Friday, April 3, 2020

Retro Review: ENDLESS NIGHT (1972)

(UK - 1972)

Written and directed by Sidney Gilliat. Cast: Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Britt Ekland, George Sanders, Per Oscarsson, Patience Collier, Aubrey Richards, Peter Bowles, Lois Maxwell, Madge Ryan, David Bower, Helen Horton, Walter Gotell, David Healy, Leo Genn. (Unrated, 99 mins)

Along with the many versions of her 1939 novel And Then There Were None, usually under the title TEN LITTLE INDIANS, the overwhelming majority of Agatha Christie film and TV adaptations have been her mysteries featuring either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. With WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Billy Wilder's 1957 version of her 1925 courtroom drama short story, being tops among the exceptions, the film versions of her literary departures have proven mostly unsuccessful, particularly 1985's ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, possibly the worst big-screen take on her work. 1972's ENDLESS NIGHT has been held in low regard for nearly 50 years, and its response was so unfavorable in its native UK that it was never even released in American theaters. It's not exactly obscure--between TV airings and its availability on VHS in the '80s and on DVD in the early '00s, it hasn't been all that difficult to see--but it's rarely-discussed and it's been generally dismissed, if not outright forgotten. Based on Christie's 1967 novel, ENDLESS NIGHT definitely falls into the ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE category in that it's a more inward psychological drama rather than a standard mystery, and the film is much more Hitchcockian than Christie in style and execution. And the connection is there, as writer/director Sidney Gilliat (1908-1994), whose career as a screenwriter dated back to the advent of talkies, first found success scripting Alfred Hitchcock films like 1938's THE LADY VANISHES and 1939's JAMAICA INN. ENDLESS NIGHT is generally faithful to Christie's novel, but like ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, its story structure doesn't lend itself to a visual medium. As a result, unlike ensemble pieces featuring Poirot, Marple, or a group of strangers summoned to an isolated house where they're picked off one by one, Endless Night is one of Christie's works that's better-served on the page.

That doesn't mean it isn't interesting. In fact, it's unusual in the way that it's virtually impossible for it to work on a first viewing. It almost requires a second watch just to make sense of the plot. Its finale throws out twists and turns with such wild abandon that even if the intent is some kind of ambiguity, it will only result in frustration unless you have an opportunity to go back and rewatch key scenes, including a stilted, confusing opening that only makes sense on a second run-through. This is probably a big reason for its chilly reception, plus Christie mysteries just weren't a big draw at the time, with a lull of interest between the mid-1960s and the success of 1974's Oscar-winning MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which kickstarted a Christie renaissance just before her death in 1976. I don't mean to imply that ENDLESS NIGHT is some kind of innovative, misunderstood trailblazer, because at the end of the day, it really doesn't work. But it deserves some credit for being a little ahead of its time with the kind of smack-you-upside-the-head twists and kick-in-the-balls reveals that you'd start seeing regularly in the '90s, especially after THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

Recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), ENDLESS NIGHT was also notable for reuniting the stars of Roy Boulting's acclaimed 1968 chiller TWISTED NERVE: grown-up Disney child star and POLLYANNA herself, Hayley Mills, and cherubic David Hemmings-alike Hywel Bennett. Bennett, then coming off of 1971's penis-transplant sex farce PERCY, is Michael Rogers, an aimless, irresponsible, and immature young man who drifts from job to job with no real drive or sense of responsibility. He's a self-described "idle dreamer" obsessed with a large swath of land in the countryside called Gipsy's Acre, where he has a pie-in-the-sky notion of building a beautiful dream house. He loses a limo driving job over his attitude and is able to leave his new part-time job at a gas station after a chance encounter with free-spirited Ellie Thomsen (Mills). He soon discovers that she's an orphaned heiress--"the sixth-richest heiress in the world," in fact--and they marry after a whirlwind courtship where she surprises him by purchasing Gipsy's Acre. The marriage is frowned upon by her relatives who live on an allowance she doles out, including her bitter stepmother (Lois Maxwell, the Bond series' Miss Moneypenny seen here in rare bitch-on-wheels form). Ellie's cynical, condescending attorney Lippincott (an enjoyably snide performance by George Sanders, in his next-to-last film; he committed suicide six months before its release) even offers Michael a huge payout to divorce her and walk away, subtly implying that this isn't Ellie's first impulsive marriage. Things get strange, combative, and uncomfortable with the arrival of Ellie's friend Greta (Britt Ekland, Bennett's PERCY co-star), who seems familiar to Santonix (Per Oscarsson), an acquaintance of Michael's from his days as a limo driver and also a highly-regarded, terminally ill architect who designs the high-tech, state-of-the-art mansion that Michael and Ellie build at Gipsy's Acre, with Michael quickly coming to the realization that things aren't what they seem to be.

George Sanders (1906-1972)
Nothing is what it seems to be, and that becomes--I hesitate to use the word "clear"--the longer ENDLESS NIGHT goes on. Gilliat was better known as a writer than a director, though he was no slouch in that department, having helmed the great 1946 British mystery GREEN FOR DANGER. One can see why found this story appealing, with all of its Hitchcockian elements, plus the subterfuge, the misdirection, threats, secrets, and blackmail, all set to a score by Bernard Herrmann, whose contributions to Hitchcock classics like VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and PSYCHO were inestimable. There's also the possibility that Michael is an unreliable narrator whose general shiftlessness, fleeting flashbacks to a tragedy from his childhood, and the fact that his own mother (Madge Ryan) doesn't seem to like him very much, all work together to imply that he's got his own secrets and ulterior motives. But the resolution happens so fast that it's almost too much to take in without going back and looking at parts of the movie again. Only then do things appear to begin coming together, and even then it's a shaky foundation. ENDLESS NIGHT is a film that's easier to appreciate than actually enjoy. It's not really a thriller, and despite some classifying it as "horror," it doesn't really fall into that category either, aside from a couple of creepy moments where Michael imagines Ellie as a faceless figure. Christie's novel was a journey into the mind of its main character, and that isn't easy to pull off as an "Agatha Christie" movie. For her part, Christie saw the film and expressed displeasure with the end result, though her biggest complaints stemmed from the concessions made to the era, primarily some Ekland nudity (Bennett also drops an F-bomb at one point, which isn't something you can imagine hearing from Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple). ENDLESS NIGHT also marked the end of the road for Gilliat, who called it a career and never wrote or directed another film.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Retro Review: SLEEPLESS (2001)

(Italy - 2001)

Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini and Carlo Lucarelli. Cast: Max von Sydow, Stefano Dionisi, Chiara Caselli, Gabriele Lavia, Rossella Falk, Paolo Maria Scalondro, Roberto Zibetti, Roberto Accornero, Barbara Lerici, Barbara Mautino, Conchita Puglisi, Massimo Sarchielli, Elena Marchesini, Guido Morbello, Aldo Massasso, Diego Casale, Alessandra Comerio, Daniela Fazzolari. (Unrated, 117 mins)

Those Dario Argento fans who lament his decline after his trailblazing run from 1970's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE to 1987's OPERA often speak of those later films as if he just suddenly started making terrible movies out of the blue. The shift was gradual, though it's easy to let an outright fiasco like 1998's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA cloud your judgment and taint everything surrounding it in his filmography. While things started to get precipitously bad around 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS, Argento's early 21st century output following PHANTOM--SLEEPLESS, THE CARD PLAYER, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?--has its merits and those films aren't as bad as their reputations suggest, even if they're unquestionably second-tier Argento. Such is the case with 2001's SLEEPLESS, a minor giallo in the Argento canon in retrospect but an important one at the time, as it was such an unabashed "give the fans what they want" movie that SHAMELESS might've been a better title. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was met with such hostility and was so flatly rejected by everyone, that SLEEPLESS served as an olive branch, made with the promise of being the old Argento you know and love, and he even got disbanded DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA composers Goblin to reunite for the soundtrack.

If Argento wasn't such a gifted stylist, the greatest-hits pandering he engages in throughout SLEEPLESS would almost be embarrassing. He's like a legendary classic rocker coming off an ambitious, badly-received concept album and a costly tour that flopped and is now determined to win back the fans by promising to play nothing but the old hits. There's endless, constant callbacks to his earlier classics in scene after scene after scene--a teeth-bashing murder and a set-up similar to the "walking dummy" bit from DEEP RED; a riff on the way someone suddenly appears in the frame like the climax of TENEBRAE; murder sequences in the rain like TENEBRAE, and another bit with a woman outside a train station that recalls Jessica Harper waiting for a taxi in a torrential downpour outside the airport in SUSPIRIA, or Eleonora Giorgi outside the library in INFERNO; a parent trying to cover for a their murderer child in PHENOMENA; an aging protagonist with a disability like Karl Malden's blind earwitness to murder in THE CAT O'NINE TAILS; a locked, abandoned villa that holds a secret, much like DEEP RED; a long tracking shot across the carpeted floor of a theater leading to a brutal murder that's strongly reminiscent of the famous Louma crane shot in TENEBRAE; and most important to all of Argento's gialli, the notion of the amateur sleuth who's hung up on a barely-remembered and seemingly insignificant detail that's ultimately the key to the mystery.

SLEEPLESS opens with a brief scene in Turin in 1983, as detective Ulisse Moretti (Max von Sydow) comforts a little boy who was hiding and listening as his mother was brutally murdered via an English horn being repeatedly, violently crammed into her mouth and throat. She's the latest victim of a "killer dwarf" in what's been dubbed by the press as "The Dwarf Murders." Cut to 2000 and the bizarre murders start once again, and though the murderer claims to be the Killer Dwarf, it's immediately deemed the work of a copycat, since the primary suspect in the Dwarf Murders drowned in what was ruled a suicide 17 years earlier, though his body washed away and was never found. The current detective on the case, Manni (Paolo Maria Scalandro) has no leads and reaches out to pick the brain of the retired Moretti, now an elderly widower with a heart condition and a spotty memory and seemingly in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's. Though he's foggy on some of the details, Moretti is still brought in as a consultant and ends up reconnecting with Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), the now-grown little boy from 1983 who's coincidentally been summoned from Rome to Turin by his childhood friend Lorenzo (Roberto Zibetti) when the Dwarf Murders become front-page news once again.

Much like Karl Malden and James Franciscus in THE CAT O'NINE TAILS, David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in DEEP RED, Anthony Franciosa and Christian Borromeo in TENEBRAE, and Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in PHENOMENA, von Sydow's Moretti and Dionisi's Giacomo become yet another in a long line of Argento's unlikely sleuth teams resorting to their own investigation when the police either dismiss their concerns or have reached a dead-end. As you might guess, as they get closer to the truth, their lives are in danger (someone attempts to poison Giacomo's beer in a crowded bar at one point, but Lorenzo ends up drinking it and almost dies), and numerous red herrings abound, among them Lorenzo, his Giacomo-hating, asshole father (DEEP RED and INFERNO co-star Gabriele Lavia), and the killer dwarf's still-grieving, embittered mother (a semi-retired Rossella Falk, veteran of numerous vintage non-Argento gialli like Luigi Bazzoni's THE FIFTH CORD, Paolo Cavara's BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, and Umberto Lenzi's SEVEN BLOOD-STAINED ORCHIDS). And, as usual, the key to the mystery involves some obscure detail, in this case a little-known nursery rhyme for which Moretti can't remember the words, and a strange hissing sound heard amidst his mother's blood-gurgled screams that has stuck with Giacomo all these years and he still can't identify. There's absolutely nothing new here, but it's fun to see all of these Argento tropes being served up like giallo comfort food, not to mention the immeasurable boost it gets from the regal screen presence of the great von Sydow.

For these reasons, and in looking at Argento's subsequent decline through the benefit of hindsight, SLEEPLESS has aged better than expected. Much of that is due to the terrific transfer on Scorpion's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead), which represents the first proper presentation the film has had in America. Artisan Entertainment picked it up for the US and released it straight-to-video in the fall of 2001, but the DVD was a subpar transfer, and to add insult to injury, was only offered in 1.33:1 pan & scan. Of course, this was prior to the days of widescreen HDTV being the standard, but even then, most DVDs offered both widescreen and 1.33:1 "fullscreen" versions--either as two-sided discs or two different packages--the fullscreen option there for those holdouts who still couldn't grasp the concept of letterboxing. Now, at last, SLEEPLESS looks and sounds like it should, but it still has its faults that keep it firmly entrenched as second-rate Argento. The initially-welcome familiarity becomes a slight liability after a while, as one gets over the joy of Argento being Argento again and realizes that, no matter how much better this is than PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it kinda just becomes Dario Argento's homage to Dario Argento. The killer, once revealed, starts using a weird vocal affect that sounds less like a sinister serial killer and more like a lost Festrunk brother; and at just under two hours, it's entirely too long, which makes the film's final minutes even more bizarre in the way Argento has the closing credits roll over the final scene as shit is still happening. It probably sounded like an outside-the-box idea on paper as a way of messing with the audience, but in execution, it's jarring and distracting, like the film is already 20 minutes too long but now he's in a mad rush to wrap it up. He would do the same thing over a final scene with Stefania Rocca in THE CARD PLAYER, but it was in a much less obtrusive fashion. SLEEPLESS is a far from perfect film, and it doesn't even crack the top ten of any "Best of Argento" lists, but at the same time, it also doesn't belong anywhere near the bottom, and at least now, with a quality Blu-ray presentation, it can be assessed on its own admittedly flawed terms by devout Argentophiles.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Retro Review: THE FREAKMAKER (1974)

(UK - 1974) 

Directed by Jack Cardiff. Written by Robert D. Weinbach and Edward Mann. Cast: Donald Pleasence, Tom Baker, Brad Harris, Julie Ege, Michael Dunn, Scott Antony, Jill Haworth, Olga Anthony, Lisa Collings, Tony Mayne, Molly Tweedlie, Kathy Kitchen, Fran Fullenwider, Lesley Roose, Fay Bura, Willie "Popeye" Ingram, Esther "Alligator Girl" Blackmon, Hugh "Pretzel Boy" Baily, Felix "Frog Boy" Duarte. (R, 92 mins)

THE FREAKMAKER, the premiere offering from DiabolikDVD's new partnership with the reactivated VHS-era label Vidcrest (because physical media is dead), is a dreary and often repugnant British body-horror film that was somehow picked up by Columbia and released in the US as THE MUTATIONS. Under either title, it's dull, tacky, and unpleasantly gross, though one can imagine some potential if retroactively looking at it as a DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS remake if directed by David Cronenberg. But it's also a pseudo-remake of Tod Browning's FREAKS (including a "one of us" invocation), and its exploitative use of real-life circus freaks, some of whom are billed with their circus names, is queasy enough to make the climax of THE SENTINEL look like a model of sensitivity, and on top of that, the film's two disparate storylines never really gel. Even on a technical level, it's an ugly mess, which is surprising since it's directed by Oscar-winning BLACK NARCISSUS cinematographer Jack Cardiff (1914-2009), who would occasionally helm his own films, even earning a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1960's SONS AND LOVERS. And though it wasn't a big hit in its day, Cardiff's best-known work as a director is 1968's ferocious "men on a mission" mercenary adventure DARK OF THE SUN, a cult classic now rightfully regarded as one of the best action movies of a decade jam-packed with them.

Cardiff is having a really off day with THE FREAKMAKER, and it's probably a telling sign that it ended up being his last film as a director, as he'd return to his regular day job as a hired-gun cinematographer on titles as varied as 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE, 1981's GHOST STORY, and 1985's RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. THE FREAKMAKER gets off to such a rambling, tedious start that it actually never manages to recover and find its footing. It opens with nearly ten excruciating minutes of what looks like stock footage from PBS' NOVA, showing time-lapse plant, flower, and nature growth, sometimes with a droning ambient score that sounds like it's emanating from a broke-ass synthesizer, and sometimes accompanied by muffled, monotone narration from Donald Pleasence. Pleasence is Dr. Nolter, a college professor who's a closet mad scientist, prone to using his students as unwitting guinea pigs in his bizarre experiments cross-breeding plant and human DNA...for some reason. He does so with the help of Lynch (Tom Baker, around the same time he became the Fourth Doctor on BBC's DOCTOR WHO), his drooling, horribly-deformed henchman who keeps clinging to Nolter's empty promises that he'll "fix" him. Nolter's botched experiments are either disposed of by Lynch or sold to a demeaning traveling circus where they're part of the freakshow hosted by dwarf Burns (SHIP OF FOOLS Oscar-nominee and THE WILD WILD WEST villain Michael Dunn, in one of his last films), as they slowly plot a FREAKS-esque revolt against their continued mistreatment. One of Nolter's students, Tony (Scott Antony) starts snooping around after hours and is abducted by Lynch and taken to Nolter, who promptly turns him into a half-man/half-Venus Flytrap. That understandably doesn't fly with Tony's girlfriend Lauren (Jill Haworth), and their friend Hedi (Julie Ege), who's just started fooling around with visiting American botanist Brian, improbably played by muscular '60s peplum star Brad Harris, whose long intro arriving at the airport is accompanied by Lauren and Hedi fawning over him and cooing from a distance about how good-looking he is, an idea no doubt suggested to Cardiff by co-producer Brad Harris.

Executive-produced by oil scion J. Ronald Getty, the second son of J. Paul Getty, THE FREAKMAKER is just an all-around, front-to-back, start-to-finish lousy movie, and it's not even an entertaining bad movie. It's hard to believe Columbia saw fit to even release it--unless Getty greased some palms--and even harder to fathom that someone of Cardiff's caliber was responsible for directing it. Remember when THE KILLING FIELDS and THE MISSION director Roland Joffe made the post-SAW torture porn horror outing CAPTIVITY? That's how bizarre it is to see Cardiff's name on something this trashy. He's totally punching a clock here, as is everyone, especially a sleepwalking Pleasence, whose scenes are sporadic enough that he probably only worked on this for a few days, and from the look and sound of his mumbling, indifferent performance, did so right after some kind of emergency dental procedure. Baker, just a couple of years removed from his memorable performance as Rasputin in 1971's NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, seems thankful that he's got a ton of hastily-glued-on rubber prosthetics to hide behind. He admirably tries to imbue his character with some degree of pathos when he visits a prostitute (Lisa Collings), who strips nude for him but seems taken aback that he doesn't want sex, but rather, only wants her to say nice things to him. It's a genuinely good moment for Baker, but THE FREAKMAKER blows it by immediately cutting away. This was also one of the last projects to feature Dunn, who had just co-starred in a similarly junky horror film around the same time, the Italian-made FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS. Both were among several films released after the busy character actor died in his sleep in August 1973 at just 38 while working on Anthony Harvey's THE ABDICATION. In a film where nearly everything is handled as badly as possible, Cardiff at least has the sense to include some gratuitous nudity from the stunning Ege, so if nothing else, it does get something right.

opening in Toledo, OH on 9/27/1974

Friday, March 27, 2020

Retro Review: EDGE OF THE AXE (1988) and DEADLY MANOR (1990)

(Spain - 1988)

Directed by Joseph Braunstein (Jose Larraz). Written by Joaquin Amichatis, Javier Elorrieta and Jose Frade. Cast: Barton Faulks, Christina Marie Lane, Page Moseley, Fred Holliday, Patty Shepard, Alicia Moro, Jack Taylor, Conrado San Martin, Joy Blackburn, May Heatherly, Elmer Modlin. (Unrated, 91 mins)

In recent years, there's been a resurgence of interest in the work of Spanish exploitation auteur Jose Larraz (1929-2013), perhaps best known for his 1974 British-made cult classic VAMPYRES, which really took the "lesbian vampire" subgenre--ushered in with Hammer's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS in 1970--just about as far as it could go. 1974 also saw Larraz helming his most serious film, the Roman Polanski-esque psychological thriller SYMPTOMS, which was actually nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes before falling into obscurity for decades until Mondo Macabro released it on Blu-ray a few years ago. Despite the Cannes accolades, Larraz went right back to his exploitation roots with films like 1977's THE COMING OF SIN (included on a 2019 Larraz box set from Arrow Video, along with VAMPYRES and his 1970 debut WHIRLPOOL), 1979's AND GIVE US OUR DAILY SEX (with Laura Gemser), and 1982's sleazy BLACK CANDLES. A pair of late '80s Larraz slasher films recently resurfaced for the first time since the VHS era courtesy of Arrow, because physical media is dead: 1988's EDGE OF THE AXE, and 1990's DEADLY MANOR, with another Larraz title from the same period, 1987's REST IN PIECES, rumored to be coming from Vinegar Syndrome later this year. Parts of AXE and all MANOR were shot in the US, with Larraz putting forth a lot of effort to make them look as much like American slasher films of the era (albeit a few years after the craze had passed) as he could, right down to hiding behind his Americanized pseudonym "Joseph Braunstein" on EDGE OF THE AXE.

Released straight-to-video in the US by the short-lived Forum Home Video, EDGE OF THE AXE was partially shot in Big Bear, and it really busts its ass to fool you into thinking it's an American production, with Larraz including an abundance of second-unit work that turns a good chunk of the film's opening half hour into an unintentional travelogue. Starting with a strange but striking sequence in an automatic car wash, a white-masked, axe-wielding serial killer is amassing a body count in the fictional Paddock County, with Sheriff McIntosh (American TV actor Fred Holliday) determined to dodge any kind of responsibility for dealing with it (one victim is found partially decomposed, bloodied and hanging upside down in the basement of a bar, and he tells the coroner to write it up as a suicide). There's no shortage of suspects: SANTA BARBARA's Page Moseley as the local exterminator Richard Simmons (!), who makes no secret that he only married his older wife Laura (Patty Shepard) for her money, and is openly trying to hook up with Susan Nebbs (Joy Blackburn), the hottie daughter of wealthy Mr. Nebbs (Conrado San Martin); Nebbs' other daughter Lillian (Christina Marie Lane), who's back from college; Rev. Clinton (Elmer Modlin), who keeps pestering Lillian about choir practice; weirdo church organist Christopher Caplin (Jack Taylor); and drifter Gerald Martin (Barton Faulks), a computer whiz and old friend of Richard's who's just arrived in town and starts dating Lillian. Also a suspect: the entire remaining male population of Paddock County once floozy hairdresser and part-time prostitute Rita (Alicia Moro) is murdered, leaving behind a black book with the name of every married guy in town who paid for her services. That doesn't include Sheriff McIntosh who, at the crime scene as Rita's mutilated corpse is being carted off on a stretcher, openly laments to the coroner (who describes the condition of the body as "hamburger meat") and a visiting big-city detective who looks and acts like a drunk Civil War re-enactor that he never got the chance to screw her.

Yes, EDGE OF THE AXE is that kind of movie--not quite PIECES but certainly in the ballpark. As the murders continue, Lillian is convinced that the killer is her unseen cousin Charlie, who was recently released from a mental hospital. She's also a fellow techie, and together with Gerald, they do some amateur detective work on a computer whose capabilities demonstrate that the filmmakers really don't know how computers work, the level of realism falling somewhere between a CBS police procedural and NIGHTMARE WEEKEND. The comparisons to PIECES also extend to Holliday's McIntosh being the most useless cop in a pretend-American Spanish slasher movie since Christopher George delegated his entire caseload to "that kid Kendall" in pursuit of the chainsaw killer, plus there's an almost equally hilarious Agatha Christie-type moment where Larraz uses a fish-eye lens for extreme close-ups of all the suspects as they're gathered at a victim's funeral. Eurocult aficionados will find EDGE OF THE AXE of interest for the presence of Spanish exploitation stalwarts Shepard, Taylor, Modlin, and May Heatherly (best known to bad movie fans as the hysterical mom finding the nudie jigsaw puzzle in the opening sequence of PIECES), all American expats who spent virtually their entire careers in Europe, all seen here acting with live sound and using their actual voices, which were rarely heard in the era of post-sync dubbing (other than a couple of bit players, everyone is using their own voice, which explains Moro's thick accent). The appearance of these actors is also the tell on which scenes were shot in Big Bear, CA and which were done in Madrid, Spain. EDGE OF THE AXE bogs down a bit in the middle, but the murders are surprisingly brutal and the killer's reveal in the climax, while goofy as shit, makes for a pretty wild finish.

(Spain/US - 1990; US release 1993)

Written and directed by Jose Larraz. Cast: Clark Tufts, Greg Rhodes, Claudia Franjul, Mark Irish, Liz Hitchler, Jerry Kernion, Kathleen Patane, William Russell, Jennifer Delora. (Unrated, 86 mins)

Larraz's penultimate feature film and his last in the horror genre, 1990's DEADLY MANOR is a lifeless slasher outing that's about eight years late to the FRIDAY THE 13TH ripoff party. It feels even more unfashionably tardy when you consider that it wasn't even released in America until it went straight to video in 1993, misleadingly rechristened SAVAGE LUST, with cover art featuring someone who isn't even in the movie but bears a striking present-day resemblance to Brie Larson. A Spanish/US co-production shot in and around Suffern, NY in the summer of 1989, DEADLY MANOR doesn't have any of the usual suspects in Spanish exploitation in its cast and is Larraz's most American-looking film by far, and as such, it's surprising he uses his real name instead of his trusty "Joseph Braunstein" alias. It also reunites him with his VAMPYRES producer and holder of the world's most British name until the dawn of Benedict Cumberbatch, Brian Smedley-Aston, but they decidedly fail to recapture that old magic. A group of college kids en route to a camping excursion get lost, pick up a brooding, bad-boy hitchhiker (Clark Tufts) who knows the way, and decide to crash at an abandoned house in the woods when it gets dark. Despite the discovery of a smashed car, coffins in the basement, scalps in jars in a closet, and photo albums of nude corpses, they stick around and are soon offed one by one in predictable fashion.

I guess there's some surprises in their order of exit--the one who's overly cautious, legitimately afraid and keeps saying "We need to get out of here" (Claudia Franjul) would usually be the final girl, but here, she's the first one to bite it. But all the slasher genre archetypes are here, including the sexually voracious one who pays the price for promiscuity (Liz Hitchler), the preppy (Mark Irish), the dudebro tough guy (Greg Rhodes), and the loud, obnoxious fat dude (Jerry Kernion) who, after seeing the gruesome discoveries inside the deadly manor, snarks "What's next, Uncle Fester on the patio?" It would've helped a little if any of these characters were likable or if any of the actors were good, but the performances are terrible across the board. The killer is a disfigured woman (Jennifer Delora, the only main cast member other than Kernion who's still eking out a living as a working actor) who wears a Phantom of the Opera mask and has an axe to grind just like Mrs. Voorhees for reasons that have nothing to do with these intruders, and considering the amount of bodies on the property and in the house, you'd think the cops would be alerted to a missing persons epidemic in this secluded area. There's no logic here, and the whole subplot with the hitchhiker being an escaped con is a time-wasting McGuffin that goes nowhere. Larraz made one more film, the 1992 action comedy SEVILLA CONNECTION, which was never seen outside of Spain, and he finished his career with the 2002 Spanish TV miniseries VIENTO DEL PUEBLO, a biopic of poet Miguel Hernandez. He was active on bonus features in the DVD era, most famously on Anchor Bay's 2000 release of VAMPYRES, on a memorably pervy and hilarious commentary track with Smedley-Aston that would likely get both men canceled today.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

On Blu-ray/DVD: A HIDDEN LIFE (2019) and THE SONG OF NAMES (2019)

(US/UK/Germany/Italy - 2019)

Considering the 20-year sabbatical he took between 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN and 1998's THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick has been surprisingly prolific since his return, especially in the last decade: his latest film, A HIDDEN LIFE, is his fifth feature since 2011. But it's been an increasingly divisive decade for Malick fans, and even his most devout apologists started turning on him after 2017's atrocious SONG TO SONG, where the filmmaker's embrace of rambling, ethereal voiceover and growing disdain for any semblance of narrative storytelling or forward momentum reached their absolute nadir. Perhaps even Malick felt he'd disappeared a little too far up his own ass with SONG TO SONG, as A HIDDEN LIFE marks a return to actual scripted narrative and conventional storytelling, displaying a side of Malick we haven't seen since 2005's THE NEW WORLD and parts of 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE. That doesn't mean he's completely changed his ways. He's still as meticulous and obsessive as ever: A HIDDEN LIFE, originally titled RADEGUND, was shot back in 2016 as Malick spent nearly three years tinkering with it and tweaking it in the editing room, during which time two of its cast members died (Michael Nyqvist in June 2017 and Bruno Ganz in February 2019). Set from 1939 to 1943, the film is based on the true story of Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), a farmer in Radegund, Austria. He's a good, honest man who's happy with his simple life, tending to his fields, doing handyman work at the local church, and spending time with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters. But Austria is in a time of turmoil. War is ramping up throughout Europe and able-bodied men are being drafted to serve under Hitler. Much of the Radegund locals--including its Hitler-loving mayor (Karl Markovics) pledge blind allegiance, while Franz, troubled by the Nazi ideology, dutifully goes to church for guidance but gets nothing from the Bishop (Nyqvist), all the while defiantly trying to remain in apolitical detachment.

He's conscripted and goes through the military training, and is then sent home until he's called to serve. That day comes, and he refuses the required oath of allegiance to Hitler. Franz going on the record as a conscientious objector quickly gets around Radegund, as former friends ostracize the Jagerstatters, and no one, not even Radegund priest Father Furthauer (Tobias Moretti) can convince him to simply go along to get along. Franz is eventually hauled away to prison to await trial, where he's regularly beaten and tortured, even refusing a request by a Nazi captain (Matthias Schoenaerts), who promises to dismiss the charges, end his incarceration, and give him a non-battlefield office job if he simply signs the oath to Hitler. Franz Jagerstatter never backed down and never gave in, and would eventually be found guilty before a tribunal and executed on August 9, 1943. As one expects, A HIDDEN LIFE is stunningly beautiful, especially the scenes around the Jagerstatter farm, shot in the mountains of northern Italy. This probably looked great on a big screen, but the film got lost in the shuffle of Disney taking over 20th Century Fox, and something that would've gotten a certain Oscar push in any other year ended up stalling on 151 screens at its widest release, grossing under $2 million. It's nice to see Malick meeting a weary audience halfway by embracing relatively standard storytelling again while still giving himself room to indulge his usual tropes and obsessions (slow walks through fields, long, contemplative, philosophical voiceovers, this time as epistolary narration in letters between Franz and Fani). But at a career-long 174 minutes, it's simply too long, especially when he keeps the bigger picture at a distance to get into the heads of Franz and Fani, and you can almost see Diehl desperately wanting to break out with an Oscar-caliber performance but Malick's methodology keeps him pinned down. He does what he can when it's allowed, and Ganz has a great moment later on as the head of the tribunal, his sad face speaking volumes after he privately tries to get Franz to just sign the oath and be done with it, maybe even silently admiring the young man's conviction even though he has no choice but to sentence him to death. After years of increasingly self-indulgent drivel, A HIDDEN LIFE is a step in the right direction for Malick, whose next film, the Biblical drama THE LAST PLANET (starring Schoenaerts) is currently in post-production, which means we'll see it sometime in 2023. (PG-13, 174 mins)

(Canada/Hungary - 2019)

Another barely-released prestige project that came and went with little fanfare during the 2019 awards season (Sony got it on 182 screens at its widest release), THE SONG OF NAMES is an earnest but empty period drama that jumps back and forth between 1939. 1951, and 1986. In London in 1951, 21-year-old Polish-born violin prodigy Dovidl Rapoport (Jonah Hauer-King) is set to make his much-anticipated debut performance before a sellout crowd that will be broadcast on BBC radio, but he never shows up, and neither his manager Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend), his son, Dovidl's best friend Martin (Gerran Howell), nor Martin's girlfriend Helen (Marina Hambro), know where he is. We learn that Dovidl has lived with the Simmonds family since 1939, when his Jewish father left him in the care of impresario Gilbert to let him study the violin and be safe as Hitler's Germany began its conquering rise to power. Young Martin (Misha Handley) is resentful of Dovidl (Luke Doyle), whose pre-teen arrogance, self-proclaimed musical genius, and the attention he gets from Gilbert is initially a source of conflict, though the two boys eventually form a bond and become the best of friends. In 1986, Martin (Tim Roth) is a classical music talent scout in London, and while judging an otherwise routine talent show at an area school, he sees a student using a very particular and unique way of applying rosin to the bow that is identical to what he watched Dovidl do countless times when they were children. Only then does he realize how Dovidl's disappearance has quietly gnawed at him for 35 years, and he switches to amateur sleuth mode--going from London to Warsaw to NYC--to find out what happened to him.

Second-billed Clive Owen's name is above the title with Roth's, so it's not really a spoiler to say that 1986 Dovidl will eventually appear much later, but the first hour and change is spent on Martin chasing a series of coincidental leads that get increasingly more contrived with each new clue. Based on a 2002 novel by Norman Lebrecht and scripted by Jeffrey Caine (a 2005 Adapted Screenplay Oscar-nominee for THE CONSTANT GARDENER), THE SONG OF NAMES telegraphs too many of its reveals so that nothing that happens is particularly surprising, especially in the way 1986 Helen (Catherine McCormack), Martin's wife of over 30 years, really doesn't want him to waste his time tracking down Dovidl. 1951 Dovidl grows more and more concerned over the fate of his family, from whom he hasn't heard in years, fearful that they were among the dead at Treblinka, and it's in these scenes that director Francois Girard (THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD, THE RED VIOLIN) fares best, with a devastating sequence that's diminished somewhat by the ludicrous way Dovidl gets to where he goes to discover the truth. The same incredulity applies to 1986 Martin just walking into a small violin repair shop in Brooklyn, where the owner (Saul Rubinek) just happens to still have the address of an anonymous caller who never gave his name but inquired about selling a particular violin four years earlier. That scene with 1951 Dovidl's discovery--and the origin of the film's title--is an emotional wrecking ball, but THE SONG OF NAMES trudges on for another half hour before its big soap opera reveal that isn't even a surprise by that point. The younger actors do a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting, as Roth essentially just plays detective and listens to people talk about Dovidl, while Owen really isn't onscreen long enough to make much of an impression. (PG-13, 113 mins)

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Retro Review: BLIND RAGE (1978)

(Philippines - 1978)

Directed by Efren C. Pinon. Written by Jerry O. Tirazona and Leo Fong. Cast: Tony Ferrer, Leila Hermosa, Leo Fong, Fred Williamson, Charlie Davao, Carlos Padilla Jr, D'Urville Martin, Dick Adair, Darnell Garcia, Golay, B.T. Anderson, Subas Herrero, Bing Velasco, Chuck Doherty, Max Alvarado, The SOS Daredevils. (R, 81 mins)

"Let's begin by synchronizing your Braille watches." 

Cheaply-made and amateurishly-shot, BLIND RAGE is a thoroughly ridiculous high-concept Filipino mash-up of heist flick, blaxploitation, and kung-fu involving a group of blind men hired to steal a secret $15 million CIA slush fund from the vault of a Manila bank. The mastermind is Johnny Duran (Charlie Davao), a bank representative working with the US Treasury to secure the $15 million as part of the covert "Project Southeast Asia," designed as an emergency fund for US allies in the region to launch a counterattack should Vietnam be plotting any more shenanigans. Duran and teacher-for-the-blind Sally (Leila Hermosa) work on putting together a crack team of blind guys from all over the world--mostly criminals--since no one will think them capable of pulling what's tantamount to a SEEING-EYE DOG DAY AFTERNOON. There's American gangster Willie Black (DOLEMITE director/co-star D'Urville Martin), who lost his sight during a botched attempt on his life; Hong Kong's Lin Wang (co-writer Leo Fong), a Tong "liquidator" who tried to skim off an opium deal and was promptly rewarded with acid being thrown in his eyes; matador Hector Lopez (Darnell Garcia), who went blind when he was gored by a bull; and the only non-criminal, Tokyo-based, blind-from-birth expat American magician Anderson (Dick Adair). Sally thinks they need a fifth person to handle the more technological elements and act as a decoy by pretending to have sight, so she hires past student and low-level hood Ben Guevera (Tony Ferrer, a huge star in the Philippines who was best known for headlining a long-running series of Filipino 007 knockoffs), so "he can get even with the world for what happened to him years ago," specifically, trying to pull a fast one on a rival crime outfit and getting a power drill to the eyes.

Haphazardly-assembled and erratically-paced, with its 81 minutes feeling like two and a half hours, BLIND RAGE--just out on Blu-ray from Scorpion because physical media is dead--is nevertheless an enjoyable bad movie. The blind men go through the requisite training, which also includes wearing specially-made shoes with metal soles so they can tell when someone else is perhaps walking away to call the cops or trigger the alarm. Willie tries to rape Sally at one point, and she's rescued by a furious Ben, but it's training as usual right after and it's never mentioned again. Much of the dialogue is post-synced (Fong--later the star of 1984's KILLPOINT and 1986's LOW BLOW in Crown International's ill-advised deep-dive into "Fongsploitation" (© Marty McKee)--is dubbed by another actor), and when it's not, the results range from dreadful (the whole scene with the Treasury guy) to nonsensical, as when Duran meets with a sinister silent partner (B.T. Anderson) who introduces himself with "My name is Lew Simpson...most of my friends call me Wilbur." And that's not even counting Martin's Willie making a getaway and emphatically declaring "I wouldn't give two cents in Chinese horse manure for your life!" Also, why bring along a blind magician and not utilize his skills? Why bring Ben along to pretend to see only to abandon the whole idea and have Ferrer be the actor who most invests himself in delivering a convincing "blind" performance? By comparison, Martin (portrayed by Wesley Snipes in the recent DOLEMITE IS MY NAME) doesn't even try, looking around, walking right up to doors and opening them, appearing less like a blind guy and more like some dude just wearing sunglasses. Speaking of which, why even bother going through the trouble of hiring blind guys? Why not just have guys pretend to be blind? Training blind guys and reconstructing the exact layout of the bank so they can count their steps and memorize the bank interior seems like a lot of extra prep work.

Directed by Efren C. Pinon with all the skill and production value of BLACK DYNAMITE if helmed by Al Adamson, BLIND RAGE boasts of globetrotting location work all over the world, which mostly consists of fleeting shots of Davao walking around in Vegas, Tokyo, and Hong Kong as he recruits all of the blind participants. Davao disappears for much of the middle, but he's essentially the lead in the first and third acts (top-billed Ferrer doesn't even appear until nearly 30 minutes in), with the entire opening devoted to long shots of him driving around various recognizable L.A. locations on his way to meet the Treasury guy. Pinon brings The Hammer down for the finale, however, with Fred Williamson turning up in the final ten minutes, reprising his role as CIA agent Jesse Crowder from a pair of his own 1976 drive-in actioners, DEATH JOURNEY and NO WAY BACK (he would play Crowder again in 1983's THE LAST FIGHT). In an interview in the Blu-ray bonus features, Fong says a chance encounter with Williamson led to his brief appearance, shot in Los Angeles, where he gets a fight scene with Davao on top of a building next to an IHOP that, according to Fong, served as the production's unofficial office during the L.A. portion of the shoot (was the "chance encounter" just Fong and Pinon showing up at that IHOP one morning and interrupting Fred's breakfast?). Williamson probably knocked out his role in a day and a half, tops--not a bad gig to show up 70 minutes into an 80-minute movie and instantly be the hero. It's this final section where BLIND RAGE finally starts to look like an almost-professional action film. While not exactly good in the standard sense, there's enough of a marked change in style and execution in those climactic ten minutes that it's likely Williamson took charge and directed his scenes himself.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Retro Review: CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980)

(Italy/Spain - 1980; US release 1982)

Directed by Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Written by Jimmy Gould (Dardano Sacchetti) and Anthony M. Dawson (Antonio Margheriti). Cast: John Saxon, Elizabeth Turner, John Morghen (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), Cindy Hamilton (Cinzia de Carolis), Tony King, Wallace Wilkinson, Ray Williams (Ramiro Oliveros), May Heatherly, Joan Riordan, Venantino Venantini, Luca Venantini, Goffredo Unger, Walter Patriarca, Edoardo Margheriti, Paul Costello. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Throughout his long career, journeyman Italian director Antonio Margheriti dabbled in everything from post-HERCULES peplum, sci-fi space operas, gothic horror, 007 Eurospy knockoffs, gialli, spaghetti westerns, family comedies, crime thrillers, JAWS ripoffs, Indiana Jones imitations, commando action explosion movies, and whatever YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE is. 1980's CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE was his only stab at the graphically gory, extreme Italian horror made famous by the likes of Lucio Fulci in the wake of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD.  He didn't really care for that style of horror, and CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE reflects that by trying to go for something a little different than the post-DAWN zombie flicks and the flesh-munching jungle cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) and Umberto Lenzi (CANNIBAL FEROX, aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY). Despite the horrific elements and the overt zombie/cannibal influence, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE actually fits more in the post-TAXI DRIVER, "crazed Vietnam vet" subgenre popularized by ROLLING THUNDER, THE EXTERMINATOR, FIRST BLOOD, and any number of lesser B-movie actioners.  Like those other films, we have soldiers coming home from Vietnam, unable to re-adjust to civilian life, cast aside, and, for varying reasons, going on a rampage. Cannibalism is a rather extreme metaphor for the PTSD turmoil felt by shattered combat vets, but it shows some more thematic ambition than is generally seen in such exploitation films of the time. And, as Roger Corman and others have noted for decades, exploitation films are where filmmakers can sneak in the hardest-hitting messages, because nobody's looking for it amidst the blood & guts and the T&A.

Released to US grindhouses and drive-ins in 1982 by Almi Pictures under two different, equally lurid titles--first as INVASION OF THE FLESH HUNTERS in a version cut by several minutes to avoid an X rating, and a later relaunch later that year and into 1983 in its uncut form as CANNIBALS IN THE STREETS--CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE has Vietnam War PTSD manifesting itself in the form of a dormant cannibal virus infecting a trio of Atlanta-area Vietnam vets: crazed sergeants Tommy Thompson (Tony King), the improbably-named Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, billed as "John Morghen"), and their C.O. Capt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon), who had a chunk taken out of his right arm by a feral Thompson in 'Nam. Hopper is still haunted by nightmares and some thawing, raw meat in the fridge is starting to look appetizing even before he, Bukowski, and Thompson can no longer resist the slowly-building craving for human flesh. Hopper comes to Bukowski's rescue after the latter bites a young woman in a movie theater (showing Umberto Lenzi's 1979 WWII drama FROM HELL TO VICTORY, conveniently from this film's executive producer Edmondo Amati) and instigates a police standoff in a flea market.

When Bukowski is arrested, Hopper, who's already put the bite (and probably more, offscreen) on the aggressively flirty, seductive, and underage girl next door (Cinzia de Carolis, credited as "Cindy Hamilton" and a long way from her role as Karl Malden's young ward and sidekick in Dario Argento's THE CAT O'NINE TAILS) in a cringey scene that can best be described as "incredibly uncomfortable" even though little is shown (some of Margheriti's crasser contemporaries would've left nothing to the imagination), busts him and Thompson out of the mental ward, taking an infected nurse (May Heatherly, best known as the nudie jigsaw puzzle-hating mom in the beginning of PIECES) along with them on a cannibal rampage through Atlanta that culminates in a police manhunt through the sewers. In pursuit are Hopper's news reporter wife Jane (Elizabeth Turner of BEYOND THE DOOR and WAVES OF JUST) and her friend Dr. Mendez (Ramiro Oliveros), who carries a blazing torch for her and is constantly trying to goad her into ditching Norman. There's also irate, foul-mouthed, trenchcoat-wearing Capt. McCoy (local Atlanta actor Wallace Wilkinson, also seen as Glenn Ford's captain in the insane THE VISITOR, another Atlanta-shot Italian horror film made around the same time) who barks orders at everyone after arriving at the flea market standoff and yelling "Is he a subversive, a queer, a black, a commie, or a 'Moslem' fanatic?" Wallace Wilkinson: canceled.

Just out on Blu-ray in its uncensored version in a 4K restoration from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE looks better than it ever has in this pristine new transfer, an upgrade that's leaps and bounds over the 2002 Image Entertainment DVD. Though it's not as consistently over-the-top as a Fulci or Lenzi gorefest, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE is still no slouch in the splatter department.  From intermittent flesh-munching to tongues being ripped out to eyes being gouged out to one hapless victim's limbs being buzzsawed off to the legendary scene filmed through the gaping hole in Bukowski's shotgunned belly, Margheriti, however reluctant he may have been about dabbling in this subgenre, delivers a sufficient level of the goods. The Kino Blu includes a nearly hour-long retrospective ported over from the old Image DVD, featuring interviews with Saxon, Lombardo Radice, and Margheriti, who died in 2002. It also has a new commentary by film historian and former Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas, plus a new interview with Canton, OH-native King, a forgotten Buffalo Bills receiver whose brief NFL career ended in 1968 after one season. King soon drifted into movies (he had a small role in SHAFT and a bit part as a stablehand grooming Jack Woltz's doomed horse in THE GODFATHER), most notably in a memorable foot chase in what should've been a star-making supporting turn in 1975's REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER. By 1980, he was finding steady employment in Italy, doing two more Margheriti films after CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980's Namsploitation outing THE LAST HUNTER and 1982's TIGER JOE), as well as Ruggero Deodato's insane 1983 sci-fi actioner THE RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS. Several years after his Italian sojourn, King changed his name to Malik Farrakhan and became head of security for Public Enemy.