Friday, 26 April 2019

Blood Island Journal # 3:
Mad Doctor of Blood Island
(Gerado de Leon & Eddie Romero, 1969)

Back on Blood Island a year or so after all that business with the sludge monster and the sacrificial virgins, and things actually seem to have changed quite a bit for this non-continuous quasi-sequel.

For one thing, the island itself seems a bit more developed than it was the last time around. The islanders now enjoy the benefit of some paved roads, a pony and trap and at least one electric generator. Sadly, there are far fewer totem poles, but the main village now boasts a “government house”, whatever that is.

For another thing, the outrageous colour palette of the previous picture has been toned down, with the exotica / tiki bar vibes scaled back slightly (perhaps to a “7”, down from “10”), lending a marginally more naturalistic feel to proceedings that reflects the film’s curiously morose, down-beat emotional timbre. Despite the promise of that irresistible title (what’s the matter doc, Market Street not good enough for ya anymore?), it looks as if shit’s about to get real on the ol’ Isla de Sangre.

Which, I must confess, is a development that is not entirely to my liking. Watching ‘Mad Doctor..’ for the first time, I found myself missing the goofy charm and over-saturated excesses of ‘Brides..’. Though a “dark and brooding” approach can often work well for Filipino horror (look no further than Terror is a Man for a perfect example), I have my doubts re: how far it can really go when it comes to distracting our attention from the meandering pacing and slapdash production values inherent to these late ‘60s Hemisphere horrors.

Thankfully however, Romero and de Leon at least came up with a fool-proof strategy to help keep the mid-west drive-in crowds in their seats – namely, cranking up the gore and sleaze to what at the time must have seemed fairly preposterous levels.

This intent is clearly signalled by one of the most attention-grabbing pre-credits sequences this side of Jose Larraz’s ‘Vampyres’, in which we see an anonymous, stark naked Filipino girl fleeing through the (rather scrubby looking) jungle, before getting bloodily mauled by a hairy-handed green zombie / monster. Yikes!

Following this unambiguous statement of intent (surely the exploitation movie equivalent of a hand-on-heart oath of allegiance?) however, we’re soon back to the grind of PLOT and TALKING, as a new shipment of outsiders approach the torrid coast of Blood Island – but hey, at least a wealth of “so, why are we going to this island again?” type expository chat allows us to clearly establish who’s who this time around.

This is just as well, because, as seems to have become a trademark of Eddie Romero’s films in particular, ‘Mad Doctor of Blood Island’ has, frankly, too many characters.

Shipping in on the boat, we firstly have an American couple (John Ashley and Angelique Pettyjohn) who have come in search of Angelique’s estranged father. I’m not sure if the reasoning behind the father’s presence on Blood Island is ever made clear, but he seems rather like one of those “trading company agent” type characters found in colonial-era South Seas tales. He’s certainly a sweat-drenched, alcoholic misanthrope who seems to have been driven mad by the malarial climate, at any rate.

Played by one Tony Edmunds (in his only screen role), he initially rejects the opportunity to re-establish a relationship with his daughter (presumably because it would upset his busy schedule of sprawling around in a state of fever-ish dissolution). (1)

Also on the boat is an alternative Filipino protagonist, Carlo, played by Ronaldo Valdez. Having been raised on the island, he is heading back there to track down his mother (played by veteran Pinoy character actress Tita Muñoz), after receiving the news that his father has died. *She* seems be ensconced as the live-in servant and lover of one Dr Lorca (Ronald Remy, star of Hemisphere’s earlier ‘The Blood Drinkers’ (1964)).

As you might well imagine, this guy is the “Mad Doctor” of the title, although disappointingly he never really gets very “mad” here, in the usual horror movie sense of the term. In fact, he remains disconcertingly chilled out through most of picture, regarding the assorted hullaballoo caused by his errant experiments with a sense of expressionless neutrality. Whether Remy was heroically resisting the urge to over-act (going instead for “cold scientific distance”), or simply lacked the necessary charisma for the role, is largely a moot point however, and will likely depend on your level of sympathy for the production.

In addition this lot meanwhile, we also have another significant character, Marla (Alicia Alonzo), an island girl who seems like a twisted and vengeful variation of the upstanding Alam from ‘Brides..’. A childhood playmate of Carlo, she now seems fixated both on seducing him, and on taking revenge against Dr Lorca for the death of her lover, Carlo's late father.

So, yes – if you’re thinking that this seems like an awful lot of human drama to try to cram into a movie that is basically being sold on the promise of seeing naked girls being torn apart by a slimy green monster, you have a point.

Some commentators have suggested that the introduction of a parallel storyline involving Filipino characters could have been an attempt to broaden the film’s appeal for local audiences, but actually this seems doubtful. ‘Mad Doctor..’, like its predecessors, was shot in English, with the majority of funds coming from overseas, and - insofar as I’m aware – the possibility of a theatrical release in The Philippines was never even considered.

Nonetheless, it’s certainly nice to see that the filmmakers were confident enough by this stage to devote a significant portion of screen time to characters of their own nationality, and it is interesting to note that this coincides with the introduction of a more pervasive sense of melancholy than was present in the old fashioned, “white folks getting into trouble in the jungle” tales that characterised the preceding Blood Island films.

For all the monsters and bloodthirsty japes, just about everyone in ‘Mad Doctor..’ is basically deeply unhappy, with most of the characters struggling with grief or loss in one form or another. The arched eyebrow “humour” that dominated dialogue exchanges in ‘Brides..’ has largely vanished, whilst the Carlo / Dr Lorca storyline incorporates a queasy undertone of incestuous desire which culminates in a handful of uncomfortably harrowing, taboo-skirting scenes in the film’s final act

If all this sounds pretty intriguing on paper however, I wish I could report that it was a bit more enjoyable on celluloid. Unfortunately, the means by which Romero and de Leon choose to unpack these complex character relationships – think long stretches of bland, monotone dialogue and repetitive shot / reverse shot editing patterns – soon poses a challenge both to viewers’ attention spans, and potentially their very wakefulness.

Never fear though, because the monster is here, and, if he’s not even remotely as much fun as ‘Brides of Blood’s world-beating sludge-beast, he certainly scores a few points in terms of sheer unpleasantness.

This time around, the film’s wacky, quasi-scientific premise involves Dr Lorca’s technique for reviving / extending animal life through the direct injection of chlorophyll - which results, inevitably, in the creation of one or more shambling, psychopathic moss-zombies.

Half-man, half-cactus, is the general idea here I suppose, and, though fairly laughable from a make-up POV, the green paint-splattered, paper-mache headed menace that periodically emerges to terrorise Blood Island nonetheless has a genuinely icky feel to it that puts me in mind of the muesli-faced fiends found in second string Italian zombie movies of the early 1980s. This comparison remains pertinent with regard to what the creature actually does too; boy, he sure goes for it!

Succumbing to the temptations of the cartoonish, full strength gore approach inaugurated earlier in the decade by Herschell Gordon Lewis, de Leon and Romero cheerfully employ a range of special effects that make Lewis seem like a champion of gritty surgical realism by comparison, transforming ‘Mad Doctor..’s monster attack scenes into a ludicrous rampage of flying mannequin limbs, screaming, blood-splattered naked people and shock zooms into piles of steaming entrails, sure to leave any seasoned connoisseur of trash cinema beside themselves with delight.

Considerably less delightful for most viewers however will be the rather unique “in-camera effect” that is utilised throughout the film’s horror sequences. Basically, this consists of the camera operator relentlessly cranking the zoom function in and out again, in time with some pulsing rhythm of his own devising, much in the manner of a child fooling around with a video camera for the first time at a family picnic.

Personally, I found this gimmick absolutely infuriating. It makes many of the film’s livelier scenes feel disorientating and difficult to follow, and some potentially great visuals are ruined forever by the murky motion blurring which results. Individual tolerance may vary however, and I can at least appreciate the fact that enjoyment of this technique is largely a matter of context.

Say what you will about the folks behind Hemisphere, but they certainly knew their market, and I can well imagine that, in a Saturday afternoon matinee full of screaming kids, having this pulsating, zoom-y weirdness kick in whenever the monster is nearby must have proved very effective. For your humble correspondent however, sitting alone beside the blu-ray player half a century later in earnest contemplation of a cinematic text (god help me)… not so much. (2)

Unfortunately, a further – significant - obstacle for most 21st century viewers attempting to enjoy ‘Mad Doctor of Blood Island’ hoves into view about halfway through, when the filmmakers decide to include a short, but still extremely unpleasant, display of real life animal cruelty.

Regrettably, the ill treatment of animals is an aspect of Filipino culture that can often be seen creeping into the nation’s genre cinema, but there can be no cultural justification for the reprehensible conduct we see here, as some unfortunate pigs and goats are tied down and stabbed as part of a staged “tribal ritual”.

Thankfully, this footage is mercifully brief (comprising only a few seconds of screen time), but it’s still pretty difficult to stomach, so – viewer discretion (and/or a speedy hand on the remote control) is advised.

Moving swiftly on however, ‘Mad Doctor..’s non-zoom-damaged, non-animal slaughtering segments can at least boast a few other attractions that may (or may not) make the whole thing worth ploughing through, including, but not limited to:

1. Loads of lascivious, erotic dancing from the island’s more shapely young residents (I suppose the extended dance party finale of ‘Brides of Blood’ must have gone down well with audiences).

2. The spiriting sight of the gum-chewing, slightly Southern accented John Ashley unleashing some gone-to-seed white guy kung fu as he scatters spear-wielding guards like nine-pins, as well as rocking an incongruous powder blue suit and wing-tip collar to complement his kiss-curled, Ricky Nelson-type looks.

3. The unique presence of Angelique Pettyjohn, an unconventional leading lady whose emergence from bed when disturbed by a moss-zombie banging at her door (a scene coincidentally blessed with some splendid, Bava-esque gel lighting) must have lingered long in many adolescent imaginations. Gamely gallivanting around Blood Island in a frilly pink mini-dress being menaced by zombies, snakes, surly tribesmen and the like (Tito Arevalo’s bombastic scoring gives equal weight to all of these potential threats), she’s a great screamer who leads me to want to use the word “lascivious” twice in the space of a few paragraphs. (3)

Having got that out of the way, I’d like to move things on to a brief discussion of this film’s assorted promotional ballyhoo – chiefly dreamed up by Hemisphere marketing consultant and later Independent International Pictures mogul Sam Sherman – which is a lot of fun, and must have played a significant role in ensuring that ‘Mad Doctor of Blood Island’ remains probably the most infamous and fondly remembered of the “blood island” films, despite being arguably the weakest instalment in the series, in purely cinematic terms.

Shot on spec by Romero using Caucasian teenagers apparently rounded up from the domestic quarter of the nearest U.S. military base, the film’s “green blood” prologue, in which patrons are encouraged to drink whatever hideous fluorescent potion the distributors managed to hand out whilst reciting the “Oath of Green Blood” is an absolute hoot, whilst the film’s demented trailer – inexplicably featuring a voiceover performed by legendary underground theatre performer and New York eccentric Brother Theodore – is an absolute classic too.

For all this attention-grabbing tomfoolery however, ‘Mad Doctor..’ for the most part remains a rather grim, potentially headache-inducing trudge of a viewing experience. Despite the polystyrene walled dungeon finale and occasional moments of classical gothic atmos in fact, the film in retrospect seems interesting for the way in which it moves beyond the campy, ‘40s-derived template that still defined most low budget horror films of the late ‘60s.

Instead, the dour pessimism and envelope-pushing content lurking behind the garish marketing materials makes the feel – at a push - somewhat more like a precursor to the more explicit and downbeat horror films that would begin to emerge from both Europe and the USA during the 1970s. Certainly, if the purpose of a horror film is to be horrible, ‘Mad Doctor of Blood Island’ succeeds about as well its production circumstance could have allowed, providing enough unsavoury content to warp the minds of monster kids and morality campaigners alike. Apparently it managed to fly under the radar of the latter group however, and must have proved sufficiently popular with the former that Dr Lorca returned, less than a year later, in ‘Beast of Blood’. Sanity allowing, I’ll be landing once again on the golden sands of Blood Island soon to bring you the low down on that one. God help us all.

(1) As an aside, I found it interesting that the “alcoholic dad” character is identified by the islanders as “Mr. Willard” – presumably a nod to Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, which is curious, given that both Eddie Romero and John Ashley worked behind the scenes on the Filipino shoot for ‘Apocalypse Now’ a few years later.

(2) Yes, in case you were wondering, anecdotal evidence suggests that these movies were regularly screened to pre-teen crowds throughout the USA, with any trims for gore and nudity presumably at the mercy of the theatre manager’s scissors. What a great time to have been alive!

(3) At this point, I think we are duty-bound to mention Pettyjohn’s later claim that she and John Ashley were doing the deed for real during their brief love scene in ‘Mad Doctor..’. Though naturally nothing to support this assertion survives on screen, it’s certainly a pretty steamy sequence, and, given that Pettyjohn went on to become one of the few ‘legitimate’ actresses to move into hardcore porn during the ‘70s whilst Ashley is widely remembered as an irrepressible horndog, such shenanigans don’t seem entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Exploito All’Italiana:
Roma Violenta
(Marino Girolami, 1975)

Released in the USA under the name ‘Violent City’ (but definitely not to be confused with the 1970 Sergio Sollima / Charles Bronson joint of the same name), ‘Roma Violenta’ (no translation needed, I’m assuming) represents the Italian poliziotteschi at its most reactionary and utilitarian, boiling the right wing fantasies of ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘Death Wish’ down to a sticky, unpalatable paste, and serving it up with a skimpy garnish of cut price action and lurid sadism.

The film is historically significant however for introducing the world to Euro-Crime icon Maurizio Merli, and to his signature character Commissario Betti – an expressionless, blonde moustached human torpedo on a one-man mission to crack the skull and/or puncture the lungs of every small-time hood who dares set foot in one of Italy’s major metropolitan areas.

Generally assumed to have been cast as a result of his passing resemblance to Franco Nero, who had recently had recently scored big at the box office playing crusading cops in Enzo Castellari’s ‘High Crime’ (1973) and ‘Street Law’ (’74), Merli’s dead-eyed, suspect-pulverizing persona must have proved popular with audiences, as he went on to reprise the Betti character in both Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Napoli Violenta’ and Girolami’s ‘Italia a Mano Armata’ [export title ‘Special Cop in Action’] the following year, before essaying a series of similarly two-fisted Inspectors and Commissarios in films for Lenzi, Stelvio Massi and other directors throughout the late ‘70s.

An entirely generic distillation of everything you might expect of one of these movies, ‘Roma Violenta’ begins the only way it could, with a bunch of gun-toting, stocking-masked punks hi-jacking a city bus and stealing valuables from the passengers. Of course, it all goes wrong, and of course an innocent bystander (a seventeen year old boy – guaranteed to elicit maximum hand-wringing from proponents of the poliziotteschi’s none-more-macho mindset) is callously gunned down. A promising life, senselessly wasted! Is Commissario Betti going to stand for this? Hell no!

In between blustering through the offices of his uncaring, desk-jockey superiors, angrily demanding more men and more money for his ‘special squad’ to combat this intolerable crime wave, Merli is soon on the trail of the bus robbery’s perpetrators, thus treating us to an explanatory demonstration of his no nonsense approach to police-work.

This basically consists of Betti meeting with his top undercover man Biondi (played an impossibly youthful-looking Ray Lovelock), who tells him, “it was that guy over there”, prompting our hero to trap said guy in an empty bus (irony, ‘Roma Violenta’ style) and beat the living shit out of him (information gathering, ‘Roma Violenta’ style).

Already, the film’s political stance has been taken to such a comical extreme that for a moment I almost suspected it had crossed the line into a Judge Dredd style parody of fascistic law enforcement. Certainly, as Merli beats this unarmed youth to verge of death whilst demanding he “confess”, it is difficult for our sympathies to remain fully on the right side of the law… but then, I’m bleeding heart, liberal do-gooder, so what the hell do I know?

Perhaps in order to off-set this potential drift of audience sympathy, ‘Roma Violenta’ is notable for its failure (or refusal?) to in any way engage with the lives and activities of its criminal antagonists. Surprisingly, there is no suggestion at any point in the film that the teen hoods and low rent villains Betti combats are connected to an organised crime network or criminal syndicate, and, disappointingly, there are no cigar-chewing, Lionel Stander Mafiosi, twisted, Tomas Milian-style psychopaths or calculating John Saxon overseers to liven things up either.

Though some solid performers (John Steiner and the ubiquitous Luciano Rossi, for example) are on hand to play the more experienced crooks, none of them are ever given the chance to develop much of a personality, and for the most part the film’s baddies remain nameless, gun-toting young hooligans, whose criminal ambitions are limited to opportunistic hit-and-run attacks and the occasional, poorly planned armed robbery. All of which rather makes a mockery of Belli’s repeated insistence that he needs greater resources and special legal dispensation to fight this existential threat to law & order, needless to say.

Under such circumstances, even the most brutal of crime films would normally at least pay lip service to the social inequalities that might lead young people to embark on such crime sprees, but no dice here. In classic Michael Winner tradition, these punks come out of nowhere like goblins, depriving the well-to-do of their gold watches and man-handling their women, before scampering off again, leaving blood and bodies in their wake.

Having noted during the opening credits that the great Richard Conte appears in ‘Roma Violenta’, I could barely wait to see him pop up as a suave, sadistic mob boss (a stereotype he’d gleefully perfected over the years in everything from ‘The Big Combo’ (1955) to Fernando Di Leo’s ‘Il Boss’ (1973)), but again, the film defies our expectations by casting Conte as a good guy - namely, one “Mr Sartori”, a campaigning lawyer who invites Betti to join his freelance vigilante justice group after our man (inevitably) quits the police force in disgust.

Now, in any other crime movie, when a venerable Italian-American character actor invites our protagonist to shake hands with a group of men who are lined up in what appears to be a meat locker, and distributes glossy photos of some people he wishes them to track down and hospitalise… well, we might reasonably expect our hero to contemplate the possibility that his strict moral code has been somewhat compromised. But, as we have established, ‘Roma Violenta’ is a movie of very little brain, and Mr Sartori’s earnest dedication to the pursuit of justice is never questioned.

Instead, he very nearly finds himself becoming one of the film’s several vengeance-justifying sacrificial victims, when a gang of particularly scruffy-looking villains invade his home and hold him at knife-point. It is at this point that Mr Sartori’s previously unmentioned daughter descends the stairs, and the uncredited actress playing her gets to enjoy a full three seconds of screen time before – you guessed it – she is stripped naked and raped by the thugs.

A drearily nasty business, replete with cynically opportunistic frontal nudity, this sequence gains a touch of class from Conte’s appalled reaction shots; a real pro, even when working in such reduced circumstances, he sells his character’s wide-eyed horror very well.

Predictably, this treatment is about par for the course for female characters in ‘Roma Violenta’. There are a few brief scenes in which Merli goes to visit his girlfriend (played by Euro-cult regular Daniela Giordano), who appears to manage a hotel, but this has no connection with anything else that happens in the film, and basically feel as if it has been tacked on solely in order to establish that Betti is in a monogamous relationship with a woman - lest the audience suspect that he might actually be some kind of weirdo, vis-a-vis his “lone wolf” lifestyle and apparent enthusiasm for inflicting sadistic beatings upon younger men.

Nameless Girlfriend aside however, I’m not sure there is a single woman this movie who gets to speak more than a single line of dialogue before being arbitrarily murdered or assaulted…. which I’ll admit puts me in a bit of a critical quandary. After all, if I’m to continue to defend Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ or Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza films against accusations of misogyny, citing the argument that they are merely portraying (rather than endorsing) a hyper-masculine world in which women are forcibly denied a voice, surely I should do ‘Roma Violenta’ the same courtesy...?

As much as I hate to recognise distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cinematic culture though, at some point I suppose you’ve just got to draw a line in the sand and – in this case - declare that Peckinpah and Fukasaku made critically-engaged, emotionally-nuanced films which can (at a stretch) be read as implicit critiques of the kind of toxic machismo they specialised in portraying. Marino Girolami on the other hand…

Well -- I don’t know. For all that I’ve torn it apart above, I don’t want to come down too hard on ‘Roma Violenta’. As egregious and simple-minded as its content may sound in the abstract, the actual execution here is so pulpy and paper-thin that it is impossible to really take offense.

As with his other Euro-Cult calling card (1981’s hugely entertaining Zombi Holocaust), Girolami essentially directs here as if he were pasting together a cheap fumetti comic book, banging through scenes in a rough, first-take-best-take manner that, whilst it rarely crosses the line into actual incompetence, suggests an attempt to wring maximum impact from a bare minimum of effort.

Wasting no time on such niceties as character, narrative depth or visual interest, Girolami comes down hard on the pacing, producing a movie that – whilst it scarcely contains a single line of dialogue that doesn’t feel like a perfunctory reiteration of genre cliché – is rarely dull, remaining eminently watchable, and indeed rather likeable, in an “after a few beers” kind of way.

The film’s overall highlights are probably the moments in which robberies and assaults are staged on crowded city streets, complete with gawping by-standers and barely choreographed chaos, including a hilarious skit in which some purse-snatchers get their asses kicked by an undercover police karate expert, made up in drag as an old lady.

Merli’s numerous beat downs meanwhile are creditably staged, complete with quick edits and bone-crunching sound effects that could have come straight from a slightly sluggish kung fu movie, and, though comically under-cranked, the obligatory car chase also packs a punch, hitting all the necessary poliziotteschi pleasure points, as a bunch of those tiny ‘70s Italian cars we all love so much roar precariously around an unfinished motorway flyover, allowing Girolami to make the most of his minimal resources, cannily switching back and forth between overhead shots and ‘bumper-cam’ for a touch of proto-‘Mad Max’ excitement.

By far the best thing ‘Roma Violenta’ has going for it though is the music, which comes courtesy of producer Guido de Angelis, working as usual in collaboration with his brother Maurizio. And, the de Angelis boys are really on top form here too, working out a kind of propulsive, disco-influenced progressive rock sound with a strong melancholy undertone provided by some poignant lead playing on keyboard, flute and harmonica. As exemplified by compilation staple New Special Squad, it’s a stone-cold classic of ‘70s cop movie music, and comes highly recommended.

And…. that’s about all I have to say about ‘Roma Violenta’, to honest. It may not be one of the better poliziotteschi pictures, but, if you can turn off your brain (and your conscience), stop asking questions, and simply revel in the surfeit of ‘70s Cop Vibes it provides (mm, all that fuzzy, nicotine-stained brown), it’s a pleasantly psychotic timewaster.

I do wonder what Girolami thought about the fact that, whilst he was treading water on stuff like this, his own son (the aforementioned Enzo G. Castellari) was busy outclassing him with a series of vastly more accomplished additions to the genre, hitting his peak the following year with one of my all-time favourite European action/crime films, ‘The Big Racket’, but…. that’s another story, I suppose. For now, let’s knock this one on the head and hopefully we’ll get around to it one day.