Thursday, April 14, 2016

LONG WEEKEND


"Their crime was against nature... and nature found them guilty!" was the tag-line that appeared on the poster for LONG WEEKEND. That might lead you to believe this is simply another nature run amok flick, a la GRIZZY or DAY OF THE ANIMALS. Nothing could be further from the truth. Intensely claustrophobia (an impressive feat given the wide-open setting), LONG WEEKEND is much more psychological than visceral. While its "be friendly to the environment" message is front and center throughout, the film does not stop there. If anything, what it is really concerned with is our casual cruelties, not only towards nature but towards the people we profess to love, and how every single callous action we take brings us closer to our own destruction or, at the very least, assures us of our eventual comeuppance.

 Peter and Marcia are on the verge of divorce. Both have secrets, both have been unfaithful, and neither are very willing to put pride aside to begin the reconciliation. The couple set out to an isolated beach on the Australian coast for a weekend away from civilization. Marcia does not hesitate to make her feelings known on the matter. She would rather stay in the city. Along the way, the callous nature of our pair begins to show. Their relationship is verbally and emotionally abusive, each bearing more ill will than they let on. (early on, we see Peter casually targeting his wife through the scope of his new hunting rifle). Peter hits a kangaroo, leaving it to die in the middle of the road. Later on, he will toss a lit cigarette out of his car window, starting a fire by the roadside. Making a quick pit stop for beer, Peter is confused as to why none of the locals know where the beach is. When they finally reach their turnoff, they quickly get lost in the woods. 

Once they reach the beach, things start to improve. Peter and Marcia begin to talk, to treat each other like human beings again. But old wounds don't heal so quickly and as their relationship once again deteriorates, the wildlife begins to act strangely. At night, they hear ominous noises. Peter is attacked by an eagle. A large, black shape approaches him as he swims. Later on, Peter shoots and kills a sea cow only to find that it's corpse inches closer to their campsite every night. Peter spots a minibus parked further down the beach, seemingly deserted. When he and Marcia go to check it out the next day, they find it partially submerged in the ocean, a few hundred feet from where Peter first spotted it.

It's a small miracle that John Hargreaves and Briony Behets maintain our sympathies through the films running time. Peter and Marcia are not likeable characters. They bicker and argue over everything, quietly opening up old wounds and not-so-quietly creating new ones. Though their marriage was most definitely over by the time the trip started, by mid-way through the film, its positively disintegrated. That we feel anything for them at all as they meet their eventual fates is a testament to the level of the acting present here. 

Though the beach setting of LONG WEEKEND is quite beautiful (and quite beautifully filmed by Eggleston and cinematographer Vincent Monton) it is also undeniably creepy, if not outright terrifying. A lot of credit must go to sound editor Peter Burgess who creates an otherworldly soundscape of ambient noise and animal vocalizations. From the angry, nocturnal howls of Tazmanian devils to the sad, eerie cries of the orphaned sea cow pup, each scene of LONG WEEKEND is a potential nightmare. Though it might not be as flat-out scary as other "lost in nature" flicks like OPEN WATER or THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, LONG WEEKEND does manage to work its way slowly under your skin and stay there.

BLACKOUT


You know you're in trouble when the top-billed actors in a movie consist of two has-beens - Ray Milland and June Allyson - and two never-weres - Jim Mitchum and Belinda Montgomery. It's also time to run for the hills when the lead villain is played by Robert Carradine. But if you've got the cajones like yours truly, you just sit back, cross your fingers and hope it doesn't hurt too bad. BLACKOUT is a Canadian thriller that doesn't thrill. Utterly unconvincing and terribly acted, the only thing this little film does is teach you the value of good casting. Every single role is miscast. For example, instead of getting a Jewish actor to play a Jewish man, they simply got an actor and said "now act Jewish". Every single character is a caricature, and the constant mugging and stereotyping does little to alleviate the absolute boredom of the narrative. 

A few years before ALONE IN THE DARK dumped four nutjobs out in society during a power outage, BLACKOUT did the same. Four psychos, led by Robert Carradine, escape from police custody during a total black out in New York City. They seek refuge in an apartment complex, going from room to room causing carnage, while a lone police officer, played by Jim Mitchum, hunts them down. Belinda Montgomery, best known for playing Doogie Howser's mom, is raped by one of the escapees, but recovers in time to help our hero get the job done. There's also a woman whose husband is on a ventilator, a young pregnant woman, a gaggle of kids, two obnoxious assholes stuck in an elevator, various rich old people, and a Jewish couple attending a big, loud Greek wedding (you'll love the unibrows, by the way). All of them will, in one way or another, be terrorized and/or murdered in cold blood but you won't care.

 This is one of the worst acted films you're likely to see. No one seems even remotely interested. Only Robert Carradine manages to elicit any sort of emotional response, but it's all for naught as no one in their right mind would ever be intimidated by Robert Carradine. He could be carrying a fucking rocket-propelled grenade and a severed head and that still wouldn't happen. Jim Mitchum has none of his dad's charisma or talent and spends the whole movie with a single bored expression on his face. Ray Milland (oh, how the mighty have fallen) does some good work in his five minutes of screen time but he's the sole exception. Everyone else fails and it destroys what could have been a taut little thriller. 

It doesn't help that the director is Eddy Matalon either. Having seen his previous films, HOTEL OF FREE LOVE and TEENAGE TEASERS, I knew I wasn't in for pretty framing or creative camera work. His direction here is so passive and mundane that it makes the whole film look and feel like an NBC Movie of the Week. But I'm not sure even Dario Argento could have done anything with this cast. Those looking for a little bit of violence and nudity shouldn't even bother as this film has neither. The only saving grace is the climatic chase in the apartment's multi-level parking garage, a genuinely exciting piece of film that does not deserve to be attached to the awful first 70 minutes of BLACKOUT. Do yourself a favor and skip this film. Just grab ALONE IN THE DARK instead. You'll be a better person for it.

MEN BEHIND THE SUN


MEN BEHIND THE SUN opens with a preemptive strike against those who would criticize its portrayal of the Japanese during the waning months of World War 2. It begins, "Friendship is friendship, history is history", a kind of apology masking a deep well of rage. The film tells the true, but perhaps a bit stretched, story of the Japanese Manchuria Squadron 731 and their experiments on Chinese and Russian prisoners in an attempt to create new, devastating forms of biological weapons. While the atrocities on display (and there are many) were more than likely based on real events, MEN BEHIND THE SUN complicates its history lesson by adhering to the kinds of filmmaking practices usually found in the GUINEA PIG films. Though terrifying in nature, the presentation of these crimes inspires little real outrage. It feels more like amateur hour at the Grand Guignol. 

MEN BEHIND THE SUN also dips toes in another style of filmmaking best left forgotten, the Mondo style practiced by Jacopetti, Prosperi and dozens of other morally bankrupt and opportunistic hacks. The film utilizes scenes of real violence and carnage (actual autopsy footage, animal violence, etc.) in an attempt to bolster the film's strength. It doesn't. What it does is push MEN BEHIND THE SUN down to the basest levels of exploitation. And it wasn't too far from that to begin with. While the real atrocities meted out by Deodato in the Green Inferno sequences of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST were undeniably horrifying to watch, they were essential to the film's critique of the Mondo practices of filmmaking. It literally had to become the kind of film it was demonizing. The true-to-life horrors within MEN BEHIND THE SUN do nothing to forward the plot or underline a point. They are extraneous to the narrative. Without them, MEN BEHIND THE SUN would have been no less intolerable. With them, the film becomes just another piece of manipulative trash, another disposable gag-fest with a muddled sense of moral purpose. 

A good number of people on this wonderful contraption called the Internet seem all too quick in their praise of this film. The general consensus reached by these misguided people is that this film is a success almost solely because it shows the depths of depravity men can sink to in times of war. Is this some kind of a revelation to these people? Does anyone really need to be reminded of that? I'm not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand and think only happy thoughts, but a film like MEN BEHIND THE SUN does not act as an indictment of war time cruelty. It acts as a celebration. Whatever grand moral message T. F. Mous had in mind when he made this piece of garbage is lost amidst the copious amounts of stage blood, mutilated corpses, and burning rats. Simple metaphors (is there really any other way to read the "cat being fed to the rats" scene) don't cut it here. Friendship might be friendship and history might be history, but exploiting the deaths of hundreds of innocent people for the sake of a Cat III piece of shit is another thing entirely. 

MEN BEHIND THE SUN has become a cult classic over the years, no doubt because it has been relatively hard to see. Now that there are several DVD releases of the film in circulation, hopefully the reputation of the film will suffer as more and more people clue into the fact that this film is little more than wank fodder for the splatter crowd. If I had to pay MEN BEHIND THE SUN a compliment it would be this: it operates on such a profound level of stupidity and cruelty that one viewing will suffice. I would not like to meet the person who finds this film entertaining nor would I ever care to meet the person who would watch this film more than once. I wasn't offended by the content of the film. I was offended by the total disregard of and sympathy for the people it is supposedly vindicating. This is garbage of the highest order, a total sham perpetrated under the guise of responsible filmmaking.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA


Paolo Cavara's 1971 giallo THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is one of the finest giallo films ever produced, a multi-layered, complex mix of giallo and poliziotto mechanisms that manages to be both misogynistic and gruesome while still being accessible and entertaining. It boasts one of the most remarkable casts in giallo history and while it never quite reaches the level of visual invention of Argento and Martino, it is a stunning film to behold. This is one of those films that you wouldn't change a single frame of if you were given the chance. It is simply perfect the way it is, a grim, bloody, thrilling murder mystery.

THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA has one of those long-winded giallo plots that don't quite lend themselves to simple plot synopses but I'll give it a go. Maria Zani is found murdered just a few hours after her husband receives a photograph of her with another man. The cop in charge of the case, Inspector Tellini, believes the husband might be to blame. When another woman turns up dead (and a search of the building results in a stash of cocaine) the plot thickens. But Tellini isn't quite convinced that the drugs and the murders are connected, and neither is Maria Zani’s husband, Paolo. He's taken on finding the killer himself. Soon enough, a few more women have been murdered, Paolo is dead and Tellini realizes that everything that has been happening can be traced back to a posh beauty treatment facility run by an enigmatic woman named Laura. Hmm... not a good synopsis but what are you going to do? Saying anymore would ruin the film.

THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is steeped in sexuality. From its opening scene of Barbara Bouchet getting a naked rubdown to the revelation of the killer's motives, sexuality is of vital importance to the film. Fetishized murder, a tactic used throughout the giallo film, is particularly strong here. The killer uses long acupuncture needles to immobilize his victims, all beautiful women, before taking a large blade to them. The first murder in the film is a mishmash of imagery - a phallic needle, breasts, eyes, a long, sharp knife - all culminating in a shot of a champagne bottle spilling its contents onto the floor. This visualization of deviant sexual impulses through not-so-subtle imagery continues through the whole film and is married with a storyline about infidelity, rage, desire, sexual humiliation and domination. Inspector Tellini is marked as the hero of the film not only by his status as a Police Inspector but also by his relationship with his young wife, the only truly healthy relationship in the entire film, and his desire to make a better life with her.

Probably best known for his work on the MONDO CANE series of films with Jacopetti, Cavara has constructed a film full of striking imagery. The film's standout scene, a chase through a room full of mannequins, is tense and visually masterful. Cavara's use of focus pulls, quick, rapid fire editing and creative mise en scene creates one of the best murder set-pieces the giallo film has to offer. It's only a very brief segment of the film but it is the film's best. Cavara's use of the mannequins in the foreground and background accentuates the feelings of paranoia and helplessness and the final coup de grace delivered by the killer is made all the more disturbing by the victim's blank stare and the subtle touch of having her slump forward slightly as the killer pulls the knife from her stomach. A later chase on a rooftop provides a nice jolt of adrenaline but nothing, not even the final, brutal showdown between Tellini and the killer, tops it.

As you would expect from a film produced by Marcello Danon, all of the talent behind and in front of the camera is top notch. Much is made of the fact that THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA boasts three Bond girls in its cast. While none of the three - Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, and Barbara Bach - were ever really known for their acting chops, all three do fine work here and all three contribute to the combined beauty of the cast. Stefania Sandrelli and Annabella Incontrera round out the eye candy while Rossella Falk, Silvano Tranquilli, and Giancarlo Giannini provide the muscle. Also of utmost importance to the film's success are two behind-the-scenes names. Marcello Gatti's cinematography is crisp and beautiful and Ennio Morricone provides yet another amazingly evocative score. From top to bottom, you won't find a better ensemble of actors and filmmakers and together they have created a true classic of the giallo film, easily one of the best of its kind.

Friday, October 30, 2015

THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US


Where to start with THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US? What is the proper approach to take when faced with such a magnitude of failure? I suppose I could lament the sorry state of affairs that was the giallo film in the 1980s but I've already done that bit before. I could also, if I were so inclined, start by giving you a rundown of all the better films this 1986 effort lifts from. But that would put perhaps a bit too fine an underline on just how remarkably shit this film is. Maybe the best way to begin is by giving you a complete - SPOILER ALERT - rundown of the film's plot.

Christiana is a Criminology student at a local university. She has chosen to write her thesis on the infamous Couples Killer that has been gunning down lovers for the past several months. She meets a handsome doctor named Alex and the two, in typical Italian genre fashion, fall madly in love instantaneously. As Christiana digs deeper into the case, she begins to believe that Alex might very well be the killer. She begins receiving threatening phone calls, the people she turns to for help all begin dying and she is becoming more and more aware that someone will stop at nothing to stop her from writing her paper.

OK, that last bit was a bit of an exaggeration. What really happens is... nothing much.

Christiana begins to think that the killer, a man who tracks down couples sitting in parked cars and then shoots them while they're making love, might be a voyeur. And no sooner than you can say "no shit", she's off hanging around with a bunch of degenerates who spend their time spying on people while they make noisy love in cars. When that turns out to be of absolutely no use to anyone - especially us - she wanders around for half an hour until one of her friends is viciously murdered. Completely out of ideas, she decides to attend a seance. Though the purpose of the seance is to summon the soul of her recently murdered friend in the hopes that she will be able to identify the killer, the psychic instead begins to see a murder taking place - GASP! - at that very moment!

Christiana rushes to the theater where Alex is supposedly watching a Hitchcock film. She wanders through the darkened theater, hopes beginning to crumble, suspicions beginning to be confirmed that Alex really is the murderous madman. And then she finds him. Christiana sits down beside Alex (never mind contacting the police to let them know someone is being murdered in the woods) and the two just watch the film together, happy and content. As the credits begin to roll, a brief statement comes onscreen to inform us that "This film is made as a warning to young people and with the hope that it will be of use to law enforcement to bring these ferocious killers to justice."

Seriously. That's how the film ends.

By now my love for the giallo film should not be in question. I genuinely love the form. I love the arch, convoluted, nonsensical narratives. I love the gaudy fashion. I love the histrionic performances, the melodramatic scores, the splattery asides and implausible explanations. I love it all. The problem is this: this film manages to contain none of what makes a giallo film great. Even Ernesto Gastaldi, perhaps the greatest giallo screenwriter of all time, doesn't seem interested in this mess. His screenplay is devoid of anything even remotely interesting or inventive. It's stuck on auto-pilot, traveling 10 miles an hour down Cliche Avenue.

The only saving grace of this film is that it's unintentionally hilarious. Some of the dialogue seems straight out of another film. Take, for example, the Professor describing the killer's methods. We're told that "his sacrificial way of killing echoes certain ancient Mediterranean and pre-Christian agricultural rituals" even though the killer's "sacrificial way of killing" is simply shooting people to death with a handgun then mutilating their genitalia. Then there's the idea of a psychic being able to summon the spirit of a deceased individual so that they can ID their killer. Now that is hilariously absurd of course, but just think about how many man hours that would save at police stations around the world. Come to think of it, wouldn't that be your first choice? Why bother with all of this running around and digging for clues if you could just pony up some dough to a local psychic?

Read any amount of online reviews for this film and you're likely to hear just how nasty people think it is. It isn't. This isn't THE NEW YORK RIPPER or GIALLO A VENEZIA. Some of the post-shooting stuff is pretty graphic - a woman has her nipple cut off and her pubic area, umm, scalped - but the effects are so poorly done that you're not likely to feel anything close to queasiness. What tends to be left out of most of the reviews I've read is all the stuff I just spelled out for you here. It's tedious, it's dull, it's visually flat and it is painfully contrived. When you add up all the things this film does wrong, you're left with the impression that no one involved in the film actually gave a damn about it.

Just like I don't give a damn about it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

EYE IN THE LABYRINTH


EYE IN THE LABYRINTH opens with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, "a labyrinth is built to bewilder the mind of man. Its architecture, however rich in symmetries it might be, is subordinate to this end", perhaps the best indication that what we're about to witness is not your usual giallo film. Immediately thrusting us into a disorientating, Caligari-esque series of tunnels with a wounded man running for his life from an unseen assailant, Mario Caiano's 1972 effort is determined to thwart our expectations, mixing an absurdly complicated plot and deft characterization with Freudian psychobabble and shady double crossings.

After the wounded man (later revealed as a doctor named Lucas) is stabbed to death, his girlfriend Julie goes looking for him. At the clinic, she is told he went to a conference only to have a patient approach her and say that Lucas is in Maracudi. When Julea arrives back at her home, she finds a gunman waiting for her. He demands to see Lucas. When Julie tells him that she doesn't know where Lucas is, the gunman smacks her around and leaves, warning her not to tell the police. Julie discovers Maracudi is the name of a small coastal town. Stopping at a cafe in town, a man offers to take her to Lucas. He leads her to a rundown, dilapidated building then leaves her. She is nearly killed when the man pushes a mound of crumbling masonry off of a roof. Running away in a panic, Julie runs into Frank, another man from the cafe.

Frank doesn't believe that someone tried to kill her and he goes back to the scene to retrieve the purse she dropped. Curiously enough, all her belongings are still there. Except, of course, the picture of Lucas she was carrying with her. Frank offers to take her to an orphanage he owns and offers her a piece of advice. She may want to enquire about Lucas at a villa owned by a woman named Gerda. Gerda's village is a resort of sorts, the kind of place eccentrics like to go to get away from the mundane.

When Julie arrives at Gerda's villa, she is disappointed to find that no one knows Lucas. She decides to spend the night. She is introduced to the other guests, which include a couple of actors, a photographer seemingly obsessed with photographing feet, Gerda's lazy, druggie arm candy, a composer who spends a great deal of time making audio recordings of nature sounds, and a slow-witted boy who wanders around and frequently makes passes at our heroine. Julie notices something strange sitting on Gerda's bookshelf. It's a copy of a book she gave to Lucas. She even wrote a little something on the first page. Gerda refuses to let her see it. Later that night, Julie sneaks downstairs and takes the book off of the shelf. The first page is missing. Julie begins to get the idea that these people know something more than they're saying. An attempt on her life only strengthens that position. As she digs deeper into what happened to Lucas, she discovers everyone knows more then they're letting on and Lucas' killer may be closer than she thinks.

Convoluted narratives are the stock-in-trade of the giallo film. A lot of the time, I get the feeling that all the red herrings, double crossing, misdirection, etc. are little more than an acknowledgement of the simplicity of the films central mystery. All of these things must be tossed into the mix or the audience would be able to figure out immediately who is behind the murders or who is committing the crimes (though anyone schooled in the ways of the giallo can usually do this no matter what distractions the screenwriters throw at them). The narrative presented here by Caiano and his co-writers Horst Hachler and Antonio Saguera is packed with seemingly extraneous material, but the final outcome of the film makes all of it necessary. Because the film is so densely plotted, it feels slower than it should. The film is not paced incorrectly, mind you, but the constant onslaught of new faces, new facts and new stories makes the film feel slow and talky. Fans of the Argento-style gialli are likely to be disappointed to find that the film only contains four murders, the most vicious of which occurs in the first five minutes.

But the film has a lot to offer to the more patient viewer. The giallo was an incredibly malleable kind of film and EYE IN THE LABYRINTH provides those looking for a more cerebral minded film something worth watching. Its punctuation marks aren't provided by shocking murder set-pieces but quiet revelations. The films pulse never rises too high and it isn't likely to satisfy those looking for gratuitous thrills, but it tells a complex story well and with enough interest that boredom never becomes a factor. The films story doesn't exactly hold water when you sit and think about it in any kind of depth (it is the kind of story that requires a five minute Freudian explanation, a la PSYCHO, at the films end just to make sure you really "get it"), but it holds up well upon a second viewing and reveals a surprising strength of vision. Caiano and Co. don't cheat at all throughout the film. It might not make much sense outside of the film, but in its own internal diegesis, it all works perfectly.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

WATCH ME WHEN I KILL




Antonio Bido's 1977 giallo is a real mixed bag. Over-plotted and confused, with no clear line of focus, it often weaves between its miscellaneous story lines in a haphazard way, rendering much of the action incomprehensible. That it contains one of the more memorable motives in the history of the giallo is very fortunate. Without it, WATCH ME WHEN I KILL would be just another cut-rate thriller. The final reveal of the film is a complex, highly depressing event. It makes every other motive you've ever seen in a giallo - whether it'd be blackmail, adultery, trying to get life insurance money - seem downright innocuous and petty. For the first time, you just might find yourself feeling the murders are completely justified.

The plot is a standard giallo narrative. A pharmacist named Dezzan is murdered and Mara, a nightclub dancer, finds herself targeted by his killer. She moves in with her boyfriend, Lukas, after the killer breaks into her home. Lukas, a sound engineer (I think; his profession is never named) is helping his neighbor, a loan shark named Bozzi, decipher the meaning behind threatening phone calls he has been receiving. These phone calls consist of sounds - dogs barking, a strange hum like an incinerator, screaming. The killer's activity escalates after the murder of an acquaintance of Bozzi's, a woman named Esmeralda, and Lukas becomes convinced that it is all the work of a recently escaped murderer that Dezzan, Esmeralda, and Bozzi helped convict.

Nothing new here. The first half of the film focuses on Lukas' investigation into Dezzan's murder. He begins to track down the escaped inmate, Ferrante, convinced that he is the guilty party. After all, Dezzan, Esmeralda, and Bozzi were all on the jury that sent him to prison for murder. But Lukas quickly comes to the conclusion that Ferrante cannot be the murderer (through the use of some shaky logic involving coffee cups; something got lost in the translation here). A little more digging turns up an even more likely suspect and a hidden tragedy that Lukas could never have seen coming.

The core story of WATCH ME WHEN I KILL (the film's original title was IL GATTO DAGLI OCCHI DI GIADA, or THE CAT WITH THE JADE EYES) is a good one but it's executed all wrong. It moves in fits and starts, changing its pacing at random. It also suffers from some poor casting. Corrado Pani and Paola Tedesco are both fine actors but, as Lukas and Mara, they have little chemistry together - plus Pani's sole characterization seems to light a cigar at the beginning of every single scene he's in. While Bido offers up some solid direction, highly reminiscent of Argento at times, the film suffers from a lack of interesting locales. A waterfall is the lone highlight in terms of locations. The score is the real highlight, a Goblin-inspired and downright creepy bit of work that provides the film with some much needed atmosphere.

As it is, WATCH ME WHEN I KILL is worth recommending but is nowhere near as good as Bido's follow-up giallo, THE BLOOD STAINED SHADOW. It might disappoint those giallo fans looking for the rough and sexy (the violence is pretty weak and no one takes their clothes off) but those looking for a good Saturday night's entertainment wouldn't be wasting their time here. And there’s that ending. Damn, is it good.