Sunday, March 31, 2019

La rossa dalla pelle che scotta (1972)

... aka: El cadaver asesino (The Murderous Corpse)
... aka: La peau qui brûle (The Burning Skin)
... aka: Red Headed Corpse, The
... aka: Redhead with Hot Skin, The
... aka: Sensuous Doll, The
... aka: Sexy Spirits, The
... aka: Sweet Spirits

Directed by:
Renzo Russo

Someone on a motorcycle is lurking around the home of John Ward (Farley Granger); a lonely, mentally unstable, alcoholic American artist currently living in Istanbul. That same person later breaks into John's house, steals a photo and goes to a bar, where he inquires about the beautiful redhead in the picture. A woman merely tells him she's "the bosses girlfriend" but doesn't seem to want to elaborate beyond that. While walking through the woods the following day, John stumbles across a bunch of hippies lying around in a field. After refusing their offer to "turn on," one of the men drags a mannequin over to him and leaves it lying by his feet. He says he can have it if he promises to take care of it. "She's better than the real thing," he adds, "She never talks back and she's always waiting." John takes the raggedy, faceless mannequin home, talks to it and then promises it he'll fix it up.

After having an unsuccessful encounter with a very persistent but insecure prostitute (Ivana Novak), John returns home to continue repairing the mannequin. After scraping something off its back, the mannequin starts bleeding and next thing he knows it has transformed into an actual woman (Krista Nell). And the woman, whom he refers to as Patty ("Lady of the House" in Turkish), is just how the hippie described. She doesn't talk back (because she's mute), never asks for anything, is always eagerly waiting at home for him to return with a big smile on her face and endures his mood swings because she's completely subservient. When John decides to make love to his "doll," all of that changes. The mannequin morphs yet again into another beautiful woman (Erika Blanc), only this new incarnation isn't anything like the last. Patty 2.0 is an intelligent, seductive, manipulative woman who has needs and wants, her own voice and opinion (that she doesn't hesitate to make known) and something of a cruel streak when she doesn't get her way. She's also not going to be controlled nor just allow the insecure John to lock her away in his home.

John has been struggling to get by and has only been able to sell his paintings for a few hundred lira apiece. The art dealers all want nude women because that's what sells, but John wants to paint what he wants when he wants. The problem is, examples of what he wants are still hanging up in galleries all over town, unsold. Sick of living in poverty, Patty offers to pose nude for him so they can make a little money and stop living like paupers. Though resistant at first, John finally relents. He takes the painting into the gallery and is offered 1000 lira. More paintings soon follow. Art collector Omar Bay (Aydin Terzel) starts commissioning specific paintings of Patty and becomes infatuated with her in the process. And he's not the only one.

John soon discovers he's got some real competition and must start catering to the increasingly needy Patty's every wish or risk losing her. She takes on macho local hunter Steve (Venantino Venantini) as a lover, as well as the wealthy Omar, who promises to shower her with gifts if she'll leave John to be with him. John starts finding clues around the home (a shotgun shell, a cigarette in the ashtray) that other men have been sneaking over while he's away and the already mentally-unsound artist finds himself growing more and more paranoid. Pretty soon, Patty is all but rubbing his face in her various infidelities, including seducing a 16-year-old boy on a beach. She eventually decides to run off with Steve to Barcelona, but first offers John one more night... in exchange for his soul. Just what is she? A ghost? A demon? Some other kind of supernatural being? Just a figment of John's imagination?

Even though this has been written off as lesser than by some giallo devotees who've specifically sought it out and then been disappointed there's not a gloved killer running amok, this is actually a pretty interesting little psycho-drama / eerie mystery with supernatural overtones that has some interesting things to say about love, insecurity and the power play that occurs in most romantic relationships. Helping to carry this oddity along are very good performances from its two stars, with Granger effective as the intense, controlling, imbalanced artist and a perfectly cast Blanc sinking her teeth into the role of an enigmatic, scheming seductress.

First released to U.S. theaters as The Sensuous Doll in 1976, this made its way to video under the title Sweet Spirits in 1988, courtesy of Private Screenings. The box for that video (falsely) claims it runs 87 minutes but most other prints run anywhere from 70 to 78. I'm not even sure how long the uncut version is supposed to be but I've seen it listed as anywhere from 82 to 90 minutes, which means the 78 minute Retromedia DVD release that I viewed is missing some footage. Another DVD being sold by Asian Cult Cinema (under the title The Sexy Spirits) claims to run 84 minutes and shows stills not seen in the version I viewed.

Certain releases have reels out of order and others have re-edited the film or even reassembled certain scenes in a different order. Some cuts have removed most of the nudity while, on the other end of the spectrum, there's a French-language version with added XXX sex inserts. Would be nice if we could at least get a regular uncut version of this one.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

Gui jia (1976)

... aka: 鬼嫁
... aka: Ghost, The
... aka: Ghost Lover, The
... aka: Ghost Marriage
... aka: Marriage of Ghosts, The

Directed by:
Yao Fung Pan (Feng-Pan Yao)

It's a real shame that only a dark VHS quality print of this is currently available, because it's actually pretty good! While out camping in the mountains with some friends, college philosophy major Chi Da Cheng (Ming Lun Ku) goes to collect firewood and finds a small case filled with female belongings. He then spots a figure off in the distance and follows it through the woods until he ends up at a mansion. The sound of music leads him inside where he finds beautiful Mei Nung (Barbara Wang) playing piano. She's not only alluring and mysterious but also eloquent and well-read, easily keeping pace discussing philosophy and poetry in their brief conversation. As both are professing their fondness for the peace and quiet that comes with the dark ("I like night. Only at night do I feel like I have life"), Mei Nung's Aunt (Lai-Wan Chan) shows up to tell her it's time for bed. The aunt walks Chi Da to the door and leaves him with a stern though not impolite warning to "Leave this place soon." Day breaks by the time he makes it back to camp and all of his friends are gone.

When Chi Da returns to his apartment, his spoiled, bitchy girlfriend Ping Ping (Chuan-Chuan Chou) is there waiting on him and wanting to know where he's been all night. Chi Da doesn't help his plight any mentioning his encounter with the beautiful, graceful, piano playing girl in the mansion in the mountains. Not believing him, she demands he take her there but, when the two arrive, there's no mansion and no girl. Chi Da returns by himself the following night and has another encounter with Mei Nung, who again leads him back to the house. After Chi Da touches her shoulder, Mei Nung's aunt informs him that she now "belongs" to him and makes mention of a dowry. Mei Nung reassures him that she won't harm him before disappearing at dawn. Chi Da wakes up in a field next to two tombstones wondering if everything had been a dream. At school, he becomes the butt of jokes when rumors of his ghost sightings start getting around.

Angry and jealous Ping Ping goes to her rich daddy Lo Yeh (Sun Wang) and, get this, asks him to purchase the entire mountain and then build a mansion at the exact spot Chi Da claims to have met Mei Nung... and he agrees! Chi Da attempts to stop the construction and warns that they're digging up graves but is chased off. Later that night, Ping Ping and her father are visited by ghosts, who warn the father not to disturb the mountain any longer. But it appears the damage has already been done as both ghosts have been displaced. Meanwhile, Mei Nung's ghost aunt delivers a tablet / dowry to Chi Da's mother (Bi Hui Fu), which "settles" the marriage. Chi Da is now married to a ghost!

All hell breaks loose after Ping Ping destroys the marriage tablet. She's possessed, laughs in an echo voice, chews on a martini glass and spits up blood until they finally get the ghost to leave her body after throwing blood in her face. Then housekeeper / cook Mrs. Wang (Yin-Shang Liu) is possessed by a one-eyed black cat, which makes Ping Ping and her father have visions of her carrying a severed head around on a platter. Chi Da's roommate Hsiao Wei (Jing Fang) is driven out of their home when a hand reaches up from the toilet bowl and grabs him. Lo Yeh eventually enlists the aid of Taoist Shan-Tung Wei (Ping Ou Wei) and his cowardly assistant Hsiao Quai (Kuei Chang), who are hired to find the tombs of both Mei Hung and her aunt and drive spikes through their heads.

Having just watched DEMON'S APARTMENT (1985) from the same director, I decided to jump right into his other films as I suspected Apartment wasn't going to be indicative of the quality of the rest of his work. After all, Yao made several dozen ghost / horror films (many of which were hits in Asia) and I doubted that would be the case if all of his other movies were as poor. My suspicion was thankfully correct. You can tell from the first ten minutes that this is on another level entirely. It establishes an almost immediate deep connection between our protagonist and the ghost with minimal dialogue and makes wonderful use of light, shadow and especially sound (piano chords, a calling cat...) to eerie effect. Characters are virtually swallowed in the darkness that overwhelms each frame (often only candlelit faces are visible) and adding a slight echo effect to voices is a very clever touch to give the home a cavernous, almost tomb-like feel. It's a good reminder of how attention to small details makes such a big difference in low budget films.

After the somber and haunting opening this becomes a bit louder and bloodier as it goes along but mostly continues to hit the right buttons. The primary plot thread of the doomed romance (there's a short flashback that explains the link between the college student and ghost) comes off well thanks to melancholic scoring and likable leads and the horror scenes are often surprisingly potent thanks to good use of lighting, some clever effects and stylish / colorful presentation. The attempts at levity with the Taoist and roommate characters don't work too well but thankfully they're only a minor annoyance and this mostly plays out seriously. The fact it still manages to impress in many areas despite the subpar quality of the print and the fact a lot of the poorly-translated subtitles get cut off on the sides is really to the film's credit. This is a good enough effort to merit rescue.

What perhaps surprised me most is how often this reminded me of Argento's SUSPIRIA (released the following year). Not only is it filled with bold and heavily stylized lighting (most prominently green with some red, blue and yellow) but the busy music score (alternating between ethereal and jarring / noisy) often sounds very similar to Goblin's bombastic score and there's even some nearly identical imagery, most notably the female corpse laid out in a white nightgown with pins sticking in both eyes.

The English title used on the subbed version distributed by Ocean Shores (and by Daiei Video out of Japan) is The Ghost, which is so generic it probably ended any potential interest in this title on the home video market back then. This is also not to be confused with at least a dozen other Asian films from the 70s and 80s with some combination of ghost or spirit and love or lover in the title, including the previous Golden Eagle production The Ghost (1972) and The Ghost Lovers (1974) from Shaw Brothers.

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