Tuesday, August 11, 2020


(US - 2020)

Written and directed by Amy Seimetz. Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Josh Lucas, Adam Wingard, Michelle Rodriguez, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Madison Calderon, James Benning, Oden Mack. (R, 85 mins)

Amy Seimetz is no stranger to the indie mumblecore scene with roles in films like THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, UPSTREAM COLOR, and YOU'RE NEXT, and co-creating the acclaimed Starz series THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, but she's also turned up in bigger and more widely-seen projects like ALIEN: COVENANT and had a recurring role on STRANGER THINGS. Channeling her inner John Cassavetes, she called in favors from some friends and reportedly used the paycheck she received for starring in last year's instantly forgotten PET SEMATARY remake to fund her latest writing/directing effort, SHE DIES TOMORROW. An intriguing apocalyptic horror film of sorts, SHE DIES TOMORROW stars Kate Lyn Sheil as Amy, a recovering alcoholic who's just bought her first home and is in the process of unpacking when she's overcome with an all-consuming sense of dread that she's going to die tomorrow. She calls her friend Jane (Jane Adams) and has already relapsed with several bottles of wine before Jane gets to the house. After telling Amy to sleep it off, Jane goes home and is soon stricken with the same paralyzing fear. She heads to her brother Jason's (Chris Messina) house, despite having already bailed on her bitchy sister-in-law Susan's (Katie Aselton) birthday party. Jane's incessant talk of dying tomorrow infuriates Susan, but hits a nerve with their party guests Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim). Soon, Jason and Susan are affected by the same crushing feeling of impending death that they're certain will come for them the next day.

If you can imagine a mash-up of PONTYPOOL, IT FOLLOWS, and Don McKellar's LAST NIGHT filtered through the surreal colorgasms of Panos Cosmatos and infused with the disconnect and alienation of vintage Antonioni, you sorta have an idea what SHE DIES TOMORROW is getting at. It's a pandemic of existential dread and anxiety, and though the film wrapped before the advent of COVID-19, the unintentional metaphorical implications are right there. Flashbacks and a non-linear structure (of course) show how the virus was transmitted to Amy via a new boyfriend (Kentucker Audley), but by the time Jane is passing it on to her brother and sister-in-law, their friends, and an ER doc (Josh Lucas), things become repetitive and Seimetz is just spinning her wheels. In the end, it's more of a stylistic exercise than anything else, and ultimately ends up coming off almost like an indie mumblecore parody. And that's even after it somehow recovers--for a while, at least--from an off-putting opening 20 minutes that's disorienting by design but ultimately doesn't really have anywhere else to go or anything else to say. Seimetz obviously has some directing chops and some dark comedic bits work (Amy doing some urn shopping online, a stressed Jane taking some time to step on some bubble wrap for that cathartic pop that everyone loves), but the tiresome SHE DIES TOMORROW just grows more tedious and pretentious as it goes on. And the incessant deployment of Mozart's "Requiem"--a clever choice in that it was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1791--ends up feeling like a highbrow riff on "Rocky Mountain High" from FINAL DESTINATION.

Thursday, August 6, 2020


(US - 2020)

From the folks at Quiver Distribution, the company that gave us THE FANATIC, comes the pre-fab cult heist flick MONEY PLANE, which would've been much more entertaining as a viral fake trailer instead of the actual terrible movie it's selling. Feeling drawn-out even at a mere 82 minutes, MONEY PLANE manages to corral the kind of slumming cast that Uwe Boll would put together if he was still in the game. But the guilty party here is director/co-writer Andrew Lawrence, the least-known of the Lawrence brothers, though he does provide Joey and Matthew with supporting roles. MONEY PLANE seemingly wants to be the SNAKES ON A PLANE of heist movies by letting you know that it's on the joke, but it fumbles so badly that it has a character exclaim "Whoa!" and it's not the one played by Joey Lawrence. After a botched attempt to steal a $40 million painting from an art museum only to find that it's already gone when they get there, man-bunned professional thief Jack Reese (Adam Copeland, aka WWE's "Edge") and his crew realize they've been set up. The mastermind? Self-aggrandizing crime lord Darius Emmanuel Grouch III, aka "The Rumble" (Kelsey Grammer), a cigar-sucking, art collecting asshole who bought a huge debt belonging to recovering gambling addict Reese and now expects him to work it off (cue The Rumble growling "I own you"). The job? Reese and his crew--Isabella (Katrina Norman), Trey (Patrick Lamont Jr), and Iggy (Andrew Lawrence)--are going to steal $1 billion in cryptocurrency and $40 million cash from the "Money Plane," an illegal "casino in the sky" that caters to rich criminals and is untouchable since it only flies in international airspace. The stakes? If Reese doesn't play ball, The Rumble will have his wife (Denise Richards) and daughter (Emma Gordon) killed.

Anything goes on the Money Plane (The Rumble: "You can even bet on a man fuckin' an alligator!"), and the clientele includes the world's highest-paid assassins and international weapons dealers, so Reese fits right in going incognito as a notorious human trafficker. But he manages to break away and commandeer the cockpit (he's also an experienced pilot) as Isabella and Trey are left to hack the database while Iggy does tech support on the ground. Overseen by the coldly lethal Concierge (Joey Lawrence), things start off easy on the Money Plane with Texas Hold 'Em but soon graduate to the kinds of games more akin to HOSTEL, like bets being placed a man vs. a cobra, or how long some poor guy can stay alive in a piranha tank (you can imagine how those turn out), and Trey is forced to go against J.R. Crockett (Matthew Lawrence), the Money Plane's "undefeated Russian Roulette champ" (wouldn't his being "undefeated" already be understood?). Copeland, who looks like he's in a perpetual state of shock, is a dull hero who spends most of the film confined to the pilot's seat. Thomas Jane shows up for a day's work as Harry, Reese's pipe-smoking Air Force buddy who gets a bunch of exposition that never ends up coming into play ("Remind me again why you made me your daughter's godfather!"), and there's no way Richards was on the set for more than an afternoon. But it's a scenery-chewing Grammer that's the main selling point here, dropping bon mots like "How about I just blow your brains out and I'll create my own damn Pollock?" and barking "Bring me my money!" every time he appears. Like Samuel L. Jackson bellowing "I have had it with these motherfuckin' snakes on this motherfuckin' plane!," watching a shouty Frasier Crane drop F-bombs and take out his own henchmen in a fit of rage is the stuff of a great YouTube clip, but if you drink every time he says "money plane," you'll be passed out before you even get the chance to see him hoist an assault rifle and declare "It's Rumble time!" He quite obviously knows this is dog shit and is just amusing himself, but it also seems like he and Jane (working that prop pipe like John Cusack with a vape pen) are the only ones in on the joke. (Unrated, 82 mins)

(Italy - 2020)

At the age of 80, Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist and essayist J.M. Coetzee tries his hand at screenwriting with WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, based on his 1980 novel. The book--also turned into an opera in 2005 by Philip Glass--was conceived as a period apartheid allegory, set in a non-specified military outpost manned by officers of "The Empire," forever on guard for an attack by desert nomads--derisively termed "barbarians"--that never comes. Coetzee cited Dino Buzzati's 1940 novel The Tartar Steppe as a major influence, itself made into the 1976 film THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS by Italian director Valerio Zurlini. If you've seen the Zurlini film, the idea of the perpetual wait for a threat that looks increasingly existential and absurd with each passing year will certainly be familiar. And where Coetzee repurposed the idea for apartheid with his novel, he does so once again for the film with allusions to more present-day political concerns. Directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra (his 2015 film EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT was a Best Foreign Film Oscar-nominee), WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS opens at a small town-turned-Empire outpost run by an unnamed magistrate (Mark Rylance), who's been left in charge for years and has found it's become a comfortably cushy assignment. The nomads roaming far out in the desert keep to themselves and the few that do make it near the walled-off outpost and attempt petty theft are generally given a night in jail and sent back on their way with no harm. The magistrate has developed a peaceful rapport with the locals and everybody gets along fine until the sadistic Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives for an "inspection," which involves "enhanced interrogation" of an uncle and nephew accused of trying to steal some sheep, resulting in the uncle being killed and the nephew nearly beaten to death. Deciding he still hasn't quite made his point, Joll commandeers a small group of officers and forces the nephew to guide them back to their camp, where Joll instigates an attack that results in more brutality and death.


One of the survivors (Gaya Bayarsaikhan) is brought back, bloodied and blinded by a heated fork that Joll repeatedly prodded near her eyes until she lost most of her sight. When Joll leaves the outpost, the magistrate is left to clean up the mess, nursing the girl back to health and returning her to her people. It's an arduous journey and when he arrives back at the outpost, Joll has returned, and with him is psychotic protege Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), both waiting to charge him with treason and abandoning his duties. The magistrate is thrown in jail with the other "barbarians" they've rounded up as they prepare for an attack from the nomads that wouldn't have happened had Joll not gleefully goaded them into it. WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS plays the heavy hand at times--you almost expect a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST moment where Rylance's dour magistrate will observe "I wonder who the real barbarians are"--and for the most part, it moves at the pace of Merchant-Ivory. But it's a slow-burner that's beautifully shot by the great and ageless Chris Menges (who won Oscars for his work on THE KILLING FIELDS and THE MISSION) and has a trio of excellent performances by Rylance, Pattinson, and especially Depp in his best work in quite a while. It's also among his least-mannered characterizations, a welcome surprise considering his wardrobe and quirky sunglasses make him look like he took a wrong turn on his way to a steampunk convention.

Coetzee takes some liberties with his own work, drastically toning down the magistrate's rather healthy sexual appetite on the page and making him generally chaste for the screen, though it's implied that he's a regular with an area prostitute (Isabella Nefar) and he spends enough time tending to and washing the blinded woman's bloodied, battered feet that this may end up at the top of Quentin Tarantino's Best of 2020 list. The Italian-made WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2019, but US distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films sat on it for a nearly a year--no doubt due in part to the pandemic, but possibly because of Depp's very public personal dramas. But then in June 2020, multiple women accused Guerra of sexual harassment and rape in incidents dating back to 2013. Given the potential for negative publicity and toxic blowback, it's little wonder that WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is being given an ignominious DTV burial after nearly a year in limbo, but it's a quaint throwback to the kind of old-school desert epics they used to make, and worth a look for patient fans of the three stars. (Unrated, 114 mins)

Monday, August 3, 2020

Retro Review: AENIGMA (1987) and DEMONIA (1990)

(Italy/Yugoslavia - 1987)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Giorgio Mariuzzo and Lucio Fulci. Cast: Jared Martin, Lara Naszinski, Ulli Reinthaler, Kathi Wise, Riccardo Acerbi, Sophie D'Aulan, Jennifer Naud, Mijlijana Zirojevic, Dragan Ejelogrlic, Lijlijana Blagojevic, Franciska Spahic, Dusica Zagaric, Lucio Fulci. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Having exhausted everything there is to say about Lucio Fulci's early '70s gialli and his trailblazing 1979-1982 gore galore glory days, cult film scholars have reached the point in Fulciology studies where it's time to begin re-examining his much-maligned late-period of 1986-1991. Peak Fulci came to a close after his falling out with producer Fabrizio De Angelis during the making of 1982's underappreciated MANHATTAN BABY, but he did some decent journeyman work on 1983's CONQUEST and the 1984 films THE NEW GLADIATORS and the FLASHDANCE-inspired slasher MURDER ROCK. Health issues kept Fulci sidelined through the rest of 1984 and all of 1985, and 1986's erotic thriller THE DEVIL'S HONEY was the start of what's considered "latter-day Fulci." Aside from gory throwbacks like 1988's ZOMBI 3 (which he left midway through production, citing health concerns, and the film was finished by an uncredited Bruno Mattei) and TOUCH OF DEATH and 1990's meta, self-referential CAT IN THE BRAIN, this period was almost completely dismissed by all but the most devout Fulciphiles. Other than THE DEVIL'S HONEY turning up in US video stores in 1991 as DANGEROUS OBSESSION, none of these later Fulcis made it to America until the post-2000 Eurocult DVD explosion after years of only able to be seen stateside via bootlegs and gray market means. But as the '00s kicked off, all of the late-period Fulci titles began appearing on DVD, courtesy of labels like Shriek Show, Image Entertainment, and Severin. And for the most part, they were as bad as we'd heard during that previous decade where they were difficult to see. None of these films are essential Fulci, but some indeed have their charms and deliver the gory goods, even if they lack the polish and financial backing that he was getting during his heyday. A pair of these later Fulci titles--1987's AENIGMA and 1990's DEMONIA--have just been given 4K restorations and are out on Blu-ray from Severin (because physical media is dead), and while neither are where any Fulci newbie should begin their exploration, they're both worth second looks for the die-hards.

Playing like a bizarre mash-up of CARRIE, JENNIFER, PATRICK, and Dario Argento's PHENOMENA, AENIGMA opens at the fictional St. Mary's College in Boston--though at no point does this Beantown look like anything other than Sarajevo, where this Italian/Yugoslavian co-production was shot--with a group of students, along with lecherous gym instructor Fred (Riccardo Acerbi) plotting a cruel prank on shy, awkward Kathy (Mijlijana Zirojevic). This results in Kathy being run over by a car and left brain-dead on life support at a local hospital, where she's looked after by neurologist Dr. Anderson (requisite American export value Jared Martin, best known for his recurring role as J.R. Ewing nemesis Dusty Farlow on DALLAS). Meanwhile, new transfer student Eva (A BLADE IN THE DARK's Lara Naszinski, niece of Klaus Kinski) gets settled into St. Mary's as she recovers from a nervous breakdown, though she soon becomes a sort-of psychic conduit of Kathy who, with the help of her occasionally glowing-red-eyed mother and school maid "Crazy Mary" (Dusika Zagaric), uses Eva to enact vengeance upon her tormentors.

When you think of Lucio Fulci set pieces, you probably go to the shark vs. zombie clash or the eye-splinter scene in ZOMBIE or maybe the intestine-barfing or drill-through-the-head scenes in THE GATES OF HELL or the razor blade-through-the-nipple bit in THE NEW YORK RIPPER. AENIGMA offers its own memorable sequence with the awesomely gross "death by snails" suffered by Virginia (Kathi Wise), who's eventually covered head-to-toe by snails and slugs in her bed. Fred is attacked by a double that materializes out of a mirror where he's admiring himself and his death is written off as a heart attack, while others are killed by a statue come to life or decapitated, or thrown from a window. Eva--enacting the desires of the comatose Kathy--seduces Dr. Anderson, and their constant fooling around makes Eva's roommate Jenny (Ulli Reinthaler) a third wheel. That is, at least until Eva has another breakdown and gets committed, after which Dr. Anderson starts sleeping with Jenny. Almost all of the characters in AENIGMA are varying degrees of shitty, with horrible teacher Drop Dead Fred and lecherous would-be sugar daddy Dr. Anderson really lowering the bar on male authority figures one should be able to look up to.

AENIGMA isn't top-shelf Fulci by any means, but after many years away from it, it has its entertainment value, even if some if it comes in the form of unintentional laughs, be they the Yugoslavian prop team's attempt at Massachusetts license plates, a shot of a miniature cityscape that could pass as a Lego "Antonio Margheriti Action Playset," the theme song "Head Over Heels" being listed as "Head Over Meels" in the opening credits, or a poster of Yoda on Jenny's wall demonstrating that Fulci really had his finger on the pulse of dorm life for late '80s American college girls. There's also the clarity of HD revealing oopsies like the timing of a red-filtered light during an overhead shot of an oil-slicked Martin/Naszinski sex scene offering a view of Naszinski that's perhaps a bit more proctological than anyone intended. But as it stands, AENIGMA is a not-bad second-tier offering from the waning days of Italian horror. It was produced by corner-cutting Ettore Spagnuolo, who spent most of the second half of the '80s trying to turn Harrison Muller into an action star in films like THE VIOLENT BREED and GETTING EVEN. Spagnuolo managed to get known names at cheap prices, like Henry Silva for THE VIOLENT BREED and Richard Roundtree for GETTING EVEN, but despite his visibility on DALLAS and other American TV shows going back to the late '60s (with requisite stops on FANTASY ISLAND and THE LOVE BOAT), Martin, who didn't even stick around to dub himself, wasn't enough to secure any kind of US distribution deal for AENIGMA, which didn't legitimately appear in America until it was released on DVD by Image Entertainment in the summer of 2001.

(Italy - 1990)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Piero Regnoli and Lucio Fulci. Cast: Brett Halsey, Meg Register, Carla Cassola, Lino Salemme, Christina Engelhardt, Pascal Druant, Grady Thomas Clarkson, Ettore Comi, Michael J. Aronin, Al Cliver, Isabella Corradini, Paola Cozzo, Bruna Rossi, Paola Calati, Antonio Melillo, Francesco Cusimano, Lucio Fulci. (Unrated, 89 mins)

Like AENIGMA and most other latter-day Fulci, DEMONIA was a staple of the bootleg VHS circuit in the '90s, finally getting a legit US release when Shriek Show released it on DVD in 2001. It was lumped in with the generally dismissed stretch of product that Fulci was cranking out, like THE HOUSE OF CLOCKS, THE SWEET HOUSE OF HORRORS, and what most consider his worst horror film, SODOMA'S GHOST. And like AENIGMA, time has been kind to DEMONIA while still being unquestionably lesser Fulci. Much of that is due to the presentation on Severin's Blu-ray, which really makes both of these films look better than they ever have. Both have that sort-of "gauzy" look that was common with a lot of Italian horror of that time, particularly the product coming off of Joe D'Amato's Filmirage assembly line, but DEMONIA's outdoor scenes--the film was shot on location at Sicily's Capo Bianco and at the San Pellegrino monastery in nearby Caltabellotta--really benefit from the 4K restoration and help at least those portions of the film look a lot better than most of the stuff that was being bankrolled by budget-conscious producer Ettore Spagnuolo.

A frequently nonsensical mix of Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH, Marcello Avallone's SPECTERS, with a little of John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, with some bonus nunsploitation thrown in for good measure, DEMONIA deals with a team of Canadian archaeology students led by Prof. Evans (veteran American actor Brett Halsey, a late-period Fulci regular at this point after THE DEVIL'S HONEY and TOUCH OF DEATH) on a dig in Sicily. The locals, led by pissed-off butcher Turi (Lino Salemme from the DEMONS movies), don't want them there, but they proceed with their work anyway. The dig has a profound effect on student Liza (Meg Register), who takes part in seances (a shout-out to Catriona MacColl's character in THE GATES OF HELL) and believes in all manner of psychic hooey despite Evans reminding her that she's a scientist. Liza explores the dig on her own and finds a walled-off crypt with the skeletal remains of five crucified nuns. Lilla (Carla Cassola), the local medium--doesn't every superstitious village have one?--fulfills her Basil Exposition duty by informing Liza that in 1486, the five nuns were accused of holding orgies and committing deviant sexual acts in the nunnery after making a pact with Satan, prompting the villagers to crucify and execute them. The spirits of the five nuns now seek vengeance on the town and have established a psychic connection with Liza, which somewhat thematically ties it to the Kathy/Eva situation in AENIGMA. Various gory deaths ensue, including an Evans rival (Fulci stalwart Al Cliver of ZOMBIE, appearing here long enough to get spear-gunned by a topless apparition) whose decapitated head prompts an investigation by the local cops, represented by Lt. Andi (Michael J. Aronin) and his boss Inspector Carter, played by none other than Fulci himself in a prominent supporting role (dubbed by Robert Spafford) that gives him more screen time than his usual cameo.

DEMONIA has a lot of atmosphere in the foreboding catacombs and Fulci even breaks out a Steadicam for a show-offy tracking shot at one point. He also doesn't skimp on the gore--highlights a woman's eyes being clawed out by possessed cats and a graphic wishboning of one of Evans' team--though the shoddy effects are pulled off by the aptly-named Elio Terribili. Co-written by Fulci, Piero Regnoli (BURIAL GROUND), and an uncredited Antonio Tentori (CAT IN THE BRAIN), DEMONIA drags a bit in the middle before all hell breaks loose, and even taking the dubbing into account (no one voices themselves, not even Halsey, who's dubbed by Ted Rusoff), the performances seem stilted and awkward. That's not helped by scenes that drag on without going anywhere--there's a lot of padding to get DEMONIA to feature length, especially the time-killing way Aronin's Andi hems and haws in his prolonged and ultimately pointless confrontation with Halsey's Evans, then Fulci just cuts away and never wraps it up--and Salemme's character is underdeveloped, as Fulci kills him off before the villagers raid the excavation site with torches like an angry mob from an old Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie.

Halsey, who was groomed as a leading man back in the '50s but went to Europe in the '60s after it never panned out, remained a busy character actor who found himself back in Italy in the late '80s, appearing in three Fulci films (four if you count recycled footage in CAT IN THE BRAIN), along with others by the likes of Jess Franco, Antonio Margheriti, Luigi Cozzi, and Bruno Mattei, and the same year he starred in DEMONIA, he landed a supporting role as the second husband of Diane Keaton's Kay Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART III. Despite his long career in Hollywood and abroad, Halsey's name, like Jared Martin's with AENIGMA, wasn't enough to secure any interest in DEMONIA from US home video distributors, nor was Fulci's by that point. Though he looked better here than in his haggard appearance around the time of AENIGMA, Fulci's health would soon take another downturn. He only made two more films--VOICES FROM BEYOND and DOOR TO SILENCE, both in 1991--before being sidelined by diabetes and other related medical issues. He attempted a comeback when it was announced that he would write and direct THE WAX MASK, a HOUSE OF WAX redux produced by Dario Argento, but he died at the age of 68 shortly before production began in 1996. Argento handed THE WAX MASK off to Italian FX master Sergio Stivaletti, with a dedication to Fulci in the opening credits.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Retro Review: TORMENT (1986)

(US - 1986)

Written and directed by Samson Aslanian and John Hopkins. Cast: Taylor Gilbert, William Witt, Eve Brenner, Warren Lincoln, Najean Cherry, Stan Weston, Doug Leach, Lisa Ramirez, Dan Kosloff. (R, 83 mins)

The mid-film plot twist in TORMENT is such a whopper that with some higher-caliber actors, the film could've been a minor hit. A low-budget indie shot in San Francisco for $160,000, TORMENT was picked up by New World, but they only gave it a limited release in the spring of 1986 on its way to every video store in America, where it found a small cult following that's managed to keep it to themselves all these years. Just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion (because physical media is dead), it's a tangential offshoot to the work of the '80s cult team of Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter, who had some drive-in and cable success with 1982's THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and 1984's THE POWER en route to their most-remembered film, 1987's THE KINDRED. Samson Aslanian and John Hopkins were part of the Obrow/Carpenter crew--Aslanian was the production manager and Hopkins was assistant director on both DORM and POWER--and the two were looking to make their own movie. They conceived TORMENT and managed to get most of their buddies onboard, with Carpenter doing them a solid by serving as cinematographer and Obrow credited as "production consultant" (also part of the gang was co-producer and post-production supervisor John Penney, who would go on to write and direct the 2006 punchline ZYZZYX ROAD). Made when the '80s slasher boom was starting to wind down and special effects were all the rage, TORMENT is a film out of its own time. It's certainly got some '80s elements in terms of very intermittent splatter and a handful of swear words, but with its "women-in-peril" motif and one of the main characters being an old lady in a wheelchair, it feels more in line with a LADY IN A CAGE or a HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE of the '60s or maybe even a '70s TV movie. Judging from its poster art and the tag line ("If the suspense doesn't kill you, the terror will"), and the spoiler-filled trailer, New World didn't seem to know how to sell TORMENT. But despite some first-movie jitters and some performances that aren't as polished or nuanced as they'd be with more experienced actors, it's a surprisingly engaging and well-crafted little thriller that goes into some genuinely unpredictable directions.

Retirement-age proto-incel Bob (William Witt, Aslanian's high school drama teacher) takes co-worker Diane (Lisa Ramirez) out for a drink only to have her leave with a douchebag Porsche salesman (Dan Kosloff). Enraged and insulted when the cock-blocker calls him "Dad," Bob follows them back to Diane's place and kills them. But that's just the latest in a string of murders that has San Francisco cop Michael Courtland (Warren Lincoln) convinced it's the same perp. Courtland is a couple of weeks away from his wedding to Jennifer (Taylor Gilbert), and she still has yet to meet his cranky, wheelchair-bound mother (Eve Brenner). He insists Jennifer stay at the house with her, but Mom proves a handful with her abrasive demeanor. Mrs. Courtland has a habit of crying wolf to the cops about prowlers and when she insists there was a man in her room, nobody really believes her, starting with Jennifer. But there was a man in her room and he's still hiding in the house--it's Bob, who's the serial killer Courtland's pursuing. Bob is starting to feel the heat and knows from TV reports that Courtland is close to nabbing him, so he's launching a pre-emptive strike by going after those close to the cop. Or is something else entirely unexpected going on?

The twist is a legitimate jolt (as long as you don't watch the trailer or read the synopsis on the Blu-ray package), even if some of the expository logic isn't, and again, actors with more time in front of the camera could've navigated their way through things like that and smoothed over the rough edges. Witt was no doubt a fine teacher who was an inspiration to Aslanian, but he's out of his element here, as is Lincoln, who's only other movie was Obrow/Carpenter's THE POWER. You can tell before you even consult IMDb who the career actors are here. Gilbert may never have had another lead role in a feature, but she acquits herself well and has remained a working actor to this day, even if-- aside from two turns as the mother of Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson in SPIDER-MAN and SPIDER-MAN 2--it's mostly tiny roles in hits like TWISTER, FORCES OF NATURE, and HANCOCK. Likewise, Brenner, while not exactly well-known, was plugging away on stage and screen in a career that dated back to the early '50s, and does a good budget-priced version of Bette Davis and Sylvia Sidney throughout. Aslanian and Hopkins manage to frame the exteriors of the house in such a fashion to hide that it's in a residential neighborhood and not actually in the outskirts of the middle of nowhere, and many shots and camera movements throughout have an undeniable style and panache to them (they also managed to pull off some effective location work at the Fort Point historical site near the Golden Gate Bridge, which does a lot to enhance the production value). Hopkins' never really went anywhere after TORMENT, though he did nab a writing credit on, of all things, 1996's DUNSTON CHECKS IN, but with some of the stylistic touches on display, it's not surprising that by the '90s, Aslanian embarked on a career in music videos, running a production company and working with artists like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Alice in Chains.

For more on TORMENT, check out Video Junkie's 2014 interview with co-writer/co-director Samson Aslanian here.

Friday, July 31, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020), LEGACY OF LIES (2020) and DEEP BLUE SEA 3 (2020)

(US - 2020)

Based on a 2017 novel by German author Daniel Kehlmann, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT reunites writer/director David Koepp with star Kevin Bacon, the pair having last collaborated on 1999's acclaimed supernatural thriller STIR OF ECHOES. Bacon once again plays a man tormented by strange, inexplicable occurrences, though instead of a blue collar everyman, he's now Theo Conroy, a wealthy former bank exec who's married to the much younger Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), with a six-year-old daughter named Ella (Avery Essex). Susanna is a moderately successful actress prepping for an eight-week movie shoot in London, so they decide to rent a spacious, modern home in a remote part of the Welsh countryside beforehand as a family getaway. But they have problems that were simmering at home that only proceed to reach a boil when they're stuck in the middle of nowhere. Theo has grown very insecure over their 30-year age difference, about which both Susanna and Ella regularly razz him ("Daddy, will you die before Mommy because you're so much older?"), and though she's only six, Ella is very perceptive and is aware that Theo had a wife before Susanna and that she died under mysterious circumstances that made him a tabloid target ("Why do people hate Daddy so much?" she asks). Theo is also annoyed by Susanna's constant text messages to and from a male colleague, as he's in constant fear that she'll leave him for a younger man. He's working through these jealousies and insecurities and writing in a journal, but the Welsh home only makes things worse. Theo begins to feel disoriented by various things that don't make sense: light switches don't work on the lights they should, doors mysteriously appear where there was once a wall, and a walk down a previously unseen hallway results in a four-hour loss of time. Sensing something is off in the layout, he measures the living room, and finds the interior is five feet longer than the exterior (Ella, holding the tape measure: "How can that be?"). He finds a Polaroid of himself standing in the hallway, a shot that seems to have been taken a minute earlier and left for him to discover. Both he and Susanna start having bad dreams, Ella sees strange shadows on her bedroom wall, and a couple of unfriendly locals seem skittish that they've rented what's known as "the Stetler house." And someone has scribbled "YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT!" and "NOW IT'S TOO LATE!" in Theo's journal.

In and of themselves, those instances have some creepy and unsettling potential. There's definitely a sense of THE SHINING in this house, especially with its labyrinthine design, its spatial impossibilities (an idea that also prompted House of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski to make accusations of plagiarism), a ghostly woman in a bathtub, and the house's effect on the family staying there. But this Blumhouse production tries to meld their patented jump scares with the more cerebral dysfunctional family horrors of HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR mastermind Ari Aster, and its pieces never quite come together. It feels padded even at 90 minutes, like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode belaboring its point, with a muddled shrug of a reveal that you'll see coming long before Theo or Susanna do (Koepp makes a huge mistake by telegraphing it in an overtly obvious fashion in the opening scene). Bacon is the solid pro he's always been, and he has terrific father/daughter chemistry with young Essex (Seyfried, for reasons that can't be divulged without significant spoilers, is absent for a long stretch in the middle), but the payoff isn't worth the elaborate buildup. Koepp was one of the hottest screenwriters of the '90s and into the early '00s (APARTMENT ZERO, JURASSIC PARK, CARLITO'S WAY, THE PAPER, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, PANIC ROOM, SPIDER-MAN, and he created the acclaimed but little-watched TV series HACK), but to call his more recent work indicative of a slump would be an understatement: in the last few years, he's scripted the dismal likes of INFERNO and THE MUMMY and directed the unwatchable MORTDECAI. YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is a step up from those, but it's no STIR OF ECHOES, and Koepp still hasn't regained his mojo relative to his 1990s glory days. Perhaps Universal wasn't feeling it either: this was originally intended to be a summer theatrical release, but once the pandemic hit, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT wasn't given a new release date later in the year, nor was it bumped to 2021. Instead, it was among the first major-studio titles to get relegated to the premium VOD route. $2 at Redbox is one thing, but this is definitely not $20 PVOD material. (R, 93 mins)

(Ukraine/UK/US - 2020)

Scott Adkins, the hardest-working man in action movies, is back with LEGACY OF LIES, his second movie of 2020, with five more tentatively on the way before the end of the year. This mostly Ukrainian-financed espionage thriller gets too convoluted and sluggish for its own good, but it's anchored by a typically committed Adkins performance and some nicely-done fight scenes, with the star once again collaborating with busy stunt coordinator Tim Man (TRIPLE THREAT). Dutch writer/director Adrian Bol embraces the cliches without shame, with Adkins as Martin Baxter, a PTSD-stricken former MI-6 agent who walked away from the spy game after a botched mission in Kyiv 12 years earlier. Now a single dad to precocious, wise-beyond-her-years Lisa (Honor Kneafsey), Baxter works as a bouncer in a popular London club (cue a packed throng of decadent partiers and throbbing techno beats) and picks up some quick cash in (wait for it) underground MMA fights, but he's in such a slump on that end that Lisa secretly cashes in by betting against him. Baxter's past comes back to haunt him when Sacha (Yuliia Sobol), a crusading Ukrainian journalist and daughter of one of his late former colleagues, comes to him with a story about a dead MI-6 agent and a rat in the network, and something about exposing a Russian plot to develop a deadly nerve gas. He doesn't want anything to do with it, but is forced into action when ruthless Russian agent Tatyana (Anna Butkevich, waiting around for Luc Besson to call her to be the next Sasha Luss) kidnaps Lisa and gives Baxter 24 hours to find Sacha and some top-secret files she has in a safety deposit box in a Kyiv bank.

There's nothing particularly surprising or original here, and a string of false endings only serves to make the film feel like it's loitering for an extra 15 minutes when it could've been sufficiently wrapped up by the 90-minute mark. LEGACY OF LIES is far from essential Adkins, but he's got several not-bad throwdowns that make it required viewing for his fans. The film is torn between being a brutal action flick and a John Le Carre-style espionage downer, and it never quite finds a balance. There's also a backstory involving Baxter's late wife and Lisa discovering the truth behind her death that's never adequately dealt with by the script, and we really could've done without the scene where a depressed Baxter gets caught up in memories of his wife, sitting on the floor turning his bedside lamp on-and-off FATAL ATTRACTION-style. Oh, and at one point, Baxter is told "You just signed your own death warrant!" Yeah, it's that kind of movie. (R, 101 mins)

(US - 2020)

A quick glance at the title DEEP BLUE SEA 3 will probably cause most people to wonder "Wait, there was a DEEP BLUE SEA 2?" A DTV sequel coming nearly two decades after a 1999 original that gave us one of the all-time great surprise kills and one of the dumbest closing credits songs ever, DEEP BLUE SEA 2 did the bare minimum to get by, hindered by a low budget and some really shitty CGI, and its story of sharks turning into super-intelligent beings used as experimental subjects in a mad billionaire's Alzheimer's research was beyond absurd. Look no further than the instant classic moment when the bad guy announces his intention to destroy the sharks once he gets all the research info he needs, and he fails to notice an eavesdropping shark either listening or reading his lips. DEEP BLUE SEA 3, which tragically misses the opportunity to call itself D33P BLU3 S3A, sometimes hits those same heights of silliness, and it's a bit of an improvement over its predecessor. Filled with a cast of familiar second-tier TV faces, DEEP BLUE SEA 3 stars Tania Raymonde (of LOST and Lifetime's JODI ARIAS: DIRTY LITTLE SECRET) as shark expert Dr. Emma Collins, who's working with a small research team at Little Happy, a mostly abandoned fishing village on a man-made island in the Mozambique Channel (it was shot in nearby South Africa). Dr. Collins is also a great white whisperer of sorts, unafraid to get up close and personal with one longstanding resident of a great white breeding ground near Little Happy. The team--Collins, her late father's military buddy Shaw (Emerson Brooks of THE LAST SHIP), techie nerd Spin (Alex Bhat), and college intern Miya (Reina Aoi)--have their peaceful existence intruded upon by--conveniently enough--her ex Richard (Nathaniel Buzolic of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES and THE ORIGINALS) and a crew of mercenaries that includes loose cannon Lucas (Bren Foster, another LAST SHIP alum), who are on the hunt for three unusually aggressive bull sharks that killed some residents of a fishing village 100 miles away.

Those three bull sharks tie into DEEP BLUE SEA 2--they're more experimental subjects with human-level intelligence, even understanding Richard's warning of "Back the fuck off!" when one is captured and the other two start attacking the boat. DEEP BLUE SEA 3 is pretty by-the-numbers until it finally embraces its innate stupidity about an hour in, starting with a surprise kill that's actually just as great as the one in the first film (which was honestly one of the best crowd reaction moments I've ever experienced as a moviegoer). Then, it's all-out madness, highlighted by sharks circling a slowly sinking Little Happy as Shaw and Lucas have a spontaneous, full-on choreographed MMA throwdown (Lucas: "C'mon, old man!"); some groan-worthy zingers ("Sorry, chum!"); and an underwater Wilhelm Scream. Writer Dirk Blackman (OUTLANDER, UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS) and director John Pogue (writer of U.S. MARSHALS, THE SKULLS, and GHOST SHIP) understand that these things are basically slasher films with sharks, so they try to make every shark kill the equivalent of the Samuel L. Jackson moment from the original--it works the first time, but the one immediately after is really unnecessarily cruel--and after a draggy start, DEEP BLUE SEA 3 turns surprisingly entertaining, even with PS2-level CGI that seems intentionally cartoonish. Foster's Lucas is a cardboard psycho villain who endangers everyone's lives for no other reason than that's what the script needs him to do. But Raymonde commits herself to this like it's her ticket to the A-list as Collins and lone remaining Little Happy resident Nandi (Avumile Qongqo) eventually find themselves forced to deal with out-of-control, hyper-intelligent sharks and a lunatic Lucas. Not exactly good, but more guiltily enjoyable than it has any reason to be, you can do a lot worse than DEEP BLUE SEA 3 when it comes to cheap DTV shark movies. (R, 100 mins)

Monday, July 27, 2020

Retro Review: The Complete Lenzi/Baker Giallo Collection: ORGASMO (1969), SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE (1969), A QUIET PLACE TO KILL (1970) and KNIFE OF ICE (1972)

(Italy/France - 1969)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Ugo Moretti, Umberto Lenzi and Marie Claire Solleville. Cast: Carroll Baker, Lou Castel, Colette Descombes, Tino Carraro, Lilla Brignone, Franco Pesce, Tina Lattanzi, Jacques Stany, Gaetano Imbro, Sara Simoni, Calisto Calisti. (X, 91 mins/European version, 97 mins)

Born in 1931, Carroll Baker had a couple of film and television credits to her name (most notably a supporting turn in the gargantuan epic GIANT) when she became an overnight sensation in the title role as Karl Malden's thumbsucking child bride in 1956's controversial BABY DOLL, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Tennessee Williams. It earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination (Ingrid Bergman won for ANASTASIA) and made her one of the most sought-after young talents in Hollywood. But she almost instantly earned a reputation as a troublemaker when, under contract to Warner Bros., she refused to star in TOO MUCH, TOO SOON and voiced her disapproval about the quality of the projects she was being offered. The studio "suspended" her as punishment, which kept her offscreen for nearly two years after BABY DOLL, during which time she bought out her contract--an antiquated system that had been on its way out for years--thus allowing her to choose her own roles. Baker ended up in several big-budget blockbusters like 1958's THE BIG COUNTRY, 1962's HOW THE WEST WAS WON, 1964's CHEYENNE AUTUMN, and 1965's THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, and enjoyed the freedom of experimenting with small indies like the 1961 cult film SOMETHING WILD. But she then found a niche filling the void left by the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962. Shepherded by producer Joseph E. Levine, Baker became a major sex symbol in films like 1964's THE CARPETBAGGERS, 1965's SYLVIA, and in HARLOW, one of two identically-titled Jean Harlow biopics that opened in the summer of 1965 (Carol Lynley starred in the other one). Baker signed a contract with Levine following THE CARPETBAGGERS and after HARLOW's lukewarm response from critics and moviegoers, she decided she wanted out. Their rocky professional relationship and subsequent legal battle became tabloid fodder as Baker found herself persona non grata in Hollywood, with the powerful Levine essentially blackballing her out of the industry.

With no job offers on the table and having just gone through a divorce, Baker took her two children (including future actress Blanche Baker, best known as Molly Ringwald's center-of-attention older sister in SIXTEEN CANDLES) and moved to Italy to test the waters of the European film industry. She starred in Marco Ferrari's 1967 comedy HER HAREM and followed it with Romolo Guerrieri's 1968 thriller THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH, the latter leading to a string of erotic Italian thrillers that kept Baker very busy for several years. She ended up living and working exclusively in Europe until the late '70s, most notably in four collaborations with journeyman Italian genre specialist Umberto Lenzi (1931-2017), later to make his mark with a series of poliziotteschi classics like 1974's ALMOST HUMAN and 1976's ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH, and 1981's infamous cannibal gut-muncher CANNIBAL FEROX, aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY. The four Lenzi/Baker gialli, filled with shagadelic sex, suspense, and a plethora of Eurolounge jams, have just been restored and compiled in a comprehensive Blu-ray box set from Severin Films, because physical media is dead.

The wonderfully-titled ORGASMO, released with an X rating in the US by Commonwealth United as PARANOIA, was the first of Baker's four gialli with Lenzi. It's luridly trashy and, at least in its oddly more explicit American cut, almost qualifies as softcore porn, with Baker one of the first big-name American actresses to unabashedly embrace the changing times and go all-in on gratuitous nude scenes. In ORGASMO, she stars as Kathryn West, a trophy wife-turned-wealthy widow taking up residence in an expansive Italian villa as her late husband's attorney Brian (Tino Carraro) begins liquidating his holdings--which include their estate in America, two oil companies, two TV stations, and a chain of department stores--which will net her at least a $200 million payday. At the villa, it's just Kathryn, sneering housekeeper Teresa (Lilla Brignone), and deaf, doddering handyman Martino (Franco Pesce), but that changes when stranger Peter's (Lou Castel) car breaks down outside the entrance gate. It doesn't take much for sex-starved Kathryn to turn into broke-ass Peter's nympho sugar mama with a thing for degradation games, and when he moves in, his sister Eva (Colette Descombes) suddenly turns up to crash there as well. This begins a whirlwind of booze, pills, and sex, with seductive Eva unleashing Kathryn's unexplored lesbian side and a willingness to partake in threesomes with a brother and sister. But when she catches Peter and Eva in bed without her, things quickly go south and the party's over. Peter and Eva start manipulating her, forcing her to fire Teresa and Martino, psychologically torture her with head games and blaring loud music into her room, and are soon controlling every aspect of her life--usually by keeping her drugged--in a plot to take control of her fortune, with some backup photos of their various sexcapades just in case blackmail become necessary.

The longer ORGASMO goes on, the darker and more nihilistic it gets on its way to a ruthlessly fatalistic finale that offers a one-two punch of ball-crushing twists. Lenzi's preferred Italian cut, ORGASMO, runs 97 minutes and tones down a good amount of the sex, while the more explicit PARANOIA is actually six minutes shorter, removing mostly minor details except in the case of almost the entirety of Jacques Stany's performance as a mystery man tailing Kathryn. He's only fleetingly scene in the PARANOIA cut and even that's probably unintentional. Both endings reach the same conclusion, and ORGASMO's explains a bit more, but I think I prefer the more impactful abruptness of the PARANOIA finale. Both versions are included in on the Blu-ray, and either way, this is a twisted bit of occasionally psychedelic 1969 nastiness that still plays surprisingly well in the era of obligatory insane twist endings. Of interest to French cinephiles is the involvement of 28-year-old future filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (DEATH WATCH, COUP DE TORCHON, ROUND MIDNIGHT), credited here as assistant director.

ORGASMO, under its US title PARANOIA,
opening in Toledo, OH on 12/12/1969

(Italy/France/West Germany - 1969)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Carroll Baker, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Erika Blanc, Horst Frank, Helga Line, Beryl Cunningham, Ermelnida De Felice, Gianni Di Benedetto, Dario Michaelis, Renato Pinciroli, Lucio Rama, Paola Scalzi, Luigi Sportelli. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Lenzi and Baker immediately followed ORGASMO with the equally tantalizingly-titled SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE, but the resulting film--neither sweet nor perverse--paled in comparison despite the involvement of genre luminaries like producer Sergio Martino and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. A Paris-set giallo variation on DIABOLIQUE, SO SWEET stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Jean Reynaud, a wealthy French businessman and serial philanderer already running around on Danielle (Erika Blanc), his wife of three years who's apparently been withholding ("What do you expect when I can't get my slice of cake in my own home?" he asks after telling her "You're not jealous...you're just bitchy"). He's intrigued by Nicole (Baker), who's just moved into the penthouse above theirs with her abusive, control-freak boyfriend Klaus (Horst Frank). Jean hears Klaus beating Nicole regularly, and his hero complex kicks in when the two quickly fall in love after Jean promises to get her away from Klaus and run away with her. Danielle has been tolerant of Jean's comparatively discreet dalliances so far--most recently with Helene (Helga Line), the bored wife of a hunting club acquaintance (Gianni Di Benedetto)--but his carrying on with Nicole, in full view of their fellow tenants and others in their upper-class social circle, is too much for her to handle. Plus, an enraged Klaus is also following the cheating couple around, even to a weekend island getaway where he torments them by driving his speedboat along the shore and glaring at them.

Never released theatrically in the US, SO SWEET is pretty tedious for its first half before things finally rev up, but once you recognize it following the DIABOLIQUE template, you'll know almost exactly where it's going. The now-90-year-old Trintignant, then becoming an international superstar with films like 1966's A MAN AND A WOMAN, Costa-Gavras' 1969 Oscar-winner Z, and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 breakthrough THE CONFORMIST, has apparently said in that past that SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE is his worst film. I haven't seen enough Trintignant films to know for sure, and even then, I don't think I'd quite go that far, but it is a disappointingly lukewarm affair for Lenzi and Baker after the lewd excesses of the gonzo ORGASMO. Baker switches gears by not playing the victim here, and leaves most of the gratuitous nudity to Blanc (Baker does get one slo-mo topless run along a beach in a dream sequence, but some existing stills indicate more Baker and Line nudity that Lenzi opted to not use), but the execution of the familiar narrative just doesn't really have a spark despite the talent involved. It does have an undeniably catchy score by Riz Ortolani that includes the theme song "Why," belted out in an almost Tom Jones fashion by J. Vincent Edwards, who would later make a fortune co-writing Maxine Nightingale's 1975 radio hit "Right Back Where We Started From." Lenzi liked "Why" so much that he recycled it in his 1972 Baker-less giallo SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS.

(Italy/Spain/France - 1970; US release 1973)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Marcello Coscia, Bruno Di Geronimo, Rafael Romero Marchent, Marie Claire Solleville. Cast: Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Anna Proclemer, Luis Davila, Marina Coffa, Liz Halvorsen, Alberto Dalbes, Hugo Blanco, Jacques Stany, Rossana Rovere, Calisto Calisti, Manuel Diaz Velasco. (Unrated, 96 mins).

"I couldn't help myself. I had to make love with you one more time." 


That dialogue exchange gives you a pretty good idea of what A QUIET PLACE TO KILL is all about. The third Lenzi/Baker teaming is a big improvement over SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE and has more in common with the trashy histrionics of ORGASMO. A QUIET PLACE TO KILL has always been a point of confusion for some giallo fans, since its original European title was PARANOIA, which was also the American title of ORGASMO. Thus, this PARANOIA is now most commonly known by its export title, A QUIET PLACE TO KILL. Here, Baker plays Helen, an American expat and professional racing driver whose career comes to an abrupt end after a fiery crash during a test drive. Barely making it out alive, she's ordered to relax and recuperate, and is summoned by her conceited ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel, Baker's co-star in THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH) to his vacation home on Mallorca. They haven't spoken since their divorce three years ago--and it's mentioned in possibly joking fashion that she tried to kill him--but when she arrives, she's shocked to find he's now married to the older Constance (Anna Proclemer). Helen has barely had time to settle in when Constance offers her $100,000 to help her kill Maurice, giving her the weekend to think it over while she goes off to visit her college-age daughter Susan (Marina Coffa). Instead, Helen decides to spend the weekend indulging in carnal sexcapades with Maurice, and upon Constance's return, the three go out on Maurice's boat but Helen is unable to go through with Constance's plan. A scuffle ensues, Constance is stabbed to death, and as they're tying an anchor around her legs before tossing her corpse in the sea, they're spotted by Maurice's buddy Harry (frequent Jess Franco actor Alberto Dalbes) and his wife Solange (Liz Halvorsen) who are approaching on their yacht. Maurice capsizes the boat on purpose, letting Constance's corpse fall overboard, then telling everyone she got hit in the head by the boon and went under. Maurice's period of mourning is short-lived, as he's back in the sack with Helen that night, but then things get really awkward when Susan turns up and, seeing her stepfather and his ex-wife barely even attempting to hide their sexual shenanigans, makes it clear that she's on to them and isn't buying what happened to her mother.

Lenzi and the team of writers have quite a few tricks up their sleeve and A QUIET PLACE TO KILL is a very lively and thoroughly misanthropic thriller where alliances constantly shift, everyone has something to hide, and everyone is desperately scrambling and failing to keep those secrets hidden. It's not as over-the-top and X-worthy as ORGASMO, but something unexpectedly wild or downright sleazy happens every few minutes--Maurice and Constance on opposite sides of Helen at dinner, and both unknowingly playing footsie with her, Maurice complaining in a crowded restaurant that Helen was too frigid in bed when they were married, Susan's jaw-dropping reveal of how her mother ended up hooking up with Maurice--and you can't help but marvel at the utterly awful characters making up this ensemble of sociopaths. It's pretty clear early on that Helen is a self-absorbed bitch when her loyal assistant (Jacques Stany) picks her up at the hospital and stops for beverages at a carryout, only to have Helen slide over in the driver's seat and take off, leaving him stranded. This one is a lot of fun, plus it's got a brief appearance by Wess and the Airedales "Just Tell Me" during a nightclub scene, and it's the same song used to drive Baker's character crazy in ORGASMO. A QUIET PLACE TO KILL never made it to American theaters, but did turn up in an Avco-Embassy TV syndication package in 1973.

(Italy/Spain - 1972)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Umberto Lenzi and Antonio Troiso. Cast: Carroll Baker, Alan Scott, Evelyn Stewart (Ida Galli), Eduardo Fajardo, Silvia Monelli, George Rigaud, Franco Fantasia, Rosa M. Rodriguez, Dada Gallotti, Lorenzo Robledo, Mario Pardo, Olga Gherardi, Consalvo Dell'Arti, Jose Marco, Luca Sportelli. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Lenzi and Baker's fourth and final collaboration was the 1972 giallo KNIFE OF ICE, which opens with gory footage of a bullfight and a bullshit Poe quote and then spends much of its duration setting up a third act bait-and-switch leading to its twist ending. Of course, it might not be that much of a surprise considering that the deck is stacked with so many obvious red herrings, but it's still a solid second-tier entry in the cycle. It's also the only one of these that keeps Baker clothed the entire time, casting her against type as Martha, a shy, demure woman who's been mute since her parents died in a tragic train accident when she was a teenager. She was raised by her Uncle Ralph (George Rigaud) and still lives with him at his estate near the Pyrenees. She's visited by her cousin Jenny (Ida Galli, using her "Evelyn Stewart" pseudonym), a famous singer who's stabbed to death in the garage the morning after she arrives. There's any number of possible suspects, including sinister chauffeur Marcos (Eduardo Fajardo), who's always lurking somewhere; housekeeper Mrs. Britton (Silvia Monelli); Dr. Laurent (Alan Scott), who shows up the next day with drops of blood on his pants; and local priest Father Martin (Jose Marco), who's raising his orphaned pre-teen niece Christina (Rosa M. Rodriguez). Bizarre Satanic symbols start appearing around town, including a goat's head painted on a tree that catches the attention of Mrs. Britton just before she's murdered while out running errands. This immediately makes a loud-and-proud area Satanist with creepy eyes (Mario Pardo) the main suspect, especially with the discovery of another body outside of town that may be tied into the current string of murders.

Lenzi gets a good amount of suspense going once helpless Martha is alone in the house, and as goofy as the out-of-nowhere twist ending is, it's effective. Baker is very good in Audrey Hepburn/WAIT UNTIL DARK mode, and KNIFE OF ICE gets a nice Italian horror vibe going with an electronic score by Marcello Giombini--with some help from the inimitable wordless vocals of Edda dell'Orso--that prefigures some of Goblin's work for Dario Argento. The appearance of a walking, quacking Donald Duck is an unnerving image at a pivotal moment, and in having the priest among the suspects, KNIFE OF ICE flirts with the recurring "distrust of the clergy" motif important to so many gialli, including Lucio Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, Aldo Lado's WHO SAW HER DIE? and Antonio Bido's THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW.

Umberto Lenzi with Carroll Baker and
Jean-Louis Trintignant on the set of
KNIFE OF ICE might've been the end of the line for the Lenzi/Baker collaborations, but she appeared in other European genre titles over the next several years, including long-forgotten gialli like Eugenio Martin's THE FOURTH VICTIM (1971), Osvaldo Civirani's THE DEVIL WITH SEVEN FACES (1971), Gianfranco Piccioli's THE FLOWER WITH THE DEADLY STING (1973), and Luigi Scattini's THE BODY (1974). While it was ignored at the time, BABA YAGA, a 1973 live-action version of the erotic comics of Guido Crepax, found a new audience in the early days of DVD and, with the exception of these Lenzi gialli, has probably become the most well-known title from Baker's Euro sojourn. Most of these films never had US theatrical distribution and only a few of them surfaced on video in the '80s. By the mid '70s, there was a marked decline in the quality of work Baker was being offered in Europe. She started appearing in softcore Italian sex comedies with titles like AT LAST, AT LAST (1975) and the "Hot for Teacher" prototypes THE PRIVATE LESSON (1975) and MY FATHER'S WIFE (1976), while the scuzzy Spanish thriller BLOODBATH--shot in 1975 but unreleased until 1979--paired her with her GIANT co-star Dennis Hopper, just entering his barely employable coke years as a junkie poet named "Chicken." She made a brief return to America for the deranged 1977 black comedy ANDY WARHOL'S BAD, but by 1978, with her name misspelled "Carrol Baker" in the credits, she was reduced to appearing in the grimy CYCLONE, where Mexican exploitation auteur Rene Cardona Jr. combined the cannibalism of his 1976 hit SURVIVE with the shark attacks of his 1977 JAWS ripoff TINTORERA and wrapped them an in Irwin Allen-inspired disaster scenario.

Carroll Baker doing a Q&A at an event in 2019
Baker returned to America by 1980, appeared with Bette Davis in the Disney movie THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, and then entered the character actor phase of her career, with solid supporting turns throughout the decade in Bob Fosse's harrowing STAR 80 (1983), the Jack Nicholson/Meryl Streep drama IRONWEED (1987), and the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy KINDERGARTEN COP (1990). She had guest spots on TV shows like MURDER, SHE WROTE and L.A. LAW, and had her most prominent late-career role as Michael Douglas' housekeeper in David Fincher's THE GAME (1997). Now 89, Baker seems to have retired from acting, her last role to date being a guest spot as Rob Lowe's mother on his short-lived 2003 NBC series THE LYON'S DEN. She still makes occasional public appearances and as recently as late 2019, was still giving interviews, some of which can be found on YouTube. Unfortunately, she doesn't take part in any of the extras on Severin's Lenzi/Baker collection, though in the past and in two memoirs, she has spoken very favorably of her experiences in the Italian film industry and didn't view the giallo period of her career with any sense of disdain or dismissal.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: SWALLOW (2020) and RESISTANCE (2020)

(US/France - 2020)

There are moments throughout SWALLOW that are so cringe-inducing that it's actually difficult to watch. It's a disturbing psychological thriller that turns into an emotionally raw drama, and surprisingly, the shift feels natural and unforced. A lot of that is due to what should've been a star-making performance by Haley Bennett, who's been paying her dues for several years now--her striking resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence usually comes up--and she had a breakout role in 2016's THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. SWALLOW was getting a lot of buzz when it opened in limited release two weeks before the coronavirus pandemic closed theaters, with IFC Films reopening it at one drive-in on Easter weekend when it became the #1 movie in America with a gross of just under $2000. It eventually turned up on VOD and is now on Blu-ray/DVD, and it's one of the year's most provocative films in search of an audience, and if the Oscars actually happen, Bennett's work here is surely worthy of a nomination. Bennett is Hunter, who lives an eerily perfect life with her husband Richie (Austin Stowell). They have a huge, modern architecture marvel of a home, and Richie just got a promotion at his dad's company. Richie is busy with work and when they go out, no one really pays attention to anything she says. She spends her days rearranging furniture, sketching, playing Candy Crush on her phone, and doing housework in dresses. She's an almost anachronistic June Cleaver taking care of a home that doesn't feel like hers. When she finds out she's pregnant, she plays the dutiful role of expectant mother, but something feels off. That's when she spots a marble in some trinket and impulsively decides to ingest it. When she passes it, she keeps it as a memento. Other mementos follow: a thumbtack, a thimble, a safety pin, even a AA battery.

To say much more about where SWALLOW's story goes would deprive you of the astonishment of watching Bennett navigate this character and the incongruous sense that it's a Douglas Sirk film made with the cold, clinical detachment of David Cronenberg. It's ultimately a film about patriarchy, control, and confronting the demons of the past. Hunter's life is a series of passive-aggressive slights by Richie: he's critical of her ironing, she spends the afternoon doting on creating the perfect dinner only to have him look at his phone the whole time they're eating, she's constantly apologizing for perceived inadequacies ("Do I make you happy?" and "I just want to make sure I'm not doing something wrong"), and her in-laws (David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel) only start doting on her once she's carrying their grandchild. Nothing in Hunter's life is hers. Her only friends are Richie's friends, and when she takes charge during sex and has an intense orgasm, the only thing Richie can say is "I didn't finish." Once her secret--pica, an eating disorder where one feels a compulsion to ingest inedible objects--is exposed, Richie only sees it in terms of how it affects him ("I don't have time for this right now!" and "I can't believe this is happening to me!"). Richie can't do anything without the involvement and permission of his controlling father, who gave him a job, bought their house, etc. Richie and his father even try to sit in on Hunter's first therapy session (Richie's dad: "What medication are you giving her? I'm paying for this, so...I want results"). The scenes where Hunter swallows the various objects are profoundly uncomfortable, but watch the look of triumph on her face. Whatever this is--and she's initially unaware that it's an actual disorder--it's finally something that's hers. One could argue that the direction things go is a little too Movie of the Week-ish, but it works, and it's to writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis' credit that it doesn't rely on the most obvious, cliched explanation. It says something about the cold detachment of Hunter's picture perfect life that the burly, intimidating Syrian male nurse (Laith Nakli) that Richie('s dad) hires to watch her during the day turns out to be an unexpected source of empathy and support. In some ways with the topics it handles, it's an inadvertent companion piece to THE INVISIBLE MAN, which came out a week earlier and features an equally strong performance by Elisabeth Moss. (R, 95 mins)

(Germany/UK/Panama/China/US - 2020)

An earnest but simplistic Marcel Marceau biopic focused on the legendary mime's experiences with the French Resistance during WWII, RESISTANCE asks a bit much in casting Jesse Eisenberg, who's about 20 years too old to play Marceau at this point in his life. An aspiring actor in 1938 Strasbourg, Marcel is regarded with general disdain by his hard-working butcher father Charles (Karl Markovics of THE COUNTERFEITERS), his politically-engaged brother Alain (Felix Moati), and his cousin Georges (Geza Rohrig), who don't understand his passion for theater with the Nazis rapidly conquering Europe. By chance--primarily an interest in Alain's Jewish Resistance cohort Emma (Clemence Poesy)--Marcel finds himself entertaining orphaned Jewish children brought to Strasbourg, including young Elsbeth (Bella Ramsey, best known as Lyanna Mormont on GAME OF THRONES), whose father (Edgar Ramirez) and mother (Klara Issova) were killed on Kristallnacht. The kids bond with Marcel and love his clownish antics ("The children are the only ones who don't consider you completely ridiculous," Alain scoffs), but with Hitler's forces--represented by "Butcher of Lyon" Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer)--taking over France, Strasbourg is forced to flee to Limages in Vichy France, but even that doesn't last long since all of France is soon under Nazi control.

Marceau became a renowned hero in the French Resistance, and the last third of RESISTANCE depicts his taking part in a dangerous trek through Nazi-occupied France and into the bitter cold of the Alps to get a group of Jewish orphans to the Swiss border. The film is bookended by a 1945 speech to the troops about Marceau's heroism by Gen. George S. Patton, briefly played here by a possibly CGI'd Ed Harris. Marceau's story is one that would make a great movie, but writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz (HANDS OF STONE) is too easily sidetracked. There's entirely too much of Schweighofer's Barbie, and the third act turning into a FUGITIVE-style cat-and-mouse chase probably isn't how it went down. The same goes for the absurd scene where new father Barbie encounters Marceau and some other Resistance members on a train with the children and asks him for some parenting tips. It's hard to tell if the Barbie tangent is part of Jakubowicz's plan or the result of a suggestion by Schweighofer, also one of 24 credited producers, but there's no reason that a film about Marcel Marceau's time in the French Resistance should include a scene where Klaus Barbie is arguing with his wife. Eisenberg gets the miming down and exudes a certain childlike, Chaplin-esque presence during Marceau's performances, and the arc involving his father is interesting enough that you'll wish Eisenberg and Markovics had more scenes together, but RESISTANCE simply can't stay focused on the task at hand. (R, 121 mins)