Wednesday 28 September 2022

The Sinister Monk (1965)

In 1926 Edgar Wallace wrote a novel called The Black Abbot. It was very popular and the following year he turned it into a stage play under the title The Terror, which then became another novel. The play was filmed more than once, the 1938 British movie The Terror being a particularly good version. The original novel was the subject of one of the West German Edgar Wallace krimis, The Black Abbot, in 1963. Two years later Rialto adapted the stage play under the title Der unheimliche Mönch (The Sinister Monk). This movie was directed by Harald Reinl.

A very very rich old man is dying. He considers his children to be a sorry lot (and as we will find out his judgment is spot on) so he writes them out of his will. His home, Darkwood Hall, will go to his daughter Patricia so she can continue to run her girls’ boarding school but the rest of his vast estate will go to his beloved granddaughter Gwendolin (played by krimi regular Karin Dor).

The will goes missing. Without a will the estate will be divided equally between the children, except for Gwendolin’s father who is serving a life sentence for murder.

One of the sons has come up with a rather nasty scheme. And Patricia’s oily son Ronny has come up with a nefarious scheme of his own. There’s obviously plenty of potential for trouble, and just as obviously there are going to be quite a few people with motives for murder and other crimes.

Patricia invites Gwendolin to stay at Darkwood Hall. Most of the schoolgirls are on holiday but about a dozen have no place to go during the holidays so they remain at Darkwood Hall.

Ronny starts putting the moves on Gwendolin right away, as part of his plan.

At about this time the monk makes his appearance. The legendary monk of Darkwood Hall is the ghost of a long-dead monk (Darkwood Hall was at one time a monastery). Of course in an Edgar Wallace krimi we tend to suspect that ghosts are not necessarily actual ghosts.

A Scotland Yard inspector has an unfortunate encounter with the monk, not far from Darkwood Hall. Scotland Yard is now very interested in this case.

And then the bodies slowly start to accumulate.

Apart from the family members (all of whom are potential suspects) there are other suspicious characters hanging about. There’s Monsieur d’Arol (Kurd Pieritz), the newly arrived French master who behaves rather oddly. There’s Mr Short (Rudolf Schündler), an artist who rents a room at Darkwood Hall. He could be an eccentric but harmless old gentleman or he could be a raving loony. There’s the school butler Smitty. Since Smitty is played by Eddi Arent we assume he’s one of the good guys but there’s still the chance he’s not what he appears to be. There are strange men lurking in the woods. And of course there’s The Monk.

That missing will provides a motive for murder but there are other possibilities, other nefarious schemes that may be hatching at Darkwood Hall.

Pretty soon the schoolgirls start getting drawn into the action although it’s not clear whether they’re innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire or whether someone has some reason for targeting one or more of the girls. One of the girls, the glamorous Lola, seems to be mixed up in something but whether as victim or conspirator is not clear. Lola carries a water pistol for protection. You might think that a water pistol would not be much protection for a girl but Lola has filled it with sulphuric acid making it a very nasty little weapon. And Lola is prepared to use it.

Mr Short’s pigeons also arouse the curiosity of Scotland Yard.

Sir John of Scotland Yard (Siegfried Schürenberg) is very worried. He has to find a murderer, and as well he has to protect not just Gwendolin but a dozen schoolgirls. Inspector Black (Harald Leipnitz) seems confident at first but soon he has things to worry about, such as staying alive.

The plot has several strands to it and lots of twists. Even as the bodies pile up we’re still left with multiple suspects and the eventual solution is both neat and outrageous.

Harald Reinl was one of the two best directors employed by Rialto on their krimi series (along with Alfred Vohrer). In this movie he keeps the action moving along briskly and keeps the complex plot fairly coherent.

Mention should be made of Peter Thomas’s totally bizarre score.

This was an important movie in the history of the krimi genre. It was director Harald Reinl’s final krimi, it was Karin Dor’s last appearance in the series, and it was the last of the Rialto krimis to be shot in black-and-white. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

The German Tobis Blu-Ray Edition 3 includes this movie and two others, Der Schwarze Abbot (The Black Abbot) and Der Mönck mit der Peitsche (The College Girl Murders). All three movies come with multiple language options including German with English subtitles and English-dubbed versions. The transfer is excellent.

The Sinister Monk ended the black-and-white era on a high note. Lots of gothic atmosphere, some real horror, a fine plot. Highly recommended.

Sunday 25 September 2022

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (1970)

At the beginning of the 1970s the Japanese film industry was on its knees as a result of competition from television. Drastic steps would have to be taken. The obvious solution was sex. Or, even better, sex and violence. It was a brutally realistic assessment of the situation. This resulted in the birth of two new exploitation film genres, roman porno and pinky violence. Nikkatsu’s roman porno series (a mixture of sex and violence movies and sex comedies) was prolific and immensely successful. Pinky violence films, which were also very successful, were made by various studios.

These movies were made in series, each series comprising from two to five loosely linked titles.

Which brings us to Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock pinky violence series, and to the first movie in the series, Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (released in 1970). And at this point I’m going to have to confront the rather confusing subject of Japanese exploitation movie titles. In 1970 Toei made the first film in a pinky violence series of its own, the Delinquent Girl Boss series (beginning with Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams). Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss has no connection with the Delinquent Girl Boss series. It’s a totally different movie belonging to a different series from a different studio. To add to the possible confusion Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss was also released under several alternative titles - Female Juvenile Delinquent Leader: Alleycat Rock, Wildcat Rock and Alleycat Rock: Female Boss.

The movie with which we are concerned today is Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss and that’s the title we’ll stick with.

The pinky violence movies all had female protagonists. These movies launched the careers of some superb actresses. The most famous was Meiko Kaji. Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike should also be mentioned.

The female protagonists were invariably Bad Girls, but they were Good Bad Girls. They were Bad Girls in the sense of being outsiders and outcasts and often criminals but they were never evil (although they could be extremely vengeful). They always had a sense of honour. They were loyal to their friends and to fellow members of their gangs. They were loyal to their men, unless and until their men betrayed them. They were brave and resourceful. They could be ruthless and ultra-violent, but their violence was always (in their own minds and according to their own sense of honour) justified. They had no time for the forces of authority such as the police. If these girls had a problem they would solve it in their own ways.

They’re usually women who have rejected conventional society because it seems corrupt and seems to offer them nothing, or they have themselves been rejected by conventional society. These girls have tried to create their own little alternative societies, living by their own code of honour. It’s a brutal violent code of honour but they live by it and it offers them a self-respect that mainstream society denies to them.

Another thing that needs to be said is that these were not low-budget independent movies. These were big studio productions, made by film-makers with all the resources of a major studio behind them. They’re professionally made movies and production values are quite high.

The star of this movie is pop singer Akiko Wada. Meiko Kaji plays a supporting rôle but she had such obvious star potential that she became the lead in the remaining movies in the series.

Mei (Meiko Kaji) is a girl gang leader. There’s a major fight between her gang and a rival gang. The rival girl gang leader brings in men to help her. That’s contrary to the code of honour by which the girl gangs live. You don’t get men involved in a women’s fight. Mei gets some help from a girl biker named Ako (Akiko Wada). Ako isn’t a member of Mei’s gang, or at least she wasn’t a member, but she becomes a kind of unofficial member.

Mei has other problems. Her boyfriend Michio has become mixed up with the Seiyu Group. They’re kind of a mix between an organised crime gang and a right-wing political group. Mei thinks that Michio should have nothing to do with them. She mistrusts and fears the Seiyu Group. Michio isn’t bad but he’s weak and not too bright. Mei loves him anyway, because he’s her guy. Mei and Ako find themselves, rather reluctantly, having to take on the Seiyu Group. This comes about through Michio’s involvement in trying to fix a boxing match for the Seiyu Group.

Since Akiko Wada was the star it’s Ako who is the lead character although in some ways it’s a kind of female buddy movie with much of the focus being on the friendship between Ako and Mei. There’s also plenty of emphasis on loyalty, and the price of loyalty.

It can be tempting to see the pinky violence films as feminist films. You have to be careful about doing that. There are male characters who are evil, treacherous and vicious but there are female characters who are pretty damned nasty as well. There are good people and bad people in these movies and whether they’re male or female isn’t terribly important. In these movies the divide is between those who have honour and those who don’t.

It’s probably more useful to see them as anti-authoritarian movies, with a kind of nostalgia for a world in which honour mattered. Those who claim to stand for the establishment and tradition pretend to live by a code of honour, but they don’t. It’s the outcasts such as the girl gangs who truly live by a code of honour. Mei would cheerfully beat a rival girl gang leader to a pulp or even kill her, but she’d do it in a fair fight. She’d do it the way a samurai would do it. And like a true samurai, she would only do it if she felt it to be necessary, either for survival or for her honour.

There’s also a focus on youth culture, with lots of pop songs and with youth culture being portrayed as preferable to the greed and dishonour of groups such as the Seiyu Group.

This being a pinky violence film there’s torture and there’s some pretty graphic violence. This being a very early pinky violence film there’s very little nudity (in fact almost none). There’s no shortage of action. There’s a very cool very cleverly staged car/motorcycle chase.

Akiko Wada makes an interesting heroine. She’s a loner who finds friendship and a sense of belonging. It’s hinted that she may have some lesbian leanings but they’re really just vague hints.

Arrow’s Blu-Ray release offers all five Stray Cat Rock movies in very fine transfers.

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss provides excellent entertainment with action and emotional involvement, and plenty of style. Highly recommended.

Thursday 22 September 2022

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls seems to be widely regarded as a giallo. It has stylistic affinities with the giallo genre but it doesn’t quite fit, but it’s certainly rather giallo-esque.

The story takes place in Czechoslovakia (there was such a place in 1971). Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) is an English journalist working there for a while, in a city (probably Prague). When the movie opens Gregory Moore is dead. But he doesn’t think he’s dead. He can still remember things. He remembers the whole strange story.

He had a very cute Czech girlfriend named Mira (Barbara Bach). She was hoping to go with him when he returns to London and Gregory thinks there’s a good chance he can pull some strings to allow her to do so.

Then Mira disappears. The police tell him to keep out of the case but of course he ignores them. With some help from his journalist friends Jacques (Mario Adorf) and Jessica (Ingrid Thulin) he starts looking for Mira.

This will cause some awkwardness, given that Jessica is Gregory’s former girlfriend and she’s still carrying a torch for him, in a big way.

Mira hasn’t been seen by any of her friends, she hasn’t been arrested, she hasn’t been taken to hospital, she hasn’t turned up at the morgue. Gregory clings to the hope that she’s still alive. The odd things is that if she left she must have been naked - all her clothing including her underwear has been left behind.

He figures that a good place to start his investigation would be by looking into the disappearance of other girls. There have been quite a few in the past few years. All seem to have left their clothing behind.

He gets an obscure clue from a crazy blind man but Gregory fails to spot its significance. He doesn’t recognise it as anything other than the rantings of a crazy man.

Gregory has a very vague suspicion that Mira’s disappearance may be connected to a very boring party they attended. The guests were all very important old people.

Butterflies and a tomato that feels pain (yes really) are also involved.

This is a mystery thriller but with added offbeat elements. We know early on that something very strange is going on, but we don’t quite know what it is. It takes Gregory a bit longer to realise that there’s something bizarre behind this mystery.

We can see why Gregory has so much trouble unravelling this puzzle. He knows he has some clues but they make zero sense and can’t possibly be related.

We expect that the final revelation will be fairly weird. And does it pay off satisfactorily? I think it does.

What’s nice is that even when we start to suspect that we understand very roughly the kind of territory we’re heading into there are still multiple ways that the ending could play out. The suspense is kept up right to the very last shot of the movie.

Jean Sorel is a French actor who made several giallos including the excellent The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968).

Barbara Bach of course went on to be a Bond Girl.

Writer-director Aldo Lado also made Night Train Murders (a movie I don’t care for) in 1975 but in 1972 he made the out-and-out giallo Who Saw Her Die? (a movie I like very much indeed). Short Night of Glass Dolls was his first time in the director’s chair and it’s a very assured and rather ambitious debut.

The 88 Films DVD (there’s a Blu-Ray edition as well) provides a very fine transfer. Both English and Italian language (with subtitles) options are included but the only extra is a trailer.

While I still don’t think this is a true giallo I think giallo fans will find a great deal here to enjoy. This is a leisurely-paced movie that relies on mystery and suspense rather than blood and gore but it does have some very macabre moments and the ending packs a punch.

If you enjoy the slightly more unconventional types of eurocult movies Short Night of Glass Dolls delivers the goods. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

The Satanic Rites of Dracula, released in 1973, more or less marked the end of the Hammer Dracula cycle. Whether The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, released in the following year, can truly be considered part of that cycle is debatable. But The Satanic Rites of Dracula did mark the final appearance of Christopher Lee in a Hammer Dracula movie.

Like other 70s Hammer vampire movies this one is a mixture of the old and new. Like The Vampire Lovers and Dracula A.D. 1972 it still adheres in many ways to the time-honoured (some would say time-worn) Hammer gothic horror formula. At around this time more daring film-makers were starting to abandon tired old clichés of vampire lore, such as the power of crucifixes and garlic to repel vampires and the idea that vampires can be destroyed by sunlight or running water. The vampire in Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) enjoys sunbathing. Hammer seemed determined to cling to every one of the hoary accumulation of vampire clichés.

On the other hand Hammer knew they had to update their gothic horror formula in some way. And they did add some interesting new twists. Vampire movies in contemporary settings were already being made but Dracula A.D. 1972 added a new wrinkle by bringing Dracula face to face with early 70s Swinging London youth culture. The Satanic Rites of Dracula adds conspiracy theory/political thriller elements.

Neither Dracula A.D. 1972 nor The Satanic Rites of Dracula can be considered to be total successes but they are pretty interesting and they’re much better movies than their dubious reputations would suggest.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula
opens with an MI5 investigation into a psychic research institution. MI5 thinks that all the occult stuff going on in the institute’s headquarters is a cover for an espionage ring. They soon discover that there is something stranger going on here. They’re going to need some help from somebody who understands all this occult guff. The man they choose is Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Van Helsing of course immediately suspects vampirism (he always does), and that Count Dracula has been brought back to life (or to unlife) once again.

This is the same Lorrimer Van Helsing who confronted the Count in Dracula A.D. 1972. In both movies he is assisted by his beautiful daughter Jessica. In Dracula A.D. 1972 she was played by Stephanie Beacham. This time around she’s played by Joanna Lumley.

Van Helsing realises that this time Dracula is planing more than his usual programme of vampiric mayhem. Dracula has some kind of grandiose master plan. In fact in this movie Dracula takes on some of the characteristics of a Bond villain. Which is interesting since a year later Christopher Lee would play an actual Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun.

As you might expect the MI5 guys and Inspector Murray of Special Branch (Michael Coles) are hopelessly ill-equipped to battle vampires. And Van Helsing finds himself out of his depth as well, having to battle both vampires and a vast criminal organisation.

Dracula is of course hopelessly out of place in the 1970s. He’s a monster from the past, from an age of supernatural horrors. Van Helsing is straight out of the 17th century. The fact that both Dracula and Van Helsing don’t belong in the world of 1973 could have been a serious weakness but actually it makes the move rather interesting. One interesting touch is that there are hints that Dracula’s motivations are not just those that Van Helsing would have expected.

An odd touch in this film is that there are lots of killings early, and they’re all deaths by gunshot wounds rather than by vampiric attacks.

One of the themes of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was the clash between science and the supernatural. Dracula’s enemies fight him not just with traditional vampire-hunting methods but with technology. The Satanic Rites of Dracula reverses this in an interesting way. In this movie Dracula uses the methods of modern science and technology while Van Helsing relies on the weapons his ancestors had employed against the undead.

I’m a huge admirer of Peter Cushing as an actor but I’ve never really liked the various Van Helsings that he played. They’re grim humourless fanatics. They always make me sympathise with the vampires. Christopher Lee gets more dialogue than usual. Freddie Jones is typically over-the-top but very effective in a small role. Joanna Lumley, a couple of years away from her breakthrough rôle in The New Avengers, looks lovely and her acting is fine.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is barebones but looks great.

The Satanic Rites of Dracula is different enough from the traditional Hammer formula to be interesting and it works surprisingly well. Highly recommended.

Friday 16 September 2022

Endgame (1983)

I’ve never really been into the post-apocalyptic thing but I’m always ready to give any exploitation genre a go. And Endgame, made in the 80s when such movies were a very big thing, sounded like fun. It’s directed and co-written by Joe D’Amato. Now I know what you’re thinking. With D’Amato involved this movie is going to be sleazy and tacky and total cinematic trash. In this case you’d be mostly right. It’s not sleazy (well OK it’s a bit sleazy) but it is very tacky and it is total cinematic trash. But I like total cinematic trash if it’s done right. And this one is definitely done right.

It’s set in 2025, with the world a post-apocalyptic nightmare after a nuclear war. The endgame of the title is the most popular form of entertainment in this shattered world. The idea is that one contestant is the prey and three other contestants are the hunters. If you win you can make big money. If you lose you die. Since the easiest way for the prey to win is by killing the hunters the game is just as dangerous whichever rôle you play. But there aren’t any other ways of gaining riches and fame in this world so there’s no shortage of players.

Ron Shannon (Al Cliver) is the current champion. He likes to play the prey. He has never lost.

This time he finds himself in big trouble. Maybe his luck has finally run out. But Lilith (Laura Gemser) offers to help him.

Lilith is a mutant. There are lots of mutants but Lilith belongs to a select group of mutants. They’re not physical mutants. Their mutation is that they have telepathic powers. Lilith offers Shannon a job. He’s to escort a group of these telepathic mutants out of the city to a place two hundred miles away. Getting out of the city safely is impossible. That’s why Shannon has been employed. If anyone can carry out an impossible task like this it’s Shannon. Shannon can’t do it alone so he puts together a team of seriously tough dudes to help him.

They run into lots of obstacles, including a group of murderous blind sword-wielding monks. They encounter enormous numbers of bad guys and consequently there are lots of action scenes. And they’re pretty well executed. And when you think it’s all over there’s still plenty of mayhem to come.

The original source for the endgame is of course Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game. It’s a great story about a big game hunter who seeks the ultimate thrill by hunting human prey. The story has inspired countless movies. There are lots of other influences on this movie. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is an obvious one. And any post-apocalyptic movie made in 1983 was going to be heavily influenced aesthetically by the first two Mad Max movies, especially Mad Max 2 (AKA The Road Warrior).

Nobody in this movie can act, but it’s a movie that doesn’t exactly require great acting. If the actors look right that’s enough. Laura Gemser is of course best known for her Black Emanuelle softcore movies, directed by Joe D’Amato. Gemser isn’t great but it’s a thankless part. Al Cliver as Shannon doesn’t quite have the macho screen presence his rôle requires.

For a low-budget movies it’s fairly impressive visually. Italian film-makers of this era knew how to make a small budget go a long way. There’s a nice atmosphere of ruin and decay and squalor. The makeup effects on the mutants are pretty good.

The telepaths not only read thoughts, they read emotions as well. This makes them very touchy-feely, much too much so for my tastes. They look like they got lost on the way to Woodstock. The telepaths are accompanied by a non-telepathic neurosurgeon. He thinks the telepaths will create a new world of peace, love, brotherhood and group hugs. Amusingly the telepaths will eventually discover that while peace, love and understanding are great it’s handy to have a .50 cal machine-gun to back those things up. That’s what I like about this movie. Just when it starts to get sentimental and starts wallowing in emotional group bonding you suddenly realise there’s a nasty little ironic undercurrent.

You’re never quite sure where D’Amato stands, whether he buys into the peace and love message or not. At times he seems to, but then he undercuts that message. Which makes the movie more interesting. There’s an intriguing mix of idealism and cynicism.

The violence doesn’t let up. It’s moderately graphic. Not quite buckets of blood stuff but action movie fans should be well satisfied. And there are a few grisly moments.

Severin have done a great job with the transfer. It’s quite stunning. There are no extras.

Endgame is a fun roller-coaster ride of an action movie. Highly recommended.

Thursday 15 September 2022

Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Blu-Ray review

Billion Dollar Brain (1967) is a spy movie directed by Ken Russell, which is certainly an intriguing idea. This is one of the Harry Palmer spy movies starring Michael Caine, based on Len Deighton’s unnamed spy novels, and that makes it even more intriguing.

Not everyone likes this movie. I love it - a Len Deighton story done with Ken Russell visual brilliance just works for me.

Saturday 10 September 2022

Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

Five Dolls for an August Moon is a movie Mario Bava didn’t want to make and he disliked the final movie intensely. He was offered the directing job, he needed the money so he accepted and he was then told that shooting would have to begin within two days. He’d read the script and hated it, considering it to be an obvious and clumsy rip-off of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Which is exactly what the script is. He said he’d need time to rewrite the script completely but he didn’t get that time.

Some people believe that Bava’s 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much was the first giallo. Others think that the accolade should go to his 1964 offering Blood and Black Lace. Either way it’s generally accepted that Bava was the man who invented the giallo genre.

Five Dolls for an August Moon sees him back in giallo territory.

The setup is a classic one from the golden age of detective fiction. Put a bunch of people on an island, make sure they have no telephone or radio contact with the outside world and then have the only boat on the island mysteriously disappear. Give them all plausible motives for murder and then let the killing commence.

The setting is a very cool modernist beach house.

In this case the primary murder motive is a chemical formula for a new industrial process. Professor Farrell (William Berger) is the man who invented the formula and he’s the only one who has it. Three ruthless businessmen have invited Farrell to the island where they hope to persuade him to sell them the formula. The problem is that Farrell isn’t interested in money or material possessions and he won’t sell.

The three businessmen are George Stark (Teodoro Corrà), Nick Chaney (Maurice Poli) and Jack Davidson (Howard Ross). Also present are George’s tortured artist wife Jill (Edith Meloni), Nick’s wife Marie (Edwige Fenech), Jack’s girlfriend Peggy (Helena Ronee), Farrell’s wife Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg), the gamekeeper’s daughter Isabel (Ely Galleani) and the houseboy Charles.

It might be worth mentioning that in real life Ira von Fürstenberg was an actual princess. Not a princess by marriage but by birth.

There are romantic and sexual tensions as well, which could also offer secondary motives for murder. Trudy Farrell and Jill Stark are having a lesbian affair. Marie Chaney is sleeping with the houseboy. Her husband doesn’t mind that she’s having an affair, he just thinks it was bad taste to choose a servant.

Charles the houseboy is the first murder victim. There’s no way to contact the police, they’re going to have to wait until George’s yacht shows up in a few days to pick up the guests, so they hang the corpse of the unfortunate houseboy in the freezer. It’s lucky that the beach house has a huge walk-in deep freezer. They’re going to need it. That freezer will soon be filled to overflowing with corpses.

While just about everybody has a motive for murder, a desire to get their hands on a formula worth a fortune, there’s no obvious reason why anybody would kill the houseboy. Nonetheless it’s obvious that one of them did kill him.

A second murder soon follows. Paranoia starts to set in. Lots more murders will follow.

Bava clearly didn’t care much one way or the other about the story but being Mario Bava he uses it as an opportunity to pull off some very stylish visuals. Oddly enough, given that the giallo genre became known for spectacular murder scenes and given that Bava gives us some impressive examples in his other giallos, most of the murders take place off-camera.

The sets are superb.

Bava gives us some fine images - the glass balls rolling down the stairs provide a wonderful moment.

The great thing about the exterior shots of the rather wonderful beach house is that this is a Bava film so there was no house. It’s a glass painting, but since this is a Bava film it’s done so well that you can’t tell. In fact lots of things in this movie aren’t real - there’s a non-existent yacht and a non-existent pier as well.

The acting is mostly quite adequate, with Ira von Fürstenberg and being particularly effective. Edwige Fenech gets one very very brief topless scene but apart from that she keeps her clothes on. She still manages to sizzle.

This movie flopped at the box office. In retrospect that’s not particularly surprising. It was shot in 1969 but by the time it was released giallos (and thrillers in general) were becoming more overtly violent and overtly sexy. Five Dolls for an August Moon seemed very tame by comparison. Bava would learn his lesson and in future would offer a lot more blood. His decision to have the murders take place mostly off-camera also probably hurt the movie commercially.

Kino Lorber’s release provides a very good transfer and there’s a commentary track by Tim Lucas.

Five Dolls for an August Moon is a bit of a mess but Bava’s visual brilliance redeems it to some extent. Worth seeing if you’re a Bava fan.

Wednesday 7 September 2022

Deathstalker II (1987)

Deathstalker II is one of the many sword & sorcery epics churned out by Roger Corman in the 80s. This one is more deliberately cheesy and hammy than most but it’s good-natured fun.

It’s not a true sequel to Deathstalker, having little to do with the earlier film and being much more of a spoof of the whole sword & sorcery genre.

Thief and adventurer Deathstalker (John Terlesky) rubs afoul of a formidable lady named Sultana (Toni Naples) over a jewel he stole and she vows revenge. His problems really begin when he rescues Reena (Monique Gabrielle). In fact he has to rescue her a couple of times, much against his will and his better judgment. She insists that she is both a seer and a princess. He is sceptical.

In fact she is a princess but there are two princesses. The second is Princess Evie (also played by Monique Gabrielle. She is not only a fake princess, she’s not even human. She’s a clone created by evil sorcerer Jarek (John Lazar) in order to allow him to gain control of the kingdom. She’s also a sort of vampire (the screenplay throws in everything but the kitchen sink).

Reena wants Deathstalker to help her regain her throne. He has no desire to do this until she mentions that there will be a huge reward in it for him.

Reena and Deathstalker encounter zombies (it was the 80s and zombies were all the rage) and are captured by scantily-clad amazon warriors. Deathstalker has to fight their fiercest warrior Gorgo (played by lady wrestler Queen Kong) and she’s pretty terrifying.

The amazon queen (played by María Socas) isn’t such a bad sort after all. She does make him engage in a fight-to-the-death with Gorgo and then tries to force him into marriage (being an amazon tribe they’re short of men) but when her plans are foiled she doesn’t hold a grudge. The amazons turn out to be on the side of the good guys (even if Reena gets pretty jealous when she catches Deathstalker canoodling with the queen).

Jarek of course has despatched a team of terrifying thugs to track down and capture Princess Reena. He needs her alive because if she dies then the fake princess will die too).

We then get a succession of pretty enjoyable action sequences interspersed with lots of gags and pop culture references). They even find a way to add explosions to a sword & sorcery movie.

There’s plenty of sexual innuendo and a fair few topless scenes.

It’s all very silly but in a likeable way and director Jim Wynorski keeps the pacing breathless.

It was shot at a small studio in Argentina, using a lot of the sets built for the first Deathstalker movie. Most scenes were shot at night, making extensive use of fog machines, otherwise you’d have seen the freeway in the background.

The acting is very broad. John Terlesky and John Lazar ham it up unmercifully and the three main actresses have plenty of fun vamping it up. Monique Gabrielle handles her dual roles well, being sexy and evil as Evie and cute and adorable as Reena. María Socas takes things more seriously than the rest of the cast but she’s excellent as well.

This is a Roger Corman movie and Corman liked to save money. In this movie Deathstalker encounters hordes of miscellaneous thugs and henchmen but in fact they’re just three guys. Their faces are always masked so that the audience thinks Corman paid for lots of extras.

The end credits sequence is basically a blooper track.

Shout! Factory include this movie in their excellent four-movie Roger Corman Sword & Sorcery DVD boxed set. Deathstalker II gets a very good transfer and there’s an audio commentary featuring director Jim Wynorski and stars John Terlesky and Toni Naples. It’s obvious that they had a ball making this movie.

Deathstalker II is definitely not an attempt at a serious sword & sorcery movie. It’s silly and goofy but it’s fast-moving, exciting and amusing. If you’re in the mood for a real beer and popcorn movie this one should fit the bill. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 4 September 2022

Fantomas Unleashed (1965)

Fantomas Unleashed, released in 1965, was the second of André Hunebelle’s three Fantomas movies.

The great diabolical criminal mastermind Fantomas, created by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, made his first appearance in print in 1911 and would eventually feature in 43 novels, as well as comics and movies. The Fantomas books are outrageous pulpy fun with unbelievably convoluted plots and an air of breathless excitement and mystery as Fantomas seemingly has the ability to strike when and where he chooses.

The first of Hunebelle’s movie adaptations, Fantomas, came out in 1964. It was a huge success and very influential. The various pop art and comic-inspired fantasy adventure movies of the 60s, movies like Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella, were inspired to some extent by Fantomas. Fantomas also had a huge influence on the spy and action-adventure genres in the late 60s.

What’s interesting about Fantomas Unleashed is that it makes use of many of the plot devices that Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre loved so much. Both the good guys and the bad guys in the novels are continually adopt ingenious disguises and it’s obvious right away that this 1965 movie is going to make plentiful use of this device. I think this is very cool since it’s totally in tune with the spirit of the source material.

In the novels Fantomas’s arch-enemies, Inspector Juve and journalist Jérôme Fandor, often have to battle official scepticism. In this movie Commissioner Juve (Louis de Funès) has just been presented with an official decoration for his achievement in ridding France of the menace of Fantomas.

In fact Fantomas is still very much alive and he’s hatching his most ambitious and most evil plot to date. He has kidnapped a scientist, Professor Marchand, and he intends to force the unfortunate scientist to develop a super mind control weapon for him. But one scientist is not enough. Fantomas will also need to kidnap Professeur Lefèvre.

This is where the disguise idea really takes off in outrageous directions. Fantomas is impersonating Professeur Lefèvre, but Fandor is impersonating him as well in an attempt to trap Fantomas. There are three Professeur Lefèvres running about, creating ever-increasing chaos.

Fantomas also tries to manipulate Fandor’s girlfriend Hélène. He hopes to use her to put pressure on Fandor but mostly we get the impression he just wants to make her his mistress.

Juve disguises himself as well, as the chaos level just keeps increasing.

Juve also puts a great deal of faith in gadgets (this was 1965, a time when the Bond movies were just beginning to embrace the idea of gadgets). Juve’s gadgets are remarkably silly although it has to be admitted that his trick raincoat really is quite funny.

Naturally Fantomas has some gadgets of his own up his sleeve, one of which provides a rather Bond movie ending.

The movies have a sillier more lighthearted tone than the novels but in the mid-60s that was probably a sensible commercial decision. Personally I think Louis de Funès overdoes the comic stuff a little as Juve. Juve becomes a bit of a Clouseau-like bumbling ass. It does have to be said however that Louis de Funès did know how to do comedy.

Jean Marais plays both Fantomas and Fandor, as he does in all three Fantomas movies. In a movie in which so much of the plot hinges on disguises that was quite a clever move. And in this movie Marais plays Professeur Lefèvre as well. Marais’ performance is one of the movie’s greatest strengths.

Mylène Demongeot is funny and charming and sexy as Fandor’s fiancée Hélène. She played Hélène in all three Fantomas movies.

Fantomas is like Dr Fu Manchu. You know that his plans will almost certainly be foiled but you also feel pretty sure that he’ll escape. He has to escape, in order to appear in the next instalment.

The sets are wonderful, very pop art and very eye-catching. And of course the Fantomas blue makeup became iconic. The pacing just doesn’t let up. There’s no danger of boredom. There are fine stunts and the special effects were pretty cool in 1965.

This movie is included in Kino Lorber’s three-movie Fantomas boxed set (on DVD or Blu-Ray) which really is an absolute must-buy if you’re a eurospy fan or a fan of comic book-inspired eurocrime movies. The transfers are excellent.

Fantomas Unleashed is a worthy follow-up to the first Fantomas movie. Highly recommended.

I've reviewed several of the books at Vintage Pop Fictions, including the book that started it all in 1911, Fantômas.

Saturday 3 September 2022

Barbarella, the comic by Jean-Claude Forest

I have almost no interest in comics but I make an exception for the European comics for grown-ups of the 1960s and 70s such as the Italian fumetti. They have a tone and a style radically different from and much more sophisticated than American comics of the 50s and 60s. 

And it’s certainly worth making an exception for Barbarella

Barbarella was created by Jean-Claude Forest and the first Barbarella comic saw the light of day in the French V Magazine in 1962. Her first appearance in book form was in 1964.  And it's available in English.

My full review can be found here.