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La morte ha fatto l'uovo (1968)
One thousand chicken
Giulio Questi's early giallo is very different from the genre, but it can be called giallo since it has a mystery audience has no idea about until the very end. But the mystery doesn't involve the identity of the possible murderer but the various and altering relations between the characters. Marco, Anna and Gabrielle live together and work together, in a huge chicken farm / factory owned by Anna. Soon it is clear all three, plus their friends, have another things in their minds; they act what they don't say and vice versa. This gives the director Questi a great opportunity to handle topics of greed and money that easily blind.
The way how Questi handles his theme is very satiric, thus making the film close with Mario Bava's Reazione a catena / Bay of Blood 3 years later. Both films have serious theme about man's ability to turn violent in his search for monetary benefit and freedom and both films discuss this satirically, with maximal effect since comedy is often at its best when the subject stays serious and universally important. As a pure giallo mystery, the film is also quite rich since the audience has no idea what is going on until the very end when it is revealed. Questi uses very interesting editing technique that makes many of the scenes "broken", using flashbacks, dreamy/nightmarish moods and so on. This forces us to dive deeper inside the characters and their varying points of views.
The film has also an interesting topic about man's subconscious and instincts. Main character Marco is considered "morally corrupt" due to his unusual sexual preferences. But at the same time Questi shows how much there is inside human brain, needs, wills, desires, we don't necessarily want to talk about in fear of unacceptance or being classed as "sick." We are not as civilized, as perfect, as the moral codes of society try to suggest when they go after "the morally sick" Marco. There's also a very harrowing and unforgettably absurd scene at the experiment lab of the factory. The doctors have created a manipulated type of chicken that would be commercially extremely profitable to the factory while at the same time the manipulated monsters are a plentiful spitting at nature's face. Marco is against this, against the others around him while he has been named "morally wrong" and bad. Questi had important things and questions in mind and also the ability to turn them into a film.
Real themes in a giallo thriller are quite rare and Questi has done it very well. This is among the earliest but also among the very best of the giallo.
Il coltello di ghiaccio (1972)
Among Lenzi's best
This early 70's giallo by Umberto Lenzi is certainly among the best in his filmography and also in the whole genre. Personally I think Lenzi's best films are the funny cartoon-turned-film Kriminal, the stylish giallo Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, the explosive Napoli violenta and this. In the eighties he did plenty of film trash in form of Eaten Alive, Hitcher in the Dark or Black Demons, all of which are ripping something off and/or very dull and slow moving. Knife of Ice came when the giallo boom was at its hottest and the result is convincing.
Technically the film is superb, containing great cinematography in the beginning when we learn about the main character's trauma towards trains. From this point on, Lenzi shows us his ability to benefit the widescreen and, for example, the bicycle ride near the forest is genuinely beautiful! This scene also shows Lenzi's ability to build suspense, very slowly but meaningfully. After all, there aren't so many murders in the whole film, only the suspense circulating around the murderer's identity.
One suspect is a devil worshipper which brings new aspects to the mystery. Since the final scene takes place in a church, one can wonder if Lenzi wanted to comment on something, maybe the hypocritical morale of church and superstition. The main character (Carrol Baker) is mute which demands a lot from her face and eyes. The actress works very well, giving us a believable performance circulating around the emotions of fear and mental pain. The other actors are good, too. The finally, however, may not give too positive a sight about female sex since they all are expressed rather negatively in the film, one way or another. Still this is easily among the most noteworthy in the genre, not as bloody as the Argento films, for example, but equally suspenseful and visually also interesting.
Among the best in my opinion
Sergio Martino's "Lo Strano vizio della Signora Wardh" (1970) is a welcome addition to the list of giallos that had remained long unseen for me. Martino has done some of the most interesting of the 70's exploitation cinema (like "Torso" and "Mountain of the Cannibal God") and also an interesting spaghetti western "Mannaja." The giallo hasn't as hard-to-follow and confusing plot as it could have, there are not too many characters which makes their efforts and plot turns easy to follow. The story is simple and involves strange murders closely related to beautiful Wardh lady. There are some masterfully constructed mystery / giallo segments that look no less ambitious than those of Dario Argento. I mean mostly the garage scene and the "gas" scene near the end. These build the suspense well and involve the audience much better than some of the more gore-oriented works of the genre. Martino's film has also some stylish and violent murders but fortunately he didn't concentrate only on them. The locations are simply stunning, and the end twist is surprising and certainly original in my opinion. I think this is among the best of the giallo genre, on the same level with Mario Bava's "Blood and Black Lace", the films by Argento and Tonino Valerii's "My Dear Killer", for example, to name just a few.
Un urlo dalle tenebre (1975)
Elo Pannacciò's "Un Urlo nelle tenebre" aka "Cries & Shadows" (1975) is another Exorcist rip-off from the Italian continent, by a director who was totally unknown to me before (and is likely to remain so, too!). There are bad bad films and good bad films, and I'm glad to say this makes it more to the latter part, due to its incredible badliness that makes some of the stupidest efforts of Italian / European exploitation cinema look very convincing. I mean mostly the acting of the possessed protagonist teen; rarely have I seen anyone expressing his emotions of "fear", "hatred", "blasphemy" and so on more unconvincingly and amusingly! Just look at his eyes and how much he tries in every scene! The film runs 82 minutes in PAL version (from Luminous, if anyone knows about possible cuts, please contact!) which is not bad for a film like this and I managed to sit through it very well. The Devil worshipping scene at the beginning of the film is rather funny, with huge, inverted and red pentagram on the wall and bunch of people around the "sacrifice." There's some of the usual nunsploitation/exploitation elements on display, like the group sex orgy and some gore, but compared to some other films of the time and genre, this is surprisingly tame and goreless. I hugely recommend Renato Polselli's "The Reincarnation of Isabel" which is among the sleaziest demonic b-films of the seventies.
There is one thing I find especially amusing in "Cries and Shadows". When the Devil inside the character starts to speak to the exorcist and another people around him, he screams "I live by your lies!!" and the like which makes me wonder how can he be in physical existence in the first place, if the writer suggests the religion He originates from is only lies? Maybe I really shouldn't think about it any more, but it managed to make me smile for the rest of the film! I recommend not to waste too much time or money to track this rather rare and unknown title down, but if you do, some juicy laughs are guaranteed to follow. I promise!
Black Jack (1968)
Dark spaghetti nihilism
Gianfranco Baldinelli's Italian western Black Jack (1968) is hauntingly dark and violent tale of a bank robbery and revenge. A bunch of thieves rob a bank but feel their leader / mastermind Jack divides the money for his own good. This results some sudden bursts of violence and torture as their ways apart, leaving Jack to wait for his payback time. The premise is quite good, as the theme of vengeance has often been exploited in (these) films, making it look something much safer and more positive than it actually is. Margheriti's film Vengeance is interesting but never manages to express anything worthwhile about revenge and its possible results. Hossein's Cemetery Without Crosses has a great potential and characters, but ends up in rather typical and unsatisfying ending, albeit the film being very interesting visually (scripted by Dario Argento).
Black Jack has several intense and disturbing moments, and the storytelling is very effective, making the 90 minutes pass incredibly fast. There are some segments of fantastic photography in the desert, some poetic images of irreversible violence (mostly the thickening flame on front of the picture) which all make the film little closer to the masterpiece of spaghetti western, Il grande silenzio by Sergio Corbucci, and from the same year. Black Jack certainly doesn't show violence in a good or positive light (unlike Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse, for example) and it must be said it hasn't lost much of its power during these years. Some "infamous" and "shocking" westerns like Cutthroarts Nine (Joaquim Luis Romero Marchent) seem rather pathetic in front of these much more visual, also mentally violent and effective works of the genre.
Faccia a faccia (1967)
Among the best
Sergio Sollima's Faccia a faccia (1967) is a very great Italian western with the genre icons Tomas Milian and Gian Maria Volonte. A seemingly "good" teacher, a professor (Volonte), gets by coincidence on the same path with a seemingly "bad" and infamous bandit (Milian) only to see how hollow and meaningless those terms are, used alone, without the other, the opposite. The way how both characters begin to change (the professor away from his usual, sophisticated environment and society) is very believable and well-written with the development that steps on the all necessary steps, not jumping from one point to another and thus making it all very unnatural: when an unexpected character does something against his "persona", it has been well argumented by the previous happenings and words. Like in the masterpiece western Il grande silenzio (Sergio Corbucci, 1968), there are no entertaining heroes that end up killing the "bad guy" in a spectacular finale. Sollima concentrates on the dualism of the human nature and the fact how easy, in the right circumstances, it is to change and cross the line, for every human being, no matter what the past or status in society. And he does it very well, both script-wise and image-wise.
The imagery and compositions are great, intelligent and use the whole aspect ratio very carefully. Sollima uses some very low and radical angles very effectively, to make the imagery as rich as possible. The actors are professionals and both leads possess perfect faces for their roles. The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is once again very pleasing but not among his greatest works, like in the mentioned film by Corbucci, or several films by Sergio Leone. This is simply a fantastic western from the time very many were made, after the success of Leone's first film with Clint Eastwood in 1964, A Fistful of Dollars. Corbucci's Il grande silenzio is even more stunning in its visuality and silent despair, but after all Sollima's film's statement isn't any more positive, untrue and calculated, in other words.
Ratu ilmu hitam (1983)
Silly and wild far East horror
Queen of Black Magic (1979) is a "sequel-in-name" to the two Black Magic films that came out from the Shaw Brothers in HK, in the 70's. The third film is a surprisingly fast-paced for most of the time, with plenty of black arts in practise with gory and gruelling results. We get to see maggot-infested bodies and food bowls, exploding spellcraft victims, hilarious and stupid dialogue (and dubbing) and exotic locations in the jungles of Indonesia (I think, since this was a co-production between a few Asian countries.) The film is made with an ultra-low budget but that's why it is also so enjoyable and smile-inducing, and the effects are certainly not as bad as they could be. I'd like to see the two original Shaw films, but in itself, Queen of Black Magic is a welcome addition to the library of weird and wild cinema beyond any limitations or taboos.
Weakest of the three that I've seen
The third TOXIC AVENGER film (aka LAST TEMPTATION OF TOXIE, 1989) by Herz/Kaufman pair is not too interesting anymore because it seems to rely more and more on the inept "humor" that would be found in the many other Troma films, too, but which was much more intelligent and critical in the frist TOXIC. Still the third part includes even Satan and an internal moral fight of the protagonist mutant which are welcome additions to the dramatic structure of the monster story! There are some nice and even clever camera tricks and angles (like the school bus terror) and naturally lots of ridiculous sexual situations and (some) ultra gore, but when compared to the originality and great dialogue of the first movie and the ultra wild and still pretty fresh feel of the second part, this third movie seems more and more just a money taker and not so great a (trash) movie anymore. Usually if a sequel has many segments or scenes from a previous film (usually from part one), that tells something about the obvious lack of new ideas and in addition to this sequel in question, that can also be found among others in an awful Sonny Chiba sequel to his Japanese karate flick THE STREET FIGHTER (1974), THE RETURN OF THE STREET FIGHTER (1975). These films don't have anything else in common for sure but both sequels tell the same thing.
The Toxic Avenger Part II (1989)
Sillier and gorier
The Toxic Avenger, Part II (1989) by the Troma lunatics Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman continutes the adventures of Toxie, a nuclear waste mutant monster hero, and his attempts to maintain peace in his home town, a world of its own (especially in Part I), Tromaville. And so on. Unlike the first film with many clever and satiric elements in it, the sequel concentrates more on the not-so-clever humor and jokes and extremely over-the-top ultra gore and violence that have often been censored (the Japanese VHS, the US Tox Box DVD set and, surprisingly, the Finnish videotape RE-release are as uncut as possible & director's editions) and for a better reason than in Part I. The effects are quite splashy and nasty. There are some genuinely funny moments and bits of dialogue (especially dealing with the Japan/USA territory and cultural differences and also genuine acceptance of foreign people, something that, for example, many Hong Kong exploitation films rarely achieve or dare to do) but the spark of freshness is gone. There is also a James Bond spoof that may be funny for some; at least the long chace is well shot even though the budget for the sequel was notably higher than in the first film. Ultra gory, ultra toxic and often ultra stupid but honest trash cinema.
Soy Cuba (1964)
Uniquely breathtaking (with only few others to come close)
This Soviet Union / Cuban co-production Soy Cuba (I am Cuba, 1964) is not among the most incredible, literally and completely objectively, pieces ever made for its message, universal theme or other mental content to be expressed, but for its camera usage and images. They are unlikely ever to be surpassed and even if they were, this was most likely the first that took the tool this far to the outer limits of human abilities! Director Mikheil Kalatozishvili tells four different stories inside the almost exploding Cuba, calm Mother that cries tears for what people have done to her, that are practically not related even though they all show the politics and victims of the situation that led to violent revolution in 1959. But as mentioned, the ending of the film or political opinions are definitely not too special or universal, so the film would be pretty lame without its visuality. Cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky is something that brings only few makers to mind. Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966) has genuinely some of the greatest black and white photography and crane shots in cinematic history, but maybe surprisingly even more Cuba brings Ukrainian born montage director Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Earth (Soviet Union, 1930) to my stunned mind, with the latter film's totally incredible imagery in the calm country side fields to which the technology and "civilization" is arriving. One story in Cuba is very "field oriented" and even though Dovzhenko's camera angles and takes are not very able to be compared with Cuba (in fact, they are often pretty far from each other), the atmosphere is very similar with the films. And needless to say, the montage imagery throughout the film but especially at the ending of Dovzhenko's film is incredible and unforgettable.
Another film that comes to my mind is Gillo Pontecorvo's La Battaglia di Algeri (Algeria, Italy, 1965) which is perhaps more vital in its message and varies from a very fast documentary style narration and feel of restlessness to more dramatic and calm moments with Ennio Morricone's music. This documentic and dramatic variation is often pretty similar with the two films and both films show the violent scenes very harrowingly in hald held camera and often with fast movements even though Pontecorvo's film has more of that kind of segments. And both have plenty of powerfully black and white smoke. It seems that these two films are so full of impact and timeless merits that all the things they have to deliver to the audience are almost impossible to take with just one viewing. The viewer is completely and literally breathless after both films either due to their speed and harrowing realism or poetic experimentations on camera possibilities never seen before.
The crane shots, the low angle compositions, the long takes without cuts, the Peter Greenaway like usage of images that give space to the background (usually sky, which in itself brings Nicholas Roeg and his 1971 film Walkabout to my mind) are the things that burst out with the impact that is not to be written or described, it has to be experienced and seen as it is cinema. French director Gaspar Noé's cinematic tools are as powerful as those of the mentioned directors' and especially his Irréversible (2002) consists completely of long takes without edits and with miraculous crane shots. If the Cuba director and Tarkovsky would have been mutated into one individual, that would have possibly been Gaspar Noé as the visuality and themes these makers have are as unique as the amount of honest and uncommercial talents working in cinema nowadays.
Soy Cuba is definitely among the few films that have my greatest praisings even though it offers no "serious theme or message" to deliver to the world, and the one it has to deliver to Cuba is the oldest mean mankind has lived together, always failing. The cinematic tools of the film are incredible and the two other directors mentioned here, having (had) the same potential have also delivered immortal and timeless themes and mental gifts to the world and mankind. Still that doesn't make the technical achievements of Cuba any less brilliant.