An Offer You Can’t Refuse #14: Contraband (dir by Lucio Fulci)


The 1980 film, Contraband, tells a story of the Neapolitan underworld.

Luca Ajello (Fabio Testi) and his older brother, Mickey, have a pretty nice operation going.  They pilot boats up and down the coast of Italy, smuggling cigarettes and booze into Naples.  It’s given both of them a pretty good life.  They own a racehorse.  Luca’s got a big house with a beautiful wife (Ivana Monti) and a precocious son.  The police are too incompetent to stop them and their disco-loving boss, Perlante (Saverio Marconi), keeps them safe from any interference from the other mob bosses working in Naples.

But then, one night, two men disguised as policeman pull Luca and Mickey over while they’re driving down an isolated road.  The fake cops proceed to fire what seems to be over a hundred bullets into Mickey.  Luca, having ducked down in his seat, is not spotted by the assassins.  Determined to find out who murdered his brother and why, Luca immediately suspects a rival mobster named Scherino but Scherino insists that Mickey’s murder was actually ordered by a mysterious French drug lord known as Il Marsigliese (Marcel Bozzuffi, who also played a French drug smuggler in The French Connection).  The French are trying to take over the rackets in Naples and a sudden surge in violence, one which sees nearly every mob boss in Naples murdered on the same day, suggests that Scherino is telling the truth.

Contraband is a brutal Italian crime film, one that is notable for being one of director Lucio Fulci’s final non-horror films.  (Contraband was released after Zombi 2 but before City of the Living Dead.)  Though the film might not feature any zombies or any talk of “the Beyond,” it’s still unmistakably a Fulci film and some of the film’s brutal violence remains shocking even when seen today.  The scene where a duplicitous drug smuggler gets her face melted with a blow torch is nightmarish and it’s followed by a scene where a rival gangster graphically gets the back of his head blown out.  (Fulci lingers on the hole in the man’s head, giving us an out-of-focus shot of the people standing behind him.)  A later gunfight leads to one gangster dying with a gaping hole in his throat while another has his face shot away, despite the fact that he’s already dead.  It’s graphic but it’s also appropriate for the story being told.  This is a movie about violent men and, as Fulci himself often pointed out whenever he was challenged about the graphic gore in his films, violence is not pretty.  Contraband is not a film that’s going to leave anyone wanting to become a gangster.

The plot is not always easy to follow but, as is typical with a good Fulci film, the striking visuals make up for any narrative incoherence.  Fulci’s camera rarely stops moving, creating a sense of unease and pervasive paranoia.  Much like the characters in the film, we find ourselves looking in every corner and shadow for a potential threat.  A meeting with an informant at a mist-shrouded sulfur pit ends with assassin literally emerging from the mist and stabbing the informant from behind.  A later gun battle on a narrow street seems to feature gunmen literally appearing out of thin air.  Fabio Testi is ruggedly sympathetic as Luca while Saverio Marconi does a great job as the decadent Perlante.  Meanwhile, Marcel Bozzuffi is legitimately frightening in his few scenes as the evil French gangster.  He’s a great villain, smug and willing to kill anyone.  You don’t have to support organized crime to support the idea of running the French out of Naples.

Contraband is a minor crime classic and proof that there was more to Fulci than just zombies and serial killers.  Today would have been Lucio Fulci’s 93rd birthday and it’s also a good day to track down Contraband, an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa

Italian Horror Showcase: City of the Living Dead (dir by Lucio Fulci)


In New York City, a group of people sit around a table, holding a seance.  One of them, a woman named Mary (Catriona MacColl) has a vision.  She sees a sickly, hollow-cheeked priest walking through a cemetery.  She watches as he hangs himself and, as the priest dangles from a tree branch, Mary lets out a piercing scream and collapses to the floor.  The police are called and they promptly declare that Mary has died.  Later, while a hard-boiled reporter named Peter Bell (Christopher George) watches as two grave-diggers walk away from her half-buried coffin, he hears something coming from the grave.  From insider her coffin, Mary is screaming and struggling to get out!

Peter grabs a pickax and smashes it down into the coffin.  Peter may be trying to free her but what he doesn’t realize is that, with each blow of the pickax, he comes dangerously close to hitting Mary in the face.  Somehow, Peter manages to avoid killing Mary.  Once he gets her out of the coffin, Peter and Mary go and see a medium to try to figure out the meaning behind Mary’s previous vision.

What they don’t discuss is why or, for that matter, how everyone was convinced that Mary was dead for at least a day or two.  Mary doesn’t mention that Peter nearly killed her with the pickax.  In fact, for two people who have just met under the strangest and most disturbing of circumstances, Peter and Mary seem to be getting along famously.  For that matter, they don’t appear to be too surprised when the medium informs them Mary’s vision indicated that the dead will soon be entering the world of the living.

And so begins Lucio Fulci’s wonderfully odd and surreal City of the Living Dead.  Reading the paragraphs above, you might think that I was criticizing City of the Living Dead but nothing could be further from the truth.  From the start, Fulci establishes that City of the Living Dead is going to fully embrace its own unique aesthetic.

The majority of City of the Living Dead takes place in a small town with the name of Dunwich, a name that immediately (and, I believe, intentionally) brings to mind the writing of H.P. Lovecraft.  Dunwich is a town that always seems to be covered in fog.  At the local bar, men talk about the recent suicide of Father Thomas and they discuss what to do about Bob (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), who the majority of them believe to be a a pervert.  Meanwhile, Bob comes across an inflatable sex doll in a deserted warehouse and, for the most part, just tries to stay out of everyone’s way.

(Bob was one of Radice’s first roles and, along with his turn as David Hess’s sidekick in The House On The Edge of the Park, the one that many fans of Italian horror continue to associate him with.  It’s a testament to Radice’s talent that he could make even a creepy character like Bob sympathetic.)

Even without the presence of the living dead, Dunwich doesn’t seem like the ideal place to live.  A greedy morgue attendant attempts to steal a dead woman’s jewelry.  A psychiatrist named Gerry (Carlo de Mejo) struggles to calm the nerves of his patient, Sandra (Janet Agren).  At one point, one man gets so angry with another that he drills a hole in his head.  That’s Dunwich, for you.  Who needs the dead when you’re surrounded by the worst of the living?

Speaking of the dead, that dead priest is still wandering around town.  When he comes across two teenagers making out in a jeep, he rips open the boy’s head while the girl bleeds from her eyes and proceeds to vomit up her intestines.  (Somewhat inevitably, the boy is played by Michele Soavi who, before launching his own acclaimed directing career, always seemed to die in films like this.  Even more inevitably, the girl is played Daniela Doria, who appeared in four Fulci films and suffered a terrible fate in every single one of them.)

By the time that Peter and Mary actually reach the town, the dead are already moving through the fog while storms of maggots crash through windows.  Even the sight of a seemingly innocent child running towards the camera leads to the sound of people screaming off-screen….

Even though it’s actually one of Fulci’s more straight-forward films (i.e., a character says that Dunwich is going to be overrun by zombies and then Dunwich actually is overrun by zombies), it still plays out like a particularly intense dream.  From the fog-shrouded visuals to the often odd dialogue, City of the Living Dead is a film that plays out according to its own unique logic.  The film’s surreal atmosphere may have partially been the result of a rushed production schedule but it also serves to suggest that, as a result of the priest’s suicide, the nature of reality itself has changed.

City of the Living Dead is not a film for everyone.  If I was introducing someone to Fulci for the first time, I would probably have them watch Zombi 2The Black Cat and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin long before I even suggested they take a look at City of the Living Dead.  That City of the Living Dead is a gory film should come as no surprise.  That was one of Fulci’s trademarks, after all.  Instead, what makes City of the Living Dead a difficult viewing experience for some is just how bleak the film truly is.  Even before the living dead arrive, Dunwich is a town the seems to epitomize the worst instincts of humanity.  There’s a darkness at the heart of the City of the Living Dead and it has nothing to do with zombies.

First released in 1980, City of the Living Dead is generally considered to be the first part of Fulci’s Beyond trilogy.  Catriona MacColl, who gives such a good performance here, appeared in the film’s two follow-ups, The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery.  (MacColl played a different character in each film.)  With each film, Fulci’s vision grew more and more surreal until eventually, he seemed fully prepared to reject the idea of narrative coherence all together.

Though initially dismissed by critics, The Beyond trilogy is today celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Italian horror.  City of the Living Dead is probably the most narratively coherent film in the trilogy, even if its ending raises more questions than it answers.  Personally, I love the ending of City of the Living Dead, even though it was apparently a last-minute decision.  (According to Wikipedia — so take this with a grain of salt — someone spilled coffee on the original work print of the ending, which led to Fulci having to improvise.)  It’s an ending that suggests that not only has the film broken apart but that the world is shattering right along with it.  In the end, the world falls apart not with a bang but with one long scream.

 

Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #30: The Adventures of Hercules (dir by Luigi Cozzi)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Tuesday, December 6th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

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On November 10th, I recorded 1985’s The Adventures of Hercules off of the Encore Family channel.

Let’s see if I can explain exactly what this film is about.  Bear with me because this is going to be a strange one.  For that matter, you might also want to bare with me because The Adventures of Hercules is all about displaying the physique of body builder Lou Ferrigno.  Ferrigno plays the legendary Greek demigod Hercules.  Or I should say that he provides Hercules’s body and occasionally a facial expression or two.  Since The Legend of Hercules was an Italian film, the entire cast is obviously and frequently awkwardly dubbed.  That includes Ferrigno.  Though Hercules doesn’t say much, when he does speak, he does so in a voice that really doesn’t go with his body, his personality, or anything that seems to be happening on screen.

Anyway, I guess I should try to explain the plot.  I should mention that The Legend of Hercules is a sequel to another Hercules film.  I haven’t seen the first Hercules film.  Maybe the Legend of Hercules would have made more sense if I had, though I somehow doubt it.

Basically, bad things are happening on Earth.  Why?  Well, it appears that four of the Gods have gotten together and stolen Zeus’s 7 Mighty Thunderbolts.  They’ve hidden the Thunderbolts across the planet, entrusting them with various monsters.  As a result of Zeus no longer having his thunderbolts, the Moon is now on the verge of colliding with Earth and human sacrifices are also being committed to a monster that looks a lot like the ID Monster from Forbidden Planet.  

What does a Mighty Thunderbolt look like?  Here you go.

What does a Mighty Thunderbolt look like? Here you go.

Two sisters, Urania (Milly Carlucci) and Glaucia (Sonia Vivani), appeal to Zeus for help but, of course, Zeus is powerless without his thunderbolts.  However, he can still sends his son Hercules (Lou Ferrigno) to Earth.  Working with the sisters, Hercules goes on a quest for the thunderbolts.  This basically amounts to a series of scenes in which Hercules battles various people in rubber suits.  Whenever Hercules throws a punch, he’s filmed so that appears that he’s punching the camera.  Whenever Hercules’s fist makes contact, there’s a flash of red.  Whenever anyone is knocked off their feet by Hercules, they flip around in slow motion.  This happens every ten minutes or so.

Now, I don’t want to spoil the movie but I simply have to tell you about this.  There is a scene, towards the end of the film, in which Hercules literally grabs hold of the Moon and prevents it from crashing into the Earth.

Anyway, the plot makes no sense and that’s a huge part of this film’s enthusiastic, if frequently inept, charm.  As directed by the famed Italian director, Luigi Cozzi, The Adventures of Hercules has this cobbled together feeling to it that is undeniably likable.  Much as with Cozzi’s best-known film, Starcrash, The Adventures of Hercules is a film that wins you over by pure determination.  Cozzi set out to make a mythological epic and he wasn’t going to let something like a complete lack of budget stop him.

How strange an experience is The Adventures of Hercules?  Check out some of these randomly assembled screen shots:

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The other fun thing about The Adventures of Hercules is that, since this was a Luigi Cozzi film, the cast is full of Italian exploitation vets, the majority of whom were best known for appearing in far less family-friendly fare.

Here’s just a few of the performers you’ll find in The Adventures of Hercules:

Sonia Vivani, who plays Glaucia, also played the doomed sculptor in Umberto Lenzi’s infamous Nightmare City.

William Berger, who plays the villainous King Minos, appeared in several classic Spaghetti westerns, including Sabata.  Sadly, his promising career was cut short when he was framed for drug possession and spent several years in an Italian prison.  When he was finally freed, he ended up doing movies like The Adventures of Hercules.

Zeus was played by Claudio Cassinelli, an acclaimed actor who appeared in several giallo films.  He also co-starred in 1978’s infamous Mountain of the Cannibal God.

The evil High Priest was played by Venantino Venantini whose credits include everything from The Agony and the Ecstasy to Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead to Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox.

Aphrodite is played by Margit Newton, who somewhat infamously starred in what is generally considered to be the worst zombie film of all time, Hell of the Living Dead.

Serena Grandi played Euryale (a.k.a. Medusa).  Grandi is probably most remembered for his grotesque death scene in  Antropophagus.  She was also the star of one of my personal guilty pleasures, Lamberto Bava’s Delirium.

And finally, the mad scientist Dedalos was played by Eva Robbins, who achieved immortality by playing the Girl on the Beach in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae.

The Adventures of Hercules might not be “technically” a good film but it’s definitely (and rather compulsively) watchable.

Sci-Fi Film Review: The Humanoid (dir by Aldo Lado)


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When all the editors of the site got together at the TSL offices and discussed who would review what during our sci-fi month, there were two films that I immediately claimed for myself.  One was Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash, which is one of the best-known and most popular of all the Italian Star Wars rip-offs.  The other was The Humanoid, which is considerably less known.

What is The Humanoid?  It’s an Italian film from 1979 that was designed to capitalize on the popularity of both Star Wars and James Bond.  While the plot was largely ripped off from Star Wars (with a dash of The Golem tossed in for good measure), the film’s cast featured three performers best known for their roles in two then-recent James Bond films.  The Spy Who Loved Me’s Barbara Bach played the evil Lady Agatha.  Moonraker‘s Corinne Clery played heroic scientist Barbara Gibson.  Finally, the title character — the Humanoid — was played by none other than Richard Kiel, who previously played evil henchman Jaws in both of those films.

The main reason that I wanted to see it was because the film was directed by Aldo Lado.  Aldo Lado may not be as well-known as Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Ruggero Deodato but he still directed some very memorable films.  Short Night of Glass Dolls, Who Saw Her Die?, and The Night Train Murders are all classics of their genre, combining shocking violence with Marxist political subtext.  What, I wondered, would an Aldo Lado-directed Star Wars rip-off be like?  Fortunately, The Humanoid has been uploaded to YouTube and I was able to find out.

The answer, to that question, is that the Aldo Lado-directed Star Wars rip-off isn’t very good.  But it’s so strange that it’s never less than watchable.

Allow me to attempt to explain the film’s plot.  If things get confusing … well, it can’t be helped.  That’s just the way this film works.  The Humanoid opens in outer space, with a lengthy opening title crawl that informs us that evil Lord Graal has escaped from prison and is planning on attacking the planet Metropolis (yes, the planet is named Metropolis) and overthrowing his brother, the benevolent ruler known as Great Brother.  As the title crawl disappears into space, the camera pans over to a giant spaceship and basically, it’s the exact same shot that opened Star Wars.  You have to admire a film that, in less than a minute, can rip-off Star Wars, Superman, and George Orwell.

Anyway, it turns out that Lord Graal is a tall and imposing figure who dresses in black armor, a black cape, and a black helmet.  (Sound familiar?)  He’s played by Ivan Rassimov, who played a lot of villains in a lot of Italian exploitation films.  Sadly, he never takes off that helmet so we never get to see the truly impressive head of hair that was almost always a highlight of every Rassimov performance.

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Graal’s main ally is Lady Agatha (Barbara Bach), who is actually several centuries old but she remains young by daily injections of a serum that is made up on virgin blood.  (The Bathory Method, in other words.)  Lady Agatha is really evil but she does have really great hair and she gets to wear this V-neck dress that is simply to die for and provides an interesting contrast to the amazingly boring white jumpsuits that all of the good people seem to be wearing.

The youth serum was developed by a mad scientist named Dr. Kraspin (played by five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy).  And Dr. Kraspin is good for more than just youth serums!  He’s also developed a method of mind control, a way to turn humans into … humanoids!

(“Come quickly!” Dr. Kraspin cries, at one point, “I am creating my first humanoid!”)

Dr. Kraspin tests his method out on interstellar police officer, Golob (Richard Kiel).  Good Golob has a beard and mustache and spends most of his time talking to his pet robot, Robodog.  (“This is my robot dog!” Golob enthusiastically says at one point.)  However, when Golob gets hit by Kraspin’s Humanoid Ray, the beard and the mustache vanish and Golob just growls.  Much as in The Golem, Kraspin places a device on Golob’s forehead which allows him to control Golob’s actions.

Good Golob

Good Golob

Bad Golob

Bad Golob

Meanwhile, Kraspin also has a grudge against Dr. Barbara Gibson (Corrine Clery) and sends Golob to destroy her.  However, Barbara is hiding out with enigmatic child genius Tom Tom (Marco Yeh) and the Han Soloish Nick (Leonard Mann).  And, fortunately for all of them, Tom Tom has the power to make crossbow-wielding angels descend from the heavens…

One of the things that makes The Humanoid an interesting viewing experience is that it’s essentially a kid’s film that was made for an exploitation audience.  Hence, scenes featuring cute Robodog and precocious Tom Tom are mixed in with scenes of brutal violence and a naked virgin being drained of her blood so that Agatha can remain young.  It makes for a notably odd viewing experience.

But that’s appropriate because The Humanoid is one weird movie.  Much as he did with Night Train Murders (which was “inspired” by Wes Craven’s Last House On the Left), Aldo Lado doesn’t allow The Humanoid‘s rip-off status to prevent him from tossing almost everything you could imagine into The Humanoid.  Full of melodrama, bad special effects, over-the-top performances, and way too much plot for a 90 minute movie, The Humanoid is one of those movies that simply has to be seen to believed.  It’s utterly ludicrous and, as a result, oddly likable.  It may not be good but it’s never less than watchable.

Golob and RoboDog

Golob and RoboDog