You know, some days I have to try and find serious, thoughtful comments to make about films. Other days I get to reviews films like Zombie 3 and this little gem from the collective minds of Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento. Lamberto, of course, is the son of Italian horror legend Mario Bava, who gave the world some of the most acclaimed horror films of his day. And few horror fans need an introduction to Dario Argento, the man who revolutionized horror and suspense films, the man who directed such genre classics as Suspiria, Deep Red, and Terror at the Opera. Put these two together and you could only create something amazing, right? Well, maybe. Unfortunately, Lamberto Bava is to Mario what Lon Chaney Jr. was to Lon Chaney Sr. The end result of the Bava – Argento collaboration is just like what happened when Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground teamed up with Kiss. You expect incredible things. You get The Elder.
I’m going to have to cram a bunch of history up front in this review, so if you already know most of it, please forgive me. I feel it sets the stage properly for those among you who aren’t nerdy enough to have a vast and swelling knowledge of the ins and outs of British censorship efforts, Italian slasher-thriller movies, and the joyous day those two tastes were plunged together into a scrummy treat known as the “Video Nasties” list. Let me first take back to a time when Samantha Fox was still a fox (maybe she still is; I haven’t seen her in years) and the world was just beginning to discover the pleasure of home video systems. England has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with cinema censorship, and certain types who like to get upset over idiotic things were worried about the fact that the rules governing the rating, licensing, and editing of films for release to British theaters had not been written in a language that would allow them to be applied equally to films distributed on video. This little lapse in the foresight of censorship laws to anticipate the invention and subsequent wildfire-like spread of VCRs meant that films previously cut or banned could be legally (more or less) distributed in uncut format on videotape. It seems like they could have solved this dilemma by simply adding “and videos, too” in biro at the end of the book of law, but that’s not how England does things.
Phenomena is often regarded as a turning point in the career of Italian thriller director Dario Argento. Unfortunately for him, the direction it is most often cited as turning is down. After Phenomena, the influential director had one more good film in him – the mean-spirited and sadistic Opera — and then it was all downhill from there. In many ways, Argento’s career seemed to reflect that of another highly creative, important director: Tsui Hark. Both men revolutionized film making in their respective countries and inspired (and continue to inspire) countless other writers and directors. Both men brought a highly stylized vision to the screen. And both men have spent the better portion of the last decade trying to live up to their own reputations.
“In the near future.” More times than not, it’s a euphemistic way for a science fiction film to say, “We were too broke to afford interesting sets.” Setting a film in “the near future” is a great way to get around a variety of stumbling blocks, not the least of which is a low budget. The near future allows you, as I said, to pretty much make up all sorts of new technology, situations, and laws while not having to fork over any money to build futuristic sets. It allows you to mold modern society to your whims without having to recreate it as something new. The alternate to this solution is to have a guy from the future travel back in time to the 20th century to save us or kill some other time traveling villain or some such nonsense. Once again, unless you are James Cameron, this allows you to throw some scifi stuff the way of the audience while not having to think too much about the look of the film.
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…
Some great directors die in the midst of their career and leave behind an inadvertent final film that does not reflect the quality of their larger career. Few would argue, for example, that Family Plot is a fitting capstone for the career of Alfred Hitchcock, or that Stanley Kubrick’s career was well served by having Eyes Wide Shut as his swan song or that Sam Peckinpah’s career ended well with The Osterman Weekend. On the other hand, some director’s die while working and leave behind a final film so stunningly perfect as their final statement that it seems hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t planned by some benevolent supreme being. Had the legendary Bruno Mattei’s life and career ended on any note other than Zombies: The Beginning, then truly this would have been a cruel and uncaring universe. But end with Zombies: The Beginning it did, and so Mattei departed this mortal coil via a film that is the perfect summation of everything he ever contributed to the world of cinema.
Blue Movie Blackmail is known by a variety of names, the original being Si può essere più bastardi dell’ispettore Cliff? My Italian is nonexistent and Google Translate isn’t exactly helpful (“It may be more bastards Inspector Cliff?”), but I think the general gist of the name is something like ‘Is anyone more of a bastard than Inspector Cliff?’ When eventually looped into English (in a few cases by the Anglo cast themselves) it was released in the USA as the somewhat baffling Mafia Junction and in Britain as the rather more accurate Blue Movie Blackmail. It does also have the distinction of being shot mostly in London, so I may be able to relate some interesting titbits as a resident of these parts.
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.
At the time of this writing, we’re at a point where a good deal of film fans are suffering from an affliction that has become known as “zombie fatigue.” Thanks in no small part to video games, zombies began to shamble their way out of the niche horror market and into the mainstream. And then, just like the movies always told us would happen, the zombie outbreak spread swiftly and without mercy, consuming the entire country in a year or so. Zombies were everywhere, and one of the most obvious results of this sudden explosion of pop culture adoration for the walking dead was a glut of terrible, boring, no-budget zombie films. Sure, there were a few good ones scattered throughout the wasteland — Undead, Hide and Creep, even the Day of the Dead remake wasn’t nightmarishly terrible — but for the most part, it was an onslaught of shoddy shot-on-DV stinkers. Worse still, George Romero himself was responsible for many of the stinkers. Land of the Dead was underwhelming, Diary of the Dead was unwatchably rotten, and Survival of the Dead was…well, it wasn’t as bad as Diary of the Dead.
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.