Friday, January 18, 2013

La morte ha sorriso all'assassino (1973)

... aka: Death Smiles at Murder
... aka: Death Smiles on a Murderer
... aka: Morte sorride all'assassino, La
... aka: Sette strani cadaveri
... aka: Seven Strange Corpses

Directed by:
Aristede Massaccesi (Joe D'Amato)

Joe D'Amato is usually linked to two things: Italian gore-fests like BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979) and THE GRIM REAPER (1980) or sexed-up junk like his long running Black Emanuelle series starring Laura Gemser, not to mention over a hundred (often-well-produced) hardcore porn films. But there was a time before all that when D'Amato was mingling around with more 'respectable' mainstream filmmakers. D'Amato had shot the well-regarded giallo WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1971) and also helmed this ghost / zombie tale, made back when he was still using his real name, Aristede Massaccesi. Most of D'Amato's later efforts are notable for how sleazy and grimy they looked and felt, but this one is nicely, sumptuously photographed (by D'Amato himself), has an elegant score from Berto Pisano and a few actors who certainly wouldn't be caught dead in one of the director's later films. It's also extremely bizarre, confusing and frequently downright senseless. There's some nudity and outbursts of gory violence sprinkled throughout, but neither is as excessive as you'd expect given D'Amato's later work.

Innocent-looking, wide-eyed, blonde Swedish beauty Ewa Aulin (still riding high on her Candy fame) stars as Greta von Holstein. Greta's hunchback brother Franz (Luciano Rossi) is madly in love with his little sis and has even gone so far as to rape her. Greta plays along until she runs across Dr. Herbert von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), an older gentleman who sweeps her off her feet and eventually knocks her up. Unfortunately, she dies giving birth to their child. Three years pass and an out-of-control carriage crashes outside Herbert's castle home; impaling the coachman in the process and leaving an unconscious young woman inside the cab. Herbert's grown son Walter (Sergio Doria) and his wife Eva (Angela Bo) now live in the castle and bring the girl inside. Dr. Sturges (Klaus Kinski) is called in to evaluate her. She has amnesia and doesn't remember how she even got there. After noticing she's wearing a medallion around her neck with the name "Greta" and the year "1906" on one side, and a strange symbol on the other, the doctor proceeds to stick a pin through her eyeball (!) Greta doesn't even flinch or react.

Walter and Eva decide to let Greta live with them and both quickly fall in love with the troubled girl. Eva eventually becomes jealous, lures Greta down into some catacombs underneath their home, locks her inside a room and then bricks it up. She tells everyone that Greta has left but two weeks later she materializes yet again to even the score. Meanwhile, Dr. Sturges experiments with corpses in his lab. He concocts some green serum utilizing the formula - actually an ancient Incan spell - found on Greta's necklace, and uses it to resurrect a corpse. The doctor doesn't get very far in his endeavors, though. Someone sneaks in and kills both him and his assistant. That same person then starts stalking and killing off the Ravensbrück family (including Herbert - who shows up in town after a three-year absence to attend a funeral) as well as the nosy butler Simeon (Marco Mariani). An understandably confused inspector (Attilio Dottesio) pops in from time to time to investigate what's going on.

To say the events that transpire in this film are inadequately explained may be the understatement of the year. During an early scene, a maid at the Ravensbrück home keeps seeing visions of the hunchback brother's ghost in her bedroom, who grabs her and appears in her mirror. She attempts to leave and someone blasts off her face with a shotgun. This isn't so weird per se, but it is when it's the only scene featuring the brother's ghost. That whole idea is just dropped afterward. The zombie formula stuff also doesn't quite gel. It's revealed that Greta is revived with the elixir, but has somehow not only gained eternal youth, but has also gained supernatural powers. And I don't just mean being able to live through things that should kill her. I mean like throwing a bouquet of flowers at someone and having it turn into a vicious Siamese cat that claws someone's eyeballs out!

Strange and senseless as much of this is, it does have that really soft, dream-like, intoxicating early 70s Euro-horror feel to it. The whole thing looks pretty good, the acting isn't bad, there's some bizarrely frenetic editing, lots of zooms into eyeballs and some genuine surprises in here for more lenient viewers who don't mind wading through a muddled storyline to get to the rewards.


Alligator (1980)

Directed by:
Lewis Teague

While on vacation at one of those reptile tourist traps in Florida, a young girl gets herself a baby alligator she names Ramon. The family returns home to Missouri, where dad gets pissed off and flushes the little lizard down the toilet. Twelve years later, in St. Louis, animals and people are turning up missing. Well, at least partially missing: random body parts seem to be occasionally turning up at a sewage treatment facility. Officer David Madison (Robert Forster) is promptly put on the case by his superior (Michael Gazzo, and his crazy eyebrows). The first victim - a sewer worker - seems an almost random pick, but the second victim - pet shop owner Luke Gutchel (Sydney Lassick) - has ties to a company called Slade Pharmaceutical. The scientists there have been working on some kind of new growth hormone. They've used stray dogs that Gutchel has managed to round up in their experiments and have also enlisted his services in disposing of the carcasses once they're through with them. Gutchel has cut corners on the costs of cremating the dead doggies by simply tossing them into the sewers.

Ramon, meanwhile, has grown to somewhere between 30 and 40 feet in length by consuming all of those hormone-laced canines. Since he's no longer getting frequent handouts from Gutchel (you know... since he ate him), he'll eventually be forced above ground for his next meal. Well, after chowing down on a few more officers and a nosy reporter (Bart Braverman), that is. Because David keeps coming back to the pharmaceutical company, president and founder Mr. Slade (Dean Jagger, in his final role) pulls some strings and gets him shit-canned. But David doesn't let that, or insecurity about his male pattern baldness, stop him from getting the gator. He receives help from Marisa (Robin Riker), the now-grown young girl who brought baby Ramon to St. Louis to begin with. Marisa has parlayed her love for all things reptile into a career as a world-renowned herpetologist. There are a lot of good scenes in here, but my personal favorite is when the gator crashes an outdoor wedding reception and gobbles a bunch of people up, thrashes others with its tail and smashes a few people inside a car.

Director Lewis Teague, who'd later direct the King adaptations CUJO (1983) and CAT'S EYE (1985), writer John Sayles and the cast have managed to successfully walk a very fine line here. There are plenty of laughs, but they're weaved into this in a way where they never turn it into a send-up, or even really a horror-comedy. It's more of an action-oriented horror film, played rather straight by many of the actors, where the humor is simply an added bonus. The creature effects are done two different ways. A real gator is placed on model sets for some of these, but at other times use is made of an excellent animatronic one. I thought both were very convincing. And damn, don't you just miss the hands-on labor that went into creating real fx back before CGI came into the picture and turned everything into a laughable cartoony mess? Just compare the old school fx seen here to anything you'll see today on the SyFy Channel. I rest my case.

In addition to sharp writing, plenty of action (and explosions), fun nods to everything from The Honeymooners to THE THIRD MAN and effective special effects, there's also a pretty great cast here. Forster makes for an ideal and relatable 'everyman' type of lead. Henry Silva has perhaps the most amusing bit as a skirt-chasing great white hunter who ends up having a fatal encounter with the gator in a dark alley... after drafting some black ghetto youth to be his 'native' guides! There's also Jack Carter as the city mayor, Perry Lang as a police officer who gets eaten after helping disarm a mad bomber, Sue "Lolita" Lyon (in her last role to date) as the news reporter Silva hits on, Angel Tompkins as another reporter, John F. Goff, Mike Mazurki and many other familiar faces. After filming, the animatronic gator was donated to the Florida Gators to use as a mascot.

Saying this is probably the best of the killer crocodile / alligator movies might not sound like much, but there are actually many more of these than most people realize. Just to start the list there's EATEN ALIVE (1976), CROCODILE (1979), THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979), KRAI THONG (1980), KRAI THONG 2 (1985), CROCODILE EVIL (1985), DARK AGE (1986), CROCODILE FURY (1988), ENEMY UNSEEN (1989), KILLER CROCODILE (1989), KILLER CROCODILE II (1990), LAKE PLACID (1998) and its three sequels, BLOOD SURF (2000), CROCODILE (2000), CROCODILE 2: DEATH SWAMP (2002), PRIMEVAL (2007), ROGUE (2007) and SUPERGATOR (2007). Alligator itself was popular enough to spawn its own sequel: ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION, in 1991.

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