See, it all started back around 499 B.C. The Persian Empire was having some serious trouble with their territories along the Greek coast. The city-state of Miletus led a revolt against the Persian conquerors, but their hope that the famously fierce Sparta would rush to their aid did not come to fruition. Sparta was having enough trouble just keeping its serfs from revolting and didn’t have time to go helping other cats in a revolt of their own. The rebel city-states did find aid from Athens, however. A victory in the provincial capitol of Sardis encouraged other conquered Greek cities to rise up as well, and before they knew it, Persia was looking at a good chunk of its empire suddenly breaking away. The key to sustaining the empire was in whuppin’ the Greek mainland, specifically, in whuppin’ Athens. Sparta was a threat as well, but their hesitance to travel very far out of their own territory meant Athens was in the bullseye.
If you can roll with the first five minutes of Scorpions and Miniskirts, a movie that shows utter contempt for bothering to explain anything at all or connecting one series of actions to the next, then you are probably going to be able to walk away from the viewing experience with a mild sense of having been entertained while, at the same time, feeling like you didn’t quite get everything for which you’d hoped from a movie with a title as wonderful as Scorpions and Miniskirts. After all, Scorpions and Mini Skirts is a title that demands the benefit of the doubt, like Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. Anyway, Scorpions and Miniskirts begins with an initial minute that seems like the movie might earn its more giallo sounding alternate title, Death on a Rainy Day. We open with a funeral, complete with all the bell-tolling gravitas of a continental Gothic horror film. If Peter Cushing stepped out wearing a pilgrimy black Puritan minister’s outfit, it would not have seemed out of place. Surrounded by weeping mourners, accompanied by glum James Bernard sounding music, a coffin is lowered into the ground. The eulogy begins, and as dirt is being shoveled onto the coffin, the lid suddenly creaks open…
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
If you’re in a deploring mood, there is much to deplore in the sexual politics of 1960s men’s magazines. But, putting aside the rather ungainly issue of the representation of women, can it truly be said that our newsstands’ depiction of men has improved all that much in the ensuing years? To my eye, the typical men’s magazine of today features a heavily photoshopped Ashton Kucher on the cover and, inside, an even more photoshopped spread of some skeletal romcom starlet in her underwear, along with a bunch of “fake it til you make it” columns on how to appear like less of an uncultured dick than you really are and some snarky article about how to nail the new temp in your office.
I learned two important things from this psychotronic adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel, Die Blaue Hand. First, you can’t casually watch one of these Edgar Wallace movies from Danish film studio Rialto. Turn away for five seconds, and when you turn back to the television, you will be completely lost. They are so fast moving, and so insanely convoluted, that you have to concentrate on them with an intensity usually reserved for deriving the Unified Field Theory. The second thing I learned is that while quantity doesn’t equate to quality, featuring double the Klaus Kinski in your film is a sure thing. He shows up here as twin brothers, and unfortunately, that lead to the aforementioned distraction as I started daydreaming about what Crawlspace would have been like if Klaus Kinski was slinking around, peeping on…Klaus Kinski!
Yes, it’s yet another review where I talk about a British movie company that isn’t Hammer wherein I mention Hammer every other word. Sorry about that, I’ll try and get it out of my system early on. Hammer Hammer Hammer. The problem is, most writing on the lower tier of British film companies in the 50s and 60s was on H*****, since they were the most successful both commercially and artistically. Other companies that made genre films, such as Amicus, have garnered critical interest by association through shared casts and crews. Part of this is because Hammer (and Amicus too on some occasions) could take a B-movie budget and create something that looked like an A-movie, um, movie. But beneath Hammer there were a whole strata of other companies that made real B-movies, the ones that were only ever destined to be second features or, with a bit of luck, entries in cheap TV anthology shows. It’s only recently that these films have gained any sort of academic and collector interest.
The businesses in question have pleasantly workaday, provincial names; Butcher’s Film Service, Grand National Films, Present Day Productions, Adelphi Films and the legendary cheapest of the cheap, Danziger Productions. This company was founded by Jewish-American brothers, Edward J. and Harry Lee Danziger, who had what one would have to describe as chequered pasts. Edward was a lawyer who had been involved in the Nuremberg trials during his army service. Harry Lee studied music at the New York Academy, and depending on whose account you believe had either played trumpet in a cruise ship band, or been first violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He’d also found time to explore the Amazon and win a Silver Star and Purple Heart. At some point he even managed to market a brand of liqueur, Danziger Gold, so called because of the bits of gold floating in it.
The brothers had previously operated a sound studio in New York, specialising in the dubbing of foreign films for American release. Later they switched to producing features of their own in the US before trying their luck in Britain. The reason the Danzigers abandoned their homeland is, like everything else about them, somewhat murky, though it may have been to avoid the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. They saw the film business as just that; the cheaper you could make the product, the more profit you stood to retain. And the Danzigers made them cheap; as Edward once observed, “nobody makes ‘em cheaper!” It was something of a running joke/horror story among the London acting community, if your current employment was less than salubrious; ‘it could be worse, you could be making a film for the Danzigers.’ Actors who were smart took their salaries in cash on a daily basis.
Initially Edward and Harry Lee rented space from existing facilities, but this was uneconomical for their thrifty productions. After failing to buy Beaconsfield Studios, the brothers purchased some land not far from the famous Elstree. The site contained abandoned aircraft engine testing sheds from world war II. They expanded and converted these buildings into well-equipped soundstages, naming the complex with some hubris ‘New Elstree.’ From here they could knock out a movie in ten days and an episode of TV in two and a half. And knock them out they did; like the rest of the B-producers, mostly murder mysteries and comedy, though with the occasional foray into sci-fi (Devil Girl From Mars, Satellite in the Sky). They called on a stable of solid actors who weren’t stars, or at least not yet – Venerated Horror Icon Christopher Lee starred in a pre-Hammer film entitled Alias John Preston for the company, bemoaning his salary of £75. Other actors would pop up regularly, including Francis Matthews and Dermot Walsh (there was some kind of rule that two out of every three Brit B-pictures had to star Dermot Walsh). Occasionally other companies would rent space at the studio – Quatermass II (a.k.a. Enemy From Space) was filmed there. The Danzigers actually became very successful at TV series, with Mark Saber/Saber of London and Richard the Lionheart (starring, yes, Dermot Walsh) being especially popular.
I’m not really sure why the brothers chose to go with an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, outside of their habit of ‘adapting’ previously existing material, often without credit (rip-off is such an ugly word, isn’t it?). True, interest in horror films based on classic literary works was exploding thanks to, er, some outfit who’s name may or may not begin with an ‘H’. It’s even possible The Tell-Tale Heart was an attempt to hitch a ride on the success of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation Fall of the House of Usher. This was released in the UK in the summer of 1960, and if anyone could knock out a cash-in movie in record time, it was the Danzigers. As it happened, The Tell-Tale Heart sat on the shelf for a further three years, and wasn’t released until after the brothers had pulled out of film and TV production altogether (again for somewhat murky reasons, though the studio not being profitable enough is one likely cause). But more on that a little later.
The film starts with a classic Universal-style warning, including a title card with the following cautionary information: “To those who are squeamish, or react nervously to shock…” (there follows a blank screen with the sound of a relentless, sinister beating heart) “close your eyes, and do not look at the screen again until it stops!” The effect is spoiled a little by the ‘boingggg!’ of a kettle drum as the beating starts – composers Tony Crombie and Bill LeSage seemed to think this was a sinister sound as they used it throughout the score, but the effect is sadly more comedic.
When we rejoin the action, we find a man screaming in the grip of a nightmare. His landlady and a friend burst in on him, crying “Mr Poe! Edgar!” The author (for it is allegedly he) takes some form of medication, then drifts off into another dream, where he is now Edgar Marsh (Laurence Payne, TV’s Sexton Blake and both versions of The Trollenberg Terror). Marsh is a timid reference librarian, desperately shy around women, and only able to express any kind of sexuality via his stash of smutty, nude daguerreotypes. Poor guy, if only there had been a worldwide web in Victorian times. Maybe with some kind of cool, steam-powered brass computers to download from ‘Mrs. Arbuthnot’s Celebrated Collection of the Empire’s Finest Suicide Girls, dot com.’ I’m pretty sure speculative fiction writers have imagined a steampunk version of everything else, so why not steampunk internet porn?
Where was I?
Oh yes. From the window of his bedroom, Edgar can see into the chamber of sexy flower shop employee Betty Claire (the lovely Adrienne Corri, Vampire Circus). Edgar is immediately smitten, but is too nervous to talk to her. He asks his much more worldly friend Carl Loomis (the inevitable Dermot Walsh, Ghost Ship) for advice. With Carl’s help, Edgar manages to persuade Betty to join him for dinner, but he’s still painfully shy. Escorting her home, Edgar is afraid the stairway to Betty’s room is too dark and asks to see her to the door. This is somewhat amusing since the interior set is extremely well lit, though we’re clearly meant to think it isn’t. To Corri’s credit she manages to read her line – about a mean landlady refusing to waste money on candles – with a straight face. Anyway, at the door Edgar makes a clumsy pass, and is given his marching orders.
The next day, Edgar is distraught and apologises profusely. Betty, taking pity on the shy fellow, agrees on another date. Unfortunately at the restaurant it’s quickly obvious she is finding Edgar very tiresome, though he remains oblivious. By coincidence Carl is dining there too. Edgar is delighted to see his friend, while Betty is immediately taken with the confident and handsome Carl. Betty is so besotted she fabricates an excuse to interrupt Edgar’s chess game the next day, because she knows Carl is his opponent. To Carl’s credit he warns Edgar not get in too deep, as he can clearly see what sort of woman Betty is. His words fall on deaf ears though; Edgar is already planning to ask for Betty’s hand in marriage. Poor Edgar is now looking like something of an idiot, what with Carl’s reluctance to hurt his friend crumbling, and Betty all but tearing Carl’s pants off in public. Unfortunately that night Edgar, having been rebuffed once more, observes Carl having his fiendish way with Betty in her room. The next morning Carl says he’ll break it to Edgar gently, though Betty doesn’t care as long as they’re together. But Carl never gets the chance; that night the supposedly sick Edgar sends for him, only to beat him to death with a poker.
After Carl has been missing for a few days, Betty contacts the police. The Inspector (John Scott, who had a long career playing policemen in bit parts) is unimpressed. This is not the first time Carl as fled town to avoid either gambling debts or an overly-attentive woman. She visits Edgar at work, and he feigns surprise at the level of her concern for his friend. In fact Edgar seems generally more relaxed and confident around her. However, later that night he is disturbed by persistent, repetitive noises; a clock, a dripping faucet, and finally the beating of Carl’s restless heart from beneath the drawing room floorboards. Betty observes the deterioration in Edgar’s behaviour as the heart torments him, and becomes suspicious. She sees Edgar return from hacking out Carl’s heart and burying it in the park, and realises that he must have have seen their deceitful night of passion. The police are still not interested though, what with Edgar being a respectable member of the community (I love the idea that a reference librarian is surely not capable of committing such a horrible crime).
Betty has no option but to sneak into Edgar’s house while he’s out trying to drown his sorrows. She finds the bloodstained, bent poker and takes it to the police. Finally the Inspector agrees to question him, but Edgar can hardly make out his words as he now hears nothing but the beating of the heart. Unable to stand it any more, Edgar is driven to make a mad confession. He is shot and killed by the Inspector as he tries to escape, and for good measure gets impaled on a spike (which just happened to have been standing in his hallway, apparently). We then jump back to author-Edgar, who tells his friend Carl about this latest horrible dream, how they were both there along with a mysterious girl. Looking from the window, Edgar sees a woman resembling Betty, and the heart begins to beat once more…
The Tell-Tale Heart was among Poe’s most filmed stories even by the time of this adaptation, including a celebrated animated version from a couple of years earlier. The Danzigers’ regular writers, Eldon Howard (Edward’s father-in-law) and future Avengers creator Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), got around this by throwing out almost all of the original text. In the short story – which like a lot of Poe’s work, puts the emphasis firmly on ‘short’ – the narrator kills his elderly landlord because he’s afraid of the old man’s evil eye. Howard and Clemens add an entirely new framework in much the same way Richard Matheson did with Pit and the Pendulum, retaining only the element of the beating heart itself. And the script is extremely good, providing just enough character beats for us to know immediately who these people are. We aren’t explicitly told why Edgar is so terrified and repressed around ladies, but the way he gently caresses a portrait of a stern older woman (presumably his mother) tells us all we need to know.
The cast, despite being made up of B-listers, is excellent. Laurence Payne has to do most of the heavy lifting, and he’s well up to the task. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom as Edgar guilelessly raves about his best friend to Betty, oblivious to the fact that she’s almost drooling in his presence. Edgar’s rage and descent into madness could slip into the ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actor, but Payne makes it feel very real and tragic. It’s to his credit that Edgar remains sympathetic even after his terrible crime. Dermot Walsh is also very good, mixing the confidence of the cad-about-town with a genuine reluctance to hurt his friend, and then guilt at having done so. Adrienne Corri has the least enviable task, as her character is probably the least likeable. Betty does little to hide her boredom with Edgar or her lust for Carl, and is clearly indifferent to hurting her first suitor’s feelings. It’s quite satisfying that, although she survives the film (or story-within-a-film), she has to live with the death and dismemberment of her lover.
Director Ernest Morris was a regular on television and the B-picture circuit, working with the Danzigers frequently. He turns in some excellent work here, helped by Jimmy Wilson’s stark black & white cinematography and Norman G. Arnold & Peter Russell’s production design. The Danzigers’ movies often borrowed furniture from The Mayfair Hotel, which they also owned, but the results are impressive. The studio-bound nature of the film (including backlot exteriors on New Elstree’s standing street set) serves to reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and repression in Edgar’s life. Morris makes the most of close-ups on Laurence Payne’s distraught, haggard face, and the sparingly-used special effects (a rug or patch of grass pulsing along with the heartbeat) are very effective. Morris’s best work comes in a scene where Edgar, Betty and Carl go out to dinner. As Edgar and Betty dance, the camera focuses on her gaze, always fixated on Carl even as she is spun around the floor by the delighted, oblivious Edgar.
Which isn’t to say that the film is perfect by any means. The score doesn’t always jibe with what’s happening onscreen, especially as far as that bloody kettle drum goes. The scenes with the police inspector smack a little too much of filler, though not to the extent of most B-pictures of this era. And there are a few amusing missteps, such as Edgar living on the Rue Morgue – it’s pretty clear the film is supposed to be set in London, or at least another English city. This certainly isn’t the only film to make the mistake that Victorian prostitutes were sexy young things rather than prematurely-aged, gin soaked derelicts, but it’s an anachronism that always amuses me.
Though The Tell-Tale Heart must rank among the best work to come out of the Danzigers’ operation, it wasn’t released until after they’d abandoned filmmaking. The movie struggled with the British Board of Film Censors due to the gory and sexual content. In particular, a film where the main character is a voyeur with definite women issues, was troublesome coming in the wake of Peeping Tom earlier the same year. It seems the Danzigers didn’t have the same type of collaborative relationship with the BBFC that Hammer did, and The Tell-Tale Heart languished unreleased until 1963. Thankfully it’s now available on DVD, though if you want to see it I’d recommend the remastered UK release. The American disc from Alpha Video uses a misframed, blown-out print that does the film no favours at all. As well as being a great little movie and one of the best British B-films, The Tell-Tale Heart is a pleasant reminder of when movie producers were fast-talking, cigar-chomping* chancers who were out to make a quick buck, but could sometimes create great work almost by accident. As Brian Clemens said of the Danzigers in a recent interview, “they weren’t the Mafia. But they were close.”
*n.b. I have no evidence that the Danzigers spoke above normal speed or smoked cigars, chomped or otherwise. But you get the idea.
Release Year: 1963 | Country: United Kingdom | Starring: Laurence Payne, Adrienne Corri, Dermot Walsh, Selma Vaz Díaz, John Scott, John Martin, Annette Carell, David Lander, Rosemary Rotheray, Suzanne Fuller, Yvonne Buckingham, Pamela Plant, Graham Ashley | Screenplay: Brian Clemens, Eldon Howard | Director: Ernest Morris | Cinematography: Jimmy Wilson | Music: Tony Crombie, Bill LeSage | Producer: Edward J. & Harry Lee Danziger
Indian spy movies from the 60s tend to be delightful despite themselves. The typical Bollywood film’s emphasis on communal values and lack of irony made them ill suited for portraying the kind of smirky hedonism so often displayed in Western examples of the genre. As a result, big budget, mainstream espionage thrillers like Aankhen featured mother loving, teetotaling heroes who stood out against such decadent trappings as almost a kind of rebuke. Meanwhile, in the genre ghetto of India’s B movie industry, attempts were being made at churning out spy films that hued a little closer to the European model. Unfortunately for these films, while the attitude might have been there, the cash wasn’t. Given that, the end products were frequently films that tested the notion of just how sparely represented the basic tropes of the spy genre could be in a film without it falling short of being a spy film at all.
The Devil’s Man is a really quite odd — not to mention staggeringly cheap — little Eurospy film from director Paolo Bianchini, the man who spoiled Superargo for everyone with his limp sequel to Superargo vs. Diabolicus, Superargo and the Faceless Giants. It’s one of those Italian genre films in which the actors walk through it as if in a dream, reacting to situations in ways that no human being ever would simply because that is either what the script required of them or because they were given no direction as to what a more sensible course of action might be (ad libbing was obviously outside the pay scale). Remember that scene in Nightmare City where the woman quite improbably stands stock still and screams while a zombie pokes her eye out with a stick just because that was what was required in order to pull off the cheap prosthetic effect? Well, I was going to say that that is representative of the degree of logic informing The Devil’s Man, but, on second thought, that at least makes sense on some level.
Fairly or not, Eurospy films are generally regarded as cheap knock-offs of the James Bond movies. But there is cheap, and then there is cheap. Anyone who has actually watched a significant number of these films knows that there are a rare few that don’t appear cheap at all, and even glance — if barely — at the kind of production values seen in the 007 franchise. Others occupy a comfortable middle ground, and are able to succeed as long as their ambitions don’t outstrip their means. Then, of course, there are those on the other end of the spectrum that are so visibly poverty ridden that you almost wonder why the filmmakers even bothered.
Like many people, I find that there are certain types of films that appeal so strongly to me on a conceptual level that I tend to cut them considerable slack when reviewing them. Often times, even the very worst of these films, like when Santo is old and fat and spends half the film driving a station wagon to the grocery store, muster enough of the elements I like to keep me satisfied. And one of my very favorite genres is the Eurospy film and the various offshoots and influenced tributaries — among them the Italian fumetti-inspired films. As we covered in some weird and convoluted fashion in our review of Kriminal and the three Turkish Kilink films, as well as Danger Diabolik, fumetti were saucy Italian comic books populated by sexy, violent anti-heroes and villains. Super-thief Diabolik became the flashpoint for a whole series of comics and related films that drew both from Diabolik and the James Bond movies. Diabolik himself was a throwback to the old pulp heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, and European counterparts like Fantomas — with a bit of Batman thrown in for good measure.
Most of the heroes and villains of fumetti did not possess super powers. They simply liked dressing up in outlandish body stockings and kicking people in the head. Needless to say, the combination of gratuitous sex appeal in the form of various Eurobabes slinking around in mod 60s mini-wear, combined with garish space-age sets and amoral violence really speaks to a sophisticated man like me. So I tend to gravitate toward these fumetti-inspired films whenever I can find them, and I’m always happy to discover new ones (such as the ones from Turkey). However, it ain’t all steak and onions, and if the 1968 fumetti film Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen proves nothing else, it proves that it is possible to make a film that will disappoint even someone like me with my incredibly low standards.
Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen may be infamous to some for squandering an awesome title and the lovely Lucretia Love in a movie that, in its best moments, manages to be a middling affair. To others, it is infamous merely by association. Wait, let’s backtrack. To most people, it isn’t infamous at all, because they’ve never even heard of it. But among people who keep track of movies with titles like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen, the film is notable as the debut (or very close to it) directorial effort from Italian exploitation filmmaker Ruggero Deodato.
Deodato is a man who has built his entire career on the shoulders of the controversy generated by his infamous cannibal gore films — specifically Cannibal Holocaust, a film that amazes me in its ability to be simultaneously disgusting and boring, shocking and banal. Cloaked in the taboo surrounding the film’s content — Deodato was put on trial by a prosecutor who was convinced the film contained actual human snuff footage, instead of just actual animal snuff footage — Cannibal Holocaust has passed into the rarefied airs of the best known and most infamous cult films in the world. What gets lost amid all the stone dildo rape and ass-to-mouth impaling is that stripped of these few Grand Guignol scenes of brutality, Cannibal Holocaust is a really boring film helmed by a largely pedestrian director. Hell, even with them, the movie is still kind of dull, though if nothing else, it serves as a very useful intellectual exercise for twenty year olds in film studies classes, wanting to prove how shocking yet insightful their reading of the film is. And yes, shamefully I speak from first-hand experience.
Deodato’s short-comings as a director are made more obvious when you have to watch one of his films that doesn’t benefit from several minutes of controversial cannibal torture footage. As I am a sucker, I have seen pretty much everything he’s done short of the various TV movies he directed, and then something about a washing machine full of dead people or something, and there’s really only been two times that Deodato kept me entertained from start to finish. In my younger and more formative years, I admit I was a booster for films like Jungle Holocaust and even Cannibal Holocaust (actually, I admit I still sort of like Jungle Holocaust), but once the initial gee-whiz shock wears off, you’re left forcing yourself through a really boring couple of movies.
Really, the only times Deodata succeeded for me was with the outlandish Raiders of Atlantis, which propels itself along under power of its own brain-twisting looniness, and Barbarians, a sword and sorcery clusterfuck that is as infamous for being idiotic as Cannibal Holocaust is for being disgusting and boring. I guess my big problem with Deodata is his need to intellectually justify the basest of his works by casting them as “cautionary tales” of the hoary old “who’s the real savage?” vein. Sort of like the endless string of films that teach me heroin is bad for you, or that absolute power can corrupt you. Thanks, movie makers of the world, for these news flashes. I never would have thought to question the brutality of modern man if Deodata didn’t force me to, just like I never would have dreamed that people with untold amounts of power might go mad with it until Caligula taught me otherwise. But heck, at least Caligula is funny, and it has even more film school intellectuals attempting to rationalize and justify its excesses.
Even with the Deodato films I’ve enjoyed, it’s often been despite his direction, rather than because of it. Raiders of Atlantis gets by on weirdness, and on hot pink-haired Filipino Road Warrior chicks. Barbarians gets by on the astounding yet affable ineptness of its twin bodybuilder stars. Neither of these films could ever be taken seriously — unless you see Barbarians as a cautionary tale about letting annoying jugglers and mimes have free passage throughout your kingdom — and that’s probably what makes them tolerable. Most of Deodato’s other work is just as incompetent, but with the added bonus of having a pretentious moral forced in to make the film seem more palatable and smarter.
Given that Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen has the title Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen, and given that it was a comic book movie supposedly cut from the same cloth as Diabolik and Kriminal, I expected to enjoy the hell out of it despite a rookie Deodato being behind the camera. With any luck, his penchant for making boring movies out of intriguing topics would not yet have kicked in. Alas that being boring seems to be the core competency he showed right out of the gate, and rather than ending up being cut from the same cloth as Diabolik and Kriminal, Phenomenal is more assembled as an elementary school art class project out of the scraps left over. Against all logical presumptions based on the title and the subject matter, Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen ends up being a barely watchable bore that is notable only for its ability to turn a movie about villains trying to steal King Tut’s treasures being foiled by a dude in a featureless black pantyhose mask into something fairly uninteresting.
Things start out fairly promising, as we join a drug smuggling operation already in progress. Unfortunately for our dastardly ne’r-do-wells, mysterious superhero Phenomenal has smuggled himself onto their smuggling boat, and as they approach the docks, he sets about kicking some ass. Notable is that Phenomenal, unlike most of the other fumetti heroes who made it onto the big screen, is actually a hero. Diabolik and Kriminal were thieves, and certainly not above the occasional murder. But Phenomenal is expressly on the side of the good guys, operating with the blessing — or at least with the appreciation — of the local police. Also notable is that Phenomenal has the lamest superhero outfit I’ve seen in a long time. He wears the aforementioned featureless black mask, which he somehow manages to see out of despite the lack of eyeholes, and this mask he accessorizes with…a long sleeve black t-shirt and a pair of plain black dungarees. Seriously? Diabolik took the time to buy himself all sorts of cool latex suits, and Kilink spent a whole week knitting himself skeleton themed bodystockings — and Phenomenal shows up in jeans and a turtleneck? That’s like being the obnoxious kid who shows up on Halloween wearing a cardboard box and says he’s a cardboard box when everyone else has awesome Frankenstein and Dracula outfits. Unfortunately, Phenomenal’s lame outfit pretty much embodies the thrill level of the movie as a whole.
To be fair, the opening is good stuff, and exactly what I wanted from the film. And if you, like me, enjoy it, I suggest you watch it a couple times, because that’s pretty much the last you’ll be seeing of Phenomenal or of action for a long time. The drug smuggling foiled, Phenomenal dives into the bay, and the plot proper kicks in. A priceless collection of treasures from the tomb of King Tut are on display at the local museum, so naturally security is skittish since every criminal gang in Europe is plotting to steal the treasures. Since, you know, that’s what criminal gangs spend their time doing, rather than running prostitution and extortion rackets. Seriously, when was the last time you picked up a newspaper and read the headline, “Mafia Steals Tut’s Mask! Scotland Yard Baffled!” Maybe I wouldn’t have put it past John Gotti — he liked to be flamboyant, and has a jacket made from the skin of unborn wolves (or so I was once told). But besides him, I think Tut’s treasures are safe from any gangs of guys in gold chains and jogging suits.
But they are not safe from big Gordon Mitchell, who leads one of the criminal gangs intent on stealing King Tut’s treasures. Of course, they’re not the only ones after the goods, and things are further complicated by the fact that cheap but convincing copies of the treasures were made for security reasons. Also thrown into the mix is the standard issue fun-loving, Bruce Wayne style rich guy, Count Guy Norton, played by Mauro Parenti. We are immediately lead to believe that maybe he’s Phenomenal, but of course, the most obvious character is never revealed to be the masked man — unless the film is exceptionally clever or exceptionally dumb. In the end, I’m not even sure why the film played coy with Phenomenal’s identity, as it never becomes crucial to the plot, and it never manages to make the viewer give a damn one way or the other. I will say that if you do have a secret identity and a signature costume, no matter how lame, you probably shouldn’t carry it folded neatly on top of everything else in your luggage when going to the airport.
Most of the film revolves around Gordon Mitchell’s thugs plotting to steal the treasure, getting double-crossed, and then plotting again to steal the treasure. Seriously, man, you’re a super-powerful gangster. Surely you can hire better help, or I don’t know. Beat up old people who run delis and make them pay you protection money. Or just open a casino. There are lots of ways for thuggish mobsters to get rich without having to concoct elaborate plans to steal stuff from natural history museums. But maybe I’m being crass and shallow, assuming that it’s all about the money. Maybe it’s the thrill of cat burglary, or the beauty of the objects d’art. Or maybe Gordon just wants to put on King Tut’s mask and run around town making groaning noises and scaring Lou Costello and Buckwheat. I guess I can see the appeal in that.
Eventually, Phenomenal shows up to stand on the rocks along a winding country road, where he can put his arms on his hips and laugh at people. This was Kilink’s specialty, but he usually followed it up by doing a plancha onto a gang of bad guys and starting a fist fight. Phenomenal is in it mostly for the standing around with arms akimbo. But at least our title character is finally back in the movie, leading us on what should be a wild chase across Europe and northern Africa as the various sides steal and re-steal the treasures. Unfortunately, by this point, the film has pretty much drained the viewer of any energy and good will at all, so the globe-trotting final half-hour fails to make up for the previous sixty minutes of uninspired tedium and long shots of Gordon Mitchell’s living room.
My standard disclaimer applies: I hate hating movies. Teleport City has never been about “ripping bad films a new one.” I genuinely enjoy enjoying movies, and if my taste is somewhat suspect, that’s really only bad for the people who read these reviews and then get fooled into thinking they want to watch Asambhav just because I liked it. And if there’s anything I hate more than hating movies, its hating movies I really thought I was guaranteed to like. It never occurred to me, before viewing the film, that I would be anything but overjoyed by Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen. So about half way through, I was more than bored; I was genuinely distraught, like something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. “No!” I yelled earnestly and confused at the television as I watched yet another scene of Gordon Mitchell sitting in a recliner. “No! You’re supposed to be a great movie! Come on! Quit messing with me!” but by the time the credits rolled, I had to hang my head in sadness and admit that, despite all the rooting I’d done for it, despite the fact that I believed in it, Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen let me down like a politician six months after getting elected on appealing campaign promises. My opinion of Deodato, already low as you know, was made even worse now that he had wandered into one of my favorite genres and stunk the joint up.
But I try to be positive, and so let me first mention some of the few good things Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen delivers. That first scene was short but cool, with Phenomenal wearing that dress sock on his head and punching out a lot of guys. The music that accompanies that scene, and plays throughout, is far better than the movie in which it appears. Bruno Nicoli was one of the stalwarts of Italian film music, and he’s rarely not on top of his game, even if the movie for which he’s writing music leaves a lot to be desired. And although it’s too little too late, the finale is sort of fun, including a great little fight that stumbles into a women’s steam room — a scene for which there exist several stills featuring the women doing nudity. That was either done for some unseen “international” version, or purely as titillation for the promotional stills, because when the fight actually happens, the women all manage to keep their towels wrapped around them, since even a giant guy beating up a dude in black dungarees with a black toboggan pulled over his face isn’t enough to make a proper lady forget her modesty.
Not that gratuitous boob shots would have helped this movie — they just wouldn’t have hurt. But a couple fun fights and the coy promise of flesh aren’t always enough to salvage a film, and Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen has more problems than can be compensated for with those meager table scraps. Phenomenal himself is an obvious rip-off of Diabolik, minus the menacing cool streak, hot girlfriend, awesome lair, and cool collection of cars. Where as Diabolik makes love on a rotating bed covered in stolen hundred dollar bills, Phenomenal seems more likely to find a penny stuck to his ass after he’s finished jerking off on the couch. He may stand like Diabolik, and laugh like Diabolik, and wear the Wal-Mart Halloween costume version of Diabolik’s outfit, but Phenomenal is certainly no Diabolik. But that’s OK since Ruggero Deodato is no Mario Bava. Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen never achieves that phantasmagoric, sprawling, big budget feel that Diabolik managed without a big budget. Everything here feels small and uninspired.
The performances of the actors deserve a better movie. No one here is bad at all, though Gordon Mitchell does at times look like he’s completely forgotten he’s in a movie and is thinking about something else. Still, are you going to pick on Gordon Mitchell? He’ll kick sand in your face and steal your girl, leaving you in the lurch to contemplate purchasing a “Charles Atlas Secrets of Dynamic Tension” informational package. As Count Norton, Mauro Parenti is serviceably bland. He lacks the smoldering hotness of John Phillip Law, who played Diabolik, and the impish charm of Kriminal’s Glenn Saxson, but if nothing else, he’s too dull to be bad. It’s no big shock that he never became a big star. It’s also not a big shock that he was the producer of this film, not that I’m suggesting he made this film purely as an exercise in vanity. Lucretia Love, who shows up as a love interest/possible criminal/possible good guy, is always a welcome sight, but amid a flimography that includes Battle of the Amazons, The Arena, From Istanbul: Orders to Kill, and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, a lump of a movie like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen tends to just get forgotten.
There are probably worse fumetti movies out there, but right now, this one is the bottom of the barrel for me. Doedato disappoints on every level and fails to deliver pretty much everything you’d want from a fumetti inspired film. It’s a shame a title like Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankhamen was wasted on a movie that can’t live up to its promise. You really shouldn’t be calling yourself Phenomenal if you aren’t.
Release Year: 1968 | Country: Italy | Starring: Mauro Parenti, Lucretia Love, Gordon Mitchell, John Karlsen, Carla Romanelli, Cyrus Elias, Charles Miller, Mario Cecchi, Agostino De Simone, Teresa Petrangeli, Spartaco Battisti, Bernardo Bruno, Mario De Rosa, Pieraldo Ferrante, Enrico Marciani | Writer: Ruggero Deodato | Director: Ruggero Deodato | Cinematographer: Roberto Reale | Music: Bruno Nicolai | Original Title: Fenomenal e il tesoro di Tutankamen