Sunday, July 20, 2014

Nosferatu a Venezia (1988)

... aka: Nosferatu in Venice
... aka: Nosferatu: Vampire in Venice
... aka: Vampire in Venice

Directed by:
Mario Caiano (uncredited)
Augusto Caminito
Luigi Cozzi (uncredited)
Klaus Kinski (uncredited)
Maurizio Lucidi (uncredited)

There's no other way to start this review than to delve into the disastrous production history to this Italian semi-"sequel" to German director Werner Herzog's acclaimed NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979). In fact, this may be the mother of all troubled film productions. Producer / writer Augusto Caminito (who you will begin to pity as this story goes forward) originally hired director Maurizio Lucidi. He shot a few crowd scenes in Venice before the script had even been completed, but Caminito had a change of heart and decided to go with a new director, even though contractually he still had to pay Lucidi his full salary first. He then hired Pasquale Squitieri, who was best known for a series of profitable Euro-crime films, to direct and write the picture. However, Squitieri's ambitious screenplay exceeded the budgetary limitations, so Caminito decided to stop working with him (also having to shell out his full salary as well). Caminito then hurriedly hired a third director, Mario Caiano (who had made the minor Gothic horror classic NIGHTMARE CASTLE with Barbara Steele two decades earlier) so shooting could immediately start. Star Klaus Kinski was supposed to reprise his vampire character from the 1979 film, but the actor (sporting long white hair and [sometimes] rat-like teeth) refused to go bald or wear the same ugly / pale monster makeup, which explains why the vampire looks nothing like he did in Herzog's film. Even worse, Kinski got into a violent dispute with Caiano the first day of filming, threw a mirror at his face and called him a "hack" and "a shitty director." Caiano walked off set and refused to come back unless Kinski apologized to him. Needless to say, that never happened. Caiano would become the third director to leave the project... and the third to take his full salary with him.

Facing disaster and a possible lawsuit from an Italian TV network who helped co-produce the picture, Caminito (who had almost no experience in the director's chair) then decided to take the helm himself so he wouldn't have to pay a fourth director. Luigi Cozzi played film doctor, was a consultant and was assistant director to Caminito through much of the shoot (all sans credit), though he actually shot much of the film on his own. Aside from compromising the vampire's horrific look, Kinski caused numerous problems throughout the shoot, including being rude / insulting toward nearly the entire cast and crew, throwing the film completely off schedule, threatening to quit multiple times, refusing to rehearse his scenes, physically assaulting several female cast members and demanding one of the already-cast actresses (Amanda Sandrelli) be fired. The producers became so desperate after awhile they had no choice but to cater to every one of the insane, temperamental actor's ridiculous wishes, including allowing him to go off with a small crew and shoot over 10 hours of footage not even in the script. Of all that footage, which was little more than Kinski wandering around the streets of Venice at dawn, only about 3 minutes worth actually ended up in the finished film.

Not surprisingly, this whole thing is a huge mess. The plot only occasionally makes sense, the continuity is sporadic at best, the pacing fluctuates from being too slow to too rushed and the characters are thinly-drawn, uninteresting and many of them disappear from the film for long stretches of time after being established as protagonists early on. The only thing the film really does a good job at is capturing the appropriate mood, though to its credit it does quite an exceptional job at that. Thanks to cinematographer Tonino Nardi, there are lots of beautifully composed shots of the canals, the mist-covered cobblestone walkways, the old buildings, the sky at various times of day and night and birds flying around in slow motion. Often these shots are used to tie the film together when the continuity is going right off the rails. Scenes seem to cut abruptly at many points before completion and the film always reverts to the same thing: cutting to a lovely image of the city in an attempt to keep us from noticing. Luigi Ceccarelli's music score; sort of an elegant-classical-meets-80s-synth score ("inspired by" Vangelis), is also quite interesting. Most of this film's accolades end right there.

Things open with wonderfully moody shots of Professor Catalano (Christopher Plummer) solemnly standing at the steer of a small boat floating through the canals; often cast in shadow along a hazy orange sky. Catalano also narrates; explaining that he's dedicated his whole life to the study of vampires and that he's come to Venice at the request of a young princess who wants him to help investigate her families cursed history. Upon arrival, Catalano meets beautiful Helietta Canins (Barbara De Rossi), the princess, who wastes no time showing him the cellar crypt of the family mansion where a long-dead descendant rests. She believes it's Nosferatu in the crypt, but he supposedly fled the city 200 years earlier because of the plague so the Professor is skeptical. As it turns out, Helietta is correct. The family hold a séance with help from a powerful medium (Clara Colosimo), Nosferatu is resurrected, comes crawling out of his crypt, walks the beach and stumbles upon some oddly cooperative gypsies, who let him feast on a young gypsy girl to give her immortality. The linking of the gypsies to the vampire is never explained and after this brief scene the idea is dropped altogether, which is a recurring theme with this film as you will soon see.

Other characters are introduced but none of them are developed. In fact, this movie does such a terrible job introducing them that we have no clue who any of them really are. Donald Pleasence plays Don Alvise, a cowardly priest and family confidant who basically just stands around in the background in a low-key fashion until his final scene allows him to rant, rave and wildly overact. His character serves no real purpose. Yorgo Voyagis (from DAMNED IN VENICE [1978]) is Dr. Barneval, another family friend who seems to be the romantic interest of Helietta. He and Helietta go to a costume ball together and romantically kiss... and right in front of Helietta's friend Uta (Elvire Audray), who also happens to be the doctor's wife. Uta seems to have her own lover (Giuseppe Mannajuolo) on the side but no one seems to really care one way or another. I couldn't make heads or tails of any of these people or their relationships since they never once bother to explain it to us. Maria Clementina Cumani Quasimodo plays Helietta's grandmother, who lurks around acting sinister until the vampire pushes her out a window so she's impaled on an iron fence; a fate parallel to that of a priest (Mickey Knox) seen in one of several brief flashbacks.

Helietta is established as being the reincarnation of Princess Letizia; Nosferatu's lost love, but once he finally bites her, the actress strangely disappears from most of the rest of the movie. The film then switches its attentions over to Helietta's kid sister Maria, who's played by Anne Knecht, the replacement for the actress Kinski got fired. Knecht was not an actress; she was the girlfriend of Voyagis and was on the set visiting him when Kinski decided to "cast" her in this film... never mind the fact she was black!! The vampire mythology here is different than usual. Nosferatu is impervious to stakes through the heart, can walk around in daylight, and handle crucifixes, casts a shadow in a mirror and only has to sleep for 24 hours every 24 days. None of this bodes well with the death-obsessed vamp, who apparently wants nothing more than to be put out of his misery. Professor Catalano explains that there are really only two ways to kill a vampire. The first is for them to drink mercury; "the only natural element capable of killing a vampire." The second is through the love of a "consenting virgin" (?!); which can put his soul to rest for "a thousand years." This is where the character of Maria supposedly factors in. She leaps from a bell tower, is swooped up by Kinski and he carries her through the sky Superman-style (!) back to the crumbling abandoned mansion he's been squatting in. All of this ends up having absolutely nothing at all to do with this film's frustrating non-ending.

Plummer seems to be the only one of the trio of name value stars trying to give an actual performance and his Van Helsing-esque Professor is set up strongly in the first half of the film with a potential redemption / hero arc. The character is dying and has spent his whole life studying and looking for vampires and now he's finally stumbled across a real one in the twilight of his life. So what do the filmmakers ultimately do with him? After Nosferatu makes a cross burn his hand, the Professor simply gives up and leaves town defeated without even bothering to confront the vampire a second time! Several of the other characters then decide to try to stop Nosferatu. Though four of them head to the castle, we only actually see what happens to one of them as the other three vanish into thin air to apparently join De Rossi, Audray and Plummer in the magical land of Anticlimaxville.

Much of the production information in this review is from the book Italian Horror Movies, written by Cozzi and Antonio Tentori. The section on this film also explains a troubling incident between Kinski and one of the actresses. Though the female half isn't named, it's obviously Ms. Audray since part of the scene actually described remains in the finished film. According to Cozzi, the script called for Kinski to grab his victim and bite her on the neck. Instead, he charged at her "like a wild animal," actually beat her up (for real!), ripped off all her clothes and undergarments and started biting her right on the vagina! Audray fled the set crying and Kinski maniacally screamed "Bitch!" at her as she ran off. Afterward, Audray understandably refused to do any more scenes with the crazed actor, which may explain why she disappears from the rest of the movie. Kinski also apparently manhandled De Rossi during their nocturnal "love sequence" and went beyond the call of duty by ripping off her nightgown, fondling her crotch and then squeezing her breasts very hard. This may also explain why De Rossi is m.i.a. through a large portion of the film.

After debuting at the Venice Film Festival to scathing reviews in 1988, the film ended up flopping in its subsequent Italian theatrical release and played only limited engagements elsewhere. There was no official release here in America to my knowledge, but an English-dubbed version was released elsewhere, including in the UK on the Vestron label under the title Vampire in Venice. It was also released on VHS in numerous other countries under titles like "Dracula in Venice," "Nosferatu, Prince of Shadows," "Nosferatu, the Return" and "Vampires in Venice." Germany is one of the few countries to get the film in reasonably good shape on DVD (on the Midnight Movies label) under the title Nosferatu in Venedig.

Blood Song (1982)

... aka: Dream Slayer
... aka: Dreamslayer
... aka: Premonition

Directed by:
Alan J. Levi

As a singer, Frankie Avalon scored two #1 Billboard hits ("Venus" and "Why") by the time he was just 19 years old. After selling millions of records in the late 50s through the early 60s for Chancellor Records, his singing career began to flounder but he got a second chance at stardom as co-lead (alongside Annette Funicello) in a series of extremely popular AIP "Beach Party" flicks starting with 1963's Beach Party. Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party and Pajama Party (all 1964) were quickly spit out immediately afterward and they were followed by Beach Blanket Bingo and Ski Party (both 1965) the following year. As has been pointed out elsewhere numerous times, though these films were supposedly marketed toward teenagers as innocuous fun, it was actually adults who were watching these (and not for the acting, plots or music!) and turning them into hits. By the time to final entry - THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (1966) - was made, Avalon had been replaced in the series by Tommy Kirk, and his career again hit the skids until he gained brief attention playing "Teen Angel" in the musical Grease (1978). However, even that hit film didn't do a whole lot to reinvigorate his career and just a few years after he was starring as a flute-playing psycho killer mental home escapee (!) in this early 80s low-budget slasher flick.

Avalon is paired up here with Donna Wilkes, a cherubic-looking actress so baby-faced she - like Avalon - was playing teenagers well into her 20s. Wilkes had roles in a handful of films (including JAWS II in 1978 and SCHIZOID in 1980) and appeared on TV as a regular in the short-lived series Hello, Larry (1979). Several years after starring in Blood Song, she'd receive her signature role as the title character in Angel (1984), which cast the 25-year-old as a 15-year-old high school sophomore. Thanks in part to a memorable ad campaign ("High School Honor Student by Day. Hollywood Hooker by Night."), it was a surprise sleeper hit for New World and grossed over 17 million in the U.S. alone on a 3 million budget. There were three sequels, but Wilkes didn't appear in any of them. By 1987, she was reduced to appearing in such dreck as GROTESQUE (1987) and soon after called it a day on her acting career. Afterward, she went to work for a software developer and kept busy raising her daughter. After a 20+ year hiatus from show business, she's resurfaced on the convention circuit and has appeared in two films for director David DeCoteau since. Blood Song would be neither the best nor the worst thing on either her and Avalon's resumes.

In 1955, a Portland businessman flies back into town, goes home, finds his wife in bed with another man, shoots them both dead and then turns the gun on himself and blows his brains out. Their little son Paul sees the whole thing and it naturally fucks him up. Twenty-five years later in Stanford Bay, a now-adult Paul (Avalon) strangles an orderly, retrieves a hand-carved wood flute his daddy made him right before dying that the staff took from him and escapes from a state mental institution (rather easily, I might add). Meanwhile, in suburbia, trouble teenager Marion Hauser (Wilkes) is having the usual teenage troubles. For starters, she's saddled with a leg brace thanks to a car accident years earlier. Second, she's dating a slightly older fisherman named Joey (William Kirby Cullen); a relationship her asshole father Frank (Richard Jaeckel) doesn't approve of. Actually, Frank - who caused the accident that crippled his daughter - doesn't seem too happy about much of anything. When he's not screaming at, spying on or threatening Marion, he's screaming at his wife Bea (Antoinette Bower) or sucking down beer complaining about his job and life.

As if Marion isn't stressed enough already, things are about to become even worse when she starts having nightmares that are "so weird, so crazy like." These bad dreams turn out not to be dreams at all, but psychic premonitions. After the car accident that crippled her, Marion received a blood transfusion and that blood came from Paul himself, which has somehow given her ESP abilities. Quick! Someone call the Red Cross and warn them! Paul manages to hitch a ride from a truck driver, annoys him by playing "All the Pretty Horses" over and over again with his flute, chops him on the head with an axe and then steals his van. He then picks up up a hitchhiker (Jennifer Enskat) heading toward Stanford Bay, takes her back to a hotel, has sex with her and then strangles her with a necklace while she's topless after she too complains about his annoying lack of musical talent. It isn't long before Paul is after our luckless heroine because, by ridiculous coincidence, she just so happens to stumble upon him burying a body out in the middle of the woods at some random remote location. So what exactly was the point of the whole psychic-link-developed-via-blood-transfusion angle again? Hell if I know. The film drops that idea midway through in its entirety and then becomes just another routine stalk-n-slash flick.

A dismembered body is found in the garbage, someone gets crushed by a piece of heavy machinery and Frankie gets to hack someone up with a hatchet while screaming "You're not my dad!" and ride around on a forklift acting like an emotionally stunted man-child ("Come out and play!"). The big finale is an extended chase scene around a closed-down sawmill. They show all kinds of cool power saws and even a bark stripper with giant razor-sharp blades, but unfortunately none of that is ever utilized. There's also a twist at the finale, which doesn't actually really explain anything, but that's just as well. This one's about as textbook as you can get within its subgenre, with virtually no surprises at all along the way. The acting's highly uneven, the editing is sometimes ragged and the script is cliché-ridden and melodramatic ("Nobody believes me!"), with a poorly-developed plot and half-assed ideas aplenty. Bits and pieces of the dialogue (including many of Wilkes' "dramatic" moments) have been re-recorded at some point and looped back in by way of what sounds like a tin can.

Sometimes stunt casting works and sometimes it doesn't. In Avalon's case, it's the latter. He's not the least bit believable in his role and I couldn't tell whether he was trying to play the part seriously or shooting for straight up camp. Dane Clark plays the obligatory small town sheriff who is first introduced to us by saying he has "a hangover that would make King Kong climb a wall" (?!) Former professional wrestler, Colombo Crime Family member and eventual character actor Lenny Montana (best known as hitman Luca in The Godfather) not only appears in a small role as the boyfriend's kind-hearted boss, but also co-produced and co-wrote the film. His son Lenny Montana Jr. has a part as the truck driver victim. In real life Lenny Jr. (who is often called by his nickname "Limping Lenny") runs Enzo's Pizzeria in Los Angeles and is allegedly a member of an L.A. crime family himself. Noelle North (the girl who likes Sissy Spacek's prom dress in CARRIE) and Victor Izay (a regular in Ted V. Mikels movies) also have small roles.

There's a droning, repetitive 80s synthesizer score for those who dig them, some bloody moments and a few interesting directorial choices to keep it all at least watchable. Marion's premonitions are visualized in a rather unusual and effective way. The camera zooms in on her face, stops, does three closer still shots closing in on her eye and then a spiral effect begins at her pupil that uncovers what the killer is up to and are first seen in multi-colored negative image. Those are quite neat and they're also the highlights of this otherwise forgettable film. The soundtrack has a song ("All In Your Mind") performed by actress Lainie Kazan and for some reason entirely lost on me it opens with a quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1855 poem "Maud."

TV director Levi's only theatrically-released film, it was distributed on VHS by numerous labels over the years, starting with a tape from Coast-to-Coast. Some later videos carried the new title "Dream Slayer;" likely to cash in on the 80s Elm Street craze.  In 2008, BCI Eclipse handled the DVD release and paired it up with Mausoleum (1983), but their print was sourced from a VHS copy (the original film elements are currently lost). It was also part of a cheap 4 movie set called "Blood Bath."

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