Friday, 29 May 2020

Exploito All’Italiana:
Paganini Horror
(Luigi Cozzi, 1989)

You don’t need a PhD in Italian cinema to realise that the nation’s commercial film industry was in pretty dire straits by the tail end of the 1980s. Simply watching a few of the increasingly cynical and poverty-stricken horror and action films which continued to trickle out as the decade drew to a close, all seemingly designed solely to try to claw back some easy dough from the overseas video rental market, should get the point across well enough.

In terms in horror, Luigi Cozzi’s ‘Paganini Horror’ and its even more bizarrely conceived companion piece ‘The Black Cat’ (aka ‘De Profundis’, aka ‘Demons 6’, aka ‘Suspiria 2’, 1989) were not technically the end of the line. After all, directors like Fulci, Lenzi and Fragasso all kept pluggin’ away into the early ‘90s, Argento was still making films (albeit with overseas financing at this point), and Michele Soavi even pulled off a late era triumph with 1994’s ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’.

But, on an emotional level, Cozzi’s ’89 films still seem very much like the end of something. On some level, I can’t help but feel that that particular strain of stylised Mediterranean gothic first kicked off in earnest by Mario Bava’s ‘La Maschera del Demonio’ in 1960, reaches it’s eventual, ragged conclusion right here.

All of which may sound a bit maudlin, but, thankfully, there are two things you can always rely on Luigo Cozzi to provide, however daft his films may be – earnest enthusiasm and utter weirdness. True to form, ‘Paganini Horror’ delivers both in spades.

As you might have expected, the genesis of this film seems to have been pretty convoluted, but insofar as I can establish, the series of events which led to its creation went as follows. Earlier in the ‘80s, Cozzi claims that he wrote a script for a film which he envisioned as a serious period drama, exploring the life of the legendary Venetian composer and violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), and the diabolical rumours which swirled around him.

Unsurprisingly, this project didn’t get anywhere near being made, but a few years later, Cozzi found himself working in some capacity on the nightmarish production of the thrice-doomed Klaus Kinski vanity project ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ (1988). Word on the canals was that Kinski planned to follow up this misbegotten venture with a self-directed film about Paganini – and indeed he did, although the result was reportedly such a car crash that it barely even saw release upon completion.

Prior to that however, there was apparently a sufficient buzz surrounding the project for low budget producer extraordinaire Fabrizio De Angelis (who seems to have almost single-handedly kept Italian b-movie industry afloat through these lean years) to smell the opportunity for a quick cash-in.

(If you’re wondering by the way why Enzo Sciotti’s incredible poster artwork for ‘Paganini Horror’ – reproduced at the top of this post – features a monster design, characters and a building which bear no resemblance to the finished film… well, I believe that’s simply because, in true grindhouse style, De Angelis commissioned him to paint it before the movie had even been scripted.)

Presumably remembering Cozzi’s earlier Paganini script, and aware that he was already working on the Kinski film, De Angelis must have given our man a call, and after getting the kind of hearty “HELL YES” that producers are naturally liable to receive when calling up struggling directors about their unrealised dream projects, he proceeded to lay down some pretty harsh caveats.

Firstly, he wanted the film to be a contemporary, American-style slasher movie with a rock soundtrack. Secondly, he wanted it made super-quick for pretty much no money whatsoever. (In an interview included on the blu-ray release of the film, Cozzi claims that De Angelis’s contribution as producer consisted of handing him a faulty 16mm camera, pointing him in the direction of the ruined villa which serves as the film’s primary location, and telling him to get on with it.)

So, you can probably see where this is all headed. Yes, that’s right - somewhere AWESOME, particularly once the great Daria Nicolodi (permanently estranged from Dario by this point, I believe) somehow also got involved with writing the script.

Perhaps this last point might help explain why ‘Paganini Horror’ kicks off with an initially perplexing, ‘Deep Red’ style childhood trauma prologue in which a small girl carrying a violin case travels home via gondola and electrocutes her mother in the bath. Or perhaps not, who knows. Either way though, once that’s out of the way, the story proper kicks off in a recording studio, where an unnamed, primarily female rock band are demoing their latest song - a shameless rip off of Bon Jovi’s ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’.

The band’s manager Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) is unimpressed. “If you ask me, your creativity has fallen on it’s ass – you keep doing the same stupid things again and again,” she tells singer/band leader Kate (Jasmine Maimone), not unreasonably under the circumstances. “Find something new, something mind-blowing and sensational,” Lavinia commands. “That’s what people expect from you! Another hit, not rehashed bullshit!” Ouch.

In an attempt to overcome this creative impasse, the band’s drummer and sole male member Daniel (Pascal Persiano) decides the time has come for them to considerably raise the stakes on their plagiarism, and as such he arranges a clandestine rendezvous with the sinister Mr. Pickett, a dishevelled, Mephistophelean type figure played by Donald Pleasence (who clearly wasn’t above jumping on a plane every now and then to lend his talents to this sort of thing, nearly a decade after the humiliation of ‘Pumaman’).

In exchange for a big wad of lire, Mr Pickett hands over a dusty suitcase containing – what else - a long lost, unpublished composition by Paganini himself! (In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, we later see Pleasence climbing to the top of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice and throwing piles of bank notes into the wind above St Mark’s Square; “little demons, little demons,” he cackles.) (1)

Back at the shack meanwhile, drummer-boy sits at the piano and plays his new acquisition for his band-mates (naturally it sounds like daytime soap opera music with a few baroque flourishes thrown in), and verily, they are inspired. Not just to rework some the 200-year-old tune into a solid gold hit, but also to use the music’s allegedly foreboding atmosphere as the jumping off point for an epic, horror-themed video project, which will no doubt clean up on MTV!

“No one has done anything remotely like it before… except for Michael Jackson, with ‘Thriller’, and his fantastic video clip,” declares Kate - and no, that’s not just me being facetious, it’s a direct quote from the film’s English dub, which, as you will have noted, is an absolute thing of beauty. “WE COULD DO THE SAME,” Daniel immediately responds, clearly still struggling with the essential concept of creating something ‘new’ and ‘sensational’.

And so, the band and their bitchy manager set out to make their dreams come true, hiring a renowned horror movie director (Pietro Genuardi, apparently playing a close cousin of ‘The Black Cat’s Dario Argento stand-in character) along the way, and decamping to a genuinely ominous looking derelict palazzo on the edge of town (actually a location in Rome), in which Paganini allegedly spent his final years.

These days however, the place is owned by none other than Daria Nicolodi! And so naturally she hangs around during the filming too, because hey, who wouldn’t? It all looks like a lot of fun, as the shadows loom and the elegantly-hued drapes billow through the dusty, candelabra-and-skull filled rooms, whilst the spandex-clad band dodge their way past armies of creepy mannequins, enthusiastically miming their way through their new, Paganini-derived smash hit (which my wife, who has a better ear than I for these things, assures me is a shameless rip off of a song by ELO). Good times indeed.

But, of course, all is not well. Before you know it, there’s a guy in a big, floppy hat and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ rubber mask (looking not unlike the killer from Bava’s ‘Baron Blood’ (1971)), stalking the band and their entourage, disposing of a few of ‘em with a switchblade embedded in the body of a violin, and, well, you know the drill.

More than anything, ‘Paganini Horror’ (especially when viewed in its English dub) strikes me as having tapped into the same rare and special brand of straight-faced absurdity which has helped make Juan Piquer Simón’s ‘Pieces’ (1982) into such a fan favourite. But, as much as I may have enjoyed taking the piss out of it in the paragraphs above, it’s worth stressing that Cozzi and his collaborators still manage to bring a sense of craft and style to proceedings which fans of older Italian horror are liable to find extremely endearing (if not a little heart-breaking, in view of the reduced circumstances they find themselves here).

Although much of the film is shot on roving, handheld 16mm, Cozzi’s footage retains a certain amount of elegance and compositional flair (more than can be found in his earlier, more generously budgeted films, some may argue), reflecting perhaps the years he spent peering over the shoulders of Argento, Bava and other celebrated maestros of the Italian gothic.

Lighting is consistently, uh, interesting (bright, infernal neon reds and blue-filtered day-for-night), whilst the editing (courtesy of industry veteran Sergio Montanari) is particularly strong, lending an Argento/Soavi-esque vitality to the film’s central stalking / murder set pieces which momentarily transcends the inherent silliness of the characters and storyline.(2)

The abandoned building in which much of the action takes place makes for a great, authentically ancient and creepy location, with elaborate (albeit budget conscious) set dressing helping to recapture a bit of that ineffable Italio-gothic feeling, whilst the Venetian location work is likewise as atmospheric as you could wish for, aided by an icy, surprisingly sombre electronic score from Vince Tempera.

This being a Cozzi film though of course, there is still plenty of room for outright, inexplicable goofiness, particularly during the movie’s second half, as the director seems to begin throwing in any wacky idea he can come up with to try to keep audience interest from flagging, even managing to indulge his long-standing preference for fantasy and science fiction to a certain extent.

It turns out, for instance, that there is an invisible ‘energy field’ preventing our characters from leaving the grounds of the palazzo – as we discover when the movie director character drives his car into it and somehow ends up roasting upon his flaming windshield.

Furthermore, the house has a cursed room, with for some reason boasts E=MC2 graffiti, esoteric equations, giant glowing egg-timers and a portrait of Einstein(?!), its flimsy floor concealing a system of time-and-space defying caves, in which Lavinia gets lost… or something..?

Elsewhere meanwhile, we get billowing green smoke, scratched-in blue lightning crackles, deafening synthesizer squalls, Andy Milligan-esque camera swirl, putrid, multi-coloured goo (“it looks like blood… mixed with some other thing”), dialogue about “a special fungus which only existed during the eighteenth century”, lots of senseless screaming and shouting and… laser beams? Could there be laser beams at some point? I don’t entirely recall to be honest, but signs point to ‘yes’.

It’s a good ol’ descent into complete delirium in other words, rendered all the more enjoyable by the sight of Daria and Donald (once he reappears) hamming it up in appropriately eye-rolling fashion, in stark contrast to the younger cast members, who seem largely bamboozled by the experience, staring blankly into the middle distance whilst looking faintly aggrieved, whenever they’re not being asked to run around screaming each other’s names.

So, what exactly does all this have to do with the simple tale of an undead Paganini returning from the grave to ice a bunch of galoots who have had the audacity to steal his music? And, given that we’re clearly very much in supernatural territory here, how the hell is that giallo-esque matricide prologue going to factor into things? And what about all the Mr Pickett, deal-with-the-devil stuff, for that matter?

I wish I could to tell you that all this is tied up satisfactorily at the film’s conclusion, but… well, instead of fretting about it, let’s just put it this way – excluding those directed by Argento or Soavi, when was the last time you watched a late ‘80s Italian genre movie which suffered from having TOO MANY ideas? Count your blessings, readers.

Cheap, tawdry and nonsensical as it may be in fact, I can put hand on heart and say that there is not a single element of ‘Paganini Horror’ which I did not enjoy. By cross-breeding poorly dubbed comic book mayhem and last gasp slasher hangover vibes with adorable Luigi Cozzi brain-wrongs and genuine gothic flair, it actually stands as pretty much perfect comfort viewing for someone of my particular inclinations.

Unlike the majority of his increasingly grizzled contemporaries, Cozzi’s heart was clearly still full of love for what he was doing at this late stage in the game, and even when talent, resources and opportunity all faltered, that love still shines through brightly in ‘Paganini Horror’, as if this were the work of some Italio-horror Daniel Johnson. Which, perhaps in a sense, it is? Don’t worry friends, ‘Paganini Horror’ will find you in the end.


(1)Given that Pleasence was also a veteran of ‘Nosferatu in Venice’, and given that most of his footage here was shot on Venetian locations, it’s tempting to speculate that Cozzi might have actually grabbed these shots during downtime on the Kinski film, subsequently crow-barring them into ‘Paganini Horror’? The fact that Pleasence also appears in scenes in which he interacts with the rest of the ‘Paganini Horror’ cast, in addition to the film’s Venice-shot prologue, suggest that this may not actually have been the case, but who knows.

(2) For those who are unaware of his background, Cozzi began his film career as the Italian correspondent for ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’, filing set reports from assorted horror productions during the ‘60s, before he befriended Dario Argento and began to work as his assistant through the ‘70s, branching out to make his own directorial debut with the giallo ‘The Killer Must Kill Again’ in 1975.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Krimi Casebook:
The Hunchback of Soho
(Alfred Vohrer, 1966)

There’s nothing quite like movies which present a mythic/fantastical/completely absurd take on places quite near to where you live, is there? (“Have you seen ‘The Hunchback of Soho’?”, “Seen ‘im? I think I bought him a pint down The White Horse last week!”, etc.)

In fact, this is probably the element which most appeals to me above all about the West German Edgar Wallace ‘Krimi’ films spearheaded by Copenhagen-based Rialto Film - their bizarre conception of a phantasmagorical England that feels like an amalgam of the 1960s and 1890s, defined by strangulations in fog-choked, cobblestoned alleyways, sinister rendezvous in neon-lit, subterranean speakeasies and elaborate tea parties in gothic manor houses, all of which are liable to be interrupted at any moment by dapper, pipe-smoking detectives as they break down the plywood doors (probably using an oversized umbrella), enunciating that cry guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of all rapscallions and ne’erdo wells, “SCOTLAND YARD!”.

Despite its magnificent title however, there is sadly little Soho ambience (either real or imagined) to be found within Alfred Vohrer’s ‘Der Bucklige von Soho’, even as it opens in attention-grabbing fashion with the titular hunchback committing exactly the kind of back alley strangling described above, callously throttling a young lady in black lingerie and high heels as she flees from what appears to be another one of those sinister nightclub-brothels which seem to proliferate in Krimi London.

In fact, the vast majority of this caper takes place on a series of interior sets, variously representing the opulent drawing room of the elderly General & Lady Peabody, the authoritarian religious school for wayward girls which they sponsor, the secret subterranean workhouse / villain lair within which the criminally-minded proprietors of said school conduct their dastardly business, and the casino-cum-nightclub wherein the imprisoned girls are put to work as dancers / hostesses.

All of these locations seem to be inter-connected in a way that I never fully understood, allowing characters to move between them as if they were merely popping between rooms, and thus largely doing away with the need for exteriors, beyond the aforementioned alleyway set and a few stock shots of police cars zooming around Westminster and Piccadilly. Efficient though this must have been from a production perspective however, it lends the film a rather claustrophobic, repetitious feel which doesn’t necessarily serve it well.

Achieving a delicate balance between illogic and boredom, the plot here is likewise a bit sub-par, rehashing elements of Vohrer’s earlier, arguably definitive, krimi The Dead Eyes of London (1961, itself a loose remake of the similarly-named 1939 Bela Lugosi movie), with a distinct sense of diminishing returns. The familiar material is given a bit of a Women in Prison makeover this time around, making it feel reminiscent at times of Pete Walker’s later ‘House of Whipcord’ (1974) – albeit,  a somewhat softer, more innocent variation on the scenario in which the doddering elderly couple remain blissfully unaware of the kinky depredations being perpetrated below stairs, or in the dungeon, or round the corner, or wherever the heck the ‘school’ is supposed to be in relation to their house.

Though the perennial theme of girls being kept imprisoned against their will is explored in abundantly suggestive fashion here, the film’s mid-‘60s production date ensures that the floodgates to full-on sleaze remain closed, with the obligatory lechery and low-key sadism presented in a prim, buttoned down fashion that, ironically, makes it all feel far more icky and perverse than would have been the case if they’d just thrown in a bit of good ol’ no nonsense nudity and brawling to relieve the tension.

So, no shower scenes, cat-fights or lesbian frolics here, but we instead get to enjoy such curious sights as the imprisoned girls being forced to sing jaunty hymns against their will, and – in probably the film’s weirdest tableau – a newly captured heiress in elegant evening wear being thrown on the filthy floor of the ‘workhouse’ set and doused with a hosepipe by the leering hunchback, whilst the other girls toil on around her, paying no mind.

Earlier in the ‘60s, Vohrer had established himself as by far the most inventive and accomplished director on Rialto’s payroll, but unfortunately his work proves disappointingly pedestrian here, suggesting that he was either working under greater time and budgetary pressures than usual, or was simply dog tired of making these damned things.

As such, uninterrupted master shots tend to predominate, and the bizarre stylistic experiments which proved so memorable in Vohrer’s earlier films are notable by their absence. No shots taken from the POV of a newspaper, or from the interior of someone’s mouth, here, sadly. About the best we get are a few strangling and/or gun-wielding hands looming into frame from the bottom left, comic book style. A nice touch, but pretty trad, dad, by the wacky standards set by Vohrer’s earlier work.

Meanwhile, ‘Hunchback..’ suffers further from the absence of the majority of the group of actors I’ve come to think of as the “Krimi gang”. Although Siegfried Schürenberg returns as the perpetually flustered ‘Sir John’ (a role he played in over a dozen Wallace adaptations), big hotters like Dieter Eppler, Werner Peters, Karin Dor and Klaus Kinski were all AWOL for this one - as, regrettably, was our usual dashing silver fox, Joachim Fuchsberger.

In his absence, Günther Stoll (who for some reason would later go on to corner the market in Italian-German giallo/krimi crossovers, appearing in Dallamano’s ‘What Have They Done to Solange?’ (1972), Duccio Tessari’s ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ (1971) and Freda’s ‘Double Face’ (1969)) steps into the obligatory suave, pipe-smoking detective role, but, despite a peculiar bit of comedic business about him doing his laundry, Stoll lacks that patented Fuchsberger charm; as a result, he is assigned relatively little screen-time and ultimately proves a bit of a non-entity.

One familiar presence we cannot escape here though is, naturally, that of ubiquitous funnyman Eddi Arent, although mericfully, his role actually takes quite an interesting turn during the film’s second half, as he ditches his usual ‘finickety, simpering choirmaster’ shtick, donning mirror shades as he reveals that that persona was actually nothing more than cover for his true identity as a dastardly criminal mastermind overseeing the whole ‘white slavery’ operation – a role which he throws himself into with hard-edged gusto .

There is, however, no shortage of gratuitous comic relief to be found elsewhere, between a bungling, short-sighted solicitor, the delusional General Peabody perpetually re-living WWII tank battles, and the aforementioned Sir John. Together, these over-enunciating oddballs conspire to make sections of ‘The Hunchback of Soho’ pretty tough sledding, especially as the English fan-subs on the version of the film I watched did little to preserve the no doubt uproarious phrasing and comic timing of their high-pitched German exclamations.

I swear, during one drawing room tea party scene which united all of these characters, plus Arent in his comic persona, I thought I’d died and become trapped in some kind of particularly fiendish purgatory. It was only the sight of the generous platter of shortbread and bourbon biscuits they were enjoying alongside their Earl Grey which kept me going, together with pondering the political ramifications of a West German film which presents a retired British general as a bumbling, senile buffoon with a tendency to end sentences with things like, “..and that’s why we won the war!”.

On the plus side, ‘Hunchback..’ has the distinction of being the first Krimi made in colour, and I must say, they did a very good job of it too, capturing that very specific, mid-‘60s grungy/atmospheric pseudo-Technicolor look in which deep pools of black contrast with vast swatches of brown and dark green and intermittent blasts of bright red, lending the film a visual depth which, if it’s not quite up to the standard of Hammer’s pre-’66 gothic horrors, at least compares favourably to some of their more handsome imitators.

By far the best thing here though is Peter Thomas’s characteristically hellzapoppin’ score, which arguably proves more exciting than anything which actually transpires on screen, beginning with a title theme that takes the “hoo, hah” backing vocals from Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang’ down for a beating in some subterranean, reverb-drenched hell, before proceeding to take us on a chamber-of-musical-horrors tour incorporating bulbous, Residents-esque discordo-jazz, spidery, Ventures-at-Halloween surf guitar and assorted screams and wails of the damned, all set to a persistent pulse of thunderous caveman drumming.

I know that Thomas has something of a cult rep amongst the more shadowy corners of the soundtrack/library collectors world, but seriously, has anyone ever reissued the music he recorded for these Krimis..? If not, they really should. It’s completely out to lunch, some of the wildest, most errant aural craziness I’ve ever heard crow-barred into a motion picture (this side of the Indian sub-continent, at least), and I’m sure it would go down a storm with whatever remains of the garage punk/exotica contingent.

That aside though, I’m afraid ‘The Hunchback of Soho’ is, on every level, a disappointment. In addition to featuring very little Soho, it even has the audacity to give us a FAKE hunchback, if you can believe that. Richard Haller, who portrays Harry the hunchback here, proves a pale imitation of Ady Berber’s unforgettable turn in ‘The Dead Eyes of London’, and yes, in the final reel, Stoller pulls aside his jacket to reveal a false hump! Hopeless. (Though it must be said, the mystery of quite why this guy found it necessary to go around pretending to be a drooling hunchback 24/7 proves far more perplexing than anything in the film’s ostensible plotline.)

In spite of the novelty of colour and a somewhat higher sleaze quotent than was permitted for entries earlier in the decade then, we must sadly chalk this one up as weak tea for Krimi enthusiasts, and a total write-off for any viewers hoping to make a sideways move into the genre from straight horror. It’s a perfectly reasonable time-killer, and nice to look at, but really - only completists, WIP historians, Peter Thomas archivists or the terminally bored need knock upon this door.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Thoughts on…
Dragged Across Concrete
(S. Craig Zahler, 2018)

Having initially approached it with a certain amount of trepidation, I finally took a deep breath and watched this one a couple of weekends ago. Long story short, I needn’t have worried. ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ leaves writer/director S. Craig Zahler scoring three for three when it comes to making exceptionally good contemporary genre movies. If pushed, I’d perhaps rank ‘Dragged..’ a touch below Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), but it’s a close thing. All three stand as recommended viewing for anyone who likes solid film-making and good storytelling… assuming they have a sufficiently high tolerance for testosterone and extreme violence to get to the finish line, at any rate.

In fact, each time I hear some frustrated filmmaker talking about what a nest of vipers the film industry is, and how it’s impossible to get a project off the ground these days without it being compromised into oblivion etc etc, my thoughts will likely turn to Zahler, and cause me to wonder anew at the fact that (from the layman’s POV at least), he appears to have come out of nowhere and made three relatively ambitious films in quick succession, all of which seem to 100% reflect his personal creative vision whilst simultaneously winning a more-than-respectable amount of critical and commercial success. Whatever he does next, that’s one hell of an achievement.

If anything, Zahler’s three films to date are almost too consistent for their own good. As far as the old ‘spot-the-auteur’ check-list goes, he’s got all the boxes ticked, to the extent that his scripts – heart-felt and accomplished though they may be – basically follow the exact same formula once you begin to boil them down.

In each film, we are introduced to one or more blue collar / working class male characters who do not initially appear terribly sympathetic, but, we are slowly drawn into their lives through a series of naturalistic ‘character scenes’, until we feel we know them and their families/significant others fairly intimately, and care fairly deeply about what happens to them.

At this point, professional circumstances cause our character(s) to inadvertently cross paths with a group of remorseless, psychopathic scary people, instigating a series of events – in all three cases involving the kidnapping/imprisonment of a woman – which will draw them into an inhumanly ghastly situation necessitating acts of extreme violence, during which we are forced to seriously consider the question of – to quote the tag line from a very different movie with a not-entirely-dissimilar set-up – who will survive, and what will be left of them. As far as formulas for a movie script go, it ain’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but it sure does the trick [see point # 5 below].

All the same though, I can’t help but feel that… well, you know the way that, after you’ve read any one Elmore Leonard book, you’re inclined to throw up your hands in praise and declare him the best crime writer who ever lived…? But by the time you’ve read six or nine of ‘em, you start to realise he’s basically just shuffling the same set of building blocks around, telling slight variations on the same story again and again?

Well, I’d hate to see Zahler falling into the same kind of rut. Peckinpah is a name that seems to come up a lot when people [myself included – see below] write about his films, so, sticking with that comparison, perhaps now might be a good opportunity for him to take some time out and make his ‘..Cable Hogue’ or ‘Junior Bonner’, y’know what I mean? (Say what you like about Bloody Sam, but he never made the same movie twice.)

Which seems as good a moment as any to address the numerous articles and reviews which swirled around the release of ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ in 2018, suggesting that the film harboured some kind of insidious right wing / reactionary agenda.

Well, speaking here as a card-carrying pinko, humanitarian leftie, I’m very happy to report to my local Culture War commanding officers that I absolutely do not believe this to be the case.

Insofar as I can see, the only possible crime the film commits in this regard is to take a pair of borderline-corrupt cops who sometimes do bad things or make off-colour remarks, and to present them as three dimensional characters whose life circumstances might engender a certain amount of audience sympathy. And if that’s something fiction is no longer allowed to do, then… stop the world man, I want to get off.

I mean, call me old fashioned, but I’ve always been taught that melodrama / potboiler stuff ends, and serious drama begins, at the point at which characters shed their reductive ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ identities and instead become equally relatable and morally equivalent antagonists in an unfolding conflict of some kind.

In fact, it is this queering of black & white moral certainties, the re-framing of the fictional world as a never-ending sprawl of sinister and potentially deadly greyscale ambiguity, which fascinates me above all about the crime genre, and it is in creating this kind of atmosphere that Zahler’s writing and direction excels.

(Admittedly, this may be somewhat undermined by his repeated reliance on the good ol’ ‘remorseless psychopath gangs’ to get his stories moving, but really these function more as forces of nature than anything else. In both ‘Dragged..’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’, they are literally faceless - kinetic events which simply serve to set the human characters against each other, as impersonal as a natural disaster or pack of rabid dogs.)

Contrary to some reports, Zahler is not pulling a ‘Dirty Harry’/ ‘Death Wish’ number on us here, portraying Gibson and Vaughn’s characters as rule-breaking heroes whose quasi-vigilante tendencies should be celebrated. On the contrary, their decision-making is consistently dumb and their shady/brutal conduct achieves little, for them or anyone else. If they’d reined in these tendencies over the years and played things by-the-book, they’d probably be both better people and more successful cops at the point at which we meet them, and would not need to immerse themselves in the ugly depths to which this story takes them.

But, do these failings mean we need to jam black hats on their heads, teach them some comedic moustache-twirling and deny them the kind of respect and consideration to which all human beings are entitled..? Because that’s, like, kinda fascist, man. And more to the point, not very interesting.

Speaking of which, the casting of Mel Gibson in the modern era is admittedly a… shall we say,  provocative... choice. Personally, I’d be hesitant about spending time with or giving money to someone of his widely reported beliefs and behaviour patterns, but, fair’s fair I suppose, he does seem to have ‘turned a corner’ in terms of the crazy racist outbursts in recent years, and purely in terms of his performance in this movie, he does sterling work. I’d say pretty much career-best level in fact, speaking as someone who’s never much liked the guy, successfully sloughing off whatever remains of his star persona to play a convincingly embittered, down-at-heel cop, letting us feel the weight of each of the sixty years of drudgery which sit heavy on his character’s shoulders.

Whilst we’re at it though - deep sigh - I suppose that we probably also need to address the fact that the few female characters in ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ are defined entirely in accordance with their roles as wives, mothers, daughters or girlfriends, and that the top billed female (fifth billed overall) is served up an diet of pure, unmitigated hell by the script.

To rise to Zahler’s defence on this, I’ll simply dredge up my go-to defence of Peckinpah and point out that this is a film about men living in an unremittingly masculine world, and we see women from their point of view, waving from the margins. If you watch the relatively few scenes here in which women are given a voice however, you will not (I would argue) come away with the impression that the writer/director of this material is in any way a misogynist, or someone who wishes to revel in the side-lining or mistreatment of women.

On the contrary, Zahler’s naturalistic character scenes reek of a kind of humane, inclusive emotional intelligence which undercuts any such accusations of prejudice or thoughtlessness. Just as in ‘The Wild Bunch’, the very absence of women from the story’s centre allows them to serve as a kind of muffled Greek Chorus, emphasizing the failings of the damaged men whose warped sense of masculinity leads them to their inevitably ugly fate.

Regarding the singularly horrendous fates doled out to both Jennifer Carpenter’s character and the heist gang’s unnamed(?) female hostage meanwhile, it is worth noting that this fits into the by-now established Zahler trope of using entirely blameless characters as some kind of ‘judas goat’, serving not just to hammer home the mercilessness of the psychotic bad guys in classic drive-in fashion, but going one step further in heightening the drama by deliberately casting shade on the judgement/sanity of the writer/director-as-god.

By which I mean, if the guy who’s taking us on this ride is capable of indulging in this level of unmotivated, Old Testament cruelty, then we know that literally anything might happen next, and that our finer feelings will not be spared. Again, it may not be the subtlest way to establish nail-biting tension, but by god, it’s an effective one.

Apparently I invoked the spectre of ‘serious drama’ above, so let’s get into that a bit. One of the most distinctive elements of Zahler’s filmmaking, and the one which audiences seem to have the most difficulty getting their head around, is the way he plays with genre conventions, mixing up committed, emotionally involving, almost arthouse-ish character interactions with scenarios and plot elements which could have been pulled straight from some ‘70s drive-in beat ‘em up, or a sub-Spillane pulp detective novel.

‘Dragged..’ is first and foremost a Cop Movie, and as such, it is full of cop movie ‘bits’ we’ve seen so frequently, they feel almost like trusted old friends by this point. Our cops get the “we deserve a medal, instead we get a suspension” speech from their superior officer, who in this case just happens to be the same age as Gibson’s conspicuously under-promoted flat-foot, with a newspaper clipping pinned to his office wall no less, reminding them both of when they used to be partners back in the good old days. Or, how about the younger cop who embarks on a reckless and dangerous mission, a day before he plans to propose to his girlfriend? (Best not book that chapel quite yet, son.)

Then, there’s the ex-con with a heart of gold, who only ended up inside because he put the guy who crippled his kid brother in hospital (an excellent performance by the way from the heretofore unmentioned Tory Kittles, providing the real heart n’ soul of the movie). Plus, I’m sure we’ve all seen the “one wrong move and we kill you all” bank heist scene enough for one lifetime, and, do U.S. high street banks really still keep millions of dollars-worth of gold bullion in their vaults, to which the manager happily strides around with the key and/or passcode..? I could go on, but you get the idea.

By playing these potential clichés with resolute, straight faced seriousness however, Zahler manages to make them feel fresh as a freezing winter breeze, reminding us of their blunt effectiveness as narrative building blocks whilst also providing a powerful antidote to the in-jokey, smart alec tone which has come to dominate so much of 21st century American culture.

He is not ashamed of using these tropes, nor of acknowledging the generic lineage his work aspires to belong to. Much in the same way that he had the moxy to name a contemporary movie ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’, delivering abundantly upon the promise of that title whilst offering not even the slightest hint of Tarantino-esque nudge-wink pastiche or retro post-modernism, Zahler here invites us to reflect upon the inherent beauty and solidity of a simple crime movie structure, testing it out as if it were the engine of some lovingly-restored vintage car.

In fact, it often feels as if Zahler is daring us here to explain to him why these stock scenarios should be treated with any less weight than those of some slightly more quote-unquote ‘original’, sui generis type material. As a lifelong fan of genre-qua-genre, I really dig this approach.

The extended confrontation which comprises almost the entirety of ‘Dragged Across Concrete’s final act proves as gruelling, intense and traumatic as we’ve come to expect from this director, amply justifying the film’s inspired title as several heavily armed factions are pitched against each other in zero sum survival game, confined within a flat, concrete parking lot, offering participants nothing except their own vehicles to use as cover. It is, of course, a brilliant set piece, but one which I sadly found to be slightly marred by a couple of niggling feasibility issues which I just can’t shake, no matter how much I think back over the film’s action.

[To spend a paragraph going into specifics for the benefit of readers who have already seen the film:
 1. That whole business with the guy swallowing the key – are you really telling us that a bunch of criminals in a hurry couldn’t simply use their semi-automatic weapons to shoot a padlock off a flipping garage door, rather than going to excessive and time-consuming lengths to reclaim the key? 2. Likewise, are we supposed to believe that Gibson and Vaughn’s characters would not smell a rat, when the merciless crooks decide, for no apparent reason, to release their hostage and send her crawling across the battlelines to hang out with them..? It’s just absurd to think they wouldn’t have remained on their guard and kept her at a safe distance until they knew what was going on.]

For a writer who clearly sweats over the details of his script to the nth degree, forging unbreakable chains of cause and effect upon which the success of his story largely relies, I find it deeply frustrating that Zahler was apparently unable to give the material another quick going-over to clarify these issues before shooting. Admittedly, we’re deep into splitting hairs here, poking at slight imperfections in what is otherwise an exemplary piece of work, but as I say – it’s an inherent rule of the ‘police procedural’ territory we’re treading that these little things kind of matter.

Another thing I’ve grown to love about Zahler’s films is their pacing. Observing ‘Dragged..’s 159 minute run-time and noting the impressive line-up of character actors in secondary roles (Udo Kier, Don Johnson, Fred Melamed – together at least) could easily lead one to expect some sprawling, Scorsese-esque underworld saga. In fact though, the script’s events take place over the course of a mere couple of days, and the film is basically content to make do with about the same amount of plot you’d find in an episode of ‘The Sweeney’.

Those august gentlemen mentioned in the above para are each on-screen for the duration of a single, short scene (they respectively play a clothes shop owner, a bank manager and a police lieutenant), and for the most part the story told here is defiantly linear – just introducing us to a handful of characters and setting them on a slow trudge down the straight path to their respective fates.

Stretching time out beyond the standard wham-bam, next-plot-point tempo that Hollywood has helped acclimatise us to since the silent era is certainly a bold move on the part of a commercial American filmmaker. Like a good doom metal song though, Zahler’s pacing may be slow, but it’s never slack. The consistent, rock steady rhythm of the film’s cutting, together with the director’s innate confidence in the strength of his cast and material, is such that you’d be hard-pressed to find time to even pause for a toilet break across these two and a half hours of thoroughly engrossing slow-burn.

Actually though, perhaps my music metaphor above is just slightly off-base. Like ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’, ‘Dragged Across Concrete’s greyscale brutality is moderated by a beautifully soothing neo-soul soundtrack (much of it co-written by Zahler himself), but, more than anything, the film feels as if it’s been cut to the sound of Goblin’s main theme for Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Right from the opening scenes, I could almost hear those steady, throbbing bass notes, implacably drawing us forward, closer and closer to something unspeakably awful. I love it. It almost makes me hope though that Zahler never sees fit to actually make a full strength horror movie - the sheer accumulated menace of the damned thing might just kill us all.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Horror Express:
It! The Terror From Beyond Space
(Edward L. Cahn, 1958)

If the fact that much of the first half of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s original script for Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ was borrowed from Mario Bava’s ‘Planet of the Vampires’ (1965) has been widely acknowledged by this point in time, it seems to have been less frequently observed that a significant amount of the material in the second half of Scott’s film (the ‘monster loose on the ship’ stuff) comes to us direct from this little number – an admirably straight-up SF-horror programmer, made for peanuts in 1958, and likely selling a great many more of them as it proceeded to blow the minds of monster kids around the globe in these good ol’ triple feature matinees and suchlike.

In the far-flung future of 1973(!), a moustached official addressing a press conference in a disconcertingly cramped looking White House briefing room sets the scene for us. Earth has lost contact with the first manned mission to Mars shortly after it landed, and a shiny, lava lamp-shaped rescue ship has been dispatched upon its wobbly, sparkler-powered way to see what gives.

We re-join the crew of this rescue ship shortly before they once again depart from the red planet, having picked up the sole survivor of the earlier expedition, Colonel Carruthers (Marshall Thompson), who claims that the rest of his crew were killed by an unseen monster of some kind. Disregarding this fantastic story, the rescue ship guys naturally figure that he must have murdered his crewmates in order to maximise his own chances of survival after their ship crashed, and are determined to return him to earth to face a military firing squad (so we’re told?!). Before take-off however, there’s some brief faffing about with someone accidentally leaving the loading bay doors open for a while, and… you can see where this is heading, right?

We’re first introduced to the crew of the ship via a series of ‘portrait’ shots which see them taking their positions for take-off and reporting their readiness, during which we note that, alongside about eight men, there are two women taking active roles on-board ship, which seems at least slightly progressive by the standards of the 1950s, don’t you think? [Also, it’s the same gender balance as ‘Alien’, if we’re keeping score.]

Immediately after this launch sequence however, we cut to the mess room, where the men are sitting around the table relaxing, talking about what they’re going to get up to when they’re back on Earth etc [shades of ‘Alien’, once again], whilst the two women hover behind them, refilling their coffee cups and collecting their dirty plates! Welcome to 1973, ladies.

Needless to say, for those who believe that science fiction should be a genre defined by Big Ideas, ‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space’ will prove absolute anathema. Issues of social progress, man’s place in the universe, or the possible implications of contact with extra-terrestrial life, all remain resolutely unexplored here. The film’s monster does not change shape, change size, absorb its victims’ personalities, communicate telepathically, reproduce asexually, become invisible, or do anything else remotely weird or noteworthy.

It may initially hide itself by lurking in the heating vents [ala ‘Alien’], but once it emerges, there’s no funny business with this guy – he’s just a good ol’ fashioned monster, with the teeth and the claws, and the growling and stomping, dragging corpses around and sucking the moisture and/or ‘life essence’ out of them, and such. (“It’s been sittin’ here for about half an hour, just lickin’ its chops”, a trapped crew member reports over the intercom at one point.)

What director Edward L. Cahn (who helmed far too many similarly action-packed b-pictures for me to even begin listing highlights here) and his collaborators give us with this one is in fact a nigh-on definitive exemplar of the Two-Fisted Sci-Fi ideal. Just a bunch of tooled up guys trapped in a tin can with a ravenous, bullet-proof beast - and if that ain’t enough to keep you entertained for 70 minutes, you probably should’ve tried the theatre across the street, mister.

Thankfully, our crew have set out on their journey into the unknown equipped with a crate of hand grenades, a wide variety of small arms, a cupboard full of experimental gas bombs and a bazooka (well, this is an American mission after all, I guess they needed the comfort factor). But, whilst their foresight in packing enough firepower to mount an assault on Colditz Castle may be vindicated by the fact that they’ve immediately encountered a blood-thirsty space monster, imagine their dismay when none of this stuff even slows it down!

Characters frequently say things like “I threw enough gas at it to knock out 67 elephants”, but still it keeps on comin’. They try electrocuting it, setting it on fire, even blasting it with radiation from the ship’s on-board nuclear reactor (of course there’s an on-board nuclear reactor), but to no avail. How will any of them make it back to earth alive? Well, I don’t want to give away the ending, but – just think ‘Alien’, and you’ll be on the right track.

If the movie I’ve described above sounds pretty corny, well, I suppose it is, but it’s certainly no less effective for that. Though clearly very much influenced by Hawks & Nyby’s ‘The Thing From Another World’ seven years earlier, Cahn & co simplified and streamlined that film’s actually rather complex and multi-faceted narrative, boiling it down to its basic essence and prioritising tension and man-vs-monster action over sub-text and thematics.

They were aided in this by, amongst other things, the fact that they had a way better monster suit to work with. Designed by Paul Blaisdell (Roger Corman’s go-to guy for this sort of thing) and inhabited by professional gorilla suit actor Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan (who for my purposes is probably the biggest name on this film’s cast list), this thing is one mean bloody bastard of a critter, looking rather like the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s cigar-chomping, WWII vet uncle who opens beer bottles with his teeth. I daresay it must have really given some kids in the film’s original audience the heebie-jeebies, even as it sent others into paroxysms of delight.

Meanwhile, the film also boasts some pleasingly atmospheric photography and great, imaginative set design, realising the cramped, vertically levelled interior of the conical rocket ship in a physically believable manner which makes for a tense and challenging battleground upon which the men can engage the monster. (Having said that, I also loved seeing anachronisms like analogue clock faces, gas valves, mason jars and hand drawn blueprints making the journey into outer space, lending a defiantly low-tech vibe to proceedings, suggestive of a slightly re-tooled submarine movie.)

Cahn’s direction is snappily professional, and, sealing the deal, the cast – largely consisting of forgotten actors who I can imagine must have spent the ‘50s essaying hard-bitten corporals and/or small town posse participants – deliver a set of performances which are lively, engaging, and most importantly, entirely straight-faced.

A veritable model of filmmaking efficiency, ‘It!’ may not be the smartest atomic age sci-fi movie around (to put it mildly), but it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable and well-realised ventures in this vein that I’ve seen to date, however laughable the buck fifty model shots and pokey White House press rooms may be (got to love the ending, where the spokesman for the space programme returns to tell the world’s press, “eh, maybe we’ll just skip Mars”), and regardless of the hilarity the film’s unthinking misogyny is likely to evoke in modern audiences. As far as simple tales of scary monsters and the square-jawed spacemen who kick their behinds go, this one is tops.


Friday, 1 May 2020

Horror Express:
The Haunted House of Horror
(Michael Armstrong / Gerry Levy, 1969)

If you’ve read around the history of British horror a bit, chances are you’ll already be familiar with the convoluted background of this singularly ill-starred production, but nonetheless, it’s impossible to really put the contents of the film in their proper context without reference to behind-the-scenes shenanigans, so I’ll recount the tale for you in brief below.

So, basically – in 1967, ambitious young writer/director Michael Armstrong made a short film entitled ‘The Image’, starring an equally young and ambitious David Bowie. To follow up on the relative success of this venture, Armstrong put together a proposal for his debut feature – a violent psychological horror/thriller with a shocking-at-the-time homosexual twist, provisionally entitled ‘The Dark’, also starring Bowie. Tigon’s Tony Tenser was sold on the idea, and approached the British office of American International Pictures to sort out a co-production deal… which, by common consent, is where the trouble began.

To retrospective gasps from the world as it existed just a few short years later, AIP’s UK head honcho Louis M. ‘Deke’ Heywood nixed the casting of Bowie, insisting that fading ‘Beach Party’ heartthrob Frankie Avalon would prove a better box office draw, whilst also excising some of the more controversial elements from Armstrong’s script. The director, apparently grokking that compromise is the name of the game in commercial cinema, acquiesced, and set about shooting whatever was left of his masterpiece amid what seems to have been an atmosphere of persistent back office interference.

As Armstrong tells it, after principal photography was completed, he was told that Heyward didn’t think the footage was up to scratch, and had requested two weeks of re-shoots. Hastily throwing together ideas for a bunch of new and revised material he could use to beef things up, Armstrong anxiously prepared for the big production meeting – only to discover that it had taken place without him. He could collect his full fee, and would retain his director’s credit, but Heyward’s assigned director (Gerry Levy, who’d recently helmed the disastrous ‘The Body Stealers’ for Tigon/AIP) would handle the re-shoots, so, thanks for your hard work old chap, but best just go home and put your feet up, and we’ll sort everything out, alright?

Nine months later, something called ‘The Haunted House of Horror’ (we can blame Tenser for the title – not one of his best) made it to the screen, and is, to put it charitably, a complete dog’s breakfast.

It may be a cheap shot to observe that this back story is more interesting than anything that actually happens on-screen, but it’s unavoidable really. The fact is, most of the enjoyment which can be gleaned from this misbegotten cultural artefact comes from trying to keep track of whose footage we’re watching at any given moment, as fragments of Armstrong’s attempt to expose the venomous cynicism and psycho-sexual dysfunction of his swinging London contemporaries are interspersed – sometimes within the same scene, or exchange of dialogue – with redubbed material or new insert shots highlighting Heywood & Levy’s perverse determination to transform the project into some kind of outdated “teens in the haunted house” type drive-in caper.

As such, we’re never quite sure whether the mod-ish youngsters who initially assemble at a Central London house party are meant to be wolfish, psychedelic degenerates or gormless, Scooby-Doo-esque innocents. When they subsequently decamp to a derelict rural mansion for a phony séance (just for KICKS, y’know), the sudden lurches between teeth-grindingly witless dialogue of the “gosh, let’s get outta here before we see a ghost” variety and outbursts of shrieking, mean-spirited hysteria are jarring in the extreme… although the sad truth is that neither mode is really terribly engaging.

As presented here, the central conceit that, upon discovering that one of their friends has been brutally murdered, the party-goers decide to respond not by calling the police and/or leaving the dark old house to seek help, but instead by disposing of the body and instigating an extended private game of “one of us is the murderer, but who?”, just seems flat out ridiculous.

Perhaps if (as I suspect may originally have been the case), the script had established these guys as a bunch of sinister, ulterior motive-harbouring ne’erdowells with legitimate reasons to fear the fuzz, it might have worked. As is though, it feels as if Shaggy just got knifed, and Velma and Freddie are like, “shit man, we need to ditch the stiff”. We just can’t buy it, in order words – especially when it’s square-as-a-slide rule Frankie Avalon who’s trying to sell the others on this deeply questionable course of action.

Elsewhere, Heywood/Levy-mandated sub-plots involving veteran tough guy actor George Sewell as a spurned older lover of one of the girls, and a doddering Dennis Price as a police detective, prove almost unbelievably tedious, serving little purpose beyond padding out the run time – examples of the kind of cinematic ‘dead air’ which will sadly be all too familiar to devotees of Jess Franco and/or Harry Alan Towers. Even during the central ‘spooky house’ segments though, the pacing is often pretty slack and the action repetitious.

On the plus side, the pungent swinging ‘60s atmos of the film’s opening scenes will (as with just about anything filmed in this magic time and place) be worth the entry price alone to some viewers. The fuzzed up grooves which play during the house party scenes are pretty cool (it’s The Pretty Things, working once again under their ubiquitous ‘Electric Banana’ pseudonym, I believe), and the production design and set dressing - by future Norman J. Warren collaborator Hayden Pierce - is excellent too, during the Armstrong footage at least.

Some of the ‘tiptoeing around the dark house’ stuff is convincingly atmospheric, and, most memorably, the film’s two murder set pieces (both featuring male victims) are exceptionally gory for the period, edited together as sequences of ‘Psycho’-like shock cuts which I presume must remain largely true to the director’s original intent.

In places, we can also see that Armstrong had a pretty good knack for drawing strong performances from the film’s young cast (perhaps the fact he was around the same age himself helped in this regard), although the chopped and mangled nature of the footage prevents any of them from really establishing a consistent identity for themselves, whilst Avalon – whose be-cardiganed and be-quiffed character is ludicrously introduced as “..the epitome of Swinging London” – proves as wooden and out-of-place as you’d fear.

Likewise, we can just about see how the final reel revelation of the killer’s identity and motivation might potentially have provided a powerful and disturbing denouement, if the preceding seventy-five minutes had provided us with an appropriate frame of reference for it all, and if the pivotal scene had been performed by two actors who actually seem to have been in the same room with each other and understood the significance of the dialogue they were delivering – neither of which, sad to say, is the case here.

Whilst most of the blame for the sorry state in which ‘Haunted House of Horror’ reaches us must inevitably lie with Heywood & Levy though, it’s fair to say that there is likewise little left here to suggest that Armstrong’s original cut would have been a singular work of genius. Perhaps, as Heywood & co would no doubt have argued had posterity granted them the opportunity, he was simply too young and inexperienced to deliver a releasable, commercial feature? Perhaps, in tacking 30 or 40 minutes of hastily-shot filler onto the footage he delivered, they were simply trying to protect their investment and get the thing into cinemas?

Perhaps. But probably not. The cack-handedness of the producer’s insidious attempts to alter the tone and emphasis of the material, together with the remnants of a more coherent aesthetic vision which can be glimpsed in Armstrong’s footage, certainly lend credence to the director’s hard-luck story. Even if the film he delivered may have been a bit rough around the edges, Armstrong’s original cut would almost certainly have comprised a darker, more tonally consistent and more noteworthy contribution to the canon of British horror than the dispiriting hodge-podge of inconsequential guff AIP left us with.

It may not have established its director as a worthy successor to Polanski or Michael Reeves, but it would at least have given us a juicy chunk of sordid, late ‘60s gristle to chew on, prefiguring the grimy, proto-slasher tradition of Pete Walker’s ‘The Flesh & Blood Show’ and Richard Gordon’s ‘Tower of Evil’ by several years, or else mirroring the congealing counter-cultural ennui of Alan Gibson’s ‘Goodbye Gemini’ or Reeves’ ‘The Sorcerers’.

And, if we’d gotten his original wish and managed to cast Bowie, well… the sky’s the limit. Safe to say, we’d all have had umpteen releases of ‘The Dark’ sitting on our shelves by this point, and ‘Sight & Sound’ would have knocked out a cheery 50th anniversary piece a few months ago. Perhaps Armstrong might even have gone onto a longer and more rewarding directorial career, rather than packing the whole thing in after being shafted even more comprehensively by Adrian Hoven whilst trying to direct ‘Mark of the Devil’ in Germany a year or two later. Who knows. It’s a funny old game, this film industry lark.

We must, I suppose, at least admire Armstrong’s self-control in not attempting to recreate his film’s groin-stabbing finale in real life after seeing ‘Haunted House of Horror’ for the first time. He did get to enjoy at least some small quantity of revenge a few years later however, using ‘Deke’ Heywood as the basis for the pointedly named character of ‘Big Dick’ in what remains perhaps his most endearing contribution to British cinema, the semi-autobiographical sex film satire ‘Eskimo Nell’ (1975).


One of many things which is arguably more rewarding than watching ‘Haunted House of Horror’ is looking at some of the wonderful artwork which distributors around the world came up with to try to sell it. In particular, note the Italian poster, which tries to pass it off as a Poe adaptation!