April is the month Cultural Gutter writers abandon their usual beat and write about whatever. So I wrote about Langston Hughes’ autobiography, The Big Sea, which deserves to be counted among the great works of travel and adventure literature. And also, how we don’t learn squat in school about brilliant black American artists and thinkers. Also also, Jocko the monkey.
Jocko, the most magnificent of the monkeys, would go on to live in New York at the height of the roaring ’20s before seeking his fortunes further west in the American heartland. After a scandalous incident in which Jocko, out shooting billiards one night with friends, became enraged and defecated all over the pool tables, he settled in Pittsburgh — the last known whereabouts of Jocko to his young friend and traveling companion, Langston Hughes.
On Diabolique: My three-part article, “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio,” examines A Chinese Ghost Story, one of the iconic films of the Hong Kong New Wave; including a look at the original story by Ming Dynasty-era writer Pu Songling and the Shaw Brothers’ Enchanting Shadow, an early adaptation of the same ghostly tale.
There is little in the short story “The Magic Sword,” part of the compiled writing of Chinese author Pu Songling known as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異), that sets it apart from any other story in the collection. From this rather humble story has grown practically an entire film genre, the leading light of which is Ching Siu-tung’s 1987 masterpiece of the Hong Kong New Wave, Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂).
“Exhumed” revives very old Teleport City reviews from the first couple of year’s of the site’s existence (roughly 1998-2001). I can’t necessarily vouch for the quality, or even always the opinions, of 1999 me, but in the name of entertaining you like I’m some kinda dancin’ monkey, I have dug up these graves and present the corpses to you, more or less unaltered and in all their “there were a lot fewer avenues of research back then” moldy, ignorant glory.Enjoy the many dated references!
Editor’s Note: Back in the day, Jimmy Wang Yu was one of my favorite punching bags, and I’m glad I was never a punching bag for him. Because I hear he was actually pretty tough. This was before a lot of his old wuxia films were available, so all I had to go on were his kungfu films from the 1970s, most of which were terrible. In the two decades and change since then, I’ve seen several great Jimmy Wang Yu films, a few good ones, and more bad ones. So let’s call it even, hope I never run into him in a dark alley, and have a little fun.
Golden Swallow (1968)
The evolution of Hong Kong martial arts films actually begins far earlier than people think, with Kwan Tak-hing making Wong Fei-hong films during the 1920s and being so successful that most people actually began to think of him as Wong Fei-hong, and most of the legendary exploits of Hong Kong’s most famous folk hero (at least after the movies) were actually just things that happened in Kwan’s films. Thanks to Hong Kong’s disregard for their own art, no one really had any interest in preserving these films once they started getting old. Thus, most of us will never get to see one.
Beginning with the explosion in samurai film popularity in Japan thanks to guys like Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Hong Kong films soon started picking up influences from their Japanese counterparts. The sword hero films of the 1960s were born. These films defined the early era we know as the “modern era” of martial arts. Color films, and films that are actually still around for us to enjoy. No one made these films better than the Shaw Brothers studio, and their biggest director was Chang Cheh.
Chang Cheh and his original crew, which included Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Leih, and the incredible Cheng Pei-pei, were at their best in this spectacular, blood-drenched tragedy. Normally, you throw a “romantic triangle” plot at me, and I’ll be as far away from it as Meg Ryan is close to it, but by golly, no one does romance like Chang Cheh! You may not be able to pass this off as a date movie, but if you find the right boyfriend or girlfriend, they should be watching these movies anyway.
Cheng Pei-pei stars as Golden Swallow, the object of affection for two rival swordsmen (Jimmy Wang Yu and Lo Lieh, back before both of them got ugly). Silver Roc (Wang Yu) is out to avenge the murder of his family by the Golden Dragon gang. He leaves as his calling card a golden dart, which the gang mistakes for the similar calling card left by Golden Swallow when she’s done dealing out justice.
Silver Roc wants to win Golden Swallow’s affections, so he challenges his equally heroic rival, Han Tao (Lo Lieh) to a duel. Golden Swallow manages to stop them from killing each other, but before any issues can be resolved, the Golden Dragons show up to kill everyone. Silver Roc is accidentally mortally wounded by Han Tao in the ensuing battle, and tricks he and Golden Swallow into leaving, unaware that reinforcements for the gang are on the way. As Han and Swallow leave to meet him later, Silver Roc valiantly fights against the unstoppable wave of henchmen, stopping to die only after he has slaughtered every last one of them.
Meanwhile, convinced that Swallow really loves Silver Roc, and unaware that The Roc is dead, Han Tao wanders off into the wilderness, vowing to never stand in the way of the two lovers. Bittersweet tragedy abounds in this heart-wrenching tale. On top of that, Chang Cheh layers on so much bloodshed and wholesale mayhem that even John Woo’s most ambitious slaughter looks like kid stuff. The production is lavish and stylized. Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, and Cheng Pei-pei are spectacular as the heroes doomed to sadness. This is definitely one of the classics of early martial arts cinema.
Trail of the Broken Blade (1966)
Similar in plot to Chang Cheh’s Golden Swallow is this equally heart-wrenching tale of doomed love and doomed heroes. I actually prefer this film to the more celebrated Golden Swallow, though both are incredible, emotional films. A good old-school Shaw Brother martial arts film is like a good old punk rock record. There are plenty of other types of entertainment I enjoy, but at the end of the day, nothing makes me happier than sitting down with a few friends to watch an old school Shaw Brothers flick or listen to old Clash records.
When a hero (Jimmy Wang Yu) avenges the slandering of his father, he becomes a wanted man and must go into hiding. He lives a modest life as a stable hand in some rural, out-of-the-way village, thinking every day of the woman he loved and had to leave behind. She, in turn, spends time thinking of him. Alas! The woman spends all her time trying to figure out the whereabouts of her one true love. She also spends some time fighting off various assailants. A heroic swordsman falls in love with her, but realizes her heart belongs to another. As an act of kindness and devotion, he vows to find her missing love and reunite them.
His journeys eventually lead him to Jimmy Wang Yu, and though he suspects Wang Yu to be the missing hero, Wang Yu refuses to admit it, fearing that reuniting with his true love will only put her in grave danger. However, she too is looking for him, and soon all three are reunited. Just in time, too, since they manage to draw the ire of a local bigwig gang as well as the men seeking to kill Wang Yu. This being a Chang Cheh sword hero tragedy, Wang Yu figures the heroic swordsman and woman are in love. The heroic swordsman comes to the same conclusion about the woman and Wang Yu. Everyone does their best to die amid heroic sacrifice, and for the most part, they are successful.
One-Armed Boxer II (1971)
Few will argue the fact that Jimmy Wang Yu was the greatest male star of the Hong Kong martial arts screen during the 1960s. His work in early Shaw Brothers sword hero films like One-Armed Swordsman, Trail of the Broken Blade, and Red Lotus Temple revolutionized the film industry. He was suave, chivalrous, and able to slaughter a hundred villains single-handedly. So it was only fitting that Hong Kong’s greatest sword hero be among the first stars to make the transition to kungfu hero. Jimmy’s first foray into unarmed martial arts was Chinese Boxer, a decent enough film, especially by early standards, but it was clear that Jimmy would not rule the kungfu world the way he had rules the sword hero world.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t turn in some great films. Of all his unarmed fighting films, it is in One-Armed Boxer II that he is most unarmed, as he only has one arm. Jimmy first got into the armless guy swing of things in One-Armed Swordsman and a sequel. Then he lost his arm for One-Armed Boxer and this film. This one, which is also known as Master of the Flying Guillotine is the second best of all the armless guy martial arts films — of which there are shockingly many. The best is still One-Armed Swordsman.
This is also a weird one. Not exactly a sequel to the first one but working in the same territory, the film opens with a creepy Throbbing Gristle like soundtrack. A blind kungfu master learns that a one-armed Ming revolutionary has killed the two pupils he sent to apprehend the rebel. so he does what any good blind kungfu master would do; he flies through the roof and vows revenge. The blind man fights using the dreaded flying guillotine, a decapitating weapon that even has it’s own movie. It’s a metal box with retractable blades connected to a long chain. All you have to do is throw it on your enemy’s head, and pop! Off comes the noggin!
Meanwhile, our one-armed hero, played by Jimmy Wang Yu, is busy showing off for his students by walking up walls and doing other stuff that kungfu masters do. They decide to attend a kungfu tournament where the combatants do all sorts of crazy stuff. A fighter from India has arms that extend out like 20 feet — a trick that would later be used in the Street Fighter video game. There’s also a Thai Boxer, some regular kungfu guys, a kungfu woman, and a mysterious Japanese guy in a big hat. The blind master shows up and recruits many of the fighters in his quest to kill every one-armed man in the area until he gets the right one. Luckily, there seem to be a lot of one-armed guys in this town.
The movie is great. Wang Yu looks good against all the weird martial artists, and there is a supernatural feel to much of the film. It’s brutal and bleak, with the spooky soundtrack and some intense fighting. I think it’s great. One of the best kungfu films out there, just for the sheer weirdness of it all. And the fightin’ ain’t bad, either.
Furious Slaughter (1972)
Although Jimmy Wang Yu does not have one arm in this film, he does get to sport a dapper fedora, so I guess it’s not a total loss for him. This film, however, is a fine example of why Jimmy is a better one-armed hero than he is a two-armed one. Having one-arm pretty much excuses his limited on-screen talents. When he’s swinging both arms wildly around, as in this film, there’s really no excuse at all. He may be a fine fighter in real life, but take the sword out of his hand, or give him both hands, and he’s just not very good. It’s a shame, really, because the man was spectacular in the Shaw Brothers sword epics of the 1960s. With a few exceptions, however, he simply could not make the transition.
A lot of things refer to this as an Indiana Jones inspired film, which I don’t exactly get, seeing as Jimmy isn’t searching for treasure or shooting Nazis or hanging out with an Arab who possesses a rich, baritone voice. I guess since Jimmy wears a fedora that makes him an Indiana Jones character.
Curious plot here. Jimmy plays a gruff do-gooder of a rickshaw man who decides to protect a town from the rabble attracted by the local brothel/gambling hall. The only problem with his plan is that no one in the town seems all that interested in his daring-do. In fact, most of them like having the brothel around, and I guess I would, too, and I’d be pretty pissed if Jimmy Wang Yu showed up one day out of the blue and started saying, “I’m taking your sure-thing piece of ass away. Believe me, I’m doing it for you, brother!”
But that doesn’t stop Jimmy from crusading against evil in the town’s name. Eventually, some bad guys just throw lime powder in his eyes and plant some axes in him. Thus he dies tragically defending the townspeople from an evil they all seemed to like having around. They weren’t even that evil until Jimmy starting hitting them.
When this stuff isn’t happening, he just pulls around a rickshaw. This movie is not very good on any level except maybe on the level where guys pull rickshaws around. If that’s the sort of movie you want to watch, then this one is pretty good, I suppose, though I’m not really an expert on movies about guys pulling rickshaws around for two hours. I’d imagine pulling a rickshaw around can’t be that much more excruciating than watching this movie. I’m also pretty sure Toshiro Mifune made a much better rickshaw guy movie.
Jimmy does get to swing his arms around a lot, and in the end, although he still has both arms, he gets to go blind, so he at least gets to work a disability into the plot. Despite dying, Jimmy reprises his role in the direct sequel, if you can believe that, called Bloody Struggle. Yes, only Jimmy Wang Yu can be so tough that he can get an ax in the head but then come back for the sequel.
Bloody Struggle (1972)
This equally amusingly titled film is the sequel to Furious Slaughter. I guess it is pretty bloody, and I struggled to get through it, so there is truth to the title. If I was British, I might even say that watching this film was indeed a bloody struggle. I don’t know what it was about Furious Slaughter that made people want to make or see a sequel, but here it is. This one gets a lot more into exploring just how boring a kungfu film can be — a subject touched on in the first film but not as fully developed as it is here.
The film picks up soon after Jimmy’s untimely demise at the end of the first film, in which ten axes planted in his body didn’t stop him from being a house afire and killing bad guys galore before dropping dead. Now, his sister is in town trying to find out who was responsible for her brother’s death. Only he’s not dead, see? Well, he can’t see. No, he’s not dead at all. After all, having lime powder tossed in your face and then having someone hit you with an ax over and over and over wouldn’t kill Jimmy Wang Yu! No, he’s just been hiding in a barn, hitting bails of hay, and waiting for his eyesight to return.
When it does, he and sister both go out for revenge. They swing their arms around a lot and Jimmy gets about a dozen more axes stuck in him. He even has one in his head, but he keeps on truckin’ until the bad guys are all dead. The he dies, too. I guess. I don’t know. It didn’t work the first time. But as far as I know, there was never a third film called Grumblin’ Vengeance or anything. So maybe he died for good. Suffice to say, my interest in this film died long before Jimmy Wang Yu.
I have to conclude that, in these films, Jimmy is not really that good at his job. I mean, in part one, he tries to save a town from the local whorehouse when everyone in the town seemed to like the whorehouse. And then the bad guys threw axes into his fac. And now he comes back in part two and can’t go ten seconds into a fight without getting more axes in his face. That’s a pretty interesting style, but not one you want to try in real life. Still, it’s pretty fun to watch a guy with a dozen axes stuck in his body running around hollerin’ and fighting. So I guess it wasn’t a total loss.
Beach of the War Gods (1973)
Why, Jimmy, why? The man was so slick during the 1960s in his Shaw Brothers roles. He was so good. And then, sometime round about Chinese Boxer, the man slipped on a banana peel, only recovering his footing once or twice after that. This film is not an example of Jimmy Wang Yu recovering his footing, even though he trades in the kungfu for what made him famous — swingin’ around a sword. Unfortunately, it just isn’t very exciting.
But it isn’t horrible. I mean, I wasn’t mad that I watched it. I didn’t feel ripped off that I spent 50 cents renting it. All in all, it’s a thoroughly average film, my reaction to which was, “It was alright.” I just wasn’t moved or excited the way I was by earlier Jimmy Wang Yu films like One-Armed Swordsman or Trail of the Broken Blade, both excellent examples of Jimmy at his best. And it was by no means down there in the depths alongside Iron Man or A Man Called Tiger.
The film is pretty simple. Some Chinese village is being badgered by Japanese brigands and pirates. Jimmy plays a wandering hero who helps the town defend itself against hopeless odds. In the interim, he jumps over walls and stuff. He’s always been pretty good at that. Uninspired but competent enough swordplay comprises most of the action, and to the film’s credit, there is a lot of it. Jimmy, of course, dies tragically but heroically, still standing up. That may be a spoiler to someone who’s never seen a martial arts film, but the rest of us could pretty much see it coming during the opening credits.
I don’t think any one man in the world has made more films smearing the Japanese than Jimmy Wang Yu, and I wonder about his family’s history during World war II. I mean, the guy really fucking hates the Japanese. Sure, tons of kungfu films have the Japanese as their central villains — an understandable lashing out after the atrocities committed by Japan against China during World War II. But it seems like if you were to sample 500 kungfu films featuring evil Japanese, at least 400 of them would star Jimmy Wang Yu.
So anyway, the final verdict on this film is “ehh.” It’s unspectacular but not unwatachable. You won’t find yourself writing lengthy essays about what a great film it is, though you may throw in how Jimmy Wang Yu expresses his hatred of the Japanese by remaking the Japanese film Seven Samurai, with himself, of course, in the role of all seven samurai.
Knight Errants (1973)
Well, you can’t always have art, and when Jimmy Wang Yu is involved, you can almost never have art, especially if it was made during the 1970s. No one hates the Japanese like Jimmy, and in this film, he once again gets to kill some of them. He plays a guy named Shaolin. Shaolin’s dad was killed by the Japanese. Years later, Shaolin seeks revenge against the sons of the men who killed his father. Shaolin wears 1970s flares, and everyone really digs plaid. The only person who doesn’t wear clashing plaids is this little old Yoda looking woman. She’s the evil matron of the Japanese thugs. Towering under her opponents at about four feet tall, she reminded me of that annoying lady from Poltergeist, only this one can kick ass.
She also gets to lie underneath the tire of a car and laugh maniacally as Jimmy Wang Yu peels out on her. Yes, that’s your hero, folks. He backs over a little old lady and then tries to peel out on her stomach. Ouch! Lucky for her she has super duper karate training, meaning during the whole thing she can just shake her fists and laugh as Jimmy looks on in confused amazement. Even though she’s evil and all, it’s pretty hard to get behind a hero that just tries to run old ladies over with his taxi. I mean, he could at least fight her. If she kicks his ass (which she does), he probably doesn’t deserve to be a hero. But I guess in Jimmy’s special world, heroes can to rotten things to senior citizen and we are supposed to cheer them.
To his credit, that scene was pretty cool. Unfortunately, it’s the best thing in the film. The rest of it is typical Jimmy Wang Yu fare. He swings his arms at people. They swing them back. It’s elevated a notch by the inclusion of talented martial arts star Yasuaki Kurata, but he’s the villain, as usual, and even he can’t pull a four-star fight out of Jimmy Wang Yu. So they mostly just swing their arms around and run to and fro in a shipping yard.
Knight Errants is better than many Jimmy Wang Yu films that came after he made the rather unsuccessful transition from sword hero (where he was good) to kungfu hero (where he wasn’t). But that’s sort of like saying it’s better than getting your knees pounded with a hammer. I didn’t hate this movie the way I hated films like Bloody Struggle, but it sure isn’t an example of how good a kungfu film can be. You can do worse than Knight Errants, but anything worse will probably also star Jimmy Wang Yu.
Iron Man (1973)
There really isn’t a damn thing I can say about this movie other than it really, really sucks. I can’t decide if this or A Man Called Tiger is the worst Jimmy Wang Yu film ever made. Maybe this. It took me almost a year to finish watching this horrible piece of tripe. I tried. I really tried, but after 15-20 minutes, I just had to turn it off, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again for months.
Set during World war II, Jimmy is at his Japanese-hating worst as a man who gets his hand chopped off by rotten Japanese scoundrels. Yep. Jimmy is doing the one-armed thing again, only this movie is so weak, he doesn’t even sacrifice a whole arm for it. In fact, once he gets a black glove, his hand seems to magically reappear.
The film is filled mostly with Jimmy seeking revenge against the Japanese. He does this by swinging his arms furiously at them, and they swing their arms back. The whole thing swung me into a pleasant sleep where I dreamed I was doing something more enjoyable than watching Iron Man, like getting my kneecaps hammered on by mafia thugs.
Point the Finger of Death (1977)
Poor Jimmy Wang Yu, crushed under the weight of a faltering career, returned for this film to what he does best — getting his arm cut off. What’s this guy’s problem? He can’t hold onto his arms to save his … well, arm. I am taking all my old broken action figures that are missing limbs and selling them on eBay as “authentic Jimmy Wang Yu dolls.” Wait, weren’t the Jimmy Wang Yu Dolls a glam band during the 1970s? No, sorry, that was the New York Dolls. As far as I remember, they actually had all their limbs.
This time around, Jimmy is a noble Ming revolutionary who is double-crossed by some of his fellow rebels, who are actually working for the Ch’ings. In the ensuing battle, he gallantly lops his own arm off in order to stop the spread of poison from an arrow. Since this is the martial world, he doesn’t bleed to death, and is actually able to still jump over trees while gushing blood from his gory stump. Actually, he doesn’t even gush that much blood, because HE IS JUST THAT FUCKIN’ TOUGH!
He then spends the rest of the movie skulking around and seeking revenge with his arm tucked inside his shirt, which is sometimes pretty obvious. There are moments when it looks like he has his hand on his hip, and he’s got this huge thing jutting out of his side. They should have taped that down, like Lon Chaney in that weird-ass movie where he’s the circus performer who pretends to have no arms, but actually does have some extra thumbs. Pretty good movie.
All in all, this film is not original, but is pretty good, probably thanks to the involvement of the wonderful Liu Chia-yung more than anything else. Jimmy gets to grumble some decent lines but still looks tired and a bit wooden. The rest of the cast is just fine, and the film offers a goodly serving of kungfu bloodletting. While it’s nowhere near the calibre of One-Armed Swordsman or One-Armed Boxer II, it’s still an enjoyable one-armed adventure that hits you with both fists. Actually, I guess it only hits you with one fist. Well, no. Actually, it sort of waves a sword in your face for a while.
Fantasy Mission Force (1985)
I don’t know if any of you out there have ever actually felt your brain melt, but if you have, you know what it’s like to experience the acid trip that is Fantasy Mission Force. Jimmy was definitely on that brown acid when he dreamed up this crackpot film, and thank god for whatever drugs the man was doing. I love this film! SIt has flying Amazons, vampires, and Abraham Lincoln in it! Anyway, almost as wacky and convoluted as the film itself is the story of how up and coming martial arts star Jackie Chan came to be in the film. Keep in mind that much of this is conjecture, wild accusation, conspiracy theory, and half-truth. It sure is interesting though.
Back in the day, Jackie was working for Seasonal Entertainment and director Lo Wei. Lo Wei was the guy who directed Bruce Lee’s three films before Enter the Dragon. Wild rumor had it that Lo Wei, a notorious thug and triad member, was furious that Lee dissed him to go to America and make Enter the Dragon. Thus more than a few people believe that Lee was murdered and Wei’s goons were responsible. So fast forward a few years. Jackie Chan is saddled with the task of being “the next Bruce Lee,” despite the fact that lee and he are totally different types of fighters making totally different types of movies. But they both worked for Lo Wei. Chan was getting sick of toiling away in Seasonal flops like To Kill With Intrigue, though he did make some great films at the time. Lo Wei’s vehicles simply were not taking the young star where he wanted to go.
When Chan was approached by a Taiwanese company with the chance to work with Yuen Wo-ping on Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, he jumped at it, and jumped ship. Once again, Lo Wei’s star had ditched him for greener pastures, and once again, Lo Wei was fuming. Again, speculation claims that Lo Wei sent thugs to Hong Kong to kill Jackie Chan, but Jackie was protected by the local movie star triad thug of Taiwan, Jimmy Wang Yu. Yep, they claim that the ol’ one-armed swordsman, who of course has two arms, fought off a whole bunch of Lo Wei’s men.
Chan now owed his life to Wang Yu, and Jimmy took it out in trade, calling on Jackie’s growing name to inflate interest in some of Jimmy Wang Yu’s own films. Jimmy’s star was well down the path toward waning, so adding Jackie to the list of cast members was a sure-fire way to guarantee the aging Jimmy Wang Yu a decent return on his films. Thus, you get Jackie showing up in Wang Yu films like this and Island of Fire. Like I said, take that shit with however many gains of salt you devote to the tabloids. One thing is for certain, and that’s that Chan must have owed something pretty heavy to Jimmy Wang Yu to show up in some of those films.
Fantasy Mission Force is the best of the bunch, and definitely the weirdest damn thing Chan has ever done. He’s not exactly a member of the main cast, but he keeps popping up, along with Cheung Ling, as a whimsical con-man. He shows up in the end to have a grand duel with Jimmy Wang Yu and his army of Chevy-driving neo-Nazi Chinese skinheads. That right there should clue you in on what sort of movie this is. Plot? Jimmy Wang Yu is a super soldier who assembles a team of misfits and renegades for a suicide mission. Yeah, familiar plot. Their mission is to rescue the leaders of the Allied Powers during World War II, all of whom have been captured by Nazis. One of the leaders is Abraham Lincoln. They are being held in Luxemborg, Canada. Jimmy Wang Yu has to go because Rambo, Snake Plisskin, and Baldy (Karl Maka’s character from the Aces Go Places films) were all busy.
Jimmy soon fakes his death and is revealed to secretly be the leader of the Nazis, all of whom drive long Caddies or something with swastikas spray-painted all over them. Curiously enough, Chinese nazi skinheads also figure prominently into the plot of Flash Future Kungfu. I don’t know if that’s a whole subgenre, but you can bet your ass I will investigate further. Along the way to saving the leaders, the ragtag band (one of whom is a young Brigette Lin Ching-hsia) encounters flying Amazons with magic powers, vampires and ghosts, and other things you would typically think of when you think about World War II films. There are frequent battles, Jackie Chan shows up to do some kungfu, and in the end he and Cheung Ling drive some bulldozers around.
By the time this film was over, I was weeping sweet tears of joy. I mean, someone thought of this. Even in the dead of summer in Florida, living in a squalid apartment on the edge of a swamp with no air conditioning, my nightmarish heat hallucinations never even came close to the level of pure nirvana this film helps me attain. Fuck drugs. All you need is Fantasy Mission Force. Were you thinking of piercing your nipples with buffalo bones, taking peyote, and seeing visions in the sweat lodge? Why bother when you can watch Fantasy Mission Force?
I’ve seen a lot of shit. I’ve seen movies where an evil dwarf kidnaps young virgins and chains them in his attic while his mom belts out old cabaret tunes. I’ve seen movies where the romantic triangle is between a man, a woman, and a corpse. I’ve seen damn close to everything this fucked up world has to offer, but Fantasy Mission Force still makes me scratch my head. If I watch it along with Young Taoism Fighter, I can actually travel through time and Sun Ra begins to make sense. Fantasy Mission Force is a source of great and dangerous power. You will either learn to wield it and thus experience all the earthly delights, or it will kill you. Possibly both.
On Diabolique, I’m writing about the surreal Polish fantasy film The Hourglass Sanatorium and the malleable nature of how we remember our past.
A glorious, perverse carnival air permeates The Hourglass Sanatorium, the sort of atmosphere that would be at home in an Alejandro Jodorowsky or Fellini film. Bent figures in the threadbare finery of yesteryear—tattered cloaks, rumpled suits, crooked top hats—rub elbows with topless strippers amid the ruined relics of bygone splendor.
Over on Diabolique, I am writing about the amazing Czech fantasy film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and how it reflects the tumultuous state of affairs in Czechoslovakia during the rebellious Prague Spring.
Released in 1970 and couched in the harmless looking vestments of a fairy tale, Valerie a týden divu (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) is an allegorical Czech fantasy film which, on the surface, is about a teenage girl trying to get a decent night’s sleep. Underneath the gorgeous, hypnotic veneer is a skewering of everything from religion and political authority to sexism and exploitation, all disguised as a film about a teenage girl’s coming of age in a surreal fantasy world.
On the Cultural Gutter, I am Searching for Odin, My Love — one of the most expensive, most lavish, most boring, and most infamous anime flops of all time.
We get a brief look at the various space sailers. It’s all set to snappy Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra style music like you got in his score for Chariots of the Gods, which is fitting (this movie had as many composers as it had writers and directors). Then a transport shuttle lands on one of the giant sailers, the ramp opens, and one of the characters steps out, points toward…the future, perhaps…and yells, “GO!!!” And that’s when Odin begins to earn its reputation.
The Japanese entries into the Invisible Man sweepstakes might not have been an official part of the series, but they certainly hold their own against Universal’s films. Adachi’s Invisible Man Appears is, like most of the Universal movies, more of a crime drama than horror or science fiction, though there are enough beakers and scientists with wild Albert Einstein hair to give it a reasonable claim to the honor of being one of Japan’s first known science fiction film
The best thing about the scientists of everything is that aside from being smart about all things ever, they were also ass-kicking heroes who were as handy with the fisticuffs as they were with a slide rule. They were out climbing mountains and repelling into bottomless caverns, where they would encounter strange new civilizations and proceed to kick the shit out of them. Hell, Agar and Beaumont conquered an entire mole people civilization with just a flashlight.
Strip Nude for Your Killer (Nude per l’assassino) may be scummy, but it wastes no time letting you know exactly where you stand. The first shot is a full frontal nude shot of a woman in a doctor’s office, legs spread in medical stirrups, with a doctor’s face firmly planted between her thighs. If this image — and keep in mind that it is quickly revealed she’s in the middle of an abortion — offends or insults you, then it’s best to just skip ahead to some other movie. Perhaps Dario Argento’s Deep Red. It’s really good, and as far as giallo goes, it’s pretty clean. At least it doesn’t start off with a close-up of a woman getting an abortion. From this auspicious opening salvo, Strip Nude for Your Killer has the woman suffer a heart attack, causing the doctor and his pal to bring the woman back to her home and leave her in the bathtub in hopes that the police will just chalk it up to a heart attack without noticing the abortion thing.
From there, the film picks up at a photography studio staffed primarily by snide, condescending people who all seem to hate each other. Among them are star photographers Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo) and Magda (Edwige Fenech), who are involved with each other though Carlo is by no means a one-lady man. The other cast members all have names too, but there’s not much point in remembering them since, 1) they’re all basically the same character, and 2) they’re all going to die anyway. And sure enough, it doesn’t take too long before someone is stalking the employees of the studio and killing them off. Signature murders include the stabbing of a woman who, upon realizing a prowler may be in the house and all her co-workers are getting murdered, investigates while completely nude except for a pair of clunky platform clogs; and then there’s the one where, after charmingly attempting to rape a co-worker before going impotent, we get ample shots of an enormously fat man in his sagging tighty whities and black dress socks, clutching a deflated blow-up doll in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other while he cries uncontrollably. Tasteful!
Eventually, the cast is whittled down to a few potential suspects, including Carlo and Magda. The two of them take it upon themselves to investigate the murder, though it’s possible on of them is actually the culprit. For some reason, any time they turn up a clue, they make a big fuss about how they couldn’t possibly go to the police with it, even though there’s no actual reason they couldn’t go to the police beyond the fact that the film depends on the concept of the amateur sleuth working outside the bounds of the police. Well, that and because writer-director Andrea Bianchi sort of blows at writing stories. When the killer is finally revealed…well it’s best for anyone watching this movie to master the use of the phrase, “Oh, come on!” Strip Nude for Your Killer isn’t quite so bad as to have the killer be someone that hasn’t been in the movie until the point they are revealed to be the killer (“Why, it was his brother we’ve never seen all along!”), but it’s close.
And there’s plenty more “Oh, come on!” moments to keep your eyes rolling. Like the part where Magda goes to retrieve film from Carlo’s studio that presumably has pictures of the killer on it. While there, the lights go out, and Magda hears someone else sneaking around. So, knowing that everyone who works at your studio is being murdered, knowing that you have a piece of evidence that could reveal the killer, and knowing that the killer knows you have this and also knows where it is, when you are in this place, and the lights go out all of a sudden, do you instantly think, “It is entirely likely this killer who has been stalking us has now arrived here!” or do you think, “Surely it must be nothing more than fuse that happened to blow at this precise moment.”
Strip Nude for Your Killer definitely requires a healthy sense of humor to get through. Director Andrea Bianchi does not possess the stylistic flourishes that make many other bad giallo worth watching even when their plots are of dubious merit. What Bianchi lacks in terms of inventive direction he attempts to make up for with sleaze, and at least on that level, he’s a Viking. Before you even start the movie, you can guess what sort of ride you’re in for. Some titles make lascivious promises the movie can’t keep, but Strip Nude for Your Killer is not one of them. Here’s a film that plays a botched abortion for cheap titillation and ends with a joke about a guy strangling his girlfriend and sodomizing her against her will. In between, you get frequent male and female nudity, plenty of slasher gore (usually in the form of the aftermath of a murder), and an all-around level of scumminess that becomes so thick it takes on the properties of camp excess. John Waters would surely appreciate the ludicrousness of it all. That gleeful willingness to reel about in the muck with such reckless disregard for even the most frayed threads of decent taste keeps Strip Nude for Your Killer from being offensive. It’s far too idiotic to be taken with that degree of seriousness. This movie is like stumbling upon a hobo jerking off behind a dumpster. Sure you can get offended, but honestly, what’s the point?
One of the fun things about giallo is that they actively invite psychoanalysis. Regardless of how shoddy and shallow the product may be, if it just follows the template close enough, it can piggyback on the psychological groundwork of Bava, who himself was nodding to Hitchcock. It’s like buying meaning wholesale, or shopping at Hot Topic instead of making your own punk clothes. Bianchi had absolutely nothing to say with Strip Nude for Your Killer. He wanted to make a sleazy murder mystery and get Edwige Fenech naked as often as possible, plus show a fat guy in saggy underpants. And that’s exactly what he did.
But because, by 1975, so many giallo had been made and the cliches of the genre were so well established, he didn’t have to put any thought at all into having things film nerds could pick up on in the never-ending quest to artistically justify even the basest and greediest of crap. Strip Nude for Your Killer is rife with the standard giallo themes, the most obvious of which is the deceptive nature of observation. You could even justify the tasteless opening by saying that Bianchi is intentionally duping the audience into thinking they’re getting a bit of cheesecake right off the bat, only to spoil it by introducing a dramatic and tragic revelation regarding the nature of the nudity we are observing. You would, I think, be full of shit if you did this, but you could still do it.
Later in the film, the roll of film with the killer’s identity is brought into play, under the assumption that a photograph of a murder in progress is irrefutable proof. Once again, however, very little is what it appears to be. Edwige spends much of the movie poring over photographs of the victim, an old magnifying glass plastered to her face as a visual homage to the dime store detective novels from which the giallo film grew (and also as a fine example of how magnifying glasses aren’t designed work). In Strip Nude for Your Killer as in many other far superior giallo, the protagonist spends a great deal of time examining and re-examining something that seems perfectly clear but is later revealed to hold a significance no one recognized. Bianchi is obviously just copying what he’s seen before, but it’s still kind of fun and one of the reasons bad giallo are often still enjoyable to dissect.
There is one big reason, at least above the simple blanket “because it’s Italian giallo,” to watch Strip Nude for Your Killer, and that’s the appearance, usually nude or in little more than panties and an unbuttoned men’s dress shirt, of Edwige Fenech, a staple of both Italian sex comedies and the giallo film. She brought to the game a dangerous combination of acting talent, comedic timing, a willingness to drop her robe for pretty much no reason. She split her time evenly between exceptional giallo like All the Colors of the Dark and other films with director Sergio Martino, and dodgy nonsense like Strip Nude for Your Killer and The Case of the Bloody Iris. She was always game though, and never looked to be half-assing it even when her primary role was to show half her ass. In Strip Nude for Your Killer, she’s about as close as you’re going to get to a likable character, even though she’s condescending and nasty to people. But when you’re surrounded by the likes of mean-spirited S&M lesbians, a guy who thinks anal rape is hilarious, a fat crying guy who also thinks rape is the way to a woman’s heart, and someone who is killing a bunch of people — well, it’s not hard to look like the good guy.
If you are looking for a good and proper introduction to the world of Italian murder mysteries, Strip Nude for Your Killer is not your movie. You want to be watching The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Blood and Black Lace or All the Colors of the Dark. Still, if you are already prepared for the peculiarities of sloppy Italian filmmaking, Strip Nude for Your Killer is surprisingly enjoyable. Even though it’s poorly written, even though it’s relentlessly tasteless (actually, because it’s relentlessly tasteless), even though it has very few points you could single out as being good other than Edwige Fenech, and even though it’s packed full of gratuitously seedy garbage (once again, what I mean is because it’s packed full of gratuitous, seedy garbage), it ultimately entertains on that level that might make you feel like you need a shower afterward.
By 1978, the giallo cycle was pretty much over. Beginning more or less with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), then hitting a crescendo with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975), the lurid blend of style, old fashioned whodunit, sex, and violence was regarded as somewhat old hat as the horror film shifted its obsession away from giallo and toward their next natural progression, the slasher film. For the most part, and with a few notable exceptions, post-1978 giallo were like glammy, prancing hair metal bands who hit the scene a month after Nirvana. They were the Danger Danger or Von Groove of the giallo world. Mind you, the Italians weren’t going to let a good thing go until they drained it of every last drop of blood and then some, especially since the giallo formula could be so easily tweaked to deliver a slasher (and indeed the distinction between the two is blurry, though gialli generally have an older cast wearing cooler clothes) or a sexploitation film.
As far back as 1971’s Slaughter Hotel, the giallo had been flirting with explicit sexuality. The primary difference between then and 1978, the year in which The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula) was released, is that Slaughter Hotel, for all its absurdity and ill-considered medieval weapons displays, still tried to be a somewhat stylish murder mystery in between all the sex. Director Fernando Di Leo might have been slumming it compared to the usual quality of his work, which was generally quite high, but even when he was making a bad film, he couldn’t actually make a bad film. He was to much the professional and too talented as a director. Not so for Enzo Milioni, the director of The Sister for Ursula and very little else. This is his rookie outing, and although he does manage to complete the film, there’s not much more to be said about it than that. The murders are silly, the pace is off, and Milioni has no idea what to do when he isn’t filming long scenes of sex, masturbation, and star Stefania D’Amario undressing in ways that take far longer than it would take a normal human to accomplish the same task. The Sister of Ursula is happy to drop the “thriller” part of erotic thriller and concentrate on the erotic tot he degree that it’s not even particularly erotic. Even when it does get down to the business of murder, it’s a decidedly sexual take on the act, given the movie’s rather unique choice of murder weapons.
Austrian sisters Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi, Sergio Martino’s The Suspicious Death of a Minor, Argento’s Suspiria) and Dagmar (Stefania D’Amario, Lucio Fuli’s Zombie and Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City) have come to Italy’s Amalfi Coast in search of their mother, who left them when they were young. Their father has just died, and the sisters want to share their inheritance with their absent mother. Their effort to find their mother is relegated mostly to hanging out at the hotel, seeing nightclub acts, and occasionally perching on the balcony or down on the beach. Ursula has been particularly affected by the death of their father, a fragile mental state that is expressed mostly by having Barbara Magnolfi sneer at and insult everyone while pouting like a child. Dagmar does her best to care for and tolerate her sister’s outbursts, which is oddly compassionate in a genre where most trauma is met with reactions like “So you were raped by a sex maniac who killed your boyfriend, get over it.” But don’t worry. Dagmar’s empathy for her sister will not be reflected in the way she or anyone else reacts to the murders that are about to spoil everyone’s holiday.
The hotel the sisters have checked into is a typical “Italian sexploitation film” hotbed of sleazy activity being perpetrated by shady characters. Local hunk Filippo (Marc Porel, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling and The Psychic) splits his time between romancing hotel lounge singer Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow) and shooting heroin, which is provided to him by the hotel’s manager, who supplements his resort income by dealing smack so that he can keep himself well stocked in cravats and velour leisure suits. The manager’s wife Vanessa (Anna Zinnemann, a seasoned veteran of the Italian exploitation racket who has appeared in the fumetti caper Il marchio di Kriminal; the spaghetti western Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead; gialli The Bloodstained Butterfly and Hallucination Strip; and Eurocrime films Gang War in Naples, Day of Violence, and The Big Racket) is carrying on a lesbian affair with local young hot thing Jenny (Antiniska Nemour). Pretty much everyone else in the hotel seems to be moonlighting as a prostitute. However, the rooms are clean, the lobby is nice, and the lounge seems lovely. In other words, it’s a fun place until the murders start happening.
The first victim of the mysterious maniac is a curvy prostitute, but others follow. Soon a pattern emerges: a woman will engage in a very lengthy and repetitive sex scene, either with themselves or someone else, then while they’re basking in the post-coital glow and puffing a cigarette, someone will show up to murder them, making sure that the focus of their ire is the genital region. Although The Sister of Ursula contains sex scenes that flirt with the pornographic, they are still mostly composed of the tried and true elements of giallo sex scenes, which is lots of people mashing their noses against one another’s collar bones while the camera lingers lovingly on elbows, crotches, and parts of the body filmed in such extreme close-up that not even a skilled anatomist would be able to discern what they are. On the plus side, the film boasts a lot of attractive people willing to put pretty much everything out there. On the minus, the scenes themselves go on for interminable length and repeat themselves, like a long-lasting lover who is, despite his stamina, not actually good at lovemaking.
This seems to have been the only way Enzo Milioni could achieve a feature length run time. Everything goes on for several minutes longer than it needs to. Even for someone more than happy to just sit back and watch the flesh, it gets to be monotonous. This is basically a sex film masquerading as giallo, and as such it’s primary job is to deliver sex and nudity. In one of the film’s early scenes, Stefania D’Amario’s Dagmar strips and changes into a robe while Ursula unpacks her suitcase. There is a difference between stripping and changing clothes. One takes a while, involves some skill and artistry. The other is a task to be complete. Dagmar takes as long to change into her robe — caressing her own sides and striking poses for no one other than, one assumes, her sister — as most people would take to actually fashion a dressing down from scratch. And lest you think some incestuous lesbian incitement is going on, rest assured that’s not the case. Dagmar goes about her business oblivious to the fact that Ursula is lingering around. But at least Dagmar is naked when she gamely kills five or six minutes of the film’s run time. For her part Ursula is absorbed by the fascinating task of removing things from her luggage, staring at each item, rotating it in her hands, and finally putting it down so she can move on to the next item.
Other of the sex scenes seem to have been conceived not just by someone who has never has sex, and not just by someone who has never masturbated, but by someone who actually isn’t human at all and has no idea how the human body works, but has had some of the primary functions summarized for them. This manifests primarily in a scene in which Dagmar, having nothing better to do with her time, pleasures herself with a gold chain — but not in the way you might guess, which would involve some degree of insertion or at least the application of pressure. No, instead she mostly just sort of lightly drags the chain across the top of her pubic hair, which is enough to send her into the throes of ecstasy and devour another five or six minutes of movie. Hey, everyone has their thing. It’s a rare accomplishment for a sex scene to reach the point where even a dedicated swinger and aficionado of perversion sighs and says, “You know, maybe we could just move on.”
If this seems needlessly and too graphically focused on the sexuality of the film, there’s a reason for that. Although The Sister of Ursula contains several murders, few of them elicit much response from anyone in the cast, and if they can’t be bothered to care, then why should the viewer? The Amalfi Coast is admittedly a pleasure seeker’s paradise, and a certain amount of laissez-faire is expected in matters. But even the most laid back den of hedonism seems like it might start to attract attention after a third murder victim turns up in one of its rooms. Sure, the hotel has a nice view, a pretty good floor show, and lots of prostitutes; but when those prostitutes keep getting murdered, surely that results in a few early check-outs. At the very least, one would think the police would do something more than show up every other murder and proclaim, “Well, these things happen.” Dagmar and Ursula must have gotten a really great rate on that room, because no amount of discovering horribly mutilated bodies can convince them to pack up. Even in the world of the giallo, where no one reacts to anything in the way an actual human would, the blasé attitude of everyone toward the piles of corpses borders on the ludicrous.
Speaking of ludicrous, given the genital nature of the violence inflicted on the film’s victims, one might expect it to be unsettling while it’s being unsavory. It never rises to that level, however, content to wallow about comfortably in its own absurd filth. The reveal of the killer is shocking only in that it turns out to be the most obvious suspect, and the one the film has been hinting at the entire time. It’s like expecting a curve ball only to have the pitcher throw it slow and right down the middle. And then there’s the reveal of murder weapon, which for most of the film is seen only as a shadow which becomes a little clearer with each killing until finally, the film whips it out proudly for all to marvel at. Rather than being shocking, however, it’s simply idiotic, and one can’t help but wonder exactly how you go about murdering someone with that particular implement.
Stefania D’Amario goes about the business of being the film’s lead with reasonable commitment. She’s not trying too hard, but it’s not a role that asks her to try hard. Her primary functions are to get naked and roll her eyes at what a nutcase her sister has become. She’s competent at doing both of these things, and toward the film’s finale she even gets to do a little acting, albeit acting of the “bug out your eyes and scream” variety. Barbara Magnolfi plays Ursula less a damaged, fragile woman and more as just a hateful, spiteful brat who, just because this film isn’t weird enough, also possesses the power of limited precognition. which she uses mostly to hiss at Filippo and Dagmar that Filippo is a scumbag who will end up killing Ursula. For his part int he whole sordid affair, Marc Porel as Filippo actually turns in a pretty good performance. Actually, no one in this movie is bad. It’s the movie itself that is bad. Most of them obviously have no idea what was going on, but that just makes them easy to relate to. The majority of them are there to be introduced during a meandering sex scene, then killed in the next scene. Oddly for a giallo, especially one this sleazy, most of the characters aren’t horrible human beings, with the possible exception of Ursula herself, and even she has a trauma that temper her foul mood.
Enzo Milioni was a director of no particular skill, and he enjoyed a career to match that skill. he circled the bottom of the barrel during a time in Italian exploitation filmmaking when the previous bottom of the barrel had drifted to the top. No one realized how good we had it in the early 1970s when the worst of the genre was still somewhat inventive. Milioni has nothing to offer as a writer or director, and one suspects based both on the thinness of the finished movie and the disengaged presence of actors who are trying to do their best with nothing, that the script for The Sister of Ursula ran no more than a couple pages and consisted mostly of “insert sex scene here.” During the decade he was active as a director, he only managed five films in an industry where some directors produced than number in a single year. His career as a writer was longer but not much more prolific and, like his stints as director, at best aspired to one day attain mediocrity. Even the cinematography by Vittorio Bernini is grubby. The Amalfi Coast is the sort of location that does most of the work for you. You just have to point your camera and get the proper exposure, and just as this film over-exposes during its sex scenes, so too is the travelogue footage spoiled by too much light, rendering the sky washed out and yellowish-white when it should be blue and beautiful. Maybe it was the weather. Bernini has some interesting ideas about how and where to place his camera, but for whatever reason, it never achieves the level of sophistication or style it should.
Other than marveling at the sheer stupidity of it all, there’s little to recommend in The Sister of Ursula. Well, OK, the music, composed by Mimi Uva (who, like most of the crew of this film, had no real career to speak of), is actually pretty good in that “cocktail lounge meets funk” way. Truly determined (or is it “demented”) fans of Eurocult cinema will find it easy if monotonous going, like having sex with a prostitute who can’t quite be bothered to pretend like she isn’t bored. It gets the job done, or at least a certain type of job, but there’s not much to recommend beyond that. If you are a fellow traveler in the world of the giallo film, especially its murkier, dirtier alleyways, then you might, like me, find The Sister of Ursula to be harmlessly tedious. It’s like watching a Luciano Ercoli film without that director’s flare for fashion and cinematography. For that matter, the whole affair is a bit like a Jess Franco film without that director’s flare. Contemplate that one on the Tree of Woe. Sex scenes, the Italian coast, outlandish murders — everything about The Sister of Ursula seems to operate under the directive of “Well, this should be good, but we’re going to mess it up.”
The joke is often made (or it has been here, at any rate) that giallo are populated by people who are, to put it mildly, not of the best quality. The kind of people who will make love and then roll over and engage pillow talk like, “I can’t believe my sister was raped and murdered by a sex maniac on this bed just yesterday.” The kind of people who will say to someone who just suffered through a terrible trauma, “Well really, I don’t understand why you’re so upset. Your daughter was murdered, so what?” Girl murdered in the elevator? The proper giallo response is to huff and complain that now you have to take the stairs. It often seems like characters in giallo are incapable of reacting with anything even remotely resembling human emotion—except, that is, for contempt. At times it can become so exaggerated that one thinks surely it’s being done on purpose and for a specific reason. A comment on the self-centered “me, me, me” attitude of the 1970s? A critique of the shallow, disposable way in which people live their lives? A screenwriter who has some issues to work out? Whatever the case, when it comes to truly loathsome characters in giallo, few can match Giuliano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?), a film in which pretty much everyone is hateful or stupid; or more often, hateful and stupid.
The misanthropy kicks in right away, when a murdered girl is discovered in the elevator of a high-rise apartment and people react by complaining that they’ll be late for work. Or they just sort of wander off, muttering to themselves about how inconvenient it is. Someone eventually calls the police, because they show up and show that, even by the standards of giallo where the cops are usually incompetent and useless, they’re going to be doubly so here with an added dose of belligerence and side of racism. One of the people inconvenienced by the murder is dancer Mizar Harrington (Carla Brait, who the sharp-eyed might recognize as the leader of the tap dancing show tunes gang in Enzo G. Castellari’s bizarre 1990: The Bronx Warriors), who works at one of those strip clubs typical of Italian films of this vintage, where the floor show is ridiculously complicated and arty. Her act involves challenging a man from the audience to wrestle her for three minutes (during which time, her outfit will be ripped away piece by piece). If he succeeds, he gets…well, who knows? No one has ever beat her and her strange combination of modern dance and judo. When she herself turns up dead the next morning (murdered in her bathtub, in a scene lifted almost frame for frame from Blood and Black Lace), the consensus among the lazy, racial slur slinging cops is that it must have been someone from the club who was upset that he got his ass kicked.
Meanwhile, real estate agent Andrea (George Hilton) now has to unload Mizar’s apartment. He signs it over to two models, Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) and Marilyn (Paola Quattrini), who might be the single worst human being on the planet. You’d think that the murder of two women in in the building, one of them at least a casual acquaintance of Jennifer and Marilyn, would discourage them from taking the apartment. Or that it would at least warrant some sort of police presence. You’d be wrong on both accounts. I guess apartments in Rome are as hard to come by as they are in New York. The two women move in, and Marilyn in particular seems practically aroused to be showering in the same place her friend was strangled to death. She constantly makes disparaging remarks about dead Mizar and frequently mocks the fact that women have been murdered in this place. Jennifer is less of a miserable human being, but she makes up for it with nigh incomprehensible levels of stupidity.
Before too long, a masked killer is sneaking into the apartment to whisper threats at her, and Jennifer’s reaction is to…do nothing. Seriously, they don’t even bother to lock the doors or windows after a killer has used them multiple times. One can understand, given the quality of police work on display, why she wouldn’t call the cops, but consistently leaving her balcony door wide open just seems irresponsible the first time, and downright suicidal after the second. The police exploit this lack of survival instinct by encouraging Jennifer to stay in the apartment in hopes that it will help them ensnare the killer. But once they pose this plan, they never do anything else. They never stake the apartment out. They never assign any sort of protection to Jennifer. In fact, they’re openly hostile to her for no reason, and when she does get around to calling them for help, they blow her off, insult her, and call her hysterical.
But then, that’s just par fro the course in this film, which hits its crescendo of mind-bending stupidity when Andrea, on the run, asks Jennifer to meet him in a labyrinthine auto junkyard. At night. Knowing that she is being stalked by at least two separate murderous maniacs. And she agrees, wandering around the sprawling yard between shadowy piles of cars because Andrea couldn’t be bothered to be more specific with exactly where in the yard she should find him, or why they couldn’t have done this in a less dangerous setting where she is less likely to discover she is being chased while Andrea never shows up. You know, for that alone he deserves to be accused of the crimes.
Profoundly idiotic Commissioner Enci (Giampiero Albertini), when he can be bothered to tear himself away from stealing postage stamps from crime scenes, is convinced Andrea must be the killer, so all police activity (which amounts to one bumbling detective) revolves around half-assedly following Andrea around town instead of watching the place where the killer shows up basically every night to torment Jennifer. As a red herring, Andrea is pretty weak, but in a film like this, you take what you can get. He’s joined by the creepy old lady down the hall who seems to have a secret hidden in her apartment, and a friendly lesbian whose father disapproves of her sexual orientation. There’s also a flamboyant gay photographer (who, as far as gay caricatures in Italian films of the 1970s go, is actually pretty mild) and Jennifer’s sleazy ex-husband who initiated her into a freaky orgy cult and insists that she return to the fold (obviously cashing in on of All the Colors of the Dark, in which Edwige Fenech gets involved with a Satanic cult). he tries to pitch his cause by assaulting Jennifer on the street, leaving torn up flowers in her apartment to let her know he broke in (thought, really, who hasn’t at this point?), and sweating profusely while screaming threats. As far as orgymeisters go, there are probably better out there to be had.
Having a film full of appalling, callous people was nothing new even in 1972. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is populated by a cast of characters with nary a single redeeming trait between them, as was his return to the giallo, 1971’s Bay of Blood. Generally though, films that thrived on monstrous people tried to make up for it in some other way. Bava’s two films, for example, serve as an exuberant evisceration (sometimes literally) of the rich and self-important who are all too willing to destroy others to get what they want. In Bay of Blood, the bloody carnage was tempered by a streak of black humor as absurdity piled upon absurdity until even the most shocking violence could hardly be taken seriously. Other films made up for their spiteful, unsympathetic characters through visual artistry, an abundance of style, or a clever, fast-paced story.
The Case of the Bloody Iris has none of these things. Perhaps it’s attempting some social commentary or stab at absurdity; but if so, it doesn’t execute those concepts very well. The pace of the story is off, lingering endlessly on dull things (the bumbling cop following George Hilton’s Andrea around) while rushing through or glossing over things that might actually have been interesting if given half the chance. It relies far too much on people acting illogically simply because the screenplay demands it of them. It introduces twists then loses interest in them, choosing instead to wander down cul-de-sacs littered with go-nowhere plot filler, then backtracking and repeating itself.
It does manage a few positive points, however. Edwige Fenech is arrayed in a truly glorious cape, and as always (both clothed and unclothed) she looks fantastic and gives the role her all. She doesn’t inhabit an especially likable character, but at least she’s not actively taunting the dead like her atrocious ro0mate (though to be fair to actress Paola Quattrini, she plays the ghastly Marilyn with unabashed gusto). George Hilton turns in a competent if unmemorable performance (kind of his trademark) as an increasingly harried man accused of murder.
As for the rest of the cast, they may all be playing horrible people but at lest they’re doing it enthusiastically. Giuliano Carnimeo’s direction (with an assist from Sergio Martino, working as director of photography) is neither here nor there, efficiently framing the film without bringing much in the way of inventiveness or style. One murder in particular, on a crowded city street in broad daylight, is executed with cleverness and flair. That scene deserves a much better movie surrounding it. The reveal of the killer is satisfying — rare even in very good giallo, so doubly surprising in this otherwise lesser film. Even at a reasonable 94 minutes, The Case of the Bloody Iris can feel tiresome and repetitive, making it a case only seasoned giallo and Edwige Fenech fans would bother attempting to solve.
Coming to prominence around the same time and often revolving around similar subject matter, there was frequent crossover between the giallo and poliziotteschi genres. Poliziotteschi were Eurocrime films focusing on determined cops struggling to make a difference in a corrupt system, and like giallo the formative examples of the genre emerged in the 1960s, but the formula was perfected in the early years of the 1970s. Both genres delved into the world of murder, prostitution, kidnapping, and the vices of the rich and powerful. The primary difference is that in giallo, the police are rarely the driving force behind an investigation. That work is left up to some determined or desperate amateur. If the police are on hand (and some giallo seem to occur in an alternate universe where they don’t exist at all), they are often portrayed as incompetent and openly hostile toward victims, suspects, and the innocent alike. This could very well be a reflection of public impressions of police work in Italy during the 1970s, when crime and terrorism were rampant, and the authorities seem unable or uninterested in doing much about it.
Duccio Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly is the odd giallo where not only are the police present, but they seem dedicated to their job (Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features sympathetic police characters, but they are never the focus of the film). Although it boasts the elaborate murders and cast of red herrings one expects from the genre, it also surprises by spending at least as much time on police procedure, forensic science, and courtroom maneuvering. Like most giallo, it begins with the murder of a young woman. While no one witnesses the murder itself, which happens in a wooded park near twilight, several people catch a glimpse of the killer making a getaway (though none of them know they’re watching a killer at the time).
Working with eye witnesses and known associates and friends of the luckless young victim, police led by the dogged Inspector Berardi (Silvano Tranquilli, who starred as Edgar Allan Poe in Antonio Margheriti’s excellent Gothic chiller Castle of Blood as well as a slew of giallo, including Black Belly of the Tarantula, and a few top notch Eurocrime action films, including High Crime and Manhunt, directed by Enzo G. Castellari and Umberto Lenzi respectively), follow a trail of clues that lead to popular television talk show host Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). The evidence against Alessandro is daunting, and his case isn’t necessarily helped by the fact that his legal defender is romancing his wife and would just as soon see Alessandro sent to prison. Of course, this being a giallo, there is a messy tangle of other likely culprits, including the lawyer Giulio Cordaro (Günther Stoll) and a nervous young man named Giorgio (Helmut Berger), the identity of whom isn’t immediately clear. Sarah (Wendy D’Olive), Alessandro’s daughter and a friend of the victim, plays the role of amateur detective, but unlike most giallo, her investigation is a sideshow. The bulk of the film sticks to the efforts of the police, the lawyers, and a team of forensic investigators whoa re able to take advantage of a wealth of new scientific crime fighting gear.
Like many early-cycle giallo, the film’s title is a riff on the trend started by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage of including animals that usually end up playing a minor role, at best, in the plot itself. The Bloodstained Butterfly also follows Argento’s lead in making the limits of human perception central to the plot. Eye witnesses and circumstantial evidence that seems to result in a slam dunk case for the prosecution are revealed via a non-linear narrative to be more deceptive than they might initially appear. In the case of the two main eye witnesses, it is literally their ability to see that is called into question.
For the forensic scientists, it’s not the results of their tests that are questionable, but rather the way those results are interpreted and the way the preconceptions of investigators lead them to certain conclusions that, while seeming reasonable and perhaps even likely, are not explicitly confirmed. Forensic investigation was nothing new in itself in 1971 — people had been using science in pursuit of criminals since the 1800s — but the use of computers and other advanced electronic gear was still novel and, as is often the case with emerging technology in such an important field, the source of much trepidation both within police departments as well as the general public. Could you trust a machine to do a human’s job? Will it put the police out of business? Can we trust technology? The Bloodstained Butterfly isn’t a criticism of this technology in and of itself, but just as the reliability of the human eye is called into question, so to is the reliability of the human brain when it comes to interpreting the raw data generated by science. In this approach, The Bloodstained Butterfly takes a central theme from Argento but explores a much different avenue.
In fact, other than the basic theme of the questionability of perception and the general structure of the title, The Bloodstained Butterfly is very much its own sort of beast, very different in tone, structure, and plot from the Argento film that inspired it. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is infused with a certain rambunctious energy, a zest for what’s going on. Even when its central characters are in danger, there’s a sense of playful adventure as well. Lurking under the murder mystery of Argento’s picture, there is also an action film, full of chases set to thumping Ennio Morricone jazz. In contrast, The Bloodstained Butterfly is a much moodier, melancholy affair. With only a couple exceptions, most of the characters have something unsavory about them. They’re not exactly evil or unsympathetic, but there’s the sense that they’ve brought this awful suffering upon themselves. They all have something to hide, something about which they are ashamed, and they are willing to let other suffer in order to prevent themselves undergoing hardship. There’s a sense of doom looming over everything in The Bloodstained Butterfly, a feeling that a glum, depressing outcome is unavoidable.
A slower, more melancholy pace does not translate into a dull film, however. Director Duccio Tessari made his name directing a couple films in the popular “Ringo” spaghetti western series, but first and foremost he was a screenwriter, with dozens of scripts across a variety of genres under his belt before he set about making his first (and only) foray into the world of giallo. As was the case with films by the directing/screenwriting team of Sergio Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi, Tessari puts more emphasis on writing than would become the norm in subsequent films in the genre. Although the plot is twisty, it never becomes overly outrageous or illogical. Characters don’t always make good decisions, but they rarely made decisions just because the script demand sit of them. They stay well within the realm of believability.
British mystery writer Edgar Wallace gets a screenwriting credit for the film, though that was purely marketing. Wallace, who wrote primarily in the 1930s and was perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for 1933’s King Kong) became a sensation in Germany, where is labyrinthine plots and outlandish characters struck a chord with Weimar Republic Germans. During the war, his books were inevitably denounced by the Nazis and banned, but in the 1950s, he enjoyed a resurgence in Germany that resulted in a whole slew of film adaptations. Where as pre-War adaptations of Wallace stories were generally low-key affairs made in Great Britain, the German films of the 1950s were wild, bizarre, over the top, and once they started getting made in color, positively psychedelic. They are often considered progenitors of the giallo, as much responsible for the genre as the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Given the nature of the stories, it’s inevitable that actual giallo would turn to Edgar Wallace — or rather, that they would invoke his name, if not his actual stories. There are several giallo that claim to be based on the works of Edgar Wallace. That was rarely the case, but there was still a certain commonality between giallo scripts and Wallace books. Tessari, collaborating with Gianfranco Clerici (who worked on the screenplays for several Lucio Fulci films as well as some poliziotteschi and the bizarre cop-vs-monster by way of Michael Mann film Miami Golem), puts substantial work into The Bloodstained Butterfly‘s script, crafting a deliberately paced but consistently interesting potboiler that plays with the structure of its narrative in a way that heightens the mystery without seeming like a cheat to the audience. For much of the film, the viewer may find themselves a bit at a loss when it comes to interpreting certain scenes and details. The central plot remains straight-forward, but the branches manage to be confusing without being frustrating. As it reaches the finale, all those disparate bits are clarified, making for a satisfying (if not totally surprising) final revelation.
Film production being what it was in the 1970s, it was common for Italian films to get financial backing from other countries, most often neighbors in Germany, France, and Spain (and sometimes, the US and the UK). As a trade-off, Italian filmmakers would remain sensitive to what might be popular in those countries at the time. They’d also generally be willing to bring on talent from other countries, either to satisfy financiers or to increase the potential success of a film across Europe. That certainly seems to have been the case with The Bloodstained Butterfly, which leverages Edgar Wallace’s name (though, again, not one of his stories) as well as several high-profile German and Austrian actors. Helmut Berger was an Austrian who rose to prominence in Italy, gaining notoriety for his appearances in films by neorealist pioneer Luchino Visconti during the 1960s. In the 1970s, he started making more genre fair, including Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray and, most controversially, Tinto Brass’ grotesque and controversial 1976 Nazi sexploitation film Salon Kitty. He even became a regular on the American television series Dynasty and had a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-advised The Godfather: Part III.
He’s joined in The Bloodstained Butterfly by German actors Günther Stoll, who appeared in an actual Edgar Wallace krimi movie (1966’s The Hunchback of Soho) as well as one of the best giallo-meets-poliziotteschi, 1972’s What Have You Done to Solange?; and most famously, Wolfgang Preiss, who starred as the titular criminal mastermind in Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse as well as many subsequent lesser Mabuse films (which were rushed out to capitalize on the success of the Edgar Wallace krimi). He also starred in the star-studded World War II epic The Longest Day, the German krimi The Mad Executioners, the Jean-Paul Belmondo/Jean Seberg thriller Backfire, and the WWII adventure Von Ryan’s Express starring Frank Sinatra. He was one of the most prolific and dependable actors in Europe, even if it seems like 90% of his roles were Nazis.
Preiss has a relatively minor (though not unimportant) role in The Bloodstained Butterfly as the chief prosecutor in the case against accused murderer Alessandro Marchi. Stoll has a much larger role as Alessandro’s seemingly dedicated though not-so-secretly sleazy defense attorney, just as Berger has a larger role as the would-be lover of Alessandro’s daughter and, quite possibly, poor murdered French exchange student Françoise (Carole André, whose fruitful career in genre cinema includes everything from Fellini’s Satyricon to Yor, The Hunter from the Future). The Bloodstained Butterfly doesn’t demand a lot from its cast beyond acting desperate, furtive, or melancholy, but within those confines, there’s no weak performances. At times, it can be a little difficult to remember who’s who as characters appear out of nowhere, disappear, and reappear as part of the film’s fractured timeline, but eventually one can sort it all out (this is a film that rewards repeat viewing).
The Bloodstained Butterfly, while certainly part of the giallo genre (or subgenre, or style, or whatever you might consider it; at times it’s as nebulous as “film noir”) as it was forming in the early years of the 1970s, is one of the more unique examples of the genre. Integrating aspects of the emerging poliziotteschi became more common as the decade and giallo developed, but this is one of the earliest examples of that oft-fruitful crossover. It would be done better in What Have You Done to Solange? and it’s quasi-sequel What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, both of which, like The Bloodstained Butterfly, claim a connection to Edgar Wallace that isn’t actually there. But saying The Bloodstained Butterfly isn’t as good as those other two films leaves a lot of room to still be pretty damn good, and Tessari’s “giallo meets police procedural plus courtroom drama” is a unique, entertaining (if sombre) addition to the giallo canon. It’s a shame Tessari didn’t stick around the genre for another film or two, but I suppose if you have to make just one film in the genre, you’ve done well if it’s as good as The Bloodstained Butterfly.