Saturday, 31 March 2012

Poor White Trash Part II

Hard to figure out who exactly are the scum of the earth in S.F Brownrigg's 1974 backwoods cult classic. The sleazy brutish patriarch Odis Pickett whose remote shack the long-suffering Helen takes refuge at ? Could it be Pickett's clapped-out alley tramp of a daughter who threatens her retarded brother with hexes and floats her favours among the local boys (as well as her father). Or maybe it's the mysterious homicidal maniac stalking the woods and killing the cast off with various sharp objects ? Either way, good, bad or indifferent, no one gets off lightly in the brooding, gloomy and downbeat world of a Brownrigg film.

Originally entitled Scum of the Earth, how Brownrigg's film settled on it's more well known title is one of those convoluted tales from the Babylonian days of Exploitation Cinema, stretching back to 1957 and the lurid Southern melodrama Bayou. In 1961 Bayou had been reworked into the more roughie-tinged Poor White Trash, and went on to earn a considerable profit for its distributor. Ten years later the film was still doing good business at drive-ins, so much so that Dimension Pictures distributed the film in the mid-70's on a double-bill with Scum of the Earth, now renamed Poor White Trash Part II. The name evidently stuck - US label Magnum put the film out on VHS in the mid-80's under that title while in the UK, Intervision distributed the film on video (in that incredible sleeve above) simply as Poor White Trash, which must have confused punters when the title on the actual print included the Part II suffix. The film opens with newly weds Helen and Paul arriving at a lakeside cabin, but before they can begin their honeymoon, an unseen assassin buries an axe in Paul's chest. Helen flees in terror deeper into the woods and chances upon local Odis Pickett who brings Helen back to his home where she is effectively held prisoner and subjected Pickett's perverse designs...

Made around the same time as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and featuring a braless and bell bottomed actress who could have stumbled out of Hooper's film, Poor White Trash is relatively restrained in what it shows onscreen - a few spurts of blood, a rape that mercifully cuts away before the actual assault, but the film positively oozes a thick sinister atmosphere, much like Brownrigg's best work. As with the director's previous film, Don't Look In the Basement, Poor White Trash confines itself to mostly one location - Pickett's ancient looking shack which may well be one of Cinema's least alluring places, with its vomit-colored mouldering wallpaper and decidedly rickety furniture which looks like it may fall asunder at any moment. This is a film which grates on the senses - from the eccentric soundtrack, which features a truly depressing theme song ("Death is a Family Affair") to the inconsistent exterior day-for-night photography, a technical limitation of the production no doubt, creating a weird disorientating effect where the sense of time is gradually eroded. Helen may have slipped the clutches of the maniac patrolling the woods, but she might as well be marooned on a hostile alien world.

The low-budget look of the film is apprarent, but Poor White Trash is an accomplished piece of work. Unusually for a film of this kind, the cast is quite strong, most of them regulars in the Brownrigg repertory. First and foremost, the crater-faced Gene Ross as the sneering Odis Pickett is wonderfully greasy, you can almost smell the stale moonshine breath as he wrestles with that unruly comb-over. Marvellous too is Camilla Carr as the whore-ish daughter Sarah, landing the film's best line, when in a fit of jealously over her father wanting a little talk with Helen, private like, declares "Yeah, I know what kind of private you got in mind. The same one you been pokin' in me since I was gone on twelve" Fine support too from Ann Stafford as the dreamy but kind-hearted wife Emmy, (sold to Odis by her father to pay a debt) and Charlie Dell as the mildly retarded son Bo. Brownrigg's direction is impressive too, with some eerie prowling camerawork around the woods (prefiguring the killer POV shots of Friday the 13th by five years), and some aggressive close-ups making the film feel all the more uptight. Complimenting Brownrigg's visuals, is Mary Davis' excellent script full of ripe dialogue (at one point Odis says to Emmy, "What make you think I'd wanna poke a blow'd up balloon like you") and brilliantly conveys Helen's predicament with a simple line or two, like in a scene where Helen decides to brave the woods to reach a neighbour's phone, and is taunted and discouraged by Odis "Ol' Tom and his boys, theys generally pretty liquor'd up coming evening...they ain't got no womenfolk to care of 'em". Nasty stuff indeed.

Back in 2009 Grindhouse Releasing annouced a full blown special edition of Poor White Trash, under the Scum of the Earth title, and promised an extensive restoration of the film from the best surviving elements, plus comprehensive extras covering the making of the film, but at the time of writing this release has yet to materialize. The film is still included as part of Grindhouse's roster of films so perhaps a DVD is still on the cards. The trailer can be viewed over at their website.

Monday, 26 March 2012

First look at The Devils DVD

Favourite films are always the hardest to write about so I'll spare you my indelicate ramblings about Ken Russell's great masterpiece. When it comes to The Devils, I can only speak in superlatives. It's a shame that the BFI could not secure a Blu-Ray release of The Devils, but I've stopped speculating on Warners' very peculiar relationship with the film. Blu-Ray aside, the 2-disc BFI edition is about as definitive as it gets. The film itself looks stunning - it's been years since I've seen it in its original 2.35 aspect ratio, not since the Warners VHS edition released in the UK in the late '90's (as part of their Mavericks series). The DVD was sourced from an excellent print and restores some quick shots of gore during the torture sequences. Simply put The Devils has never looked and sounded so sumptuous. In addition to the fantastic presentation, the BFI have supplied some fascinating extras which I've cobbled together a few quick notes on.

Disc 1 kicks off with an audio commentary (recorded in 2002) with Ken Russell, Devils editor Michael Bradsell, Mark Kermode and Hell On Earth director Paul Joyce. I must confess I haven't had the time to listen to this yet but by all accounts it's a good one, Russell always good company for commentary tracks. Next up, are the UK and US trailers for The Devils, and both make for an interesting comparison. The UK trailer is surprisingly highbrow, and perhaps due to the film's bumpy ride through the office of the BBFC, plays down the more salacious aspects of the film. The voice-over offers a useful primer on the historical background of the film, and name drops some French scholars and writers who have studied the possession at Loudun (although strangely omits Aldous Huxley who's book provided the main source of information for Russell's screenplay). The US trailer is by contrast a little lighter, the film presented like a proto-nunspoitation drama but this time the voice-over offers a word of caution ("The Devils is not a film for everyone")

Title card from the UK trailer
US trailer
The second extra on disc 1 and perhaps the most enjoyable on the entire set is Russell's film Amelia & the Angel, a very charming 25min short about a little girl on a mission to recover a pair of angel wings in time for her nativity play. Her adventure takes her miles from home and Amelia encounters various oddball characters but finally persistence and a prayer pays off when she receives a gift from the Heavens... Made in 1958, Amelia & the Angel is remarkable in that much of Russell's signature style was already established - his imaginative use of music (a mixture of music box ditties, vaudeville tunes and classical cuts), surreal humour (a somersaulting dog) and Russell's talent with visuals. The film includes a number of striking travelling shots, some excellent location work - at one point Amelia's quest brings her to a dilapidated railway station where she meets a down on his luck circus performer, and a few magical Cocteau like touches, like a scene where Amelia encounters a strange apparition on a staircase, which turns out to be a man carrying a gown.

Mercedes Quadros as Amelia, offering up a silent prayer for a pair of angel wings

Disc 2 kicks off with Paul Joyce's excellent 48min documentary, Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of the Devils. Made in 2002 to coincide with Channel 4's one-off screening of the reconstructed director's cut of The Devils (which included the legendary Rape of Christ and bone sequences), this is a superb love-letter to Russell's film, with just about everybody involved in the production (as well as critics, commentators and then BBFC examiner Ken Penry) gathered together to share their memories. One of the more interesting participants in the documentary is a Catholic priest who worked for the Legion of Decency, and his comments on the Rape of Christ sequence (which he feels is an integral and justified part of the film) are particularly illuminating. Some of the anecdotes are priceless, like Russell beating critic Alexander Walker over the head with a copy of the Evening Standard on a TV talkshow, after Walker's put-down of the film. Elsewhere Vanessa Redgrave admits the gooey concoction she is forced to ingest during her exorcism was in fact soup, extras recall the joie de vivre of being a naked nun, and Russell remembers botching the cue for a explosion effect, which allows actor Murray Melvin the funniest line in the documentary. Incidentally, Paul Joyce had to recut his film when Warners this time refused permission to show the Rape of Christ sequence in the documentary - originally the sequence was seen in its entirety in the documentary, but now only a fragment of it remains (as well as quick edit of the bone sequence). It's not a major loss by any means, and Joyce compensates by extending some of the interviews but if you have a copy of the documentary in its original form, it's worth hanging onto.

A reunion of devils - left to right, DP David Watkin, Murray Melvin, Ken Russell, actress Georgina Hale and Mark Kermode, from the Hell on Earth documentary
Next up is a fascinating 22min promotional film entitled Director of Devils filmed during the production of the film, and featuring Russell en route to the set discussing his reasons for making the film. There's also some terrific footage of Russell choreographing extras and shooting scenes with Oliver Reed. Best of all is some footage of composer Peter Maxwell Davies recording the film's extraordinary score, the players armed appropriately enough with a battery of strange and exotic musical instruments and devices.

A youthful looking Peter Maxwell Davies recording The Devils fiery score
More footage of the production is seen in Michael Bradsell's silent 8mm footage shot around the Pinewood set, included here with a commentary from Bradsell. Some of this invaluable footage was incorporated into the Hell On Earth documentary but much of it has not been seen before. Bradsell camera catches gangs of set decorators working on Derek Jarman's huge sets, and actors and crew preparing to film the Blackbird sequence, while Bradsell points out some key personnel such as Russell's then wife and collaborator Shirely. This footage runs just 8min but is fascinating nonetheless.

Ken Russell in relaxed humour shooting at Pinewood gardens
The final extra on the DVD is a 13min Q&A with Ken Russell and Mark Kermode filmed at the NFT in 2004. Russell appears in good form and discusses his love of classical music (citing Prokofiev's 1927 opera The Fiery Angel as a key influence), the suppression of his 1970 Strauss biopic Dance of the Seven Veils, and his Catholic faith. It's not a terribly important piece but it's a worthwhile addition.

Finally, the DVD set comes with an excellent 44-page booklet featuring essays on The Devils, a fine piece on Derek Jarman's contribution to the film, tributes to Ken Russell and Oliver Reed, and the BBFC's Craig Lapper provides a detailed account of The Devils long and troubled history with the Board. All said, this BFI DVD is a magnificent and revelatory package for fans of The Devils who have waited years to see Russell's masterwork get the digital treatment. My highest recommendation.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Emanuelle In America

A powerful rebuttal to naysayers who dismiss Italian Exploitation films as mere rip-offs, Emanuelle In America is a fine example of how the Italians imposed their own unique slant on the latest cinematic trends, and beat everyone else at their own game. Made just three years after the original 1974 Emmanuelle, Joe D'Amato's film with it's staggering mix of hardcore sex and gruesome violence seems an awful long way from Sylvia Kristel's soft-focus fumblings. Before Blue Underground's landmark release of the film in 2003, the full uncut version was seen only by a small cadre of savvy film collectors and thanks to coverage in the underground press, the film amassed a near mythological reputation. Even after 10 years of the film being widely available on DVD, Emanuelle In America is one of the few films from the Golden Age of Exploitation which still retains it's power to shock and awe1.

After her romp across Bangkok and Casablanca in the previous episode, Emanuelle finally gets down to some serious investigative journalism, first infiltrating a millionaire's mansion (as the new girl in his harem, naturally) to gather evidence of illegal arms smuggling, followed by a quick visit to Venice to do a story on the decadent rich, and finally returning to the US where she goes undercover at a stud farm for rich women who like to be serviced by well hung beefcake, which leads to the discovery of so-called snuff films... Wayward plotting is one of the hallmarks of the Black Emanuelle series, but nowhere is it more evident than Emanuelle In America, the most episodic of the films, and best understood as D'Amato's take on the Mondo film (in fact D'Amato would make a genuine mondo in 1978 called among other things, Emanuelle and the Porno Nights with Laura Gemser as the hostess). D'Amato admitted that the film was as much a response to French distributors who were looking for something stronger from the next Black Emanuelle film, but America feels like D'Amato was testing the limits with this genuinely provocative work - as well as introducing harder sex into the series, the film features some bestiality, in a scene where a woman is masturbating a horse, a taboo usually confined to underground stag loops. One wonders what French cinema-goers made of it all back in 1977.

Of course the film's other major talking point is the final section where Emanuelle chances upon a snuff film and follows the trail of breadcrumbs back to a US senator who invites her along to witness (albeit drugged) one in production. Unlike the ludicrous hit and run attempt that was Snuff, the sadistic torture footage seen in Emanuelle In America feels uncomfortably authentic. The footage D'Amato shot for this sequence was deteriorated to the point where it resembled a worn, grungy 8mm loop. What is interesting about these scenes is that when Emanuelle actually visits the torture chamber where a murder is being filmed, there is no distinction from what she actually sees and the earlier ragged looking loop - which implies a continuity error, or perhaps D'Amato had something more subversive in mind, intending to hoodwink the audience into believing the footage was genuine, that he had appropriated it, much like old World War II newsreel footage was used in war films in the place of expensive special effects. Even more disturbing the sequence ends as the senator lifts up Emanuelle's dress as they watch the carnage unfold - the spectacle of torture and murder as titillation. Ultimately D'Amato shows his hand in the otherwise superfluous coda of the film when Emanuelle and her boyfreind are seen relaxing at a native village, only to discover that it is in fact a film set, D'Amato suggesting that everything can be faked.

The atrocity exhibition
Blue Underground's fully uncut DVD of Emanuelle In America was a heaven-sent release for fans of European Cult Cinema, and a huge leap forward from fuzzy nth generation copies of the rare Venezuelan Telehobby tape. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer looks fantastic, while the snuff sequences retain their distressed beaten up texture. The English audio is fine too. Extras include an 11min audio interview with Laura Gemser (with a great selection of stills and promo art as a visual accompaniment). Next up is a 13min interview with Joe D'Amato, taken from the feature length Joe D'Amato: Totally Uncut! documentary (which was later made available awkwardly enough split over Shriek Show's Images In A Convent and Anthropophagous DVDs). The final extra is a very worthwhile text essay on the Black Emanuelle series by the ever reliable David Flint.


1. Emanuelle In America has long been associated with Videodrome - David Cronenberg cited the film as an inspiration when he spoke to Tim Lucas on the set of Videodrome, when Lucas was writing for Cinefantastique. (See Emanuelle In America DVD review, Video Watchdog #99)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Emanuelle In Bangkok

This, the first official Black Emanuelle sequel arrived in 1976 and in many ways is a defining moment, fully establishing the template that made the series so superior to the official run of Emmanuelle films. The dropping of Black from the character's name signaled a more expansive, confident type of Emanuelle film (although it would return briefly for Black Emanuelle White Emanuelle), and the film would mark the first significant collaboration between Joe D'Amato and Laura Gemser. D'Amato had previously directed Gemser in a bit part in his 1976 sex comedy Vow of Chasity, and their working relationship continued with the Emanuelle series and films such as Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, Caligula II: The Untold Story, The Alcove, and the 11 Days 11 Nights series, before D'Amato settled into fulltime porno production in the mid-90's, and Gemser retired from the film business.

In the film, Emanuelle journeys to Bangkok to do a photo-essay on Thailand's royal family. After receiving the hopitality of Prince Sanit, Emanuelle is forced to flee the country when the Prince is involved in a failed coup. Emanuelle goes to Casablanca to meet with her on and off boyfriend Roberto and begins a new relationship with the sensitive teenage daughter of an American diplomat... Anyone who had forsaken Joe D'Amato after the long slog through Antropophagus or Porno Holocaust, would do well to catch Emanuelle In Bangkok, one of the director's breeziest and most entertaining films. Unlike Emanuelle In America and Emanuelle Around the World, this episode has little shock value, Emanuelle's globe-trotting, bed-hopping antics would make a fine introduction to the series. The nudity and sex is near relentless over the 90mins or so, but D'Amato's previous career as a cameraman serves him well and the film always looks stylish without looking like a Chanel advert.

For the armchair tourist, D'Amato steals some fantastic shots of historical sites around Bangkok, and fans of mondo weirdness will enjoy some furious Thai sword-fighting, a sequence with a stripper and her ping-pong ball swallowing pussy, as well as a real-life fight to the death between a cobra and a mongoose. Emanuelle as a character emerges here as a powerful sexual being, her sensuality liberating a vacuous American couple and a frigid female archaeologist. The film has some tender moments as well, like Emanuelle's love affair with the teenage girl, confused about her sexuality, but still has one instance of unbridled sleaze when Emanuelle is gangraped (again!) by some rough and ready royal security guards - and befriends them following the attack (?)

Laura Gemser has rarely looked more stunning than she does here, both in and out of her seemingly endless wardrobe, and her commitment to the role is impressive to say the least, especially in the aforementioned rape sequence where she's pawed and clawed by some ugly extras. Gabrielle Tinti returns from the first film, cast here as Roberto, and was perhaps hired as moral support for his leading lady - Gemser and Tinti were lovers since Black Emanuelle, and would later marry during the production of Emanuelle In America. Tinti continued to appear alongside his wife for the rest of the series, apart from Emanuelle Around the World. Excellent support too from Ivan Rassimov as the memorably sinister Prince Sanit. Rassimov was on something of a roll at this point in his career, coming off a pair of brutal crime thrillers, Umberto Lenzi's Rome Armed to the Teeth and Massimo Dallamano's Colt 38 Special Squad, before departing Bangkok for the rain forest in Deodato's Last Cannibal World.

Emanuelle In Bangkok is available as part of Severin's Black Emanuelle's Box Vol. 1 and is a very good presentation over all. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer is very solid, if a little grainy in parts, but the colors are strong and the level of detail is impressive (especially in the sequence when Emanuelle visits the pagodas of Bangkok). The print used is in generally good shape with only a few fleeting instances of damage and instability. Worth mentioning the opening and closing credit sequences are sourced from a French VHS, and are noticeably soft looking. The English dub sounds absolutely fine, while the disc features two extras - a theatrical trailer and an interesting if inessential 13min interview with D'Amato recorded at a UK Horror festival. A UK DVD is also available from Optimum but it has been shorn of over 4mins of footage courtesy of the BBFC, making the disc irrelevant.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Black Emanuelle 2

Despite the success of Black Emanuelle, director Bitto Albertini was not chosen to helm the follow-up. Laura Gemser had been spirited away to take the titular role in Emanuelle In Bangkok, the first of a series of Emanuelle films directed by Joe D'Amato, which more of less forms the backbone of the official Black Emanuelle series. Not to be outdone, Albertini forged ahead with a rival production, Black Emanuelle No. 2 (as it's known on the English-language print), and cast model Shulamith Lasri as his new heroine. The result was a Black Emanuelle film in name only as Albertini ditched the bohemian, sexually voracious Emanuelle of the previous film for something much more different...

In the film, Emanuelle is under the care Dr. Paul, a psychiatrist determined to find the cause of Emanuelle's violent distaste for sexual contact, and her increasingly fragmented psyche. Paul investigates Emanuelle's past and uncovers a cataclysmic event responsible for her disturbed state of mind... The odd man out of the series, Black Emanuelle No. 2 is best compared with the third Halloween film, Season of the Witch and it's attempt to break away from the previous films, and perhaps Albertini felt similarly, in the wake of Gemser's departure. Watching the film in close succession with the previous installment, the tonal shift is even more conspicuous. While the original film quite readily dispensed with the pretensions, Black Emanuelle No. 2 is a busy, sometimes incoherent mix of flashbacks and imaginary episodes, some of which work, like the film's genuinely disorientating opening sequence; while other fail, like a cringe worthy scene where Emanuelle remembers her father as a drunken bum on the corner of skid row.

The problem with Black Emanuelle No. 2 is that Albertini dispensed with all the elements that made the first film a success. Here the director forgoes exotic visuals in favour of some well trodden New York locations (which inadvertently makes the film look like a Blaxploitation number), with Albertini constantly shooting his actors against the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty or Rockefeller Center. It's quite a stage bound film as well, much of the story takes place at Dr. Paul's clinic whose residents seemingly add up to two Shock Corridor-style patients, a crazy general and a woman who walks a toy dog. Aggravating that is Gemser's absence from the film. Her stand-in, the dour-faced Shulamith Lasri as Emanuelle, simply doesn't cut it, despite being propped up with good turns from Angelo Infanti and Don Powell (both returning from the first film as different characters), and not surprisingly the model turned actress slipped into obscurity after this one-shot gig.

As a skinflick Black Emanuelle No. 2 is no great shakes either. Unlike the original, the film was shot only in a soft version, and some ample female nudity aside and the highly charged opening scene, the film is low of eroticism and sleaze. Bizarrely, Albertini who co-authored the screenplay set Emanuelle up to be a mass of sexual neuroses, (which requires little onscreen action) although a threesome sequence late in the film with Dr. Paul's nymphomaniac niece (?) and a Coney Island stud (whose claim to fame is hanging an anchor off his cock) would seem to cheerfully contradict Emanuelle's problems. All told, Black Emanuelle No. 2 is a curiosity and if it was Albertini's intention to turn the Emmanuelle formula on it's head, it's an admirable one, but the film ultimately doesn't add up to much, and can only be recommended as part of a study of the entire series.

Black Emanuelle No. 2 is available as part of Severin's 3-disc boxset Black Emanaulle Box Vol. 2 from 2007. The 1.85 image looks very nice, with good detail, and only a minimal amount of grain. The audio is strong, and dialogue is perfectly clear. Two extras are offered - the theatrical trailer, and a 15-min interview with cast member Dagmar Lassander (better known as the real estate agent in House By the Cemetery) who reminisces about her acting career in Italy (but makes no mention of Black Emanuelle No. 2 !)

Friday, 9 March 2012

Black Emanuelle

In 1974, porn went mainstream with the release of Just Jaeckin's film Emmanuelle, a riff on The Story of O shot with the soft-focus style of a Vogue magazine spread that scored a huge box office hit worldwide. A flood of inevitable sequels, imitations and rip-offs soon followed, among them a series of Italian films which became known as the Black Emanualle series, devised by producer Mario Mariani and director Bitto Albertini who brazenly sidesteped copyright concerns by dropping the second m from the Emmanuelle title. Compiling a definitive filmography of the series is tricky with so many official and unofficial films and spinoffs but it's generally agreed that the series includes Black Emanuelle (1975), Black Emanuelle 2 (1976), Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976), Emanuelle in America (1976), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), and Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade (1978). The series' lynchpin was Dutch-Indonesian model Laura Gemser, a mesmirizing beauty first spotted in a minor role in Emmanuelle 2, and elevated to her first starring role in Black Emanuelle...

A simple amalgam of sex film and travelogue, the sliver of a plot concerns international photographer Mae Jordan (otherwise known by her nom de plume Emanuelle) sent to African on assignment where she indulges her sexual appetites among the wealthy decadent European expatriates she stays with... Black Emanuelle is a lazy film. The story offers a number of dramatic situations as Emanuelle hops from body to body, bed to bed seducing both of her married hosts, but there's barely a ripple of jealousy or betrayal in her wake. Perhaps, a commentary on the jaded lifestyles of the bourgeoisie but I doubt it. Even Emanuelle’s photographic work is largely forgotten - at one stage she declines a trip to the foothills of Kilimanjaro, and instead seems content to snap nude pics of her female host posing against the scenery, and there's a token sequence where Emanuelle takes her Nikon with her on safari to photograph some very nervous looking animals - and who could blame them with an Italian film crew nearby.

Of course in these kind of films melodrama is just padding between bonking sessions and thankfully Black Emanuelle is loaded with sex and nudity. Gemser looks particularly fresh-faced and beautiful here and commands complete attention in and out of her clothes. Gemser makes it with most of the cast, men and women, as well as some lucky incidental characters, but wisely refrained from taking part in the hardcore scenes. The hardcore footage was actually shot on set, and aside from the use of obvious body-doubles, these scenes are not too jarring unlike say the hard cut of Franco's Female Vampire which had its hardcore inserts filmed much later. Still, the film has a strange innocent charm, hardcore and all, in some part due to the gossamer soundtrack of Nico Fidenco, and director Bitto Albertini photographing Gemser amongst some lush scenery, including one marvelous sequence where Emanuelle seduces one of her suitors against the backdrop of a magnificent gushing waterfall. Only once does the film get genuinely down and dirty, when Emanuelle is gang raped by a loutish football team, and in that odd convention of 70's Cinema comes to enjoy her ordeal.

For English-speaking fans Black Emanuelle has been difficult to get a hold of in it's full strenght version. At the time of writing, there is no official DVD edition in the US. In the UK the film is available courtesy of Optimum, and while it features a decent transfer (and is very cheap), the BBFC saw fit to remove well over a minute of hardcore footage, leaving some very jarring edits. Thankfully, there's an alternative - Italian label Stormovie put the film out in 2008 in it's full uncut version and includes the English dub track. The non-anamorphic 1.85 transfer taken from a clean, damage free print is generally very good, if slightly soft looking (which is most likely how the film was shot), and sporting a faint greenish hue. The English audio track is for the most part adequate although some dialogue can lack focus - no English subs are provided but you can't have everything I suppose. The only extra provided on the disc is a French trailer, but the DVD comes with what looks like an excellent booklet about the film, with some nice poster art but sadly only Italian text is provided. The disc is currently available at and is highly recommended.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Horror Hospital

As the sixties drew to a close, Antony Balch's film career began to gather momentum. In 1969 Balch wrote and directed the sex comedy Secrets of Sex for producer Richard Gordon. Secrets of Sex was an oddity, it's episodic structure owed something to William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and the novel's dense tapestry of seemingly unconnected routines. Balch in fact had been nursing his dream project to make a film of Naked Lunch for some time. While Brion Gysin was working on the screenplay, Balch began another collaboration with Richard Gordon, a horror comedy shot in 1972 about a Benway-esque surgeon who performs unspeakable surgical procedures on the brains of hippie dropouts at the secluded Horror Hospital...

A minor classic of British Horror, and a divisive one among fans, Horror Hospital is one of the more eccentric Horror films from the early seventies, a memorable mix of splatter, comedy and a notable streak of perversity. Horror comedies are best approached with caution but Horror Hospital is thankfully more Abominable Dr. Phibes than Bloodbath at the House of Death, and Balch deftly balances horror movie clichés with some memorable idiosyncrasies, like Doctor Storm’s car with its retractable blades that lop off heads of runaway patients (seen in the striking pre-credit sequence). Directed with imagination and flair, Horror Hospital was proof enough that Antony Balch had successfully made the transition from Underground Film to commercial Cinema. There’s some good fun to be had from the cast too. Robin Askwith looking like a Jagger wannabe equips himself well as the hero thoroughly disgusted with the lobotomized guests and bathroom taps that gush blood. Dennis Price turns up in two scenes and almost steals the show as an old queen who shepards victims to the hospital, while Michael Gough is excellent as the sinister surgeon, and so too is Ellen Pollock with that extraordinary face of hers, playing Storm’s partner-in-crime and ex-whorehouse madam, Olga.

Balch ever the cinephile includes some nods towards favourite films - the plot borrows from House of Wax, and Michael Gough plays Storm in full Bela Lugosi mode (Balch met Lugosi when the actor performed Dracula on stage in England in 1951, and allegedly had a copy of the lost Lugosi film Lock Up Your Daughters from 1959). The black leather clad motorcycle guards who patrol the hospital grounds remind one of Jean Coctaeu's Orphée, while Balch in perhaps a nod to Freaks cast midget Skip Martin as one of Storm's henchmen, the most sympathetic character in the film. Interestingly, Horror Hospital has certain similarities with Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show musical. Both feature a transvestite death-rock star, as well as similar plots - in Balch's film a couple arrive at the home of a mad scientist who keeps lobotomized zombies working out in the gymnasium, while in the musical, a newly engaged couple arrive at the home of a mad scientist who is engineering a muscle man creature. Horror Hospital's release predates the opening of Richard O'Brien's musical by just a few months, so it's perhaps best put down as one of those weird coincidences.

Horror Hospital was released in 1973 on a double-bill with The Corpse Grinders (although a more appropriate pairing would have been with Flesh for Frankenstein), and despite it's success, the film was Balch’s last directing gig. Balch had funnelled much of his own money into the Naked Lunch adaptation but the film was ultimately doomed - Brion Gysin’s screenplay became increasingly removed from Burroughs’ book with each successive draft. Burroughs himself described the screenplay as "long on burlesque and included a series of music-hall comedy songs". Other film projects fell by the wayside and Balch continued to work in film distribution, primarily sexploitation. As the decade wore on he became increasingly dogged by ill-health, eventually diagnosed as stomach cancer. Balch died in April 1980. Horror Hospital remains an important film in the cannon of British Horror Cinema, illustrating the sea change that was taking place with similar-minded independant films like Frightmare and Vampyres, which offered something decidedly more cutting edge than the "safe" entertainments of Hammer and Amicus.

Horror Hospital first surfaced on DVD way back in 2001 on the Elite label (which is the copy under review here), and featured an excellent 1.85 transfer. The print used for the DVD was sourced from producer Richard Gordon and was virtually flawless. The Elite edition contained one single extra, the amusing British trailer which was light on actual footage from the film but big on hyperbole. The Elite DVD is now OOP but in 2010 Dark Sky released their edition, featuring a more vibrant transfer and adding an excellent, comprehensive commentary track by Richard Gordon. Recommended.