Monday, April 29, 2024

Beyond Atlantis (1973)

... aka: La Atlántida: el paraíso perdido (Atlantis: The Lost Paradise)
... aka: Sea Creatures
... aka: Sea People
... aka: Terror en el fondo del mar (Terror at the Bottom of the Sea)

Directed by:
Eddie Romero

What started life as your usual low budget, shot-in-the-Philippines-by-Americans exploitation flick meant for the drive-in circuit soon morphed into something else entirely. Originally planned as an R-rated film with violence and nudity (i.e. the usual for this particular crew), Dimension Pictures founder / head honcho Lawrence H. Woolner decided to up the budget (which was still only in the low 200K range), hire some name value actors and aim for a more mainstream, family friendly demographic. That enabled them to hire Patrick Wayne, the son of John, who supposedly only agreed to do the film if it would be PG rated. (Note: If that's true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise since several people involved in this production made the same claim, Wayne was able to put his morals aside just a few years later to appear in bed with a topless Priscilla Barnes in the R-rated action film Texas Detour (1978) and later hit a career low playing part in the direct-to-VHS 80s gore flick Revenge.)

The resulting film was a big flop. Too tame for the adults who'd usually watch something like this and not a grand enough big budget spectacle for the kiddies, this was unable to find much of an audience. Toning things down also appears to have kneecapped its international sales potential. Going by ad materials, this doesn't appear to have had much reach outside of the North and South American markets, and didn't even do well within those parameters. There was also a UK release, but it was on the bottom half of a double bill with Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (better known these days as Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla).

Fisherman Manuel De Baracuda (Vic Diaz) has just returned to Manila after giving a mysterious young beauty a ride to a remote island in the South Seas. In lieu of monetary payment, she instead gave him a handful of pearls. Manuel sells the pearls to smooth-talkin', cigar puffin' pimp Fast Eddie (Sid Haig), who's the type always looking to make a quick buck. Whether or not it's by legal means is of little concern to the man. Logan (John Ashley), a diver with a gambling problem who frequently hits up Eddie for loans, takes one look at the pearls and visions of dollar signs start circling his head. These aren't just ordinary jewels of the sea but "Tuscarora pearls," which are very high quality, very rare and very, very expensive. Even though Logan doesn't want to split potential profits three ways, Eddie hatches a scheme that will involve another diver named Vic (Wayne), who owns a boat they can take to the island.

If two's company, and three's a crowd, might as well make it a party. Kathy (Lenore Stevens) eavesdrops on a conversation Logan and Vic are having at a casino, flirts with Logan and then sets up a date for the following day. That all turns out to be a ruse to weasel her way into their trip. You see, Kathy is actually Dr. Katherine Vernon and she's an anthropologist who's interested in searching for a lost tribe rumored to populate one of the islands. A mask she has that's from the same tribe contains the same pearls the men will be out looking for so she may as well tag along and do some research. Seeing how she's not interested in the money, Logan agrees. They put together a small crew of Filipino locals (hey, someone's gotta die, right?) and they're off.

After going to visit Manuel, Eddie is able to get (i.e. beat) enough info about him to locate the island. When they arrive, the village is seemingly abandoned yet hot food has been left out, meaning the natives fled to somewhere else when they spotted a boat coming. After barely managing to survive falling into a pit filled with flesh-eating crabs (!), Eddie and his traveling companions finally get to meet the tribe, a bunch of ping pong ball-eyed, tailless mer-people dressed in animal fur swimsuits and brandishing spears. They don't really have any special powers aside from being able to hold their breath underwater for lengthy periods of time. For some reason, tribe leader Nereus (George Nader) and his blonde, blue-eyed daughter Syrene (Leigh Christian) are the only two who look like normal humans and, by "for some reason," I mean because he was once a well-known star and she's hot so it would be a shame to make either of them wear a goofy-looking rubber mask.

The tribe offer some guest huts to the visitors but our heroes soon discover they have ulterior movies for wanting to keep them there. Vic's first mate (played by the director) dies while out scuba diving when his oxygen tank line is cut. And then Syrene is forced by Nereus to mate with one of the human men. I'm sure you can guess who she selects. No, not Sid Haig. Turns out the mutant fish-eyed people look the way they do because of inbreeding ("Incest?!") and now need to introduce some new blood into the tribe. And if anyone can do some successful seducing, it's the tan, toned and curves-in-all-the-right-places Syrene.

Though I'd imagine she'd probably be successful seducing about 99.9% of the heterosexual male population, Syrene makes the mistake of going after Mr. PG Rating himself. He swiftly rebuffs her advances and tells her he'll only put out if it's with someone he loves. No bother, Syrene isn't called Syrene for nothing. She uses her synchronized swimming mating dance and patented call to entrance and then mate with Vic under the sea in one of the most awkward scenes I've ever laid my poor eyes upon. Makes one wonder why she didn't just do that in the first place instead of asking. Maybe she has a humiliation fetish. I also have to wonder what was going through Mr. Wayne's mind thinking that appearing in an R-rated film would somehow project a worse public image than getting raped by a mermaid in a PG-rated film.

I usually enjoy lost world and trapped-on-an-island movies, but this (which is based on a story by the usually decent Stephanie Rothman) never amounted to much of anything. There's very little plot and even less little action, just lots of wasted time with endless scenes of swimming and pearl diving. A large chunk of the higher-than-usual budget reportedly went toward filming the underwater scenes... and boy did they get their money's worth! What they didn't take into consideration is that absolutely no one wants to watch a movie where half the screen time is set aside for people gathering up clam shells from the ocean floor.

Director Romero's filmography contains loads of sleazy horror, action and exploitation flicks that were profitable in their day, so watching him try yet fail to restrain himself here is actually pretty amusing. Even though there's no nudity or explicit gore, the man just can't help himself when it comes to sneaking in trashy stuff! There are real chickens dying in cockfights, hookers, massage parlor girls, illegal gambling dens, a long catfight, beaten-up cops, terrible pick-up lines and double-entendres, a baby goat getting tossed into a piranha pond where a person will later die a bloody death and the camera practically staying glued to the female star's (admittedly very nice) ass during most of her scenes. Hey, it's a hard habit to break, baby!

Aside from Haig, who tries to turn in a fun character and almost succeeds, the acting is terrible. The good news for Wayne is that he's better looking than his father ever was. The bad news is that his acting skills are even more limited. Ashley, who also produced, was about ten years outside of his Beach Party days and whatever screen appeal he once had is about completely gone at this point. He never was a very good actor and continues on in that tradition here. Christian and Stevens are both stunning to look at but most of their line delivery (much of which seems to have been looped in later) is flat. The biggest shock in veteran Nader. With his track record you'd figure he'd easily outperform the others, but he's pretty awful here himself. This was the last movie he ever appeared in and, though he looks impressively fit for a 50-something, you can tell his heart just wasn't in it. Hopefully he was paid well and enjoyed his vacation.

After VHS releases from Wizard Video (one of their early releases from way back in 1982 before they started doing the great box art) and United, this was issued on DVD in 2000, courtesy of VCI and as part of their "Drive-In Classics" line. VCI also handled the upgraded Blu-ray release in 2019, though extras on the release are slim. This title is also easy to find on streaming sites. Decent prints are currently on Youtube and Tubi so I certainly wouldn't pay good money to watch this.


Sunday, April 28, 2024

Il mostro dell'opera (1964) [f/1961]

... aka: Il vampiro dell'opera (The Vampire of the Opera)
... aka: L'orgie des vampires (The Vampire Orgy)
... aka: Monster of the Opera, The

Directed by:
Renato Polselli

Though predated a few years by I VAMPIRI (1957), the international hit BLACK SUNDAY (1960), itself prompted into existence by recent period-set, costume horror successes from UK's Hammer, is usually given credit for kick starting the gothic horror revival in Italy. Soon after, dozens of similar films were produced there over the next five or so years, many quite beautifully and atmospherically shot in black-and-white, though some were in color (and no less beautifully or atmospherically shot when in the hands of someone like Mario Bava). While most of these suffered from pacing, story and dialogue issues, often due to the horrendous dubbing they received and hack-job re-edits, others suffered more because they barely received much of a release at all. 

Case in point is The Monster of the Opera. This was shot all the way back in 1961 but not released until three years later. It never even made it over here to the U.S., nor to any other English-speaking country, and thus never received an English-friendly release until over half a century after the fact. That means the movie not only didn't play in theaters, but it also didn't turn up on late night TV nor in video rental shops and was never able to build up any kind of reputation whatsoever. I'm only aware of Italian and French theatrical releases and wasn't even able to find an old video release in either of those countries. Once you actually sit through the movie itself, it all starts making sense.


We're hit in the face with the film's true intentions right at the start, as a beautiful young woman in a see-through negligee (though wearing bra and panties - this was still the early 60s, after all!) is pursued through an abandoned theater and then outside by a vampire brandishing a HUGE pitchfork. That gives way to a bunch of voluptuous starlets stretching, gossiping, giggling and dancing around in their leotards. One gets the immediate impression that much more screen time is going to be dedicated to showcasing the charms of the female cast as it will be to the horror elements, and that's exactly what happens here. Something mildly refreshing starts taking shape after a few minutes, though. In a subgenre known for evil, duplicitous and / or depressive characters in dreary period settings, we're introduced to a bunch of bouncy and vibrant young folks who laugh, flirt, make jokes, pray pranks and run around happily spouting witty dialogue in a modern day setting.

"Marc Maryan" / Marco Mariani (TOMB OF TORTURE) stars as aspiring theater director Sandro, who's filled with good spirits and enthusiasm after having purchased an old, run-down theater called Aquarius. OK, so the place is rumored to be haunted, former performers claim to have been trapped inside by "invisible walls," a handful of previous actresses who'd performed there vanished without a trace and were never seen again, psychics who tried to investigate were driven away by a "sinister presence" and the building's grumpy caretaker, Achille ("Albert Archet" / Alberto Archetti), tries in vain to steer him away from the purchase, but it's just too good of a deal to pass up! It's also the perfect place for Sandro to stage his new play, which has been rejected by all of the other theaters. Now he won't have to worry about any of that since he'll be calling all of the shots. Soon, the theater is overrun with high energy cast and crew; guys in skeleton costumes and girls in undies, babydoll nighties and short, short togas (part of the play seems to be set in Roman times).

Giulia (Barbara Hawards), the production's lead actress, and also Sandro's leading lady off stage, has a strange feeling she's been there before. She also has a strange feeling she's met Achille before. That's because both have been prominently featured in a recurring nightmare she's been having about a vampire. Said vampire, Stefano ("John McDouglas" / Giuseppe Addobbati), eventually shows up in the flesh (at the midway point!) and (nearly an hour into this 80-minute film) attempts to put the bite to dancer Rossana (Vittoria Prada) but she manages to get away, Who he really wants is Giulia, the reincarnation of Laura, a (married) lover from hundreds of years ago who betrayed him. 

One of the lone good ideas here is that lying in the vampire's coffin and closing the lid allows one to enter into the bloodsucker's fogbound hidden lair, which appears to be in some kind of alternate dimension. There, he keeps a half dozen vampire brides, who've all gone mad, chained to the walls.

From a strictly visual standpoint, this is decent. There's good-looking black-and-white photography, a wonderful shooting location inside the old theater, nice art direction, lighting and use of shadow and fog, and some surprisingly good camerawork. The premise holds promise, the general atmosphere is quite good and things start out fun, but that fun soon gives way to tedium. Things move at a snail's pace, the plot is virtually nonexistent, the vampire is treated almost as an afterthought and most of the time is spent alternating between showing the girls running around shrieking and doing either their choreographed dances or impromptu frantic ones. While cleaning up, the cast randomly break into the Charleston and this hilariously even has the cast forced into a dance-for-your-life situation to ward off the evil at the end, as if this didn't already have too many filler dance scenes! The large cast also ensures that no one is really given much of a personality.

In addition to being a leg and undies fest, this puts a lot of focus on PG lesbianism, with the girls longingly staring into each other's eyes, caressing each other's shoulders, rubbing each other's legs, embracing, getting right in each other's faces as if they're about to kiss and, after a few are turned into vamps, nibbling on each other's necks. "Don't you feel that a friendship between two women is pure?" one dancer tells another as she seductively runs her fingers through her friend's hair. Instead of acting horrified, several of the girls act like they're in ecstasy when they're "speared" with the pitchfork, which is used to pin people down, not kill them. Subtle this is not. These bits may also explain why this was barely released. That, and the fact it's all pretty nonsensical and boring.

Most of the names in the cast list have been Anglicized, so it's difficult to know the true identity of most of these folks, though many appear to have been real-life dancers. Lead Barbara Hawards (most likely a pseudonym; she's called "Barbara Howard" on the posters) is very lovely so it's a shame this may have been her only film. Lost in the sea of other dancers is Milena Vukotic (playing "Carlotta"), the only one of the ladies who went on to much of an acting career. A trained dancer / ballerina herself, Vukotic would later act for the likes of Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel and Andrei Tarkovsky and win most of Italy's top acting awards.

The director, who also co-wrote the script with Ernesto Gastaldi, had previously made THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (1960), another entry in the 1960s Italian black-and-white Gothic cycle (also a much better film than this one), and would go on to work on some sleazier 70s genre films (usually utilizing the alias "Ralph Brown") like DELIRIUM (1972), MANIA (1974) and EROTIC GAMES OF A RESPECTABLE FAMILY (1975).

Discounting a French DVD release under the title L'orgie des vampires, which featured an English sub option but cobbled together a print from two different sources, the first English-friendly version was released by Sinister Cinema in 2020. That was followed by its inclusion in the 2023 Severin box set "Danza Macabra Volume One," which also included the forgettable THE SEVENTH GRAVE (1965), the mediocre SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER (1970) and, the most enjoyable of the lot by a fair margin, the minor cult classic Lady Frankenstein (1971).

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