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Money, power, corruption, greed, murder, scandals…. A lecture in Belgian politics!, 24 November 2017

Lately I've been watching and re-watching many films in my favorite exploitation sub-genre, the Italian Poliziotesschi or Eurocrime- thriller, and it's undoubtedly thanks to those films that I valorized and enjoyed my second viewing of "Salamander" on Belgian television even more than the first time. Apart from the different country setting and not featuring the guerrilla filming-style or overly excessive violence, "Salamander" basically is a Poliziotesschi stretched over 12 episodes. The story of one tough and unbreakable police detective single-handedly battling against an unknown but relentless criminal organization, but even more so against his superiors and the corrupt national legal & political system! Of course I realize this series isn't really modeled after gritty and sleazy Italian cop thrillers, but it was fun to see the same ideas and principles here in a much more polished and prominent (for Belgian standards) TV-format. Of all the great things about this series, the most praiseworthy aspect certainly is the script. The basic idea is already fantastic, but the further unfolding of the mystery, with all its crucial supportive characters and numerous convoluted twists, is so unbelievably compelling and intelligent that it's actually unseen on Belgian television.

Early one morning, well-organized and utterly disciplined men break into the vault of a bank and steal the content of 66 specific safety deposit boxes. The bank in question – Bank Jonckheere - is a private and very prestigious bank, however, and the safe-owners are all highly eminent and influential people (ministers, senators, magistrates, business tycoons, generals…) who use their deposit boxes to safeguard secretive documents like hidden financials, photos of orgies and sexual escapades, blackmail, political cover- ups and slush funds. Whoever owns all this stolen information has the power to destabilize and literally pull the plug out of the entire country, and that is clearly what he/she wants to achieve. Via Joachim Klaus, the top-criminal who organized the heist, the instructor gradually sends back copies of the safes' content to the rightful owners, and abrupt resignations, chaos in the parliament and even suicides immediately ensue. The heist was never reported to the police, for obvious reasons, and the concerned magistrates are holding off an investigation. Inspector Paul Gerardi nevertheless examines a tip from an informant and quickly ends up in a position that put his career, healthy and loved ones in great danger.

With all the scandals and corruption that occurred here in Belgium during the past 20-25 years, the script of "Salamander" becomes extra realistic and plausible. I'm convinced that every fellow Belgian who watched this series also thought at one point or another (and probably several times): "Surely this is really going on in those ivory towers in Brussels". The mystery around the bank heist is upheld very admirably and, in the end, all the little pieces of the large puzzle neatly fit together. "Salamander" contains a lot of action compared to traditional Belgian detective/krimi-series, and every episode features at least a few grisly murders, violent shootouts or wild chases. The acting performances are really high- level, with familiar and famous Belgian faces even in the smallest supportive roles. Everybody gives stellar performances, and several cast members even play their best roles in many years, like Jo De Meyere, Mike Verdrengh, Vic De Wachter and An Ceurvels. The second season will start airing on Belgian TV soon, early 2018, I think.

"Bad Meat" is Rotten!, 20 November 2017

Umberto Lenzi was the Italian director responsible for delivering the – hands down – most exhilarating, gratuitously violent and smuttiest Poliziotesschi thrillers of the 1970s, but his colleague Fernando Di Leo was the genius who arguably made the ones with the best screenplays, most unsettling atmospheres and most intriguingly profound character drawings. Evidence for this opinion/statement can be found in his vastly superior crime trilogy (containing the masterworks "Milano Calibro 9", "La Mala Ordina" and "Il Boss") but further proof also comes from this truly overpowering "Il Poliziotto è Marcio" aka "Shoot First, Die Later". Di Leo's films are slightly more qualitative and memorable because he thinks outside of the box and continuously adds new elements to the successful Poliziotesschi formula that he co-created himself. Lenzi's films, for example, are mostly straightforward thrillers in which one unbreakable super-cop (usually Maurizio Merli) battles against entire crime networks but also against the corrupt political system. Domenico Malacarne, the protagonist here, is an utterly corrupt detective himself! The original Italian title is therefore a lot more meaningful as the popular international title; as it literally translates as "The Cop is Rotten" and even the anti- hero's last name (meaning "bad meat") gives a good indication of the story content.

Malacarna is the most successful lieutenant of his Milanese precinct and often gets applauded by his superiors as well as in the local press for uncovering minor drug-trafficking rings and arresting small time crooks. His dark secret, however, is that he simultaneously works as informant for the local mafia boss Pascal and his nefarious attorney Mazzanti. When the mafia starts demanding favors that are even for Malacarna too immoral, his whole empire falls apart and his loved ones become endangered. It may sound unusual, perhaps, but the strongest moments in "Shoot First, Die Later" are the dramatic and emotional scenes rather than the violent ones. Notably the sequences where Malacarne's proud and deep-honest father discovers the truth and gets confronted with the true nature of his beloved son are intense and genuinely painful to observe. Of course, Di Leo never forgets that he's busy making an unhinged Poliziotesschi and thus the film is luckily also full action and brutality, including two virulent car chases, shocking annihilations and senseless cruelty (poor kitten!). Luc Merenda ("The Violent Professionals", "Kidnap Syndicate") is sublime as the simultaneously loathsome and charming anti-hero, and he receives good support from the entire ensemble cast. The intelligent script, in combination with Di Leo's craftsmanship and the smooth soundtrack (Luis Bacalov) make this a top-10/must-see Poliziotesschi.

Superstitious young Shatner, 15 November 2017

In a couple of ways, "Nick of Time" is quite reminiscent to an episode of season one entitled "The Fever". First there are the substantial similarities. Both stories revolve on married couples growing increasingly obsessed with a lifeless device that somehow communicates with them and mentally doesn't allow for them to leave. In "The Fever" it was a Las Vegas slots-machine and here it's a weird kind of fortune-telling napkin dispenser, but in both cases the wives stands aside reluctantly while their husbands destroy their otherwise perfect lives coin by coin, and penny per penny. Secondly, both episodes are a bit atypical "Twilight Zone" tales that are not immediately linked to science-fiction or supernatural themes, but instead deal with the much more complex matter of human psychology. Richard Matheson, brilliant and versatile writer that he is, subtly processes delicate topics like superstition and "self- deceit". The predictions that are coming out of this silly gadget (because it's nothing more than a simple gadget) couldn't be more vague or meaningless, yet the young Don Carter interprets them as wise and accurate statements that correspond with their lives. One final thing that "The Fever" and "Nick in Time" have in common, although this might be very personal, is that both stories don't exactly leave a very strong first impression but their impact gradually become more powerful when the subject matter sinks in. Tales like these naturally don't contain a lot of action or special effects. They depend on intelligent scripts, unsettling ideas, tense atmosphere, convincing acting performances and surprise endings. "Nick of Time" has most of these qualities, particularly with regards to the acting. William Shatner, still at the start of his rich career, is very convincing as the mentally vulnerable husband and Patricia Breslin impresses as his rational but emotional wife.

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Everything you always wanted to know about "Poliziotesschi" … but never thought about asking!, 14 November 2017

Move over "Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!" because I have a new favorite genre film documentary. It was actually destined that I would love this one, since I'm literally obsessed with Italian exploitation cinema from the seventies, and two sub genres in particular: the giallo and the poliziotesschi! Mike Malloy's masterwork unfolds exactly like you would expect from a documentary that is basically just a love-letter written by a devoted fan and addressed to his beloved genre. It's professional, well-structured and informative, with testimonials of the genre's (still living) main contributors, clips & footage of the biggest classics as well as more obscure gems and plentiful of great – and admittedly geeky – trivia!

I've been gazing and deep-diving into "Poliziotesschi" movies for many years already, and of course I already knew most things about the genre's historical background, trademarks and particularities that Mike Malloy brings forwards here in great detail, but – in all honesty – I was also expecting and even hoping to see this and received exactly what I wanted: personal heroes of mine (John Saxon, Henry Silva, Franco Nero, …) who are talking just as passionately and enthusiastically about untamed film-making as I would, even though 95% of the rest of the world either doesn't know these titles or looks down upon them. "Eurocrime! Etc…" exists of chronological chapters, starting with the symbolical birth of the genre in the early '70s and ending – in chapter 8 – with the exciting news that the "Poliziotesschi" is currently going through a sort of revival and how most of "old & trashy" movies are being rediscovered by a new generation of fans. The chapters in between cover a variety of fascinating insights, like an ode to the main contributors (directors as well as actors), the influence of the contemporary political and social climate, the rather discriminating role of women in these stories, the often thin connection with the real Mafia and other criminal organizations (like Red Brigade) and the regrettable downfall of genre together with the Italian cinematic culture in general.

But, arguably the most exhilarating chapter handles about everything that makes this exploitation sub genre truly unique: the unseen brutality and cruel depiction of violence, the guerrilla-style methods that were used to shoot the infamous car chase sequences, the unorthodox stunt work and the innovative tricks that allowed each Italian director to deliver up to three or four films per year. I could easily write half a novella on how brilliantly everything is captured in the slightest detail, but instead I should just be encouraging everyone to track down the documentary and get overwhelmed by it yourself. In order to be 99% complete and 1% objective, I should add that there are a few things missing as well. A few people are missing, in fact. Even though they all get briefly mentioned at one point or another, Mr. Malloy maybe should have given slightly more attention to people like Fernando Di Leo, Ray Rovelock, Stelvio Massi, Marino Girolami and a few others. Also, although admittedly they primarily excelled in other genres – notably horror – and each only made one "Poliziotesschi" classic, some love for Lucio Fulci ("Contraband"), Mario Bava ("Rabid Dogs") and Rugero Deodato ("Live like a Cop, Die like a Man") would have been nice…

9/10 for the documentary itself, but upgraded to 10/10 because of the 30+ original trailers that feature as a fantastic extra feature on the DVD.

Overlooked but solid Poliziotesschi, 14 November 2017

For starters, this is probably the only Poliziotesschi/Euro-crime thriller of which the title in English sounds cooler than the original Italian one! Usually the lengthy and almost poetic sounding original titles are abruptly altered with catchy sounding English words or superlatives (one of the aka's here is actually "Blood, Sweat and Fear"), but the most commonly used title is "Mark the Narc" and that pretty much suits the film perfectly. Secondly, and speaking as a die-hard fan of the Euro-crime sub genre, I don't understand why "Mark the Narc" isn't more regarded as a modest classic or at least more frequently mentioned by fellow admirers of the genre! Perhaps it's because other master-directors like Umberto Lenzi and Fernando Di Leo were simultaneously unleashing numerous Poliziotesschi classics that were grittier and much more violent than this one, or perhaps it's simply because writer/director Stelvio Massi stubbornly opted to cast the unconventional Franco Gasparri rather than the familiar genre icon Maurizio Merli. Fact remains, however, that "Mark the Narc" is a more than solid, suspenseful and straightforward Poliziotesschi with memorable stunt work, competent acting performances and a fantastic soundtrack (courtesy of the almighty Stelvio Cipriani).

The plot is formulaic, but we honestly don't expect or even desire it to be different in this genre! Mark Terzi is an honorable young police commissioner on a dedicated mission to cleanse the streets of his beloved Milan and get rid of all the filthy drug-related crimes and trafficking. Mark knows that the wealthy businessman Benzi is heading all the criminal networks in town but, as usual with this type of jerks, he is a well-respected citizen and enjoys the protection from all prominent politicians. In order to bring him down at last, Mark is forced to take out all of Benzi's henchmen and adjuncts, including relentless murderers and corrupt fellow police officers, and by doing so he doesn't only put his own life at risk but also that of important witnesses. As much as I also love Umberto Lenzi's outrageous Poliziotesschi-thrillers ("Violent Naples", "Almost Human"), the emphasis here clearly lies more on plot and character development rather than on cruel violence and randomly shooting as many innocent bystanders as possible. Several sequences in "Mark the Narc" are integer and stylish, like the relationship Mark develops with the heroine-addicted girl or the genuine grief he experiences after what happens to his partner. In Lenzi's films, aspects like these are merely footnotes and are preferably replaced by another virulent car chase. Don't be too alarmed, though, as "Mark the Narc" definitely does contain loads of blood-pumping action and nasty executions (the truck!). One supportive character in particular is responsible for a few notable moments of sadistic violence, namely the stone-cold and merciless killer named Grüber. It's a genuine mystery to me why the actor portraying him – Carlo Duran – never appeared in other Eurocrime thrillers, as his appearance is naturally intimidating and pure evil. Franco Gasparri is terrific in his protagonist role as well, and the mandatory American import-star Lee J. Cobb is very professional as the despicable lead villain.

I urge all my fellow Poliziotesschi lovers to give "Mark the Narc" a proper chance. Even if you've seen all the classics and some of the more obscure hidden gems, this exemplary Eurocrime thriller is likely to still enchant and entertain you! As the ultimate proof of Italian craftsmanship, two sequels were released in a span of barely one and a half year. I'd really like to watch them as well, but so far I haven't been successful in tracking them down.

Vincent versus the Volcano!, 13 November 2017

You really have to admire the marketing expertise of Samuel Z. Arkoff and the good people at American-International Pictures (AIP)! They had only just finished exploiting Edgar Allen Poe's Gothic horror stories via a hugely successful film series starring Vincent Price and directed by Roger Corman, and not even a year later they're back already to cash in on more Poe-related themes and monsters, only this time in combination with the fantasy and Sci-Fi elements of Jules Verne ("20,000 Leagues under the Sea", "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "Around the World in 80 Days"). Now, in case you're thinking that the works and styles of Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne form a rather bizarre and illogical mix, you are quite right and thus "City in the Sea" is a primarily preposterous and dumb adventure film!

Vincent Price depicts "The Captain"; a villain too obviously modeled after the charismatic and mysterious Nemo in "20,000 Leagues under the Sea" and the relentless leader of a smuggling network that operates from an cavernous city-like lair underneath the sea, just outside the coast of Cornwall. The Captain and his henchmen have been there for more than 100 years, but they're not ageing as long as they remain in their underwater hideout because – and I quote – "it has something to do with the oxygen-composition here below". That's the type of blurry explanations we have to settle for in the script of this film… The Captain may be a tough and sinister bastard, but he's also heartbroken over the loss of his true love and hence he kidnapped her lookalike; the local beauty Jill Tregellis. American engineer Ben Harris, also in love with Jill, goes after her, along with a cowardly artist and his pet chicken (!) named Herbert. They have to rescue the girl from Vincent Price's army of gill-men, and in time before the underwater volcano erupts.

It's always even more difficult to acknowledge that a movie is bad when there are so many potentially good story lines. Based on the synopsis, you'll agree with me that "City in the Sea" features several interesting ideas – even if they are all derivative of other stories – but for some reason the whole film is rather dull and exaggeratedly talkative. There are plenty of nice set pieces and imagery, but they are hardly being used. The dialogues are tacky and the acting performances are quite dismal, with the exception of Vincent Price and – of course – Herbert the Chicken. Jacques Tourneur was definitely one of the most important horror directors of the previous century and he made several hugely influential classics, like "Cat People", "Out of the Past" and "Night of the Demon". It's a bit unfortunate that his career had to end with this seedy horror/Sci-Fi hybrid that can't even be referred to as entertaining.

Beware … Naughty paperboy from HELL!, 8 November 2017

My wife actually made fun of me for wanting to see this film, because it aired on a Belgian TV-channel that is known for exclusively programming romantic comedies and those typical women- in-peril thrillers. You know, these are often TV-produced flicks starring washed up beauties from "Baywatch" or "Melrose Place", only now in their forties and battling alone against evil stalkers, perverts or psychopathic ex-husbands. My dearest was quite right to mock me, in fact, because "Rosewood Lane" is just that type of film and I couldn't be bothered to explain the real reasons why I wanted to see it. Namely that I'm a devoted fan of Rose McGowan ever since "The Doom Generation", that I'm an avid follower of Ray Wise since "Robocop" and "Twin Peaks" already and that I very much appreciate the work of writer/director Victor Salva ("Clownhouse", "Nature of the Beast", "Jeepers Creepers") in spite of questionable reputation. If these three names are combined into one film, I want to watch it! Even when it looks like a dire TV-thriller…

And a pretty dire thriller it is, unfortunately. Salva manages to still create a handful sequences that are atmospheric and suspenseful, but the silly plot is just too implausible and the script is too full of overlong and clichéd moments. When I first read the premise, I assumed there would be more depth in the film or a whole series of plot twists and character developments, but no, "Rosewood Lane" really does handle about a teenage paperboy stalking and terrorizing a radio- psychiatrist who recently moved back into her old neighborhood! All the elderly neighbors are aware but deny his existence and the police naturally don't believe Sonny, because paperboy's initial acts of terror are subtle and almost traceless. He even messes up the order of the porcelain statues in Sonny's kitchen; - what an evil, EVIL kid! "Rosewood Lane" isn't an efficient psycho-thriller because the supposed maniac looks like a harmless toddler, whereas his female victim is a strong and confident woman. No matter how hard she tries, Rose McGowan doesn't fit the profile of a panicky girl or a damsel in distress! She has played juvenile psychopaths as well, for example in "Devil in the Flesh", and her character there would easily whoop the butt of deranged paperboy here. Ray Wise's role is rather limited and he doesn't seem too convinced about the script's quality, neither. Especially the first 60-70 minutes are predictable, dull and difficult to sit through, but luckily the last half hour is fairly- action packed and even a little bloody! During the very last sequence, at a funeral, there's still an inventive and unexpected plot twist/revelation.

Dracula (1979)
Oh Count Dracula, you irresistible handsome devil!, 7 November 2017

Bram Stoker's legendary novella is one of the most adapted stories in history, and one could wonder if it's absolute necessary to watch all the different "Dracula" film versions that exist. The short answer is: yes, definitely in case you're a horror fanatic; or at least as many as possible because each version features a couple of unique and innovative aspects. In 1979, two noteworthy versions were released. There was a classy "Nosferatu" remake directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski, and this dreamy Gothic version directed by John Badham and starring Frank Langella. Although based on the same source novel, there's a world of difference in how these two films portray the titular monster. In "Nosferatu", the Transylvanian count is a traditionally hideous and menacing creep, whereas here we are introduced to the hunkiest and most charismatic bloodsucker in the history of cinema. I kid you not: I'm a 100% heterosexual male, but I think Frank Langella is damn sexy and I believe him when he states in interviews that watching him as Count Dracula sparks the libido of female viewers! Apart from the handsome lead vampire, this version is also beautiful and romantic thanks to the giant budgets spent on enchanting locations, marvelous set pieces and poetic cinematography. The scenario implements a few bizarre changes, like the reversal of Mina and Lucy as the count's principal love-interests, but otherwise the story is treated with respect and – moreover - the essence of Stoker's novel is perhaps even captured better here than in most other "Dracula" films. Yes, whether we horror freaks like to admit it or not, "Dracula" fundamentally remains a love story and its protagonist is merely a sad figure eternally mourning over his lost lover and trying to replace her. The fact that Count Dracula is depicted as a handsome and sophisticated aristocrat generates one major disadvantage, though, namely that he isn't the least bit terrifying. Metaphorically speaking, his charming appearance actually sucks the suspense out of the plot rather than the blood out of its victims. The old Van Helsing (Sir Laurence Olivier) even comes across as more menacing than the Count, especially when he attempts to speak Dutch! I'm a native Dutch speaker, but the short scenes with dialogues in Dutch were the only incomprehensible ones. The "horror" of this version primarily comes from the Gothic recreation of England in 1913, with spooky old abbey dungeons filled with cobwebs, ominous stranded ships and eerie cemeteries enshrouded in fog. The special effects are very admirable too, as the film features several cool sequences where Dracula transforms into a bat or a wolf, or when he crawls down walls.

From Vietnam to Harlem; - similar jungle, different war, 3 November 2017

I'm certainly not an expert when it comes to Blaxploitation cinema, but I've seen enough films by now to know that I root for the underdog titles rather than the popular blockbusters. Flamboyant and famous genre classics like "Shaft", "Foxy Brown" or "Black Caesar" may be entertaining, but I prefer the raw and desolate atmosphere of unsung gems like "Across 110th Street", "Ganja and Hess", "Fight for your Life" or "The Spook who sat by the Door". Ossie Davis' "Gordon's War" can definitely also be added to that shortlist from now on as well! This film doesn't rely on the groovy charisma of one single lead- player (although Paul Winfield is truly fantastic) but instead it portrays a harsh and saddening image of life in the decaying big city ghettos. Mostly thanks to the authentic Harlem filming locations, in combination with a straightforward no-nonsense script and a handful of marvelous action sequences, "Gordon's War" is a rewarding Blaxploitation gem worth tracking down. Decorated war hero Gordon Hudson returns from Vietnam only to find out that his beloved wife died of an overdose and that a whole generation of Harlem youngsters is falling victim to lousy heroine. You know the revenge/vigilante routine from here onward: Gordon assembles his army buddies and go back to war, only this time it's a personal battle against the drug pushers on the streets and crime lords who provide them. Apart from being a fast- paced and competently made thriller, "Gordon's War" is also memorable for featuring one of the most inventive safe raids I've ever seen and the bizarre supporting role of Grace Jones in her first screen appearance. The abrupt finale is a bit of a letdown, though, and the film could have done without the clichéd "oh-we-used-to-be-so-happy" flashbacks.

The Von Trapp Family from backwoods swamp-hell!, 3 November 2017

I really love TV-horror/thriller movies from the 1970s. They are short, straightforward and usually compensate in atmosphere and plot- ingenuity for what they lack in action footage or make-up effects. "All the Kind Strangers" is a decent example of such a 70s tale with a very murky and unsettling premise and a thoroughly unpredictable atmosphere of tension. Macho freelance photographer Jimmy Wheeler is driving through rural roads in his fancy and brand new convertible when he stops to give a lift to a 7-year-old kid carrying large bags of groceries. He quickly regrets this, however, as he ends up at the backwoods equivalent of the Von Trapp family with seven parentless children living in the middle of a swamp. Unfortunately, they don't sing of Do-Re-Mi and – under the eerie leadership of the oldest brother Peter – they have the nasty habit of forcing random helpful strangers to become their reluctant ma's and pa's. They already reverse-adopted the terrified Samantha Eggar as their mommy, and now they see the ideal role-model father in Mr. Wheeler even though he doesn't share their enthusiasm. "All the Kind Strangers" is very compelling and ominous throughout the first hour, with notably uncanny scenes at the dinner table or during the boat trip on the creek. The hopelessness in Stacy Keach's eyes, the fear in Samantha Eggar's eyes and the madness in John Savage's eyes are extremely realistic and make even the most hardened viewer feel uncomfortable. In fact, "All the Kind Strangers" easily would have ranked in the top 10 of greatest TV-thrillers of the 70s if only it weren't for the daft and utterly disappointing anti-climax. The bad ending alone costs this otherwise fine TV-thriller a mere 2 or 3 points in the rating.

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