Book Review: David Warbeck: The Man and His Movies by Raymond J. Slater and Harvey Fenton


David Warbeck

Anyone who is a fan of Italian exploitation films will knows the name and the face of actor David Warbeck.  Warbeck was the handsome, rugged, and surprisingly likable New Zealand-born actor who went from studying at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to appearing in films that were directed by everyone from Russ Meyer to Antonio Margheritti to Lucio Fulci.  He played a small but pivotal roles in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite and then went on to star in The Beyond, The Black Cat, The Last Hunter, Rat Man, and so many others.  While his films may never have been critical favorites at the time of their release (though several have been positively reevaluated), Warbeck’s movie did well enough at the box office that he was even considered for the role of James Bond,  Warbeck was one of those actors who was consistently good, regardless of the quality of the film in which he was appearing.

Sadly, Warbeck passed away in 1997, before many of his films were rediscovered.  It’s a shame because — as the commentary track that he and Catriona MacColl recorded for The Beyond shows — he was a charming raconteur who had a way with a story.  Fortunately, in 1996, Warbeck did sit down and gave a lengthy interview to Jason J. Slater, in which he discussed his career and shared many anecdotes about his life as an international exploitation superstar.  That interview is at the center of a short but interesting book called David Warbeck: The Man And His Movies.

The book not only features the interview with Warbeck but it also takes a detailed look at his filmography, reviewing some of his more interesting (and, in some cases, infamous) films.  The reviews are well-written by people who obviously love these often underappreciated films.

If you’re a fan of Italian exploitation, this book is simply a must-have.  Admittedly, it’s not an easy book to find.  I ordered a copy off of Amazon and it wasn’t cheap.  But it was worth it!

International Horror Film Review: Last Stop on the Night Train (dir by Aldo Lado)


This Italian film from 1975 opens with two German teenagers — Lisa Stradl (Laura D’Angelo) and Margaret Hoffenbach (Irene Miracle) — happily looking forward to the future in general and spending Christmas with Lisa’s parents in specific.  (Of course, the Stradls live in Verona so Lisa and Margaret are going to have to take a train to visit them.)  Their happiness is reflected by the song that plays over the opening credits.  A Flower’s All You Need is perhaps the most obnoxiously happy song to ever show up in an Italian horror film.  Imagine my shock when I discovered that it was apparently co-written by Ennio Morricone.

Like many Italian exploitation films, Last Stop on the Night Train has been released under many different titles.  Here’s just a few: Night Train Murders, Xmas Massacre, Don’t Ride on Late Night Trains, Torture Train, New House on the Left and Second House on the Left.  As those last two titles indicate, this film was directly inspired by the financial success of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (which, for what it’s worth, was sold as being a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring).  According to an interview with director Aldo Lado, which was included with the film’s Code Red DVD release, the film’s producers approached him and told him that they wanted him to remake Last House On The Left.  Since Lado hadn’t seen Last House on the Left, the producers hastily filmed him on what happened in Craven’s film.  Based on what the producers told him, Lado proceeded to write the script for what would become Last Stop On The Night Train.

As a result, Last Stop on the Night Train follows the general plot of Last House on the Left but with some key differences.  Lado was a protegee of director Bernardo Bertolucci so, not surprisingly, he added a Marxist political subtext to the story, one that makes Last Stop On The Night Train a bit more interesting than the usual exploitation rip-off.  (Wes Craven, it should be said, always said that Last House On The Left was meant to be political, too.  Whether that’s true or not is open to debate.)  Like Craven’s film, Last Stop On The Night Train is about two innocent travelers who are abused and murdered by a group of thugs (played, in this case, by Flavio Bucci and Gianfranco de Grassi).  By an amazing coincidence, the murderers then find themselves staying at the home of one of the girl’s parents (Enrico Maria Salerno and Marina Berti).  When the parents discover the identity of their guests, they get revenge and prove themselves to be just as capable of violence and sadism as the murderers.

The main difference between Craven and Lado’s take on the story is that Lado adds a mysterious character who is identified as being only The Lady on the Train (played by Macha Meril, who also played the unlucky psychic in Argento’s Deep Red).  The Lady on the Train is apparently very privileged.  When we first see her, she is coolly and calmly talking to a group of other wealthy passengers.  The only hint that she’s anything other than an upper class passenger on a train comes when she reveals that she’s carrying a collection of BDSM-themed postcards with her.  Before meeting the Lady on the Train, the two criminals played by Bucci and de Grassi were portrayed as just being obnoxious and larcenous but not necessarily homicidal.  It’s the Lady on the Train who goads the two men into attacking and ultimately murdering Lisa and Margaret, largely for her own amusement.  (Disturbingly, the train’s other upper class passengers are portrayed as being aware of what’s happening but either not caring or being amused by the whole thing.  One passenger — who is later revealed to be an acquaintance of the Stradls — briefly joins in.)  Even at the end of the film, while the parents are savagely attacking the two men, the Lady on the Train watches with the confident certainty that her wealth and position will protect her from any form of retribution.

It’s a disturbing film and definitely not one for everyone.  Even if you appreciate the technical skill with which it was made, this is a film that you won’t necessarily want to rewatch.  (I rewatched it only so I could write this review.  For me, it certainly didn’t help that one of the victims was named Lisa.)  If Wes Craven’s film was ultimately about gore and the idea that violence only leads to more violence, Lado is less concerned with both of those and instead focuses on the idea that, when the privileged and the marginalized both commit the same crime, only the marginalized are punished.  Lado’s film is also far better acted (and, if we’re going to be honest, directed) than Craven’s film, which makes Last Stop On The Night Train the rare rip-off that’s better than its source material.

Book Review: Italian Horror By Jim Harper


As our long time readers know, I absolutely love Italian horror.  I was very lucky to discover the greatness of Italian horror when I was a teenager (it was a double feature of Suspiria and Blade In the Dark that did it for me) and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to spend the last few years studying everything that made the Italian horror films of the 80s and early 90s so memorable.

However, I do realize that not everyone has spent the past few years watching the films of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava, Michele Soavi, and Joe D’Amato.  For those who are just starting to learn about the history of Italian horror cinema, I highly suggest Italian Horror by Jim Harper, a short but highly readable overview of the genre.  Covering the years of 1979 through 1994, Italian Horror contains insightful reviews of films both famous (The Beyond, Dellamorte Dellamore) and infamous (Zombi 3 and so many others).  Even better, there are reviews of several of the more obscure Italian horror films, the ones that actually take some effort to track down.  For instance, I never would have seen Ratman if I hadn’t come across it in Harper’s book.  And I know that you’re probably saying, “Would it be that a bad thing if you had never see Ratman?”  Listen, Italian horror fans understand.

If you’re trying to start your studies of Italian horror off on the right foot, this is definitely a good book to start with.  Read it and prepare to have a hundred new movies to watch afterwards.

International Horror Film Review: Alien 2: On Earth (dir by Ciro Ippolito)


Don’t get too excited about that title.  Yes, I know that it says Alien 2: On Earth, which would suggest that this is a sequel to the classic sci-fi horror film that we all know and love but …. well, we’ll get to it in a moment.

First, let’s talk about the movie….

HEY, EARTH!  YOU’RE GETTING INVADED AGAIN!

This time, it’s not flying saucers.  It’s not pod people.  It’s not the monsters from Cloverfield or A Quiet Place or Battle Los Angeles or Skyline or any of those films.  Instead, this time, you’re getting invaded by little blue rocks.  These rocks may look pretty but, if you hold them long enough, something will spring out of them and cause your face to explode.  Sometimes, the creature inside the rock will even hug onto your face for a while.  I guess maybe you could call it a face hugger, assuming that you had enough money to settle the copyright suit that would follow….

Famed cave explorer Thelma Joyce (Belinda Mayne) has been having horrific visions, largely due to the fact that she’s psychic whenever it’s convenient for the plot.  Could her visions have something to do with a spacecraft that has recently returned to Earth with all of its inhabitants missing?  (The implication is that the spacecraft was captained by a man named Dallas and had a warrant officer named Ripley, though that’s never specifically stated.)

Oh, why worry about all that ominous outer space stuff?  After all, Thelma and her husband Roy (Mark Bodin) have already got a full weekend planned out.  They’re going to get together with a group of friends and explore a cave!  It sounds like fun.  Of course, on the way to the cave, one of their friends finds a blue rock and decides to take it with him.  Hmmm….there’s no way that could backfire.

Once everyone’s in the cave, Thelma tells Roy that she has a feeling that something awful is about to happen.  Roy laughs off her concerns.  I mean, is Thelma supposed to be a psychic or something?  Oh, wait a minute….

Can you guess what happens?  If you think that Roy, Thelma, and their friends end up getting trapped in the cave with an alien that’s looking to dissolve all of their faces, you might be as much of a psychic as Thelma.  Needless to say, everyone picked the wrong weekend to go underground.

This Italian production from 1980 is, in many ways, a typical low-budget exploitation film.  There’s a lot of gore (including a pretty nifty beheading) and the film ends on a properly (and somewhat humorously) dark note but it takes forever for the movie to actually get going.  Fans of Italian horror will be happy to see Michele Soavi show up as one of the cave explorers and, if nothing else, the film does feature an effective sequence involving a survivor running down the streets of an eerily deserted city.

That said, this film is best-remembered as an example of just how shameless that Italian film industry could be when it came to ripping off more successful films.  Alien 2 had nothing to do with the original Alien but, because Ridley Scott’s film was a huge hit, the film was marketed as being a direct sequel.  Because the word “alien” existed long before any of the movies using it as a title were ever released, 20th Century Fox’s efforts to sue producer/director Ciro Ippolito for copyright infringement were just as unsuccessful as Ippolito’s later attempt to sue the makers of The Descent for, in Ippolito’s opinion, ripping off his story of cave explorers getting ripped apart by a strange creature.

So, no, this is not technically a part of the Alien franchise …. unless you want it to be.  That’s the fun thing about watching an unofficial sequel like this.  You can decide for yourself whether or not to accept it.

Finally, keep watching the skies and don’t pick up any blue rocks!  To quote the film’s final title card, “YOU MAY BE NEXT!”

 

Italian Horror Showcase: The Vampire and the Ballerina (dir by Renato Polselli)


“If you want to taste the night, come downstairs.”

— The Professor (Pier Ugo Gragnani) in The Vampire and The Ballerina (1960)

A young woman relaxes with her friends at a waterfall.  She sees a funeral procession passing by and cheerfully announces, “A funeral!  It brings good luck!”

One person who would disagree with that would be the girl in the coffin.  She’s just the latest villager to have been found passed out in a field in the middle of the night, lacking blood.  The locals say that there’s a vampire on the loose.  The local doctor insists that the girl is just anemic and will recover in ten days.  Instead, the girl ends up in a coffin, only opening her eyes while being carried to her grave.  From her point of view, we watch as clumps of dirt are tossed onto the coffin, one after another until finally all is dark.

At night, she leaves her grave and runs into the horribly disfigured vampire who previously bit her.  He greets her and tells her to lie down in his coffin.  As soon as she does, he drives a take through her heart and says that he must remain “the master of my world.”

It’s a strange world.  In the village, a dance troupe is, for some reason, staying at a villa belonging to an older man (Pier Ugo Gragnani) who is called both “grandpa” and “The Professor.”  (Despite the film’s title and some of the dialogue, they are clearly a modern dance troupe.)  The professor tells the dancers a story about vampires.  Everyone’s amused.  Interestingly, most of the dancers seem to believe that there is a vampire on the loose but none of them seem particularly concerned about it.  From my own experience, this is probably the most realistic part of the film.  When you’re a dancer, that’s pretty much all you worry about.

Later, two of the dancers, Luisa (Helene Remy) and Francesca (Tina Gloriani), are walking around the woods with Francesca’s fiancée, Luca (Iscaro Ravaiolli) when it starts to rain.  They take refuge in a nearby castle, one which they believe to be deserted.  It turns out that it’s not.  Countess Alda (Maria Luisa Rolando) lives there with her manservant, Herman (Walter Brandi).  Alda explains that she allows the villagers to believe the castle is deserted and haunted because she doesn’t want to be bothered by them.  Luca is immediately enchanted with Alda while Francesca wonders why Alda looks exactly like the woman in a 400 year-old painting that is hanging in the dining room.  Luisa wanders off and gets bitten by the same disfigured vampire who has been preying on the villagers.

That night, Luisa waits in bed until the vampire comes to her.  Meanwhile Luca sneaks back to the castle to see Alda.  Alda claims that Herman is holding her prisoner but, when Herman suddenly shows up, Alda orders Luca away and proceeds to drink Herman’s blood and he goes from being a handsome servant to being the disfigured vampire that we saw earlier in the film.  It turns out that Alda and Herman’s blood-soaked relationship is all about trying to stay young.  When Herman ages, he drinks the villager’s blood to become young again.  Then Alda drinks his blood to retain her youth, which means that the now aged Herman again has to go out and drink more villager blood….

Meanwhile, the dance troupe’s choreographer has a brilliant idea!  Why don’t they do a number about vampires!?

1960’s The Vampire and the Ballerina is a personal favorite of mine.  That really shouldn’t surprise anyone, of course.  I love vampires.  I love to dance.  Of course, I’m going to love a film that brings those two things together!  But beyond that, The Vampire and The Ballerina is just such a strange little film.  From the off-center performances to Angelo Baistrocchi[‘s haunting cinematography, The Vampire and the Ballerina plays out like a filmed fever dream. The fact that the plot often doesn’t make sense only adds to the film’s surreal atmosphere.

Continuing what Hammer started with the Horror of Dracula, The Vampire and the Ballerina takes the sexuality that has always been the subtext of most vampire films and instead puts it front and center.  The formerly repressed Luisia writhes in bed as she waits for the vampire to come to her.  Luca stares at Alda with an obsessive intensity before forcefully kissing her hand.  Alda and Herman torment each other, even though one could not exist without the other, a relationship that is more sado-masochistic than supernatural.

The Vampire and the Ballerina is an Italian horror film that deserves to be better known than it is.  I mean, seriously, how can anyone resist a movie that has this many vampires and this much dancing?

It’s a strange world.

Italian Horror Showcase: Il mostro di Frankenstein (dir by Eugenio Testa)


Sadly, there are some films that I will probably never get to see and this is one of them.

There’s a lot of reasons that films become lost.  Some films have been purposefully destroyed.  Some have been merely forgotten.  Unfortunately, it took several decades for people to understand that films could also be art.  Back during the silent era, I imagine people would have laughed at the idea that someone in 2018 would have any interest in watching a film that was made in 1920.

1920 was the year that a German-Italian production company produced Il mostro di Frankenstein.  It was one of the first film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic monster.  (It wasn’t the first, of course.  Thomas Edison produced his version of Frankenstein in 1910 and there may have even been earlier versions.)  It was a silent film.  It reportedly starred the hulking Umberto Guarracino as Frankenstein’s Monster while the Baron was played by a former circus performer name Luciano Albertini.  (Albertini also produced the film.)  The completed film reportedly ran afoul Italy’s then-stringent censorship laws and so much footage was cut that the final version only ran 39 minutes.

Il mostro di Frankenstein is considered to be a lost film, one that is now remembered for being one of the few Italian horror films released before the 1950s.  (As a genre, horror was frowned upon by both the Vatican and Mussolini, which meant the while the genre thrived across the world, Italian horror spent several decades moribund.)  In fact, I’ve read that Il mostro di Frankenstein was the last horror film to be produced in Italy until Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri was released in 1957.  I can’t say for sure whether that’s true or not but it makes for a good story.

Sadly, I’ll probably never see Il mostro di Frankenstein.  But, hey — if anyone in your family ever worked in the Italian film industry, why don’t you go up to your attic and take a look?  If it’s in your basement, get it out.  And if you find it in a storage locker, don’t throw it away because you’ve got a piece of history that many of us would like to see.

Until that happens, we only have this one screenshot to let us know that there was once a silent Italian film about Frankenstein and his monster.

Italian Horror Showcase: Beyond Darkness (dir by Claudio Fragasso)


In 1981, The Evil Dead was released in Italy as La Casa.

In 1987, Evil Dead II was released in Italy as La Casa 2.

In 1988, La Casa 3 was released in Italy and retitled Ghosthouse for distribution in America and the UK.

That same year, La Casa 4 was also released in Italy and it was called Witchery in America.

And then, finally, 1990 saw the release of La Casa 5.

Directed by Claudio Fragasso (who, outside of Italy, is probably best known for directing Troll 2), La Casa 5 was also known as Beyond Darkness* and it was the third “unofficial” Italian sequel to Evil Dead.  Like both Ghosthouse and Witchery, it actually has nothing to do with any of the Evil Dead films.  Instead, it plays out more like a weird mix of Poltergeist and The Exorcist.

Let’s say that you’re an aging clergyman and you’re living in a house that appears to be haunted by the ghosts of several dead witches.  Despite your own faith, you haven’t been able to exorcise their evil spirits.  What should you do!?  When Rev. Jonathan (Steven Brown) finds himself in that situation, his solution is to sell the house to one of his former students, Rev. Peter (Gene LeBrock).  Jonathan figures that Peter’s faith is so strong that he’ll be able to exorcise the house in no time!  Of course, Jonathan doesn’t actually bother to tell Peter that the house is possessed by evil.  Instead, Jonathan just lets Peter and his family discover that on their own.

And discover that they do, as the house quickly reveals itself to be haunted.  Meat cleavers fly across rooms.  Radios make strange noises.  Dishes are shattered.  A strange group of black-shrouded women are spotted hanging around upstairs.  It might have something to do with the big black swan statute that’s sitting in the kid’s room.  Or maybe it has something to do with the strange light that’s streaming out of one of the closets.  Eventually, Peter’s son gets sucked into the netherworld and, when he returns, he’s not only possessed but he keeps trying to kidnap Peter’s daughter as well!

Despite being told to avoid him, Rev. Peter is eventually forced to turn to another of Rev. Jonathan’s students, Father George (David Brandon).  Ever since he was forced to spend time with a serial killer who ate children, George has been struggling with his faith.  Will George be strong enough to help Peter exorcise the demon that has possessed his son?

(Incidentally, Peter’s son is played by Micheal Stephenson, who also starred in Troll 2 and who more recently directed the documentary about that film, Best Worst Movie.)

Watch and find out what happens!  Or don’t.  Actually,if you’ve seen The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, or Poltergeist, you’ll be able to guess everything that happens in this film.  Even the final twist has been borrowed from countless other horror films.  The presence of Claudio Fragasso in the director’s chair might tempt some to watch this in the expectation that it’ll be another “WTF!?” romp like Troll 2 but Beyond Darkness is actually pretty dull.

Beyond Darkness was the last Italian entry in the La Casa franchise but it was not the last La Casa film.  When the American horror film House II was released in Italy, it was retitled La Casa 6.  This was followed by La Casa 7, which was actually an American slasher film called The Horror Show.

And with that, the La Casa series finally ended.

* While we’re on the topic of titles, Beyond Darkness should not be confused with 1979’s brilliant Buio Omega, which was released in English-speaking territories as Beyond The Darkness and which was directed, under the pseudonym Joe D’Amato, by Aristide Massaccesi.