Saturday, February 28, 2015

I lunghi capelli della morte (1964)

... aka: La larga cabellera de la muerte
... aka: La sorcière sanglante (The Bloody Witch)

Directed by:
"Anthony M. Dawson" (Antonio Margheriti)

Here's one of at least three dozen black-and-white Italian Gothic horrors from the decade when these films were reaching their peak in popularity. Skimming over the non-Anglicized credits, those familiar with this subgenre will notice many familiar names. The director was "Anthony M. Dawson" (Antonio Margheriti), who'd previously made the the enjoyable HORROR CASTLE (1963) with Christopher Lee. It was written by "Julian Berry' / Ernesto Gastaldi, who'd previously co-written Mario Bava's fantastic THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963; also with Lee), and went on to write dozens of other genre films, and "Robert Bohr" / Tonino Valerii, who'd previously co-written Terror in the Crypt (1963) starring, you guessed it, Mr. Lee once again. The cinematography was by "Richard Thierry" / Riccardo Pallottini, who also shot the aforementioned Horror Castle as well as Margheriti's Castle of Blood (1964) and numerous others. Composer Carlo Rustichelli had scored many of the better films of this type, including Bava's Whip and Kill Baby... Kill! (1966). And perhaps its biggest coup of all, and why the film is still frequently viewed these days, is having Gothic temptress and BLACK SUNDAY (1960) lead Barbara Steele in the lead role. All the stars were aligned perfectly here and, thankfully, this ends up mostly living up to its high pedigree.

Falsely convicted of witchcraft and murder, Adele Karnstein is dragged off to a village square where she's scheduled to be burned alive. Her eldest daughter, Helen Rochefort (Steele), is also suspected of being a witch and has been in hiding, but manages to sneak into a heavily-guarded castle to see Count Humboldt Whalen ("Jean Rafferty" / Giuliano Raffaeli). Helen is convinced her mother is innocent of both witchcraft and of murdering the Count's brother, Franz, and the Count uses his position of power to get Helen into bed with him. Adele is executed anyway, but first places a curse upon the Humboldt family and the entire village before she's killed. The following day, Helen attempts to flee but is intercepted by the Count, who pushes her over the side of a waterfall. Now left all alone, little Elizabeth, the final Karnstein descendant, is shown the secret tomb housing the remains of both Adele and Helen by nursemaid Grumalda ("Laureen Nuyen" / Laura Nucci) and asked to come there every day and and pray.

"At the end of the 15th Century, superstition, cruelty and appalling evils loomed over mankind."

Years pass and a now-grown Elizabeth (Halina Zalewska) is living with in the Humboldt's castle. The aged Count, who's now a miserly drunk, is made uneasy by the girl's presence and thinks she's looking more "witch-like" with her long, black hair and resemblance to Adele as she matures. The Count's son, Kurt Sebastian Whalen (George Ardisson), who's even more lecherous and wicked than his father, reveals that it was he who actually murdered Franz when he found out he was going to be disinherited. Kurt also is determined to marry Elizabeth whether she wants to or not (hint: she doesn't). Elizabeth ends up having no choice in the matter and their romantic honeymoon night consists of him forcing himself upon her and slapping her around while she scowls things like "I hate you!" and "You're repulsive!" While all that's going on, there's a horrible plague striking the village; something that Adele predicted.

During a raging thunderstorm, lightning strikes Helen's grave and, through a time lapse effect, eyeballs and skin start to form on her skeleton as she begins to take shape. While everyone is sitting through a church service, the doors swing open and the beautiful Mary (Steele), a dead ringer for Helen, walks in and collapses. That, combined with the sudden realization that Kurt has been doing a little grave robbing on the side, is too much for the poor, sickly Count to handle and he keels over from a heart attack. Claiming to have been in a carriage accident, Mary is taken back to the Whalen castle to recover, where Kurt promptly falls head over heels in love with her. He's so in love, he's willing to do anything to keep here there, including poisoning a messenger who's simply trying to deliver a message on Mary's behalf.

Kurt and Mary soon begin having an affair (punishable by death in those days) and eventually plot to do away with Elizabeth. They drug her, take her downstairs into the family crypt, put her inside a tomb and seal it shut. Once they feel she's been down there long enough to suffocate, they bring her body back upstairs, tuck her into bed and then go to their rooms. The next day, the adulterous duo are shocked to see that Grumalda and Von Klager ("Robert Rains" / Umberto Raho), a priest who also lives in the castle, are interacting with Elizabeth and claiming to see and talk to her, though Kurt can find her nowhere. He grows increasingly more paranoid and starts going mad, something the surprise ending remedies quite nicely.

This certainly treads of very familiar ground, which could be either good or a bad thing depending on your tastes. It's bad if you're not a fan to slower-paced films that rely heavily on atmosphere, but it's good if you're a fan of moody, measured b/w Gothic tales as this one has pretty much everything you could possibly hope for. There's dense, high contrast and atmospheric black-and-white photography, genuine suspense in spots, a late 15th Century period setting brought to life through appropriate costumes, props, fine art direction and sets and a thundering and commanding score, plus the usual awesome castle complete with crumbling crypts, a cool little hedge maze and cobweb-covered secret passageways behind fireplaces. We get candlelit strolls through dark corridors and dungeons, plenty of duplicitous / scheming characters to keep things interesting, ghosts, ghouls and more. As per her usual, Steele is mesmerizing in her role and the rest of the cast (lousy English dub aside) also do fine. While the film does slow to a crawl a few times, there's a satisfying ending that eventually brings the story full circle that's worth waiting for.

To my knowledge this was never released theatrically in the U.S., though it was English dubbed and released in the UK. The full uncut version runs around 95 minutes and even features a brief topless scene for "continental" release, which is sometimes attributed to Steele but is clearly a body double. Lots of shoddy prints for this one have been released on DVD over the years thanks to its public domain status but there's also a restored 2014 Blu ray release from Raro Video. It includes the option of watching the film either with the English dubbing track or in Italian with English subtitles, plus includes lots of good extras.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Robo Vampire (1988)

... aka: Robovamp

Directed by:
"Joe Livingstone" (Godfrey Ho?)

Utilizing many different aliases, Godfrey Ho made dozens of movies in just a ten year time span from 1980 to 1990. After a brief tenure at Shaw Brothers in the mid 70s, Ho worked primarily for two companies: one he himself started along with former Shaw colleague Joseph Lai (ASSO Asia Film / IFD Films & Arts) and Tomas Tang's Filmark International Ltd. The two companies are often confused with one another because they frequently made movies the same exact way... and that way was the cheapest and laziest way imaginable! Their process began with acquiring the rights to Asian films that were either unfinished or films thought to be un-releasable to English-speaking audiences. These films were then completely re-cut (removing huge portions and completely altering the original plots in the process) and had brand new cheaply-shot footage added to the works, most often involving ninjas because they were big at the time and featuring the same stable of Caucasian non-actors. The footage was then all cobbled together with an English-dub laid over top trying to make sense of it all. And just like that they had "new" films to market and sell to unsuspecting Western audiences. American director Jerry Warren had previously pioneered this technique with movies he'd acquired from Mexico, Chile and Sweden, but he never made a cottage industry of it like Ho, Tang, Lai and Lai's wife Betty Chan did.

Robo Vampire is one of Ho's Filmark movies and it's a cheap rip-off of both Robocop (1987) and Ricky Lau's popular MR. VAMPIRE series, which started in 1985. Actually, despite the title, this is more a rip-off of the latter than the former. The very first scene features a pair of American soldiers, Asian drug dealers, snakes, explosions and a hopping (and flipping!) vampire that bites a huge chunk of flesh out of one guy's neck. That's followed by a comic scene right out of the Mr. Vampire series as two bumbling idiots - Ken (Sun Chien) and Tony (Chiang Tao) - have a slapstick fight with more reanimated hopping vampires that involves the usual smoke, sparks, spell papers, crotch hits and lids levitating off of coffins, as well as a flying chicken (?!) and a Ching-Ying Lam knock- off Taoist Priest (played by Suen Kwok-Ming) with bushy eyebrows. Only in this film, the priest and his underlings are actually bad guys working on "The Vampire Project" for a Caucasian HK drug smuggler named Boss Coles.

The priest believes that "All anti-drug agents... should... be terminated... AT ONCE!" and eventually gets a lady ghost named Christine and a rotten-faced, long-haired acrobatic zombie named Peter (who later want to "consummate" their post mortem romance!) on his side. He uses them to defeat a group of American soldiers, killing an anti-drug agent named Tom in the process. Tom's body is taken to a lab, where a group of scientists decide to turn him into "an android-like robot" i.e. an incredibly-cheap- looking RoboCop clone they dub "Robo Warrior." The new robot crime fighter speaks in an electronically-altered echo voice and battles all of the bad guys in numerous scenes featuring gratuitous machine gun firing and karate fights, shoddy wire work and even shoddier editing and continuity. Since that was apparently not enough action for a single film, the movie then splices in scenes from a Thai action movie featuring hunky Sorapong Chatree (KRAI THONG) as Ray, a mercenary-for- hire who sets out to save an American narcotics agent named Sophie who's being held hostage and tortured via the Chinese water drip method.

The female ghost wears a sheer dress the entire time and goes topless for an entire fight scene and there are other strange moments like Robo -Warrior being blown up with a rocket launcher and being reassembled a second later, a woman cutting open a cow carcass and stuffing bags of drugs inside and a massacred village where dead children litter the streets and corpses hang from upside down crosses. While this has its share of fun dumb moments (most due to laughable dubbing), it's extremely difficult to follow, the non-stop chaotic action becomes numbing after awhile and the added Thai footage - which makes up around half of the finished film - constantly interrupts the flow of the crazy HK footage and is downright dull by comparison. In other words, this isn't an easy film to sit through.

The same team previously made Devil Dynamite (1987), which is similar to this one in many ways, including the whole criminal underworld / drug smuggling angle, the hopping vampires, the evil priest and a crime fighter dressed in a cheap-looking silver outfit (though one's a super hero and the other's a robot). This is a slight improvement over Dynamite, which admittedly isn't saying much. Both Dynamite and Robo Vampire are, respectively, the first and second entries in what some fans have dubbed "The Robo Warrior Trilogy." The third and final entry in this unofficial series is Counter Destroyer aka The Vampire Is Alive (1989).

It's also worth pointing out that in a joint interview with the websites HKCinemagic and Nanarland (read it RIGHT HERE), Ho himself denied making some of these films, which are possibly falsely accredited to him. In the interview, he claims "The only names I used are Godfrey Ho, Benny Ho, Godfrey Hall or Ho Chi Keung. Other names are not me." However, that doesn't take into consideration the common practice of Anglicizing names by distributors, which could have easily been done without his knowledge. They did so with most of the actors and crew people in nearly all of these films, so why not him?

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