Friday, December 7, 2012

La casa con la scala nel buio (1983)

... aka: Blade in the Dark, A
... aka: House of the Dark Stairway
... aka: Maison de la terreur, La

Directed by:
Lamberto Bava

"I find doing scenes in which women get stabbed to death repugnant." ~ Lamberto Bava

Bava had some critical (though not commercial) success with his feature directorial debut, 1980's MACABRE ("Frozen Terror" in the U.S.), so eventually producer Mino Loy contacted him about directing four episodes of a proposed TV mini-series. Bava then got to work on the project and, along with husband-and-wife writing team Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Briganti, created an episodic mystery-thriller where a girl would die a brutal death at the end of each chapter. That general idea eventually spawned this feature (originally La casa con la scala nel buio = "The House of the Dark Stairway") instead. Working with a relatively low-budget, the entire film was shot at co-producer Luciano Martino's (a close friend of Sacchetti's) expansive Italian villa. Most is filmed indoors and it's fairly long (109 minutes) as far as these things go. Andrea Occhipinti, a handsome and popular actor in Italy at the time who'd just appeared in Fulci's trashy NEW YORK RIPPER was brought in to play the lead role; a film composer named Bruno. Michele Soavi (the assistant director) was drafted to play a key supporting role when none of the other tested actors worked and most of the rest of the small cast is filled with attractive young ladies.

Needing some peace and quiet to work on a score for a new horror film being directed by his friend Sandra (Anny Papa), Bruno rents out a country home from Tony Rendia (Soavi), who's going to be away in Kuwait for awhile. Figuring the large home and isolated surroundings will be perfect inspirations for a creepy score, Bruno settles in and gets to work. It isn't long before strange things start happening. And I mean stranger than a young woman named Katia (Valeria Cavelli) suddenly popping out of his closet. More like strange as when Katia leaves and is immediately knifed to death outside with a clickable utility knife. Growing up, we called the utility knife a "carpet cutter" or a "box cutter" because that's about all we used it for. Seeing one used here as a murder weapon made me flash back to a time when my brother accidentally sliced into his finger with one and passed out. So yeah, I know from first hand experience that those suckers can cause some serious damage!

Angela (Fabiola Toledo), Katia's roommate, shows up looking for her friend and gets it in a very bloody scene where her hand is stabbed, she's suffocated in a plastic bag and then has her throat cut. Clues about what's going on there (Katia's diary, an audio recording) are being destroyed and more people are killed, while the director tries about every technique possible to throw us off from the true identity of the killer. The home's former occupant; a woman named Linda, has disappeared. Maybe it's her. Giovanni (Stanko Molnar), the obligatory creepy / voyeuristic caretaker, is constantly shown doing things like hauling heavy bags up stairs, peeking in windows to watch women undress and saving newspaper clippings about various murders and crimes. And this has to be about the 100th movie I've seen that tries to establish that someone is a murder suspect by showing their bedroom walls being covered with nude pinup posters. If that were the case, then half the nation's teenage boys would be psycho killers.

Sandra the director lures Bruno away from the home and then stands him up while one of the murders is occurring and Bruno's actress girlfriend Julie (Lara Naszinsky) is a catty bitch who's overly jealous anytime another woman is around. Just like in many other movies of this type, the actual killer is the one person the director never really tries to point the finger at. Numerous annoying cheat scenes are used to throw us off, including having someone else play the body, legs and hands of the killer we see on screen, with them obviously not belonging to the person who's revealed to be responsible.

The cinematography, editing and score are all OK, but the writing is weak, the characters are bland and the dialogue and dubbing are both awful. The film's chief problem though is that it's filled with long, dull stretches where nothing much happens. This only really seems to come to life during the murder scenes and the gruesome one set in a bathroom is the only memorable one of the bunch. The other deaths are by wrench, knife and strangulation with film stock, and there's one very brief topless scene.

Anchor Bay handled the DVD release, which includes the 10-minute documentary Behind the Blade, which features brief interviews with both Bava and Sacchetti.


Nightdreams (1981)

... aka: Night Dreams
... aka: Nightdreams #1

Directed by:
"F.X. Pope" (Francis Delia)

Nightdreams is that rare adult film that's well-made, imaginative and much better than it really needs to be; made during a time when a few renegade filmmakers out there were striving for respect and mainstream acceptance in a popular genre that most watch and enjoy but just as many won't admit to watching and enjoying. These guys were pretty much fighting a losing battle back then, but that doesn't mean their efforts should be forgotten now. As the credits roll over a black background we hear the sounds of a heart beating followed by a woman moaning. The sounds are coming from Mrs. Van Houten (Dorothy LeMay), who's suffering from some unnamed "erotic trauma" that appears to be frigidity. Your typical suburban housewife with two kids and an impotent husband who claims his wife's never had an orgasm, Mrs. Van Houten has been driven to deliria by desire by some experimental drug, is hooked up to electrodes and being observed and studied by a pair of doctors. The female doctor (Jennifer West) ponders, "I wonder what she's going through?" We shall soon see in a series of clever, bizarre, surreal and usually pretty dark hardcore vignettes.

Mrs. Van Houten's first fantasy takes us back to childhood and is set in a nursery. A grinning clown with a phallic nose he later puts to good use pops out of a jack-in-the-box and proceeds to pleasure her while the sounds of children laughing and an owl can be heard and flashes of a creepy mask light up the screen. Next up is an erotic all-girl romp in the desert where two cowgirls ("Monique" / Jacqueline Lorians and Danielle Martin) pleasure our heroine by campfire, which is set to Wall of Voodoo's great cover of "Ring of Fire." The music and lighting combine to make this scene downright hypnotic. It could well be the finest X-rated lesbian scene ever shot. She's next off to a smoky Middle Eastern den to take on two hash-smoking sheiks. From there, she envisions herself with a crazed man who gives birth to a baby though his zipper (!) The next setting is a public bathroom where she's interrupted admiring herself in front of a mirror by a masked intruder in a black/white mask who bends her over the toilet and has his way with her.

In what is perhaps the film's most memorable - certainly the most amusing - scene, Mrs. Van Houten imagines herself in a kitchen making breakfast when the Cream of Wheat box comes to life and a burnt piece of Wonder Bread dances and plays saxophone in the background while "Old Man River" plays on the soundtrack! Our heroine then takes a trip to hell to encounter a horny demon (Ken Starbuck) and a few of his followers before landing in heaven for a more romantic encounter with an angel. In between all of the sex scenes, the doctors discuss their test subject. The male doctor (Andrew Nichols) worries about Mrs. Van Houten's ability to handle so much pleasure, while the female basically tells him to butt out and just let her enjoy herself.

Nightdreams really gets it right for a change. It covers most of the bases a hardcore film should cover while managing to be entertaining, stylish and inventive. Genuine care has gone into the photography, the sound design, the lighting and the art direction to give each scene a distinctive mood to reflect the many facets of female sexual desire. Depending on the fantasy, Mrs. Van Houten is submissive or dominant, lustful or romantic, passive or aggressive. She's free to experiment with whatever or whomever she chooses without judgment; men or women, multiple partners, even inanimate objects... and her encounters run the gamut from dark and creepy to light and humorous. Lots of horror imagery has made its way into this one, which is why it's often classified as an adult horror film. The clown and demon makeups designs are great, and the fiery, smokey hell set is simple in construct yet very effective thanks to great use of a fog and red lighting.

Le May isn't the most talented or best-looking actress you'll see in one of these things, but she does try to actually give a performance and does whatever the director throws her way with enthusiasm, so you can't ask for much more than that. Kevin James (billed as "Kevin Jay"), who passed away from cancer in 1990 at age 35, was one of the better looking male porno stars of the time and gets to play four different roles (the clown, one of the sheiks, the bathroom assailant and the angel) here. The biggest surprise in the cast is an uncredited Michelle Bauer, who appears in the hell sequence chained up against a wall barking out orders. Bauer was a 1981 Penthouse model who appeared in numerous adult films in the 80s before becoming one of the most beloved horror Scream Queens of the 80s and 90s. To my knowledge, Bauer only actually performed an explicit sex scene on one occasion (1981's Bad Girls) and otherwise just appeared nude in these films (which is the case here).

There were multiple Nightdreams sequels, the first of which was made by the same director. Sayadian also co-wrote and produced (as "Rinse Dream") and worked on many of the sets (the "Jimmy Rigg" alias is likely him). The following year Sayadian would direct CAFE FLESH (1982), which starred Nichols and Bauer (using her "Pia Snow" alias) and is considered by many to be the greatest adult film of all time. The Mrs. Van Houten character also popped up in Sayadian's DR. CALIGARI (1988); an R-rated effort.

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