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2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent, 2014) ***, 3 November 2014
7/10

Although I was vaguely aware of the film under review being "the new phenomenon" in horror movies, it had slipped my mind to try and score a copy for my month-long Halloween marathon which I have just gone through. In fact, it was the recommendation of a local film-buff friend of mine which jogged my memory and made me spring for it sooner rather than later. As usual, in hindsight, the end result fell just short of all the hype that had preceded it – but, having said that, it is still the best horror film I have watched since James Wan's surprise box-office smash, THE CONJURING (2013). Being a contemporary low-budget Australian production, it is small wonder than none of its cast and crew ring a bell but, as it turns out, as had previously been the case with legendary genre stalwarts like George Lucas and John Carpenter, writer/director Kent's breakout film turns out to be an expansion of a previous work, in this case the award-winning short MONSTER (2005; which, incidentally, is generously available to view in its entirety on "You Tube")!

The simple storyline revolves around a widowed care-worker and her disturbed young son being menaced by the eponymous villain of a children's book. The film is anchored by two exceptional lead performances from Essie Davis (as the beleaguered mother) and Noah Wiseman (as her volatile kid), sensitive and subtle handling and a creepily effective sound design. Surprisingly enough, the titular villain (played by Tim Purcell mostly in silhouette) barely features in it – which makes its belated and sparse apparitions all the more electrifying. Unfortunately, the director still felt the need to cater (ever so slightly) for the "torture porn" crowd and gore-hounds in the audience by, at one point, showing the possessed mother plucking out a tooth from her own mouth (for no apparent reason!) – thus virtually stifling the effect of the preceding scene (one of the best in the film) where she breaks the neck of her fluffy dog during a late-night TV screening of the original Italian-language version of Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963)! – as well as exorcising herself of the offending spirit (which, inexplicably, she later keeps chained in the basement!) following a bout of bloody vomiting!!

Like most horror films of recent vintage (particularly the good ones), as it was unfolding in front of me, I was reminded of several earlier genre efforts to which the film-makers could well be paying tribute or referencing, the most prominent of which here being Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965; in its harrowing depiction of the psychological unraveling of its sex-starved female protagonist), William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (1973; in the medical examination and possession sequences), Mario Bava's own swan-song SHOCK (1977; in the fractured mother-son relationship played out in a house haunted by the malevolent presence of their late husband-father) and the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg blockbuster POLTERGEIST (1982; in the climactic aerial abduction attempt by the spirit on the boy – who had been constantly coming up with elaborate weapons to combat it). The trump card of this particular film, it seems to me, is the fact that all the supernatural horror on display emanates from an obscure literary figure that finds itself in the house out of nowhere, puts itself back together after the mother tears the inventively illustrated book up and even rewrites itself anew in a more personalized and intimidating manner as a consequence of this very defiance!

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN {Extended TV Version} (Freddie Francis, 1964) **1/2, 2 October 2014
6/10

The third entry in Hammer Films' 7-movie Frankenstein cycle was the first (of two) to be helmed by a director other than their resident go-to-guy Terenece Fisher; in fact, it was passed on to Oscar-winning cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis – himself a Hammer veteran in their psychological thrillers vein via PARANOIAC (1963) and NIGHTMARE (1964) – after Fisher bowed out due to an automobile accident. As it turned out, both non-Fisher entries – the other being prime Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster's offbeat directorial debut THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970) – did not go down well at all with fans of the celebrated British studio!

Although I recall a couple of matinée screenings on Italian TV in the past. I eventually caught up with THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN in late 2005 while on a 3-month sojourn in Hollywood via Universal's 4-Disc 8-movie DVD collection "The Hammer Horror Series"; incidentally, that set also included two movies which, like the one under review, was padded out with extra footage for TV syndication – namely Fisher's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) and Don Sharp's KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963; retitled KISS OF EVIL) – which I will be checking out later on during this month as part of my ongoing Halloween marathon.

Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing reprises his signature role of Baron Victor Frankenstein but, although there is a reference here to his past crimes, the flashback in question is not imported footage from the original entry THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) but one shot expressly for this film and featuring the actor playing The Creature here, namely professional wrestler Kiwi Kingston (at one point, shown munching ravenously on a flock of sheep and even suffering from debilitating migraine attacks)! Indeed, oddly enough, this entry discounts completely its predecessor – THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) – just as the above-mentioned Sangster film did the rest of the series!!

As the film begins, Cushing is fleeing the village he has relocated to after the events of CURSE because of further grave-robbing antics and, with his new assistant Sandor Eles, returns secretively to his family mansion in Karlstaad with the intention of selling off its precious possessions in order to fund his future experiments in electrical reanimation of dead tissue. As it happens, Frankenstein's hometown is being visited by a circus troupe and, after falling foul of burgomaster David Hutcheson and Chief of Police Duncan Lamont, a masked Cushing and Eles find themselves "volunteering" for the act of hypnotist Peter Woodthorpe; taking refuge inside a cave along with deaf-mute Katy Wild (which was rendered thus by her meeting with The Creature during the aforementioned flashback), Cushing fortuitously stumbles on Kingston's body perfectly preserved in a glacier. Needless to say, the irrepressible scientist contrives to transport the body to his now-dilapidated mansion and engages Woodthorpe's services to reanimate it when the proverbial thunderstorm fails to do the trick. Unfortunately for him, the latter turns out to be the real villain of the piece – assaulting the deaf-mute girl and keeping her against her will in the dungeons, tormenting the chained monster and, worse still, ordering it to dispose of the local authority figures who had earlier humiliated him by stopping his public performance to apprehend Cushing and Eles!

The film was a potentially momentous co-production with Universal Studios which, 30 years previously, had made its own classic versions of the tale with Boris Karloff; this allowed Hammer to utilize for the first time a variation on the iconic Jack Pierce make-up design for the Frankenstein monster which, despite the ubiquitous Roy Ashton's involvement, lends the resultant square-headed creature a decidedly ludicrous appearance. Similarly the screenplay penned by John Elder (a pseudonym for Hammer stalwart Anthony Hinds) is a subpar hodge-podge of old Universal themes: from drunken, embittered villagers bemoaning their kin's unkind fate at the hands of The Creature to pompous figures of authority harassing the titular aristocrat to vengeful travelling charlatans taking advantage of the latter's wandering creation.

Unfortunately, despite good intentions all round, the full-blooded Hammer magic fails to strike here; perhaps this was the main reason why the film was eventually trimmed in spots but also had an additional 13 minutes interpolated into the narrative for its U.S. TV screenings. Even so, these extra scenes – notably featuring Hollywood character actor Steven Geray as a sympathetic doctor – add very little of substance or entertainment value that make one wonder who was actually responsible for them! Indeed, this "Extended TV version" is apparently so rare that I could only come across a hazy and wobbly copy culled from Australian TV!!

END OF THE ROAD: FROM "RABID DOGS" TO "KIDNAPPED" {V} {Short} (Frank H. Woodward, 2007) **1/2, 8 September 2014
5/10

I am cheating a bit here: since KIDNAPPED, the reworked 2002 version of Mario Bava's RABID DOGS (1974), does not have a separate IMDb entry, I opted to post my review of it here! Anyway, after languishing in limbo for over 20 years, Bava's unprecedented but highly impressive crime thriller would see the light of day in 3 distinct versions on the digital format – first of which was Lucertola Media's 1997 disc, which included a newly-shot sequence (of a silhouetted woman crying) over the plain opening credits. This would eventually be dropped for both cuts released on Anchor Bay's 2007 DVD edition: the first (still titled RABID DOGS), featuring evocative credits but also – frustratingly – unexplained audio drop-outs during two key moments(!), emerges as perhaps the best version of the film (despite an admittedly draggy pace).

KIDNAPPED, then, is the latest (and undoubtedly least) variant: why the edgy title was changed, or this particular – and very generic – moniker adopted (already much used in connection with several adaptations of the R.L. Stevenson adventure tale) is anybody's guess. Besides, even if Bava had intended tightening the film and shoot additional sequences, these were either muffled in their execution (helmed by his own son Lamberto, who had served as assistant director on the original production!) or were flawed to begin with: after all, from time to time, it has been proved that a director's conception (however great his talent) may not necessarily result in being the most effective approach to any given scene – a case in point is Orson Welles' music-deprived version of his masterful lengthy tracking shot at the start of TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) against the originally released one accompanied by Henry Mancini's delightful brassy underscoring! In fact, none of the new scenes here add anything whatsoever to the narrative: what is the point of having the authorities going dutifully (but cluelessly) about their business trying to locate the criminals – when their complete absence from the 'original' drives the inherent notion of the abductees being abandoned to their fate much harder?!

As with the director's preceding work, LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) – which, rather than leave it undistributed, producer Alfred Leone saw fit to alter so drastically that the resultant effort, i.e. THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975), does get listed as an individual title in Bava's filmography! – the idea was perhaps to excise 'filler' material but, in this case, characterization is hurt by this over-zealous (and, by and large, unwarranted) tinkering! Besides, the entire dialogue track was redone (and, in some instances, re-written to exacerbate the profanity!) when even that for RABID DOGS itself had only been recorded in 1995 – since Italian films of the era are known for being shot M.O.S. (incidentally, I wonder why they did not go the extra mile and prepare an English-language track to go with the American re-titling)!! Still, the two biggest blunders are Stelvio Cipriani's newly-composed but uncharacteristically mediocre (read: soulless) score – replacing his unforgettably thumping original soundtrack, and the 'what were they thinking?' ending which not only needlessly extends it (even closing on a shot of the afore-mentioned mother) but eliminates the grim final shot of RABID DOGS into the bargain! All of which makes the film no different than the made-for-TV crime thrillers that fill the Italian small-screen schedule every other week (I know this for a fact, as my Dad is well and truly hooked on them!), which is certainly not what Bava had originally envisioned for his change-of-pace project…!!

As for the extras included on the DVD, I was baffled to hear Tim Lucas constantly referring to the film as having been shot in the Summer of 1975 when the previous year had always been given as its intended release date; then again, he himself says that Cipriani's score, released on CD, gives the year of copyright as 1973?! Similarly, Lamberto Bava in the 16-minute featurette bearing this review's title, states that shooting took 3 weeks (with the first scrapped, to boot, after the sacking of original protagonist Al Lettieri!) but leading lady Lea Lander – who had actually salvaged the film from the legal tangles that had long plagued it and even oversaw the initial Lucertola Media edit (reportedly down to the choice and placement of the by-now iconic music cues!) – claims it was longer at 6 weeks!! Leone puts in an appearance here as well, bringing with him the same phony and misguided judgment that was all over the self-satisfied audio commentary he shared with ingratiating star Elke Sommer for THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM…!

Rabid Dogs (1974)
RABID DOGS (Mario Bava, 1974) ***1/2, 8 September 2014
8/10

A decade after Mario Bava's legendarily unfinished and unreleased 1974 crime film RABID DOGS had been issued on DVD by German company Lucertola Media in 1997, it was "completed" (by producer Alfredo Leone and assistant director Lamberto Bava) and released theatrically as KIDNAPPED not to mention issued on DVD twice (by Anchor Bay, always under the KIDNAPPED moniker and both of which I own!) and once more on BluRay (by Arrow Films)! This latest revisit came via the slimcase edition that was included in Vol. 2 of Anchor Bay's "The Mario Bava Collection", which also includes a featurette (reviewed individually), an audio commentary by the ubiquitous Tim Lucas and the inclusion of KIDNAPPED itself (which I got to soon after). To complicate matters further, the pre-credits sequence – shot in 1996 by other hands and included on the OOP DVD – which had always stuck out like a sore thumb for me, is mercifully jettisoned on the Anchor Bay version of RABID DOGS! I can only imagine how wary Bava (a master of it though he was) may have become of the horror genre he had been stuck in since 1957's I VAMPIRI and how much he was looking forward for a change of pace…but fate would deal him an even bigger blow than his recent disappointment with his beloved LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973; that was only officially released in a reworked travesty entitled THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM in 1975!) when one of the producers of RABID DOGS died suddenly and the raw footage was impounded by creditors…until leading lady Lea Lander secured rights to the film well over 20 years after its shooting and long after its creator had left this mortal coil! Even so, the version of the film that is presented on the Anchor Bay DVD represents the pinnacle of the "Eurocrime" subgenre of Italian film-making that lasted until 1980 (the year of Mario Bava's demise) and was a direct result of the 1968 political uprisings that occurred all over Europe.

The premise, as denoted by the retitling to KIDNAPPED, deals with just such an incident following a bloody payroll robbery in broad daylight…but, thanks to one of the greatest twist endings in film history, we realize that there are multiple crimes of this sort going on throughout the film. Basically, the film becomes a savagely ironic road movie but with palpable political and social overtones that prevailed during that turbulent period in Italian history marked by violent terrorist activities and which came to be known as "Gli Anni di Piombo" (The Lead Years). The sheer fact that the film is almost entirely set within the confines of a handful of changing cars containing (at one point or another) seven characters creates an overpowering sense of claustrophobia that not even the occasional countryside stops are able to diminish. For this reason, it was of the utmost importance that the actors chosen were up to the gruelling challenge of the sweaty roles and, thankfully, all the performers here come up trumps. The trio of robbers are portrayed by Maurice Poli (as the "Doctor", the most level-headed of the bunch but not averse to sudden burst of violence), Aldo Caponi (as the impulsively knife-wielding "Blade") and Luigi Montefiori (as the lecherous "Thirtytwo"), while their victims are played by Riccardo Cucciolla (as the meek but determined "father" forced to act as their driver), Lea Lander (as a passer-by taken hostage by the bandits to facilitate their getaway), Marisa Fabbri (as a belated and motor-mouthed hitchhiker) and an unidentified child actor (as Cucciolla's sickly "offspring").

Interestingly, Lander and Poli were both Bava alumni – from BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) and FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (1970) respectively; Caponi was more famous as "Don Backy", a popular singer-songwriter best-known for his award-winning song, "L'Immensita'" but he had also featured in the film which had given birth to the subgenre itself, Carlo Lizzani's THE VIOLENT FOUR (1968). On the other hand, screenwriter Montefiori was a prolific character actor under the alias of "George Eastman" in such notorious fare as Joe D'Amato's ANTROPOHAGUS (1981). Riccardo Cucciolla is the film's nominal star and his quietly resourceful performance is the key to making the startling sting in the tale's tail as jaw-droppingly effective as it is. Fabbri is somewhat overbearing as the hyperactive tag-along but another notable appearance is put in by Gustavo Di Nardo as a suspicious gas station attendant. The IMDb also credits renowned actor Ettore Manni (as a Bank president!) and Mario Bava himself in the cast, but the former's is a split-second appearance (in a crowded long-shot, to boot!) and the latter literally whizzes across the screen. Still, the film's major asset award has to go to Stelvio Cipriani's memorably pumping score which curiously incorporates snippets of Iron Butterfly's iconic 1968 epic tune, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" that were actually cues lifted from his soundtrack to Bava's own A BAY OF BLOOD (1971)!

Although Bava's latterday movies displayed a souring in his world-view bordering on nihilism, RABID DOGS is a relentlessly bleak and vicious film unlike anything else in the director's canon. Still, the foul-mouthed exchanges between Caponi and Montefiori serve as a much-needed breather amid all the sadistic violence and torturous battle of wits. Among the highlights are Caponi and Montefiori's humiliation of Lander in an open field; the murder of Montefiori by first Poli and then Caponi; the latter's cold-blooded slaying of Fabbri and the climactic trigger-happy resolution which sees Cucciolla as the only surviving member of the characters whose fateful plight we had been breathlessly following for the last 96 minutes. One cannot say in hindsight just what track Bava's career might have taken had this been released back in 1974; what RABID DOGS makes irrefutably clear, however, is that this multi-talented and self-deprecating "Master of Horror" was no one-trick pony…

THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (Mario Bava and, uncredited, Lamberto Bava & Alfred Leone, 1975) *1/2, 2 September 2014
3/10

Although one might understand producer Alfred Leone's concern at having bankrolled a film nobody wanted to distribute, i.e. Mario Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) – one is more likely to empathize with the latter's unenviable plight of having to defile his own "masterpiece" by inserting lots of ludicrous (and ludicrously irrelevant) footage in the hopes of turning it into a marketable commodity (albeit shot by Leone himself and Bava's own son Lamberto and credited to one "Mickey Lion" on U.S. prints)! Diabolism in cinema had hit a peak with the artistic and commercial success of William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST (1973) and both Hollywood and European film-makers were quick to jump on the bandwagon: from Jesus Franco's EXORCISM and LORNA THE EXORCIST to Ovidio G. Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR (1974) to Alberto De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST (all 1974)! Due to the tenuous devilish connection in Bava's original version (but, then, Telly Savalas' inherently comic persona there simply makes no sense vis-a'-vis his would-be unholy influence on Lisa in the reworking!), the chance for Leone to add his own product to the mix must have seemed too good to pass by. Needless to say, this necessitated that additional scenes be shot featuring a demonically-possessed protagonist (which star Elke Sommer reportedly shot for free!), a cleric literally picked off the streets of Toledo who just happens to be adept at exorcism (a visibly distraught Robert Alda) and the resulting gravity-defying shenanigans at the hospital (witnessed by Leone's own daughter Kathy, whose role as Sommer's travelling companion was consequently enlarged). Apart from all this, a few erotic or violent sequences are far more graphically rendered in this version, while even Carlo Savina's previously lyrical music score has been punched up by ominously percussive beats over the opening credits…

Even though I do not quite rank LISA in the top-tier of the director's works myself, the desecration done to it by this travesty is still too great to overlook or forgive: incidentally, I had twice previously watched it in English, but this latest viewing came by way of the Italian-language 'original' culled off "You Tube" and, for what it is worth, it does play better this way…meaning that the obligatory profanities spouted by Sommer at the befuddled Alda are even funnier now! To be fair to it, none of the various EXORCIST copycats that I have come across treated the possession theme with the requisite seriousness and spirituality, preferring to indulge in rotating heads, levitations and copious vomit-spewing. While, as already intimated, THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM does include some of these (Sommer even throws up live frogs!), its 'backstory' – that is, the footage pertaining to LISA AND THE DEVIL and which the leading lady insists has already happened and is happening again, whatever that is supposed to mean – has little bearing on Lisa's current condition…and how can she be strapped to a hospital bed while simultaneously living a nightmare at the villa?! For good measure, Alda is lamely shown – like Jason Miller's priest in the Friedkin film – to have issues with the Catholic faith that could jeopardize his 'mission' due to personal tragedy (cueing an entirely gratuitous full-frontal nude seduction by his conveniently much younger dead spouse!).

Leone may have removed slow, uneventful passages from LISA (not that the substitutes were any good, and the change in tone between one setting and another is most jarring) but he also ruined a number of judicious edits: most notable are a cut from Alida Valli's face to an eerie fish sculpture that forms part of a fountain, and the dinner sequence in which Telly Savalas' own visage is reflected in the contents of a spilled wine bottle on the floor – now overlapping into a puddle of green vomit beside the hospital bed – only to return to this very point (highlighting Savalas' nervously apologetic reaction to his slip-up) at the next instalment of Lisa's 'recollections'! In the end, it is worth noting that, much as would again prove the case with Enzo G. Castellari's THE LAST SHARK (1981; deemed plagiaristic and refused distribution in the U.S. at the time of release) and JAWS III (1983), the climax of THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM would in return be ripped off by Hollywood for the no-less maligned (and, oddly enough, itself be subject to tinkering in the hope of salvaging it) EXORCIST II – THE HERETIC (1977)!

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
LISA AND THE DEVIL (Mario Bava, 1973) ***, 2 September 2014
7/10

This was my third time watching this most personal of Bava's works: whether it is due to the fact that the last two occasions proved problematic (the original Image Entertainment DVD experienced an audio glitch during playback that nearly blasted my TV speakers, while there were constant audio-related issues on the Italian-language track of the copy I acquired of the movie's Raro Video edition!) or the shadow that always loomed large over it in the shape of the execrable re-edit THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975), I have never been really taken with the film as many others seem to be!! Truth be told, watching the featurette "EXORCISING LISA" soon after, I was sort of glad to realize that I was not quite alone in this – as both assistant director and the director's own son Lamberto Bava (who always felt the end result, even in its true incarnation, was impenetrable and somewhat unresolved!) and Bava scholar Alberto Pezzotta (suggesting that the time of Gothic Horror had passed and that, other than merely ethereal, it was elegiac and self-referential!) disclaim its masterpiece status!! Incidentally, though the script is attributed to the elder Bava and producer Alfred Leone on foreign prints (as a matter of fact, throughout my ongoing Bava centenary tribute, it has been a constant irritation to find English credits on Italian-language editions of his pictures!), it was actually penned by other hands – including Roberto Natale, who also puts in an appearance in the 25-minute doc!! Incidentally, while ostensibly an original, elements from it could be traced to several short stories dutifully namechecked during said featurette as well as Tim Lucas' audio commentary…

Mind you, the movie is undeniably intriguing (in my review of the director's KILL, BABY…KILL! {1966}, also co-written by Natale and a film whose stature seems to grow with each viewing, I mention how LISA owes a debt to it in the desolate narrow streets/decaying villa settings and the general nightmarish vibe) and, yet, it comes off as strangely aloof: one does not really connect with any of the characters throughout…especially, as with A BAY OF BLOOD (1971), these largely seem to be on hand merely to ratchet up the 'body count' department (did we really need an additional love triangle to the mind-boggling quintet – taking into consideration that Elke Sommer here undertakes a dual role – already involved?!). The score by Carlo Savina (with generous but effective sprinklings of Joaquin Rodrigo's famous "Concierto De Aranjuez") is a major asset, as is the bemused presence of Telly Savalas (obviously assuming the latter half of the titular parts, scheming and manipulating the various figures around – in both their human form and lookalike mannequins – as if they were pieces on an invisible chess board…while under the guise of an overworked and, seminally, lollipop-sucking butler!). The rest of the cast, however, are only so-so: Alessio Orano is, fatally, unsympathetic as an impotent necrophile(!); Alida Valli, on the other hand, is imposing as ever playing his aristocratic and over-protective blind mother; and Espartaco Santoni is decidedly baffling as the latter's husband and the former's rival for love of his own spouse Sommer (his comings and goings, sometimes literally from death to life, eventually grew irritating!); while Sylva Koscina, Eduardo Fajardo and Gabriele Tinti, as already intimated, are at once underused and downright redundant! Typical of Bava, too, the movie's look cannot be faulted (despite having a Spanish d.p., with a penchant for shooting in soft-focus, forced on him), effortlessly moving between the modern-day 'bookends' and the period milieu of its central narrative.

By the way, given that I am going through the director's filmography in a non-linear fashion, it becomes interesting to note parallels between efforts that one would probably overlook if they were to be viewed chronologically; recently, for instance, I picked up on how SHOCK (1977) is pretty much a reworking of THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963) and even HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970) in its depiction of a deranged protagonist coming to terms with a crime that had been all but blocked out of its consciousness. Having just re-acquainted myself with the latter prior to my screening LISA, which I took as Bava's most Buñuelian work (in view of its leading man's affinity with the latter's Archibaldo De La Cruz), here we have an ending – the Devil adopting modern means of transportation – which recalls the Surrealist maestro's slyly abrupt way of concluding his SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965)! Since both Bava films were actually shot in Spain, could it be that the cultured yet self-effacing Italian was drawn to checking out the oeuvre of the country's most celebrated celluloid son at some point during their making? That said, Lucas claims the device – along with the film's inherent oneiric tone – was actually a direct allusion to Roger Vadim's "Carmilla" adaptation: different strokes for different folks, I guess! The audio commentary did sometimes go overboard in trying to match the poetic quality of the picture: the last rose of the season plucked by Orano for Sommer at one point apparently stood for Bava's own last gasp at making an international name for himself – if you say so, Tim…but, then, I was grateful to learn that Bava appreciated the work of Georges Franju and, indeed, it had never occurred to me before that he recruited two ladies from his films, i.e. Valli (from EYES WITHOUT A FACE {1960} – her mannered death scene being even incorporated in the finale here) and Koscina (from JUDEX {1963}), for LISA!

In the end, while not quite among the director's greatest, the film under review is still vastly preferable to its bastardization THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM…which, regrettably, will follow presently in my (41-strong but by-now inevitably winding down) Bava marathon.

MANNEQUIN IN RED (Arne Mattsson, 1958) ***, 23 August 2014
7/10

I first became aware of this Swedish thriller via Tim Lucas' Audio Commentary for Mario Bava's "Giallo" landmark (and, arguably, masterpiece) BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964); the latter was said to be somewhat reminiscent of it and, having now watched the earlier effort for myself, I can see where such an argument is coming from – as there are undeniable thematic and stylistic (more on these later) and even aural (meaning, the score) parallels…yet how deliberate imitations they were I cannot tell! Still, considering just how many films directly ripped off the Bava classic – without taking the edge off the prototype, I might add – one can make concessions for its having drawn a certain inspiration from somewhere, too!

For the record, here we have a fashion-house setting (with the colour scheme – right from the opening credits sequence – being similarly given its due), blackmail (though the main reason behind the killing spree is actually the usual one of inheritance – thus also numbering males among the victims in this case!) and, while no specific aura is created around the figure of the assassin, the perpetrator does manage a few sensational slayings (in fact, twice are dead models discovered as having replaced a dummy – one is stabbed and arranged in a window display, and another is memorably hung way up in the air on a symbolic gallows). Incidentally, it seems that if Bava had indeed watched this, he would derive elements from it for at least two other movies of his: the presence of a dagger (or a set of them here) is also central to the Italian Maestro's THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963), whereas that of the wheelchair-bound elderly owner of the establishment – to say nothing of the whole string of murders spun by the coveting of her legacy – looks forward to A BAY OF BLOOD (1971)!

Otherwise, the protagonists are an icy blonde undercover model, her debonair investigator husband, his obligatory comic relief sidekick (he not only stutters but is, annoyingly, an automobile nut into the bargain!); the suspects, then, are likewise stock characters: ambitious shop manager, ne'er-do-well 'son', philandering/extravagant relatives, etc. However, there is also a middle-aged lady who repeatedly turns up and somehow comes into possession of the old woman's white cat following her demise – but, for the life of me, I could not fathom what her exact function within the narrative was supposed to be! The film, then, is quite handsome-looking and reasonably enjoyable, if a bit long at 106 minutes (when BLOOD AND BLACK LACE clocked in at a mere 85, which I would say is just about right for this sort of fare!)…while the twist ending was predictable enough (albeit, still effectively rendered). By the way, this was the second of 5 'vehicles' for the central sleuthing couple (and their klutzy assistants!) director Mattsson would helm; I do not own any of the others, but did manage to acquire copies of his ONE SUMMER OF HAPPINESS (1951) and THE DOLL (1962) over the years, though both remain unwatched up to now.

BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Mario Bava, 1964) ****, 20 August 2014
10/10

Rewatching this in close proximity to Bava's initial forays into the "Giallo" subgenre, namely THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and the "Il Telefono" segment from THE THREE FACES OF FEAR (both 1963), I was reminded of the late esteemed British film critic Leslie Halliwell's opening comments in his capsule review of James Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – where he states that, while the 1931 original was "startlingly good", the follow-up proved a "sophisticated masterpiece". This was only the fourth effort by the director that had come my way back when I first got the opportunity to check it out in 1998 – via a late-night Italian TV screening exhibiting a print so battered that, at times, it was almost devoid of colour (such a vital factor to the director's aesthetic)! Unlike the preceding three Bava viewings, I recall loving this one immediately regardless, and it remains even now my personal favourite of his oeuvre…

While there are definite links to the contemporaneous "Krimi" trend (this was, in actual fact, a German co-production) and the work of Alfred Hitchcock (the technical dexterity, audience manipulation, and even having the murderer repeatedly 'clean up' after his misdeeds – like Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO {1960}), there is so much groundwork here for subsequent entries in the field that one cannot stress too much the film's impact on the development of the thriller genre worldwide…however, without it ever seeming an outmoded prototype or coming across as a stuffy history lesson. Until the advent of Dario Argento, ushering in the new decade with greater emphasis on baroque violence and ostentatious camera gymnastics (not that Bava was one to be kept lagging behind – promptly responding with the "Slasher" template A BAY OF BLOOD {1971}!), this was the film to emulate…but, by and large, the initial results were not very encouraging. The director himself was wise not to play his hand too frequently – so that he made all of five and one-third contributions to the "Giallo" format during his career, unlike Argento's 15 (albeit over a much longer timespan)!

Anyway, it is all pretty much laid down here already: the black-gloved killer, the fashion-house setting, the Police procedural, a variety of suspects (each determined to safeguard a terrible secret), the suggestion of misogyny (rendered unequivocal by the original Italian title – which translates to "Six Women For The Murderer"!), the splash of colours (including – inevitably – crimson), the creative murder weapons, the tantalizing soundtrack (to my mind, this constitutes Carlo Rustichelli's finest hour), not to mention the twist in the tail (which was still being ripped off more than 30 years later by the likes of Wes Craven!). Incidentally, I own two DVDs of the movie: VCI's initial single-disc U.S. release and the German company Hande Weg's edition: both are satisfactorily stacked with supplements (though the majority of the latter are, alas, not English-friendly!) but the image is superior on the R2 effort. Bava's mise-en-scene here is near-perfection, letting the camera prowl the various sets in search of nail-biting suspense situations (notably a woman's handbag containing an incriminating diary being left unattended on a table during a fashion show and then disappearing while props are being moved around in the atelier) or the next display of sadistic – but not gloating – violence (indeed, seldom has death been so enthusiastically arranged or lovingly photographed on screen!).

With this in mind and as had been the case with Bava's Gothic Horror debut BLACK Sunday (1960), given such a seminal title, one tends to overlook any flaws (which may be down to plot logic – why, if everyone fears what the diary could expose of their various foibles, do the other characters not try to get hold of it like the killer? – or insubstantial characterization – admittedly, always a pitfall where ensembles are concerned). The cast is peppered with regulars of the director's work (Cameon Mitchell, Dante Di Paolo, Massimo Righi, Franco Ressel, Luciano Pigozzi and Harriet White Medin), but also such new 'recruits' as leading lady Eva Bartok and Lea Lander (who would subsequently prove instrumental in bringing Bava's unfinished RABID DOGS {1974} to light!).

THE WHIP AND THE BODY (Mario Bava, 1963) ***1/2, 20 August 2014
8/10

My acquisition of this one was almost as tortuous as the movie's own release/distribution history (due to various censor boards worldwide): the first copy I purchased (in tow with Bava's subsequent effort BLOOD AND BLACK LACE {1964}, upcoming in my ongoing tribute to the Maestro) would not access the Bonus Features on my Pioneer DVD player (the same was true of that "Giallo" landmark); I took it out on VCI, who promptly issued me replacements, plus one freebie disc from their back catalogue in apology (for which I chose the 1961 Best Actor Oscar-nominee THE MARK)…but the package got lost in transit, so I voiced another complaint, which saw them sending out additional copies at their own expense – and this time around, all went well, including playback! At the time, their edition was considered top-tier in terms of supplements and the sheer fact of the film's rare availability in its unadulterated form; 14 years down the line, however, it has not only been reportedly surpassed by subsequent digital releases, but the sloppiness (for which, alas, VCI would come to be known!) is much in evidence – not only errors in the text of their multiple biographies and filmographies abounded but, one thing which I did not recall had bothered me so much before, the audio of the main feature was a mess: the booming score gave a thorough workout to my TV monitor's speakers, with the dialogue coming off distorted as a result!

As for the movie itself, with the sadomasochistic relationship at its centre (a veritable case of "amour fou" virtually unprecedented in genre cinema!), it showed a definite maturity in Bava's themes (in this sense, it is arguably the most dense psychological study in the realm of Italian Gothic Horrors) – perhaps inspired by Riccardo Freda's similarly-eyebrow-raising depiction of necrophilia in THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK (1962), also written by the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, and already hinted at by the exploration of both lesbianism and child murder in Bava's previous work i.e. BLACK SABBATH (1963). Artistically, too, the film was a departure in that it gave vent to aesthetic quality over plot logic (which would be taken even further in Bava's next venture up this alley with KILL, BABY…KILL! {1966}): thus, any number of carefully-crafted and unforgettable images – unrealistically bathed in shadows and painterly hues – keep one's mind off the narrative which is mainly rendered through exposition often involving the obligatory romance by bland second leads and, one of the genre's undisputed pitfalls, characters roaming aimlessly along dimly-lit sets…both of which invariably take their toll on the inherently sluggish pacing of such period fare!

The irreproachable casting of Daliah Lavi (who followed this with a no-less-demanding role in the same year's little-seen IL DEMONIO) and Christopher Lee (easily the most satisfying of his many European ventures, despite the actual brevity of his appearance here!) results in ample sensual and dramatic fireworks (beautifully capped by the concluding shot of a lash slithering, almost in spite of itself, as it burns) – given greater validity by the passionate strains of Carlo Rustichelli's score (cues from which were reprised in the ultra low-budget KILL, BABY…KILL! itself) and Bava's glorification of their unwholesome liaison (several seaside and graveyard trysts that are prone to whip-and-dagger-happy violence, sometimes captured in extreme close-up or sudden zooms!). Incidentally, I sensed a "Giallo" element in the death scenes and the internal probing into them – but, while two characters are patently made out to be suspects (one of them the second victim himself), there was always one conceivable guilty party (with the others' cognizance of a possible ghostly manifestation explained in terms of Lavi's obsession with/possession by Lee)! Notable among the supporting players are "mad" housemaid Harriet White Medin (interestingly, she was in virtually the last scene of BLACK SABBATH – or, rather, the original THE THREE FACES OF FEAR version – and the opening one in this instance!) and Luciano Pigozzi as the inevitable hobbling caretaker (given his affectionate tag of "the Italian Peter Lorre", he feels more like a Dwight Frye substitute amidst a Gothic ambiance!).

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THE NIGHT OF THE DEVILS (Giorgio Ferroni, 1972) ***, 20 August 2014
7/10

Considering that I only acquired a major affinity for "Euro-Cult" fare following my attendance of the "Italian Kings Of The B" retrospective first held during the 2004 Venice Film Festival, it is small wonder that I had been largely underwhelmed by what I sampled from this particular fount of movie lore beforehand; curiously enough, among these had been two distinct adaptations of Tolstoy's "The Wurdulak", namely an episode in Mario Bava's omnibus BLACK SABBATH (1963) and the picture under review!

Being about to revisit the former on account of Bava's recent centenary, I opted to re-acquaint myself with Ferroni's feature-length version as well – having already done similar duty with two films based on the same tale (also Russian in origin) which had inspired Bava's BLACK Sunday (1960). Incidentally, in my comments relating to the Maestro's take on "I Wurdulak", I had surmised about how padded Ferroni's rendition would be in comparison: however, he works around this factor, so to speak, admirably by updating the plot to our times (while retaining the essential Gothic feel and, thus, accentuating its inherent eeriness!) and bookending it with scenes inside a clinic, to where the disoriented protagonist (in this case, Gianni Garko) had been taken after barely escaping with his life from the clutches of the undead family unit at the core of the narrative.

There is no doubt that Ferroni had watched Bava's version – as its numerous shots of characters peering ominously through windows can attest – yet he opts to dilate what is perhaps its most chilling moment (the 'afflicted' child pleading with his mother to be sheltered from the cold, dark night and the woman being unable to resist her instincts lets him in, despite knowing full well that her offspring had just been laid down into the ground!) by having the mother merely go out to look for her in this case!! Other elements which tend not to work here are: the personification of the witch (who is the cause of the hero's getting stranded in the quasi-deserted Yugoslavian village to begin with!) and her face-off with the patriarch (himself – though reasonably authoritative – clearly no match for horror icon Boris Karloff, his counterpart in BLACK SABBATH) whose resolution is, thankfully, still left ambiguous; also, the fact that the family members get all giggly when, as vampires, they descend en masse upon the beleaguered Garko. That said, his somewhat hysterical characterization is poles apart from that of Mark Damon in the original – who remains decidedly (and, perhaps, unrealistically) cool throughout his ordeal! Even so, while there is a poignancy to Garko's murder of Agostina Belli – who he had thought had joined the vampiric ranks and was now seeking to add the hero to their fold in view of her feelings towards him (and suggesting how psychologically scarred he had been by the whole experience) – the sequence is rather clumsily handled overall, as the girl should have made it immediately apparent to him that she had not 'turned'!

The passage of nearly a decade between versions allowed for greater emphasis this time around on gory make-up effects; indeed, I recall having counted the film's entire ghoulish vibe (appropriate though it may be) as a drawback upon first viewing! Incidentally, even if I had long bemoaned my erasing of that preliminary copy, I realize now – via a side-by-side comparison of two prints floating about (another one, which I also own, is English-dubbed, subtitled in Japanese and has its few moments of nudity digitally-covered!) – that it was missing a surreal nightmare sequence at the very start!! By the way, director Ferroni – whose penultimate work this proved to be and whom I learned, from the accompanying Gianni Garko interview, was virtually deaf! – had previously helmed a key entry in the Italian Gothic Horror canon, i.e. MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960). Interestingly, too, he died on my 5th birthday (17th August) in 1981…a date also shared by the original Italian release of BLACK SABBATH itself!


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