Sunday, November 25, 2012

Scorpion Thunderbolt (1988)

... aka: Snake

Directed by:
Godfrey Ho
Cheng-Ying Lai (uncredited)

Godfrey Ho was the king of what many refer to as the 'cut-and-paste' technique of filmmaking. Meaning, he'd get his hands on someone else's movie, eliminate some of the footage, add a bit of his own and then re-edit and re-release it as a brand new feature (the much-hated Jerry Warren operated in about the same way in America). Knowing that many Asian films would never be released to Western audiences, Ho would have them English-dubbed (often completely changing the plots in the process), hire a few Caucasian actors to interject into the works (in scenes which usually had absolutely nothing to do with the original film) and then release the finished product to the unsuspecting public through Joseph Lai's company IFD Films and Arts Ltd. The vast majority of these were martial arts films, but Scorpion Thunderbolt was one of their few horror releases. Most of the footage is from Cheng-Ying Lai's Snake Woman, a Taiwanese production filmed back in 1983. From all indications, that film was barely released in Asia (I don't buy that is was never released like some claim because there's a poster), let alone anywhere else, which made it the perfect victim for Ho / Lai's predatory 'style.'

The bulk of Scorpion (also released under the generic but more fitting title of Snake) is the 'borrowed' film, which revolves around female reporter Helen Yu (Juliet Chan). Helen seems like a meek and sweet enough lady, but every once in awhile she transforms into a vicious snake monster and hits the streets looking for victims. Some blind man roaming the streets plays a song on a flute that makes her transform. A flashback reveals that Helen's mother was the daughter of a snake killer who fell in love with "The Prince of the Snakes;" a coupling that resulted in a baby who bites off mom's tit while nursing and caused her grandfather to throw a hatchet into his daughter's back! The city's miserly police commissioner is baffled as to what's going on, but assigns two of his best inspectors; Jackie Ko ("Bernard Tsui" / Shou-Ping Tsui) and his female partner Inspector Li ("Nancy Lim" / Nan-Shi Lin) to the case. Li has fallen in love with Jackie, so she doesn't quite like it when her partner finds himself falling for Helen. A love montage (frolicking on the beach! eating freshly caught fish right off the skewer at a lake!) later, Jackie is head-over-heels for the mysterious beauty, but will his love remain once Helen's beastly side is revealed?

The newly added footage features one-time peplum / western actor Richard Harrison. The middle-aged, washed-up Harrison was also the 'star' of many other productions for the same company. In fact, director Ho got maximum mileage from the actor and the scenes the company shot with him would later be recycled for many other IFD productions. Harrison's character, named Richard, is first seen cruising down the road. He picks up a female hitchhiker who flashes him and accompanies her back to a movie theater for a private screening of a porno she's starring in. After doing a strip tease set to Jean-Michel Jarre's 'Oxygene' (!!) she tries to stab Richard during sex, pukes up some orange stuff and dies. Other henchmen will show up to try to take Richard out and they're all being sent by a witch ("The Queen of the Scorpions") who plays around with frogs and eels, constantly beats on a drum, wears sharp silver blades on her fingers and seems to be controlling all of the action. She wants a ring that Richard owns that can be used to destroy her. These witch scenes don't appear to come from Mongnyeo han, but they also don't match up with the Harrison footage, so it's hard to tell just what they were taken from.

Ignoring Ho's newly added footage, the hack job editing and the abysmal dubbing, Snake Woman appears to have been a hokey monster movie, but sincere and somewhat charming all the same. There are definitely some fun scenes in here, including a hilarious attack on some teenage girls (one in the shower), some disco dancing and a finale featuring the snake woman leaping out of a building and flying around while a squad of police officers try to shoot her down. Some subplots don't seem to have much to do with anything. There's an escaped criminal who attempts to kill Jackie (and rape his partner) but then just disappears, a madman who kills a cat and throws its guts at a hospital staff (??) and another scene of a drunk tying his unfaithful, hairy-armpitted wife up spread eagle and shooting pool balls at her crotch! One of the better horror-oriented scenes finds Jackie and Helen trapped in a moving car being overtaken by snakes. The rubbery creature design (which is difficult to see until the end) is pretty ridiculous, but there's plenty of blood and gore in here, as well as a generous amount of nudity.

Not only utilizing footage from possibly two other films, this one also swipes snippets from Pino Donaggio's Carrie (1976) score to help fill out the soundtrack. The copyright date in the credits is 1985, but the film wasn't released until 1988. It has been issued on both VHS and DVD (on Videoasia's "Tales of Voodoo, Vol. 5").


Nero veneziano (1978)

... aka: Blind Offer
... aka: Black Venice
... aka: Damned in Venice
... aka: Venetian Black

Directed by:
Ugo Liberatore

Damned (which was never officially released in America) joins the ranks of WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972), Don't Look Now (1973) and GIALLO IN VENICE (1979) as 70s genre pics taking advantage of Venice locations. Despite how scenic the city is, it's also apparently a very rainy and overcast city, which effectively influses all of the aforementioned films with an oppressive and dreary atmosphere. Young Mark (Renato Cestiè), a blind orphan, has been having scary visions / premonitions of a stoic man (Yorgo Voyagis) lurking around carrying a cane (with a retractable blade hidden inside) and a beautiful, mysterious woman (Olga Karlatos) who seems to be stalking him. Mark and his frustrated sister Christine (Rena Niehaus), who's dating struggling artist / tour guide Giorgio (Fabio Gamma), are currently in the custody of their grandmother (Bettina Milne), but when she dies in a freak accident in church involving a candle, they learn they have other relatives in Venice and travel there to meet them. Both their Aunt Madeleie (Karlatos again) and Uncle Martin (Tom Felleghy), who currently owe a run-down boarding house, behave strangely and are clearly hiding something from their niece and nephew. But what?

Mark's visions of phantoms soon escalate into visions of murder. He sees the strange man stab his aunt in the chest. She later dies of a heart attack. After their uncle hangs himself, Mark and Christine inherit the boarding house and she begins renovating it. Their first customer is Dan, the same man from Mark's visions. He wastes no time nuzzling up to Christine, but takes off before things can get too heated. Even though the two never actually have sex, the virginal Christine ends up pregnant anyway. A priest (José Quaglio) convinces her to keep the child, marry Giorgio and go on with their lives. Christine refuses to have sex with her new husband, but a slew of her new female friends who are suddenly always around are glad to offer up their services any time he's in the mood. Still, Mark's prophetic visions of death, which seem to always come true, prompts Giorgio to investigate the bizarre goings-on. He finda parallels to the strange events in the bible and begins to think the baby he's helping to raise may be the antiChrist.

Clearly this Italian production, originally released as Nero veneziano ("Venetian Black"), borrows much from American genre films like ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and THE OMEN (1976), to name just a few sources. That said, it's well-made, has some effective scenes and deserve credit for adding a few new twists to the formula. One interesting touch is a well located in the basement, which is rumored to have healing waters that can cure the crippled or sick... or blind. When it's first opened, rats and snakes come crawling out. People Mark see being killed sometimes turn up later on living, but they may just be an illusion. Worms come out of the sink, wine tastes like blood and there's gore (a priest getting decapitated by a boat propellor, a maggot-infested dead dog, a nail hammered into a head...), nudity and lots of boat rides through the canals and funerals. Damned also boasts a great score from Pino Donaggio, which alternates elegant classical compositions with distorted and abrupt sounds.

It's not all great. The film has some pacing problems. It starts out rather slow, then tries to cram a lot in at the very end. The mid-section is also highly repetitive; annoyingly so at times. There are too many set-ups to mention that follow the same exact trajectory. Mark has a vision. No one believe him. Mark wanders off somewhere by himself. Sister (who is peculiarly awful to her poor brother throughout and doesn't seem to mind doing sexual things in the same room with him) later finds him and bitches that she's sick of having to chase him around all over the place. Mark's vision is disproved by a 'victim' turning up or something he claims to have seen not being there. Still, the premonition scenes themselves are adeptly handled by the director and cinematographer (Alfio Contini), who flood the room with bright light to signal each of Martin's visions / hallucinations as to avoid confusion.

Co-star Karlatos gets to play no less than five different enigmatic roles here. Aside from the aunt (in aged makeup) and the mysterious beauty Mark keeps seeing, she also plays the mother of a neighboring girl who may have been murdered (or may be a ghost), a nun who sits by the death bed (of one of her own characters!) and a midwife who helps to deliver Christine's baby aboard a boat. Also in the cast are a few familiar female faces for anyone who's seen their fair share of European exploitation movies. Some of the sister's female friends are played by Angela Covello (TORSO), Ely Galleani (Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon) and Lorraine De Selle (from CANNIBAL FEROX and The House on the Edge of the Park), and several of them (along with the leading lady) provide some nudity.

As mentioned earlier, this film has failed to get a U.S. VHS or DVD release. Still, it was dubbed into English at some point. Versions available online and through bootleg outlets are often sourced from a European release of the film (a German release I believe). Some are in Italian with English subtitles (which is what I viewed) and others have the English audio track.


Strangler, The (1964)

... aka: Boston Strangler, The

Directed by:
Burt Topper

In an age when you have to be picture perfect to make it as a star, it's always great to flash back to a time when talent and screen presence were more important than having six pack abs and a pretty smile. 300+ pound character actor Victor Buono was one of those great little Hollywood success stories of yesteryear that you seldom see anymore. Right out of the gate, Buono managed to hold his own against none other than Bette Davis in the classic WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and ended up with an Oscar nomination for his work. From there on out, quality roles came few and far between for the bulky actor, but he did manage to snag some memorable supporting parts (particularly on the small screen with villainous turns on both Batman and The Wild Wild West) as well as this starring vehicle. Loosely based on the crimes of The Boston Strangler, which were going on at the time this was filmed, this seedy little thriller perfectly captures the essence of its star and what was so wonderful about him; capitalizing on Buono's ability to look soft and harmless one minute and sleazy and sinister the next.

This is no mystery film. It's unveiled in the very first scene that Buono's Leo Kroll is the strangler. A maladjusted loner of a mama's boy, Leo gets his kicks sneaking into women's homes late at night and strangling them because he can't make love to them. He also has a peculiar doll fetish and gets worked up into a jittery, sweaty frenzy undressing and stroking his plastic love substitutes. Leo's mother (perfectly played by Ellen Corby) is a horrendous, domineering old hypochondriac who has royally screwed up her son over the years with her passive aggressive digs at him and her incessant clinginess. Mrs. Kroll is currently living in a nursing home, but demands Leo come visit her every single night, criticizes the way he kisses her on the forehead and says things like "You're not good-looking, you're fat!," "You haven't any money." and "Even as a little boy, nobody liked you!" to try to keep him from straying. Dealing with her all these years means Leo hasn't been able to form any kind of relationship or even a close friendship with anyone else.

With eight victims already claimed with several more still to come, police lieutenant Frank Benson (David McLean), sergeant Mack Clyde (Baynes Barron) and detective Mel Posner (Michael Ryan) are all on the case, with additional help from shrink Dr. Clarence Sanford (Russ Bender). Because the latest victim is a nurse who worked at Leo's hospital, he instantly becomes a suspect. Since his next victim (Jeanne Bates) is Leo's mother's nurse, whom he kills simply to give his ailing mother a heart attack (!), the police start taking even more interest in him. Leo's able to throw them off by passing a polygraph test, giving himself enough time to try to cozy up to the sweet and pretty Tally (Davey Davison), who works at a Toss-A-Ring booth with her flirtatious friend Barbara (Diane Sayer). Leo's been watching her from afar for a long time and even has his recently departed mama's engagement ring on hand so he can awkwardly pop the question.

Buono is terrific playing a character who's smarmy, egotistical and pretty unlikable on the outside, yet retains enough childish vulnerability that he's also somewhat sympathetic. The supporting cast (particularly Corby and Sayer) is quite good, as well, and the supporting characters are all reasonably well-drawn and entertaining. Hell, even the standard police investigation scenes - usually a bore in these kind of films - are better than usual and done with both competence and a sense of humor. Low in budget, director Topper does some creative things to try to spice things up. The scene transitions are smooth and there are some stylish, noir-like touches thrown in here; such as a victim reflected in the killer's eye. By 1963 standards, it's also pretty sleazy, with most of the victims stripping down to their bras, panties and slips before getting attacked.

Certainly not an 'A' Picture, this is still much better than your usual 'B.' We'll give it a B+. Sadly, it hasn't been well-serviced on home video. 20th Century Fox released it to VHS in 1991 but I don't think it's ever been released on DVD.

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