Monday, September 5, 2011

Streghe (1989)

... aka: Pesadilla (Nightmare)
... aka: Streghe - Witch Story
... aka: Superstition 2
... aka: Witch Story

Directed by:
Alessandro Capone

Thanks to the huge success of Kevin Tenney's Witchboard (1986) and George Miller's The Witches of Eastwick (1987), there was a brief boom in witch-themed (and titled) movies during the later part of the decade that lasted well into the 90s. There was the TV movie Bay Coven (1987), the Filmirage production WITCHERY (1988) starring the amusing duo of Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff, as well as WITCHCRAFT (1988), WITCHCRAFT II: THE TEMPTRESS (1989) and eleven more in that particular series, Spellbinder (1988), Teen Witch (1989), WITCHTRAP (1989) and others. Most of these movies seemed to do well on video and cable simply by having the word 'witch' in their title. A few others weren't so lucky. Case in point is the obscure Witch Story. Never officially released in America, this Italian / U.S. co-production (filmed in both Florida and Rome) is actually somewhat better than many of the above-listed, widely-distributed 'witch' films. It's certainly much better than any of those wretched Witchcraft movies, for instance. Not to say this is good by any means because it's not. The film is saddled with a muddled, confusing plot, several flagrantly annoying characters and abysmal acting from most of the cast. However, the film has fair production values, decent camerawork and at least some sense of visual style.

Things begin in 1932 in Micanopy, Florida. Helena Hayes (Deanna Lund), a witch, is hunted down by a torch-carrying posse. She's called "Satan's whore," has a cross thrust in her face, is stabbed through the leg with a pitchfork, gets branded on the chest and is chained to a tree, covered in gasoline and set on fire... and all in front of her young daughter Rachel (Suzanne Law). A priest, Father Matthew, tries to intervene in her killing, but is pushed away before he can do anything. Before dying, Helena curses her attackers and their children. Not long after, little Rachel decides to leap to her death through a window. Having been the daughter of a witch, she could never find anyone to play with her, but she'll try to make up for this later.

Now we jump ahead to 1989. Newly orphaned siblings Carol (Michelle Vannucchi) and Ed (Gary Kerr) - whose parents were mysteriously murdered - find a deed to a property their father owned in Florida. The two, along with six of their friends, take a bus from their home state of New York down South to check the place out. Before reaching their destination, a few of them encounter a weird priest, whose eyes bleed simply by looking at a picture of their inherited home. He warns them to turn around before it's too late, they decide to just brush it off ("He must have seen too many reruns of The Exorcist!") and go about their plans. Arriving in Florida, the gang meet up with Carol and Ed's distant cousin Simona (Nancie Sanderson), and she leads them to the secluded and run-down home, which hasn't been occupied for fifty years. Naturally, the place is the same home where Helena was torched and Rachel committed suicide. Predictable supernatural carnage ensues as a couple of them are possessed and everyone else is killed off. The two who manage to survive decide to go locate now-elderly Father Matthew (Ian Bannen) in hopes that he can somehow help them.

Special mention certainly must be made of the idiotic characters. Gloria (Charon Butler) - the black female in the group - proclaims "I'm 21 years old and I'm black!" when asked to describe herself and is naturally extremely sassy. But that gross stereotype is nothing compared to the depiction of the 'comic relief fat guy,' Paul (Jason M. Lefkowitz). Not only is he incredibly obnoxious, but there are constant jokes centered around what a disgusting slob he is. He burps, farts, eats with his mouth open, screams for no reason, constantly stuffs junk food into his mouth, pukes up KFC coleslaw, eats jelly out of a jar with his fingers and sleeps with a bag of potato chips under his arm. His "friends" lovingly refer to him as "Fatso." Funny it is not. The other victims falls into the expected 80s archetypes; geek, blonde slut (who strips down to her bra and panties and dances on the dinner table), jock and bland nice guy love interest for our heroine.

Sure, most of these people are just fodder (and not a one of them can act), but did they really have to make them so irritating? ... Or so stupid? Despite the frequency of strange occurrences in the home, including windows busting out on their own, strange gusts of wind that seem to come from nowhere, tarot card readings that spell their doom, bloody nightmares and frequent sightings of the ghostly little girl, these dunderheads don't even really contemplate leaving. They stay there until they're killed. Or as Gloria puts it "What the fuck kind of vacation is this?"

The film contains numerous horror references, including direct nods to Psycho, The Exorcist, "The Addams Family," "The Twilight Zone" and Stephen King. Not only that, but it blatantly borrows ideas from numerous other films. The girl ghost dressed in a white nightgown is clearly swiped from Bava's Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966), right down to her rolling a ball at people she wants to "play" with. Climactic scenes utilize fire and shattering glass in a way that brings to mind Argento's Inferno (1980), and scenes inside a run-down old building steal ideas (and sometimes even identical camera shots) from several then-recent genre hits, including NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1987) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (1987).

Our two name stars - Bannen (a frequent presence in British horror of the 70s) and Lund (a former TV star who tried to reinvent herself as a Scream Queen in the late 80s) seem to be enjoying themselves, though their big confrontation at the end, with each of them trying to shout religious diatribes over one another while a shrill little girl shrieks over and over again, is annoying to put it mildly. Regardless, both actors are clearly the only two pros in this particular cast and are definite assets to the film. Thankfully, it also has some nicely-done visual effects (especially toward the end), very stylized lighting choices, excellent art direction and enough blood (fx are by Rick Gonzales) to keep one reasonably entertained.

The version I saw (unfortunately an extremely dark print) was taken from the Japanese VHS.


Frauen ohne Unschuld (1977)

... aka: Wicked Women
... aka: Women Without Innocence

Directed by:
Jesus Franco

Franco scores yet again in this highly believable tale of a nude woman who may have murdered a nude couple and is rushed off to a nuthouse where other nude women are tended to by nude nurses who sometimes get nude to have sex with whoever (doctor or patient alike... it doesn't matter!) they want while a mad killer runs around knifing nude women. For a little variety, there's nude opera singing, nude praying, nude kleptomania, nude sailboat riding, nude hanging, nude resisting arrest and nude flashbacks. And if you happen to like nudity, the filmmakers are also kind enough to throw in nude blackmail, nude torture, nude sponge baths, nude insomnia, nude lesbian gang rape and nude sex scenes reflected in at least ten mirrors. Because of some soft jazz elevator muzak, a couple of blurry camera shots and occasionally picturesque background scenery, I've seen some people call this "art." It's not. Brainless sleaze is more like it. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

A few detectives enter a home, find a dead, bloody couple in the living room and spot a naked, bloody and delirious Margarita Martin (Lina Romay) rushing up the stairs. She's apprehended, hog-tied (!!), placed in the back of an ambulance and gets hauled off to the "Clinic for Mental Disorders." In shock and now with a severe speech disorder, Margarita is only able to moan and mutter incoherently ("Neeee!"), which makes it impossible to get any information out of her about why she killed the couple. For some reason, the staff have decided to hack off all of her hair, she's dressed in what amounts to a slightly oversized t-shirt and is thrown into a room with a bunch of other nutty broads. There's an older woman who think she's a famous opera diva and breaks out into song every once in awhile, a nymphomaniac who lays around masturbating all day, a religious nut who constantly lectures everyone, a thief who keeps a stash of the stuff she steals under her pillow and others. Just like in all patients in mental institutions, they all have nice bodies, sleep in the nude, are bisexual and never wear panties. They also decide it's better to gang bang Margarita than listen to her moan and whine all night.

The very professional and ethical staff - led by Dr. E. Farkas (whoever played him decided he didn't want credit) and his nurse wife Irina ("Nanda Van Bergen" aka Muriel Montossé) - occasionally bed down with the patients when they aren't busy screwing each other. A detective (played by the film's cinematographer, Peter Baumgartner) has already informed the Farkas couple that Margarita knows the whereabouts of a stash of diamonds (the wealthy couple she is being accused of murdering were apparently smugglers) and they've decided to get to work curing her. And by 'get to work curing her' I mean with the same method all doctors use - lesbian sex. Irina has a marathon sex session with her to try to get her to spills the beans. When that doesn't work, they enlist the aid of pot-smoking lezbo Petra (Esther Studer); figuring that since she's the only one who can sexually please the nymphomaniac patient, she'll bring Margarita to such heights of ecstasy that she'll snap out of it. Uh huh.

A psycho dressed in all-black pops in every once in awhile to kill people. During his first attack scene (where he kills a nurse), his hood slips off and you can clearly see which character it is. Margarita witnesses the crime, passes out and is raped while unconscious, leading one of the nurses to wonder "Maybe it was the remedy she needed?" After another girl is murdered, the film then unveils several plot twists; one of which is completely absurd (clearly undermining several previous scenes) and the other so obvious it barely qualifies at a twist. Despite constant full-frontal nudity and some fairly prolonged sex scenes, this film isn't really all that sexy (a combination of awful dialogue and the sheer ridiculousness of it all certainly don't help). There is however one startling moment of nudity that abruptly cuts from an injured girl to a porn-level close-up of a bloody, post-raped vagina being examined. Can't say I was really expecting to see that, but it figures. There are are a couple of good (and fully intentional!) laughs, such as when all the girls are having sex and the religious one wanders into the room, kneels down next to the bed and starts praying.

It was one of sixteen films Franco quickly cranked out for Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich from 1975 to 1977. I've only seen a handful of these and they aren't nearly as good as some of the stuff the director was doing in the 60s, earlier half of the 70s or even some of the stuff I've seen of his from the 80s. Every single one of these are sex films, but only some fall under the horror umbrella. So far I've seen ILSA, THE WICKED WARDEN (1976), JACK THE RIPPER (1976) and WOMEN IN CELLBLOCK 9 (1977), as well as DORIANA GREY (1976); a hardcore take on 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' and (based on what I've seen thus far) the most interesting of the bunch. Others I still need to check out include BARBED WIRE DOLLS (1975), LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN (1976) and SEXY SISTERS (1976).

Also in the cast (all of whom appeared in other Franco film) are Michael Maien (MARK OF THE DEVIL) as a doctor who likes to dirty dance with the patients, Peggy Markoff as the wanna-be opera singer, Monica Swinn as a drunk and the voluptuous Dagmar Bürger (probably the best eye candy in this flick, along with the leading lady) as the all-important nymphomaniac.

The film has been released on DVD with English subtitles. Unfortunately, the subtitles don't seem to actually cover all of the dialogue and only pop up sporadically.


Nightmare Man, The (1981) (TV)

Directed by:
Douglas Camfield

Unless you're a nostalgic British adult who remembers being spooked by this videotaped BBC tele-movie as a child, you're not likely to find much novelty value in this routine and overlong adaptation of David Wiltshire's novel "Child of Vodyanoi." It's set on a small, isolated, fog-bound Scottish island accessible only by boat. As the film opens, two people - and unsociable blonde woman named Sheila, who has inherited a home there, and army colonel John Howard (Jonathan Newth), who wants to explore the island, arrive in town. It's the end of summer, and thus the end of tourist season, and the two new arrivals are suspected to be the last two visitors of the year. Unfortunately for them and all of the remaining townies, but something vicious is lurking about and ready to strike. New-to-the-area dentist Michael Gaffikin (James Warwick) and his multi-talented souvenir shop owner / photo developer / artist / pharmacist / cartographer girlfriend Fiona Patterson (Celia Imrie) expect to spend a carefree and laid-back off-season, but are instead thrust into the middle of things after Michael discovers the mangled corpse of Sheila partially buried in one of the sand traps while out golfing.

The corpse is immediately taken to coroner Alan Goudrey (Tom Watson), who comes to the conclusion that the victim has been murdered by someone incredibly strong, who managed to crush her skull with his / her / its bare hands. Michael is called in to do a dental impression of a mysterious bite mark found on the body and what comes back seems to be something inhuman. Or at least partially inhuman. Michael seems to believe that the impression is a cross between human and turtle (!) teeth and wonders if the killer has suffered some form of genetic mutation. After all, the coast guard have just recently found traces of gamma radiation on the island. Other mysterious occurrences, such as a reported UFO sighting and a sheep mutilation, add even more complications. Inspector Inskip (Maurice Roëves), his right hand man Sergeant Tom Carch (James Cosmo) and some underlings are soon on the case. They scour the island, find a second murder victim - a Canadian ornithologist (Tony Sibbald) camping out near the bay to study the migratory pattern of sea birds - and then discover a strange vessel has washed ashore on the beach. The vessel is actually either a spaceship or some kind of futuristic submarine. It's somehow light and compact enough for only a handful of men to carry it into town. A guy watching guard over it notices that it occasionally moves by itself, almost as if it has a life of its own...

I really don't feel right going much further into the plot, because unveiling the secret of the vessel or the identity of the killer would be to spoil what few surprises might be in store for the audience. Let's just say that one of the characters isn't who they claim to be (they're actually a Russian military officer trying to cover something up), the phrase "cybernetic engineering" is thrown out on at least occasion and the murderous fiend - when finally visualized for us - is just one small step up from the alien being in ROBOT MONSTER.

It's not really a bad film per se, just an ordinary and rather forgettable one. The acting is fine, the characterizations are adequate, there are a few wry / witty lines and it's all rather competently made. The film tries its best to be atmospheric with lots of thick fog, nice views of the shoreline and hazy, red-tinted killer POV shots, but it's consistently undermined by the flat, murky 'videography.' There's also an incredible amount of talk and little in the way of action until the very end. Perhaps the biggest issue is the length and its tendency to meander. There's no reason this thing should last two whole hours, aside from the fact it was originally shown in four 30-minute increments on the BBC. The film could have just as easily been whittled down by about 30 minutes and not really lost anything in the process.

The author of the source novel - David Wiltshire - was a dentist in real-life, and amusingly often made the heroic central characters in his books dentists too because he felt they'd been given a bad rap. The novel was adapted by Robert Holmes, who is best known for writing the long-running Doctor Who series.


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