International Horror Film Review: Body Count (dir by Ruggero Deodato)

Sitting in the middle of the forest, there’s a camp ground.  Rumor has it that the camp was built on the site of an ancient Native American burial ground and that’s why grouchy Robert Ritchie (David Hess) and his wife Julia (Mismy Farmer) were able to afford it as such as reasonable price.  I guess that could be true and maybe the part about the curse is true, too….  Well, no matter!  People love to camp and the forest is lovely and there’s no way that this camp ground won’t be a success!

In fact, the only thing that could stop it from being a popular vacation location would be if two teenagers were mysteriously murdered one night….

Which, of course, is exactly what happens!  The daughter of a local doctor (played by John Steiner, of all people) goes off with her boyfriend and both of them are murdered!  (Though we’re told that the two of them are high school students and, when we first see them, they’re at basketball practice, both victims appear to be in their early 30s.  When the actress playing the doctor’s daughter first approached him, I immediately assumed that she was playing his wife.  I was actually a little bit stunned when she said, “Bye, Daddy.”)

Anyway, the unsolved murder pretty much ruins any hope of the camp ground being successful.  15 years later, Robert is paranoid and convinced that a Native shaman is sneaking around the forest and looking for campers to kill.  Meanwhile, Julia is so frustrated with her increasingly unstable husband that she’s having an affair with the sheriff (Charles Napier).  The sheriff is so busy shtupping Julia that it often falls upon Deputy Ted (Ivan Rassimov, who had the best hair of all the Italian horror actors) to actually enforce the law.  Meanwhile, the doctor is still mourning the death of his daughter and wandering around the forest.

Eventually, a bunch of obnoxious 30-something teenagers arrive, looking for a place to park their camper and ride their dirt bikes.  Despite the history of murder and the general grouchiness of Robert Ritchie, they decide to say at the campground.  Soon, a masked killer is carving people up.  Is it the spirit of the Native shaman or is it something else?  Who will survive and what will be left of them?

This 1986 Italian film was directed by none other than Ruggero Deodato, the man behind films like Cannibal Holocaust and The House On The Edge of the Park (which starred Body Count’s David Hess).  As one might expect from a Deodato film, the emphasis is on blood and atmosphere.  Deodato, who always had a good eye for properly ominous locations, gets a lot of mileage out of that spooky forest, which really does look like exactly the place where a masked killer would chose to hang out.  While the kills are tame by Deodato standards, they’re still icky enough to make you cringe.  I’m sorry but if the scene involving the body hanging from the hook doesn’t freak you out, then you’ve obviously become dangerously desensitized and you probably should probably take a break from watching movies like this.

Of course, the main appeal of Body Count is to see a cast of Italian horror and exploitation veterans going through the motions of starring in an American-style slasher film.  David Hess, Ivan Rassimov, John Steiner, Charles Napier, and Mimsy Farmer are all such wonderfully eccentric performers that they’re worth watching even when they’re stuck in one-dimensional roles.  David Hess, especially, does a good job as the unhinged Robert Ritchie and the film makes good use of Hess’s image.  The film understand that we’re so used to watching David Hess kill people on screen that our natural instinct is to suspect the worst when we see him in Body Count.  I also liked the performance of John Steiner, largely because Steiner always came across like he couldn’t believe that, after a distinguished theatrical education, he somehow ended up an Italian horror mainstay.  And, of course, Ivan Rassimov had the best hair in the Italian horror genre.

Body Count is on Prime.  The story’s not great but it’s worth watching just for the horror vets in attendance.

Embracing the Melodrama Part III #3: More (dir by Barbet Schroeder)

More is such a film of the 60s that you can almost get a contact high from watching it.

It’s not just that the film was released in 1969.  After all, there were a lot of films released in 1969 that don’t, in any way, feel like they belong in the 60s.  (Just consider two of 1969’s Best Picture nominees, Anne of the Thousand Days and Hello, Dolly.)  However, More is a film that seems to include every single thing that we think of when we think about the late 60s.

Drugs?  Check.

Hitchhiking?  Check.

Petty crime?  Check.

Ennui?  Check.

Weirdly out-of-place political bullshit?  Check.

A fatalistic ending that suggests that nothing really matters?  Check and double check.

More tells the story of a young German named Stefan (Klaus Grunberg).  Stefan has just wrapped up his mathematics studies and now, he’s intent on exploring Europe and experiencing life!  The first time we see Stefan, he’s hitchhiking and not having much luck.  No one really wants to pick up Stefan and I really can’t blame them.  Stefan is an incredibly boring character and Grunberg gives a remarkably dull performance in the lead role.  Unfortunately, Stefan also narrates his story.  I usually don’t like narrators in general but they especially get on my nerves whenever they appear in a movie that was made between 1966 and 1970.

Anyway, Stefan finally finds himself in Paris.  He befriends Charlie (Michel Chanderil), who is a petty thief and who takes the naive Stefan under his wing.  The movie picks up a bit whenever Charlie is on screen, largely because Chanderil has more screen presence than Grunberg.  As I watched Charlie teach Stefan how to steal, I found myself wishing that the whole film could have been about Charlie.

But no.  We’re stuck with boring old Stefan.  Stefan eventually meets an American girl named Estelle (Mismy Farmer).  Now, if Stefan was a fan of Godard, he would undoubtedly have seen Breathless and he would know better than to run off with an American girl.  But, because Stefan is a dullard, he instead decides that he loves Estelle.  When Estelle heads off for Ibiza, Stefan follows.

In Ibiza, Estelle is living with an enigmatic German named Dr. Wolf (Heinz Engelmann).  Dr. Wolf is a former (and, it’s implied, current) Nazi.  Stefan wins her away from Dr. Wolf.  Stefan thinks that he’s rescuing her but Estelle really doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.  Estelle introduces Stefan to the world of drugs and Stefan is soon hooked on heroin.

And it just goes on from there.

More probably could have probably been a really good film if Stefan wasn’t such a dull protagonist or if Grunberg had been in the least bit compelling in the lead role.  From the minute I first saw him hitchhiking, my reaction was, “I do not care about this person” and that was pretty much the way I felt throughout the entire film.

The film does have its good points.  The cinematographer was Nestor Almendros so Ibiza looks amazing and Pink Floyd provides an appropriately moody score.  Mimsy Farmer, an American actress who later appeared in some of the best gialli to come out of Italy, is perfectly cast as the self-centered and casually destructive Estelle.  But all the good points can’t make up for the film’s slow pace and Grunberg’s charisma-free performance.

More is probably best viewed as a cultural artifact.  I’m a history nerd and I’m always fascinated by films like More that, regardless of their overall quality, are such obvious works of their time.  More may reek of stale weed but watching it is definitely a chance to experience the 60s.

Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

cracked rear viewer

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post…

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Cleaning Out The DVR: Riot on Sunset Strip (dir Arthur Dreifuss)

(Hi there!  So, as you may know because I’ve been talking about it on this site all year, I have got way too much stuff on my DVR.  Seriously, I currently have 180 things recorded!  I’ve decided that, on February 1st, I am going to erase everything on the DVR, regardless of whether I’ve watched it or not.  So, that means that I’ve now have only have a month to clean out the DVR!  Will I make it?  Keep checking this site to find out!  I recorded the 1967 film, Riot on Sunset Strip, off of TCM on September 28th, 2017!)

“Dig that scene!”

That’s a line that’s heard more than once in Riot on Sunset Strip, a film that’s all about digging that scene.

In this case, the scene is Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in 1966.  All the kids are going to the clubs and dancing to that strange rock and roll music.  Protesters are walking up and down the sidewalk, carrying signs that carry radical messages like: “Be Nice” and “Make Peace.”  (As far as I could tell, no one had a “Join the Conversation” sign.)  Some of the so-called “long hairs” are wearing red armbands to show that they are a member of the counter-culture police force, determined to keep peace on the Strip.  Meanwhile, the real police are a constant presence.  There’s a 10 o’clock curfew for anyone under the age of 18 and if the cops catch you, you’re going to the station where your parents will be called and your mom will probably freak out over the length of your skirt.  The kids want the police to change their attitude.  The local business owners — the ones who don’t own a club and who all look like they might be related to Dwight Eisenhower — want the police to get even more aggressive.

Stuck in the middle of it all is the local police captain, Walt Lormier (Aldo Ray).  Sure, Walt might be a member of the establishment, with his neckties and his J. Edgar Hoover haircut.  But Walt knows that the kids aren’t all bad.  Sure, their music sounds like noise to him.  And some of the boys may wear their hair a little bit longer than Walt thinks they should.  (In some scenes, it’s easy to imagine Walt thinking, “That haircut would have gotten you shot if you’d been in my unit in Korea…”)  But mostly, Walt wants to keep peace.  He’s even willing to meet with one of the protesters and listen to his concerns.

“Are you in college?” Walt asks the protester.

“Third year,” the protester replies, “Straight A’s.”

Of course, what Walt doesn’t realize is that his own daughter, Andy (Mismy Farmer, before she relocated to Italy), is one of the kids who is hanging out on the strip!  Of course, it’s been a while since he’s seen Andy.  Walt is divorced from Andy’s mother and says he really isn’t even sure where either Andy or his ex-wife lives now.  Of course, we know that they’re living in a shack, one that has only one room and where wet clothes are hung from the ceiling so that they can dry.  Andy’s mom is always drunk.  Can you blame Andy for wanting to spend all of her time on the Strip?

Of course, not everyone on the Strip is as reasonable as a third year college student.  Some of the kids actually are bad.  One of them slips Andy LSD, which leads to Andy staring at her hand and then doing an interpretive dance at a house party.  After discovering that his drugged daughter has been raped, Walt attacks her three rapists, which leads to the riot promised by the title.  Being a good middle-of-the-road liberal, Walt realizes that he now has to make amends with the good kids but can he stop things before they get out of control?  After all, those protesters are already passing out signs…

Based on an actual event. Riot on Sunset Strip is a real time capsule of a film.  Regardless of whether the film itself is any good or not, it’s worth watching as just a reflection of the time in which it was made.  Like a lot of the “social problem” films made in the mid-60s, it deals with a very real issue and then resolutely refuses to come down on either side.  Older viewers could watch Mimsy Farmer freaking out on LSD and say, “See, that’s why we need a curfew!”  Younger viewers could look at Andy’s drunk mother and the parents picking up their children at the station and say, “See, that’s why we need to burn down the establishment and move to Cuba!”  In the end, the film declares that the kids are all right except for the ones that aren’t.  Ultimately, it’s all the parents’ fault except for the parents who aren’t at fault.

(That said, I imagine that any truly committed 60s revolutionary would have rolled their eyes at the way they were portrayed in the film.  The protesters and their signs automatically made me think about the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial.)

Seen today, the main thing that I noticed about Riot on Sunset Strip is that all of the wild kids on the Strip looked more like missionaries than revolutionaries.  One of Andy’s friend’s did occasionally let his hair fall in his eyes but otherwise, they were an amazingly clean-cut group of delinquents, the type who, today, would probably get blocked by every member of Resistance Twitter because everyone would assume that they were actually undercover Russian bots.

(At the end of the film, a narrators informs us, “Soon, half the world’s population will be under 25 years of age.  What will happen to them?  Where will they go?”  The answer, of course, is that most of them will go to the suburbs.)

Today, it’s easy to roll your eyes at something like Riot on the Sunset Strip.  Our modern culture of snark almost demands that you do.  But, honestly, I enjoyed this film.  Watching it was like having my own little time machine.

The Films of Dario Argento: Four Flies On Grey Velvet


After the good but somewhat generic Cat o’Nine Tails, Dario Argento returned to form with his third film, 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

It’s not particularly easy to describe the plot of Four Flies because, much like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the storyline is less important than the way that Argento tells it.  The film tells the story of Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer with an up-and-coming rock band in Rome.  In many ways, Roberto is a typical drummer.  He’s the guy who, even though he’s often obscured in the background, keeps things balanced.  He has a loving wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer), a nice house, and worldly, politically woke friends who smoke weed and praise art.  Admittedly, one of those friends does tell a rather gruesome story about witnessing a beheading in Saudi Arabia which leads to Roberto having a reoccurring nightmare but otherwise, Roberto would appear to have a great life.

(Incidentally, Roberto’s nightmares are Argento at his best.)

So, why is this stable and easy-going guy suddenly being followed by a mysterious man in a suit?  And why, when Roberto confronts the man, does he discover that there’s yet another mysterious figure — this one wearing a mask — following him and taking pictures?

That’s the mystery that opens Four Flies on Grey Velvet but it’s not the only mystery to be found in the film.  In fact, this movie finds Argento at both his most macabre and his most playful.  At times, he literally seems to be seeing just how far he can push and how complicated he can make things before totally losing his audience.  The film may start with Roberto being followed and having nightmares but eventually, it comes to involve everything and everyone from Nina’s enigmatic cousin, Dalia (Francine Racette) to a beatnik named God (played by none other than spaghetti western mainstay, Bud Spencer) to a flamboyant private investigator (Jean-Pierre Marielle).  (By today’s standards, the portrayal of the gay detective has a few cringey moments but you have to remember that Four Flies On Grey Velvet was made in 1971.  It was nothing less than revolutionary for an Italian film of that era to portray an openly gay contemporary character in any type of positive light.)  To top it all off, the solution to the film’s main mystery is discovered through optography, the long-since discredited idea that an eye will “save” the last image seen before death.  It’s ludicrous but Argento pulls it off with a cheerfully over-the-top style that perfectly matches the film’s twisted plot.  After the toned down Cat o’Nine Tails, Four Flies was Argento’s way of reminding viewers of who he truly was as a filmmaker.

The film’s brilliant opening sets the tone for the entire film.  Watch it below and thank me later:

It’s rare that anyone every really discusses the acting in an Argento film.  Argento has himself admitted that he doesn’t worry much about actors and many of his films have been released in badly dubbed versions, which often makes it difficult to fairly judge any of the performances.  That said, Roberto Tobias is one of my favorite Argento protagonists and it’s all due to Michael Brandon’s performance.  Brandon makes Roberto into such a nice guy and does such a good job of capturing his descent into paranoia that it’s impossible not to get caught up in his story.  (I would even argue that the long-haired and politically concerned Roberto is almost an autobiographical stand-in for Argento himself.)  Though I can’t really explain why without running the risk of spoiling a major part of the movie, Mimsy Farmer is also excellent.  Reportedly, Argento originally wanted to cast Mia Farrow and you can imagine a post-Rosemary’s Baby pre-Woody Allen Farrow in the role.  But I’m glad that Argento couldn’t get her because Mimsy Farmer gives a close to perfect performance.

Four Flies was the third and final part of Argento’s “animal trailer,” and, at the time, Argento declared that Four Flies would also be his final giallo film.  He followed up Four Flies with The Four Days, a historical comedy that was considered to be such a failure that, after its release, Argento returned to the safety of the giallo genre and gave the world one of his greatest triumphs, Deep Red.  However, if The Four Days had been a success and Four Flies had been Argento’s final giallo film, it would have been a triumphant note to go out on.

Here’s the very misleading trailer that was used for Four Flies On Grey Velvet‘s American release.

And here’s the even more obscure European trailer!

A Quickie Horror Review: The Black Cat (dir. by Lucio Fulci)

For my first horror review of October, I want to tell you about a movie that was directed by one of my favorite Italian filmmakers, Lucio Fulci.  That movie is the unjustly neglected Gato nero, or the Black Cat

In The Black Cat (loosely — and I do mean loosely — based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story), the great David Warbeck plays a detective who is  sent to a small English village to investigate a series of mysterious deaths.  Corpses are turning up covered in scratches.  A man crashes his car after a black cat suddenly shows up in the passenger’s seat.  A young couple is found dead in a locked-up boathouse.  Evidence suggests that the killer entered through a small air vent.  No human could fit through that vent but…how about a cat?  Warbeck enlists the aid of a visiting American photographer (Mimsy Farmer) to investigate the crimes and he soon comes across a half-crazed medium (Patrick Magee) who just happens to own an adorable, if ill-tempered, black cat…

Fulci is well-known for directing such seminal (and gory) horror films as Zombi 2 and The Beyond trilogy.  The Black Cat was made during the same period of time as his more infamous films but it has never received as much attention.  Perhaps that’s because The Black Cat almost doesn’t feel like a Fulci film.  The gore is played down, the plot is coherent and (for a Fulci film) surprisingly linear, and the film even has a playful sense of humor to it.  Indeed, this often feels more like a minor, if entertaining, Hammer film than a Fulci film.  However, visually, this film is clearly the work of Lucio Fulci.  With his constantly prowling camera following isolated characters through dark streets and passageways, Fulci manages to make a small English village feel just as menacing as the dying Caribbean island from Zombi 2.  For all the attention given to Fulci as a “master of gore,” the true strength of his best films came from Fulci’s ability to create a palpable atmosphere of dread.  Fulci used gore as a tool but not as a crutch and if The Black Cat is a minor Fulci film, it’s still a film that proves that he was a far better director than even many of his fans give him credit for.

The Black Cat is surprisingly well-acted by a cast that’s made up of an appealing  combination of Fulci regulars and English B-movie veterans.  I read an old interview in which Warbeck complained that he felt his performance here was “boring,” but actually he was the perfect lead for this type of film, likable and with enough of a sense of humor to keep you watching.  Al Cliver may not be a household name but he and his blonde mustache seemed to show up in just about every movie Fulci made and he shows up here as well.  This time, he’s playing a local English constable and he’s no more believable here than he was playing a scientist in The Beyond or a boat captain in Zombi 2.  Still, any true Fulci fan will always be happy to see Cliver show up in a Fulci film because — much like familiar but bland wall paper — he lets us know that we’re home.  Patrick Magee is probably best known for his over-the-top performance as Mr. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange.  Magee goes just as much over-the-top here but, just as in A Clockwork Orange, Magee’s performance fits in perfectly with the film he’s appearing in.  Much as Stanley Kubrick contrasted Magee’s performance with Malcolm McDowell’s more subtle work, Fulci contrasts Magee’s theatrical approach with the more relaxed performances of Warbeck and Farmer.  Did I just compare Lucio Fulci to Stanley Kubrick?  Yes, I did and I stand by it.

However, the real star of this film is the black cat.  Trust me, this black cat (or black cats as I imagine several were used) is both adorable and blood-thirsty.  I still say that our cat Doc is the cutest black cat in the world but this film’s murderous feline comes in a very close second.

Doc, the greatest black cat ever!