Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: AMUCK! (1972)

(Italy - 1972; US release 1978)

Written and directed by Silvio Amadio. Cast: Farley Granger, Barbara Bouchet, Rosalba Neri, Nino Segurini, Umberto Raho, Patrizia Viotti, Dino Mele, Petar Martinovic. (R, 78 mins/85 mins/98 mins)

Following the huge success of the early gialli of Dario Argento after 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, the trailblazing Italian subgenre needed new ways to make the formula more appealing to audiences. Of course, the answer was to make them even more sensational by increasing the violence and sex at the expense of the craft and style that guys like Argento, Sergio Martino, and Mario Bava, whose 1964 classic BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was an early giallo prototype, brought to the more exemplary offerings. The giallo gets downright scuzzy by the time you get to 1975's STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, but it was around 1971-72 that gialli began getting a little more daring with how much they were willing to show. Films like Martino's THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL (both 1972), and YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972), Giuliano Carnimeo's THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1971), and Luciano Ercoli's FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (1970) and DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS (1971) invariably involve the rich and decadent artistic types (writers, photographers, models) basking in a world of privilege and luxury in gorgeous villas as a body count rises because of some past event obscured in a byzantine plot. Silvio Amadio's 1972 giallo ALLA RICERCA DEL PIACERE--translated: IN SEARCH OF PLEASURE--is one of the more flagrantly lewd contributions to the genre. It took six years to find a US distributor, when exploitation outfit Group 1 acquired it and released it under the catchy moniker AMUCK! in the summer of 1978. Group 1 was a prolific supplier of drive-in favorites throughout the mid-to-late 1970s like THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975), NAZI LOVE CAMP 27 (1977), Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC (1977), and PARTS: THE CLONUS HORROR (1979). The company's biggest successes were ALLIGATOR (1980) and THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), which was one of the major sleeper hits of its year. SWORD was so successful that Group 1 honcho Brandon Chase cashed out while he was ahead and closed down the company, taking the money he made from distributing grindhouse trash and forming the hugely-successful watch company Chase-Durer.

Because of its hyperbolic poster art promising such things as "An Explosion of Sexual Frenzy!" (which I'm guessing attracted more attention than "In Blazing Color") and its vaguely silly and exclamatory title, AMUCK! proved to be a durable drive-in and grindhouse hit for Group 1, who kept it in near-constant circulation into the early 1980s. Chase would frequently pair it up with other Group 1 titles like DR. TARR'S TORTURE DUNGEON (1973, acquired by Group 1 in 1976) and MEATCLEAVER MASSACRE (1977). As late as 1982, AMUCK! was still being shown at American drive-ins on the bottom half of a double bill with a re-released ALLIGATOR. And when Chase felt AMUCK! was getting too much exposure, he'd simply slap a new title on it and send it out again. The 98-minute AMUCK! was also released in an 85-minute version called MANIAC MANSION, and it played some areas in an even more-condensed 78-minute cut meaninglessly titled LEATHER AND WHIPS (meanwhile, AMUCK!'s UK distributor opted to christen it HOT BED OF SEX). It's doubtful that people were upset about seeing the film again and again, considering that Eurocult goddesses Barbara Bouchet (DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING) and Rosalba Neri (LADY FRANKENSTEIN) have an extended, slow-motion sex scene and spend a good chunk of the remainder of the film either completely nude or strutting around in skimpy lingerie or see-through gowns. Sure, there's a story and some people get killed and there's a mystery to solve, but with the rampant sleaze, the nudity, the Euro-lounge music (one song played to a striptease just has the singer repeatedly gasping "Sexually!"), the nudity, the dubbing, the nudity, the way the opening credits awkwardly cut from Bouchet on a gondola in scenic Venice to a plain AMUCK! title card, and the nudity, AMUCK! comes pretty close to perfectly encapsulating what this kind drive-in or Times Square grindhouse experience should be.

AMUCK! opens with Greta (Bouchet) arriving in Venice for her new job as an assistant to novelist Richard Stuart (Farley Granger, dubbing himself) after her predecessor Sally (Patrizia Viotti) has gone missing. But Greta has a secret: Sally was her lover and she's there to find out what happened to her. It doesn't take long for Eleanora to drug Greta and seduce her, a gateway for the young woman into the decadent life of debauchery, perversion, and homemade stag films enjoyed by the swinging Stuarts. In flashbacks, we see how Sally was drawn deeper into their hedonistic world. Even mentally-challenged handyman Rocco (Petar Martinovic) gets in on the action. While Eleanora carries on with Rocco and young boy-toy Sandro (Dino Mele), Greta allows herself to be seduced into a night of wild sex with Richard, even after she was convinced Richard and Eleanora were trying to kill her. Things get complicated when Sally's badly-decomposed body surfaces in a nearby lagoon, and while useless detective Antonelli (Nino Segurini) tries to get to the bottom of what happened, everyone else--except hapless butler Giovanni (Umberto Raho)--just keeps getting laid.

Amadio's script centers on a mystery that isn't particularly difficult to solve, and the big reveal isn't much of a reveal. But the notion of a homicidal writer using his own novel to strategize and secretly confess his murders is a clever one that would be utilized to a somewhat similar degree by Dario Argento a decade later in 1982's TENEBRE. AMUCK! also has a fumbling insertion of a potential supernatural subplot regarding Eleanora suddenly falling into a trance and Richard announcing she has ESP, but it's soon dropped and never mentioned again. And don't miss Greta pleading with dedicated man-of-action Detective Antonelli--who just rescued her from quicksand, which she fell into fleeing the shotgun-toting Stuarts--to believe her when she says Richard and Eleanora are trying to kill her, which he responds to by promptly excusing himself, hopping on a rowboat back to the heart of Venice, and leaving her at the isolated mansion for another night. Whatever interesting ideas Amadio (who had a largely undistinguished journeyman career, primarily as a screenwriter) brings to the table are quickly cast aside to get to the next nude scene, and that's precisely the reason why AMUCK! is undeniably fun, sleazy, trashy entertainment. You know a movie's going all in with the T&A when even a veteran of Hollywood's Golden Age like Farley Granger gets a sex scene where he gets to tilt his neck back in response to Richard receiving a just out-of-frame BJ from Bouchet's Greta.

Granger in a late 1940s publicity shot
When AMUCK! was shot in 1972, Granger was at the height of the busy Eurotrash phase of his career. Born in 1925, Granger was a Samuel Goldwyn prodigy who made a big splash with his film debut at 18 in THE NORTH STAR (1943) and he headlined two Alfred Hitchcock classics with 1948's ROPE and 1951's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. He was among the first Hollywood stars to test the waters of the burgeoning Italian film industry with Luchino Visconti's SENSO (1954), cut down and released in the US in 1955 as THE WANTON CONTESSA. Granger's big-screen career began to fizzle in the late 1950s, and he found his services were much more in-demand on Broadway and in television. By the early 1970s, Granger was living in Rome and working almost exclusively as the American export value in Italian genre films like the popular Terence Hill/Bud Spencer spaghetti western THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970), but mostly in sordid gialli like AMUCK!, SOMETHING CREEPING IN THE DARK (1971), THE RED-HEADED CORPSE (1972), KILL ME, MY LOVE (1973), DEATH WILL HAVE YOUR EYES (1974), and WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? (1974). One such thriller, SO SWEET, SO DEAD (1972) was released in the US in 1974 by grindhouse outfit William Mishkin Motion Pictures as THE SLASHER IS THE SEX MANIAC. In 1976, Mishkin gutted and retro-fitted SLASHER with US-shot hardcore inserts featuring American porn stars Harry Reems and Tina Russell, and edited the new footage in a way that made it appear that Granger's character was voyeuristically watching them. Mishkin released this drastically altered version on the XXX circuit in 1976 as PENETRATION, with Granger's name prominently displayed in print ads and poster art, which boasted the charming tag line "Some women deserve it!" PENETRATION was quickly withdrawn from release after an outraged Granger threatened legal action. In his bluntly honest 2007 memoir Include Me Out, Granger more or less admits these films were mostly trash, but he was getting lead roles that Hollywood wasn't offering, they paid well, and they allowed him to live a very comfortable life of luxury in Rome. By the time Group 1 released AMUCK! in the US, Granger had moved back to the States and was keeping busy with guest spots on TV shows like THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE LOVE BOAT, and in made-for-TV movies like THE LIVES OF JENNY DOLAN (1975). After starring in a pair of post-FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher films (1981's THE PROWLER and 1984's DEATH MASK), Granger worked sparingly in forgettable films like the Michael Nouri-headlined political thriller THE IMAGEMAKER (1986), had an obligatory MURDER, SHE WROTE guest spot, and from 1986-1988, had a recurring role on the daytime soap AS THE WORLD TURNS (more on that below). He left the business around 1990 but was talked out of retirement for a supporting role in the 2002 indie comedy THE NEXT BIG THING, starring then-Hal Hartley and Noah Baumbach regular Chris Eigeman. The film was barely seen outside of the festival circuit before getting dumped in video stores, and once more, Granger retired from acting.

Granger in his later years
Granger didn't go public until rather later in life, discussing it in the context of the movie industry as an interview subject in the 1995 documentary THE CELLULOID CLOSET, but in Hollywood circles, his bisexuality was an open secret throughout his career. The star was romantically linked to ROPE screenwriter Arthur Laurents, Shelley Winters, Leonard Bernstein, and French actor Jean Marais, and was engaged to Janice Rule at one point in the late 1950s. He met National Repertory Theater production manager and future AS THE WORLD TURNS producer Robert Calhoun in 1963 and they remained together until Calhoun's death in 2008. It was around the time of his memoir and after Calhoun's passing that Granger, still sharp and with a wry sense of humor, dove into the Raconteur Emeritus phase of his life, regularly giving interviews and doing Q&As at Hitchcock retrospectives, and screenings of other classic films in which he appeared going back to his Samuel Goldwyn days in the 1940s. While his career peaked early and his time as an A-list box-office draw ended by the late 1950s, Granger was happy to see that fans of Hollywood's classic era still remembered him and held him in high regard. Granger died in 2011 at 85.

Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri in a pivotal scene
vital to the advancement of the plot of AMUCK!
With the possible exception of Edwige Fenech, Bouchet and Neri are probably the most stunning B-movie Euro starlets of this time period (they also appeared together in the Italian thriller THE FRENCH SEX MURDERS the same year). Born in 1943, Bouchet started in Hollywood fare like CASINO ROYALE (1967) and SWEET CHARITY (1969) before becoming a fixture in gialli and polizia films in the 1970s. She quit acting in the late 1980s but emerged from retirement for a small role in Martin Scorsese's GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) and has since stayed very busy on Italian television. She's given many interviews over the years and pulls no punches, even attending a Quentin Tarantino-hosted screening of Antonio Margheriti's DEATH RAGE (1976), and giving the audience her unfiltered opinion about how much she hated working on the film with a rude and abusive Yul Brynner. Neri, sometimes credited as "Sara Bay," was born in 1939 and got an earlier start, appearing in some post-HERCULES peplum titles in the early 1960s but really hitting her stride around the time of AMUCK!, with 1971's LADY FRANKENSTEIN and 1973's THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT being particular favorites of her fans. Neri quit acting in the late 1970s before she even hit 40 but, like Bouchet, she's done numerous interviews in recent years, discussing her films that remain cult favorites today.

AMUCK! was released on VHS in a horribly cropped print by Catalina Video in the '80s but has been very difficult to see in the years since. Something Weird released it on VHS in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but it was the severely-cut, 78-minute LEATHER AND WHIPS print. The bootleg outfit Eurovista released it in the complete 98-minute version but it was just the visually compromised Catalina VHS master. Code Red recently unveiled what's--for now, at least--the best way to see AMUCK!, an occasionally and appropriately battered but still very watchable 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the 85-minute MANIAC MANSION cut (missing some exposition and dialogue, but the sexual content is intact), on the second half of a double feature "Spaghetti Cinema" DVD set with Alfonso Brescia's 1974 adventure comedy SUPER STOOGES VS. THE WONDER WOMEN, available exclusively through them. Since it's a crapshoot whether Code Red's web site--or company founder Bill Olsen, for that matter--will be functional on any given day, the fine folks at DiabolikDVD have purchased bulk quantities of Code Red product directly from Olsen to sell on their own site, subject to availability.

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