Saturday, August 31, 2013

Il paese del sesso selvaggio (1972)

... aka: Cannibalis: Au pays de l'exorcisme
... aka: Cannibal World
... aka: Deep River Savages
... aka: Man from Deep River
... aka: Man from the Deep River, The
... aka: Mondo cannibale
... aka: Sacrifice!

Directed by:
Umberto Lenzi

1970 saw the release of Elliot Silverstein's A Man Called Horse, a western set in 1825 detailing British aristocrat John Morgan's (Richard Harris) capture by, and eventual integration into, a tribe of Sioux Indians. The film quickly gained a lot of notoriety thanks to a lengthy, gruesome "Sun Vow ritual" scene where John is strung up in a tree by ropes through his flesh in order to prove his worth. It was hugely successful; eventually spawning the sequels The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) and Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983), both of which also starred Harris. As with most popular, lucrative films, others quickly jumped at the chance to emulate its success. Producers Ovidio G. Assonitis and Giorgio Carlo Rossi got in contact with director Umberto Lenzi about directing a cash-in (based on an idea from erotica novelist Emmanuelle Arsan ["Emmanuelle"] of all people) relocating the same basic story to the jungle. Instead of Native Americans, there would be Asian native tribes and, instead of one gruesome key set piece, there would be numerous. Italian actor Ivan Rassimov and Burmese / British actress Me Me Lai landed the lead roles and they, along with a small crew, traveled to Thailand and Burma for a difficult 4 month shoot.

Despite copying another film rather closely itself, Man from Deep River ended up being just as influential in its own way. It established and set down the groundwork for later cannibal / jungle shockers to come. You know: White people venture into the jungle. White people are captured by a primitive tribe. White people are tortured and killed by the tribe. It also included scenes of real animals being slaughtered, which would also be included in most of the later films to up the shock factor. Among the titles Man influenced are MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978; starring Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach), Ruggero Deodato's infamous CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) and two more from Lenzi himself: EATEN ALIVE (1980; which also featured Rassimov, Lai and recycled much footage from others in this genre) and the notorious CANNIBAL FEROX (1981). Interestingly, Man itself only contains one brief scene of cannibalism.

American photographer John Bradley (Rassimov) is on a sight-seeing trip in Bangkok when a man in a bar pulls a switchblade on him. During the scuttle, John accidentally stabs him, runs off and then gets on a train taking him far away from the big city. He hires a young guide - Chuan (Prapas Chindang) - and the two of them end up in a small village, where they charter a boat to head out deep into the jungle so John can take photographs. Before leaving, John pays off a man to keep quiet in case the authorities should show up there looking for him. That turns out to be a huge mistake. John falls asleep for a nap, wakes up to find his guide dead and is then captured in a net by tribesmen, tied to a pole and dragged off to a village. Tribal elder Lahuna (Ong Ard) believes he is a "fish-man" and puts him to work capturing turtles, but Lahuna's daughter Maraya (Me Me Lai) wants him as her personal slave, so father (sort of) complies with her wishes.

John is kept in a hut tied to pole when he isn't out doing labor at spear-point, but finds an ally in Taima (Prasitsak Singhara); an old woman who was raised by missionaries and knows English (unbeknownst to the rest of the tribe). Maraya falls in love with him and she makes him work naked, but scar-faced warrior Karen (Sulallewan Suxantat) is pissed at all of the attention Maraya bestows upon the blonde-haired visitor. When John tries to escape, he ends up in a duel-to-the-death with his rival and manages to kill him, which puts him up for a position as a warrior. He's tied up to a slowly-spinning contraption and natives use blow guns to shoot tiny arrows into his flesh. He's then tied up outside to bake in the sun for awhile. John manages to survive the ordeal and finds his rank among the tribe increasing, particularly after he saves a young boy's life. He starts getting accustomed to their ways, rituals and language and realizes it may not be such a bad life after all, especially after Maraya picks him for her husband and becomes pregnant with his child. A jealous witch doctor (Song Suanhud) in the tribe burns voodoo dolls in their likeness and soon Maraya becomes sick and goes blind. Another nearby tribe - The Kuru's - are blood-thirsty cannibals who like to swing by every so often to gang rape the women, dismember them and then consume their flesh.

Man from Deep River contains just what one may expect of it if they've seen other films in this sub-genre. Arms are hacked off, tongues are cut out, people are periodically speared, stabbed, sliced and tortured and lots of animals are actually killed; including many snakes (including a cobra during a fight with a mongoose), as well as pigs, goats, a monkey and other poor creatures. There's plenty of nudity, too. There's rape, several sex scenes and a woman whose husband is killed in an accident has to have a gang bang with all interested parties on top of her husband's ashes to allow her to marry again (a scene repeated in Lenzi's Eaten Alive).

Still, this movie feels much different than the later films. For starters, Riccardo Pallottini's photography is bright, vivid and crystal clear, which is appropriate since this is more of a gory drama than an all-out horror film. Unlike in the later entries, the tribes people in this one aren't cruel, unreasonable savages bent on doing horrible things to whatever unlucky person stumbles upon their village. The ones here have personalities and are better defined as individuals with clear positions among the tribe. Some even wear colorful sarongs and regular clothes and their huts are even pretty nice and well-decorated. The village is set in a rather wide-open space near a river where a helicopter periodically flies overhead so the usual sense of dense, dark, impenetrable jungle and complete isolation from the 'civilized' world isn't quite established.

Approached on its own terms without certain expectations, this is a pretty good film (albeit corny in spots) and is perhaps Lenzi's best all-around feature. It made a huge amount of money all over the world (including in America where it played under the title Sacrifice!), so Lenzi was approached about reuniting Rassimov and Lai for a follow-up. When the producers refused to meet his salary requirements, they instead hired Ruggero Deodato and the resulting film was JUNGLE HOLOCAUST (which was filmed in 1976 and hit U.S. theaters in 1977 under the title Last Cannibal World).

5 tombe per un medium (1965)

... aka: Cemetery of the Living Dead
... aka: Cimetiere pour morts vivants
... aka: Cinque tombe per un medium
... aka: Coffin of Terror
... aka: Five Graves for a Medium
... aka: Tomb of Horror

Directed by:
"Ralph Zucker" (Massimo Pupillo)

A letter arrives at the law office of attorney Joseph Morgan ("Richard Garrett" / Riccardo Garrone) from a Dr. Jeronimus Hauff asking him to come to his secluded villa to oversee his will. Since Mr. Morgan is out of town of business, his colleague Albert Kovac (Walter "Brandt" / Brandi) takes it upon himself to go in his place. Upon arriving, he meets Dr. Hauff's daughter Corinne ("Marilyn Mitchell" / Mirella Maravidi) as well as Hauff's young widow / Corinne's stepmother Cleo (Barbara Steele). Albert soon learns that Dr. Hauff has actually been dead for almost a year and the women only arrived there yesterday because the doctor's body is being moved over to the family chapel on the one year anniversary of his passing. So it couldn't have been him who sent the letter... or could it? After all, the handwriting and the seal (which was actually put into the deceased's coffin) used on the letter match the dead doctor's. Corinne believes it may be a warning or an omen from beyond the grave. Cleo thinks she's just being childish. Either way, most of the local villagers are too scared to come onto the grounds because Dr. Hauff was known to have dabbled in spiritualism and the occult.

The letter and the legacy of Dr. Hauff aren't the only two weird things going on. The house itself was built on top of the ruins of a 15th Century hospital where plague victims were brought to die. Claw marks appear on a statue and the mummified hands of executed men who supposedly spread the pestilence out of sheer malice are even used as morbid decorations. Maid Louise (Tilde Till) refuses to even spend the night there, but gardener / servant Kurt ("Alan Collins" / Luciano Pigozzi) hasn't left the villa since Dr. Hauff passed away, nor has he spoken a single word. Albert finds a phonograph recording left behind by the doctor ("I've summoned them from their graves, and now I am among them"!) and the following day the engine in his car is destroyed by an owl (!) He becomes acquainted with the friendly Dr. Nemek ("Alfred Rice" / Alfredo Rizzo) who briefs him on the local superstitions. The paralytic Oskar Stinnell ("Edward Bell" / Ennio Balbo) warns everyone to leave the villa because "The day of revenge is coming!"

After the village mayor's face is half eaten away by acid, Albert decides to do some research and discovers that the victim - as well as two other men - have recently died under mysterious circumstances. All three men, as well as two others who are still among the living (at least for the time being) signed off on the death certificate because they were all present during Dr. Hauff's supposedly accidental death. Did he fall down the stairs in a drunken stupor like they claim, or was he actually murdered and now wanting revenge against all of those who did him in? And if you've seen a few of these things already, you don't even need me to answer that question.

Set in 1911, this black-and-white period Gothic horror suffers from poor English-language dubbing and translations, plus an overly-familiar plot involving the usual blackmail, betrayal, adultery, murder and revenge from beyond the grave, but it has its moments, too. There are some stylish sequences in here, the music score (including a haunting lullaby about pure water) is pretty good and unlike many others of this type and from this era, numerous scenes are shot outdoors in scenic locations. There are also some surprisingly gruesome moments in here for the time. A man is kicked in the face by a horse until his eyeball falls out, guts are seen after a man impales himself with a sword, faces erupt with bubbling lesions when victims touched by the dead are given an advanced form of the plague and severed hands come to life and start slowly moving their fingers. The well-done make-up effects are credited to "Bud Dexter;" who may actually be future Oscar-winner Carlo Rambaldi. Steele (who is top-billed but not the lead) and Maravidi show about as much skin (bare backs, bare shoulders, legs) as was allowable at the time in a mainstream release. So while not a great film by any means, there's probably just enough here to satisfy fans of this sub-genre.

Filmed as 5 tombe per un medium ("Five Graves for the Medium"), this was given the more lurid-sounding Terror-Creatures moniker for U.S. distribution, along with new fake Anglicized credits (only Steele is properly billed). Four different writers are credited for the screenplay, which is said to have been "based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe." (They're probably referring to "The Masque of the Red Death," which also involved the plague). Director Pupillo was apparently not very happy with the finished product so he allowed co-producer Ralph Zucker to take credit for directing the film. Pupillo also made two other Gothic horrors the same year: the sleazy (by mid-60s) standards The Bloody Pit of Horror (1965), which starred bodybuilder Mickey Hagitay, was also produced by Zucker and again featured Brandi and Rizzo, and the hard-to-find The Vendetta of Lady Morgan (1965), which starred Paul Muller, Erika Blanc and Gordon Mitchell and doesn't appear to have ever been released in America.

The print used on the DVD distributed by Alpha Video Classics (which is what I viewed) is in pretty awful condition; complete with jumps in editing and sound and a very faded picture quality.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Evilspeak (1981)

... aka: Computer Murder
... aka: Evilspeaks

Directed by:
Eric Weston

The Howard brothers were both fairly successful child TV actors of the 1960s; Ronnie on The Andy Griffith Show and Clint on Gentle Ben. As what happens with many other kid stars, their appeal was put into question as they moved into adulthood. Ronnie had luckily managed to snag a starring role on the very popular Happy Days series in 1974, which kept him in the public eye well into the 80s. By the time the show was winding down, Ronnie was nearing 30 years of age and starting to lose his boyish looks (not to mention his hair), so it was time for a change in career. Wisely, he'd already begun Plan B while he was still gainfully employed on Days. He'd made his directorial debut in 1977 with the successful Roger Corman production Grand Theft Auto and from there eventually carved out a reputation as a reliable mainstream director with such hits as Night Shift (1982), Splash (1984), Cocoon (1985) and Willow (1988) to his credit. He'd hit his peak when he won himself an Oscar for his work on A Beautiful Mind (2000). Clint on the other hand just kept acting. While Ronnie had a squeaky clean appeal in his youth; Clint was quite the opposite. Unattractive, short, squatty, flat-faced, whiny-voiced, gap-toothed and eventually balding himself, Clint's on-screen career destiny would be playing geeky schlubs, weirdos, perverts, psychos and borderline retarded backwoods rednecks in low-budget B movies. Evilspeak - an outcast's revenge tale - would be one of his only top-billed starring roles.

If you remember CARRIE (1976), some of the opening scenes here are going to look awfully familiar. Instead of Sissy Spacek being tormented in the locker room by her classmates after fouling up a volleyball game, here we get Clint Howard being tormented in the locker room by his classmates after fouling up a soccer match. Things are set at the West Andover Military Academy, which is full of macho jerks in need of a punching bag and poor Stanley Coopersmith fits the bill perfectly. He's pushed around, nicknamed "Cooperdick" by his peers, branded a "welfare case" by much of the staff and is made fun of for being an orphan. They unplug his clock so he'll be late for class, rub boogers on his books, blame him for things he's innocent of and do other things just to ensure he's going to be in need of disciplinary action by the school's staff. The aptly named Bubba (Don Stark) seems to give him the most grief and has three friends who help him make Stanley's life as unpleasant as possible. Because the academy forces athletics upon the students, the Coach (Claude Earl Jones) makes a little nudging aside to Bubba that if Coopersmith is injured and cannot play then so be it. There are only two people at the school who are somewhat nice to the poor kid; fellow student Kowalski (Haywood Nelson), who frequently defends him, and grizzled cook / janitor Jake (Lenny Montana), who cooks him special meals and gives him a puppy.

The military academy was built upon a cursed plot of land once owned by an order of evil Spanish monks, who had to flee their home country in the sixteenth century for practicing black magic (and holding human sacrifices) and eventually settled in America. All that comes into play once our luckless protagonist is forced to clean out the cellar of an old church for Father Jameson (Joseph Cortese), who's every bit as mean as the guys at school. Put under the not-so-watchful eye of violent drunken military vet bum Sarge (R.G. Armstrong), Coopersmith eventually discovers a hidden room full of books, skulls, weapons, candles and other ancient relics, begins using a computer to translate one book from Latin to English and starts messing around with black magic. He hits a standstill once the spells call for human blood to complete the ritual, but lots of abuse and one dead puppy later, Stanley's ready to finally take the plunge to get his revenge.

A serviceable, entertaining and well-made revenge tale for the most part, Evilspeak is flawed but better than it's reputed to be. There's plenty of blood and gore (enough to land it on the coveted British "video nasties" list), a solid cast, decent special effects and adequate production values. Echoes of the aforementioned Carrie aren't limited to the opening but are apparent throughout. The film spends the majority of its time dealing with the lead's maladjustment before the deserving parties get what's coming to them during the last fifteen or so minutes. Carrie unleashed her telekinetic fury at the prom; trapping everyone inside the gymnasium, setting the place ablaze and using her powers to knock off all those who have wronged her (and a few unlucky bystanders who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time). In this film, Coopersmith traps everyone inside a church, sets the place ablaze and uses his Satanic powers to knock off those who have wronged him (and a few unlucky bystanders). The difference is this one's much bloodier. A heart is ripped out of a chest, a hand is ripped off, a spike from a crucified Jesus flies out of the statue to impale a head and there are no less that four decapitations... and that's not even including a scene where someone's head gets twisted around backwards!

One aspect that provides additional interest (and some genuine amusement) is the inclusion of rabid, flesh-eating hogs (!), which seem to be connected to the book Coopersmith is translating. The book is stolen from him by the colonel's hot-bodied secretary Miss Friedemyer (Lynn Hancock), who attempts to remove a silver pentagram from the front cover. This riles up the pigs, who eventually show up at her apartment, attack her in the shower and rip her guts out in a very gory shot that was removed from many prints of the film. The piggies also show up again at the finale and help to dispatch the bad guys. The Satanic forces manifesting themselves through computer technology was perhaps a novel idea back in 1981, though these elements (and the accompanying computer graphics) have dated it somewhat.

Though he's sometimes annoying in these things, I quite liked Howard in this particular role. He gives an earnest performance and is able to make his character somewhat sympathetic. Everyone else is fine in their respective roles. Hamilton Camp plays a sniveling teacher who ends up impaled on a chandelier, Charles Tyner is the asshole head colonel and Katherine Kelly Lang (1985's Night Stalker) plays the winner of a Miss Heavy Artillery (!) beauty pageant. Future Night Court TV star Richard Moll is also here to spit in a priest's face and then decapitate a topless peasant girl with a sword in the opening scene (set in Spain in the mid sixteenth century).

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