Monday, September 21, 2009

SEVERINSPLOITATION! Three Reviews of Recent Eurotrash DVD Releases!

NIGHTMARE CASTLE (Italy, 1965)


NIGHTMARE CASTLE is but one of many titles for Mario Caino’s 1965 Italian Gothic AMANTI D’OLTRETOMBA which translates more or less to “Lovers Beyond the Grave”. Home video has been awash in substandard versions of this terrific chiller for many years but this marks the first release to treat it with any manner of respect. The film itself is a total classic of its type. While suffering perhaps when placed next to other extraordinary examples of the genre from the same era like THE WHIP AND THE BODY or MILL OF THE STONE WOMAN, NIGHTMARE has just enough surreal heat to it to make the film a near-visionary experience some 40+ years after its initial theatrical exposure. The story is a mish-mash of gothic elements - some supernatural, some bordering on sci-fi and some purely sadistic/sexual. Paul Muller is a scientist married to a rich heiress (the incomparable Barbara Steele) who finds an escape from her husband’s cool contempt in the sweaty arms of a manservant. Catching the illicit lovers in the act Muller imprisons them and tortures both unto death. He marries again, this time to Jenny, his late wife’s stepsister who bares a remarkable resemblance to her doomed predecessor (also played by Steele). It isn’t too long before Jenny’s fragile mental state becomes the vehicle for an obsessive spectral revenge which ensnares the entire household.

AMANTI sags a bit in its middle section, wallowing in sometimes tedious gothic melodrama, but for the most part the film is enflamed with twisted emotions and surreal detail. In an unearthly dream sequence Jenny is menaced by a bizarre faceless murderer and in another scene a do-gooder psychiatrist uncovers a tank containing two human hearts, both pierced by an ornate dagger. Caino films the lush interiors of the Château with a monolithic sense of space, with its baroque designs seeming to enclose oppressively around Jenny as her mind begins to splinter. While the story is mostly by-the-numbers there is a truly obsessive air about the whole thing, an unhealthy atmosphere that hints at something kinky, something abnormal and terrifying. The wonderful performances of Muller and Steele, not to mention the great Helga Liné - who plays Muller’s scheming maid/mistress, fix the film’s flimsier elements to the ground, making it psychologically rich even as the story occasionally stumbles into cliché. The sum total adds up to something greater than its individual elements making NIGHTMARE CASTLE an altogether remarkable film.

Severin’s visual presentation of this gloomy and stark psychodrama easily trumps all previous home video incarnations. It looks as crisp and clean as anyone could possibly hope for. A few instances of damage look as though they probably originate on the negative itself and are not flaws of the transfer. It looks freaking stunning. Two interviews highlight the extras. Barbara Steele’s interview is highly entertaining as she animatedly takes us on a guided verbal tour of her career. She’s a wonderful storyteller and still looks remarkable after all these years. The other is with Director Mario Caino who comes off very sweet and grandfatherly (in her interview Steele speaks highly of Caino). It’s mostly a quick behind-the-scenes view of the making of this movie rather than a career retrospective which would have been nice. As it stands this feature is great to have but possesses little real depth. Two trailers, a UK version under the title NIGHT OF THE DOOMED and the US variant under this current moniker, are featured with the former looking nearly as good as the film itself and the latter looking much like the PD versions of NIGHTMARE we’ve been scorned with all these years. This is one of the year’s best DVDs. You’re doing yourself a disservice by not having it in your collection.


DOOR INTO SILENCE (Italy, 1991)


Melvin Deavereax is on his way home from a business meeting in New Orleans. Along the way he stops in at his father’s gravesite. Speaking aloud to the tomb he thanks him for teaching him that “Nothing can stop me. Nothing.” Well, one shouldn’t tempt fate. Melvin (a puffy, tired-looking John Savage) finds the long route back to his rural home impeded by a number of increasingly bizarre and frustrating obstacles: roads out of service, overzealous police, ancient wooden bridges on the verge of falling apart, flooded roads and a mysterious woman who attempts to seduce our pudgy, middle aged leading man for obscure reasons and then promptly disappears. Melvin finds himself caught, with the setting sun constantly blazing in his eyes, along the dusty back roads of Louisiana, not lost exactly, but unable to reach his destination. His most formidable obstacle on the road turns out to be a hearse, whose driver aggressively refuses to let Melvin pass him. In his increasingly fractured state of mind Melvin begins to suspect that somehow, in someway the body in the back of that hearse might be his own …

This 1991 production was Director Lucio Fulci’s last completed film. It’s a shame, then, that his name doesn’t even appear in the credits as it is thematically very much of a piece with most of his filmography. Fulci’s best work features an over-riding and existential concern with death. And DOOR INTO SILENCE is one of clearest investigations into this murky and morbid realm. That it was made only a few years before his own death only increases the morbid fascination. DOOR has a nightmarish quality to it. Not in the usual booga-booga horror film fashion, but in the manner of an actual nightmare - the kind where you feel trapped in an endless loop of incomprehensible events. The movie is so successful in creating this atmosphere that it threatens tediousness at times – you will start to feel like you can’t escape these events either. Overall, it’s a good little film, but it does tend to drag a bit. It has been noted by some that DOOR resembles a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, and I would agree and offer the criticism that this movie might have fared better as a short work, an hour or less perhaps. That said, it has it fascinations and I found myself mostly enthralled by the film's depiction of dying as an endless labyrinth of backwoods roads and decrepit bridges.

Sadly there are no context-providing extras on this release in order to elaborate on these interesting themes. No essays, nor bios, not anything, not even a trailer have found there way onto this disc. In some way this is not surprising. DOOR INTO SILENCE is a production by the Italian company Filmirage, headed up by exploitation guru Aristide Mannaccassi (aka Joe D’Amato), and like most of their output, was mostly intended for the US video market. As such this fly-by-night production probably just doesn’t yield much material for extras. Cast with American actors and shot in sync sound mostly on US soil, these very Italian movies were passed off as cheap American productions, hence the embarrassing pseudonym credits. Certainly the film looks very much like a made-for-cable movie by LA producers and as such there are limits to how good this DVD presentation could look. It is presented correctly in a full-frame transfer that while sharp and colorful enough isn’t going to wow anyone with it brilliant visual prowess. But still, it’s good to finally have Fulci’s last film widely available and all fans of the notorious auteur will do well to pick it up at their soonest conveniance.


THE SINFUL DWARF (Denmark, 1974)


Do you really need to know the plot of THE SINFUL DWARF? I would argue: you do not. The point of this sleazy 70s Danish production is only to wallow in filth and depravity, not to enlighten you with a clever narrative. There is almost no narrative to THE SINFUL DWARF, just a series of crudely hilarious events edited together with an ostensible intent to arouse, I suppose. But it is quite a lot of fun as long as you understand it to be a deliberately ugly film experience. The movie is constantly shoving distorted and hideous faces at you in extreme close-ups, not least of all, the Sinful Dwarf himself, the amazing Torbin Bille. This movie loves and fetishes his ugly mug like Von Sternberg loved and fetishized Marlene Deitrich’s striking visage. With his unnerving, diabolical giggle and bulged, hate-spewing eyes, Torbin towers over this meager production like the superstar he should have been. Mr. Bille certainly could have eaten Weng Weng for breakfast and withered Herve Villechez with a single demented glare. This is easily the greatest “little person” performance in cinema history. Yeah, that’s right, I said it! The only other thing that can compete with him in this movie is the complete loveliness of actress Anne Sparrow, or more to the point, the complete loveliness of Ms. Sparrow’s tits, which are spectacular and unsheathed through a good chunk of the movie.

Other high points include the astonishing electronic-drone soundtrack by Ole Ørsted (Where’s the CD of this, Severin?), Clara Keller’s off-the-rails performance as the sinful dwarf’s sinful aging diva mother and an unusual and almost spastic editing scheme which keeps the sleaze from becoming too redundant. It’s redundancy that looms over this picture like a gray cloud. There’s just not enough elements to construct a full cinematic narrative on, even a z-grade exploitation narrative. Thus the films attempts to get by on its grotesque charms and mostly does so, though hints of boredom crop up from time to time. The three performers highlighted above excepted, this movie is woefully acted, mostly by stiff leading man Tony Eades, whose wooden whine grates after only a few seconds of screen time. And for God’s sake please don’t expect stunning or even interesting cinematography as it is perfunctory at best. But as all fans of “bad” movies know, these detriments can further the far-out experience of such trash films, reaching out into almost surreal levels of ineptitude and idiocy. DWARF isn’t really that bad, but should still pleasurably get under the skin of any z-grade cinema devotee.

Severin unleashes this trash in a respectable manner, presenting it in an open-matte full-frame presentation that preserves its original aspect ratio. The video quality is as good as it probably could be for a 16mm production now over 35 years old. Grain is ever-present, but then it should be there, and the colors look rather strong if not all that sharp. But, if you’ve ever seen Something Weird’s old VHS tape you’ll be very happy with the improvements made here. While the film is “uncut” there is an alternate hardcore version released by Severin in partnership with Private Screenings/CAV. I have not seen this version and so could not illuminate for you the precise differences for each sex scene. Sadly, the extras on this DVD are not what one might want or expect for this film. I would have loved for Severin to fill in the gaps on the background of this formerly obscure Danish production or at least given a text bio of the extraordinary Torbin Bille. Instead all we get is two old radio spots, one color-drained trailer under the alternate title ABDUCTED BRIDE (which actually pretty cool) and a 10 or so minute featurette originally passed around the net detailing a phony “controversy” around Severin’s descision to release this admittedly questionable film. It’s pretty funny, but something more substantial would have been nice. Still, I like this movie and feel grateful to have a DVD of it at all, so these faults are easily overlooked.

5 comments:

Phantom of Pulp said...

Three terrific reviews.

Agree that Argento's film might have fared better as a short subject (like a TWILIGHT ZONE ep).

DWARF, if nothing else, is an original.

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