Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Video Nasty #32 - Nightmares In A Damaged Brain

Dark, violent and genuinely unsettling, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain from 1980 became one of the most notorious Video Nasties when David Hamilton-Grant, of World of Video 2000, the film’s British video distributor was handed down a 12 month prison sentence for distributing material likely to deprave or corrupt. A fine would surely have sufficed but this unfortunate episode perfectly illustrates the level of hysteria caused by newspapers like the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail and their campaign against the influx of video horror, capitalized by a conservative government eager to deflect attention away from more pressing concerns like Britain’s economic slump.

In the film George Tatum, a criminally insane man treated for schizophrenia with experimental drugs is discharged from hospital but his homicidal impulses soon return, triggered by nightmares of bloody sexual violence. Leaving his doctors behind in New York, Tatum travels to Florida where he sets his sights on a single mother and her three young children… On paper it sounds like another xerox of Halloween, and admittedly the film is hardly inventive - even the surprise revelation in the climax isn't all that surprising; but Nightmares in a Damaged Brain remains one of the more memorable slashers from this era, with its astonishingly gory effects 1 and a very palpable downbeat, brooding atmosphere which seems to have polarized audiences as it did with Maniac, a film it's often (superficially) linked to.

Italian director Romano Scavolini’s website declares him “one of the most talented exponents of the European film industry”, which seems a stretch, but his relatively obscure filmography reveals some interesting entries - Spirits of Death, a surreal giallo from 1972, the gritty Greek thriller The Savage Hunt (1980), and the lively Vietnam action flick Dog Tags (1988). Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, an American production is Scavolini's most well known film also his best, directed with verve and style, the film often startlingly edited lending it a certain energy lacking in the more mechanical slashers of the day like Prom Night and The Prowler. The film is full of memorable little details and flourishes – like a shot of a woman moving out of the frame only to reveal Tatum standing behind her poised for the kill, or a striking documentary-like moment where one of the children is quizzed by a police officer at a crime scene. Special word too for Jack Eric Williams’ excellent unnerving score which does much to amp up the film’s tension. Less successful though is the MKULTRA subplot involving the government agency responsible for Tatum's treatment. These scenes add little to the film and could easily be removed without harming the tone and narrative.

Performances are variable throughout but Baird Stafford (who appeared in Dog Tags) playing George Tatum does a fine job, his character becomes more withdrawn as the film progresses but unlike traditional slasher movie maniacs he manages to elicit sympathy for being so irrevocably damaged by his traumatic childhood. Revisiting the film it’s not surprising it came to the attention of the DPP. Aside from the climactic bloodbath, the early section of the film is decidedly sleazy, drawing an unpleasant connection between sex and death – a scene where Tatum watches a peepshow performer pleasure herself with a dildo ends with him having an epileptic seizure in the booth, a fountain of alka-seltzer erupting from his mouth. In another scene where Tatum slits a girl’s throat, he’s seen on top of the girl penetrating her stomach with a knife as if it were a penis. Yet another problematic aspect of the film is how it associates children with violence, something which proved a sore point with Don’t Go in the House, another film that came to the attention of the DPP at one point.

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain has been available on DVD over the years in various versions but the Code Red 2-disc edition, which seems like it’s been in the works for years, is by far the best, featuring three transfers of the film – disc 1 contains two remasters, from 2005 and 2008, while disc 2 contains a 2011 remaster, which has a 1.78 anamorphic widescreen transfer and the best of the three. Having said that, the transfer is still problematic – the print suffers from scratches and dirt (especially virulent around the 41-min mark) and the exhibits a faint orange tint. Still, it’s relatively sharp and colorful and is the one to watch. Extras include an informative commentary (on the 2008 transfer) with Baird Stafford and make-up artist Cleve Hall, both of whom return for a short making of featurette The Making of Nightmare. The other significant extra is a 90-min Italian language interview with Romano Scavolini, which for various reasons could not be accompanied by English subtitles. By the way, disc 2 is mocked up to resemble a bootleg DVD-R, complete with a magic marker handwritten Nightmare disc 2 on the label, a little joke on Code Red’s part.

Tom Savini on the set of Nightmares In A Damaged Brain
1. No word about Nightmares in a Damaged Brain is complete without mentioning Tom Savini and his involvement, or lack of involvement with the film. When the film was initially released, Savini’s name appeared on the promo materials (“From the man who terrified you in Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th) but Savini threatened to sue the producers to have his name removed, insisting that he visited the set just once (pictured above) to offer some informal advice to the effects team. Scavolini felt otherwise, “All the main effects of the film were supervised and done personally by him. Actually, he pushed the blood’s pump when the boy-actor chopped his mother’s head. Tom Savini was there – he himself pumped the blood!!!!” Make-up artist Ed French who also worked on the film has a more likely take on events “I remember Tom coming in, perhaps twice, to give the crew advice, direction and impetus to finish the preparations on time for the first day of shooting. I have no idea if this was a favor to Les or if he was a paid consultant. Tom didn’t do any hands-on work but he definitely influenced the techniques, style and game plan for staging the blood gags"

The Savini/Nightmare controversy reported in Fangoria #22, 1982
Speaking on the commentary track Cleve Hall had this to say - "Ed French did the effects...They had contacted Tom about doing the film and he passed on it, but Ed has assisted him on other stuff...and I guess Tom showed up on the set and pictures were taken and names were splashed across posters and things and other people were forgotten"

Monday, 29 August 2011

Video Nasty #31 - Mardi Gras Massacre

"Un film trouvé à la ferraille" as Jean-Luc Godard might have said...

The UK VHS tape of Mardi Gras Massacre sports one of the great sleeves of the Video Nasties - a bikini clad busty blonde menaced by a shadowy, hooded maniac with a switchblade. Sadly, this fabulous piece of Exploitation artwork is the best thing about the film, but if you like wooden acting, a nonsensical storyline, porno-style production values and ultra cheap splatter, this 1978 abomination might be just for you.

Mardi Gras Massacre is less a film than a crime scene, the ritual sacrifice storyline stolen from Blood Feast, and relentlessly murdered by absurd plotting. At least HG Lewis devised a somewhat plausible set-up for Connie Mason to fall into the maniac's hands, in Mardi Gras Massacre, logic is casually discarded when the prostitute who's already met the killer, later goes with him seemingly oblivious to his identity - incredible considering actor William Metzo couldn't be anything but a killer, oozing Boris Karloff creepiness from every pore. Even a scene where he orders some take away for his next victim sounds sinister, the order delivered in a deathly tone. The killer's penchant for sacrificing harlots offers up some real howlers - at one point the killer inquires "Of all the ladies in this bar tonight which one do you think is the most...evil ?" and in another exchange one unwitting victim seals her fate with "Listen honey, I could probably take first prize in any evil contest"

In its favour Mardi Gras Massacre is rarely boring, the film is busy enough with the exploits of the bonehead cops assigned to catch the killer, but between the gore sequences much of the films seems completely pointless - at one point there's a disco-dancing sequence thrown in for no good reason other than to riff on Saturday Night Fever, and in another moment the cops are seen shaking down a nutty tap-dancing street man. There's also a bizarre scene where the killer negotiates with an unlikely pimp named Catfish (?) for a new victim, the pimp speaking entirely in rhyme between bouts of scat singing - I'm the Fish, what is your wish ? Be-bop da-dee-da You're a rude dude, it will take more than talk or I'll take a walk, Be-bop da-dee-da". Worth mentioning also is Mardi Gras Massacre's eccentric soundtrack - for the most part sounding like a Blaxpoitation film, but the sacrificial scenes are accompanied by a weird ominous synthesizer piece that mutates into an avant-funk workout not dissimilar to something found on a Cabaret Voltaire album.

It's been said that the film makers have recycled the same gore effect for the murder set pieces which is not quite true - the prosthetic torso that the killer scoops around in, differs from scene to scene but director Jack Weis lazily films each of the sacrifices using almost the exact same sequence of shots, the camera positioned in the exact same spot every time. Another clumsy aspect of the film is the editing, which at times defies basic cinematic rules - take for instance the scene where the killer spikes some hookers' drinks. We see a shot of the women drinking the sedative laced potion, then it jump cuts to the same women conked out on the floor, with no dissolve in between to signal a time-shift has occurred. Perhaps it was the work of a scissor happy distributor, but the film does have it's fair share of fractured chronology.

There is a DVD of Mardi Gras Massacre available in the US but this is to be avoided, ridicolously overpriced, the transfer is strictly VHS-level and a bad one at that. Fortunately Code Red are releasing the film in September with superior picture quality and among the extras announced is an interview with William Metzo. You have been warned !

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Video Nasty #30 - Madhouse

Anyone familiar with Video Nasty lore will know of stories of over zealous police officers raiding video stores looking for anything vaguely contentious. At one point Sam Fuller's acclaimed WWII film The Big Red One and the Dolly Parton vehicle The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas were swept up in the DPP's Terror. I suspect Madhouse, an American-shot Italian-made slasher from 1981 was a victim of the same kind of fervor. A few minor trims by the BBFC would have rendered this one completely benign.

In the film, Julia a teacher of deaf children is requested by her uncle, Father James to visit her estranged sister Mary at a psychiatric hospital. The meeting doesn't go well, and soon after the bitter and twisted Mary, suffering some soft facial disfiguring disease, breaks out of the hospital and Julia's friends and neighbours begin to die... Back in the 70's and early 80's Ovidio G. Assonitis was one of the better knock-off directors in the business - his 1974 film, Beyond the Door was a rather feverish and memorable Exorcist copy while his sequel to Piranha - the underrated Piranha II The Spawning, featured chest bursting killer fish. Madhouse made around the same time as The Spawning, is a huge disappointment, lifting elements from Halloween, Sisters and Suspiria, with little flair of either of those films. Besides some fleeting gore, and a somewhat inventive twist at the half-way mark, the film could easily pass for a routine TV thriller.

As stalk and slash films go Madhouse simply doesn’t cut it - there's far too much stalk and little slash. There are one or two instances of grisly violence in the film, like when Mary's marauding Rottweiler dog tears into the throat of one of Julia's friends, and a climatic axe murder, but it's all rather unconvincing. Even the film's most famous moment, when Julia's boyfriend drills through the dog's head, is ruined by a very fake looking pantomime dog. At least the film looks good, Assonitis gets some good mileage out of the rambling apartment building where most of the action takes place, but shooting in CinemaScope and using colored gels does not make Madhouse a Suspiria. Of the cast lead actress Trish Everly has little to do and looks like she might have walked off the set of Dallas, bearing something of a resemblance to Victoria Principle. Far better is Dennis Robertson playing Julie's priest uncle, hamming it all up magnificently, his character coming with an impressive repertoire of nursery rhymes (which accounts for the film's bizarre alternative title There Was A Little Girl). He's easily the most memorable aspect of what is a very forgettable film.

Dark Sky's 2008 DVD of Madhouse is another fine effort from this label, featuring a very nice 2.35 anamorphic widescreen transfer, sporting strong colors and a sharp detailed picture. No problems with the audio, unlike the UK edition of the film on the Film 2000 which features a disastrous sound mix. For extras Dark Sky have included a brief 13-min Assonitis interview plus a substantial gallery of promo materials. The trailer is strangely absent here but can be found on the Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide DVD.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Video Nasty #29 - Love Camp 7

Directed by Lee Frost and produced by exploitation independent Bob Cresse, Love Camp 7 from 1969, has its origins in a previous Frost/Cresse collaboration Mondo Bizarro, a 1966 mockumentry which included a scene where some Germans get their kicks from a stage show depicting a Jewish woman being beaten and whipped by some Nazi officers. Such was Bob Cresse's fetish for Third Reich regalia and S&M that this short vignette was expanded into a feature length film about two female army agents infiltrating a Nazi "love camp" to gain information from the wife of a German scientist being held there...

In the history of Sexploitation Cinema, Love Camp 7 occupies a pivotal moment. Hardcore sex was still some years away, but Frost and Cresse's film was a definite move towards something with a harder, more darker edge. If the films of Doris Wishamn or the Findlays leave you wanting, Love Camp 7 should provide ample amounts of depravity. While not overtly explicit, Love Camp 7 is ground zero for the Nazi sexploitation film. The precise formula wouldn't be worked out until the arrival of Ilsa She Wolf of the SS in 1974, which in turn helped shape the Italian cycle of Nazi camp films, but all the staple elements of the subgenre are present in Love Camp 7 - a sadistic commandant, routine punishments and elaborate tortures, humiliating medical examinations (by a butch SS Fräulein), as well as a sympathetic guard appalled by the threatment of the prisoners ("Perhaps in another time, in another place things could be different between the two of us")

Producer and Nazi-at-the-weekend Bob Cresse
Bob Cresse was notoriously miserly when it came to budgeting his films and Love Camp 7 is no different. Bookended with some ill-fitting stock footage of London, the film is strictly poverty row stuff. The sets are so sparse and minimally lit that they have an almost Brechtian quality at times - perhaps Cresse funneled the bulk of the budget into his beloved uniforms which at least look authentic. Lee Frost, an accomplished director of no-budget exploitation films (The Thing With Two Heads and The Black Gestapo) does a decent job behind the camera, and delivers at least two stand out sequences - a surprisingly visceral scene where a prisoner is whipped by a guard - the bruising quite visible on the actress' naked flesh; and a sequence where one of the female agents is molested by a guard, to the accompaniment of an eerie flute refrain on the soundtrack, and intercut with the second agent making love to the kind guard. Of course none of this is remotely sexy with Frost's camera flailing around writhing chunks of flesh, the poor unfortunate actresses who look genuinely distressed, having to endure being groped and manhandled by the sweaty overweight, ruddy faced male cast. Bob Cresse cast himself as Love Camp 7's commandant although at times his portrayal is more akin to a dandified Roman emperor. Cresse also bags the film's best line with the rather tortuous - I cannot guarantee that will love Love Camp 7, but I can guarantee that you will love in Love Camp 7.

A quick cameo by Blood Feast producer David Freidman
Love Camp 7 has been issued on DVD in various territories - in Australia the film was released on the Siren Visual Entertainment label, in the UK there was an unofficial release courtesy of the dubious sounding DVD Classics. Both DVDs are now hard to find, but are no great shakes, sourced from a VHS copy of the film. In the US, Image had plans to release the film through Something Weird DVD but the release was cancelled, the film available only as a DVD-R directly from Something Weird. The picture quality is reportedly dire.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Video Nasty #28 - Last House on the Left

Last House on the Left remains the only Video Nasty to be directed by a major American film maker and it seems an awful long way from Wes Craven’s 1999 Meryl Streep vehicle Music of the Heart. When the film was submitted to the BBFC back in 1972 it was rejected outright. Ten years later the film resurfaced in Britain on VHS - such was the fledgling UK video industry’s lack of regulation that the film enjoyed a brief second life before it joined the DPP’s list of obscene titles. Last House on the Left forms part of the backbone of the Video Nasties list, along with Cannibal Holocaust, Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave and SS Experiment Camp. I saw the film in the early 90’s on a near unwatchable 10th generation bootleg, and despite the heavily degraded quality, the film left me bruised and battered.

Like it or not Last House on the Left is now firmly established as a classic of American Cinema. For the Horror genre it marked something of an evolution in its unrelenting depiction of violence, and like the seminal Night of the Living Dead it reflected a particularly caustic view of American life emerging out of the troubled final years of the 60’s – the increasingly unpopular Vietnam war, civil unrest, political assassinations, the Manson Family slayings and the violence at Altamont. A frustrated Wes Craven felt that Cinema had not addressed this state of affairs and set about writing a film, (then called Night of Vengeance) that would depict violence and murder in all its ugliness. In this regard the film is wholly successful but in many respects the film is deeply flawed. It’s a masterpiece, but a reluctant one.

"I don't go back and watch that film, but certainly I think it has the right to exist” said Wes Craven perhaps unwilling to relive the raw emotions that fed into the film. Every inch of Last House on the Left looks like a first-time student film. Technically the film is primitive – the framing is often disastrous with the actors falling in and out the shot, the static camera set-ups dull and unimaginative. Also, the transposing of the plot from The Virgin Spring to contemporary America isn’t completely successful. The violent retribution doled out by Max von Sydow’s character in Bergman’s film is more believable considering the film is set in 13th century, but in Last House on the Left, the transformation of the loving parents into methodical, brutal killers is rather implausible. However these faults pale in comparison with the comic subplot involving two bumbling cops – Craven probably felt his film needed a counterpoint to the sadism but it’s a huge mistake and when interjected into the film’s most vital moments threatens to derail it.

Flaws aside, Last House on the Left is often remarkable for its raw power. The early section of the film when the girls unwittingly fall into Krug and co’s clutches at their grubby apartment is incredibly claustrophobic. The film noticeably shifts up a gear when the girls are taken to a stretch of woods, signaled by a shot of Mari spotting the post box just yards from her home – a cruel irony but Craven tightens the screw even further. For the central sequence of the film where Mari and Phyllis are raped and murdered by the gang, Craven’s flat detached directing style comes into its own, the powerful quasi-vérité feel achieving the accidental quality of a snuff film. The quick shot of entrails-ripping is suitably gruesome but it’s the little bits of business by the killers that make the sequence all the more disturbing – Weasel kicking Phyllis on the ground after stabbing her in the back, the gang’s excitement as Krug carves his name into Mari’s chest, and Krug’s spit dribbling onto the Mari’s face as he rapes her. It's a depiction of violence far removed from the Hollywood glamour of Bonnie & Clyde or the slow-mo bloodshed of The Wild Bunch

Surprisingly for a low budget exploitation film the performances among the cast of unknown actors are strong. Fred Lincoln as Weasel and David Hess as Krug form a chilling double act, both genuinely menacing and perfectly controlled. So effective was the Krug persona that it outgrew Last House on the Left with Wes Craven resurrecting the character as dream demon Freddy Kruger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and David Hess reprising Krug in all but name for Hitch-Hike and House on the Edge of the Park. Impressive too are Sandra Cassell and Lucy Grantham playing Mari and Phyllis both very believable in their roles. Casssell, who bears something of a resemblance to Linda Harrison’s human savage Nova from Planet of the Apes has spoken little of the film over the years, perhaps the stories of her rough treatment at the hands of her co-stars are true.

Metrodome’s 2008 DVD of Last House on the Left, perfectly illustrates the seismic shift in policy at the BBFC in recent years, the Board finally granting the film a full uncut release. The film itself looks about as good as it gets – framed at 1.85, the transfer faithfully reproduces the grainy 16mm image in all its grungy glory – honestly, would you care to see this on Blu-Ray ? Audio is also good, and is free of hiss and distortion. Extras for the film have been spread over two discs – the Craven/Cunningham commentary track from the earlier MGM disc, plus a second commentary gathering together David Hess, Fred Lincoln and Mark Sheffler (who played Junior). The director/producer commentary is the better of the two but both are interesting and worth listening to.

A still from the outtake footage - note the Night of Vengeance title on the board
Next up is the excellent 40-min Blue Underground produced documentary Celluloid Crime Of The Century. David Hess turns up for two short featurettes, Scoring Last House and Krug Conquers England. Also included is some silent outtake footage from the shoot, as well the surviving 11 minutes of footage from Roy Frumkes’ abandoned anthology film Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out, which Wes Craven worked on. By far the biggest extra on the set petaining to Last House on the Left is a complete alternative version of the film under the Krug and Company title, and featuring extra lines of dialogue but less explicit violence. The quality is inferior compared to the main feature but it's an interesting addition nonetheless. Finally, Metrodome have added a third disc to the set containing the excellent 2006 documentary Going To Pieces: The Rise And Fall Of The Slasher Film. It’s not especially relevant to Last House on the Left but a welcome addition all the same. An essential purchase.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Video Nasty #27 - Island of Death

If the reviews at this blog employed a 5-star rating system, Island of Death would score a solid ????? Behind the bland and generic title, (which also served an as alternative title for Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's Would You Kill A Child ?) Nico Mastorakis's 1976 film is a real oddity. When released on UK VHS in November 1982, the distributor, AVI Video proclaimed the film to be "approved and passed by the BBFC", which was not strictly true. The BBFC approved version, which played a few theatrical dates in the late 70's was missing some 14 minutes, unlike the AVI release which was fully uncut and not surprisingly this den of inequity came to the attention of the DPP...

The story concerns a young couple, Christopher and Celia who arrive at the picturesque Greek island of Mykonos. At a phone booth, Christoper phones his mother to taunt her while having sex with Celia, and following that, the couple commit a series of gruesome murders to purge the island of deviants and sinners... Director Nico Mastorakis was so impressed with the box office profits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, (and perhaps the shock tactics of Saló) that his second feature was designed to include as many vices and taboos as possible - wanton sex, homosexuality (gay and lesbian - remember this was the 70's), drug taking, golden showers, bestiality, rape and sodomy, not to mention some sadistic violence. By the time the final scene of the film arrives and it's revealed that Christopher and Celia are brother and sister, it hardly raises an eyebrow. In Island of Death, it seems perfectly appropriate.

Island of Death is noteworthy for the elaborate deaths many of its characters meet - one man is force fed a bucket of paint, a woman is decapitated by a bulldozer, another woman is killed by a massive dose of heroin and finished off by an improvised aerosol can blowtorch. In the the film's most absurd moment, a man on the trail of the murderous couple is hung from a small aircraft, mid-flight, no less. Directed with verve and energy, Mastorakis employs a tight, hand held shooting style, lending the film a distinct otherworldly texture with the use of a fish-eyed lens to distort many of the compositions, and at one point, the action is observed as a series of staccato still images. As well as writing, directing, producing and editing the film, Mastorakis also includes his own musical contributions like the strangely memorable "Destination Understanding" song with it's loopy lyrics ("There is a pocket in my hole, to save the rain drops for the fall, that means I'm rich 'cos I'm crying")

Speaking on the DVD extras, Mastorakis spoils the fun somewhat by claiming the film has little subtext, that the story was written to facilitate as much perversion as possible. But with scenes like Christopher crucifying a man to the ground "in the name of almighty God" it's difficult not to see the film as a broad satire on stern religious morality and the inherent hypocrisy of those who preach it. Perhaps as a nod to Ken Russell's film, the original title of Island of Death was The Devils of Mykonos. Performances in the film are generally good with Mastorakis filling out the cast with almost entirely non-professionals (and among them, the director himself playing a snooping reporter). The two leads are especially fine, given some of the extremes the film demands of them. Bob Behling as Christopher is convincingly edgy (a troubled personal life no doubt feeding in to his performance) and Jane Ryall as Celia, her girlish, delicate beauty striking a nice contrast with her casual way with murder.

Arrow's Region-free 2011 DVD of Island of Death is a beauty, featuring an amazingly detailed fullframe transfer that pushes the envelope for standard definition. There's some debate whether the film should be shown in 1.85 but it hardly matters - simply put Island of Death has never looked as colorful or as vibrant as it does here. The mono audio track sounds excellent too, the dialogue spoken by the actors during filming sounds clear, as does the film's songs which sound tremendous here. The disc includes the same extras as the US Image disc - a commentary by Mastorakis plus two addtional interviews with the director, an interesting feature about the music of the film, and rounded off with an international trailer. As with other Arrow releases this release comes with a double-sided sleeve, sporting Arrow's inhouse artwork, and the flip side featuring the striking pre-cert sleeve seen above. Highly recommended if you're looking to take a walk on the wild side.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Video Nasty #26 - I Spit On Your Grave

This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction. It lacks even simple craftsmanship. There is no possible motive for exhibiting it, other than the totally cynical hope that it might make money. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, July 16, 1980

If there's one single film that represents the whole Video Nasty phenomena, it's surely Meir Zarchi's 1978 film, Day of the Woman. In 1980 exploitation impresario Jerry Gross re-released the film under the title I Spit on Your Grave, and backed with an aggressive marketing campaign, the film became a huge hit and a byword for extreme and confrontational Cinema. Even today, I Spit On Your Grave remains a thorny issue - in 2010, the Irish Censor's office, in something of an empty gesture, banned the film's DVD re-release for "acts of gross violence and cruelty towards humans". The rape and revenge plot is so well known that the film can be easily dismissed even by those who haven't seen it, which is a shame considering it's a very fine and worthwhile work. Just don't take the word of Roger Ebert.

Shortly after arriving at a country house in Connecticut to work on her first novel, New York writer Jennifer Hills, is terrorized, beaten and gangraped by 4 local men (one of whom is intellectually challenged). Left for dead, Jennifer ignores going to the police and instead exacts a terrible revenge on her attackers... The genesis for I Spit On Your Grave came from real life - Meir Zarchi happened upon a woman who had been raped and brutalised. When he brought her to a police station Zarchi was appalled by the unsympathetic treatment of the victim by the cold machinery of bureaucracy. Later on Zarchi was visiting a friend in Connecticut and the story of the rape and revenge of Jennifer Hills fell into place.

For all the scorn heaped upon the film over the years, the film is far less graphic than its reputation would suggest. Each of Jennifer's violations are deeply unpleasant but hardly gratuitous. Rather, the director's reductive style of film-making gives these sequences a powerful intensity. Zarchi strips away much of the traditional cinematic coating, the camera remains locked down observing the attacks in real time with minimal cutaways and forgoing any musical accompaniment that would add a welcome layer of artifice to these sequences. Director Gaspar Noé would do something similar some 24 years later in Irreversible, herding audiences out of their comfort zone to starling effect. In the rush to condemn I Spit on Your Grave, critics have larely ignored the fine pastoral photography, and the film's quieter moments, like one poignant scene where a traumatized Jennifer watches her empty rowing boat drift back to the bank as if returning to it's owner in shame.

Many of the film's detractors have accused Zarchi of never attempting to account for the behaviour of his male antagonists, but this criticism is not strictly true - in one scene the group's de facto leader Johnny (who organizes and directs the rapes) says "I don't like women giving me orders" and shortly afterwards Johnny's formidable wife is seen, enraged by his disappearance, inferring that Johnny's violation of Jennifer is born out of feeling like a browbeaten emasculated husband. The other men we know little about, other than their immaturity ("One day I'm gonna go into New York and fuck all the broads there") - their violent behaviour accentuated by the pack mentality and sense of deindividuation. At the heart of the film is Camille Keaton who turns in an extraordinarily visceral and courageous performance as Jennifer Hills. For much of the film she is seen naked but Zarchi removes any erotic elements by showing Jennifer's naked body scratched and muddied, bruised and bloodied - the idea that the film eroticizes the rapes is patently absurd, the violence inflicted on Jennifer is depicted as primal, savage and humiliating.

Anchor Bay's 2011 Blu-ray (US, A-locked) features a stellar 1.78 transfer which greatly improves upon Elite's very fine "Millennium" DVD edition from 2002. On the Blu-Ray the image shows excellent detail and is often quite a beauty in the outdoor scenes. The transfer does show some limitations in the night-time fishing sequence and some underlit shots inside Jennifer's house (which didn't fare well on the DVD either). Audio is fine, the film is hardly a showcase for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack when there's no score as such. All the extras which appeared on the DVD have been ported over for the Blu - Mier Zarchi's serious but informative commentary, a second, informal and more enjoyable commentary by critic Joe Bob Briggs, plus some trailers and TV spots. New to the Blu-Ray is an alternative credit sequence under the original Day of the Woman title, plus a newly filmed 30-min interview with Mier Zarchi, essentially a distillation of the topics and themes discussed on his commentary track. For exploitation fans I Spit on Your Grave is absolutely required viewing. If you haven't seen the film I would recommend you proceed with caution...but do proceed.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Video Nasty #25 - House on the Edge of the Park

Ruggero Deodato's home invasion thriller from 1980 never quite lives up to its ferocious reputation but it comes close, with its humiliating psychological abuse and one harrowing sequence of sexualized brutality. Perhaps the true force of House on the Edge of the Park can be measured by the fact that it's been 25 years since the film has been seen uncut in the UK. Back in 2002, VIPCO, trading on the Video Nasty infamy released the film on DVD with a massive 11 minutes of cuts. At the time of writing Shameless have resubmitted the film to the BBFC, hopefully securing an uncut release.

In the film, set in New York, Alex a disco dancing mechanic (played by David Hess, stepping right out of Last House on the Left) and his dim-witted sidekick Ricky (a debut making John Morghen) wind up at the house of some affluent Park Avenue types having a small get-together. Initially, the hosts are amused by their less than sophisticated guests but the mood darkens considerably when Alex, a sadistic sociopath, seen earlier raping and strangling a woman, breaks out a switchblade and subjects his hosts to a night of terror and violence…

Of all the films on the Video Nasties list, House on the Edge of the Park is one of the hardest to like. Technically, the film is as accomplished as any other Deodato film, made with the director's usual muscular style. It has a nice Riz Ortolani score (and some decent Abba-esque Euro-pop fluff thrown in to the mix), and visually the film which takes place for the most part in one location, is tight and claustrophobic. But like Deodato's previous film, the flawed masterpiece Cannibal Holocaust, House on the Edge of the Park is so morally confused it's hard to see the film as little more than Exploitation Cinema at its most cynical, with little to say about the class war. In the scene where David Hess rapes actress Annie Belle - playing the spoiled rich bitch role, half way through her violation, she begins to enjoy it. In another moment John Morgen's character, regretting the abuses dished out to their captives is rewarded for his compassion when Lorraine de Selle offers him her body (so he can lose his virginity). Not surprising the BBFC were still finding problems with the film in 2002. To paraphrase one New York Times writer - "You don't have to be a sadist to enjoy House on the Edge of the Park but it helps".1

Which brings us neatly to the film's most notorious sequence. At one point a teenage-looking Barbie doll calls around to the house and is made to suffer the wrath of a clearly unhinged Alex, as he strips her naked and proceeds to slash her breasts and body with his razor. It's a chilling scene, made all the more objectionable by the fact that the actress playing victim looks uncomfortably young. It's worth noting that this bit of psychosexual mania was co-authored by Gianfranco Clerici who wrote Lucio Fulci's slasher epic The New York Ripper. Worth mentioning also that the film contains a twist in the final scene that throws a new slant on the everything seen up this point in the film, making the film seem over more pungent. So much so that Deodato interviewed for Gorezone #17 (Spring 1991) dismissed the film: "Oh yes, that was violent. I forgot that film. It was shot just after Cannibal Holocaust. I don't like the movie"

House on the Edge of the Park is available uncut in the US courtesy of Shriek Show and features a very nice, crisp anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. The mono audio is serviceable and dialogue is clear. Aside from some Shriek Show trailers, the disc features a long, extended 36-min interview with David Hess who discusses his approach to the role, his fellow actors and claims that his sex scene with Annie Belle was real (which I find hard to believe, unless Deodato used a different take for the film). John Morghen turns up for a second interview to discuss the first of his famous roles. A third interview, this time with Deodato is also present but the English subs can't be activated due to a technical fault with the disc. Finally, the international trailer has been included and is worth seeing if only for the mix up on the film's title card - House of the Park On the Edge (sic).

1. This quote was originally attributed to a New York Times review of Performance
"You don't have to be a drug addict, pederast, sado-masochist or nitwit to enjoy Performance, but being one or more of those things would help."

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Video Nasty #24 - House by the Cemetery

A major entry on the Video Nasties list, House by the Cemetery, is one of two Lucio Fulci films to appear on the DPP's roundup of offending titles. Among the campaigners to clean up the British Video Industry, the Italian director was very definitely persona non grata - by the early 80's his reputation as a maker of exceedingly violent films was firmly established. A print of his 1982 film The New York Ripper has been kicked out of the country before it could be shown to distributors. In November 1983 House By the Cemetery made it's first appearance on the DPP's hit list - it mattered little that the film available to the British public was a watered-down BBFC sanctioned version. Lucio Fulci was in lock down...

The story concerns Norman Boyle, a university researcher who leaves New York city with his wife Lucy and young son to live in New England, swapping their cramped apartment for a spacious old house in the country. However, the house was once owned by Dr. Freudstein, a 19th century scientist who was rumoured to perform grotesque inhuman experiments. Freudstein it seems discovered a way to conquer death and unbeknownst to the house's new owners, Freudstein's zombified body is very much alive and lurking in the basement awaiting human victims to replenish his deteriorating cells...

The third of Fulci's gothic chillers (or his fourth zombie film if you prefer), House by the Cemetery is not nearly as wayward as the preceding films, City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. By comparison, Cemetery's story is nailed down tight, but the film still has its fair share of fuzzy logic and inconsistencies. Best not to analyse the plot too closely and instead bask in the film's rich dark atmosphere. Sergio Salvati, Fulci's perennial cameraman from this era lends the 'scope visuals a distinctly cold and wintry touch appropriate enough for what is a rather moody film, set in a house of the damned, where every surface seems coated in an inch of dust (and the odd tombstone). The film's first half is relatively restrained, but following an exceedingly gruesome bat attack Fulci's customary brutality arrives in spectacular style, the haunted house turning into a slaughter house with poker stabbings, throat slashings and flesh rippings.1

Ostensibly, Fulci raids the coffers of recent horror films like The Amityville Horror and The Shining but Cemetery is a strangely reflective film of former Fulci glories - in one scene Norman plunges an axe through the door the cellar only for it to penetrate inches away from his son's head trapped on the other side - a scene reminiscent of City of the Living Dead. The head smashing-on-rocks moment in The Psychic is riffed on when Catriona McColl's is dragged down the basement staircase, her head bashing against the steps. The climax of the film where Dr. Freudstein's lumbering zombie finally emerges from the shadows is surely one of Fulci's finest moments, the strangely haunting conclusion has a parallel with the finale of The Beyond. Catriona MacColl in her last film for Fulci delivers another solid turn, but the film's most memorable performance, perhaps for the wrong reasons is Giovanni Frezza, playing little Bob Boyle with a genuine childlike innocence and wonder, his role almost ruined by the dubbing his voice into English using an adult actor affecting a child's voice.

Blue Underground's DVD, a port of the excellent 2001 Anchor Bay edition is for now the best way to see House by the Cemetery on home video. This title has been dogged by inferior editions throughout the years, public domain label Diamond Entertainment had their own DVD alongside the Anchor Bay, while at the time of writing Amazon are selling a dubious 3D DVD version, obviously one to avoid. The current 2007 Blue Underground DVD is a fine effort, featuring an excellent 2.35 anamorphic transfer, and a pleasing English dub. Extras are scant, a trailer, a TV spot and a slightly longer version of the bat scene (without sound). The good news is that Blue Underground will be releasing a new special edition of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in September with brand new extras. Closer to home, House by the Cemetery is finally available uncut in the UK on the Arrow label. Transfer and audio wise, it's comparable with the Blue Underground disc, but includes an additional extra, "Fulci In The House: The Italian Master Of Splatter", a short 18min feature on director's great run of films in the late 70's, early '80's.

1. In the scene where Dagmar Lassander, playing the real estate agent is killed when a poker is plunged into her throat, an additional shot reveals a huge wound to her head. However this bit of violence is never seen. It looks suspiciously like a cut but in fact Fulci was unhappy with the effect and removed the scene.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Skellig Herzog

Just a very quick detour from the Video Nasties series before we return with House by the Cemetery… My good friend and fellow blogger Martin gave me the idea for this post, based on his series of excellent dispatches from Hong Kong at his fantastic blog A Hero Never Dies. At the weekend I rescued my scanner from a mound of boxes, still unopened from our house move back in March (?) and was scanning some old photos, when I found some pics of a trip we made in 2004 to the Skellig Islands, two small steep rock islands that loom out of the Atlantic ocean, 8 miles off the South West coast of Ireland. This extraordinary, primordial world has a special meaning for me, as it was here in 1975 that Werner Herzog filmed the strange and haunting final sequence of his film Heart of Glass

An aeriel shot of Skellig Micheal, the larger of the two rocks where a colony of monks lived in isolation. Blow up the image and you can just make out the ruins of the monastic settlement which still stands today. This is where Herzog shot the footage for Heart of Glass

Passing Skellig Beag (“Little Skellig”) on the way to Skellig Michael. You can’t land on this island as the cliff walls are too steep and the terrain dangerous to negotiate. In the foreground my wife, Irene looks on, praying for a quick death due to extreme sea sickness !

Skellig Michael. If you blow up the image you can see the steps the monks fashioned out of the rock, leading up to the beehive huts where they lived on the Northwestern peak of the island. Skellig Beag is in the background, giving an idea of the distance between both islands.

Werner Herzog remembered the island in his commentary on the Heart of Glass DVD - I love this place, it’s actually Skellig Rock…a settlement of medieval Irish monks who exactly in the year 1000 were tossed off the cliff by marauding Norsemen, by Vikings and since then its uninhabited, but some of their igloo type huts, stone huts are still remaining. (You could get out) by boat but not during the winter months when the waves are too high, its too dangerous, you can’t land on this rock island… Don’t ask me how difficult it was to get out here, I was in a small boat and everybody was getting sick and vomiting and freezing and rain… Its is a spectacular place, I truly love it, that is ecstatic landscape for me…this vista is almost like the romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich looking down from the rocks of Rügen Island...

The islanders prepare to sail out to the edge of the world in Heart of Glass. This final sequence filmed at Skellig Michael can be viewed here

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Video Nasty #23 - Gestapo's Last Orgy

Gestapo's Last Orgy from 1977 holds the dubious honour of being the best of the Italian Nazi Exploitation films, far superior to fellow DPP detainees, the trashy Beast In Heat and the incredibly dull SS Experiment Camp. Having said that, any pretense that director Cesare Canevari's film is a serious Holocaust drama is quickly dispelled by the sheer amount of sleaze and decadence on show. Arriving towards the end of the short lived cycle of Nazi exploiters, audiences were demanding ever increasing amounts of depravity and they were not to be disappointed.

The story concerns a love affair between Starker, the commandant of a House of Dolls style concentration camp for Jewish women, and Lise a beautiful inmate Starker is drawn to, by her determination to die. Starker refuses to give in to her request and sets about brutalizing Lise with various forms of torture and sexual humiliation, but slowly his will breaks down and he falls in love with his captive. Some years following the war Starker rendezvous with Lise in the dilapidated ruins of the former camp to rekindle their love affair but Lise has some other ideas...

At times Gestapo's Last Orgy suffers something of an identity crisis - it's never quite sure if it wants to be a serious meditation on the nature of power and control, or a tow-the-line sexploitation shocker. Mostly it's the latter and beyond the accomplished photography, evocative score and decent performances, the film serves up enough sexual sadism to give even the most jaded sleaze fan pause for thought. At one point Lise is made fellate the barrel of Starker's pistol, while in another scene, a menstruating girl is savaged by a pack of alsatian dogs wild with the smell of blood. Canevari doesn't skimp on the violence either - inmates are seen lowered into baths of caustic quicklime, and in one of the film's most tasteless moments, some elderly and pregnant women are seen writhing in the flames of a crematorium.

Gestapo's Last Orgy has a certain sophistication uncharacteristic of the films of the Nazi cycle, with Canevari riffing on two obvious films - The Night Porter (the director borrowing the framing device and the flashback structure from Liliana Cavani's film); and Saló, for its scenes of excess and perversion (like a scene where the camp officers are dining on the roasted flesh of an Jewish infant). Unlike Pasolini's film, Canevari has little to say about politics and history and the film is resigned to some well worn clichés of the genre, like a female gestapo dominatrix, and the kindly camp doctor who restores Lise's will to live, both indulging in a truly cringe worthy love scene (to the strains of the mawkish but strangely infectious theme song).

Exploitation Digital's DVD of Gestapo's Last Orgy (avaiable as part of a triple set including The Beast in Heat and Red Nights of the Gestapo) is a mixed affair. The transfer is decent enough, but falls short of the stellar Beast In Heast image. Framed at 1.85, the picture is for the most part sharp and in fine condition however the last five minutes of the film has been culled from a very degraded VHS source. Still, the film is fully uncut. Audio is offered in English and Italian. The English track is good although there are some instances when it gets rather hissy, usually in the absence of dialogue or effects. The Italian track is much cleaner but inexplicably no English subs have been supplied. Extras consist of a gallery of promo materials and the film's Italian trailer under the L' Ultima Orgia del III Reich, and trailers for four other Exploitation Digital titles.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Video Nasty #22 - Forest of Fear

Forest of Fear from 1980 is the quintessential example of a terminally obscure horror film damned to fame by the DPP. Considering there's nothing remotely contentious about the film, it remains a mystery why it became one of the 39 outlawed titles, its inclusion on the list is the only reason the film is still spoken about some 31 years later...

The plot of the film is strictly routine stuff. In a isolated stretch of woodland, two FBI agents have a field of marijuana sprayed with an experimental and untested chemical known as Dromax. Exposed to the poisoned crop are its hippy owners who have turned into homicidal mutant maniacs with a taste for human flesh... Made in the wake of Dawn of the Dead, but perhaps for budget concerns, director Charles McCrann's sole cinematic outing takes its inspiration from Night of the Living Dead with a touch of The Crazies (and I Drink Your Blood) thrown in for good measure. McCrann even borrows John Amplas, the actor who played the title role in Romero's classic vampire film Martin. Sadly, Romero's skill at extending his films far beyond their meager budgets has not rubbed off on this decidedly ramshackle 16mm effort.

Almost every aspect of Forest of Fear is dull and nondescript. A few members of the cast turn in some decent performances (Amplas not included) but it's something of a losing battle against director McCrann's flat set ups and insipid direction. A tension-generating subplot about a teenage girl and her autistic brother, lost and separated from their parents is spoiled by the casting of some obvious twenty-somethings to portray the babes-in-the-woods. And there's an unintentionally ridiculous moment when a camping couple are set upon by the zombies and the husband sprints off lightning fast leaving his genuinely confused wife behind! Even the "zombies" hardly look the part, their traditional shuffle is all that distinguishes them from the rest of the cast, and the fleeting gore is utterly amateurish.

One would like to be kinder to Forest of Fear, considering it's Charles McCrann's only film and an obvious labour of love. As well as directing, McCrann produced, wrote, edited and took the lead role (and bears something of a resemblance to a side-burned Warren Beatty). Interestingly the British VHS removed a 5-min coda which concludes the original film on a somewhat bittersweet note, the version that Monte Video distributed in the UK is considerably more dour and is perhaps all the better for it. Tragically, Charles McCrann was killed on September 11th 2001, while he was working in his office at the World Trade Center. There's an online tribute page (hosted by the corporation he worked for) and reading some of the comments by friends (and fans) McCrann remained proud of his maiden voyage.

John "Martin" Amplas as a fresh-faced G-man
Forest of Fear in available in the US courtesy of Televista, under the Toxic Zombies title. Don't let the inflated price tag of this disc fool you - this DVD is an abysmal effort, so lo-fi it would be better placed in one of those Mill Creek 50-pack multi-sets. The fullframe transfer is poor, sporting a soft image and smeary colors, evidently taken from a VHS copy judging by the odd stray tracking line and picture-jump. The audio tracks fluctuates in volume and a stills gallery - some captures from the DVD, are offered as an extra. One to avoid, but if you must see everything on the Video Nasties list, the complete film can be seen in one sitting here...