Friday, September 30, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: post-retrospective analysis

Friends, readers and fellow countrymen of the blogosphere, the Summer of Satan has reached its end. Now comes the autumn of all things pumpkin-shaped and ghoulish, as a large swathe of next month is given over to 13 for Halloween, and after that it won’t be long till the second annual Winter of Discontent.

In other words, no need to mourn the passing of our Satanic summer: plenty more reels of cinematic depravity will be flickering through the projection booth window here at The Agitation of the Mind before 2011 draws to its close.

After the next Giallo Sunday offering (I’ve got a true one-off lined up), I’ll be taking a week away from the blog to work on some other projects. In the meantime, though, here’s a quick look back at the eighteen Faustian films considered in this most reprehensible of retrospectives.

I didn’t quite cover all of the films I wanted – Bryce recommended ‘Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law’, but my usual go-to resources failed me and the budget, after the recent death of my oven and microwave and a repair job on the car, didn’t stretch to ordering the DVD as an import. Still, I sat through a melange of dark and nasty productions, the quality control of which varied to an almost schizophrenic degree.

Here’s a complete list of the films and the lessons I learned from them:

‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ – do not mock Ernest Borgnine’s jumpsuit. Just don’t.

‘The Devil’s Rain’ – even William Shatner’s unorthodox diction cannot defeat the powers of darkness.

‘Race with the Devil’ – for God’s sake, holidaymakers, use a travel-guide-approved RV park. Setting up shop down that dirt track near the creek where the Satanists are conducting their human sacrifice is a real quiet-getaway deal-breaker.

‘Asylum of Satan’ – great title, shame about the movie.

‘Hard Ride to Hell’ – see ‘Race with the Devil’. Fuck’s sake, RV-ers, do you like the pain this much?

‘The Devil Rides Out’ – Hammer + Dennis Wheatley = goooooood.

‘Evilspeak’ – in which a computer in the nineteen-motherfucking-eighties manages, without modem, internet dongle, software downloads or advanced programming, to translate Latin texts, compute the requirements for a Satanic ritual, and conjure the devil. Seriously, Windows 98, what the fuck?

‘The House of the Devil’ – the 70s redux. Horror how it used to be. Somebody give Ti West a few million dollars and final cut. Right freakin’ now.

‘Lady Death’ – in which the devil’s daughter gets kitted out in a revealing little number that makes Vampirella’s costume look demure, avails herself of a bloody big sword, gets an army together and gives her old man what for. I’m down with this.

‘Messiah of Evil’ – the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode never made.

‘Satan’s Children’ – in which the homophobic minions of the devil get their collective asses whupped by a nerd in white y-fronts. This is not a good advert for the Evil One.

‘Exorcismus: The Possession of Emma Evans’ – your priest uncle sucks cocks in hell. Oh shit, I think I might have given something away.

‘Damned in Venice’ – not the Dirk Bogarde one. Sooooo not the Dirk Bogarde one.

‘To the Devil – a Daughter’ – Hammer + Dennis Wheatley = baaaaaaad.

‘Antichrist’ – don’t fear the Reaper … fear Lars von Trier instead!

‘Alucarda’ – nuns, flagellation, vampirism, demonic possession, girl-girl shenanigans. ’Nuff said.

‘Drive Angry’ – in which the devil remains pretty much on the sidelines … but when the muscles cars are this cool, the chicks this tough and Ol’ Nick sends William fuckin’ Fichtner to do the job for him, who’s counting?

‘The Day of the Beast’ – El Bestia vs. a jumpy priest, a cerebrally-challenged heavy metal fan and an egomaniac TV presenter. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: The Day of the Beast

Alex de la Iglesia made an inventive if somewhat frenzied debut with the sci-fi satire ‘Accion Mutante’. Rough and ready and with its set-pieces belying its budget, nonetheless the talent behind the film was evident.

His follow-up, again a genre film and again satirical in tone (at least in its early stages), proved that de la Iglesia was a filmmaker with full confidence in the medium and a wicked sense of the irreverent. The genre this time was horror.

‘The Day of the Beast’ begins with mild-mannered and very nervous priest, Father Curo (Alex Angulo) consulting his superior. He has cracked a code hidden in an abstruse text and determined that the son of the devil is to be born on Christmas Eve – a date just days hence. He confesses that he is now about to leave the church and commence sinning like it’s going out of style. By sinning he will be able to broker a pact with Satan (price: his soul) and thus discover the location of the Adversary’s birth. And then, hopefully, prevent it.

Curo’s superior warns him that the Evil One will attempt to foil him at every turn. Curo turns to take his leave. A massive fresco of the cross detaches itself from the church wall and flattens Curo’s compadre. De la Iglesia stages it as pure slapstick, a comic-book start to the movie that’s underlined by the graphic novel style title credit, a crucifix, a shadow and the silhouetted figure of the devil featuring prominently in the design.

For maybe half an hour or so, de la Iglesia keeps things simmering away at this level: Curo, determined to become a great sinner, curses a dying man and lifts his wallet while he’s meant to be giving absolution; refuses to behave charitably to a beggar; steals someone’s luggage; and blunders into a record shop specializing in heavy metal in search of the devil’s music. Said establishment is managed by Jose Maria (Santiago Segura), whose crotchety mother runs the grubby boarding house at which Cura ends up.

As an unlikely friendship develops between priest and metalhead, the latter points the former in the direction of TV celebrity, supposed medium and 100% charlatan Cavan (Armando De Razza) as a possible candidate to expedite Curo’s contact with Beelzebub. Curo seizes on the idea far too eagerly and what ensues is a melange of home invasion, proto-torture porn (Curo’s exposition speech, punctuate with whacks of a golf club to the forcibly restrained Cavan’s kneecaps is considerably funnier than it has any right to be), slapstick comedy (events are interrupted by the arrival of Cavan’s buxom girlfriend – played by Maria Grazia Cucinotta, a woman with an hourglass figure and a décolletage like a photo-finish in a zeppelin race) and Satanic shenanigans.

The ritual Curo and Jose Maria compel Cavan to undertake (which, apparently, was a genuine Satanic ritual – now there’s a commitment to the Method) proves all too successful and Curo and co. flee the powers of darkness.

This is where ‘Day of the Beast’ changes gear and I don’t want to go into much more detail. If you’ve not seen the film, I don’t want to spoil how subtly the tonal shift of the second half is effected. I’ll just observe that things get darker and more genuinely horrific the more the focus shifts from the gothic to the socio-political. The cinema of Spain, from the rediscovery of artistic freedom of speech in the mid-70s through to the emergence of genre-savvy talents like de la Iglesia in the 90s, is a cinema still informed by the shadow of Franco. Fascism and the arrogance of class is an important factor in the latter stages of ‘Day of the Beast’. The absurdist humour remains (even taking on a wistful tinge in the closing scene), but the aesthetic is darker and the effect more cutting, more bruising more acidic after the ritual.

Conjure something up, de la Iglesia seems to be suggesting, and its shadow remains. ‘The Day of the Beast’ is deceptively entertaining; its subtext breaks ground by the end and hits you like a sledgehammer. It’s a textbook example of laughter in the dark – the laughter is nervous and the darkness is pitch black.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


In which John Milton (1608 – 1674) loses his sight, wrestles with the big questions of humanity’s relationship to the divine and writes an epic poem that begins with man’s first disobedience and –

No, wait. Let me start over.

‘Drive Angry’. In which John Milton (Nicolas Cage) breaks out of hell in shriek of burning rubber and a cloud of petrol fumes, busts back through into the world of the living, and goes in vengeful pursuit of the Satanists who murdered his daughter and are intent on sacrificing his infant grandchild.

‘Paradise Lost’ – the whopping free-verse poem about good, evil and everything inbetween – has about as much connection with the aesthetic of ‘Drive Angry’ as ‘The Canterbury Tales’ does with ‘Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS’. That Cage’s character is called John Milton is best dismissed as the film’s unfunniest joke and all thoughts of epochal works of literature put to one side.

‘Drive Angry’, directed by Patrick Lussier, is a ribald throwback to 70s exploitation. It mixes the backwoods Satanism of ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ and ‘Race with the Devil’ (in a nod to Jack Starrett’s film, the devil-worshippers’ preferred mode of transport is an RV) with the tyre-squealing car-porn of ‘Vanishing Point’, ‘Two Lane Blacktop’, et al. And it throws in a cluster of giddily OTT and luridly executed set-pieces, the likes of which make ‘Machete’ look like an exercise in mumblecore.

How OTT? Well, there’s the scene where Milton and The Accountant (William Fichtner) – a man deeply unappreciative of the negative impact Milton’s absconding from Hades has had on the figures – race each other across a bridge probably half the length of a football pitch. The sequence is so protracted, with exchanges of dialogue, exchanges of shots and characters swapping while they reload a variety of weapons, that before it’s half done you start wondering when exactly the bridge was extended – it suddenly seems to be a couple of miles long.

How lurid? Weeeeeell, take your pick from these two: Milton’s shagfest with a cocktail waitress interrupted by gunmen, whom he clinically despatches whilst still, ahem, maintaining his rhythm; or waffle waitress Piper (Amber Heard) quitting her job, returning home unexpectedly early, discovering her lowlife boyfriend in flagrante with another woman, and dragging said homewrecker naked out onto the lawn and putting her down with a couple of roundhouse punches thrown like a pro.

Yup, ‘Drive Angry’ gives you naked women, casually ridiculous violence (be it hand-to-hand, gunplay or the improper use of handtools), fast cars and Nic Cage not giving a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut that he’s pissed off the Prince of Darkness (“What’s he gonna do,” Milton sneers at one point, “not let me back in?”)

Cage isn’t quite as deliriously back on form as in ‘Kick-Ass’ or, definitively, ‘Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: New Orleans’, but he’s still a lot more plugged in and giving it some than we’ve come to expect. Heard – playing the acid-tongued tough chick who finds herself along for the ride – is a blast: sexy, sassy, ass-kicking and attitudinous, the kind of gal whose pint you definitely wouldn’t spill. She’s more than just a foil for Milton; she gives the film a frisson that kicks it up a gear, pushing it beyond its obvious T&A/cars/guns laddishness.

Just as good – almost miraculously conjuring an inspired piece of characterization – is Fichtner. The idea of Nic Cage (whose income tax blues were being slaveringly reported on while ‘Drive Angry’ was in production) being pursued by an implacable suit-wearing nemesis called The Accountant is a concept so meta it could have overbalanced the film: a one-note snidey joke on which large amounts of the narrative are predicated. Thank God, then, for Fichtner, who turns the character into a slightly prissy but stop-at-nothing antagonist. The only way I can describe it is as if Dirk Bogarde had played the T-1000.

‘Drive Angry’ is a filmic slab of Marmite – you’ll love it or hate it, and be hard pressed to find an indifferent review. Me, I laughed like hell for the 100-minute running time, developed a new-found appreciation of Amber Heard and bumped up William Fichtner a fair few places on my cool list.

Race with the devil? Donut with the bad dude, more like.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Juan Lopez Monctezuma’s hallucinatory exploitationer is a heady and unsubtle mix of nunsploitation, sexual hysteria, Satanism, vampirism, pyrotelekinesis and lipstick lesbianism.

To those of you who have already abandoned this review and logged on to Amazon, Lovefilm or Netflix, happy viewing – see you next time here at The Agitation of the Mind.

To those of you still with me, let’s see if we can’t unravel a critically valid and intellectually rigorous understanding of the film. (Pmsl, to use the current argot.)

Oh, what the hell? Let’s just spend 600 words wallowing in a frankly bonkers and borderline incoherent piece of Mexican what-the-fuckery that packs more nudity, screaming and blasphemous imagery into its scant hour and a quarter running time than you could shake a broken crucifix at.

Things kick off with a young woman giving birth to a daughter with the aid of a hunchback with a high-pitched voice and some serious dental problems. The woman begs him to care for the child and “not let him take her”. The hunchback scoops up the little bundle of joy and departs upon which the woman has a screaming fit (the first of many scenes which unfold to the sound of bad actors screaming their heads off; every rental of this movie ought to include a free packet of Ibuprofen) and expires.

After the credits, some fifteen years have passed (according to a hasty bit of expositional dialogue) and the newly orphaned Justine (Susanna Kamina) is delivered into the care of an order of nuns. Here she meets the eponymous Alucarda (Tina Romero) – the now very womanly incarnation of the child in the first scene – and a significant mutual girl crush develops. Whilst roaming in the woods near the convent, they encounter a gypsy tribe. The hunchbacked old dude performing the unlikely pre-credit midwife duties reappears and scares the beejesus out of the girls, but not before he gives Alucarda a dagger. Shortly thereafter, exploring the ruins of an abandoned town, the geography of which instils Alucarda with a sense of déjà vu, they find a coffin – that, as any viewer with a sliver of visual acuity will realize, of Alucarda’s mother – bearing a plaque that identifies it as the vessel of Lucy Westenra.

This, friends and neighbours, is the first and last genuinely interesting thing Monctezuma’s film does: sets up its heroine as the orphaned daughter of Dracula’s most poignant victim (in case you haven’t already made the connection, spell Alucarda backwards and allow the superfluous “a” as a feminization of the name). Thereafter, however, it’s naked Satanic rituals and naked midnight orgies (at which Satan, here portrayed by an individual in a goat mask, turns up and gropes the occasional arse and then departs again) all the way.

Not to mention naked exorcisms.

The naked exorcism is the most honest moment of exploitation in the film. Alucarda and Justine have interrupted Bible study at the convent with an outpouring of heresy, and when they refuse to recant it’s decided that exorcism is the only option. The girls are strapped to full-size crosses and the priest turns his attention to Justine first. “The mark of the devil will be on her body,” he intones; “undress her.” A leering chap accepts the instruction (for a convent, btw, there’s a fuckload of male adherents) and rips Justine’s dress to shreds. No search for the mark of the beast is subsequently instructed, but the camera cuts back to her breasts and her holiest of holies at every available opportunity.

Plotwise, things never get beyond Alucarda-and-Justine-get-possessed / sexy-Satanic-girl-girl-shenanigans-occur / the-church-gets-righteously-pissed-off. A half-hearted attempt to engender a religion/science debate takes place in the closing stages as Dr Oscek (Claudio Brook – who, under grungy but unconvincing makeup, also plays the hunchback) randomly takes centre stage to protest against the church’s heavy-handedness only to take it all back and get kick-ass with the holy water the moment he comes up against something inexplicable by scientific means.

But Alucarda was never meant to function or a narrative, intellectual or remotely aesthetic level. It’s a delivery system for tits, blood and attractive young women locking lips in hazy close-up. That it throws in a dead character’s resurrection from a blood-filled coffin, a group of nuns spouting ludicrously sub-expositional dialogue during a session of flagellation that looks like nothing more than the world’s worst BDSM site …

… more pyrotechnical mind-control mayhem than Carrie about five seconds after the pig’s blood incident should just be considered additional extras, and a level of sexual/religious hysteria deranged enough to make Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ look like Bergman’s ‘Winter Light’ should just be considered fringe benefits.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Back in the summer of 666 …

Brothers, sisters and neophytes … the temperature begins to plummet, the darker nights draw in, the leaves turn to gold and russet and fall from the trees like a crucifix falls from the hands of a nun who has just witnessed her first Walerian Borowczyk film … Summer ebbs, my delightful children of the night. Our ramblings through the darkly enchanted forests of this blog must come to an end. Likewise our cavortings beneath the moonlight (this specificially on the instructions of the missus!)

In short, friends, readers and degenerates, Summer of Satan draws to a close. But I have three more offerings for you, three more unholy examples of the filmmakers art. We will revel this week, my fallen angels, in an orgy of sex, satire, ceremonies and sin, of magic, mysticism and muscle cars … Three more offerings, beginning tomorrow, from Mexico, Spain and the Hollywood mainstream at its most lurid.

So invert your crucifixes, turn up the heavy metal, speak in tongues and remember why it is that Christ wasn’t born on the internet: they’d never have found three wise men or a virgin.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Nottingham Forest were, at best, an average football club when Brian Clough became their manager in 1975. What he accomplished with Forest was nothing less than alchemy. The 1976-77 season saw them promoted to the first division. They won the First Division English Championship the following season. They won the League Cup two years running (1978 and 1979), ditto the European Cup (1979 and 1980), prompting Cloughie’s immortal comment about Manchester United supremo Alex Ferguson that “for all his horses, knighthoods and championships, he hasn't got two of what I've got – and I don't mean balls!”

Since the Cloughie era, Forest regressed to average. And then to just plain dire. To the point at which a mate of mine, a season ticket holder of long standing, turned his back on the players after a particularly embarrassing (read: par for the course) defeat recently.

Being a Dario Argento fan is kind of like supporting Forest. Cloughie quit round about ‘Opera’. Things went downhill from there. There was the brief second tier reminder of the glory days with ‘Sleepless’ (comparable to Forest’s second division supremacy in the 1997-98 season), then it was balls-to-the-wall mediocrity all the way with ‘The Card Player’, ‘Do You Like Hitchcock?’ and ‘Mother of Tears’. True, his two episodes for ‘Masters of Horror’ were good stuff, but even a club in relegation can emerge with the occasional charity shield victory.

With Argento as with Forest: you go to each new film/match expecting nothing, generally coming away with nothing and yet still hurting like a bastard because you remember when they were on world-beating form and every film/match they directed/played was something magisterial and breathtaking and you’d be talking about it to your mates for years afterwards. You’d forgive how dull they are now if it wasn’t so easy to remember how fucking awesome they used to be.

So it was, having suffered a kick in the teeth courtesy of the awfulness of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and abject heartbreak on account of ‘Mother of Tears’ (which, in terms of how to rape an astounding promising trilogy, is akin to J.R.R. Tolkein following up ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ and ‘The Two Towers’ with an uncorrected proof copy of Guy N. Smith’s ‘Night of the Crabs’), that I approached ‘Giallo’ with extreme scepticism. I made sure I had a few beers inside me, as well, just to be sure I was anaesthetized against the almost inevitable onset of disappointment.

‘Giallo’ opens with a ‘Seven’-style credit sequence and a moody score by Marco Werba. Derivative, I thought, but a decent enough attention grabber. The first shot, lit by the flat harsh light of a glaring lightbulb, was of a hypodermic needle drawing liquid from an unmarked vial. Then we’re at the opera in Rome with a couple of foreign students. Blowing the classical repertoire to hit a nightclub, one of them hooks up with a studly Italian lad while her friend heads back to the hotel. She hails a blandly anonymous cab. The driver takes the wrong route. The girl starts getting worried. She has every right to. The cab pulls into a secluded side street. The driver attacks her.

Nothing earth-shattering or genre-defining going on here, but staged, shot and edited for optimal impact. Next up, fashion model Celine (Elsa Pataky) hurriedly makes plans to meet up with her air hostess sister Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) before hitting the catwalk and strutting her stuff in the latest fashions. The show over, she grabs a cab and calls Linda en route. The signal is lost, the driver takes the wrong direction and Celine ends up a captive of a hideously deformed and jaundiced psychopath. Meanwhile, Linda reports Celine’s disappearance, but the only person who will listen is Inspector Enzo Avolfi (an expatriate Italian who has lived in New York for a while). Avolfi is investigating a series of brutal crimes against women undertaken by a “pattern killer”.

Okay. Out-of-her-depth heroine driven by need to explain sister’s disappearance hooks up with maverick-cop-haunted-by-inability-to-save-someone. So far so generic, but none of it actually bad. Half an hour in, I was being to wonder why ‘Giallo’ had attracted so much hate. It wasn’t great – in fact, by dint of the gamut of screenwriting clichés, it was only just running to borderline good – but by the same standards it wasn’t exactly a repellently nauseating POS either.

I kept watching. Linda persuades Avolfi to let her tag along to crime scenes and autopsies (yeah, whatever); much is made of Avolfi’s understanding of the psychopathic mindset yet it’s Linda who figures out a crucial clue (yeah, whatever); Avolfi’s investigative methods seem to consist of showing his face at crime scenes, having a quick word with the forensic boys, barking something out reports on his desk then beetling off for a quick drink without even bothering to talk to witnesses (yeah, whatever). It was all kind of ordinary. But it wasn’t a stinker.

And as the film reached the halfway mark, then crept towards the hour, I was convinced that ‘Giallo’ was nowhere near the clunker I’d been lead to believe. I was beginning to relish the composition of a revisionist review.

And. Then. It. All. Went. Tits. Up.

And not even tits up in an interesting way, when a film that’s been shaping up for greatness goes off the rails in such spectacular style that it’s almost impressive. No, ‘Giallo’ adheres to what, with a nod to T.S. Eliot, you might call “not with a bang but a wimp-out”.

Here’s a good time to spend a paragraph on the background to the film. And, anticipating what’s to come in the next paragraph, to throw out a SPOILER ALERT. ‘Giallo’ was written by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller (Keller had written the TV movies ‘Kracken: Tentacles of the Deep’ and ‘Gryphon’; it was Agnew’s first credit) as an homage to gialli. The script met with incomprehension in Hollywood. A European producer was interested and – in what must have seemed like a dream come true to the writers – the property found its way into the hands of Argento. At this point, serendipity found itself wrongfooted, hamstrung and hog-tied. The producers interfered, Argento announced his dissatisfaction with the theatrical cut, it premiered at the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival to complete indifference, word of US and UK distribution was muted, and then it emerged – in 2010 – that Adrien Brody was suing the producers over non-payment of his fee. In November 2010, a court ruled that Brody’s image could not be used to promote the film until his fee was paid in full. In January of this year, the case was reported to be settled.

Now, it’s difficult to gauge just how badly producer interference damaged Argento’s take on the material, but what’s inarguable is that ‘Giallo’ gives us Brody’s worst ever performance. Seigner, not the most expressive actress at the best of time, at least suggests more emotional involvement in the proceedings. The rest of the cast sleepwalk. A promising first hour suddenly gets the plug pulled on it as the final act inexplicably jettisons much of what has gone before and plods towards an arbitrary and pointless conclusion that doesn’t leave you thinking “WTF?” so much as “SFW?” The main part of the problem is that Avolfi is played by Adrien Brody while the killer – known as Yellow – is essayed by Byron Deidra (I’ll leave it to word puzzle fans to make the connection), a casting decision that makes no sense whatsoever given that : (a) cop and killer are unrelated, (b) cop and killer have no shared experience or (c) cop and killer are never revealed as two sides of the same coin. In other words, Argento introduces a subtext, plays on it for a little while and then all but walks in front of the camera, shrugs and says, “Oh by the way, that subtext? Fuhgeddaboutit!”

Going further than this: the killer’s motivation – a pathetic hint at he-kills-what’s-beautiful-because-he’s-ugly (oh, fuck right off; none of my three completed novels have been published, but I don’t go around bumping off authors at bookshop signing sessions); the young Avolfi’s escape from his mother’s killer – never explained; Avolfi’s insistence on a certain line of questioning with a witness – never revisited; Avolfi’s seemingly important purchase from a bookshop – an entirely superfluous scene (unless a subsequent scene was hacked); a couple of jarring transitions between day and night (further suggestion of editorial butchery). It all adds up to a turgid, uninvolving and structurally flawed piece of work. When the end credits rolled, I was left not with a feeling of frustration, confusion or even outright animosity, but simply one of abject disinterest. And you can’t say much worse about a film than that.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney - the man with the most infectious grin in the movies - is 91 today. IMDb lists his first credit as 1926. With two films in pre- and two in post-production, I'm counting that as ten decades in the movies.

Plus, the dude was once married to Ava Gardner.

God love you, sir! A full-bodied pint of real ale is being raised to you this evening.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Dedicated to Stephen King on his 64th birthday. Thanks for all the scares.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m in the habit of posting birthday greetings to my favourite actresses in the form of triptychs of unapologetic cheesecake shots. These posts are normally cobbled together at a moment’s notice. They stem from a nightly ritual myself and Mrs F engage in. Based on IMDb’s “born today” section, we raised a glass to our favourite actors, actresses, directors, writers or cinematographers. And why the hell not? A shared love of films and books helped to bring us together.

So imagine the scene: we get home from work, fix a meal (a fillet of salmon cubed and stir-fried with seasonal vegetables and served with boiled rice), settle in for the evening, Paula fires up the PS3, yours truly fires up the internet … OMG, it’s Stephen King’s birthday. I had nothing planned for The Agitation of the Mind, but goddamn it if Stephen King wasn’t one of the crucial authors who really tripped me to reading when every shitty bone-dry text we read at school was trying to achieve the opposite.

I’ve always loved stories and the written word, but what those doofuses laid on me at school could have killed it stone dead. I owe my continued love of literature to three very diverse writers, without whom I could have all-so-easily tuned out: Hammond Innes (after devouring my dad’s Alistair MacLean collection, I turned to Innes and discovered that a tense thriller could be imbued with a genuine literary talent and an evocative sense of place), Alan Sillitoe (the pages of whose novels could have been inhabited by my dad and my granddad), and Stephen King.

The first Stephen King novel I read was ‘Christine’. I was fifteen. ‘Christine’ – a novel about cars, girls and rock ‘n’ roll – is the perfect novel for a fifteen year old. The doors of perception opened. King started every chapter with a quote from a classic golden oldie rock ‘n’ roll song. The nerd was made cool by a cool car. The bullies bought the farm – in gory style. Colour the 15-year-old me hooked. Even today, now I’ve had my ups and downs with King (my non-ownership of a crowbar is the only reason ‘The Dark Tower Volume 7’ is still in one piece; I gave up on ‘Lisey’s Story’ 200 pages in; I wish I’d been granted editing duties on ‘Dreamcatcher’ and been allowed to reduce the first 20 pages to two paragraphs), the appearance of a new King novel – or, better still, collection of short stories (‘Full Dark, No Stars’, the big man at his best in over a decade, oh thank you Lord, praise God, hallelujah) – is something to get excited about.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I felt the need to mark the occasion. I slung ‘Christine’ in the DVD player, watched it, and gave myself an hour to write a (pardon the pun) hit-and-run review. The first time I saw ‘Christine’, about three years after I originally read the book, I hated it. I hated the production line prologue that ham-fistedly explained the car’s bloodlust. I hated the reduction of Roland LeBay’s part in the story to a couple of minutes of ornery exposition. I hated the “god, I hate rock ‘n’ roll” ending. I hated the jettisoning of King’s (admittedly unfilmable) ending, seven or eight lines of prose that still send a shiver down my spine.

Later, approaching it as a fully-formed cineaste, and judging it as a John Carpenter film rather than a Stephen King adaptation, I still found it hard to love, as it came way down on the list of “John Carpenter films I’d rather be watching than doing anything else” – it came way, way lower than ‘The Thing’, ‘Halloween’, ‘The Fog’, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘Dark Star’, ‘They Live’ or ‘Big Trouble in Little China’.

In fact, I didn’t reach a full appreciation of ‘Christine’ until I saw Frank Darabont’s third King adaptation ‘The Mist’. I already had a built-in appreciation of that movie: King’s description, in the introduction to ‘Skeleton Crew’, of ‘The Mist’ as having “a cheery cheesiness – you’re supposed to see this one in black-and-white … with a big speaker stuck in the window. You make up the second feature.”

Sure, ‘Christine’ the novel has a sophisticated structure and narrative complexities which allow the author to explore the thin line between passion and obsession, ownership and possession (to quote the tagline on the cover of my copy of the NEL paperback), but when you boil down the essential elements of the story to their base metals, you get the very trinity that appealed to me over twenty years ago: cars, girls and rock ‘n’ roll.

As Darabont tapped into the B-movie aesthetic of King’s fiction in ‘The Mist’, so did John Carpenter two decades earlier with ‘Christine’. Darabont rode the wave of a resurgence of the horror genre that alternated between post-modern irony and straight-faced throwbacks to the 70s. Carpenter, as with so many of his films, was ahead of his time and thus underappreciated. ‘Christine’ is a B-movie through and through, albeit with its tongue in cheek in the right places. But not all the time. Uh-huh. There are moments in Carpenter’s film that are as wrenching as its source material: Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon)’s familial rows; Dennis (John Stockwell)’s cringingly embarrassing attempt to hit on new schoolgirl hottie Leigh (Alexandra Paul) in the library; Arnie’s maltreatment at the hands of flick-knife wielding bully Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander).

Where Carpenter misjudges is in Gordon’s characterization of Cunningham. In the early scenes, he’s just too nerdy. His friendship with Dennis never convinces. Likewise, Repperton and his entourage come off not so much as a genuinely threatening cluster of antagonists as a borderline camp ‘Grease’-stylee approximation of bad boys, as if someone had decided to cast John Inman, Julian Clary and Alan Carr as dangerous types.

Elsewhere, though, Carpenter absolutely nails it, keying the film into the aesthetic of Americana – high school, auto shop, football games, drive-in movies, diners – that define the novel. Also, he rocks the finale. For a man who’s never made a western, Carpenter has drawn upon the tropes of the genre time and time again. ‘Christine’ posits its Caterpiller digger vs demon car smackdown in the unambiguous terms of white hat vs black hat, sheriff vs outlaw, good vs evil. The saloon has been replaced by a rickety garage, main street by a scrapyard, the good guy’s Smith & Wesson by a lumbering, chugging piece of heavy plant. The differences are merely generic. The stakes and the outcome are the same.

‘Christine’ is a film I’ve come to love over the years, despite its flaws, and despite its divergences from what is still one of my favourite Stephen King novels. And there is a lot to love about it: the pre-CGI set piece where Christine effects an act of self-renovation; the various dispatchings of Arnie’s antagonists; Robert Prosky’s magnificently curmudgeonly turn as phlegmatic garage owner Darnell; Dean Stockwell’s brief but effective appearance as a detective slowly linking the trail of mayhem; and the beautifully chosen repertoire of 50s and 60s rock ‘n’ roll songs which provide Christine with her psychotic soundtrack.

And then there’s Christine herself. The automotive equivalent of Angela in the ‘Night of the Demon’ movies: sexy and deadly in roughly equal measures. I don’t know if the Plymouth Fury they used in the film (one of several, given the amount of damage inflicted) even had a name – it sure doesn’t get a credit – but that chrome-laden, snarling-grilled, whitewall-tyred piece of fuck-off awesome engineering gets my vote as one of the great horror icons of all time.

Say what you like about where ‘Christine’ gets it right and/or gets it wrong, when you’ve got a 1950s muscle car in flames chasing someone down to their screamingly hideous demise, what the hell else do you want?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Perhaps the least explicitly Luciferean entry in the Summer of Satan retrospective, ‘Antichrist’ is a Lars von Trier film through and through: wilfully pretentious and undeniably powerful in roughly equal measures and studded with examples of that certain x-factor von Trier shares with Michael Haneke – to whit, a tendency to take things just that little bit further than he needs to in order to make his point.

I’ve always approached the work of von Trier and Haneke warily. Both are highly intelligent and skilled practitioners of their art. Both are unafraid to stare into the abyss – even to give the abyss the occasional poke with a sharp stick just to see what stirs. And both, I can’t help thinking, have more than a little about them of the vituperative eight-year-old boy who grooves on pulling the wings off insects and has discovered the effect of dropping the word “fuck” in the playground or at mother’s tea party.

Case in point: the artfully exploitative black and white prologue to ‘Antichrist’ (as with much of von Trier’s work, the film is divided into chapters). A couple – we’re never given their names – played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg have a sexual marathon, moving from the shower to the bedroom, their rhythm compared in a wondrously clumsy visual metaphor to that of their washing machine, while (unbeknownst to them) their infant son stages a breakout from his cot, successfully navigates the safety gate at the door of his room, wanders down the hallway (stopping to peer in at ma and pa making the beast with two backs then turning away with what looks for all the world like a smirk), heads for the spare bedroom where the window is open and the snow blowing in, pushes a chair up close to the desk by the window, climbs from one to the other, ascends to the windowsill and then, teddy bear in hand, learns a harsh lesson about high windows and gravity.

Von Trier does to two things in this sequence – which is rendered in the slowest of slow motion and takes five minutes to play out while “Lascia ch’io pianga” (the title means “leave me to weep” and it is sung by a character trapped by a sorceress in an enchanted garden) from Handel’s opera ‘Rinaldo’ plays on the soundtrack – which immediately merit note. The first is that he inserts (pardon the pun) a hardcore shot of an erect penis engaging in docking procedures with its female opposite number. You can make a certain case for its inclusion as foreshadowing of two acts of major genital trauma that inform the final stretches of the film. And I’m not such a prude as to tut and declare there’s no need for it (and after watching the uncut version of ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’, von Trier’s footage is positively tasteful). But there’s something about the swinging motion of the gonads in ultra-slow-motion that’s almost funny.

The second thing is the unapologetic bit of emotional pornography that is the child’s death. (The boy is called Nick, by the way. This is just as symbolic as the use of “Lascia ch’io pianga”.) The death of a child equates to the death of innocence and the non-fulfilment of potential; it is a thing of utterly demoralizing pointlessness. And I couldn’t escape the feeling, five minutes into ‘Antichrist’, that von Trier was doing it just to push buttons. To get a reaction.

It left a sourness in me that only the most grubby and venal of exploitationers (I’m thinking of a couple of Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato offerings) usually achieve. It cast a shadow over the low-key effectiveness of chapter one, entitled ‘Grief’, during which The Willem Dafoe Character, a psychologist, unethically decides to treat The Charlotte Gainsbourg character (I’ll go with Man and Woman for the rest of the review to save myself unnecessary typing) rather than let her work through things with a neutral, uninvolved healthcare professional. Insisting that Woman needs to face her fears and remain in the moment with them, Man (who increasingly comes across as a total dick with his smarmily pat psychological explanations for everything) hauls her off to an isolated cabin in the woods, a place they refer to as “Eden”, where Woman had previously spent some time with Nick while working on an abandoned thesis on gynocide.

Perturbed by the implications of the word (I initially equated gyno- as is gynaecology and wondered if it meant the death of the foetus within the womb), I hit pause and looked it up. The actual definition was no less distressing: the killing of women.

At Eden, things become increasingly strained. Man witnesses a deer with a stillborn foal hanging from it and a fox ripping out its own innards. “Chaos reigns,” the fox warns him. (Yup, Lars goes there with the talking fox.) Falling acorns hammer on the tin roof of the cabin. The wind creates a ceaseless sussuration through the leaves. Storms break without warning. “Nature is Satan’s church,” Woman muses. Man discovers Woman’s notes from her thesis; they seem to support the misogyny of the witch-hunters she was researching rather than refuting and criticizing them as Man expected she would. Woman advocates that women are inherently evil, a troubling (and totally bullshit) concept in that von Trier vocalizes it through a female character. Hmmmm. More controversy baiting from our Lars? Surely not!

As the remaining three chapters – entitled ‘Pain’, ‘Despair’ and ‘The Three Beggars’ – progress, Man discovers from an autopsy report that Nick had a deformed foot (in x-ray, it looks like a cloven hoof), Woman’s sexual urges manifest in increasingly violent fashion, and the whole black-hearted production moves slowly but inexorably towards a flinch-worthy paroxysm of penis battering, clitoral self-immolation and a “hobbling” scene makes ‘Misery’ look like an episode of ‘The Care Bears’.

As a study of grief, despair and the flimsy threads of sanity, ‘Antichrist’ works well. As an exposition of von Trier’s stated dubiety about psychological techniques, it certainly makes its point. As a statement of gender politics, it’s incredibly troubling; and as a horror movie, it’s pretty damn derivative, ticking boxes that are already filled with other directors’ ticks: the cabin in the woods (everything from ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ to ‘Cabin Fever’ and Drew Goddard’s much-delayed and self-explanatorily titled ‘The Cabin in the Woods’), nature as a force of destruction (everything from ‘Long Weekend’ to ‘The Ruins’ and the current spate of hybrid creature flicks), improper use of tools (‘The Driller Killer’, ‘The Toolbox Murders’, et al), sexual/body horror (ladies and gentlemen, Mr David Cronenberg), horror deriving from the death or loss of children (‘The Dark’, ‘Orphanage’, ‘The Baby’s Room’), and the kind of graphic imagery that couldn’t have been more in keeping with the torture porn movement if Eli Roth and Rob Zombie had undertaken guest director duties. (I guess the difference is, von Trier parcelled up these tropes in an arthouse package that probably came across as something new and challenging and envelope-pushing to an audience who wouldn’t condescend to watching ‘Hostel’ or ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ but are okay with talking foxes and genital immolation as long it’s a European director at the helm, somebody won at Cannes and there’s a bit of opera on the soundtrack.)

Having said that, ‘Antichrist’ starts to make more sense considered as a genre film. Apparently, von Trier had written an early version of the script in 2005 only to have it leaked that the film’s revelation was of Satan as the creator of the Garden of Eden, not God. The business about Nick’s foot (implying he’s the child of that other Nick, y’know, the “old” one) and Woman’s “nature is Satan’s church” observation seem to have been carried over wholesale from their earlier context. When von Trier reapproached the material, it was during a debilitating battle with depression. He has described ‘Antichrist’ as being made under circumstances that saw him functioning at only half of his intellectual and creative capacity. In this respect, the ‘Antichrist’ emerges as astoundingly accomplished against the odds, the abject sense of pointlessness that cloaks the final chapter is understandable, and the metaphysical coda (more oblique than that of ‘Breaking the Waves’ but functioning on a similar level) provides a merciful final image that suggests, if not redemption, than at least remembrance.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Wikipedia cites the Dario Argento produced ‘Wax Mask’ in its list of notable giallo titles, which was pretty much the only reason I approached it yesterday. I’d dispute its classification as a giallo, but not having watched any other giallo-rific titles in the last week, it’ll have to do for today’s post.

The story behind the film is possibly more notable than the film itself, so let’s start there. When the project got off the ground in 1996 it was intended as something of a comeback for Lucio Fulci, who hadn’t made anything for five years since the unfairly overlooked ‘Door to Silence’. Fulci collaborated with Argento on the screenplay (Daniele Stroppa also takes a script credit), the funding was lined up and pre-production completed. Just weeks before principle photography was due to start, Fulci died. Directing duties were swiftly assigned to SFX guru Sergio Stivaletti (Italy’s answer to Tom Savini). Stivaletti hadn’t directed before and has chalked up only three more directing credits since – two of them for television. The completed film was dedicated to Fulci and is something of a mixed bag.

Loosely based on a story by Gaston Leroux – the same story that, equally loosely, provided the raw material for Andre de Toth’s ‘House of Wax’ and Jaume Collet-Serra’s yawnsome remake – things kick off in Paris on New Year’s Eve 1900, fireworks bursting over the city in stark contrast to the crime scene Inspector Lanvin (Aldo Massasso) is called to. A couple have been gorily murdered, their hearts ripped out by a cloaked figure with a mechanical hand. Their young daughter, hiding, escapes the slaughter.

Twelve years later we’re in Italy and Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein) is preparing for the grand opening of his wax museum, a place that is already being spoken about as a chamber of horrors. Aristocratic layabout Luca (Daniele Auber) accepts a bet to spend a night there, intending to blow his winnings on the company of pert hooker Giorgina (Valery Valmond). He doesn’t live long enough to collect them. Volkoff pretends he’s aghast, but is secretly delighted at the potential publicity. Meanwhile, journalist Andrea (Riccardo Serventi Longhi) senses a story and romances Sonia (Romina Mondello), newly employed as a costumier at the wax museum, with a view to getting close to the enigmatic Volkoff. Sonia, in case you haven’t guessed, is the girl who survived the attack in Paris. And no sooner has she commenced employment with Volkoff than she’s a mite curious (not to mention slightly traumatized) as to how Volkoff has managed to capture her parents’ murders in such accurate detail for one of his macabre tableaux.

I guess the not-particularly-engaging mystery element, Sonia and Andrea teaming up to unearth the incredibly transparent truth behind Volkoff’s creations, just about permits a case to be made for ‘The Wax Mask’ as giallo. The set design, particularly the baroque layout of the museum and the gothic stylizations of Volkoff’s workshop, are more in keeping with Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. In fact, if the filmmakers had reimagined Volkoff as a female character, played by – say – Mercedes McCambridge, this could easily have been a part of the ‘Three Mothers’ mythos. Come to think of it, for all its tired genre tropes and general air of predictability, ‘The Wax Mask’, retuned slightly to incorporate Mater Lachrymarum, would have still presented a better conclusion to the trilogy than Argento’s own ‘Mother of Tears’.

In its defence, ‘The Wax Mask’ is prettily shot in a BBC costume drama kind of way (not that your average BBC costume drama would feature a scene where two people’s hearts are ripped out and impaled on what looks suspiciously like a kebab skewer but, hey, that’s just one of the ways the Beeb misses out!), while Maurizio Albeni’s lushly romantic score is so deliriously OTT that it swiftly emerges as one of the film’s chief pleasures. Hossein, Mondello and Massasso turn in perfectly acceptable performances. Valmond, as the sparky but ultimately ill-fated Giorgina, is much better than the material gives her any right to be in what was the second of only two film appearances. The gore scenes do what they need to do, there’s enough nudity to keep the horny toad as entertained as the gore hound, the whole thing ends in a massive conflagration, and there’s the obligatory twist ending that you’ll be able to see coming like an ocean liner on a duckpond.

What you probably won’t see coming is an unrivalled moment of what-the-fuckery in during the fiery denouement where the film makes a sudden, jarring and jaw-droppingly inexplicable lurch into science-fiction. It sure ain’t Leroux’s original tale, I’ll tell you that.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: today’s Giallo Sunday offering, a blood-drenched, wax-spattered horror/sci-fi/costume drama with just a soupcon – maybe – of giallo.

Friday, September 16, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: To the Devil – a Daughter

If Hammer’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ gave Dennis Wheatley his finest cinematic outing (although the ratio of his prolific and entertaining output to film adaptations is still woefully out of kilter), then the Hammer production of ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’ presents a thornier prospect for the reviewer.

It’s a film of two halves, that’s for sure.

The first half shapes up quite nicely. The opening sequence has Father Michael (Christopher Lee) excommunicated; “it is not heresy,” he muses as the rite is stonily intoned, “and I will not recant.” A title card transports us to Bavaria, twenty years hence, and Father Michael oversees nun Catherine (Nastassja Kinski)’s departure to Britain in the care of George and Eveline de Grass (Michael Goodliffe and Eva Maria Meineke).

Next thing, we’re at a book launch for a title on the occult by London-based American writer John Verney (Richard Widmark), who is approached by the decidedly twitchy Henry Beddowes (Denholm Elliott). Against the advice of his agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her partner David (Anthony Valentine), he agrees to help Beddowes – the reasons aren’t revealed until almost the halfway point – thinking there might be a new book in it.

Although the title is an effective pointer as to where the whole cryptic plot is headed, director Peter Sykes (in his second film for Hammer after ‘Demons of the Mind’) keeps the dynamics sufficiently mysterious to create at least 40 minutes’ worth of genuine tension, particularly when Beddowes – who turns out to be Catherine’s father – dismisses his servants and holes up in abject terror at his manor house, as if waiting for the end to come.

Meanwhile, Verney meets Catherine at the airport and extricates her from the grasp of her guardians. Installed at Verney’s swank apartment overlooking the Thames (high quality real estate porn, here), Catherine suffers nightmares while Verney, unable to contact Beddowes, starts putting together the pieces of the puzzle and realizes that not only has he got himself involved in Satanic shenanigans, but he’s put Anna and David’s lives at risk, as well.

So far, so good. The pace is decent, the production values as high as in any Hammer film and the mythology is intriguing. Rather the roll out the usual devil-worshipping clichés, the filmmakers have Father Michael and his minions as members of a sect devoted to Astaroth, one of the crowned princes of Hell, a creature usually depicted as a naked man holding a serpent (Sykes incorporates the male nudity in a clinically observed ritual and the snake in one of the film’s most effective scenes, where Michael uses the dark arts against Beddowes). The expositional scenes where Verney researches Michael’s background and his connection with the cult of Astaroth are played seriously.

Additionally, the performances are generally commendable. Lee is chilling, Widmark strikes the right note of pragmatism, Kinski is sultry and enigmatic, Elliott reins in his usual scenery chewing, and Blackman dependable in a role that, unfortunately, never quite lets her show just how charismatic an actress she is. On the minus said, though, Valentine is stilted and the presence of Frances de la Tour and Brian Wilde in pointless cameos imports the baggage of their sitcom personas. Still, no problems thus far that threaten to scupper things.

Sad to report, then, that come the second half things go – to use the kind of literary bon mot that inexplicably keeps me out of the pages of Sight and Sound – tits up. Michael’s ceremony to invoke Astaroth veers into sexploitation territory with a nude scene from Kinski (fifteen at the time of filming) …

… plus there’s some business with a demonic foetus that, while conceptually disturbing, is so obviously a finger-puppet that it becomes an object of unintentional comedy once it remains onscreen for longer than a split-second. Verney’s ability to interrupt of the ceremony, albeit theoretically explained, is laughable – particularly given Sykes’s decision to shoot the climactic moments in negative. Most lamentably, though, by this point all traces of tension, mystery and terror have dissipated.

For all its flaws, however, ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’ was sampled in a White Zombie song – and that’s cool.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Martina Gedeck

Happy 50th birthday to Martina Gedeck, one of the leading lights of German cinema. A Riesling of appropriate quality is being raised in toast at chez Agitation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: Damned in Venice

In which an ageing composer played by Dirk Bogarde travels to – … no, wait, wrong film.

‘Damned in Venice’ – the original Italian title ‘Nero Veneziano’ suggests ‘Darkness in Venice’ as a better rendering – is an atmospheric riff on ‘The Omen’ (it was made two years after little Damien and his nefarious nanny cleaned up at the box office) which, in my humble opinion, uses the material to much better and infinitely creepier effect than Richard Donner’s film.

Mark (Renato Cestie) and Christine (Rena Niehaus) are siblings living with their strict grandmother (Bettine Milne). Their parents died in an accident and they barely know their maternal family, the Winters, as granny blames her son’s death on them. Mark, blind, is having visions of a sinister man with a cane whose appearance seems to presage death. Christine is conducting an on-off relationship with the earnest Giorgio (Fabio Gamma), a tour guide with aspirations of being a sculptor. Christine alternately hectors him to give up his “stupid job” so he can devote himself to his art and turn down his propositions of marriage because they don’t have enough money to start a life together.

When their grandmother dies in an accident (candle, dress) that Mark is unknowingly complicit in, meddlesome priest Father Stefani (Jose Quaglio) insists that they present themselves to the Winters, Martin (Tom Felleghey) and Madeleine (Olga Karlatos, in one of three roles), and take up residence with them. Initially sceptical of them, Mr and Mrs W nonetheless invite them into their dilapidated guesthouse. Mark, informed by Father Stefani that the house is the site of a well whose waters have a curative effect, hopes to cure his blindness. The visions persist, becoming increasingly graphic: he sees the man with the cane murdering his aunt and seducing his sister.

In quick succession, Madeleine dies and Martin commits suicide (or is driven to it). Christine, as the elder sibling, inherits the guesthouse. She throws herself into renovating the property and reopens it. Her first guest, Dan (Yorgo Voyagis), is the man from Mark’s visions. Christine becomes enraptured by him and brushes aside Mark’s concerns. She dumps Giorgio. Mark’s hostility towards Dan ends with the latter leaving the guesthouse.

Things take a strange turn. Christine discovers she’s pregnant, even though her lust for Dan was never consummated. Father Stefani takes an increasingly unpriestly interest in things, encouraging Christine to marry Giorgio for the sake of respectability. Christine turns the guesthouse into a brothel. Giorgio, who reluctantly agrees to the nuptials, sets himself up in a studio on Christine’s money. Despite Dan’s departure, Mark becomes ever more tormented. Giorgio, drinking himself into a pit of self-loathing, develops a kinship with his brother-in-law. Between them, they come to the conclusion that Christine is carrying the devil’s child.

‘Damned in Venice’ depicts a quagmire of relationships – by turns obsessive, jealous and destructive – cynical enough to suggest the protagonists are as damned as the English language title would have it. Throw in the horror genre tropes and things get darker still. If Mark’s visions are internal, what happens around him leaves no doubt that a higher (and darker) power is at work. Taps oozes maggots and worms. The well into which he trustingly dips his hand is plagued with rats; his fingers come within inches of a snake. A young girl who takes pity on Mark disappears and he later finds her rotting corpse, even though she appears to be alive to everyone else. The changes in Christine are palpable. Giorgio’s behaviour grows as erratic as Mark’s.

It’s to director Ugo Liberatore’s credit that he reins in a narrative which could easily have spiralled into hysteria, the cinematography (kudos to Alfio Contini) and staging always low-key even when the script reaches its most grand guignol. Events surrounding the birth of Christine’s son are gradually revealed as an inversion of the birth of Christ. Mark’s role in things isn’t revealed until the blow-to-the-solar-plexus denouement.

‘Damned in Venice’ goes into some dark and unforgiving places. There’s one moment in particular that’s guaranteed to make you wince even if there’s not a maternal or paternal bone in your body. But for all the demonically orchestrated deaths (random sampling: hanging, beheading, impalement), the gratuitous nudity (including Giorgio degrading himself with one of Christine’s hookers, played by the luscious Ely Galleani) and the general air of moral corruption, the credits roll on a moment of quiet acceptance that is all the more chilling for its context.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: Death Carries a Cane

There is tradition in gialli of wonderful Italian titles being dumped for the English market and replaced with altogether more generic handles. Hence, ‘Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?’ (‘What Are These Strange Drops of Blood Doing on the Body of Jennifer?’) is retitled ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’, while ‘I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale’ (‘The Bodies Displayed Traces of Carnal Violence’) becomes ‘Torso’. Maurizio Pradeaux’s ‘Passi di danza su una lama di rasoio’ (‘Dance Steps on a Razor Blade’) reached English-speaking audiences under the title ‘Death Carries a Cane’, which is at least apposite since the murder does indeed tootle about with a walking stick and even utilize said ambulatory aid in undertaking the murders. It’s certainly better than the German title, ‘Die Nacht der rollenden Kopfe’ (‘Night of the Rolling Heads’) which is total bollocks because, despite throat-cutting as the modus operandi, there’s not a single decapitation.

You might be wondering why I’ve just expended 150 words on alternative titling of gialli. It’s because, as a subject, it’s infinitely more interesting than ‘Death Carries a Cane’, one of the most perfunctory, pedestrian and determinedly unstylish examples of the genre I’ve ever come across. Which is a damn shame, since there’s trace elements of a decent mystery and some potentially interesting character dynamics going on.

The story starts with photographer Kitty (Susan Scott) at a tourist viewpoint peering through a pay telescope while she waits for her boyfriend Alberto (Robert Hoffmann). She witnesses a murder (a figure in silhouette and gender-disguising hat and trenchcoat – i.e the classic sartorial choice of the giallo villain – is viciously knifing a woman) but her allotted minute at the telescope is up before she can identify anything other than the house number. Hastily shoving another coin in, she’s too late to get another look at the killer, but notices that a chestnut-seller’s stall was knocked over and a hooker pushed to the ground, presumably by the fleeing murderer.

Alberto turns up, flustered and limping, and accompanies Kitty to the police station where she makes a report to Inspector Merughi (George Martin), arguably one of the most useless coppers in a genre famous for inept policemen, who spends the entire film sharpening pencils with a razor blade and asking pointless questions. With Merughi disinterested and Alberto more concerned with some designs he’s working on for composer/theatrical director Marco (Simon Andreu)’s forthcoming show, only tenacious journalist Lidia (Anuska Borova) – who’s romantically involved with Marco but dispirited by his lack of libido – takes any real interest in the story.

When the body is finally found and the modus operandi is determined to be the same as in an unsolved case that’s still on Merughi’s books, the inspector starts taking Kitty’s story more seriously. Then the chestnut-seller is dispatched and the police turn up their first clue: a bloodstain corresponding to the size and diameter of the tip of a walking cane. Remembering Alberto’s limp, Merughi fixates on him. Soon, even Kitty is suspicious of her boyfriend. Then Alberto is contacted by nosy old woman Marta (Nerina Montagnani) who tells him she knows who the killer is but wants money for the information. Alberto, determined to prove his innocence, agrees to get the moolah. No prizes for guessing who the next victim is.

Meanwhile, Lidia’s strained relationship with her twin sister Silvia (Borova again) – a dancer whose career went south after a leg injury – provides the link between the victims. Lidia begins to suspect her sister, while Silvia’s surly boyfriend Richard (Luciano Rossi) stares hypnotically at displays of knives in shop windows. The shoehorning in of Richard The Red Herring is utterly arbitrary. The casting of Borova of both sisters is confusing as the script – inexplicably credited to four people (I can only assume they wrote half a dozen scenes each without bothering to consult each other) – makes no effort to differentiate between them other than Lidia sometimes wears glasses; moreover, Silvia appears, un-namechecked, before it’s even mentioned that Lidia has a sister.

During the second half, ‘Death Carries a Cane’ settles into a nicely mysterious groove as clues seem to lead to a dance academy … only for the most arbitrary (and plot-hole ridden) ending I’ve yet seen in a giallo to come along and pull the plug on everything that’s gone before. It’s as if the writers decided, at the very last minute, to go for the ultimate rug-pull regarding the killer’s identity and were then forced to concoct a ludicrous bit of exposition in order to explain it.

‘Death Carries a Cane’ is a frustrating failure. Scene after scene hints at something really good if only they’d worked on the script a bit more and shot it with a modicum of style (cinematography and location work are drab at best). There’s a “production line” quality to the film, as if everyone turned up, did the bare minimum, wrapped the motherfucker as soon as they could and went down the pub. There are shoddy contrivances, blandly effective kill scenes that could have gone the grand guignol route to memorable effect, and some of the dreariest, least erotic sex scenes this side of a Joe D’Amto flick. It wastes giallo stalwarts Scott, Hoffmann and Andreu, and ends with a shrug rather than the heart-pounding jolt of a genuine revelation. It could have been a contender; it ends up taking a dive.