Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Retro Review: THE DEVIL'S HONEY (1986)

(Italy/Spain - 1986; US release 1991)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Ludovica Marineo, Vincenzo Salviani, Jesus Balcazar and Lucio Fulci. Cast: Brett Halsey, Corinne Clery, Blanca Marsillach, Stefano Madia, Bernard Seray, Paola Molina, Eulalia Ramon, Lucio Fulci. (Unrated, 83 mins)

With the release of 1979's ZOMBIE, genre-hopping journeyman Lucio Fulci established himself as the foremost Italian splatter auteur, launching a seemingly unstoppable run of trailblazing films over a few busy and prolific years--most of them produced by Fabrizio De Angelis--that ran until 1982's MANHATTAN BABY. It was during that film that the working relationship between Fulci and De Angelis went south after the producer slashed the film's budget by 75%. Following their acrimonious split, De Angelis started directing Italian ripoffs of American blockbusters under the name "Larry Ludman," while Fulci returned to his role as a director-for-hire, dabbling in the sword-and-sorcery CONQUEST, the post-apocalyptic THE NEW GLADIATORS, and the FLASHDANCE-inspired giallo MURDER-ROCK: DANCING DEATH. Some serious health issues sidelined Fulci for much of 1984 and all of 1985, and 1986's THE DEVIL'S HONEY marked a comeback of sorts, though he'd never attain the heights of fame and infamy that he had in the days of ZOMBIE, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, or THE BEYOND. The latter years of Fulci's career have a few interesting moments--fans generally cite TOUCH OF DEATH and his meta cut-and-paste job CAT IN THE BRAIN as the high points--but are mostly dreadful affairs like SODOMA'S GHOST, DEMONIA, and the boring DOOR TO SILENCE, a 1991 dud that proved to be his final film before his death in 1996. He was scheduled to direct the Dario Argento production WAX MASK, but his rapidly declining health forced him to back out and he was replaced by Italian makeup maestro Sergio Stivaletti, though Fulci did receive a co-writing credit on the film, released a year after his death.

THE DEVIL'S HONEY is an odd outlier in the later years of Fulci's filmography, primarily because it's a Skinemax-ready 9 1/2 WEEKS knockoff that isn't the kind of film one usually associates with the beloved Godfather of Gore. Essentially a sort-of Fifty Shades of Fulci, THE DEVIL'S HONEY is an extraordinarily trashy, S&M-crazed erotic thriller that took five years to get a straight-to-video US release in 1991, shorn of several minutes and generically retitled DANGEROUS OBSESSION. After over 25 years languishing in obscurity in the US, THE DEVIL'S HONEY has resurfaced on Blu-ray from Severin Films in its uncensored, 83-minute version (the trimming of the most explicit content took the DANGEROUS OBSESSION cut down to a mere 78 minutes) to allow fans to marvel at some often jaw-droppingly kinky Lucio After Dark sexcapades. Jessica (Blanca Marsillach) is a naive and submissive young woman being dominated in a sadomasochistic relationship by sleazy, saxophone-playing asshole Johnny (Stefano Madia). You know THE DEVIL'S HONEY will be something special when the first scene has Johnny kicking everyone out of the recording studio so Jessica can strip down to her panties and get off on the vibrations of the melody being blown through the bell of his grinding sax. That's almost immediately followed by Jessica giving him a handjob while they're speeding on his motorcycle and an episode of rough anal sex where she's shown growing more aroused each time she tells him to stop. Then we meet Dr. Wendell Simpson (Brett Halsey), a middle-aged surgeon who's grown bored with his wife Carol (Corinne Clery) and spends his free time meeting hookers for degrading quickies in no-tell hotels. When Johnny suffers a head injury after a motorcycle wipeout, he's rushed into surgery. Simpson is the surgeon on call, but he's so distracted by an argument he just had with Carol that he can't focus on the task at hand and Johnny dies on the operating table. Enraged, overwhelmed by grief, and so co-dependently addicted to being treated like shit by Johnny, Jessica snaps and confronts Simpson at gunpoint, forcing him to drive to Johnny's country house where, in between erotic fantasies about her dead lover and how much she misses being abused by him, she makes Simpson sit in his piss-soaked pants before stripping him nude, chains him to a wall, prances around in the buff to tease him, forces him to eat dog food, pours hot candle wax on him and generally humiliates him in between death threats brandishing the gun that Johnny would frequently use to penetrate her, which only serves to turn the surgeon on rather than frighten him.

Even for connoisseurs of the halcyon days of Eurotrash softcore porn, THE DEVIL'S HONEY stands alone. A year earlier, Fulci had a hand in the screenplay for LA GABBIA, aka THE TRAP, a film he wanted to direct but when his health made it impossible, the producers went ahead with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi (THE DIVINE NYMPH) at the helm. LA GABBIA, released straight to video in the US in 1988 as COLLECTOR'S ITEM, has some surface similarities to THE DEVIL'S HONEY: Tony Musante is a lothario who cheats on his girlfriend (Florinda Bolkan) with an old one-night stand ('70s Italian sex goddess Laura Antonelli), who snaps and holds him captive, treating him to the whole stripped-and-restrained, humiliation and degradation act. It even features Marsillach as Antonelli's daughter, who also has designs on Musante, who may or may not be her biological father from that 20-year-old one-nighter. Marsillach is up for absolutely anything in THE DEVIL'S HONEY: she's naked half the time, masturbating in nearly every other scene when she isn't delirious with anger, and enthusiastically dives into whatever depravity Fulci demanded. Clery has little to do and disappears about midway through the film, but with getting to take part in steamy sex scenes with a disrobed Clery and Marsillach, it's easy to see what drew Halsey to the project. Born in 1933, he was groomed for success by Hollywood studios in the 1950s but it didn't quite pan out (his most high-profile early role was probably starring with Vincent Price in RETURN OF THE FLY). Instead, he tested the waters of the European film industry in the 1960s where he found much more success in 007 knockoffs like SPY IN YOUR EYE and spaghetti westerns like TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE. He was married to future THUNDERBALL Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi from 1960 to 1962 and to popular German singer and actress Heidi Bruhl (THE EIGER SANCTION) from 1964 to 1976. For some reason, even though he was established and known in America and Europe and enjoyed a certain level of success as Brett Halsey, he inexplicably tried to reinvent himself and made a few movies from 1968-1970 using the name "Montgomery Ford." This only served to confuse his European fans and do nothing for his career, so he switched back to Brett Halsey when he decided to give Hollywood another go. He spent the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s doing countless guest spots on tons of TV shows, including mandatory stops on THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND (shockingly, he never ended up on a MURDER, SHE WROTE), in addition to writing several Harold Robbins-esque beach-read novels about the movie industry.

THE DEVIL'S HONEY marked Halsey's return to Europe, where he would spend the next several years working on films for Fulci (TOUCH OF DEATH), Bruno Mattei (COP GAME), Antonio Margheriti (THE COMMANDER), Luigi Cozzi (THE BLACK CAT), and Jess Franco (ESMERALDA BAY), while finding time to play the second husband of Diane Keaton's Kay Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART III. Halsey approaches the content of THE DEVIL'S HONEY as fearlessly as his alluring co-stars, whether it's brushing his mouth over Marsillach's pubic hair, removing Clery's fingers from her crotch and putting them right in his mouth, or groping a prostitute (Eulalia Ramon) in close-up as she masturbates with a fingernail polish brush (Halsey even gets naked in this thing, probably assuming none of his Hollywood friends would ever see it). He turns in a solid performance, even though he didn't stick around for the dubbing and has been revoiced by someone else. Halsey continued working on American TV in the 1990s and still pops up every now and again (his most recent TV credit is a 2008 episode of COLD CASE) in a low-budget DTV movie. These days, he mainly does conventions and gives interviews for Blu-ray releases of his old movies (he can be seen on the Criterion edition of the late '50s sci-fi cult movie THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE in their "Monsters and Madmen" set), and is revealed to be an engaging raconteur at 84 on the DEVIL'S HONEY bonus features. He speaks fondly of his old movies, doesn't dismiss the trashy ones, and doesn't pull any punches, saying Fulci was always nice to him but could be a tyrant with others, and flat-out admitting that he absolutely hated Marsillach and wished the film gave Clery more to do (he doesn't stop there, also saying that ESMERALDA BAY co-star Ramon Estevez--one of Martin Sheen's sons--was "a nice kid, a really nice kid," but had no business being in a movie). There isn't much in THE DEVIL'S HONEY that's distinctly Fulci--it's not a Filmirage production, but with its hazy, late '80s Filmirage look, it feels more akin to a Joe D'Amato movie than anything--but it's perversely sleazy, entertaining trash that's right alongside MURDER-ROCK as the standouts of his post-Fabrizio De Angelis years.

One of the more subtle moments of THE DEVIL'S HONEY

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