Friday, 30 September 2011

Ganja & Hess


Strange, perplexing and utterly extraordinary, Ganja & Hess, from 1973 is one of the great lost artifacts of Black Cinema. Misunderstood on it’s initial run, the film almost immediately sank without a trace only to resurface in a different guise under the title Blood Couple. In the film, Dr. Hess Green, an anthropological professor studying ancient African civilisations hires an assistant George Meda, a depressed alcoholic who fatally stabs Hess with an African ceremonial dagger, before turning a gun on himself. Hess though is not dead, at least not quite, the magical dagger returns him to life as an immortal vampire. Later on Hess forms an intense sexual relationship with Meda’s widow, the ethereal beauty, Ganja. Soon after marrying, Hess transforms Ganja into a vampire, but Hess weighed down with guilt and sorrow makes a fateful decision…


A vampire film which never mentions the word vampire, Bill Gunn's incredible film has often been cited erroneously as a Blaxploitation bloodsucker flick 1 - if only it had been, the film might have found an audience, but Ganja & Hess is one of those rare species of films that refuses to be pinned down by any shorthand description. A work of tremendous style and intelligence, the film is not easy to digest in a single viewing. At the heart of the film is the theme of Black Culture and its absorption by a dominant White Culture, the conflict between African religion (and heritage), represented by the ancient blood-addicted Nigerian civilisation Hess is studying, versus the White Christianity that swept it away. This idea informs the style of the film, which ebbs and flows with disassociated imagery (often violent and sexual), strange juxtapositions and fractured editing. If one had to describe the film in simple terms, you might say it comes somewhere between George Romero's Martin, and Cammell & Roeg's Performance, while sharing a certain kinship with the dream cinema of Vampyr, Carnival of Souls and Eraserhead.


Visually the film shot on Super16mm has a suitably grungy looking texture, but is often startlingly beautiful - like an early sequence in the film where Hess dreams of the Queen of the Myrthia people, with her incredible headpiece, or a shot late in the film where the arrival of death is represented by the gentle blow of leaves across a floor. Complimenting the images is the extraordinary musical score by Sam Waymon which takes in blues, jazz, Black spirituals, African work songs and electronic soundscapes. The film hinges on the excellent performances from the two titular leads - Duane Jones, who played the revolutionary role of the black hero from Night of the Living Dead delivers a fine, affecting turn as Hess, his cool, detatched manner hiding a heavy soul (from the need for blood and the necessity of killing for it), while his co-star Marlene Clark as Ganja is just as good, radiant and formidable in equal measure. She has one of the most memorable scenes in the film when she describes how an incident from her childhood helped shape her philosophy on life.


Thanks to the All Day Entertainment label, Ganja & Hess was rescued from oblivion when it first appeared on DVD in 1998. The transfer was struck from one of the very few surviving prints of the film, held by the Museum of Modern Art. Framed at 1.85, the image looks about as good as one would expect - the blow up to 35mm has resulted in some scenes looking excessively grainy (like a scene where Hess speaks to his son), while the apparent softness of the film was partly due to an aesthetic choice of cinematographer James Hinton. The audio track is better, the film's special sound-design sounds particularly powerful here. Extras include production stills and artwork, a reproduction of Tim Lucas and David Walker's article on the film from Video Watchdog #3 (“The Savaging and Salvaging of an American Classic"), plus a fine audio commentary with Marlene Clark, James Hinton and Sam Waymon. In 2006, All Day re-released the film as Ganja & Hess - The Complete Edition, which featured the same transfer and a few additional extras, but added a further 3 minutes of footage which was not included in the MoMA print.

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Notes
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1. The film's reputation as a Blaxploitation vampire film is due to the film's most widely seen, shorter version, Blood Couple, which was released on video in the US under a number of titles - Black Vampire, Double Possession, Vampires of Harlem, Black Evil, and the awkward Blackout: Moment of Terror. Unlike other hatchet jobs like the cutting of Once Upon A Time In the West, Blood Couple has a certain legitimacy - Fima Noveck, who doctored Ganja & Hess, reshaped the film in line with Bill Gunn's original screenplay (which was much more linear than the finished film) and includes scenes not in Ganja & Hess, but taken from the workprint. Blood Couple also includes different musical cues and sound effects and some instances of different dialogue, making it an interesting companion to the original film.



Monday, 26 September 2011

Ghosts...of the Civil Dead

John Hillcoat's intense debut film from 1988 sees the director already working out ideas and themes that would preoccupy later films, chiefly individuals struggling to survive in a hostile and dangerous environment. The clean, comfortable, modern prison facility in Ghosts...of the Civil Dead might seem a world apart from the ragged infrastructure of The Road, but it's society in collapse is familiar enough. The film unfolds as a report into the events that led to a lockdown at the Central Industrial maximum security prison after a number of inmates and prison guards were attacked and killed. What is revealed as the film progresses is that the increasing state of unrest was a carefully orchestrated plan by the prison system administration, geared towards exploiting fears of violent criminality, necessitating the building of more prisons while the government exercises a tightening grip on its citizens...

Ghosts...of the Civil Dead is a difficult film to pin down. On it's initial release the film played on the arthouse circuit but alienated audiences with it's ugly depiction of prison life - the casual brutality, the conveniences of daily life - hard drugs and hard pornography (at one point someone is seen watching a video of Forced Entry), and the distorted prison sexuality (one of the inmates in the film is a transvestite much desired among his fellow detainees). The film is even less an exploitation picture - shot with a cold, steely view, the film assumes an almost documentary quality, and Hillcoat handles the material with mature restraint, rationing out the violence only when necessary lending the film a sharper edge. Another device Hillcoat uses to frustrate his audience are the abstract wisps of voice over which emanate from a prisoner kept in a filthy solitary confinement cell, musing about his life of incarceration.


Much of the film's success rests on it's cast. Among the players, Hillcoat recruited a number of non-professional actors from a pool of ex-convicts and ex-security guards, who all bring a certain look to the film, a kind of prison physiology that makes the film all the more startling. Notable among the cast is Nick Cave, as a newly transferred psychotic murderer, inking out perverse drawings with his blood, and finally tipping the prison population over the edge with his insane rantings. Cave was featured heavily in the film's promotion, but his appearance in the film is rather minor, appearing only in two scenes. More significantly Cave contributed to the writing of the film, and along with fellow Bad Seed Mick Harvey and Einstürzende Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld, scored the atmospheric soundtrack which also features the creepy baby-doll crooning of Anita Lane.


Ghosts...of the Civil Dead might have been entirely fictitious but the film had a certain providence, the Central Industrial prison with it's endless corridors of barbed wire eerily anticipates the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a facitiliy which justified the use of illegal torture methods to scupper terrorist activities, a state of affairs which many people reluctantly agreed to, such was the fear of Islamic extremism. Ultimately Hillcoat's film remains a disquieting work, right down to the final unnerving shot of the film, the tone of film, not so much cynicism but one of concern for the future of the prison system and the enormous problem of rehabilitating the ghosts back into society. See it and worry.


Australian label Umbrella's all-region DVD from 2003 features a good transfer of Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, presented in 1:33, the fullscreen picture close enough to how the film was originally shot. The image looks somewhat grainy and grungy, as was the low budget of the film, with decent colors and for the most part a sharp, detailed image. Audio is good enough, the score sounds excellent, but some dialogue tends to sound blunted at times and you might find out yourself struggling with some of the Australian accents. Sadly, no subtitles are provided. Where the disc scores high are the extras. Hillcoat doesn't provide an audio commentary but he's interviewed extensively about the film, as are the production team, cast members as well as Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld. As well as video interviews, the disc features audio interviews, some 20mins worth of the soundtrack CD plus various items like promotional materials and John Hillcoat's storyboards and production notes.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Video Nasties - Index of Titles Reviewed

01 - Absurd - dir. Joe D'Amato, 1981, Italy
02 - Anthropophagous - dir. Joe D'Amato, 1980, Italy
03 - Axe - dir. Frederick R. Friedel, 1974, US
04 - Beast in Heat - dir. Luigi Batzella, 1977, Italy
05 - Blood Bath - dir. Mario Bava, 1971, Italy
06 - Blood Feast - dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1963, US
07 - Blood Rites - dir. Andy Milligan, 1967, US
08 - Bloody Moon - dir. Jesus Franco, 1980, West Germany
09 - The Burning - dir. Tony Maylem, 1980, US
10 - Cannibal Apocalypse - dir Antonio Margheriti, 1980, Italy
11 - Cannibal Ferox - dir. Umberto Lenzi, 1981, Italy
12 - Cannibal Holocaust - dir. Ruggero Deodato, 1980, Italy
13 - Cannibal Man - dir. Eloy de la Iglesia, 1972, Spain
14 - The Devil Hunter - dir. Jesus Franco, 1980, France, Spain, West Germany
15 - Don't Go in the Woods - dir. James Bryan, 1980, US
16 - The Driller Killer - dir. Abel Ferrara, 1979, US
17 - Evil Speak - dir. Eric Weston, 1981, US
18 - Exposé - dir. James Kenelm Clarke, 1976, UK
19 - Faces of Death - dir. John Alan Schwartz, 1979, US
20 - Fight for Your Life - dir. Robert A. Endelson, 1977, US
21 - Flesh for Frankenstein - dir. Paul Morrissey, 1973, Italy, France
22 - Forest of Fear - dir. Charles McCrann, 1980, US
23 - Gestapos Last Orgy - dir. Cesare Canevari, 1977, Italy
24 - House by the Cemetery - dir. Lucio Fulci, 1981, Italy
25 - House on the Edge Of The Park - dir. Ruggero Deodata, 1980, Italy
26 - I Spit on Your Grave - dir. Mier Zarchi, 1978, US
27 - Island of Death - dir. Nick Mastorakis, 1976, Greece
28 - Last House on the Left - dir. Wes Craven, 1971, US
29 - Love Camp 7 - dir. Lee Frost, 1969, US
30 - Madhouse - dir. Ovidio G. Assonitis, 1981, Italy, US
31 - Mardi Gras Massacre - dir. Jack Weis, 1978, US
32 - Nightmares in A Damaged Brain - dir. Romano Scavolini, 1981, US
33 - Night Of The Bloody Apes - dir. René Cardona, 1968, Mexico
34 - Night of the Demon - dir. James C. Wasson, 1980, US
35 - Snuff - dir. Michael Findlay, 1971, Argentina, US
36 - SS Experiment Camp - dir. Sergio Garrone, 1976, Italy
37 - Tenebrae - dir. Dario Argento, 1982, Italy
38 - The Werewolf and the Yeti - dir. Miguel Iglesias, 1975, Spain
39 - Zombie Flesh Eaters - dir. Lucio Fulci, 1979, Italy

Video Nasties - A Price Guide

Putting together a complete collection of all 39 Video Nasties is something of a Herculean task. Tracking down the entire list was relatively do-able right up to the early 90's, but nowadays most tapes are in the hands of serious collectors and change hands for serious money - the chances of finding an original edition of GO Video's Cannibal Holocaust at a car booth sale are virtually nil. As well as the scarcity of tapes - most collectors agree that scoring a Beast In Heat or a Devil Hunter demands patience and plenty of money; another problem facing collectors are the amount of fakes or "snides" on the market, many of which are expertly designed to fool even the most expertly trained eye...



The DPP39 collection of Pre-Cert Video forum member and collector extraordinaire Andyman. Note the alternative label/sleeve varients among the collection


Compiling a price guide for the 39 Video Nasties is extrmemely difficult considering prices fluctuate from one ebay action to the next, as well as private sales between collectors. The list below was put together by Pre-Cert Video forum member Exorcist1998 last year and is a good indication of the kind of prices excellent/mint quality tapes have fetched on eBay.

Absurd - £120
Anthropophagus The Beast (VFP) - £172
Anthropophagus The Beast (VideoShack) - £600
Axe - £93
Beast in Heat - £1450
Blood Bath - £82
Blood Feast - £70.55
Blood Rites - £87.50
Bloody Moon - £107.00
Burning (The) - £25.50
Cannibal Apocalypse - £44
Cannibal Apocalypse (alternate sleeve) - £800
Cannibal Ferox - £160.50
Cannibal Ferox (bones sleeve) - £190
Cannibal Holocaust - £205
Cannibal Man (The) - £400
Cannibal Man (The) - (Big box Release) - £1000
Devil Hunter (The) - £535
Don't Go in the Woods - £90
Driller Killer (The) - £83
Evilspeak - £35
Exposé (Cut Carton) - £400
Exposé (intact carton) - £1200
Faces of Death - £145
Fight For Your Life - £160
Flesh for Frankinstein (Vipco) - £73.05
Flesh for Frankinstein (Video Gems) - £78.11
Forest of Fear - £98.50
Gestapo's Last Orgy (VFP) - £205
Gestapo's Last Orgy (VideoShack) - £1700
House by the Cemetery - £31.01
House on the Edge of the Park - £225
I Spit on Your Grave (Astra) - £150
I Spit on Your Grave (Wizard) - £250
Island of Death - £300
Last House on the Left - £110
Love Camp 7 (Abbey) - £155
Love Camp 7 (Market) - £181.03
Madhouse - £62
Madhouse (Alterative sample sleeve) - £60
Mardi Gras Massacre (Goldstar) - £400
Mardi Gras Massacre (Market) - £275
Night of the Bloody Apes - £88.00
Night of the Demon - £82
Nightmares in a Damaged Brain - £51.27
Snuff - £176
SS Experiment Camp - £200
Tenebrae - £60
Werewolf and the Yeti - £127
Zombie Flesh Eaters - £101.55
Zombie Flesh Eaters (cut version) - £37


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Video Nasty #39 - Zombie Flesh Eaters

Went to the cinema with Franco this evening... We saw Zombie II - science fiction horror film. Ghastly; repulsive trash
Andrei Tarkovsky, diary entry 5th September 1979, Rome
The best was saved for last…

It may not be as stylish as Tenebrae and lacks the virtuosity of Cannibal Holocaust, but Lucio Fulci’s 1979 film Zombie Flesh Eaters has long been my favourite title on the DPP’s list of outlawed films. I saw it on a hot afternoon in the summer of 1992, and after my first taste of Italian Horror, life would never be the same again. In many respects, Zombie Flesh Eaters is the archetypal Italian Horror film, with it’s assimilation of popular American Cinema (rip-off would be unkind), ludicrous plotting (the shark vs. zombie sequence), a distinguished star on vacation (Richard Johnson), a fabulously catchy score (by Fabio Frizzi), wacky dubbing (orchestrated by fan favourite Nick Alexander) and the astonishingly gory effects (courtesy of Giannetto De Rossi).


Interestingly Zombie Flesh Eaters could have ended up an entirely different beast. The film was rushed into production in the wake of Dawn of the Dead (which was doing considerable business in Italy) with Enzo Castellari set to direct, but according to screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, the production company went with Fulci when he offered to do the film for a lesser fee. In the light of Fulci’s subsequent zombie films which dabbled in metaphysics and surrealism, Zombie Flesh Eaters remains a remarkably coherent work. Dawn of the Dead looms large in the story of Italian Zombie Cinema, but Fulci’s film is arguably a more significant influence, setting the tone and flavour of the living dead films that would follow - Zombie Creeping Flesh (aka Hell of the Living Dead), Zombie Holocaust and Burial Ground. If the film trumps Dawn of the Dead in any way it’s Giannetto De Rossi’s utterly fantastic looking walking dead, the crumbling flesh piles far more impressive than Romero’s freshly dead (and regrettably goofy) ghouls.


Sacchetti's screenplay (which is credited to his wife, for tax reasons apparently) is a distinctly old fashioned affair and owes as much to the 1957 quickie Zombies of Mora Tau than Romero’s film. As well as giving the audience one scene to puzzle over (exactly what is the submariner zombie up to miles out to sea?), Sacchetti devised one of the most famous deaths in European Cult Cinema when a 12” splinter of wood torpedoes through an eyeball. The film was marketed as a pseudo sequel to Dawn of the Dead, but the film works best as a prequel – the premise being that the zombie plague which has invaded the shopping malls of America has its origins on the island of Matul. Sacchetti's screenplay never actually resolves the cause of the living dead phenomena – it could be the work of voodoo sorcery, hinted by the ceremonial drumming heard on the soundtrack, and the references to voodoo prophecy; or the mysterious medical experiments of Dr. Menard – at one point, some sort of culpability is implied when Menard’s frazzled wife declares to her husband “You won’t be happy until I meet one of your zombies

Olga Karlatos gets something nasty in the eye
Looking at the film as part of the Fulci cannon, Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of the director’s best looking films. Fulci may not be renowned as a Cinemascope director, but the film includes a number of striking widescreen compositions, like the memorable head shot of the zombie framed against the backdrop of Manhattan in the opening sequence, and later on in the film with the wide shots of the zombies shuffling out of the darkness (recalling a similar shot from Night of the Living Dead). Fulci doesn’t seem as possessed with the film as he was with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, but the director steals some wonderfully inspired moments, like the sudden camera jerk when Menard’s wife realizes a sinister presence has entered the house, and a fabulous camera arc around a wandering zombie. Heading up the cast is Richard Johnson as Dr. Menard, delivering a fine performance (a latter-day Sean Connory comes to mind), looking suitably grizzled, brow perpetually bathe in sweat. In the first of his 3-picture Italian sojourn, Ian McCulloch plays journo Peter West, hardly a classic leading man but McCulloch gives his character an amusing swagger that’s hard not to like. Tisa Farrow affects her usual thousand yard stare and funnily enough, eagled eyed Italian audiences would have spotted her as a party guest just over a month later in Woody Allen’s Manhattan – quite a career trajectory ! Rounding out the cast is a reliably wooden Al Cliver and the radiant Greek actress Olga Karlatos.


Zombie Flesh Eaters has had up to 10 different DVD releases in various territories since the Anchor Bay edition first came on the scene in 1998. The best of the editions are the US Blue Underground and Shriek Show editions. In terms of the image, the Blue Underground just inches ahead of the Shriek Show DVD, and features a nice sharp 2.35 anamorphic transfer with good strong colors. However, in terms of extras, the Shriek Show edition is miles ahead of the BU disc with a feature length 98-min documentary on the film Building a Better Zombie, which gathers together a staggering amount of cast and crew to discuss the film. The Blue Underground disc does have one significant extra, but it’s hidden away in the Posters and Stills Gallery - by jigging around with your remote you can activate a 30-min Lucio Fulci trailer reel. If you have yet to add the film to your collection, hold off until Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray edition arrives next month, when you can savor Fulci’s masterpiece in all its HD glory.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Video Nasty #38 - Werewolf and the Yeti

For various reasons, this 1975 Paul Naschy vehicle remains one of the more obscure entries on the Video Nasties list, a film that has been somewhat marginalized over the years, not least of all for the schlocky title the UK Cannon tape was released under (Night of the Howling Beast, the US Super Video title is far more agreeable). Also, the film has not so far secured an English-language DVD release, apparently the licensor of the film is looking for an exorbitant sum which might explain it's absence from BCI's Naschy re-issue program. This is a shame as The Werewolf and the Yeti is one of most enjoyable films on the DPP's list and is a perfect introduction into the world of Paul Naschy.


During an expedition to Tibet to locate the mythical Yeti, Waldemar Daninsky (Naschy) breaks away from the party and unwittingly falls into the clutches of two cave-dwelling demon sisters. Waldemar is bitten by one of the sisters causing him to turn into a werewolf with the arrival of the full moon. Meanwhile the expedition party has been attacked by bandits, the survivors taken as prisoners of local despot Sekkar Khan and his beautiful but deadly sorceress Wandessa... The Werewolf and the Yeti is the eight outing for Naschy's Waldemar Daninsky character, eternally cursed with a bad case of lycanthropy, and here the nudity, sex and violence has evolved considerably since 1968's Mark of the Wolfman. The plot of the film (written by Naschy himself) is at times a little too busy, but the film moves with a furious pace from one set piece to another with little opportunity to ponder the absurdity of it all.


Paul Naschy as the wolfman turns in another sterling performance, but was reportedly unhappy with the finished film. And while he doesn't quite nail the pathos that Lon Chaney Jr. brought to the role in Universal's Wolfman (due it seems to an insensitive director), Naschy attacks his part with great enthusiasm, performing much of his own stunts - unlike the lumbering wolfman of previous incarnations, Naschy's wolfman is positively athletic, swooping and diving at his prey. The werewolf transformations are primitive at best, seen in a series of simple dissolves but Naschy makes it all work. The Yeti itself hardly deserves a mention in the title of the film, only appearing briefly in two scenes (mercifully so, considering his tawdry costume), but not to short-change fans of monster mash-ups, the Yeti does get to square off with the wolfman in the film's climax.


Undoubtedly one of the film's biggest assets are the visuals. The interior scenes were filmed in Barcelona, with exterior sequences shot at the Val d'Aran, a valley in the Pyrenees mountains of northern Spain. Obviously no stand-in for Tibet, the locations chosen for the film are often quite striking, the action taking place in snow covered forests, river gorges and desolate mountain slopes. Tomas Pladevall’s cinematography is quite sumptuous, the candy-colored lighting distinctly Bava-esque in flavour, and the film often looks like a hybrid of Hercules in the Haunted World and Fritz Lang's Indian Epic films. All of which forgives some of the film's creakier moments like an obvious model depicting Khan's castle and a bizarre montage of Tibetan postcard scenes kicking off the film proper.


As was the custom of Naschy's films, The Werewolf and the Yeti was shot for release in two versions - for the racier scenes, the actors were filmed clothed and unclothed. In the sequence where Naschy is seduced by the demon sisters, the actresses are seen wearing see-thru gowns in the clothed version, while the alternative version features full nudity. The explicit version, nowadays the rarer of the two to see, is much sought after by fans for obvious reasons, but significantly the unclothed version features an extra scene not in the other version, where Naschy is seen canoodling with topless co-star Grace Mills. Unfortunately, the clothed version is the one available on DVD in Spain courtesy of Tripictures (sadly with no English subs included). Luckily a fansub of the Spanish DVD (which looks tremendous) is out there so I would recommend tracking that down in lieu of an official English language release.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Video Nasty #37 - Tenebrae

Is there anything left to say about Tenebrae ? First and foremost, it's Dario Argento's last great masterpiece - after an extraordinary 13-year run of films starting in 1969 with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, the diminishing returns began with Phenomena and Opera (two otherwise excellent films I might add) and then took a sharp downward trajectory with later duds like Trauma and Phantom of the Opera. But enough of that, Tenebrae is a celebration of Argento's glory days, and in terms of the Video Nasties, it remains the greatest film on the list (thought not my favourite!). Shame on the DPP for not recognising the film's sense of style and artistry, the film forever rubbing shoulders with mediocre slashers like Bloody Moon and Madhouse


Argento liked to tell one particular story about the genesis of Tenebrae. The director had been contacted by someone impressed with Suspiria, but this initial enthusiasm soon gave way to obsession, the communications became so hostile that Argento felt his life might be in jeopardy. Such lurking danger inspired Argento to write Tenebrae. The story sounds a little fanciful, the truth was altogether less dramatic. Argento was wrestling with a third installment of the projected Three Mothers trilogy, but the director had cooled on the idea following the lukewarm reaction towards Inferno. Argento wanted a hit and put aside the hallucinatory weirdness of his two previous films, returning to the familiar killing grounds that made him a household name in the early 70's.


In the rush to swoon over the film's techno splatter and that incredible crane shot, much of Tenebrae's playful humour has been missed. Argento had been criticised for making exceedingly violent films and here he pokes fun at himself and his critics by making the central character of his film a Catholic writer who has managed to suppress his murderous impulses by exorcising them through his violent fiction. Argento takes a sly wink at his audience too, confounding expectations by calling the film Tenebrae (the nominal third entry of the Mothers trilogy) and opening the film with the shot of a book burning on a fire, a nice little tip of the hat to the blazing finales of Suspiria and Inferno. The title of Tenebrae (meaning "shadows") is even more ironic still as Luciano Tovoli's visuals are almost always bright and well lit, the darkness seemingly chased away by the glare of streetlamps, headlights and white hot light bulbs. The film was shot in Rome but not that you would know it - Argento avoids familiar landmarks and the film seems as disconnected from the city as Alphaville is from Paris.



Cast wise, Tenebrae features one of the best ensembles in an Argento film. Anthony Franciosa may well be the director's finest leading man, and there's excellent support from an impossibly stylish John Saxon, Italian Western superstar Giuliano Gemma as the detective slow to solve mysteries, the always great John Steiner and Daria Nicolodi (whose sexiness is accentuated further by Theresa Russell's sultry tones on the English language dub), and look out for Christian Borromeo who appeared as the much abused Tom in House on the Edge of the Park. A bone of contention with commentators of the film not attuned to Argento's peculiar indifference to storytelling is Tenebrae's wayward plotting which admittedly is loose - that the teenage Maria would wind up at the killer's home is frankly ridiculous, and Argento's subterfuge to hide the killer's identity smacks of cheating. But the film's sense of style is so utterly persuasive none of this really matters. Tenebrae is something of a fetishist's dream as well - the famous tracking shot voyeruristically surveying the house about to become a crime scene, and Argento imparts the most mundane objects with a strange sensual power - the sexualized red stilettos, the deadly smooth surface of the metal spike sculpture seen in the climax, and the extraordinary shot of a straight razor smashing the light bulb.


Argento's back catalogue has been emerging on Blu-Ray with generally excellent results but Arrow's Blu has been met with disappointment, the 1.85 transfer apparently suffering from an intrusive level of grain. Soundwise, the Italian and English audio tracks fare better, with Claudio Simonetti's brilliant score sounding vibrant and both tracks feature good ambient effects. As with previous Arrow releases, this one contains some good extras - 3 featurettes and two audio commentaries, plus the usual excellent Arrow packaging. There's also a French Blu of Tenebrae, reportedly containing a better transfer but with forced subtitles. My advice would be to hold out for the forthcoming Blue Underground Blu-Ray.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Video Nasty #36 - SS Experiment Camp

Very much a case of judging a video by its cover, Go Video's incredible sleeve artwork was largely responsible for the DPP fingering SS Experiment Camp (1976) as a Video Nasty. Interestingly, some Nazi exploiters were completely passed over - Red Nights of the Gestapo and Deported Women of the SS Special Section to name two, were available in stores across the UK, but SS Experiment Camp became one of the most notorious entries on the DPP's list of 39, and along with The Beast In Heat, and Gestapo's Last Orgy forms the final entry in the Video Nasties' unholy trinity of Italian Nazi Exploitation films.


The plot of SS Experiment Camp is rather unfocused - it's never clear the purpose of the experiments carried out in the laboratory of the camp, all of which involve soldiers on leave from the frontline copulating with female prisoners, sometimes in bizarre circumstances - one couple is seen making love in a vat of icy cold water (perhaps the Third Reich were thinking of colonizing Antarctica?). It's only in the film's final act that a plot of sorts kicks in, when an amorous soldier has his testicles removed and transplanted to the camp's commandant (who lost his some years earlier when a woman he raped cut them off). Amusingly the emasculated soldier only realises the theft when bedding down with one of the prisoners, the enraged soldier confronting the commandant with one of European Trash Cinema's greatest lines "What have you done with my balls" It's a rare moment in an otheriswe dry and humourless film.


SS Experiment Camp is a dull film. Aside from the gruelling pre-credit sequence where a haggard looking woman is electrocuted for refusing to swear an oath to the Nazis, the film is full of endless dialogue about the glory of the Third Reich and interminable scenes where the soldiers and the prisoners speculate on the nature of the experiments. Unlike Gestapo's Last Orgy, which is forthright about Jewish extermination, SS Experiment Camp skirts around the issue, the female detainees referred to as "political prisoners". The film does have one strangely poignant moment when the camp's surgeon, a Jew incognito dons traditional garb before shooting himself in the head. As required of the genre, the film is full of nudity, and there's a smattering of surgical gore but director Sergio Garrone renders the whole thing a rather lifeless and plodding affair. Even the film most contentious image of naked bodies burning in a crematorium is undone by its sheer weirdness, as the bodies jerk their limbs like puppets writhing in the flames.

the prolific actor Attilio Dottesio, who also appeared in What Have They Done To Your Daughters among others

SS Experiment Camp is available courtesy of Exploitation Digital in the US as a standalone DVD or better still, as part of a triple feature with SS Girls and SS Camp Women's Hell. This 2005 disc features a very nice anamorphic 1.85 transfer, the print used is in very good shape with minimal wear. Audio is offered in English only and for the most part is fine except for a few cases where the dialogue sounds a little blunt. Extras include a 10-min interview with Sergio Garrone, and a bunch of Exploitation Digital trailers. SS Experiment Camp is available in the UK again on the Blackhorse label, uncut but the picture quality is said to be quite poor.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Video Nasty #35 - Snuff

A film that needs no introduction among readers of this blog, the saga of Snuff, remains a quintessential piece of Exploitation hucksterism, capturing the zeitgeist of 70's urban anxiety. With the rising tide of underground pornography, some of it sado-masochistic in nature, the idea of murder being filmed for the gratification of the viewer seemed entirely plausible. Masterminded by distributor Allan Shackleton, (a vile man by all accounts) Snuff played a few dates in Philadelphia before washing up in New York in 1976 to pickets, protests and nationwide headlines. In a sense the film had arrived too early - Snuff as a concept, seemed better suited to home video - the idea of film-as-illegal substance, distributed through unofficial channels kept under the counter by shrewd video store owners for a few select customers. In the UK, the film was never officially released on video1, copies that were out there were said to be work of a Dutch piracy gang, and despite the scarcity of tapes in circulation, the film was duly added to the DPP's Wanted list in July of '83.



The history of Snuff is so fascinating that the original film that Shackleton stitched his phony snuff footage to, The Slaughter has been largely forgotten and written off as a piece of junk. And while Michael Findlay's 1971 horror is no great shakes, it's neither better or worse than the kind of schlock served up by Andy Milligan or Al Adamson. The plot of The Slaughter though decidedly vague, was inspired by the Manson Family murders in 1969. The story concerns an American actress who arrives in Buenos Aires to make a film, and unwittingly becomes a target for cult leader Satán and his female followers when she becomes pregnant, the killing of her unborn child an integral part of Satán's plan...



Evidently, Roberta Findlay's screenplay didn't extend to a feature length film as The Slaughter is full of padding - the opening sequence where two of Satán's groupies are seen riding a motorcycle is stretched out to interminable levels with endlessly repeated shots of the bike on the road. There's also a long flashback sequence that seems utterly disposable and a scene set against the backdrop of a carnival is beefed up with copious amounts of ill-matching festival footage (some of it a little unnerving with the celebrants in grotesque blackface). Made with a largely Argentine cast, the film was recorded without sound which explains many scenes where characters speak off screen or with their backs to the camera. The English language dub is dreadful, the echoing voices sounding like they were recorded in a hollow room, and it's quite obvious that the actors were dubbed by the same man and woman (reportedly Michael and Roberta Findlay) no matter how much they try to disguise their voice.



As much as it misfires, The Slaughter remains a strangely compelling film and watching beautiful hippie girls on shooting sprees or sticking knives in peoples backs is not without its charm. The film certainly has its fare share of exploitable licks - it's a violent romp full of nudity and sleaze, and backed with a loud pulsating rock score, the main theme music sounding like an infernal loop of the opening bars of Steppenwolf's Born to be Wild. It looks like the film might have been reworked in the cutting room, the film makers try to inject some pace into the action with some frenzied editing, and one sequence has been tinted in an attempt to relieve some of the visual blandness of the film. Ironically the final few minutes of the film responsible for its unlikely resurrection is one of Snuff's weaker moments - the grafted on footage sticks out like a sore thumb and the gore effects are appropriately cheap and shoddy. It's difficult to understand how anyone could have taken it seriously. Most people didn't.



Snuff is available on DVD from Blue Underground, not that you would know it - aside from a very small spine number, all traces of the label are missing from the sleeve, mocked up to appear wrapped in brown paper. Quite a nice touch. The film itself looks quite good, the fullframe transfer generally clean and attractive. Audio is decent too, free of distortion and hiss. The disc itself has no extras, even dispensing with a menu, the film beginning as soon as the disc is loaded into the player, and when the film ends, the film simply restarts from the beginning.

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Notes
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1. Snuff's UK video history remains a hotly debated issue among collectors. Astra Video had definite plans to release the film in a limited run, (which is thought to be the origin of the infamous "blue" sleeve pictured above) but cancelled the release due to the controversial nature of the film. However, copies of Snuff were available in video shops, featuring a black sleeve with no distributor information to found anywhere on the sleeve. These pirate tapes were thought to be the work of a Dutch piracy gang, the tapes imported from Belgium. It's also been alleged that it was Astra who were behind these "unofficial" editions, a claim Mike Behr of Astra vehemently denies to this day.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Video Nasty #34 - Night of the Demon

Despite the below-the-radar VHS sleeve of an ominous full moon, and sharing it's title with a 1957 Jacques Tourneur Horror classic, Night of the Demon from 1980 came to the attention of the DPP, most likely for a scene where an unwitting motorcyclist has his cock ripped off by the titular demon. What begins like another lo-fi American indie à la Don't Go in the Woods and Forest of Fear, gradually develops into quite an interesting little film worthy of rediscovery.


The film unfolds in flashback from the hospital bed of a man with terrible burns to his face. The man is one Professor Nugent who along with some college students make an ill-fated expedition into a remote wooded area in search of a mythical sasquatch refuted to be the missing link between beast and man... Directed by James C. Wasson, Night of the Demon is a routine monster movie until around the halfway mark when the intrepid investigators uncover a bunch of townspeople engaged in a pagan fertility ritual (think of The Wicker Man meets The Devil Rides Out). The significance of this moment is never quite explained (apart from introducing the character of "Crazy Wanda", the woman about to be ritually raped) but from here on the film becomes oddly engaging, culminating in the strange and dreamlike finale where the Professor and students are massacred by the "demon" - an impressively tall, hairy beast which Wesson wisely shows only in oblique cutaways until he's revealed in all his glory for the climax.


Night of the Demon has become a cult film within the Video Nasties, mostly for its spirited gore scenes - the film opens with a fisherman having his arm ripped off (the film's title card imaginatively overlaid against the pool of blood) with the splatter coming thick and fast throughout - sometimes to an absurd degree, like a scene where the beast knocks two girl scouts together, their knives inadvertently stabbing and mutilating each other. What is significant though is that the film remains watchable beyond the gore. There's a particularly memorable sequence in the film when Crazy Wanda's character is seen being impregnated by the beast, and suffering the rage of her disgusted father. This flashback sequence (in a film obsessed with flashbacks) contains the most striking shot of the film when Wanda's father is seen holding aloft the stillborn baby to the camera (surreally captured with an extreme fish-eyes lens)

Demon vision
Night of the Demon is terminally cheap, from its dated flute driven soundtrack which alternates with typical synthesizer weirdness, to its rough hewn cinematography. The film would be the sole cinematic outing for director James Wasson and much of the cast, although judging by the performances and occasional fluffed lines, perhaps that was a good thing. Worth noting that the film has some interesting parallels with another indie effort, The Blair Witch Project, sharing elements of the story (college kids go into the woods seeking out a local legend), and some comparable scenes - at one point in Night of the Demon, the students interview the townsfolk about the mythical demon, and in another moment the beast is seen attacking some campers from the point-of-view of a discarded camcorder.


Night of the Demon has been one of the more elusive of Video Nasties to make it to DVD, at least in the US. In Europe, the film was released on DVD in the UK courtesy of Vipco (cut) and in Germany by Retrofilm (uncut) both discs featuring less than stellar transfers. (My copy is sourced from a VHS rip). Code Red are set to release their edition of the film, scheduled for October and should be the definitive release.

Video Nasty #33 - Night of the Bloody Apes

You might feel a little short changed by the title of this film, considering it contains only one single ape, and throughout the film he’s referred to as a gorilla. No matter, Night of the Bloody Apes is notable for being the jumping off point for many Exploitation fans into the wild world of Mexican Fantastique. Directed by Réne Cardona in 1968, the film is actually an update on the director's earlier 1963 film Doctor of Doom, with an added injection of nudity and violence. The film might not have a legion of apes at it's disposal, but at least it's bloody...


A father's desperation to save his son from a terminal blood disease forces him to take drastic measures. The father, a head surgeon transplants his son's ailing heart with that of a gorilla. The operation at first seems a success but the road to recovery is littered with mutilation, murder and rape as the son transforms into a half-man half beast... Night of the Bloody Apes is essentially an old-fashioned Universal Horror film, a mix of mad science and monster mayhem updated with gore and nudity for the Blood Feast generation. That said, the film is uniquely Mexican with the inclusion of a superfluous subplot involving a masked Mexican female wrestler and her battles in the ring. Sadly, Cardona fumbles this element of film, and the expected finale, a gorilla vs wrestler smack down never materialises.


René Cardona, a giant in the annals of Mexican Exploitation Cinema brings an assured professionalism to the film despite the silliness of the story. The nudity is rather chaste compared to American B-movies of this era but the gore is plentiful and gleefully executed - throats are ripped, eyeballs gouged, one man is scalped while another is decapitated. The effects don't stand up to much scrutiny but Cardona imports some real-life eye-watering surgery footage during the transplant sequence guaranteed to sober up any gorehound. This footage is relatively brief but considering the amount of abrupt edits heard on the soundtrack during this sequence, the surgery footage might have been originally more expansive but underwent some last minute fine-tuning. Interestingly the sequence where the beast attacks a woman in her apartment features some explicit shots of the violated woman's bloodstained body which look like they might have been filmed some time after the original production wrapped, the inserts given away by the change in lighting and the fact that the beast's face is obscured.

Horror y Sexo !
Something Weird’s 2002 DVD of Night of the Bloody Apes is a real treat, the fullframe transfer looks gorgeous with strong colors, excellent detail and minimal print damage. Audio is equally robust with the film's score sound particularly punchy. Extras on the disc include some outtakes from the film, mostly botched effects and there’s the usual promo material like trailers and TV spots. This being a Something Weird disc, the DVD is kitted out with a number of odd short subjects relating to gorillas and wrestling. Also included on the disc is a second feature film, a tedious 1967 Argentine b/w horror called Feast of Flesh, directed by Emilio Vieyra of The Curious Case of Dr. Humpp fame.