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A not-so-scary "Anthology Of Fear"
Originally intended as the first of an "Anthology Of Fear" series of films, THE DOOR & THE BUTCHER'S WIFE was the only one lensed and although it's not bad, it's also not hard to see why there were no further entries.
In THE DOOR, the guests at a hip housewarming party open a closet and find a corridor with a shadowy naked man who tries to get out when the door is opened but goes back where he came from when it's closed. Except for one couple that leaves, the party-goers don't seem overly concerned as they continue to eat, drink, and ponder the nature of the beast in a surreal scene not unlike those found in Luis Buñuel's THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. Things get stranger still when the younger guests, tired of dancing to music by "The Jokers", use the door for a party game.
THE BUTCHER'S WIFE is set during the Mexican Revolution and is a bit more lavish with a train robbery, Villa's men fighting the Federales, and the decimation of a small town to keep things moving. Revolutionaries rob the train to buy much needed arms but when the go-between carrying the money is murdered by a village butcher and his greedy wife, she makes off with the gold while he's left with a guilty conscience that, with the help of some mescal, threatens to destroy him.
Both stories have great promise but the intriguing premises dead-end with denouements that are too open-ended to be satisfying. The first of the half-told tales is similar to what U.S. audiences were getting from national TV at the time, most notably in series like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and the second one's a bizarre blend of BONANZA and Edgar Alan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart". The proposed "Anthology Of Fear" series ended with the first installment most likely because it offered nothing new, as well-made as it was. "Guest star" Katy Jurado, 44 at the time, was quite striking as the buxom butcher's wife and, with her long black hair and off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, was reminiscent of Bette Davis as Rosa Moline in BEYOND THE FOREST. One of the directors of this segment, Chano Urueta, also played an old priest who holds a key to the mystery.
El monstruo resucitado (1953)
More Mexican madness from the Golden Age
Nora, an intrepid newspaper reporter eager for a juicy story, answers a mysterious "lonely hearts" ad and finds a brilliant but hideously disfigured plastic surgeon who only wants to be loved. Nora's sympathetic (if slightly repulsed) and the doctor seemingly gets his wish but when he finds out what she does for a living and what she may be up to, he resuscitates the handsome corpse of a presidential candidate to wreak a fiendishly ironic vengeance on Nora...
Director Chano Urueta (who seemed to have a knack for this sort of thing) takes a tip from Universal horror films of the 1940s by using an Eastern European village, a foreboding castle high above the sea, a mad scientist's lab, a wax museum, and a spooky cemetery with lots of fog to set the story. There's also a hairy sub-human in the dungeon who's transformed into a handsome instrument for revenge and the mad scientist, a lovelorn freak reminiscent of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in both looks and temperament, is got up to look like Claude Rains in THE INVISIBLE MAN with a black cape, panama hat, and a mean bullwhip which he uses to keep his creations in line. There's lots of black & white atmospherics and a couple of Ripper-like murders to propel this off-the-wall horror movie-cum-romantic melodrama and it's all taken quite seriously which only adds to the charm. Nora's played by the beautiful Prague-born Miroslava who made a name for herself in Mexican film (working for Robert Rossen, Jacques Tourneur, and Luis Buñuel, among others) before killing herself in 1955 when her bullfighter lover left her for Ava Gardner. My DVD-R is dubbed in Italian (where it was released as THE MONSTROUS DR. CRIMEN) and subtitled in English (!)
La bruja (1954)
A fantastique frightmare from Mexico's Golden Age
Borrowing heavily from its uber-influential neighbors to the north, Mexico's Epoca De Oro (1930s - 1950s) can best be described as "Hollywood in a fun house mirror", an era as passionate and extravagant as its people and unafraid to blend baroque religious symbolism with primitive superstition. A prime example is LA BRUJA with lovely Lilia del Valle, the exotic star of many a cabaretera ("noir musicals" for lack of a better description). Blending Cinderella, FRANKENSTEIN, and Tod Browning's FREAKS, it's about a kindly doctor who invents an antibiotic that an unscrupulous trio of businessmen attempt to steal from him by breaking into his lab and killing his daughter. Hellbent on revenge, the doc asks Paulescu, a "king of the gypsies" figure, to borrow his horribly deformed servant who he turns into a ravishing beauty using another secret formula he'd been working on. Playing Pygmalion to her Galatea, he transforms the hag into the ravishing Countess Nora Novak who lures two of the thieves to their deaths before trouble brews big time when she falls in love with the third...
If Hollywood had made this it would have been with Acquanetta at Universal for the Saturday matinée crowd but south of the border, this wasn't a horror movie as much as a "romantic fantasy" of the kind audiences couldn't get enough of. The witch, shunned and mistreated by all, is first and foremost a woman who has never known kindness and she's torn between her duty to the doctor who made her desirable and the handsome man who loves her. Set in the Balkans, the tale is atmospherically filmed in black and white with quite a few WTF? moments, most notably Paulescu's "Night Court", a motley crew of cripples, misfits, and outsiders who band together to mete out justice to evildoers. This was obviously a star vehicle for Lilia del Valle (looking a bit like Hollywood's Faith Domergue) who's transformed from sympathetic monstrosity under lots of Lon Chaney makeup to cold-blooded killer garbed in the latest gowns, jewels, and furs to a woman in love who's willing to sacrifice all. Played straight, LA BRUJA is fantastique fun all the way around and an enjoyable introduction to Mexico's "Golden Age".
Il conquistatore di Corinto (1961)
Passable "sword & sandal"
The Greek province of Corinth rebels against its Roman rulers...
Based on real-life events that occurred during the time of Caesar, THE CONQUEROR OF CORINTH makes the rebels out to be the bad guys for some reason but before the city is torched with cheesy special effects, there's enough beefcake, cheesecake, and battle scenes to satisfy any genre fan. John Drew Barrymore (wearing little more than a micro-mini tunic and a "Snidely Whiplash" sneer) plays Basil Rathbone to star Jacques Sernas' Errol Flynn as he tosses random enemies into a pit of snakes he keeps for just such occasions. Lovely Gianna Maria Canale (a "Miss Italy 1947" runner-up who lost to Lucia Bosé) heats things up as an over-sexed cougar who turns Sernas' wounded centurion over to the enemy after he spurns her advances and her duel (dagger vs. bullwhip) with the hero's main squeeze is a lowbrow highlight -as is a muscular Gordon Mitchell getting rubbed down by his hirsute manservant. Unfortunately, there's no "conqueror of Corinth", per se.
Roma contro Roma (1964)
A tackily atmospheric peplum fantastique
When Dalmatia's tribute to Rome is hijacked and the legion guarding it massacred, the Senate sends a centurion (Ettore Manni) to find out what happened. Upon arriving in the distant province, he's immediately thrust into a hotbed of political intrigue involving the corrupt praetor, his evil wife (who, of course, has sexual designs on the centurion), and the wicked wizard Aderbal (played by a wild-eyed John Drew Barrymore) who worships a one-eyed goddess and raises the slaughtered Roman legion from the dead (by drinking their blood) to march on his enemies (hence "Rome against Rome")...
Despite its low budget, this peplum fantastique actually rises to "tackily atmospheric" thanks to Mario Bava's obvious influence on the director and it's helped along by John Barrymore Jr. as a whirling dervish who speaks in soliloquies as he shamelessly exploits his illustrious family's acting legacy. He does sport an impressive profile, however. Ida Galli (Evelyn Stewart to giallo fans) plays the obligatory love interest.
Centurians of Rome (1981)
"The Golden Age Of Porn" (mid-1970s to mid-1980s) was a time when hardcore films threatened to go mainstream in the U.S. and although nothing ever came of it, it did mark an improvement in XXX features as far as budgets, cinematography, attractive stars, and entertaining story lines were concerned.
CENTURIANS OF ROME (a notorious mis-spelling) was the most expensive gay porno flick made up until that time and was financed by the proceeds of a $2 million Brink's armored truck robbery which made Lloyd's Of London (Brink's insurer) part-owner of the film on a technicality.
When his uncle can't pay the taxes, young Octavius is kidnapped and held hostage by a smitten centurion ("You have the face of an angel!") who nonetheless has his soldiers rape the lad ("Take his mouth!"). Octavius is soon saved by his best friend Demetrius but, unfortunately, Demetrius is himself captured and sold into slavery where he's repeatedly raped as he's forcibly trained to serve the sexual needs of the insatiable emperor Caligula ("Never cross your arms or legs in his presence!"). Octavius' uncle eventually comes up with the tax money but when Octavius presents it to the centurion and asks for his friend's freedom, he's promptly taken prisoner again and re-raped. This time, however, Octavius falls in love with his captor and by now the feeling is mutual because they plan to rescue Demetrius from Caligula's clutches, knowing what'll happen if they fail...
They succeed but as Octavius & Demetrius ride off into the mist, the centurion is captured and made to take Demetrius' place as Caligula's bed-slave until the emperor tires of him and puts him to death.
Although the brutality of the plot undercuts any eroticism, this tale of friendship, love, and sacrifice seems ripped from the pages of Petronius and presents a picture of what those times might have actually been like. There is one sex scene (a fantasy Octavius has concerning his friend) that doesn't include rape but, other than that (and a scene where Octavius begins to enjoy his second rape), there isn't much going on of a consensual nature. The film lacks the battle scenes and muscle-flexing peplums are famous for as well as the requisite "evil queen" (unless one counts Caligula) but the cast (led by gay-for-pay straight porn star George Payne who spends most of the time manacled) is attractive and they actually attempt to act, especially Eric Ryan as the lusty centurion commander and an over-the-top Caligula prancing about in make-up. Suspension of disbelief is also helped by the fact there's no condoms (it's 1981, after all), tattoos, wristwatches, tire tracks, or jet streaks trailing across the sky. Presented by (who else) Uranus Films, there's a lush score swiped from the previous year's FLASH GORDON and the opening credits mimic those of STAR WARS but it's too bad the cameraman didn't know how to use a light meter. The ending is dark in more ways than one and may be anti-climactic (pun intended) for some but the existential implications are second only to the final moments of THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES.
Master of the Sword (2006)
The swords play second fiddle to the scenery
The use of authentic Eastern European ruins turn the all-male hijinx in Csaba Borbely's MASTER OF THE SWORD into a classy tableaux and they hold the interest as much as anything else in the movie. The crumbling, labyrinthine structure appears to be from the Middle Ages and the menacing gargoyles on the eerie overgrown stone fortress keep a cold eye on the muscled Magyars below. There's some half-hearted swordplay with orders barked in English-subtitled Hungarian ("Get up you coward! Fight!") and there's fetishism for sure as the many camera-pans caress the weapons and regalia these warrior wannabes remove slowly and often. The slight story picks up from where the first film in a trilogy, THE EMPIRE OF CAESAR, left off with a drugged Flavius (handsome Claudio Antonelli) brought to a gladiator training camp in Capua where the focus is on fornication as much as fighting and there's even an indulgent visit from Caesar himself, come to inspect the lanista's wares. The members of this hotdog-happy male harem didn't exactly put the hung in Hungarian but they looked the part (for the most part, anyway) although they were way too noisy during sex. Borbely also had the annoying habit of having everyone pop off all over the camera lens. Those ruins may have been scenic but bushes were trimmed too short in this movie and none of the actors appeared to be Jewish, either, but that was probably the norm in 40 B.C. The many tattoos may not have been out-of-place, either, but the condoms probably were and some of the more intense cavorting looked downright dangerous: one centurion was spread-eagled over the open trap door of a scaffold platform while two soldiers brought up the rear and another leaned so far back on a high parapet that it's a miracle both guys didn't go sailing over the side when he threw his legs in the air. It was a long drop, too.
Antonioni's abstract exercise in enigmatic adventure
When a girl goes missing from a yachting party on the Mediterranean, her lover and best friend drift into an affair...
Antonioni expands exponentially on themes he first began to explore in CRONACA DI UN AMORE and there's a lot going on despite the fact that nothing much happens. Once again, the superficial mystery that sets (non) events in motion is only a catalyst for the exploration of an isolation inherent in existence and the uninhabited volcanic isle, deserted towns, forlorn seascapes... well, Antonioni is a master at having the characters' surroundings mirror their emotional states and the mise-en-scène is sublime.
Contrary to popular interpretation, L'AVVENTURA isn't all about the idle rich since everyday people (the pharmacist and his wife, the town's menfolk) are just as problematic as the aimless upper crust. The fortunate few that don't have to worry about where food, shelter, and clothing come from are unfortunately free to face a few unpleasant, inevitable existential abstracts that don't plague the rest of the human race simply because most are too busy trying to survive. If the "luxury" could be afforded, the average person would be no different from Antonioni's characters and that's a scary thought -and a brutal truth. Although it's open to any number of interpretations, I thought Anna's disappearance was no mystery -the girl was so disaffected and emotionally isolated she just vanished into thin air, into nothingness; what happened to her ultimately doesn't matter very much and her fate is a metaphor for everyone else's.
In Antonioni's universe, humans are innately dysfunctional and their attempts to connect on an emotional level are generally unsatisfying experiences; men, apparently, can't help it (threatening crowds of them surrounding unaccompanied women) but "I love you", "you're mine", and "marry me" are spoken much too quickly and without comprehension by either sex. Mankind is also masochistic, guilt-ridden, and possessed of a destructive urge symbolized by Sandro's philandering and purposely spilling ink on a young artist's beautiful sketch. The final scene has Claudia stroking the back of Sandro's head -a gesture that illustrates the same profound noir truth that Kirk Douglas imparted to Barbara Stanwyck in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS: "It isn't your fault. It isn't anyone's fault, really ...it's just the way things are."
A visually compelling work fully capable of causing existential angst in a sensitive viewer. Is it art? Absolutely. An enigmatic 10/10.
The Teutonic Titanic
The Teutonic TITANIC's been called everything from "artistically terrible" to "morbidly compelling" and with good reason. It's also talky (or, in this case, subtitle-y) and doesn't really kick in until the final minutes but considering the anti-British agenda, the doomed ship was merely a medium for the message anyway. Not only is the film of historical importance as a pluperfect example of Nazi agitprop, the backstory's as tragic as the events unfolding on screen:
Third Reich Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels heartily endorsed the project because he thought the tragic tale was "a classic case of British incompetency" but, ironically, after its completion he banned the film in Germany, thinking the scenes of panic and despair hit too close to home for a beleaguered populace in a time of heavy Allied bombing. The director, Herbert Selpin, was overheard making a crack about the German navy and promptly hauled off by the Gestapo who put him in prison; he was later found hanging in his cell, a "suicide", of course. Troubled star Sybille Schmitz was also the real-life inspiration for Rainer Warner Fassbinder's VERONIKA VOSS but the darkest of all fates awaited the S.S. Cap Arcona, a one-time luxury liner used in the filming. In May, 1945, the Cap Arcona, commandeered by the German navy, was ferrying prisoners of war in the Baltic when it was sunk by the RAF. "Pilots of the attacking force stated that they were unaware that the ships were laden with prisoners who had survived the camps... The RAF commanders ordering the strike reportedly thought that the ships carried escaping SS officers." More than 5,000 lost their lives that night (five times Titanic's death toll and the second worst maritime disaster in history) and it's said that survivors in the water were picked off by Nazi snipers as they tried to swim ashore. As late as 1971, skulls and bones were still washing up on beaches. After WWII, TITANIC was considered one of the "spoils of war" and American and British filmmakers were free to use footage from it whenever they wanted. Snippets show up in 1958's A NIGHT TO REMEMBER as well as a slew of U.S. television shows in the 50s & 60s. The panic, terror, and grisly particulars of the sinking of the Cap Arcona are as dramatic as any Titanic re-telling:
"Equipped with lifejackets from locked storage compartments, most of the SS guards were able to jump overboard from the Cap Arcona, and there appear to be rumors that despite the water temperature of only 7°C, they were busy shooting any prisoners who tried to escape. German trawlers sent to rescue Cap Arcona's crew members and guards managed to save 16 sailors, 400 SS men, and 20 SS women. Most of the prisoners who tried to board the trawlers were beaten back, while those who reached shore were shot down. The prisoners that managed to swim ashore were mainly gunned by the SS. Only 350 of the 4,500 former concentration camp inmates who had been aboard the Cap Arcona survived. RAF Pilot Allan Wyse of No. 193 Squadron later recalled, "We used our cannon fire at the chaps in the water . . . we shot them up with 20mm cannons in the water. Horrible thing, but we were told to do it and we did it. That's war." Severely damaged and set on fire, the Cap Arcona eventually capsized. The death toll was estimated at 5,000 people."
One last thing about the Cap Arcona catastrophe -quite a few of those concentration camp survivors were captured American soldiers which makes this the most horrific case of "friendly fire" ever.
La muerte ronda a Mónica (1976)
A Diabolique-like "Giallo Lite"
A wealthy woman shoots her husband's blackmailer but he won't stay dead in this twisty DIABOLIQUE-like thriller starring handsome devil Jean Sorel, a little league Alain Delon and a much-beloved "mascot" of 60s and 70s Italian gialli. Director Ramón Fernández may have crafted a run-of-the-mill "erotic thriller" in classic Eurotrash fashion but for a "bloodless" (e.g. psychological) giallo, it's never dull and the Eurobabes all get naked, even the titular death magnet, Naduiska, who looks something like Sophia Loren. Teutonic tart Karin Shubert would later go on to make hardcore porn at the age of forty to support her drug habit.