with its cheap dime store gore and the needle-dropping soundtrack. It’s an ugly and depressing film as well with disastrous framing, copious amounts of naked ugly flesh, and Milligan’s handheld camera which swirls around with drunken abandon. Milligan had a penchant for shooting his films as period pieces to stop them dating but the mix of turn-of-century costumes and the very 1960’s décor – check out the op-art style wallpaper – makes the whole film look decidedly weird.

The endlessly talky screenplay was co-authored by Milligan and it’s a fascinating window into the director’s soul – in one scene one of the wives is raped by her husband, for really no good reason except to satisfy Milligan’s misogyny, and in another moment an incestuous union is implied between one of the husbands and his brother. Unlike the trance-like performances of Blood Feast, Blood Rites manages to cobble together a modicum of acting talent. Especially good are the sinister housemaids played by Veronica Redburn and Maggie Rogers. Hal Borske who plays Colin their retarded sidekick deserves praise for his dedication to the film – Milligan has him wearing ridiculous false teeth throughout the show, chow down on a not-so-freshly killed rabbit and even sets him on fire for the lively climax. Blood Rites exits on one of the more rugged back roads of American Cinema, and the way is often littered with bodies, including Milligan himself who succumbed to AIDS in 1991. He was 62.

Something Weird’s DVD of Blood Rites, (under the Ghastly Ones title) is double-billed with another Milligan film Seeds of Sin (which was hijacked by producers and re-edited to include a mass of irrelevant sex footage). The fullframe transfer is decent enough but the print Something Weird had to work with was in a pitiful condition, full of wear and tear and omnipresent scratch lines. It’s unlikely better materials could have been sourced but the DVD goes some way to replicating the Grindhouse experience – this is probably how audiences saw the film back in ’67, at the Anco theatre on 42nd St. The audio on the DVD fares little better – it’s hissy and murky but still good enough that you can still hear Milligan impatiently pass instructions to his long suffering his cast. Extras include some Milligan trailers, a gallery of stills and artwork, and two significant additions – the Seeds of Sin work print (called Seeds), and an excellent and highly amusing running commentary by Hal Borske and Basket Case director and exploitation film archivist Frank Henenlotter.

As for the teaser at the top of this post, Andy Milligan directed Richard Romanus in Blood Rites, who later starred in Mean Streets directed by Martin Scorsese, who played Vincent Van Gogh in Dreams, directed by Akira Kurosawa...

Stephen King was evidently not a fan of Blood Rites. In his 1981 non-fiction book, Dance Macabre, an overview of the Horror genre, he wrote:
In the hands of Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre satisfies that definition of art which I have offered, and I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country. I would not do so for The Ghastly Ones. The difference is more than the difference between a chainsaw and a bucksaw; the difference is something like seventy million light-years. Hooper works in Chainsaw Massacre, in his own queerly apt way, with taste and conscience. The Ghastly Ones is the work of morons with cameras.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Video Nasty #6 - Blood Feast

"I've often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It's no good, but it was the first of its type" So said director Herschell Gordon Lewis about his most famous film. One wonders what the great American poet would have made of Blood Feast had he seen the film in 1963 - most likely he would high tailed it back to his New Jersey tomb.

Whitman's great collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, published in 1845 was called "a mass of stupid filth" by one outraged critic, something that can be easily applied to Blood Feast. In the film, an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses is killing women and collecting their body parts for sacrifices to his god Ishtar. For Lewis and producer David Friedman, Blood Feast's simple framework gave them the perfect excuse to unleash a cascade of splatter on unsuspecting audiences. The nudie cutie genre which Lewis had begun his film making career with was now spectacularly swept aside by the Gore film...

Whether Blood Feast was the first film to show graphic gore is uncertain. Mario Bava nailed a spiked mask to the face of Barbara Steele in Black Sunday in 1960, and in the same year Jigoku a Japanese horror film offered up some graphic imagery in its depiction of Hell. What is certain is Blood Feast took screen violence to a new level, with its dismemberments, scalpings, heart-ripping, and the most famously a tongue pulled out at its roots. Blood Feast gleefully wallows in the crimson carnage, but none of the violence is remotely disturbing, so completely sabotaged by the film's all-round ineptitude. The clunky script which is at pains to spell everything out is full of howlers - at one point, the chief of police, frustrated by the lack of clues to nail the killer declares "This man is uncanny!". Lewis' direction is amateurish, shots are routinely framed with little concern for composition, and the camera not so much moves but splutters along after the action. Still, Lewis manages to grab one great moment, when the shadow of the offscreen killer's hand falls over leading lady Connie Mason's body, perhaps a nod towards a similarly chilling moment in Murnau's Nosferatu.

The cast deliver uniformly dreadful performances with stilted line readings and generally behaving like they were under some heavy medication, doing little to distinguish themselves from the storeroom dummies Lewis uses for his effects shots. Lewis himself remembered Connie Mason, in less than fond terms - "I've often felt that if one took the key out of Connie's back she'd simply stand in place". Whatever about Mason's turn, the shameless mugging of the bonehead boyfriend who finds his girlfriend a splattery mess sans brain matter is truly astonishing.

Of course Blood Feast's many short-comings are hardly the point. Lewis and Friedman's film was a huge hit and Lewis returned to the gore formula sporadically throughout the 60's and early 70's with 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, Wizard of Gore and The Gore, Gore Girls. Today the film remains essential viewing for students of Bad Cinema and provided you're in the mood, the film is a lot of fun. David Friedman writing in his autobiography A Youth In Babylon, summed up Blood Feast rather well - "It's been cussed, discussed, dismissed, denounced, decried, despised, disdained and acclaimed"

Blood Feast is available on DVD courtesy of Something Weird Video and the results are marvelous. The fullframe transfer is quite a beauty with eye-popping colors and the print is generally in excellent condition. Audio is perfectly adequate, dialogue is clear and Lewis' own (minimalist) score is well done. Extras include an extremely interesting and lively commentary track from Lewis and Friedman, and there's the usual Something Weird goodies like rare shorts, trailers, Exploitation art and some 40-min (?) of Blood Feast outtakes.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Video Nasty #5 - Blood Bath

Far too stylish and intelligent to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mardi Gras Massacre and Don't Go In the Woods, Mario Bava's 1971 film, known under a bewildering array of alternative titles 1 is a genre-defining moment in European Cult Cinema and for better or for worse was a major influence on the next stage in the evolution of the Horror Film.

In the film a bunch of characters murder each other to win a lucrative piece of real estate, around a lush woodland bay. Getting on the property ladder can indeed be murder but Blood Bath serves up a bitter meditation on human sin. Greed, betrayal and murder are the order of the day, but judging by the final sequence of the film, Bava obviously didn't take any of this seriously - the DPP didn't agree and their decision to ban the film makes little sense. The gore effects by Carlo Rambaldi are memorably grisly - a machete to the face, a bloody decapitation; but hardly gratuitous - surely a few trims would have been sufficient to render the film suitable for viewing.

As good as it is, Blood Bath is not the Italian Maestro's finest hour - by the time the film went into production much of the proposed budget had dried up, and Bava had to double up as cinematographer, ironic considering this is one of Bava's darkest looking films - occasionally the director sneaks in some of his customary psychedelic lighting but for the most part the characters move in and out of shadowy pools of darkness. The plot of the film orchestrated for the characters to topple over like dominoes can sometimes be difficult to follow - a flashback late in the day helps to unravel the tangled relationships but it's awkwardly inserted in the film when it arrives.

Of course no word about Blood Bath can be complete without mentioning Friday the 13th. It's widely acknowledged that Bava's film was a considerable influence on Sean S. Cunningham's archetypal slasher - both films are set around a woodland lake/bay and feature characters that are constantly watched, and then stalked and killed in ever inventive ways - the speared lovers from Friday the 13th Part 2 are lifted straight from Bava's film. Cunningham was less than forthcoming about the influence of the film on Friday the 13th - interviewed for Peter Bracke's Crystal Lake Memories book, Cunningham said:
I never saw movies like Twitch of the Death Nerve or any of those other movies - the first time I heard the name Mario Bava was when I went to a film festival in 1986 or '87...
This is rather hard to believe considering Hallmark Releasing Corporation, a Boston based group of movie theatre owners who financed and distributed the Cunningham-produced Last House on the Left in 1972 had that same year aquired Blood Bath for US distribution under the title Carnage and later Twitch of the Death Nerve. Hallmark subsequently re-released the film under the title Last House Part II on the second half of a double-bill with Wes Craven's film.

Nowadays, Blood Bath is available in a wide variety of DVD releases, but the best edition remains Arrow's 2010 region-free Blu-Ray, this time trading under the title Bay of Blood. The transfer has sparked some debate over the color scheme, the Arrow disc generally looks less colorful than the Anchor Bay DVD, but in its favour the Arrow disc has much improved depth and image looks very sharp. The mono English language soundtrack which always sounded underwhelming is decent enough and Stelvio Cipriani's excellent, pulsating score has a bit more range than previous releases. Arrow have provided a number of interesting extras, including Tim Lucas' superb audio commentary from the Anchor Bay DVD, and best of all the Italian-language version of the film which features some alternative takes (the film was shot simultaneously in English and Italian). Sourced from the Raro DVD, this version of the film which now includes English subtitles, looks a shade weaker than the Anchor Bay DVD but it's a fascinating and worthwhile watch all the same. As with their other releases, the Arrow Blu comes with excellent reversible artwork panels.

1. For the sake of this post, I've referred to Bava's film as Blood Bath, the title under which the film was distributed on VHS in Britain and Ireland. Of all the alternative titles the film appeared under, Blood Bath is one of the weaker ones and was possibly a riff on Hallmark's ad campaign of the film - when the film was distributed under the Carnage title, appearing on the accompanying poster was "Carnage - is a Blood Bath !" One of the Italian titles the film was released under, Reazione a Catena ("Chain Reaction") is perhaps the best, certainly better than the long established but otherwise fussy, Twitch of the Death Nerve. Personally I like the more lyrical Bay of Blood title the best.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Video Nasty #4 - The Beast In Heat

Journeyman director Luigi Batzella (here credited as Ivan Kathansky) may not be a household name among fans of Italian Horror, but his 1977 film The Beast In Heat is a classic in the annals of Scum Cinema, splicing a routine WW2 action film with the kind of outrageous sadism seen in Ilsa She Wolf of the SS. In the film, a remote Italian town mounts a spirited defense against the encroaching Nazis. In an attempt to flush out members of the resistance, the villagers are tortured by a seductive but deadly female SS lieutenant who feeds the women to the lascivious genetically engineered half-man, half-beast of the title...

There's very little to be said in favour of The Beast In Heat. It's almost a failure on every level. The film very often makes little sense, not helped by the dreadful dubbing. Some of the faux-German accents are incomprehensible and the dialogue lets loose a steady stream of cringe-worthy lines - at one point, a priest offers one of the resistance fighters some encouragement - "The Lord won't betray you. He's the best". In another scene Kratsch, the sadistic female SS officer proudly looks upon her beastly creation raping a woman and declares "You and me, we're going places!"

At times the film is almost schizophrenic in its tone. The bulk of the film is given over to scenes of partisans fending off the Nazi invaders - strictly routine Saturday afternoon stuff, but then Batzella will shift gears by including a scene where a woman is stripped naked and a gun shot into her snatch. Stock footage from a 1970 Batzella war film, When the Bells Toll, is dropped into the mix with little attempt to make any of it appear seamless, and the film's soundtrack features an odd mix of contemporary electronic music and what sounds like a mournful spaghetti western refrain.

Sleaze fans however will be rewarded for sitting through this mess with the torture sequences in the second half of the film - there's a woman with electrodes wired to her genitals, another woman having her fingernails pulled off with pliers and in the film's most celebrated scene, the beast rips off clumps of a woman's pubic hair (leaving her vagina bloody and raw) and enthusiastically chews on them, all the while mugging wildly for the camera. The beast played by comedy actor Sal Boris (aka Salvatore Baccaro) looks even more ugly in the flesh than what is depicted on the cover of the British pre-cert, and one wonders what the producers of the film offered their young Italian starlets to be groped and prodded and salivated over by Baccaro, who incidentally delivers probably the most committed performance in the film. Baccaro actually turns up in quite a few Italian films of this era - he can be seen in Deep Red, The Five Days of Milan, Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, Salon Kitty and Emanuelle In America.

The Beast In Heat is available in the US on DVD courtesy of Exploitation Digital. The anamorphic 1.85 transfer is something of a beauty to behold - sharp, colorful, the print almost devoid of any wear and damage, making the inclusion of the maggoty stock footage even more conspicuous. The English dub is the only audio option, and some trailers for other Exploitation Digital titles are included by way of extras.

Luigi Batzella, who made a career out of shooting cheap exploitation features - war films, spaghetti westerns, and horror gatecrashed the big film set in the sky in 2008 and no doubt would have been delighted to know that the ultra-rare British VHS release of his signature film now commands up to a thousand pounds among video collectors.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Video Nasty #3 - Axe

Axe, the first American film appearing on the DPP's list sets the tone and style for many of the films from the US appearing throughout the index of prohibited titles - low budget, designed and packaged for the exploitation market, and directed by regional film makers otherwise forever doomed to obscurity.

Directed by Frederick Friedel, probably sometime around the mid-70's (the film is officially dated 1977, but it may have been filmed earlier), Axe begins like a hardboiled crime movie but winds up somewhere completely different by the time the end credits roll. In the film, three gangsters arrive at an isolated farmhouse occupied by Lisa, a teenage girl who cares for her paralysed grandfather. When one of the men attempt to rape the girl, it awakens a latent streak of violence within her...

For the most part, Axe is a moody, even quietly unassuming film - there's some bloody violence around half-way mark when Lisa takes a straight razor to one of her attackers, but Axe is less a riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but more Polanksi's Repulsion - very obviously, the protagonist of Axe is suffering some kind of slow breakdown, perhaps the violence in her is a scream of rage against men - her wasted life spent in servitude to a comatose old man, and the unwelcome arrival and attentions of the thuggish gangsters. One of the quirks of the film is that Friedel is not inclined to offer any kind of explanation for the events taking place. Even a sequence where a man is seen running away from the farmhouse is never touched upon further - perhaps this barely seen character was some sort of peeping tom spying on Lisa and further eroding her sanity. Nobody is quite sure.

Running a scant 68min (the final 5mins are devoted to the drawn out credits), Axe is a very accomplished little film - the performances are mostly very good. Jack Canon who plays Steele (good name for a crook), looks like a particularly mean Scott Reiniger of Dawn of the Dead and is suitably vicious to boot. Leslie Lee who plays Lisa gives a few stilted line readings, but her near-wordless performance is compelling for the expression of sadness on her face, so rigid it looks like a kabuki mask. Friedel's direction is subtle, making little of the gore, but conjuring up some hallucinatory images like a drowned snake in a bathtub, which later reappears as a discarded tie. A word about the sound design of the film - the score is a rather shrill but effective piece of bargain basement electronica, but throughout the film, audio straying from a television set is deliberately prominent in the mix, especially so during a scene where Steele tries to rape Lisa - the action played out to a sports commentary lending the scene a chilling quality.

Axe is now available in the UK on DVD, but the Something Weird DVD is the definitive release of this film. The film itself looks wonderful, the fullframe transfer bright, colorful and sharp, struck from an excellent print. Audio is perfectly fine, the soundtrack exhibits a few pops and crackles here and there but the dialogue and music is clear and robust. For the extras, Something Weird have provided their usual rag-tag flotsam and jetsam of short program fillers, a collection of trailers for some Harry Novak titles, and two trailers for Axe under the alternative titles, Lisa, Lisa and The Virgin Slaughter ("Death was her only lover!"). Something Weird have very generously included a second feature film on the DVD, an 86min obscure drama from 1977 entitled The Electric Chair, directed by Axe producer J.G Patterson.

Exactly why Axe was caught up in the DPP's dragnet is something of a mystery considering the film's gore and violence is minimal. However the label that distributed the VHS tape put out a version longer than the BBFC sanctioned theatrical release. Also, the plot synopsis on the back of the VRO video described Axe's protagonist as a 13-year old girl - she's clearly older in the film - but the DPP may have found this problematic.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Video Nasty #2 - Anthropophagous

What did you do during the great Italian Exploitation era, Mr Montefiori ?
- I ate a human foetus. What did you do ?

Joe D'Amato's 1980 horror opus Anthropophagous, has earned itself a certain notoriety that extends far beyond anything contained in the film - there's some splatter for sure, and of course this is the film where George Eastman (screenwriter and star Luigi Montefiore) grabs a bite to eat straight from the womb of a pregnant woman, but at the heart of it, Anthropophagous is a very classical, old fashioned horror film. The plot is slim to the point of looking like one of the skeletons seen in the latter part of the film - a small group of friends journey to a remote Greek island where they are stalked by a large, leprous, hulking man with a taste for human flesh...

By the time Anthropophagous went into production Luigi Montefiore and Joe D'Amato had formed quite an effective writer-director unit, going on to produce some of the most memorable Italian exploitation films of this era. Anthropophagous doesn't quite scale the heights of Absurd or the delirious excesses of Porno Holocaust but if you're in a receptive mood, the film is often quite enjoyable. One of the things D'Amato does well is atmosphere - the film scores big with its gloomy off-season island setting, and there's some wonderful, eerie electronic music by Marcello Giombiniand. D'Amato began his career as a camera operator and some of the camerawork here is particularly striking, mimicking the monster's point-of-view.

I wonder did D'Amato and Montefiori have Gary Sherman's subterranean horror Death Line in mind during the production of the film - not only does George Eastman's monster share a certain resemblance to the cannibal in Death Line, there's a sequence in Anthropophagous, set in a catacomb littered with chewed up, rotting corpses, which looks like it was inspired by the marvelous tracking shot inside the cannibal's lair in the Sherman film. D'Amato accomplishes some decent scares as well - George Eastman's arrival in the film, appearing momentarily with a flash of lightning is genuinely unexpected, and there's a neat bit of misdirection in the fabulous last 15 minutes of the film.

Parts of the film are unashamedly sloppy - there's some mismatching day-for-night photography which can be easily shrugged off, but look out for a scene early on in the film where a little girl wanders into a shot looking momentarily confused then startled, like someone behind the camera waved her off in a frenzy. It's the kind of accident that would call for a another take but perhaps D'Amato was in a hurry to get his cast to the island. By comparison with the tightly wrapped Absurd, Anthropophagous is far more leisurely affair, with plenty of travelogue shots of Grecian scenery; and one gets the impression it must have been a physically arduous shoot for the cast as they seem to spend an eternity wandering around the island.

Among the cast is the gorgeous Zora Kerova (who starred in the Montefiore-penned Terror Express the previous year), and Tisa Farrow in her third and final Italian film, turning in something approaching a decent performance. George Eastman is effortlessly great as usual, his mountainous frame and grotesque make-up transforming his cannibal killer into a thoroughly frightening monster. And yes, he really does chow down on an unborn foetus, a defining moment in the lexicon of Video Nastiness. D'Amato's depiction of this transgressive bit of carnage is rather restrained, yet this fleeting moment in the film was identified by a hysterical BBC news item in the 80's as a piece of found snuff footage (?).

A blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by director Joe D'Amato, seen exiting a cable car early on in the film.

Anthropophagous was released in the US in 2005 courtesy of Shriek Show is a generous 2-disc edition. The transfer, framed at 1.66 is generally very strong - there are some inconsistencies with the print used but these were more likely a result of bad lab work. Sound is adequate, the English dubbing still sounds canned and the dialogue a little blurry but Shriekshow have provided the Italian track with English subtitles as an alternative. Incidentally, some short German dialogue in the opening sequence is not translated. On disc 2 you can find the second part of the very worthwhile Joe D’Amato: Totally Uncut documentary, (part 1 on Shriek Show’s Images in a Convent), plus various trailers and ephemera to round off this very solid release.

Absurd has often been cited as the sequel to Anthropophagous, an erroneous fact considering the two films have little in common besides both monsters being of Greek origin.

Anthropophagous is known under quite a few titles, but the title used by VFP for their 1983 UK video release has caused some confusion. It's hard to tell from the sleeve design if the film is known as The Anthropophagous Beast, or Anthropophagous the Beast. The title appearing on the print used for the DVD is simply Anthropophagous.

The final word goes to Joe D'Amato. Interviewed in 1996 for Flesh & Blood magazine, D'Amato cited Anthropophagous as a favourite among his films. When asked about the banning of his films in the UK, the director was defiant - "I am very proud of this...somebody saw my movies and it had this's something that makes me proud" (Flesh & Blood Compendium, p370)

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Video Nasty #1 - Absurd

The international title of this 1981 Joe D'Amato film is both meaningless and instructive at the same time. It applies little to the actual film - seemingly plucked from a stray line at the beginning when a doctor comments on the regenerative powers of George Eastman's fatally wounded lunatic - "It's absurd, completely absurd!". On the other hand the title appropriately enough, the first on the list of the Director of Public Prosecution's 39 outlawed films, sums up the whole ridiculousness of the Video Nasty scare.

The film written by its star, Luigi Montefiori (aka George Eastman) is about a maniac who has the ability to miraculously heal himself after serious injuries. After escaping from the institution that engineered him, the maniac arrives at a small town where he goes on a killing spree... Halloween seems to have been the inspiration for this minor classic of Italian Exploitation, although at times it feels like D'Amato is not entirely sure whether he's making a slasher film or a zombie flick. Either way, D'Amato covers all bets - George Eastman's lumbering wordless monster kills just about everything that crosses his path, with admirable inventiveness (saw, axe, surgical drill), and can only be stopped by destroying his brain. In pursuit of the monster are a cantankerous cop and a shadowy Greek priest who spouts lines like "He is creature of evil. The spark of God was smothered the minute the Devil took possession of him", lending the film a slight supernatural bent which is never explored.

Absurd was one of 7 films D'Amato made in 1981 and it looks a quickie. The film is not especially pretty to look at - it's poorly lit, and the art direction is impoverished to say the least - the mansion where the final act of the film takes place, with its dreary decor looks impossibly dated (and probably so in 1981). Still, such depressing visuals work in Absurd's favour and invests the film with something of a grim power, the film feels especially uptight in the scenes where one of the monster's would-be victims, a teenage girl recovering from a spinal injury, is cruelly strapped to a hospital bed. It's an excessively violent film too, D'Amato makes no bones about being in the Exploitation business, and the gore effects are gleefully sadistic and spectacularly disgusting. The scene where the monster shoves a women's head into a hot oven feels uncomfortably realistic, and remains one of the more memorable sequences of this era of Italian Cinema. Of course George Eastman's towering presence always guarantees interest even when the film is not awash in splatter.

Worth mentioning also D'Amato's quite bizarre attempts to make this film look every inch an American product. In perhaps another lift from Halloween the events of the film seem to be taking place on superbowl night - there's repeated references to the "game" and one sequence has a bunch of people sitting around watching some innoccous football on TV, which always seems be taking place in slow motion (?). Even if the tawdry dubbing had fooled audiences, D'Amato ultimately gives the ruse away by having his avid football fans chow down on spaghetti - surely the film's catering staff could have whipped up a couple of hamburgers ?

Absurd made its DVD debut in 2009 on the Mya Communications label under the French title Horrible. The film is actually owned by MGM (?) so I'm not sure how legit this DVD is. The non-anamorphic 1.66 transfer is mostly fine - taken from a good Italian print which had some very minor cuts to tighten up a few dialogue scenes. These inconsequential trims have been reinstated from a lesser VHS source, but all the gore remains intact and looks splendid. Audio is serviceable, with a choice of watching the film in English or Italian, the Italian track is a bit of an empty gesture on Mya's behalf seeing as they didn't furnish the disc with English subtitles. No extras at all, and the disc comes in a terrible sleeve - a shame no one at Mya suggested the excellent French poster.

Medusa released Absurd on VHS in the UK fully uncut in 1982. The following year the film was singled out under the Obscene Publications Act and the VHS edition was revised with almost 4 minutes of cuts. However, the uncut and cut tapes are difficult to tell apart making this one of the more trickier titles for Nasty collectors.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Video Nasties ! From Absurd to Zombie Flesh Eaters

Does the world need another series on the Video Nasty phenomena ? Probably not, but I wanted to set myself a challenge - to review the DPP 39 list of Video Nasties, (see full list below) from Absurd to Zombie Flesh Eaters and hopefully make it interesting for you the reader. I don't expect to offer a new slant on any of the films - there's at least 2 or 3 definitive studies of the Nasties out there, but I'll try to be entertaining while your visiting.

Time marches on and nowadays no one thinks of the Nasties anymore as a list of banned titles. What was controversial back in the 80's is perfectly acceptable today - Contamination, a film that was swept up in the hysteria, is now available in the UK with a 15 rating. Even one of the great outlaw titles of the list, Last House on the Left is freely available in the same country that banned it, fully uncut. I tend to look at the Video Nasties these days like a film equivalent of a mix-tape of unruly punk rock songs - there's Lucio Fulci (Zombie) Dario Argento (Tenebrae), Jess Franco (Bloody Moon), American Exploitation like I Spit On Your Grave and Blood Feast, and demented sub-genres like the Cannibal film (Cannibal Ferox, Cannibal Holocaust) and Nazi Exploitation (Gestapo's Last Orgy and SS Experiment Camp)...

Much of this is nostalgia of course. I discovered the list in April 1992, when I picked up UK horror mag, Dark Side's 20th issue which featured their own A-Z of the Video Nasties. It was a life-changing moment - I was exposed to European Cinema, American Independent Cinema, auteurs like Argento, Fulci, Franco whose films I had to seek out (Fulci clocked up three films on the Nasties list so it was a good starting point). Consequently I discovered the underground fanzine scene, especially rich and vibrant in the UK, spreading the word on impossible-to-find, near mythical films. Fanzines like In The Flesh which ran an ongoing Nasties series with every issue, and Samhain whose extensive classified ads revealed a wellspring of tape collecting and trading just bubbling away under the surface.

The Video Nasties series is now complete and below are the list of the 39 titles reviewed. Each title links to a review.