Tag Archives: Italian cinema

Rocco and His Brothers

Rocco and His Brothers

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 14 March 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Luchino Visconti

Writers: Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Vasco Pratollini, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Enrico Medioli

Inspired by the novel: Il ponte della Ghisolfa by Giovanni Testori

Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Claudia Cardinale

Original title: Rocco e I suoi fratelli

Italy, France 1960

177 mins

Visconti’s savage 1960 epic about five impoverished brothers trying to make it in Milan and the woman who comes between them in its fully restored brutal beauty.

Visconti is one of those filmmakers you discover backwards, nowadays, usually starting with Death in Venice and The Leopard. Probably you know, going in, that the maker of these great decadent dramas of luxury and indulgence began as an associate of the neo-realists, dealing with working-class lives. Many find La Terra Trema, his first real effort at social documentation within drama, a touch unconvincing, as if the count from Lombardy was not really too familiar with the world of the poor.

But such doubts disappear in the masterpiece that is Rocco and His Brothers (1960), which brings the epic sweep and microscopic detail of The Leopard to a tale of a family migrating from the impoverished countryside to Milan, seeking their fortunes, and finding, variously, heartbreak, dissolution, enmity, and maybe in some cases, a chance of some kind of compromised happiness. Broken into chapters, each dedicated to one brother in particular, the film takes its time (newly restored, the runtime now reaches three hours) setting up the people and situations who will inexorably fall into the patterns of a tragedy. Chief characters are Simone (Renato Salvatori), the up-and-coming boxer who at first seems the family’s best hope of social mobility, the soft-spoken Rocco Alain Delon), and Nadia (Annie Girardot), their lover at different times. Major stars such as Claudia Cardinale and Paolo Stoppa are placed in relatively minor roles as these three drive events to a shocking conclusion.

This is a fiery male melodrama, in which Nadia, it seems to me, is the most sympathetic character. But as outsider to the close-knit masculine group, she represents in a way the threat of the city, of sophistication and decadent Italian civilisation, and the feminine other. The movie can be read as a warning against the corrupting influence of womanhood, sexual womanhood as opposed to the brothers’ rather stereotypical puritan mama (Katina Paxinou, kind of annoying). But Simone, as far as I can see, corrupts himself, and it’s the access to money and acclamation as well as sex that does it. He’s almost immediately revealed as an arrogant and dishonest character, somehow able to maintain a colossal lie in his head against all evidence: that he is the wronged party in every encounter.

Rocco, by contrast, is a saint, as everyone says. Unusual casting for Delon, who hasn’t flinched from playing some colossal shits in his long career (figures he may identify with to an uncomfortable degree, given his off-screen views and activities). But what good is saintliness, the film asks. Rocco’s attempts to right the wrongs he feels, incorrectly, he has done, result in some of the stupidest noble sacrifices the screen has ever depicted, and his plans take no account of the actual personalities involved. Result: tragedy.

Trapped between the vile Simone and the unworldly Rocco, poor Nadia stands no chance. In one of the film’s most stunning angles, Visconti serves up a Hitchcockian God-shot from the highest pinnacle of Milan Cathedral as Nadia flees her all-forgiving bastard of a boyfriend, running across the rooftop, a tiny speck, like Cary Grant fleeing the United Nations in North By Northwest.

So: if you follow the logic that the truly sympathetic figure is Nadia and it’s really her story, told through the viewpoint of the various brothers, certain scenes may come across as just padding, but you need feel no PC discomfort at the masculine viewpoint, only overwhelming horror and pity. Yes, the film is long, but when it ends, you may wish to start again from Chapter One to see the unspoiled characters once more as they were at the beginning.

The restoration by Gucci and the Film Foundation brings Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography to vibrant life and almost exhausting detail, with the itchy whorls of domestic wallpaper vying for attention with the busy throngs of moving characters. The artful use of light and shade creates b&w images of almost unbearable richness, and the more distressing the story becomes, the more beautiful the imagery. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series has done the movie proud, with an array of extras gathered from multiple rare sources, including documentary material on Visconti and interviews with his collaborators. My only complaint is the image on the menu, for reasons that will become clear when you watch the film.

Rocco and His Brothers is also available on DVD, released by Eureka Entertainment in 2008.

David Cairns

Porno e Libertà

Porn to Be Free
Porno e Libertà

Format: Cinema

Seen at Rotterdam 2016

Director: Carmine Amoroso

Alternative title: Porn to Be Free

Italy 2015

78 mins

An uncritical documentary on the Italian porn industry from the 1960s to the 1980s.

‘Pornography should be entirely liberated!’ enthuses Bernardo Bertolucci in footage inserted into this documentary about the ‘tumescent’ rise of pornography in the Italian cinema of the 1960s–1980s. This period of counter-cultural aspiration has been the subject of several hagiographic and frequently mythologising accounts of the assorted social and political liberations – gay, straight, psychotropic – which bestrode the period. Indeed an entire nostalgic consumerist retro-movement in material and cultural matter revolves around it to this day. The very appellation attached to its origins, ‘The Swinging Sixties’, bears testimony to this.

Through the literal and metaphorical rose-coloured testimonial lens of the aptly named director, Carmine Amoroso (carmine indicating red and amoroso indicating amorous and loving; though in light of the present subject matter one might well ask, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’), this documentary traces the growth of Italy’s porn industry from the tentative ‘let’s push the boundaries’ spirit of the 1960s to the ‘let it all hang out’ zeitgeist of the 1970s onwards. It features interviews with pornographers such as Riccardo Schicchi (kicked out of high school, it is said, for spying on girls’ toilets, and having served a prison term for prostitution offences) and touches on issues such as censorship, sexual revolution and the popularisation of some of its stars, such as Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina, who was elected to the Italian parliament in 1987 and married to the ‘artist’ Jeff Koons for two years before embarking on a 14-year custody case over their son, Ludwig… these facts being germane in considering the documentary’s unproblematic thesis.

In matters sexual, Amoroso has previous form as the writer and director of Come mi vuoi (1996), considered to be the first Italian film delving into issues of the transgender community, and Cover Boy: Last Revolution (2006), a story of two male cultures clashing.

In Porno e Libertà, a voice-over narration accompanies and contexualises the account in an attempt to historicise and revise Italian porn history. But the main polemical aim is to celebrate and legitimise the enterprise by using techniques of narrative and visual persuasion to turn the porn business into a great carnivalesque affair, unconcerned with capital gain and pre-occupied with sexual liberation. It’s an erotic carnival where no one is exploited, no disease, suicide or drug habits are present and profits are not greedily grabbed by producers and distributors; an egalitarian universe where performers ‘do it’ largely for the cause of freedom and hey, just plain fun. It has to be noted that a brief feminist perspective is introduced into the film but serves little balancing purpose to the overall thesis.

This is a documentary that is made unproblematic with regard to the darker issues of pornography and as such is simply a lively romp through a particular cinematic history for which few visual essays have been made. Taking advantage of the contemporary retro taste for porn of an earlier age – vintage porn videos fetch good prices on online auction sites – this celebratory (certainly not masturbatory) documentary is a journey to a lost continent. A seemingly innocent and Arcadian continent where women actually have – can you believe it? – pubic hair! Never has so much hirsute pudenda been spotted since the late 1980s. Porno e Libertà, while historically irresistible, is critically irresponsible.

James B. Evans

This review is part of our Rotterdam 2016 coverage.

Watch the trailer:

A Quiet Place in the Country

A Quiet Place in the Country
A Quiet Place in the Country

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of Elio Petri: The Forgotten Genius at the ICA, London

Screening date: 11 September 2014

Director: Elio Petri

Writers: Elio Petri, Tonino Guerra, Luciano Vincenzoni

Cast: Franco Nero, Vanessa Redgrave, Georges Géret, Gabriella Grimaldi

Original title: Un tranquillo posto in campagna

Italy 1968

106 mins

Whenever Franco Nero is asked about Elio Petri, his heartfelt appreciation for the director he worked with only once in his career, performing one of his most demanding roles, is as poignant as it is powerful: ‘Elio Petri is the greatest Italian director of the past, the only Italian director who made 10 films that were completely different from one another.’

This unqualified praise is certainly confirmed by A Quiet Place in the Country, Petri’s foray into experimental horror. It’s a film that demands repeated viewing as it is all too easy to get engrossed in the intricacies of the delirious plot. Once you know how this flamboyantly elusive tale of a troubled abstract painter obsessed with the ghost of a nymphomaniac young countess pans out, you appreciate all the more how brilliantly it is all set up. Blending sex, love, madness, identity crisis, alienation, death, art, consumerism and social commentary in a hypnotic, dazzling visual swirl of bold colours, powerful emotions and artistic expression, it is a feast of experimental visual imagery, but not without Petri’s typically dry, caustic touch.

Franco Nero stars as Leonardo, the young established painter afflicted with self-doubt and reckless fantasies, and looked after by his art dealer lover Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave). In an effort to help Leonardo overcome a creative crisis, she rents a derelict country house that he feels is the perfect place for him to work. But soon after his arrival, the previous owner of the house claims possession of her property in mysterious and increasingly dangerous ways. Mentally unstable and with a fatal weakness for beautiful women and vivid hallucinations, Leonardo gets more and more obsessed with the tragic story behind the elusive, free-spirited Wanda (Gabriella Grimaldi) and soon finds himself pushed to the limits of reality, myth and sadism.

The film’s original score by Ennio Morricone plays no small part in contributing to the moody, feverish atmosphere created in the film, while Petri, who had a passion for modern art, goes to great pains to illustrate the relation between present and past, in sinister and haunting, rather than nostalgic, manner. Perhaps A Quiet Place in the Country is best seen as a submersion in a dream that unfolds buried layers of unresolved affairs – emotional, sexual or psychological – to alluring and puzzling effect.

This review is part of our KVIFF 2014 coverage.

Pamela Jahn

We Still Kill the Old Way

We Still Kill the Old Way
We Still Kill the Old Way

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of Elio Petri: The Forgotten Genius at the ICA, London

Screening date: 9 September 2014

Director: Elio Petri

Writers: Elio Petri, Ugo Pirro

Based on the novel: To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

Cast: Gian Maria Volonté, Mario Scaccia, Irene Papas

Original title: A ciascuno il suo

Italy 1967

99 mins

Arguably one of his most mordant films, We Still Kill the Old Way (1967) marked a deliberate turn for Elio Petri from the dazzling, super-stylised pop-art adventure he had just embarked upon in The 10th Victim (1965). Written by Petri and Ugo Pirro (a collaboration that lasted until 1973), this austere murder mystery is set in a small village in Mafia-ruled Sicily, a location that allowed Petri to fully realise his aspiration for greater political involvement.

Based on the novel To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia, the story is apt for this purpose: a young, naïve professor (Gian Maria Volonté) gets himself tangled in a web of lies and deceit as he attempts to reveal the truth behind some dubious death threats and the subsequent killing of two men during a hunt. While the police mistakenly believes it to be a crime of passion, Laurana suspects a political conspiracy, but his judgment is obscured by his seething desire for his friend’s widow, played by a wonderfully aloof Irene Papas.

As the plot thickens Laurana’s passion leads to his doom, and Luis Bacalov’s score, based on a distinctive 60s calypso-style rhythm mixed with melancholic piano chords and threatening drums, perfectly matches the increasingly darker, more enigmatic mood. With vivid cinematography, We Still Kill the Old Way is compelling and acrid in equal measure, if not as driven and fierce as some of Petri’s later triumphs such as the Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion. But although here as in his other films narrative stringency is not his forte, Petri excels once more at creating an infectious atmosphere that draws you right in, is impossible to resist and hard to shake off even long after you step out of his unsettling, expressive world.

This review is part of our KVIFF 2014 coverage.

Pamela Jahn

Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion

Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion
Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion

Director: John W. Shadow

Writer: John W. Shadow

Cast: Ewa Aulin, Alex Rebar, Carlo De Mejo

Italy 1970

85 mins

A rambling title is often a reflection of a rambling narrative; it can indicate either ambition or indecisiveness. There is a reason these long-winded titles proliferated in the late 60s and early 70s – things like William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), Anthony Newley’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), Ulu Grosbard’s Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? (1971) and Paul Williams’s Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972), not to mention a slew of Italian giallo films. All of these films have a zig-zagging sense of aimlessness and leisure, a cultural urge to ‘be here now’ that can be alternately transcendent or masturbatory, depending on the film (or the viewer). Underground and commercial cinema alike at this time were quilted with countercultural concerns, sensibilities, techniques and aesthetics – the writing of the Beats, the mobilization of protest movements, the ubiquity of pop stars, the street use of LSD, Timothy Leary’s urge to tune in, turn on, drop out (it’s also telling that many of these film titles come in the form of a question). The mainstream increasingly appropriated the signifiers of the avant-garde in an attempt to woo an exploding youth market (as well as that demographic keen to hang on to their youth for dear life), and in this climate, a title like Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion was likely enough to sell a producer on a project. By the 1970s, when even squares lined up to see Deep Throat in the cinema, it was often hard to tell who was the real deal and who was exploiting the convenience of a double standard. As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum said in their book Midnight Movies (1983), ‘the counterculture cash-in peaked in 1970’, and the Italian production Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion is one of many films to tap into that zeitgeist.

But for a film whose title references a narcotic trip, it is surprisingly bereft of any real lysergic sensibility; the opening credits (cropped as they were, from a Greek-subtitled ETC bootleg) are among its few moments of visual experimentation, with psychedelic colour splashes, jarring sonic shifts and fish-eyed shots of Eurotrash starlet Ewa Aulin grooving in slow motion to the tone-deaf eponymous theme tune, sung by Ronnie Jones and penned by director John Shadow – a mysterious figure in the cult film pantheon.

Repeated use of oppressive lighting underscores the predatory nature of John, a tenured college professor (Alex Rebar, later to star in The Incredible Melting Man) who feels his school’s reputation is threatened by rampant drug use among its students, namely the delinquent heroin addict Billy (Italian horror staple Carlo De Mejo, almost unrecognizable without his beard). After a fellow teacher leaps to his death, supposedly under the influence of drugs, John enlists the help of nerdy student Henry (Eugene Pomeroy) to lure Billy into isolation at the professor’s Italian villa with a plan to dry him out. John’s young, subservient wife Elizabeth (Ewa Aulin) is not too keen on sharing her vacation with a heroin addict, but the professor reprimands her for being selfish when ‘that boy’s under the grip of a deadly neurosis!’ John relishes his privileged position as the boy’s saviour, to such an extent that he’s willing to subject his impressionable wife to the druggie’s charms; it only has to be merely suggested to her that she try a shot, and she’s immediately a sweaty, shivering addict. So now John and Henry have two addicts on their hands.

Pre-order Spectacular Optical Book One: KID POWER! on Indiegogo! Film writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse and Canuxploitation scholar Paul Corupe, the team behind cult film and pop culture website Spectacular Optical, have launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to support the label’s inaugural anthology book, KID POWER!, about cool and inspiring kids in English-language cult film and television.

The professor uses every opportunity to torment Billy, and also manipulates Henry, appealing to his loyalty by referring to him as ‘a peer’. But eventually the tables are turned on John as the doped-up Billy mocks his masculinity: ‘Elizabeth, have you ever seen your husband’s penis?’ Under the influence of freshly administered heroin, Elizabeth is liberated, theatrical and aggressive. But while in her stateside breakout film Candy (1968) Aulin’s vacuity was perfectly suited to the part of angelic naïf, here it just seems an embarrassing put-on. The stoic professor’s motto – ‘no emotion!’ – will be tested throughout the film as his experiment veers out of control.

Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion posits itself as a counterculture film, thinking that its parade of non-sequiturs somehow aligns it with the existential kookiness of Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968), the swingin’ free love space-out of Joe Massot’s Wonderwall (1968), the inverted suspense of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Volker Schlöndorff’s A Degree of Murder (1967) as well as various AIP youth-in-revolt and drug films. Unfortunately it succeeds at assimilating none of the qualities that make these films stand out, and instead seems a schizophrenic, somewhat inept cadavre exquis. There is a great sense of temporal dislocation (which is not helped by an unexplored subplot involving some hippies camped out nearby). But as Jonny Redman of cult film site lovelockandload.com has suggested, there is the distinct impression that the film was unfinished.

Aside from its tongue-twisting title, one thing that keeps Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion in the history books is the ongoing mystery about who directed it, and where (and if) it was ever widely released. Although it is credited to John W. Shadow on screen, some have maintained that this is a pseudonym of producer Roberto Loyola, whose eclectic roster also included Sergio Corbucci’s goofy Western Sonny and Jed, Mario Bava’s claustrophobic crime film Rabid Dogs, and the Decamerotic sex comedy Canterbury No 2. The latter (which also stars Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion’s Alex Rebar) is credited to director John Shadow, but it has been argued that the name was a pseudonym for Aristide Massacesi, best known as Joe D’Amato. The name John Shadow resurfaces again as the screenwriter of Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces, also long assumed to be Joe D’Amato.

But a look through the newspapers surrounding Ewa Aulin’s brief fling with fame following the sensational Candy reveals John Shadow to be not only a real person, but married to Aulin from approximately 1968 to 1972. Actor Eugene Pomeroy, one of many young British expats working in Italian cinema at the time, remembers calling the director ‘John’ on set, although he too was confused about whether this John Shadow and producer Roberto Loyola were the same person . Without being able to pinpoint who John Shadow was, it is difficult to discern what may have happened to the film – which appears to have only ever been released on Greek video – and why the narrative’s many tangents are left dangling.

Despite featuring no murder set-pieces, the film nevertheless wound up in the giallo files by association; the giallo tended to be a playpen for all manner of visual and moral excess, and not only was drug abuse one of its staples, but Aulin had appeared in Giulio Questi’s head-scratching 1968 art-giallo Death Laid an Egg (and would later appear in Romolo Guerrieri’s 1971 The Double). Ultimately, the film defies categorization, living on only through its superficial ties to other various sensational subgenres, refusing to follow through on any single element – drugs, music, sexual liberation – that would make its content live up to the countercultural promise of its spectacular title.

Kier-La Janisse
(who adores interminable sentences and whose catalogue boasts a convoluted title of its own: House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). For more information and to pre-order a special limited edition hardback published in May 2014, visit the Fab press website.

Listen to the podcast of our talk with Kier-La Janisse on House of Psychotic Women.

The 10th Victim

10th Victim
The 10th Victim

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 10 March 2014

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Elio Petri

Writers: Tonino Guerra, Giorgio Salvioni, Ennio Flaiano, Elio Petri, Ernesto Gastaldi

Based on the story by: Robert Sheckley

Original title: La decima vittima

Cast: Ursula Andress, Marcello Mastroianni, Elsa Martinelli, Salvo Randone

Italy 1965

90 mins

A man chases a woman through some of New York’s least populated streets, occasionally firing a gun at her as she playfully hides and beckons him on. He is stopped by a policeman, but, as he has the correct license, is allowed to proceed, following her into a club, where she seems to have disappeared among the chic clientele. The entertainment arrives, a statuesque blonde in silver metal mask and matching bikini, who gyrates her way through the crowd, pausing to bump and grind and slap various men around the face. She approaches the gunman and proceeds to do the same, thoroughly distracting him from his quest, then suddenly shooting him dead with the twin guns built into her bikini top. She has won The Contest. She is Ursula Andress. Welcome to Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim, produced by Carlo Ponti, based on a short story by the great Robert Sheckley. It’s a variation on the ‘bread and circuses’ strain of SF, in which the future masses are distracted from war or revolution by violent spectacle (think Rollerball, Death Race 2000, The Hunger Games), but it’s a more 60s, hyper-stylised live action cartoon variation, a swingin’ romantic comedy with lives on the line, featuring a bleach-blond Marcello Mastroianni rocking a pair of shades versus Andress in a hot pink batwing number.

From its New York opening, the film moves to Rome where Andress, with media team in tow, has, according to the rules, become the hunter, with Mastroianni computer-selected as her victim. While our Ursula seems to be making the contest pay for her, Marcello is skint after a punitive divorce. She wants to engineer a photogenic demise for him at the Temple of Venus. He wants to survive, preferably unmarried. The rest of the film plays out as a game of cat and mouse in a series of staccato scenes, as the couple dance around, and inevitably fall for each other.

The Shameless disc comes with the usual plethora of groovy trailers, plus a half-hour featurette with Kim Newman and Petri’s wife talking about the film.

At times it resembles a demented Bond movie where the set designers have taken control of the script, at others it is like some futuristic offshoot of La Dolce Vita (it shares the same screenwriters.) Petri frames Rome to look sleek and strange and modernist, with most of the cast draped in black and white against blocks of primary colour. He fills the backgrounds of his scenes with loosely choreographed action: gladiators, musicians, dancers, killers. It’s a knowing piece of pop art cinema. Comic books are referenced frequently, (particularly Lee Falk’s The Phantom), the backdrops are filled with Op art and sculpture, artifice and unreality are consistently foregrounded, the crass commercialism of this modern world is mocked remorselessly, but this modern world still looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

While the backgrounds still fizz and excite, it has to be said that some of the foreground action hasn’t dated either. Some of the media satire is a bit blunt and obvious, the marriage/divorce obsession just seems odd, and often the whole thing just doesn’t feel as sharp or funny as it needs to be. Having said that, it sure as hell isn’t boring, managing to bubble through its moments of dysfunction and disjointedness with pure energy. There’s a pleasant freeform ramshackle vibe, it feels simultaneously over-stylised and under-rehearsed, and the leads seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Mastroianni is a cartoon of taciturn indifference, but given to wild mood swings of snarling rage and sentimentality. Andress mostly plays a sense of frustrated determination, a would-be seductress/killer foiled by Marcello’s manoeuvres, looking pretty damn fabulous at all times. A shot where she walks out of the sea in imitation of her Honey Rider moment is, of course, engineered into the proceedings. Petri seems to be largely an unknown quantity, even to Euro-sleaze aficionados. I caught his A Quiet Place in the Country a few years back, and remember its star Franco Nero opining at that event that Elio was like Italy’s Kubrick, a master who made comparatively few films, all markedly different, and all great. On the strength of that, and this, I look forward to checking out the rest of the man’s work.

Mark Stafford

Read our review of Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion.

The Key

The Key
The Key

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 20 May 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Tinto Brass

Writer: Tinto Brass

Based on the novel Kagi by: Junichirô Tanizaki

Cast: Frank Finlay, Stefania Sandrelli, Franco Branciaroli, Barbara Cupisti

Original title: La chiave

Italy 1983

116 mins

Best known for his scandalous Nazi sex shocker Salon Kitty (1976) and his orgiastic take on depraved Roman emperor Caligula (1979), Tinto Brass turned to lighter eroticism with The Key in 1983. Adapted from a much filmed novel by Junichirô Tanizaki (including by Kon Ichikawa in 1959 and by Tatsumi Kumashiro in 1974 as part of Nikkatsu studio’s Roman Porno series), The Key relocates the story to 1940s fascist Venice. Nino is an ageing husband who tries to get his much younger, but sexually inhibited wife Teresa to loosen up by manipulating her into an affair with their future son-in-law, Laszlo. This he does by writing a diary, which he makes sure Teresa stumbles upon. Unsettled by what she’s read, Teresa starts to explore her sexuality, starting her own diary, which she hides in a place where she knows her husband will find it. Exquisitely twisted mind games follow, leading to more and more adventurous sexual encounters fed by jealousy and unspoken desires, in which the couple’s daughter Lisa will also play a part.

One of Brass’s classiest films, it is a gorgeous, sophisticated, racy drama given added depth by its setting. Demonstrating Brass’s much-admired visual flair, the lush colours, painterly compositions and use of mirrors beautifully enhance the elegant eroticism of the film. The grey, rainy Venice and oppressive fascist background create a gloomy, melancholy atmosphere that contrasts with the warm, muted colours of the interiors that shelter the three characters’ private journey of sexual liberation and discovery. Mussolini admirer and fascist activist Lisa, the only explicitly political character, is also the only one who doesn’t seem to grasp the fluid complexity of the emotional and sexual relationships between the other three characters. Although to do so Nino and Teresa have to play an unconventional, elaborate game of secrets and disclosures, sometimes coldly calculating what to reveal and what to suppress in their diaries, they are able to finally attain a remarkable level of intimacy and understanding.

Unlike his later, rather cheesy All Ladies Do It (Cos&#236 fan tutte, 1992, also newly released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Video), The Key is not a flimsy, silly sleaze-by-numbers fest, but an erotic drama that is as cerebral as it is sensual, relying as much on the words written by the characters as on the piquant sexual encounters. The superb Stefania Sandrelli lends her voluptuous beauty to Teresa, and her natural, unrestrained performance is essential to both the film’s psychological depth and carnal appeal. The Key delivers plenty of that while also offering a subtle, sensitive depiction of the strange remoteness within a marriage and the convoluted mechanics of desire, which, as in all of Brass’s films, are observed with a non-judgemental, open mind.

Virginie Sélavy

Lisa and the Devil

Lisa and the Devil

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 4 February 2013

Distributor Arrow Video

Directors: Mario Bava, Alfredo Leone

Writers: Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfredo Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migiorini, Roberto Natale, Francesca Rusishka

Original title: Lisa e il diavolo

Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Alessio Orano, Alida Valli

Italy 1974

92 mins

In all of Mario Bava’s weird career, there may be nothing as peculiar as Lisa and the Devil, his 1974 fantasy starring Elke Sommer and Telly Savalas, and the project’s history is as bizarre as the experience of watching it.

Bava had bounced back from late-career doldrums with the Gothic hit Baron Blood (1972) and that film’s producer, Alfredo Leone, offered him the chance to do whatever he wanted: a poisoned chalice few filmmakers can resist. Bava knew enough to stick to the horror genre: his recent sex comedy (Four Times That Night, 1972) and Western (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, 1970) had been interesting divertissements, but didn’t really allow him room for the full-on delirium of his best work.

Bava’s recent work in the giallo field he practically invented, the wonderfully titled Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), had shown less interest in inventive and bloody homicide, and more in chic interiors and glamour. Hatchet for the Honeymoon, the same year, was nastier, but impressed mainly by the sheer craziness of its plot, which leaves the audience bewildered and frustrated almost to the last frame. Lisa would be an attempt to take that derangement even further…

Essentially a dream-film, it plucks its tourist heroine, Sommer, from her Spanish package holiday and strands her at an eerily out-of-time villa, where Telly Savalas may be Satan, collecting the souls of the dead, and both necrophilia and serial murder may be part of the evening’s entertainment. Though it features a hammer attack so vicious that it was trimmed in Italy (the only country where the film saw release), the movie is far less interested in killing than in disorientation, kitsch surrealist beauty, off-kilter humour and throwing together a lot of weird elements. At times it’s as if Bava had set himself the game of confusing matters so thoroughly that no coherent outcome is possible; then he manages a last-minute expository splurge that more or less tidies away the more radiant red herrings; and then he decides he has a few minutes left and uses them to gleefully screw the whole affair up beyond all chance of recovery.

The necrophilia subplot leads to one of the strangest scenes not only in Bava’s scrambled oeuvre, but in all of cinema, as badly listing dreamboat Alessio Orano tries to molest a drugged Sommer, his decomposing former love arranged in rotting fragments on an adjacent bed. Finally, despite the plangent musical accompaniment, he screams at the deceased, ‘I can’t, while you’re there!’ One can see his point, though perhaps shovelling up the remains before attempting date-rape would have improved the odds of carrying the whole thing off without a hitch.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bava’s oneiric labyrinth of severed plotlines struggled to find distribution: The Exorcist had just come out, and the market was not hungry for a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and The Exterminating Angel. Leone took desperate measures, re-titling the film House of Exorcism and adding an embarrassment of new footage in which Sommer vomited pea soup at guest star Robert Alda.

Happily, Lisa and the Devil is now appreciated for the demented, soft-focus, Spanish-guitar-inflected masterpiece it is, and Leone’s commercially minded revision is reduced to the status of extra on Arrow Film’s new Blu-ray. It’s a welcome addition: devoid of artistic merit in its own right, the garbled re-edit adds yet another layer of weirdness to a truly odd film: it’s like an alternative pathway through Bava’s world, where one minute we’re in his Gothic hallucination, and then we round a corner and find a whole different scene that was never there before. It’s like walking through an idiot’s dream about a genius’s dream.

David Cairns

Black Sunday

Black Sunday

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 4 February 2013

Distributor Arrow Video

Director: Mario Bava

Writers: Ennio De Concini, Mario Serandrei, Mario Bava, Marcello Coscia

Based on the short story ‘Viy’ by: Nikolaj Gogol

Original title: La maschera del demonio

Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi

Italy 1960

87 mins

Mario Bava was not only a clever genre specialist, but one who helped kick-start nearly every commercial genre in Italy in the 50s and 60s with the exceptions of the Spaghetti Western and the sex comedy, though he eventually did those too. He photographed (and part directed) I Vampiri, the first real Italian horror film, and Caltiki the Immortal Monster, a science fiction monster movie. He also shot Hercules, the first of the mythic muscleman epics of its day. His Blood and Black Lace (aka Six Women for the Murderer) is arguably the first true giallo movie, or at least the one that crystallised the various elements of the genre into a single film. And Black Sunday, aka The Mask of Satan, began the tradition of supernatural Gothic horror than ran luridly amuck over Italian, and then international screens throughout the 60s.

Following the success of Hammer’s Dracula, Bava (working as director and cinematographer) took a less famous literary source, Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Viy’, which he and his screenwriters adapted pretty freely, slathering it in morbid and sadistic imagery. Filming in black and white, Bava pays more attention to grotty or dribbly textures than his English precursors, with bubbling fluids around a freshly branded letter S in leading lady Barbara Steele’s back, the waxy, eyeless visage of her corpse, crawling with tiny scorpions, and the pale, viscous blood/paint that slowly drops from a glinting shard of glass…

Steele is the film’s star twice over, playing the innocent heroine and her vampiric ancestor. A graduate of art college and the Rank Charm School, she spent the early 60s filming in Italy, her native land having proved incapable of recognising the potential of her porcelain features and huge heavy-lidded eyes. The most important eyes in horror cinema since Karloff’s – augmented by Bava with lighting tricks and special effects, even replaced at one point by a pair of poached eggs!

As a jobbing filmmaker, Bava could make good use of available locations, but he excelled at studio work where he could absolutely control the lighting and create wholly artificial worlds. Black Sunday’s Moldavian countryside is almost entirely artificial, alternating between spacious, ornate interiors and exteriors that sometimes barely exist apart from foreground twigs and dry ice fumes – and Bava’s atmospheric lighting.

Though not notably sophisticated as a piece of screenwriting – his films generally rely more on lighting, composition, movement, sound and design, rather than dialogue or acting – Bava’s first movie as sole director shows his wide cinematic knowledge, visually quoting everything from White Zombie to David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (crossed with Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man). He also layers the film with visual motifs and rhymes, deploying eyes, windows, reflections, and long, tense right-to-left pans, which sometimes come full circle to their point of origin, Bava’s crew presumably crouching on the floor to stay out of shot, or else trotting around the camera ahead of the advancing lens.

While Bava’s films don’t usually scare me much, the wandering corpse in Black Sabbath, popping up everywhere like Droopy, frightens the blue Jesus out of me, and there’s a sudden transformation from child to zombie in his last film, Shock, accomplished without any special effects, which caused me to leave fingerprints in the cat. Black Sunday strikes me as more pleasurably Halloweeny, spooky and fun and gorgeously eerie, with just enough sheer nastiness to give it a slight edge.

Arrow’s sumptuous Blu-ray comes with intros, interviews, commentary by Bava scholar Tim Lucas, and a whole movie as extra: the aforementioned I Vampiri, a testing ground for some of the tricks Bava perfected in Black Sunday. It’s quite a package.

David Cairns

Zombie Flesh Eaters

Zombie Flesh Eaters

Format: Blu-ray/DVD/Limited edition steelbook

Release date: 3 December 2012

With live piano duet accompaniment by Robin Harris and Laura Anstee

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Lucio Fulci

Writers: Elisa Briganti, Dardano Sacchetti

Original title: Zombi 2

Cast: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver, Auretta Gay

Italy 1979

91 mins

Zombie Flesh Eaters, or ‘the one with the eyeball splinter’, as it was referred to at school. My family having arrived late to the VHS revolution, my main exposure to the video nasty boom of the early 80s was the playground descriptions of various unwholesome sequences relayed to me with relish by various classmates. By the time a VCR actually arrived in our house the hammer had come down and all those exotic goodies had disappeared from the shelves. It was the James Ferman era at the BBFC, and so it took me until well into my twenties to catch up with, say, ‘the one where the girl throws up all her guts’ (City of the Living Dead) and put it together that a good deal of the more outrageous moments of playground lore emerged from the oeuvre of one director, Lucio Fulci. Oddly enough, given the usual reliability of schoolyard chatter, the films that I finally saw were every bit as horrible as described, and a whole lot stranger.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is one of his more straightforward, pacier efforts. An unmanned ship drifts into New York harbour, bringing with it unpleasant surprises for the harbour patrol, and a mystery for Tisa Farrow. The boat belongs to her father, and the search for him leads her, a journalist (Ian McCulloch) and a couple of wary locals to a Caribbean island where Richard Johnson is the doctor understandably turning to the bottle as the night is filled with jungle drums and the dead are feeling restless. Much mayhem ensues.

ZFE was released in 1979 a couple of months after Dawn of the Dead (aka Zombi) as Zombi 2 and, while clearly indebted to the Romero film, it also harks back to the likes of White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, in its island setting and its use of a voodoo curse as an undead motivator rather than any cod scientific explanations. Romero rules still apply, however, in the ‘shoot ’em in the head’ policy and the infectious nature of zombie bites. Anyone wondering if this makes much sense clearly hasn’t been exposed to enough Italian cinema.

Indeed, Fulci’s best horror films gain greatly from a feeling that they don’t quite make sense, that nobody on screen is acting like a human being would. As with City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and House by the Cemetery, his people just seem to hang around waiting for the worst to happen, blind to the mounting evidence that they should flee. He has a tendency towards stately pacing, a contemptuous disregard for narrative cohesion and an eye for weird images. The net result of this is to give his films an authentic nightmare undertow, but at the cost of any human character or motivation. It remains an enigma to me how much of this oneiric freakiness is deliberate, and how much a result of the filmmaker’s shortcomings. Fulci in his pomp is several rungs above hacks like Umberto Lenzi or Astride/Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato): he can frame an arresting shot, create a memorable sequence and has a definite style, but seems to be indifferent to the pleasures of dialogue and performance, and often mixes effective set pieces with moments of alarming judgement, letting his camera linger endlessly over shoddy effects that any sane director would cut away from.* Zombi 2 was also known around my school as ‘the one where a zombie fights a shark’ and, indeed, that’s what happens here, witnessed by a topless Auretta Gay wearing a scuba tank. It’s a scene that seems to exemplify Fulci: it’s slow, exploitative, absolutely ridiculous and genuinely surreal. It’s also typical in that the ramifications of the moment are left murkily unexplored as the plot trundles on.**

Viewed from the 21st century, Zombie Flesh Eaters seems to come from an age before irony: there is no self-conscious playfulness here, and very little humour. Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci‘s score is perfect in its epic, cheesy, doom-laden portentousness. This is the 1970s. Nobody is ‘empowered’ by violence here, and it’s all going to end rather badly. I think I love this terrible film.

The soundtrack of Zombie Flesh Eaters is available on limited red vinyl with artwork by Graham Humphreys from Death Waltz Records.

Mark Stafford

*The rubber spiders in the library in The Beyond, I’m looking at you.
**Are the oceans of the world now crawling with waterlogged ghouls and infected sealife? Buggered if I know, and Lucio’s not telling.

Watch the trailer: