Monday, August 10, 2009

Murder by Natural Causes (1979) (TV)

Directed by:
Robert Day

Watching stripped-down movies like this one every once in awhile is definitely a good filmgoing habit because it instantly make you aware of just how important a strong screenplay actually is. Here we have a no-frills, fairly low-budget TV production that's dialogue-heavy, has minimal location change, minimal action, no violence, a small cast and very few visual flourishes. You won't find any rapid-fire editing, hacked-off limbs, dramatic music cues, camera calisthenics or reactionary cheap tricks here. But even though it's missing many common theatrical techniques, this film manages to generate plenty of suspense, intrigue, eeriness and, ultimately, good old fashioned entertainment. And it does so entirely through a clever screenplay written by Richard Levinson and William Link (also executive producers), and a solid cast to help drive home the material. Levinson and Link are well-known, award-winning writers who often worked together on teleplays for such shows as Mannix, Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, and many other movies, made for both theaters and TV. Together they've won three Edgar Allan Poe awards (including one for this film), several Emmy's and other awards. So far, this is the best of the TV films I've seen from them.

World-famous mentalist Arthur Sinclair (Hal Holbrook) seems to have it all; money, a successful TV career, a beautiful home, a loving younger wife named Allison (Katharine Ross), a publisher (Richard Anderson) who's just set him up with a 300,000 dollar contract to continue a series of best-selling books... Looking from the outside in, the only problem is his health. After a heart attack a few years back, Arthur's been saddled with a pacemaker, which seems to be doing its job, but hey, you never know. Amongst those wanting to take advantage of the bad ticker is Allison. She's not quite the woman Arthur seems to think she is. After all, she's having an affair with a naive, struggling young actor named Gil Weston (Barry Bostwick), who's a bit frustrated and desperate because he hasn't quite had the breaks he's needed to be very successful at his craft. In cooperation with her new lover, Allison hatches a scheme to try to frighten poor Arthur to death. To reveal any of the twists, turns or plot surprises is to spoil the movie, so I'm stopping right here.

The entire cast (highlighted by Holbook's great performance) is good and also includes veteran actress Jeff Donnell (who appeared with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in 1942's THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU) as Anderson's maid, Bill Fiore as a smarmy TV talk show host, Victoria Carroll (NIGHTMARE IN WAX) as an airhead actress, Phil Leeds as a private eye and Judith-Marie Bergan (BLOOD RAGE) as a production assistant. The actress sharing stage with Bostwick is Rosanna Huffman, Levinson's wife. Director Day also made CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958; which starred Karloff and Christopher Lee), THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (1958; again with Karloff), FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959) and the genre TV movies HOUSE ON GREENAPPLE ROAD (1970), RITUAL OF EVIL (1970) and THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978).

Sadly, this is another title that's pretty much sunk into obscurity. It was originally shown on CBS and there was a U.S. video released from the company Lightning in the 1980s, but other than that this one's a bit difficult to track down these days. There's no official DVD as of this writing, but hopefully that will all change. Hey, how about a Levinson/Link box set?
Debuting at my #2 spot (right behind ALIEN) for 1979's Top 10.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

...aka: Butler Didn't Do It!, The
...aka: Killer's Weekend, The
...aka: Story of a Crime
...aka: Weekend Murders, The

Directed by:
Michele Lupo

A murder-mystery co-produced by Italian and Spanish backers, set in England, containing a mixed international cast (most of whom are dubbed), farcical elements (it almost plays out like an Agatha Christie spoof), some distinctly British humour and an all-too-familiar reading-of-the-will set-up might sound like a recipe for disaster but - surprise! - this is anything but. Despite being written off with a middling review in Adrian Luther Smith's Blood & Black Lace: The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies, I personally found THE WEEKEND MURDERS to be a mostly successful and amusing concoction and certainly one of the most entertaining Italian genre productions of the 1970s. Things open with an amusing golf game as a bunch of stuffy characters uncover a human hand in a sand trap. The film then jumps back a few days as an extended family show up at a country estate soon after obscenely wealthy Henry Carter has passed on. Apparently, he didn't get along too well with anyone aside from his niece Barbara (top-billed Anna Moffo), who brought some peace and serenity to his final years, so she ends up receiving the bulk of the valuables while everyone else is left fuming and conspiring about how they can get their share. Almost immediately after, someone begins killing characters off one by one.
The mile-long list of quirky suspects (and in many cases the actors bringing them to life) and their interactions is one aspect that makes this one stand out amongst others of its type. One of the most unusual is a perverted would-be rapist and mama's boy named Georgie (Christopher Chittel), who seems to have taken inspiration from Bud Cort in HAROLD MAUDE and stages a bloody fake bathtub suicide and a fake knife murder just to annoy everyone. He has a strange Oedipal relationship with his domineering mother Lady Gladys (Marisa Fabbri), can't handle the come-on's from sexually aggressive maid Evelyn (Orchidea de Santis) after he tries to rape her and finally ends up being broken in by Pauline (Beryl Cunningham), a black woman Henry's obnoxious playboy nephew Theodore (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) claims he married just to piss everyone else off and who's also sleeping with the valet, Arthur ("Robert Hundar"/ Claudio Undari). Henry's only child Isabelle ("Eveline Stewart"/ Ida Galli) has just recently lost her baby, is having a falling out with her unemployed husband Anthony (Peter Baldwin) - who is secretly in love with Barbara, anyway - and ends up picking up a strange guy (Franco Borelli) in town and brings him back to the mansion. To round out the list of possible suspects, there's also Henry's brother Lawrence (Quinto Parmeggiana), butler Peter (Ballard Berkeley), lawyer Mr. Thornton (Richard Caldicott) and a gardener (Harry Hutchinson) who isn't too happy that Henry didn't leave him his prized flowers in the will.
Bringing in most of the more obvious comedy are local bobby Sgt. Aloisius Thorpe (Gastone Moschin) and Scotland Yard's Inspector Gray (British comedian Lance Percival). Moschin's character; a goofy, buck-toothed, bumbling type, turns out to be the most clever person in the film and is the one who finally uncovers the killer. Both actors work off each other very well. The humorous elements run the gamut from obvious slapstick to blackly humorous commentary on class and racism to some mildly tasteless bits, but a surprisingly amount of it is actually funny, and consistently so. There are lots of dramatic zooms (obviously meant to parody similar films), as well as some weird-but-slick editing cuts featuring close-ups of various suspects accompanied by the sound of gun shots. The film also works adequately as a mystery. While the script may not be as convoluted, the writing's actually better than what you'll find in most other gialli and the killer's identity is a genuine surprise, as is their modus operandi.
PETA members might not like seeing a bunny rabbit getting shot, but otherwise this is a good-natured and amusing little diversion. MGM handled the theatrical release in the U.S., but they never bothered to issue the film to VHS here. Code Red has this on their list of 2009 DVD releases, so I guess we can expect a decent copy here soon.
Debuting on my Top 10 for 1970 list at #5.

Shadows of Blood (1988)

Directed by:
Sydney Ling

By the late 80s, Paul Naschy's career had certainly seen better days. After making his name as Spain's top horror star of the 70s, he'd had a huge financial flop at the turn of the next decade (1981's THE CRAVING aka NIGHTS OF THE WEREWOLF), then was forced to seek funding in Japan for future projects (1983's THE BEAST WITH THE MAGIC SWORD) and finally hit rock bottom when he ended up in the Netherlands speaking phonetic English in this very amateurish and very obscure shot-with-a-camcorder production. How obscure is it? It's so obscure it's not even listed on IMDb, there's only one other online review for it (on The Mark of Naschy) and there's no VHS box or poster anywhere to be found. I'm not even sure if this title ever officially left its country of origin. Fortunately, there's a silver lining on this particular cloud as the whole thing is hysterically funny from beginning to end. Of course it wasn't intended to be funny, but I'll take what I can get!

The extremely stupid premise involves two serial killers ("They're known as super sadists!") named Pancho Aguila (Naschy) and Jim Habouf (Barry Fleming) who've just escaped from a French nuthouse in Normandy and now want to "have some fun" in Amsterdam. Pancho is supposedly a former Spanish horror star and champion weight lifter (just like the actor playing him), while Jim is some deranged artist. Together both men have killed 40 people and are about to kill many more unless local police detectives Peter (James Malkovich), Anna (Judith Hirsch) and Hank, as well as imported Interpol agent George Lewis, can stop them. During one hilarious scene, our heroes stand around looking clueless as Jim heckles them and runs right past them on the streets in broad daylight. Knowing this person has already killed quite a few people since his escape, no one even really tries to shoot or apprehend him so he's free to just run away and keep on killing. He also gets to romance a single mom. He tells her his favorite hobby is painting with blood. She agrees to go on a second date with him (?) so they visit the Anne Frank house (!)

Naschy's grasp of the English language is poor, so he's mostly handed one-liners here. Thankfully what the actor lacks in dialogue he makes up for during the hilarious murder scenes. One of the first has him jumping on a boat and suddenly strangling the elderly captain to death. He rents a hotel room and breaks a maid's neck, drills another woman (and licks the blood) and sneaks into a diner and drowns a girl in her soup in full view of some guy who just sits there and watches. In an alleyway, he strangles a woman, puts his cigar out on her face and then turns to his buddy, does a thumbs up and says "Professional!" The absolute funniest scene, though, is an actual blooper left in the film where Naschy grabs a woman walking down the street and then suddenly the two of them slip and fall down some concrete stairs backwards! Ouch. An eyewitness describes Naschy's character as "short and fat." Double ouch.

Speaking of short and fat, our pudgy middle-aged heroine (a producer of this project) also gets her own hilarious stunt-gone-wrong blooper when she attempts to jump over something and falls down on the sidewalk! Even better, she gets to sing the hilarious Shadows of Blood theme song:

Shadows of blood
Over Amsterdam
Means dealing with DEATH
Where do I start to begin?
Where do I start to end?
Ending the killing spree
In. My. Town.

To make things even weirder, there's some awful special effect thrown in at the very end of some red hand superimposed over repeat footage of the killings while the heroine says "He gets away, and there's nothing I can do to stop him. Perhaps it's better this way. Some people never change." (?!?) It only runs 70 minutes (fast-forward the slowww credits and it's an hour) so if you can find a copy I highly recommend it to fans of super-cheap super-crap about super-sadists starring slumming Spanish superstars.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

El jorobado de la Morgue (1973)

... aka: Hunchback of the Morgue, The
... aka: Hunchback of the Rue Morgue
... aka: Rue Morgue Massacres, The

Directed by:
Javier Aguirre

Clearly one of the better efforts from prolific Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy, who also wrote the story and screenplay under his real name Jacinto Molina, this merges an old-fashioned Universal-style plot and a better-defined and more sympathetic "monster" with a heaping helping of gory dismemberments, decapitations and other nasty stuff to entertaining effect. In a remote Austrian village, simple-minded and somewhat child-like hunchback Wolfgang Gotho (Naschy), who has endured years of torment, harassment and abuse due to his appearance, has fallen in love young beauty Ilsa (María Elena Arpón - Tombs of the Blind Dead); a former childhood playmate and one of the only people to ever see his inner beauty. Gotho brings flowers to her every day and thinks she'll be cured, but Ilsa's illness finally takes her life. Some local medical students who hang out at a tavern push him around and he strikes back by killing a number of them, stealing Ilsa's corpse and then retreating to some elaborate underground catacombs hidden beneath a cemetery. While Gotho is away one day, rats get to Ilsa's corpse and partially eat it. But his love might have a new lease on life thanks to the arrival of brilliant-but-mad Dr. Orla (Alberto Dalbés), who works as a professor at a local college and has been experimenting on reviving the dead.

Since he can't get university funding, Orla decides to take advantage of the situation and of the naive and easily-manipulated/blackmailed Gotho; in exchange for letting him move his lab to the underground lair, Orla promises to revive Ilsa. Well, until Ilsa is thrown into a vat of sulfuric acid by some incompetent grave robbers, after which the doctor promises to create him a new mate altogether. Well, if he agrees to help abduct women from the Feldkirch Woman's Reformatory ("The girls there are garbage and no one will miss them!") to use in the experiments. After all, his ever-growing monstrosity, referred to as "The Primordial" and which quickly grows from a vat of bloody goo to a big slimy monster that must be restrained in a cell, needs constant nourishment or else it gets a little temperamental. Aiding Orla in his experiments (at least for a short while) are assistant Dr. Frederick Tauchner ("Vic Winner"/ Víctor Alcázar) and his girlfriend Dr. Maria Meyer (Maria Perschy - in her first of four Naschy film appearances), who runs the reformatory. They both have reservations about what Orla is up to and are basically in the dark about the murders and kidnappings. Ditto for the beautiful and compassionate Elke (Rosanna Yanni), another employee at the girl's reformatory, who seems to fancy Gotho in a romantic way. Must be all that, uh, foot kissing.

While Hunchback is certainly no masterpiece of the genre (the editing and scene transitions in particular are awful and seem to really torpedo the final 20 minutes), the film delivers big time when it comes to everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style entertainment. For starters, it's very gory and has some surprisingly nasty scenes. Hands and feet are removed from corpses, guts are spilled, bodies are dissolved in acid, rats chew up a face and there are no less than three bloody decapitations. Rumor has it that during one of the decapitation scenes, the producers managed to get permission to use a real corpse (!) but Naschy was unable to actually go through with actually severing its head! However, he was able to go through with setting a bunch of real rats on fire with a torch. Those were the pre-Peta days, I know, but I personally hate watching that kind of stuff. Your reaction to it will just depend on what kind of person you are, but those scenes admittedly do add to the overall shock value. The gooey monster design at the end is also surprisingly good. The cinematography isn't particularly good, though it's adequate. The score is also uneven, but the most frequently used central theme is somewhat moving. The sets and art direction are all pretty good.

Of what I've seen to date, this has got to be my favorite of Naschy's roles and he's much more impressive here than he is as his more famous El Hombre Lobo character. Though not on the same level as Karloff, Chaney Sr. or Laughton, he's able to at least capture some of the endearing innocent qualities found in classic horror characters such as Quasimodo and the Frankenstein Monster. And despite the fact he's frequently kidnapping and killing people, it's hard not feeling at least a little sorry for the societal outcast as he's pelted with rocks by an army of annoying kids, being mocked by drunks, being tricked into supporting a madman's schemes or trying to make the last days of his ill-fated friend better. Both Gotho's good and bad behavior seem mostly motivated by love, and when you factor in his stunted mental state with the amount of ridicule he's suffered over the years, it makes his actions at least palpable and thus a bit more interesting than usual for this kind of things. The other actors playing primary roles in the film are decent, too. Smaller parts are played by Manuel de Blas (THE GHOST GALLEON) and Antonio Pica (who also appeared alongside Naschy and Perschy in BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL) as the obligatory detectives, Franco regular Antonio Mayans as one of the med students and Ángel Menéndez (NIGHT OF THE WALKING DEAD) as a police chief.

The film won some European festival awards but wasn't released theatrically in the U.S. until 1975 by Jerry Gross' Cinemation. The original American VHS release was from All Seasons Entertainment, a division of Midnight Video, who would also release the Naschy films VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES (1973), Devil's Possessed (1974), EXORCISMO (1975) and Human Beasts (1980). As far as DVD releases go, the only one of note seems to be the 2005 release from the German company Anolis Entertainment titled Die Stunde der grausamen Leichen (which roughly translates to "The Hour of the Gruesome Corpses"). The language options for it include Spanish, German and English, it has a German-language commentary track from Naschy (which also have an English subtitle option) and comes with lots of other goodies including a 32-page booklet, a mini documentary and a German Super 8 version of the film. The company only issued 3,000 copies though and it's currently out of print. The original uncut version runs just 82 minutes, and some versions substitute a "clothed" Yanni for a briefly topless Yanni for the hunchback love scene.

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