Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny/Italian Horror Blogathon: First Impressions - The House of Witchcraft (Umberto Lenzi, 1989)

For the final post of this Halloween Hootenanny and also my last impromptu contribution to the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 4th Annual Italian Horror Blog-a-thon, here's some initial thoughts on this late 80's TV movie from Lenzi, which I've literally just finished watching for the first time. A slight disclaimer though... I am fooking knackered people!... so I'll be making this as short and sweet as humanly possible... 

To cut straight to the chase... I enjoyed this shit out of this. This is sort of a cross between Fulci's underrated House of Clocks from both the same TV series and same year, and Lenzi's own Ghosthouse from the previous. By invoking the former, I mean it has that same occasionally dreamlike, late 80s, suffused-with-soft-focus vibe, and by the latter I mean that Italian horror fans will be spotting riffs to other movies from the genre practically every other second. To give you an example of the latter, I'll just quickly quote a handful of these taken randomly from my notes...
  • There's an amazing opening nightmare sequence that's highly reminiscent, in one part (that recurs periodically throughout), of a famous scene from Argento's Inferno. 
  • Paul Muller makes an appearance, sort-of playing the role of Emily from The Beyond.. i.e. he's a blind dude, with a faithful German Shepherd dog.
  • Black cats... need I say more... and woah, that's fucking weird! literally the second I started writing this sentence, one jumped out for a cheeky scare on the TV (I'm currently re-watching Halloween II in the background).
  • Cursed (?) Egyptian medallions, a la Manhattan Baby and The Night Child. 
  • And finally, there's suggestions of some Bavaesque possession/reincarnation shenanigans.
Aside from being atmospheric as hell, I also found this pretty funny at times, thanks to some frequently cheese-tastic cornball dialogue... though like I said with Fulci's The House by the Cemetery, this also somehow simultaneously maintains a sense of foreboding seriousness... which is something that I really appreciate... that is, I can both take it seriously and also don't have to, in equal measure, but at varying times... sort of keeps me on my toes, in a sense. At any rate, I thoroughly recommend this to anyone who has a taste for mid-to-late-80s Italian horror and fans of Fulci and Lenzi.

Oh, and Happy Halloween folks!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny/Italian Horror Blogathon: Greats and Gems from the Golden Age - A Moviethon - Part III

This post will be both the final part of my moviethon write-up and my last contribution to this year's Italian Horror Blogathon... and completely coincidentally, the following two films were also the subject of our ever hospitable host's last two posts. Mr. Kevin J. Olson, I tip my hat to you sir, firstly for organising this 'thon for the 4th year in a row now, and also for your superlative analysis of these two movies... I'm glad to know there are other people out there who find plenty to appreciate within these two titles. However, it's with a certain amount of trepidation that I approach the following post, as this is both my favourite Italian horror double feature (I've watched these two in tandem at least four times now) and the two films themselves are both high up in my top ten list of spaghetti nightmares. And, as anyone who read my top ten horror films list at the beginning of this month will know, The House by the Cemetery is currently my favourite horror movie, period. 

Saturday 19th October 2013

00:31 - Shock (Mario Bava, 1977)

As with the last movie we looked at for this 'thon (Baron Blood), we begin with some uncharacteristically contemporary imagery, with Bava's directorial credit appearing over a shot of a kitchen sink, of all things. Furthermore, the first shot following the title sequence could be read as something of a statement of intent in this regard, showing some cobwebs being cleared away, very much signalling a move away from the old world of the gothics and into a much more modern arena. Much of the credit for this change of setting belongs to Mario's son Lamberto (who should probably be credited as co-director from what he says during his interview on the Blue Underground DVD of the film) and prolific Italian horror screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti (who will come up again in the course of this post), who both intended this to be a more contemporary picture than was typical for the elder Bava, citing the influence of Stephen King (who will also come up again later) upon the writing of the script. 

The story centres around Dora Baldini (Daria Nicolodi, on top form as always) as she returns to the home she formally inhabited before suffering a complete mental breakdown precipitated by the suicide of her abusive husband. Also joining her are new husband Bruno (John Steiner) and her son (from her previous marriage) Marco (David Colin Jr.). Almost immediately, Dora begins to sense something is not quite right here... and it doesn't help that her son apparently has some issues of his own. Aside from having a predilection for surprising and generally scaring the shit out of his poor mother (which on its own seems like innocent child's play), Marco soon steps up his game, so to speak, cutting up her underwear while she's in the shower, and also telling her (in the middle of a party, where a J&B crate (!) has a cameo) that he must kill her. And as if all this wasn't enough, Dora is also experiencing some downright freaky hallucinations from time to time... though I won't spoil the specifics regarding this latter point. All I'll say concerning the remainder of the plot is this... it seems Dora and Marco are both still very much troubled by the tragic events that occurred within the house. As the former says to her son during one of the film's stand-out scenes, where the two are discussing death: "We'll keep daddy alive within us".

Despite the resounding success of Baron Blood, the following few years would be far from kind to Mario Bava. I won't go into the details here, but suffice to say, the great man would have two of his films (Lisa and the Devil and Rabid Dogs) taken away from him and re-edited into new, bastardised forms. Adding further insult to all this, it seems that as with Lisa, this (i.e. Shock), his final feature film would also be released as an Exorcist knock-off, though I think in this case his original cut may also have had a theatrical release at least (I'll confess I need to look into this matter further). Apparently, the director also worked on a TV movie (also part directed by Lamberto Bava and featuring Daria Nicolodi) before his death in 1980, which is supposed to be worth tracking down, if you can find a copy that is. At any rate, I personally consider this to be a worthy and poignant coda to an astonishing career, even if it isn't purely a Mario Bava film...

As I suggested earlier, this is perhaps as much a Lamberto Bava movie as it is a Mario Bava one, and in that aforementioned interview, the former recalls how his father would often let him shoot whole scenes, sometimes under the pretence that he was tired, but the son suspects that dad was doing this to help shepherd him into the directing game, essentially paying forward the opportunity that Riccardo Freda gave to Mario all those years ago. This is perhaps something of a mixed blessing, as there are arguably one or two elements (and one in particular) that don't exactly work, but generally speaking, I love the fact that this is a passing the torch movie and that it features the fingerprints of both father and son... if nothing else, it gives the film a vibe that is unique within Mario Bava's entire filmography. And to give credit where credit's due, Lamberto does have a couple tricks up his own sleeve, supplying at least one stand-out, startling sequence that is practically guaranteed to make you jump out of your skin. 

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly mention the soundtrack by I Libra (featuring a former Goblin member on drums)... it's easily one of my favourite Italian horror scores... in fact it may be tied with the one from the next movie as my current number one. There's just something about it's combination of creepy, oddly timed funkiness and melancholic synth/piano pieces (with some sublime lead guitar work thrown in during the end credits theme) that does me right every time. Oh, and apart from that aforementioned J&B crate (seriously, how many frickin' friends do the Baldini's have!?), supplying another connection the wonderful world of gialli is one Ivan Rassimov, playing a psychiatrist (?!?). If you're already sold on Italian horror and have checked out most of the canon, then I'd say give this a shot. It's currently one of my top three Bava films (as heretical as that might sound to some) and I'm praying to the home video gods for a Blu-Ray release as we speak.

02:18 - Intermission....

Despite the hour already being pretty damn late, I decide to take a bit of a break at this point to rest my eyes, stretch my legs, and as regular readers will have guessed, fill my lungs and brain with some mind altering chemicals... which is probably somewhat superfluous seeing that, as others have observed, when you spend an extended period of time watching a shit ton of movies, you really don't need drugs to feel deranged. Anyway, onwards to the final film!

03:09 - The House by the Cemetery (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

This is it folks, the final movie of the marathon and (as already mentioned) my favourite horror film of all time, Italian or otherwise. As a result, this may end up being less of a traditional review/analysis and more of a love letter to Fulci's flick.... you have been warned!

This is a superlative example of a no-nonsense horror movie, as from the opening frames onwards we're instantly bombarded with an onslaught of after-midnight atmosphere and an acute sense of "they're coming to get you" encroaching doom. The first character we encounter is a young lady who should really know better than to be buggering about in the wee hours in an old dark house... and she's played by Daniela Doria (above), who should also really know better than to appear in a Fulci movie... at all... as yep, you guessed it, she's not long for this world.

This scene of pre-credits slaughter is followed (after a suitably evocative title sequence showcasing Walter Rizzati's sublime, organ infused theme music) by a shot that always astonishes me for some reason. We open on a still (seen above) of a little girl seemingly trapped in the eponymous house... and from this we track back (or zoom out, I forget which... hell maybe it's a bit of both) and eventually pan round to see another young 'un gazing curiously at what turns out to be a framed photograph. And it's here that we're introduced to the character who proves to be the make or break element for many people with this movie... Bob Boyle (Giovanni Frezza, dubbed by a grown woman pretending to be a young boy) stand up and take a bow! How can one character be somehow simultaneously both irritating and endearing (I'm also looking at you Marco!)? Such paradoxes abound within The House by the Cemetery...

As in Shock, the film follows a family who move to a house with something of a troubled history, to say the least... and yet again their settling in is somewhat prohibited by the knowledge that a now previous tenant had committed suicide (though at least this time he apparently had the courtesy to do it away from the house!). Aside from the aforementioned blond-haired moppet, we find ourselves in the company of Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco and Catriona MacColl), and you can pretty much blame the former for all that's to follow... well, I suppose Lucy doesn't exactly listen to Bob's Cassandra like warnings "not to go there" (delivered to him via the mysterious girl in the photo, played by Silvia Collatina) either, so it's perhaps somewhat poetic justice when her husband ignores her own initial pleas to leave the bad place. And who sends the Boyle family off on this trip of terror? Yup, you guessed it, it's that cheeky chap Lucio Fulci, making an obligatory cameo... and his pipe also makes a guest appearance of course!

And that's all you really need to know regarding the plot... and to be honest, you probably didn't even need to know that much as the pre and post credits sequences set everything up perfectly. Besides, as is often the case with Fulci, and especially with his gothic films of this period, this is less about narrative and more about generating mood and a visceral reaction from the audience. Assisting the director in this department are a whole host of usual suspects, such as Sergio Salvati, who supervises the absolutely stunning scope cinematography (the Blue Underground Blu-Ray is a must if you're a fan of the film), make-up wizard Giannetto De Rossi (who is assisted by others such as Maurizio Trani) who supplies the memorable gore effects and one hell of an iconic movie monster in the form of the fearsome Dr. Freudstein, and Shock co-writer Dardano Sacchetti (who again collaborates with several other writers). Composer Fabio Frizzi is conspicuously absent this time around, but ably taking his place is Walter Rizzati, who turns in what is probably my current favourite horror score, despite and heck, probably because of it's occasional creakiness... there's just something about it that hits my gothic movie music sweet spot.

And the principal performers are also ably supported by such Italian horror favourites as Dagmar Lassander, Carlo De Mejo and the strange yet striking Ania Pieroni (seen above, she made an equally memorable appearance in Argento's Inferno the previous year), who plays Ann, the world's weirdest babysitter. Oh, and obviously it wouldn't be a proper Italian gothic film (even if, like Shock it has a contemporary setting) without a good old bat attack! Incidentally, it always cracks me up how Paolo Malco runs out of the basement with his hand held out almost in a salute, said night creature still attached... he looks like he's heading for take off or something!

There's still loads more one could say about this film, but alas it's getting towards that silly time of the morning that I actually watched the movie, so I best start wrapping this up. It's hard to articulate exactly what it is that makes me love this film so much... admittedly there's some occasionally daft stuff here that I can't really launch a serious defence of (which would be besides the point anyway), but it's nothing that unbalances the film to the point where all the underlying melancholy and gravitas (the latter created largely, but certainly not wholly, by the principal players, and especially Catriona MacColl, who completes her Fulci hat trick here) are lost. In fact it's that sense of solemn sadness (a mood familiar to many Fulci films) that arguably makes the movie so damn haunting. Like many people who first approached The House by the Cemetery, I was initially somewhat underwhelmed by it, but I tell you what, even after this first viewing (several years back now, caught late on TV when I had no idea what it was, which is really the absolute ideal way to discover this) I couldn't get the film out of my head. And now, countless viewings later, it still manages to grow more compelling with every re-visit. As I've said to a few people recently, when you sit and watch it, keep your eyes peeled during that early scene where little Mae Freudstein is trapped in that old photo a la Jack Torrance in The Shining (an undeniable influence on this film)... who knows, you may soon see me there frozen in time next to her.

Finally, I'll leave you with this photo taken from a relatively recent reunion of the film's cast at a horror convention... it may mean nothing to those unfamiliar with the The House by the Cemetery but it just warms my heart for some reason!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween Hootenanny/Italian Horror Blogathon: Greats and Gems from the Golden Age - A Moviethon - Part II

Picking up where we left off yesterday, we're jumping ahead the best part of a decade into that seemingly bottomless, bloody pit of horror goodness that is the seventies... and as the observant will note, joining us for both the following films is none other than Joseph Cotten!

Friday 18th October 2013

20:14 - Lady Frankenstein (Mel Welles and Aureliano Luppi, 1971)

The first film of this middle part of the moviethon is also the second and final one I hadn't seen before, and like Riccardo Freda's The Ghost, it also comes courtesy of Mill Creek's Chilling Classics 50 movie pack (which features quite a few unsung gems, though I've still yet to see more than half of its contents). Now, during the credits I was actually quite surprised to see we're actually in widescreen... but alas this was not to last, as once the film starts proper, we're back to pan and scan... ah well, as I said with The Ghost, considering this cost me next to nothing, I really can't gripe. And as we'll see, it won't diminish my enjoyment much anyway.

Almost a feminist reworking of Shelley's seminal story, the film was apparently created as a vehicle for star Rosalba Neri (credited here as Sara Bey) by one of the producers, who may well have been seeking favours of his own back from her (and who can blame him!). She plays Tania, daughter of Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten), and like her father, she has more than a slight interest in reanimating the dead. However, he's reluctant to let her share in his work, instead relying on the assistance of his colleague Dr. Marshall (Paul Muller - who turned 90 this year! - making his second appearance in the moviethon). One night the pair successfully bring to life a creature created from the corpse of recently hanged criminal while Tania secretly watches from the shadows. As you can probably imagine, the procedure goes far from smoothly (lightning setting the creature's face on fire being far from the best start, for instance), with the monster giving the Baron a hug of death as thanks for being brought back, before quickly fleeing to go and run amuck. Having apparently learned nothing from all of this, Tania and Dr. Marshall soon plan to build their own creature, both as a means for them to kill the escaped monster, but also as a sexy vehicle to place the brain of the ageing doctor within.

I had an absolute blast watching this for the first time... it's kinky, campy and colourful seventies horror at its best. The leads play their respective roles for all they're worth, never for a second giving the impression that they'd rather be off elsewhere doing something more "respectable", and hence adding an element of gravitas to the proceedings. It's smartly and sharply written, and actually pretty tightly plotted, despite the fact that it apparently had six scribes working on it. The make-up effects for the bulbous headed creature (credited to a Timothy Parson, and according to IMDb, this seems to have been his only work on a movie) are striking and actually rather iconic in their own way. And from what I could see from this full frame presentation, the film is a feast for the eyes, featuring excellent cinematography and production design (from Riccardo Pallottini and Francis Mellon respectively)... as with The Ghost, I really need to get my hands on a cleaned up widescreen edition of this. Finally, it's competently directed by American actor/director Mel Welles (best known for playing Gravis Mushnik, the owner of the eponymous Little Shop of Horrors... that's the original Corman version, as opposed to the Frank Oz musical remake), with uncredited assistance from Aureliano Luppi... if anyone can tell me anything about the latter's contributions to the film then I'd be extremely grateful. All in all, this is a must see for fans of seventies Euro horror, and despite being full frame, it's still worth watching in its budget DVD incarnations... in fact, I think it might actually be available to download at the Internet Archive, seeing as it's apparently in the public domain.

22:07 - Baron Blood (Mario Bava, 1972)

Forming both the second part of our Joseph Cotten double bill and the first of a Mario Bava one (the write up on its partner will follow tomorrow), Baron Blood could be considered as something of a pre-emptive swan song for the great man's entire career, as it not only calls back to and riffs upon his own back catalogue, but would also tragically prove to be pretty much the last of his directorial credits that could be considered purely his... that is until Lisa and the Devil and Rabid Dogs were restored to their original, intended forms of course... and I can't comment on Four Times That Night (also from '72) yet as I haven't seen it... and we'll get to the curious case that is Shock in due course...

The film begins with some atypically modern imagery for Bava (accompanied by some swinging jazziness from Stelvio Cipriani, who also scored A Bay of Blood for Bava the previous year... in fact that film's closing music reminds me of this one's opening theme), showing a plane landing at a presumably Austrian airport. Inside the aircraft, we're introduced to our protagonist, an American called Peter Kleist (Antonio Cantafora), who is travelling to a castle owned by his ancestral namesake, the infamous (and eponymous) Baron Otto Von Kleist. The latter was apparently killed by an angry mob who were seemingly directed by a curse invoked by a witch that the bloody baron had burnt at the stake. After arriving at the castle, Peter hooks up with sexy architect Eva (Elke Sommer) who is helping to renovate the place, and after messing around with an ancient parchment reputed to be able to bring the Baron back to life, the pair soon end up in some seriously deep shit.

I'll say no more regarding the plot... though I suppose the eventual outcome of all this is probably fairly self-evident from what I've outlined above (though there are arguably still one or two surprises to be had here)... and that's not a veiled criticism or anything. Now, admittedly narrative has never been one of Bava's strongest suits, but let's face it, when you choose to watch one of his films, story is not exactly the main selling point. Thought to be fair, I don't think he's a slouch in this department or anything either... in fact, and as I've probably said before, I actually find him to be quite subtle at times, so the finer points and underlying tensions of his movies often only become apparent to me upon re-watching them.

There's a whole host of fine performances here, with Cantafora and Sommer both playing likeable leads and Joseph Cotten on fine form; he seems to be channelling his recent co-star (in the previous year's The Abominable Dr. Phibes) Vincent Price at times, especially in some of his line readings. And last but not least, especially as far as fans of Italian genre cinema are concerned, there's sterling support from both Nicoletta Elmi (who is at her most adorable here and is apparently dubbing herself, it seems) and Rada Rassimov (sister of Ivan, who will make his own appearance in the moviethon very soon), who plays perhaps the most memorable of the witchy women who turn up in Bava's films. Admittedly, this is somewhat slight in the grand scheme of the maestro's filmography, but a highly entertaining romp nonetheless, and as is usually the case with Bava, I find more to appreciate with every re-visit (listening to Tim Lucas' informative commentary track certainly helped in this department too). It's probably not the best movie to watch if you're new to the director (though it's probably not the worst for this purpose either), but if you're already well-versed in his back catalogue (especially his earlier gothic films), then I think you'll find much to enjoy here. Oh, and I almost forgot, kudos to Mario's son Lamberto and producer Alfredo Leone for getting the notorious homebody to leave his native Italy for a change... it was certainly worth it for the production value and sheer scale that the location shot interiors and exteriors add to proceedings.

There'll be more to come from both Bavas tomorrow when we conclude this moviethon write-up!