Tuesday 26 December 2017

The 25 Best Films I Watched for the First Time in 2017.

Reminders of a better world, more or less.

1. Belladonna of Sadness 
(Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)

Words like “astounding” and “inexplicable” don’t even begin to do justice to this one-of-a-kind motion picture, wherein a team of ambitious creatives working for manga godhead Osamu Tezuka’s short-lived animated film studio were somehow allowed to create a feature length psychedelic fantasia loosely inspired by Jules Michelet’s 19th century mystic reinterpretation of the European witchcraft mythos, ‘La Sorcière’.

Constructed principally around hundreds of ink & water-colour images created for the project by idiosyncratic illustration genius Kuni Kukai, the film is further enlivened both though the application of every kind of wild and ramshackle animation technique that anime circa 1973 had to offer, and by a hair-raising freak-rock/avant-jazz/enka score from composer Masahiko Satô.

The resulting exploration of feudal suppression, female empowerment, psychotropic delirium and manichean cosmology is by turns erotic, grotesque, harrowing, frightening, transgressive and almost overpoweringly beautiful, throwing weighty symbolic/sexual imagery around with the wild abandon of Alexandro Jodorowsky gate-crashing an acid test in the offices of Metal Hurlant magazine. It’s pretty damn far-out, and if you’ve not yet seen it, you really should.

2. Lone Wolf & Cub: Babycart at the River Styx 
(Kenji Misumi, 1972)

One of my greatest cinematic pleasures in 2017 has been finally getting around to watching the ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series in its original (non-‘Shogun Assassin’-ated) form. Though the first film (‘Sword of Vengeance’) is decent enough, it is with this second instalment that things really take flight, as the usually mild-mannered Kenji Misumi unleashes one of the most spectacularly surreal celebrations of extreme violence ever seen on screen.

Any sense of narrative structure or physical logic is soon lost as blood and limbs fly, colours dance and trampolined bodies pirouette through the air in slo-mo, transforming Kazuo Koike's austere manga into a psychedelic nightmare of bushido melodrama taken to ever more ridiculous extremes.

Utilising both sheer excess and an almost cartoon-like sense of visual imagination, Misumi and his collaborators take advantage of the unusual degree of freedom offered by Shintaro Katsu’s independent ‘KatsuPro’ studio to deliver a fantastical martial arts epic as jaw-dropping as anything achieved by Hong Kong’s more technically accomplished action cinema…

3. Lone Wolf & Cub: Babycart to Hades 
(Kenji Misumi, 1972)

….and, this somewhat less celebrated third movie in the series is just as good! Picking up exactly where he left off, Misumi & co. if anything go even crazier in this one, whilst the director also somehow finds time for some surprisingly tender moments, expanding upon Ogami and Diagoro’s father-son relationship and allowing us a glimpse of the latter’s fairly unique experience of the world, reminding us of the affecting mixture of bloodshed and pathos that defined Misumi’s best entries in the ‘Zatoichi’ franchise.

Also, the finale of this one, in which Ogami Itto literally takes on an entire army single-handed, is arguably the highlight of the entire series – a sequence so extraordinary and shamelessly absurd, you’ll scarcely have time to question where exactly Ogami went in Tokugawa-era Japan to get his baby-cart kitted out with a brace of apparently recoil-free sub-machine guns, before the next onslaught of carnage rains down. Rarely if ever have depictions of man’s inhumanity to man been so seamlessly transformed into pure, guilt-free, exhilarating entertainment.

4. Vampyr 
(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1931)

I think I can just about get away with classing this as a ‘first time viewing’, because although I had  tried to watch my old VHS copy of Carl Th. Dreyer’s exceptionally strange film on a number of occasions, the picture quality was so bad I never made it to the end.

Catching up with ‘Vampyr’ a somewhat more watchable presentation was therefore long overdue, and, as you may recall, I wrote at great length about the film – particularly with regard to its status as a (conscious or unconscious) source text for ‘60s and ‘70s euro-horror – here.

5. C.H.U.D. 
(Douglas Cheek, 1984)

Speaking as someone who has been busy reading and writing about horror films for a number of years now, you’ll forgive me for asking: why did no one tell me about ‘C.H.U.D.’?

I mean, I realise that Douglas Cheek’s film does have a certain following in some circles of horror fandom, but I’m frankly amazed that a film this good doesn't enjoy a position in the canon of ‘80s American horror at least equivalent to that enjoyed by the work of directors like Frank Henenlotter, Stuart Gordon or Bill Lustig (all of whom are, to some extent, appropriate touchstones here). Maybe the stupid name has something to do with it? (Yes, I’m duty-bound to report that it’s “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers”, in case you were wondering.) I dunno.

Anyway, make no mistake, this movie is both a great achievement and a great time, mixing socially conscious, satirical scripting and down-on-the-street NYC location footage worthy of Larry Cohen at his finest with wild ‘80s monster splatter and tension-ratcheting action scenes that are a match for any of the aforementioned filmmakers.

The performances are excellent too, helping to create a cast of well-drawn, unconventional characters whose fate we really care about, thus allowing Cheek to pull off that extremely rare balance – a horror movie that treats people and their lives with appropriate weight and respect, without sacrificing any of the black-hearted fun and craziness we expect of a somewhat light-hearted ‘80s horror flick. Seriously, it’s great – check it out.

6. The Man Who Knew Too Much 
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

Again, I’m not certain this really counts as a “first viewing”, as I’m sure I must have watched it when I made my way through all the Hitchcock classics as a teenager, but if so, I remembered so little about it that returning to it on blu-ray proved a revelation.

Approximately 200 times more palatable to a 21st century viewer than your average British film from 1935, this is seventy-something event-packed minutes of exquisitely crafted entertainment, proving that Hitch had his game honed to perfection even at this early stage, and making it abundantly clear why certain Hollywood big-wigs were soon competing to buy him a boat ticket.

The moment towards the start, when the sound of cracking glass turns the film from a comedy of manners into a cut-throat spy thriller in a split second, is unforgettable – as is the victim’s heroic demonstration of English understatement in announcing that he’d actually quite like to sit down, as the red stain expands across his chest.

Peter Lorre is absolutely wonderful (when was he not?), the Albert Hall sequence is as good as everybody says it is, and the intensity of the armed siege/shooting match that provides the film’s climax is decades ahead of its time. As for that matter is the inclusion of a heroine with enough gumption to grab a rifle from a policeman and use her clay-pigeon skills to blast the last remaining villain straight off a rooftop.

7. Scarlet Street 
(Fritz Lang, 1946)

Also seeming somewhat ahead of its time – at least in terms of raw emotional cruelty – is this singular highlight within Fritz Lang’s already quite highlight-packed post-war American filmography, turning a story that could in lesser hands have simply been an excruciatingly florid melodrama into one of the most heart-breaking achievements of the classic Hollywood era.

As is often the case, Lang’s exploration of the struggle of individuals to define and express themselves within the infernal machinations of the urban environment feel as contemporary as ever, and Edward G. Robinson’s performance as the mild-mannered amateur painter inadvertently blundering into a trap more comprehensively terrible than anything his well-meaning brain can conceive, is… well I can’t think of any suitably impressive hyperbole right now, but you get the idea.

Relentlessly cynical in its peeling back of the motives behind human enterprise and ambition, ‘Scarlet Street’ is pure Film Noir in thematic terms, but the pathos that Robinson brings to the film, together with Lang’s unique directorial vision, make it so much more besides.

8. Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence 
(Nagisa Ôshima, 1983)

Given the horror stories that have (understandably) surrounded all discourse concerning Japanese POW camps in the UK for so many decades, I was interested to see where a Japanese director would take such subject matter – failing to remember of course that Nagisa Ôshima’s condemnation of his own nation’s chauvinistic/nationalistic culture has been so strident over the years that he had pretty much become an outcast from the Japanese film industry by the time he embarked on this project.

As such, Ôshima’s take on things in moral/political terms doesn’t really depart significantly from what we might have expected of a suitably intelligent/unprejudiced Western director, but it is his aesthetic and emotional vision that sets the film apart.

Although the decision to go for the cleanest and calmest prison camp in cinema history may initially seem questionable, this gives the film a unique visual aspect that immediately situates it somewhere outside the usual conventions of war/POW movies, with swathes of carefully choreographed green and white giving the impression of some bizarre, perpetual cricket match taking place between guards and prisoners, lending a sense of tragic absurdity to the acts of ritualised brutality that are occasionally enacted, and providing a perfect counterpoint to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s indelible minimalist score.

Though everybody seems to remember the performances of Sakamoto and David Bowie here, representing their respective nations’ somewhat homoerotic ideal of the perfect soldier, personally I found the parallel relationship between Tom Conti (as the titular Mr Lawrence, Japanese-speaking surrogate for author Laurens van der Post) and Takeshi Kitano (making his dramatic debut as an initially feckless camp guard) to be far more interesting, and the real heart of the movie.

Echoing the stylised, almost abstract nature of its visual presentation, ‘Merry Christmas..’ eventually tells us very little about history or World War II or the assigning of blame for war crimes, but as a more general study of cultural differences and the intricacies of achieving meaningful communication across such divides, it is an interesting and rewarding piece of work that I feel retains great relevance in our bitterly disordered world.

9. Night Train Murders 
(Aldo Lado, 1975)

Can crass and derivative subject matter be elevated to a higher plain simply through the application of superior directorial skill and cinematic craftsmanship? YES, is the answer Aldo Lado enthusiastically throws back at us cinematic navel-gazers here, as I outlined in my review of this film just a few weeks ago.

10. Cops Vs. Thugs [“State Police vs Gangsters”/ ‘Kenkei tai Soshiki Boryoku’] 
(Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

Made at the height of his success as mastermind of the ‘Battles Without Honour and Humanity’ series, this stand-alone jitsuroku flick sees Kinji Fukasaku mustering all of the frenetic style and production values he brought to those films, but narrowing his focus to concentrate purely on the mutually beneficial relationship that develops between Bunta Sugawara’s, shall we say, “easy going” police inspector and Hiroki Matsukata’s ambitious yakuza under-boss.

By foregoing the sometime bewildering patchwork of alliances and betrayals that can make the ‘Battles..’ films hard work and instead maintaining a central human focus, Fukasaku manages to turn this film into one of the very strongest expressions of his particular take on the corrupt foundations underpinning Japan’s post-war reconstruction, cannily subverting the usual moral assumptions that accompany such “cops & robbers” melodrama, and offering Matsukata one of the best roles of his career in the process. (Always wonderful to see Bunta do his thing of course, but Matsukata steals this one.)

Though not as extreme or unhinged as some of Fukasaku’s other yakuza pictures (if ‘Street Mobster’ and ‘Graveyard of Honour’ score 10 in this regard, you can maybe count this as a 7), ‘Cops Vs Thugs’ can still boast more hair-raisingly intense sequences of violence and chaos than any crime movies being made elsewhere in the world during the 1970s, and counts as yet another entry on the ever-growing list of Fukasaku films that can be considered essential viewing for anyone with an interest in crime films, post-war Japanese culture or... I dunno, life in general.

11. Lone Wolf & Cub: White Heaven in Hell 
(Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

If it had taken place in a stand-alone film, or as part of some other on-going chanbara series, the hi-octane ski battle that forms the centrepiece of this sixth and final entry in the ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ franchise – wherein Ogami Itto and Diagoro (in his snowmobile-adapted baby-cart) slice their way through an entire armys-worth of ninja/samurai opponents whilst propelling themselves at speed down a seemingly endless 90-degree sloped mountainside – would be the stuff of absolute legend, whispered about in tones of cosmic reverence by fans of action movies, martial arts and wild, violent cinema in general across the globe.

Such are the lofty standards set by earlier ‘Lone Wolf..’ instalments however, we instead find ourselves merely shrugging, and chalking this up as the third best one. What an extraordinary series of films.

12. The Public Enemy 
(William A. Wellman, 1931)

Yes, I’d never seen this one before, but, as a fan of violent crime movies, I thought it was high time I went back to the source, and, what can you say? 80+ years later, this one still packs a punch.

It’s such an Alpha-and-Omega of American gangster movies that reiterating the plot and events within is almost surplus to requirements, but needless to say, all of the genre’s key themes are clearly set out here – most notably the depiction of a black market underbelly running exactly parallel to the economic boom experienced by the USA in the early 20th century, and initially presented here with all the get-up-and-go gusto usually reserved for more mainstream depictions “American dream” style capitalism, continuing to appeal to our sympathies for such ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit and implicitly inviting us to draw comparison between the legitimate and illegitimate forms of enterprise, even as the cut-throat brutality underpinning the latter is portrayed in fairly uncompromising terms.

As the aggressive desire for personal betterment initially embodied by Jimmy Cagney eventually leaps the fence into full-blown psychopathy, it feels like the dark curtain of the depression falling over the prohibition boom years, and his career-making performance here is utterly crazed, grotesque to the point of being almost goblin-like, as he reveals himself capable of unhinged, seemingly improvised acts of violence that remain shockingly unpredictable to this day. By the final reel, he’s less a human figure, and more like a distant, more disreputable cousin to Karloff’s creature in ‘Frankenstein’ – a lurking monster, temporary lord of his kingdom, but so utterly isolated from the world around him he’ll be lucky to life through the night.

If all this sounds pretty familiar, well, it would do. Everything from ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Mean Streets’ to the ‘Scarface’ remake and ‘King of New York’ to some extent draws from the blue-print established by this movie, but the old story has rarely been told with the kind of concise, under-cranked intensity that Wellman achieves here.

For all this dense network of influence and genre creation furthermore, I also need to give a shout-out to ‘The Public Enemy’s’ final scene/final shot, which remains utterly unprecedented – using a heavy dose of expressionist technique to create a deeply unsettling and ambiguous tableau that feels more like something from a post-‘Psycho’ horror movie than anything you’d expect to see in a ‘30s studio film, even one as controversial and violent as this. If Wellman was aiming to leave his viewers with busted chops and unanswered questions, he succeeded mightily.

13. Free Fire 
(Ben Wheatley, 2017)

And, this year’s “’Bone Tomahawk’ award for the new movie that even a grumpy bastard like me can get behind” goes to…

To be fair, I have yet to subject Ben Wheatley’s immoderately entertaining single location gun fight extravaganza to the scrutiny of a second viewing, but on the first go round it pretty much blew me away, as I recounted here back in April.

14. Rituals 
(Peter Carter, 1977)

Often unhelpfully classified as a slasher film, Peter Carter’s gruelling wilderness survival horror nightmare sees Hal Holbrook heading up a troupe of badly behaved medical professionals (think M.A.S.H. twenty years on), whose annual adventure camping weekend / rural booze-up takes a darker-than-unexpected turn when an unseen figure initially begins sabotaging/stealing their (poorly prepared) equipment.

As per ‘Night Train Murders’ discussed above, a convincing sense of realism and a set of engagingly naturalistic, New Hollywood-type performances help raise this one way above the pack of ‘Deliverance’ rip-offs (I’d probably put it neck-and-neck with Walter Hill’s ‘Southern Comfort’ for the position of the all-time best “city folks run into trouble in the woods” movie), and, when it tips over the edge into full-on horror territory in the final act, the preceding slow build lends a sense of grim intensity that makes it feel like an above-ground, male prototype for Neil Marshall’s ‘The Descent’ (2005).

Very much the epitome of a “gnawing yr finger nails to the root & wiping the sweat from yr brow” movie, this one comes highly recommended.

15. Inquisition 
(Jacinto Molina, 1977)

To the surprise of – well, myself at least – Paul Naschy’s directorial debut and sole entry in the witch hunter/tortures of the inquisition subgenre turns out to be one of the best movies he ever appeared in (if you put your ‘serious cineaste’ hat on for the occasion instead of your ‘whooping drunken horror fan’ one, at least). My review from October can be found here. (Pictures of my ‘whooping drunken horror fan’ hat are not available for public view.)

16. Woman On The Run 
(Norman Foster, 1950)

Truth be told, there are a number of films at the more artistically ambitious end of the critically-adored Film Noir canon that have always left me a bit cold, what with their top-heavy, flashback-based structures, overbearing literary allusions, cluttered, expressionistic mise en scene and so on.

Much of the time in fact, I tend to get more out of the kind of straight-forward, lower profile crime pictures that reside on the B or C lists of many Noir buffs; the kind of movies that establish a single, solid narrative through-line and pursue it to the bitter end 70-odd minutes later, letting all that miscellaneous fancy stuff accumulate around the edges. And ‘Woman on the Run’, recently rescued from near complete obscurity/oblivion thanks to the efforts of San Francisco’s Film Noir Foundation, is very much a case in point.

So basically: Ann Sheridan’s husband has dropped out of sight after witnessing a gangland murder. She teams up with a shady/charming wise guy reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) to find him before the cops do. That’s all you need to know, plot-wise, but, as this good little burner of a magazine story races to the finish-line, Foster’s movie also gives us the opportunity to enjoy a wealth of exquisitely observed San Francisco location footage, much whip-smart dialogue between the two leads and a succession of absolutely great one-scene-wonder character parts. Most pertinently meanwhile, it also allows us to gradually piece together a somewhat moving picture of a strained and unconventional love story between two rather complex and difficult individuals, as outlined with a good deal of feeling by script-writer Alan Campbell (better-known as the husband twice over of Dorothy Parker).

Although a beautifully played plot twist and a literal roller-coaster of a finale help cement ‘Woman on the Run’s credentials as a cracking crime picture, it could be argued that it eventually proves more memorable in its capacity as an extremely unusually structured romantic drama; either way however, it certainly makes for highly rewarding viewing, providing practically the dictionary definition of a “little gem” within the endless mountain of largely fogotten B&W-era Hollywood product. Well worth tracking down…

17. The Flesh & The Fiends 
(John Gilling, 1960)

…as is this unfairly neglected British Burke & Hare/grave-robbing extravaganza, which I discovered toward the end of my October horror marathon. Transformed into a bleak social allegory by writer/director Gilling, it is an accomplished piece of work, pretty damn grim by the standards of 1960, and blessed with excellent performances from both Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence. (Review here.)

18. Tarkan & The Blood of the Vikings 
(Mehmet Aslan, 1971)

Do you think that a detailed knowledge of Turkish comic books, popular nationalist sentiment and period-set filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s would possibly help me make some sense of this extraordinary motion picture, in which a heroic Turk-man with dyed blonde hair claims close kinship with Atilla the Hun, whilst virgin-sacrificing Vikings meanwhile dress like Asterix & Obelix cosplay participants, wolf-hounds cry tears of grief and imperfectly inflated giant octopi stalk the rocky coastline of Norway in search of human victims?

Probably not, to be honest.

What I can at least tell you is that this movie plays out as if the people behind films like ‘Casus Kiran’ and ‘3 Dev Adam’ were given about 20 times their usual budget to make a blood-thirsty historical epic, and the results are much as we might have expected. Which is to say, exuberantly action-packed, psychotically violent, shamelessly prurient, almost entirely mindless and wonderfully, joyously, unrelentingly crazy. Awe-inspiring stuff.

19. Burial Ground / Nights of Terror 
(Andrea Bianchi, 1981)

Though it is liable to live forever in cult film infamy for its truly bizarre adult-child/maternal incest sub-plot, it should not be forgotten that Andrea Bianchi’s unbelievably ragged zombie farrago is still more fun than the proverbial barrel of monkeys, even leaving aside this unsettling diversion.

Not so much “scraping the barrel” as chewing straight through the bottom of the barrel and drooling all over the floor, this really seems like a film that has grown into existence like some kind of out-of-control fungus, created without the input of any conscious human thought.

It’s as if Bianchi was hired to shoot a few minutes of “random zombie stuff” to be projected on the screen during a scene in another film in which the characters go to the cinema to see an amusingly bad zombie movie… but he enjoyed himself so much he just kept on rolling until the thing reached feature length.

Why did the zombies come back to life? Who are all the people in the house, and how do they know each other? Why is any of this happening? Viewers who feel they may demand answers to these fairly basic questions are advised to look elsewhere, whilst the rest of us can allow the paper-mache faced wonders of ‘Burial Ground’ to roll over us with all the crushing force of a rusty, flat-tired bicycle.

Heed the Profesy of the Black Spider, and behold the Nigths of Terror!

20. Werewolf of London 
(Stuart Walker, 1935)

A wildly imaginative and authentically weird addition to the golden age of Universal horror, I enjoyed this one a great deal, as discussed here.

21. La Papesse / ‘A Woman Possessed’ 
(Mario Mercier, 1975)

This extremely unusual, seriously intended French occult movie tells the tale of a young man in a remote rural area who gets mixed up with some sort of strange cult that purports to boast a history stretching back thousands of years, and furthermore claims to be able to bestow immortality upon its adherents. In reality however, the cultists seem chiefly concerned with instigating in a variety of wince-inducing public bondage/humiliation rituals as a means of ensuring quasi-fascistic obedience to the authority of their rarely glimpsed High Priestess / demi-goddess.

Under such circumstances, I for one might require some further convincing before signing up, but our man is so down with the programme that he even attempts to ingratiate himself with the cult by ‘offering’ his unwilling wife to them as some kind of non-consensual slave/victim. What follows is a series of drab, almost documentary-like BDSM ordeals that has me wondering at times whether I had accidentally wondered into a ‘specialist’ film intended for an audience to which I definitely do not belong.

I’m glad I stuck with it however, because the second half of the film, wherein the cult decamp to some ancient ruins for some proper, ‘70s style bacchanalian rites, is much more my scene. Things all get a bit Jean Rollin as the female cultists don colourful diaphanous gowns and start gyrating to wild, synth-heavy psychedelic rock, and, as psychotropic substances are imbibed and nude sacrifices prepared, things become pretty damn weird, with a succession of sequences that stick out in my memory as being so strange I wonder whether some of those psychotropic vibes rubbed off on me. Was there really a scene where the abused wife character runs away and ends up encountering some kind of invisible demons who life in-between the rocks on some craggy outcrop, or did I just fall asleep and dream that?

I probably need to watch this again, it seems. Preferably when no one else is around. Honestly though, from what I remember, I enjoyed it a great deal; pitched somewhere between a ‘70s erotic horror movie and a tripped out witchcraft documentary, it’s rich in that kind of low budget, shoe-string sense of Frenchness what I can’t quite find a word for (trace a line between Bénazéraf and Ogroff, and you might end up here). It’s pretty well made, not quite as horrible and rapey as I’ve probably made it out to be above, and certainly unlike anything else I’ve watched this year.

22. Fortress
(Stuart Gordon, 1992)

Word on the street (please don’t ask which street) is that this muscle-bound sci-fi prison movie began life as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he dropped out and was replaced by Christopher Lambert, presumably precipitating a corresponding plunge in budget and prestige. Unexpectedly however, it turns out Arnie was a big fan of ‘Re-Animator’, and that it was he who recommended Stuart Gordon to this project’s producers as a potential director – a suggestion for which anyone who has ever sat down to watch ‘Fortress’ owes the big lug a considerable debt of thanks.

As is pretty much always the case, Gordon succeeds here in making the absolute best of unpromising subject matter and limited financial means, turning what could easily have been an utterly forgettable straight-to-video actioner into an accomplished and highly entertaining b-movie of a markedly superior stripe.

In fairness, the script for ‘Fortress’ was already quite a lot of fun, with a handful of genuinely good SF ideas thrown in alongside the expected clichés, but it is the steady hand and distinctive ‘feel’ Gordon brings to proceedings that really gets things off the ground, contrasting Lambert’s musclebound blandness with lively performances from solid ‘80s character players like Kurtwood Smith, Vernon Wells and (of course) Jeffrey Combs, crowbarring in an impressive abundance of gory special effects, and generally riding the wire between legit action/sci-fi goodness and “unintentional” STV hilarity with ease.

(The film’s finale, during which a liberated Lambert fights a robotically-controlled articulated truck with a flamethrower whilst his wife gives birth in a nearby barn, provides a particularly special moment of the latter.)

Though no one is ever likely to dredge ‘Fortress’ up as a lost classic, it stands alongside John Carpenter’s Ghost of Mars as proof that the arid plains of ‘90s American genre cinema could still turn up the occasional tarnished gem of good ol’ fashioned pulp movie-making, as tends to be found wherever talented directors are given the freedom to do what they do within the limits imposed by commercial necessity.

23. The Hanging Woman 
[‘La Orgia de los Muertos’] 
(José Luis Merino, 1973)

This fairly obscure Spanish horror film starts off looking like it’s going to be a bit of chore, mixing suitably moody location-shooting with some hum-drum “reading of the will” type stuff, but stick with it and you’ll eventually be rewarded with a séance, black magic, zombies, Frankensteinian experiments, gratuitous nudity, entry level gore and (for some reason) a great deal of fisticuffs.

The hero looks (and indeed behaves) somewhat like a younger, blonder version of Peter Wyngarde’s Jason King, there’s a bearded, pipe-smoking Sherlock Holmes stand-in, and Paul Naschy guest-stars as a perverted hunchback gravedigger. I think the word I’m looking for here is, “huzzah!”.

24. L’Ossesso / ‘Enter The Devils’ / ‘The Eerie Midnight Horror Show’
(Mario Gariazzo, 1974)

To be honest, I don’t remember all that much about this many-titled Italian horror oddity beyond the fact that I enjoyed it. When it comes to Italio-horror of this vintage though, that sense of total memory lapse and/or fading, half-remembered dream recognition is often a sign that you’re on to a winner.

Potentially a misbegotten attempt to transform an Erotic Castle Movie into an Exorcist clone mid-way through production, this one begins with a shapely young art historian being hired by a wealthy art collector to restore an unusual crucifixion sculpture extracted from a rural medieval church with a shady history of pagan/orgiastic goings-on. Back at her studio, the saviour comes to life (in the form of Ivan Rassimov!) and has his wicked way with her, after which she finds herself possessed by the lascivious evil spirit of …. something or other.

After that, you’re pretty much on your own, but like I say – I dug it. Just keep your wine glass full whilst viewing, and you can’t go wrong. Oh yeah, and Luigi Pistili plays the exorcist, which is splendid.

“Allegedly based on a true story,” states the trivia page on IMDB. Well I’m glad to hear it aspired towards some kind of story, at least.

25. Godzilla 
(Gareth Edwards, 2014)

Perhaps I’m just going soft in the head, but… am I alone in thinking this was actually pretty good? As may be gleaned from the fact that I waited three years and watched it on a DVD bought for £3 from the supermarket, my expectations were none too high, which perhaps accounts to some extent for my sense of being pleasantly surprised.

The action/destruction scenes here are tense and exciting, the monsters are imbued with genuine weight and presence despite their CGI origins, and the human drama hits all the necessary/traditional disaster/monster movie bases with an earnestness and lack of self-awareness that I found quite refreshing.

Also, I particularly appreciated the way that, much as the original ‘Godzilla’ tapped into the Japanese public’s (entirely understandable) fear of atomic energy and nuclear annihilation, Edwards here has the balls use his film’s ridiculous monster bash subject matter to touch upon such global, 21st century nightmares as unusually devastating natural disasters, electro-magnetic pulse waves, passenger jets falling out of the sky and colossal environmental fuck ups, dwelling upon the details of these (essentially plausible) catastrophes to an extent that occasionally becomes slightly uncomfortable for a Hollywood popcorn flick.


And on that note, Happy New Year everybody! Thanks for reading and we’ll see you back here at some point in January.

Sunday 17 December 2017

Exploito All’Italiana:
Night Train Murders
(Aldo Lado, 1975)

In the course of writing previous reviews for this ‘Exploito All’Italiana’ thread, I’ve made frequent references to “the great Italian rip-off machine” and suchlike, but how are we supposed to respond on occasions when this “machine” upsets our patronising critical notions by delivering a “rip off” that is actually considerably better than the source film it is imitating…?

In qualifying this assertion, I should probably admit straight away that, influential and epochal though it may be, I’m not a fan of Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House On The Left’ (1972). If that means I have to hand in my badge at the front desk and surrender my right to pass judgement on exploitation movies, then so be it, but what can I say? When cinema gets down to the ‘Last House..’ level of nastiness, I’m basically just too nice for this game, and, unless there’s some reassuringly legit good filmic artistry to go along with the sleaze, I’m bailing out.

Which, conveniently, is exactly where Aldo Lado comes in, with his film ‘L'ultimo Treno Della Notte’ (‘Last Stop on the Night Train’, aka ‘Don't Ride on Late Night Trains’, ‘Torture Train’ and ‘Xmas Massacre’, but best known in the English speaking world simply as ‘Night Train Murders’), which hit Italian screens in April 1975.

As you might well expect given the thoughts expressed in the preceding paragraphs, I have previously tended to avoid Italy’s attempts to cash-in on ‘Last House On the Left’ like the proverbial plague, and ‘Late Night Trains’ is, undeniably, an imitation of ‘Last House..’.  In terms of plot synopsis in fact, the two films are virtually identical, with Lado adding little to Craven’s minimal rape/murder/revenge scenario beyond the addition of a train.

(Of course, Lado may well have claimed he was taking his inspiration from Inger Bergman’s ‘Virgin Spring’ (1960) – the original source for ‘Last House..’ – but no prizes for guessing whether it was Bergman or Craven’s box office that the producers had in mind when they took this particular project to market.)(1)

Thank heavens then that Aldo Lado was far from your typical exploito-sleaze merchant. In fact, he is a director I am increasingly inclined to regard as some kind of unheralded savant of Italian genre cinema, at least on the basis of the three films by him I have seen to date. His two gialli (1971’s ‘Short Night of the Glass Dolls’ and 1972’s ‘Who Saw Her Die?’) are among the best, and most unconventional, films that genre has to offer, and as such, it was Lado’s name (along with admiring comments from several critical voices whose opinions I value) that finally convinced me to take a deep breath and press play on ‘Night Train Murders’.

And, without wishing to sound too pompous about it, I’m very glad I did, because, as it turns out, this is a far more challenging and rewarding film than its subject matter, promotional material and unsavoury reputation would ever have led me to expect.

Certainly, there is little in the film’s lengthy opening sequence – a tightly edited montage of footage of the bustling, pre-Christmas shopping streets of Munich, set to Demis Roussos’s exuberantly good-natured pop hit ‘A Flower is All You Need’ – to suggest that we’re about to take a stumble into bleak video nasty territory. Instead, it is happy merely to function as a lively and extremely skillful slice of visual storytelling, ensuring that, by the time they’ve boarded a train bound for Italy (heading back home for a family Christmas), we already feel as if we know our ostensible protagonists Margaret (Irene Miracle, who later appeared in Argento’s ‘Inferno’) and Lisa (Laura D’Angelo, who didn’t) pretty well.

Likewise, quick cutaways to the exploits of the characters we will subsequently know only as ‘Blackie’ (Flavio Bucci, who surprisingly went on to play Daniel the blind pianist in ‘Suspiria’ just two years later) and ‘Curly’ (Gianfranco De Grassi) – two teenage ne’erdowells who duck onto the train sans tickets to avoid pursuit from the local police – make as feel as if we’ve got their number too.

The two boys are live wire juvenile delinquents with a skeevy, junkie-ish look to them, capable of dumb and violent behaviour (rolling a drunken Santa Claus for small change, stealing an elderly lady’s fur coat), but – crucially – they are definitely not cold-blooded killers at this stage.

As the overcrowded commuter train departs from the station and the characters within it begin to interact, it soon becomes clear that, whatever qualms he may have had about helming a ‘Last House..’ rip-off, Lado definitely brought his A-game to this production. His direction here is extremely confident, drawing convincingly naturalistic performances from the young cast. Gábor Pogány’s photography meanwhile demonstrates a keen eye for stylish framing and visual beauty whilst remaining similarly grounded in naturalism, and the film keeps up a punchy, deliberate editing rhythm that ensures we’re soon deeply engrossed in the travails of our various characters, even though, on the surface of it, nothing terribly interesting has even happened to them yet.

In other words, this is basically just a really well made film, hitting a level of dramatic realism and technical acumen far above the norm for a mid-‘70s Italian genre flick… which of course only serves to make the depredations that eventually engulf our characters all the more difficult to swallow.

Needless to say, things soon get a bit unruly in the corridors of the train, as the two juvies beat up a ticket inspector in full view of a shocked family group, and – rather unexpectedly – their adventures get a bit kinky too, as Blackie corners a slightly older woman wearing a funeral veil in the toilet, and - in a moment of madness upon which the fate of all our characters turns - the nameless woman (played by Macha Méril, best known as the ill-fated psychic in ‘Deep Red’) decides to enthusiastically reciprocate his lewd advances, instigating one of the more uncomfortable (in both senses of the word) bouts of consensual sex that the cinema has to offer.

After this, a spirit of anarchy and misrule is very much abroad on the train, and, as strongly as Lado may assert his disgust at bourgeois hypocrisy elsewhere in the film, it is definitely not a nice spirit. It is no surprise that Margaret and Lisa feel pretty relieved when, as the train sits delayed at the next station, they realise they can shorten their journey by hopping across the tracks to take a different, overnight service back to Italy and, perhaps more importantly, can get away from those scary boys in the process.

It is here, as the two girls negotiate the ill-lit, wood-panelled compartments of the largely empty second train, that Lado flips the switch from the naturalism of the preceding scenes to a foreboding, quasi-expressionistic horror movie approach reminiscent of his earlier ‘Short Night of the Glass Dolls’. And of course, it comes as absolutely no surprise when, after settling down in apparent safety to enjoy the contents of their picnic hamper, the girls hear the by-now familiar sound of Curly’s harmonica echoing through the corridors.

What is more surprising – and represents ‘Night Train Murders’ most interesting deviation from the ‘Last House..’ template – is that the woman in the veil has not only accompanied the two boys onto the new train, but has effectively taken charge of their activities, egging her two new droogs on towards more extreme acts than they would likely have ever committed if left to their own devices, having apparently decided to ditch whatever her prior Christmas plans were in favour of some opportunistic sexual sadism.

Though European genre cinema offers more than its fair share of vamps, dominatrixes, sapphic prison warders and assorted other flavours of female predator, the subtlety with which Méril approaches her role here renders her a uniquely ambiguous and unsettling character. Avoiding any melodramatic over-playing or conventionally ‘monstrous’ gestures, she represents an outwardly anonymous, respectable citizen who can turn on a dime as the weight of suppressed desires and frustrations apparently rush to her head, before assuming the mask of innocent respectability once more as soon as it comes time to face the consequences of the crimes she has instigated.

In thematic terms, Lado seems keen here to explore the notion of the middle-class, adult world holding eventual responsibility for the violence and degradation that the younger generation (and, by implication, the more vulnerable/disenfranchised segments of society as a whole) inflicts upon itself. He expresses this idea pretty bluntly by cross-cutting between the terrifying ordeal the girls are experiencing on the train and a Christmas Eve party held by Lisa’s parents back in Verona – a grim affair in which marital infidelity, alcoholism and fatuous pronouncements about the breakdown of law and order seem to be the order of the day.

Arguably however, the director’s point is better made through Méril’s character, the calm, well-spoken adult who oversees the outrages the young people commit upon each other in the locked train compartment just as surely as state power manipulates Alex and his gang in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (clearly another key touchstone for the rapeier end of Italio-exploitation in this era).

Inevitably, it is the extended ordeal in the train compartment that forms the dark heart of ‘Night Train Murders’, and Lado and his collaborators build a suitably nightmarish atmosphere for what transpires, as dim bulbs shining through curtained windows project a sickeningly artificial blue/purple light that gives the compartment the theatrical, otherworldly feel of a space in which anything as possible, and in which conventional morality has entirely ceased to apply.

We won’t dwell here on the details of what transpires, but needless to say, it’s all as excruciating as you might fear, with the girls’ mute terror made horrifyingly palpable as they find themselves trapped in a kind of quasi-public S&M ritual from which no safe word will set them free.

To Lado’s credit however, he entirely avoids the titillating gore/slasher approach that many of his peers in Euro-horror might have favoured, instead ensuring that the indignities inflicted upon the victims remain grotesquely, almost pathetically, mundane – more in keeping, one imagines, with the conduct of an actual sexual assault than the stylised spectacle of some misogynistic Argento / Hitchcock fantasia.

When the first death occurs, it is random, unplanned, quick and nasty. With their latent psychopathy brought to the surface by Méril’s manipulation, the boys simply got carried away, and now everyone is in big trouble.

As viewers, we have borne witness to, and to some extent been carried along with, the flow of these terrible events, and, as the bodies of Lisa and Margaret are eventually ejected from the train window like so much human garbage, their belongings and Christmas shopping scattered alongside them on the bleak, nocturnal hillside, you’ll be liable to feel the shadow of some black spider crawling across your soul. It’s horrible, but it is precisely what the filmmakers intended.

After that, there’s nowhere really that ‘Night Train Murders’ can go, artistically speaking. But still, the final act must play out as promised. The killers must intersect with the waiting parents at the station, the truth must be discovered, and empty, soul-withering revenge must, eventually, be meted out. The “WHO ARE THE REAL MONSTERS HERE?” banner must be raised, and a black curtain of full spectrum misanthropy must be drawn down over proceedings.

As Lado simmers things down more to the level of a competently executed exploito-thriller for this final act, it is all dreadfully unpleasant, but regardless – it is the blue-lit horrors of the train compartment that will live on in your memory as Roussos’s absurdly inappropriate ballad returns to plead for peace and understanding over the end credits.

In the end, there’s not much of a helpful message anyone can take home from this atrocity exhibition, beyond perhaps the practical advice gamely offered by whichever foreign distributor came up with the idea of calling it ‘Don’t Ride on Late Night Trains’. Merry Christmas, everybody.

(1) By way of further clarifying ‘Night Train..’s status as a ‘Last House..’ rip-off, You will of course note the slight similarity of original release Italian title (‘Last Stop..’), and,  rather more shamelessly, that the film was even foisted upon American viewers at various points in time as both ‘Last House: Part 2’ and ‘The New House on the Left’. Hedging its bets genre-wise, the latter release even featured an (admittedly very cool) poster illustration that appears to depict one of the girls on the train being attacked by ‘Blind Dead’-esque hooded zombies!

Monday 11 December 2017

Exploito All’Italiana:
Mad Dog Killer
(Sergio Grieco, 1977)

Arriving towards the tail-end of the poliziotteschi’s ‘golden age’ in October 1977, the premise of Sergio Grieco’s ‘La Belva Col Mitra’ (which google tells me this translates literally as ‘The Beast With a Uterus’ – surely some mistake!?) most closely resembles that of Umberto Lenzi’s seminal ‘Almost Human’ (1974), telling as it does the unedifying tale of Nanni Vitali (Helmut Berger), a remorseless, adrenalin-crazed psychopath who has just broken out of prison with the help of his loyal gang of thugs, and  of Inspector Santini (Richard Harrison), the dogged cop who is hot on his trail.

Despite adopting this ‘Dirty Harry’-derived “cop vs psycho” framework however, ‘Mad Dog Killer’ (let’s just call it that and avoid the whole ‘uterus’ business) never really gets the engine running as either a police procedural or an action movie, with Grieco instead spinning the wheel in a different direction entirely. (1)

Clearly this was a pretty rushed, slap-dash production, and Grieco’s direction often feels pretty amateurish. Editing is ragged, continuity between shots is all over the place, and DP Vittorio Bernini’s framing and photography is the very definition of ‘perfunctory’, all of which suggests that this crew had little desire to compete in the high stakes game of ‘70s crime movies.

To highlight one of the movie’s more glaring technical shortcomings - we expect exterior shots during car chase sequences to be undercranked in films like this in order to create the illusion of speed, but how are we supposed to react to a movie that apparently can’t be bothered to re-adjust to the correct speed for interior car shots, thus lending the vehicles’ occupants the twitchy, insane mannerisms of hummingbirds?

Or, to put it another way, can you imagine the sheer amount of non-fuck-giving it takes to shoot footage like this and keep it in the final cut of your commercially released crime movie? Even Jess Franco – who was occasionally known to fake slow-motion by getting his actors to move slowly – must surely salute Grieco’s audacity here.

If questioned on the matter, I’d imagine Grieco’s answer would likely have been that there was no time to re-shoot, and anyway, it looks wild, so gives a fuck? Such is the punk-ass ideology that seems to prevail throughout ‘Mad Dog Killer’, and, once you get into the spirit of things, it’s difficult to deny that it suits the film’s unpalatable subject matter pretty well.

More problematically however, this approach also serves to make a nonsense of what should be one of the movie’s pivotal set-piece scenes, in which Berger’s gang carry out a raid on the factory where Marisa Mell’s character’s father works as a security guard, unaware that Harrison’s cops await them in hiding. It’s the perfect set-up for an absolutely storming, off-the-hook action sequence, but unfortunately things are conceived and staged in such a nonsensical manner that it falls completely flat, with logic, character motivations and physical geography all so woefully skewed that viewers are simply left confused, rather than enthralled.

You’d think a guy who spent most of the ‘50s and ‘60s making pirate and spy movies would be able to keep a better handle on things, but again, Grieco’s spirit whispers in my ear, who gives a fuck? I mean, this clearly wasn’t the kind of thing they were going for here anyway.

What they were going for, in a word, is *nastiness* - pure, nails-down-the-blackboard post-‘Last House On The Left’ grindhouse sadism. And, on that score, ‘Mad Dog Killer’ delivers in spades, subjecting us to a sweaty, gasoline-choked ordeal somewhat in the vein of Mario Bava’s ‘Rabid Dogs’ or Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch Hike (if, admittedly, at rather the other end of the scale of cinematic competence).

As such, the movie’s REAL calling card sequence (or at least, one of two, along with the astonishing finale), occurs right out of the gate, as Berger and his gang kidnap the informer who got him put away in the first place and his wife (Giuliana, played by Marisa Mell), and drive them to an isolated quarry. Once there, Vitali has his men beat the informer to the point of death and bury him alive, pouring corrosive quick-lime over his barely conscious body. After forcing her to bear witness to this, Vitali then proceeds to rape Giuliana in the dust, an act he performs with the casual, emotionally numb brutality of a man carrying out a distasteful, but expected, duty.

Pretty vicious stuff by anyone’s standards, it was likely this scene that was primarily responsible for gaining ‘Mad Dog Killer’ an honourable mention in Section # 3 of the infamous DPP ‘Video Nasties’ list in the UK (making it one of very few crime films to achieve this dubious distinction), and indeed it sets the tone pretty well for the gruelling, mindless violence-packed rampage that comprises the remainder of the movie.

‘Mad Dog Killer’s main asset in pursuing its sundry outrages against taste and decency of course is Helmut Berger himself, who lends a startlingly intense performance to this haggard wreck of a movie. Potted online biographies of Berger would tend to suggest that the actor was at a particularly low ebb at this point following the death of his partner/patron Luchino Visconti in 1976, and it seems reasonable to assume that he channelled at least some of his grief and frustration into what was, at the time, a relatively rare foray into commercial/genre cinema on a CV dominated by more high-minded arthouse fare.

Berger was, of course, a fairly unsettling presence even at the best of times (Visconti famously stated that he was attracted to him as his perfect image of a “demonic, insane and sexually perverted man”), and he seems to have taken the opportunity with this role to take the more sinister aspects of his screen persona to fairly ludicrous extremes, oozing psychopathic menace with the kind of slavering glee rarely seen since the days of Todd Slaughter.

I’m sure there must be tales to tell about Berger’s conduct and state of mind whilst making this film, but I don’t know any of them, so I’ll limit myself to simply observing that he looks as if he’s having the time of his life whenever he is called upon to commit acts of torture, casual brutality and sexual assault, conveying a sense of misanthropic, death-trip fatalism that feels disturbingly authentic, even as he mugs and stares and chews up the scenery like a pro.

Meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater contrast to this approach to acting than that provided by Berger’s opposite number here, Richard Harrison. Appearing a few years after his second wind as a spaghetti western regular had come to an end, and a few years before he accepted Godfrey Ho’s fateful call on the Garfield phone for ‘Ninja Terminator’ and it’s endless cut’n’paste sequels, Harrison must be the least confidence-inspiring avenging cop in poliziotteschi history. Sweaty, red-faced, with thinning hair plastered across his forehead, Inspector Santini looks like a shaky ex-alcoholic trying very hard to stay on the wagon, who really doesn’t need this shit in his life.

Convention dictates that Harrison must triumph in the end, but, pitched against the hulk-like hyperactivity of Berger, we certainly don’t fancy his chances, and, given this movie’s taste for cynical, gratuitous mayhem, the sundry innocents whose fate lies in Santini’s hands should consider themselves pretty much fucked, whether figuratively or otherwise.

Which brings us, I suppose, to poor old Marisa Mell. Where did it all go wrong? Her fans may disagree, but it’s always seemed to me that, after her defining role as a paragon of voluptuous ‘60s loveliness in ‘Danger! Diabolik’ (1968), it was a steep downhill curve all the way for Ms Mell. As you might well imagine, she is subjected to a hell of a rough time in this one, and, if she puts in good performance, that could just be due to the fact that her key note of brutalised, pouting resentment accurately reflects her off-screen attitude toward having to appear in this movie in the first place, as much as it does the travails of her character.

Ultimately, for all its technical drawbacks and unhinged, exploitative cruelty, it’s difficult not to admire a movie like ‘Mad Dog Killer’ on some level. Mirroring the attitude of its anti-hero/antagonist, it is a film that gets by on pure, mad-cap energy, thundering across your screen with zero concern for either quality control or human empathy – a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ movie that will likely draw you into its own airless realm of spittle-flecked intensity whether you like it or not.

The final showdown, in which Harrison inevitably goes mano-a-mano with Berger against the backdrop of an abandoned warehouse, is genuinely impressive stuff, viciously ratcheting up the tension as Berger agonisingly takes a knife to the torso of his teenage hostage (Santini’s estranged daughter) and lustily paws the young male punk who has ill-advisedly teamed up with him, precipitating a beyond-macho, might-is-right finale that effectively delivers on the only possible way a desperate story like this can end.

Essential viewing for all Helmut Berger fans (though Richard Harrison or Marissa Mell fans might want to think twice), ‘Mad Dog Killer’ ranks as one of grittiest exploitation head-kicks that Italian cinema has to offer. If you find yourself in the right mood to take the kind of punishment it’s doling out, it’s well worth a look, for Berger’s extraordinary performance if nothing else.

(1)To clarify this title business - it actually takes but a few seconds of googling to confirm that this movie has frequently been released in English as ‘Beast with a Gun’, which presumably reflects the true meaning of the Italian title, but I’ve kept the ‘uterus’ stuff in the main text because it’s funny, and kind of interesting. Please consult your nearest Italian speaker for more info on the no doubt fascinating derivation and usage of the word “mitra”. Other English AKAs for this movie by the way include: ‘Street Killers’, ‘Mad Dog’, ‘The Human Beast’, ‘Ferocious’ and – apparently - ‘Wild Beasts with Machine Guns’.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Exploito All’Italiana:
Five Dolls For An August Moon
(Mario Bava, 1970)

Quite possibly the least celebrated of Mario Bava’s many contributions to the horror / giallo field, ‘5 Bambole per la Luna d'Agosto’, realised in Italy in March 1970, is unlikely to find a place on many Bava fans’ top ten lists… or even many Edwige Fenech fans’ top ten lists, for that matter. If you’re a dedicated viewers of European genre movies, perhaps it won’t even make your top ten William Berger films. Hell, even top ten films for which Piero Umiliani did the music might be pushing it. But, nonetheless, I still retain a huge soft spot for this underachieving body count picture. Taken purely as a compressed dose of pure 1969/70 Italian Riviera decadence in fact, I actually find it pretty unbeatable. (1)

It is well-known by this point that Bava directed this film under protest, after the producers refused him the extra time he had requested to rework Mario di Nardo’s script into something he considered workable. And, watching with almost fifty years hindsight, I think we can probably share Mario’s pain, for it is di Nardo’s shoddy and derivative plotting – and the production’s dogged determination to stick to it – that is ultimately responsible for ‘Five Dolls..’ failure to attain the same level of quality as the classics Bava usually seemed capable of banging out like clockwork whenever he was allowed near the horror or giallo genres.

Vague and incoherent (though not in a particularly fun way), this Agatha Christie-derived island-bound whodunit scenario revolves – thrillingly - around the formula for a new kind of industrial resin. This is held solely within the bonce of Berger’s grumpily moralistic Herr Dr Scientist (who is immediately differentiated from the conniving playboys around him through his decision to wear an uncomfortable-looking woolly jumper to his sunny island retreat).

Needless to say, the aforementioned conniving playboys and their equally conniving wives are all on the case to obtain said formula, and soon million dollar cheques are being idly tossed around as inconvenient corpses concurrently start to pile up, the latter generating a sense of mild annoyance in the surviving characters roughly equivalent to which might be expected if they discovered that, say, the meat for their dinner had gone bad or something.

Such is the overwhelming disinterest generated by this scenario that, when the characters start indulging in sordid extra-marital liaisons and accompanying back-stabbing, the sense of transgression is somewhat muted by the fact that we can’t quite remember who most of them were supposed to married to in the first place.

Unfortunately, my own (non-conniving) wife tends to be a stickler for all this bloody “plot” rubbish, so, after the film’s spectacularly nonsensical attempt at a twist ending rolled around, we were obliged to spend a good ten minutes vainly trying to establish what was going on – including replays of certain key scenes – before she’d let it be. In the end she reckoned she’d solved the mystery to her satisfaction, but I remain happily and uncaringly mystified.

Never fear though, because, more so than ever in Italian genre cinema, IT DOES NOT MATTER what is actually going on here. Effectively leaving the script for dead at the side of the road, Bava instead wisely concentrates his efforts upon distracting us from its all-too-evident shortcomings, doing his utmost to make each shot more striking, more gloriously opulent and packed with more weird, incidental detail, than the last. And when Mario Bava sets his utmost in that direction, you know you’re in for a good time, regardless of overbearing producers, lazy-ass writers or budgetary constraints.

As is often the case with Bava, the environment in with ‘5 Dolls..’ takes place is almost entirely illusory, with the beautifully executed matte shot that creates the impression of a ultra-kitsch space age beach house perched precariously upon an overhanging cliff-top forming a kind of late ‘60s take on the twilit gothic vista the director created for Whip and the Body – a film that is also recalled by the assorted trysts amongst the rock pools that pad out the concluding act of ‘5 Dolls..’, suggesting perhaps the early stirrings of a self-reflexive tendency in Bava’s work that would reach full bloom in ‘Baron Blood’ a few years later.

Within this fictitious beach house meanwhile, the fantasia constructed by the hard-working set builders in Rome’s Dear Studios is really a sight to behold, mixing wide, circular rooms with asymmetrical vertical lines provided by weird-looking door frames and staircases. Strewn with extravagant soft furnishings, unlikely glassware and garish abstract art adorning the walls, this joint is one of the best ‘space age bachelor pad’ fantasies that Italian genre cinema has to offer (chronic lack of bachelors notwithstanding), even as its unfeasible curves and angles are gradually transformed into a human scale ‘Mouse Trap’ game for the surviving, increasingly paranoid characters, to bounce around in.

(This metaphor that perhaps enters my mind as a result of one of the movie’s more memorable and overtly surreal sequences, wherein the shock of a character’s murder is closely followed by the spectacle of a load of entirely inexplicable silver balls cascading down a spiral staircase.)

Despite working here with what was presumably a fraction of the budget assigned to his earlier ‘Danger! Diabolik’ (1968), Bava nonetheless still manages to bring a sliver of that film’s incomparable aesthetic cool to proceedings, creating a vibrant, endlessly enticing moving postcard from a supremely artificial utopia of myopic self-indulgence; a realm of gleaming chrome, gaudily patterned upholstery, hallucinatory interior décor decisions, crashing waves, hazy J&B-induced stupor and artfully deflected sunlight so spectacularly sensual that not even a series of brutal slayings can harsh yr buzz. (Hey, the characters initially don’t seem to mind them too much, so why should we care?)

Meanwhile, Piero Umiliani’s score – perhaps one of the first to wed harpiscord-heavy orchestration to a driving rock rhythm section in a manner that would soon become de-rigour in the giallo boom of the early ‘70s – ensures that ‘5 Dolls..’ is a splendid film to listen to as well as to look at, whilst the mighty, fuzz-rock blowout – ‘Ti Risveglierai Accanto a Me’ performed by Italian psyche/prog stalwarts Il Balletto di Bronzo – that plays over the movie’s closing credits is an absolute banger, it’s in-the-red roar only enhanced by the dusty distortion of the film’s scrubbed up mono soundtrack reels.

Though the murder sequences in ‘5 Dolls..’ are somewhat on the mild side for a Bava giallo (such is the scope of the director’s achievements, it’s easy to forget that he pushed on-screen violence to new extremes across two decades via ‘Black & Black Lace’ (1964) and ‘A Bay of Blood’ (1971)), they are all nonetheless magnificently staged, making full use of hazy, sun-dappled day time photography and an almost comical excess of looming, foreground foliage.

(Critics might be inclined to point out that, for all the accolades Bava has received for his technical prowess, he gets pretty damn goofy with the zoom lens in this one, but, I’ve got fifty plus Jess Franco films under my belt at this point, so watch me care.)

Repeated shots of plastic-sheeted corpses swinging upon hooks in the house’s meat locker meanwhile add a welcome touch of icy, macabre atmosphere to what is otherwise a weirdly sunny and relaxed take on horror film-making, and the unexpectedly gory demise of the fabulous Ms Fenech provides a genuine jolt that feels like a warm-up for the shock tactics of the aforementioned ‘Bay of Blood’.

Speaking of Fenech, I hope I won’t drift too far into dirty-old-man territory in pointing out that, as per usual, her frame provides a pretty substantial boost to the movie’s production values in and of itself, and, quite frankly, I don’t know if she ever looked better on screen than she does here (and yes, I realise that’s quite a claim). Elsewhere in the casting department meanwhile, ‘5 Dolls..’ pursues the usual giallo pattern of pairing up a selection of quote-unquote ‘foxy babes’ with a crew of craggy-faced, shady-looking and (for the most part) somewhat older gentlemen. I suppose at a push you could make a case that this reflects the fact that these characters are supposed to be a bunch of high-powered industrialists and their trophy wives… but to do so would be to imply that these people bear some kind of loose similarity to believable, real world human beings, and frankly nobody wants that.

Instead, let’s just accept that this was the dawn of the ‘70s, and that’s the way things were done. Then we can all settle back and enjoy the scenery – which was certainly the point of the exercise as far as Bava was concerned.

Of course, it could be argued that ‘5 Dolls..’ was not an *entirely* cynical exercise on Bava’s part. In his commentary track for the film, Tim Lucas is keen to place ‘5 Dolls..’ within his own auteurist take on the director’s work, specifically with regard to the his palpable distaste for the greed, excess and inhumanity of the film’s privileged characters. Compelling as Lucas’s case may be however, such theorising must inevitably remain a secondary concern in film that sees characterisation and plot machinations so comprehensively pushed to the sidelines in favour of a gloriously garish, over the top celebration of this period’s unique visual style.

Resorting to an iffy music metaphor to try to summarise my feelings for ‘5 Dolls For An August Moon’, I suppose you could say that, whilst this one is definitely never going to be the eternal, always-in-print, take-it-to-the-grave classic album in anyone’s collection, it still feels very much like the filmic equivalent of the cheesy charity shop lounge-jazz LP you bought because you liked the cover and just keep playing all the time because, hey, it makes you feel kind of happy.


(1) In case anyone is interested, I’m currently going with: 1. Kill Baby Kill, 2. Danger! Diabolik, 3. Lisa & The Devil, 4. Black Sabbath, 5. Black Sunday, 6. Blood & Black Lace, 7. Baron Blood, 8. Whip & The Body, 9. Planet of the Vampires, 10. Rabid Dogs. I don’t have a Fenech list. Bring it on in the comments, fellow list-makers.