Hatching a Murderous Plan

Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a big man in the chicken business. He and his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) live in a home attached to a vast chicken factory complex, its processes almost entirely automated, and the poultry grower’s association that Marco is a part of is branching out into genetic engineering. Marco is tasked by the head of the association with devising a new publicity campaign to convince the public that chicken is tasty and delicious (seems like a bit of an easy sell, but OK), and in aid of this is teamed up with PR professional Mondaini (Jean Sobieski).

Mondaini is a stranger to Marco – but already knows a secret about him. For playing at peeping tom at a hotel, Mondaini witnessed a liaison between Marco and a prostitute – specifically, Marco apparently in the middle of murdering a prostitute, which is his hobby in his spare time. Meanwhile, back at home, tensions mount between Marco, Anna, and Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin), Anna’s cousin who has come to live with them and do some light secretarial work. Both Marco and Anna have some pretty intense feelings about Gabrielle – Anna encourages her to help her learn Marco’s secrets whilst gushing to Marco about how fantastically well-engineered Gabrielle’s body is; Marco, for his part, knows this all too well, since he and Gabrielle are having an affair.

Meanwhile, Mondaini increasingly overshadows Marco and Anna’s social life with strange games at a party they throw, the factory scientist perfects boneless chickens, and Luigi (Renato Romano), a mysterious amnesiac from Marco’s past, comes wandering in and out of the situation. Surely this must all come to a head somehow – but who’s in the driving seat and who’s going to end up with egg on their face?

Death Laid an Egg opens with a bizarre look into the lives of a cross-section of guests at motel and their various dubious business before we hone in on the specific characters of interest, floats between murderous intrigue and the intricacies of the chicken business, and confronts the viewer with motifs like a strange runic scarf in which Marco seems to perceive a threatening message, visions of a terrible car accident as Gabrielle drives Marco down a motorway, shots of couples engaging in everything from eagerly consenting sex to violent rape in a room of truth Mondaini establishes at Marco and Anna’s party.

In short, it’s what happens when the giallo style as initially formulated in the early 1960s goes stumbling into the psychedelic, experimental world of the late 1960s, complete with a tense free jazz soundtrack and a willingness to experiment to an extent which incorporates a near-hallucinatory element into the subgenre. There’s still plenty of hallmarks of the genre, mind – we see a lot of Gabrielle and Anna in various lingerie getups – but the whole concoction is so deliciously odd that nobody would call it a standard giallo.

Originally released in 1968 with some significant cuts, some of the lost material was restored in a so-called “giallo cut” in the 1970s; it’s only recently, thanks to the discovery of some lost prints, that Nucleus Films have been able to piece together a 104 minute director’s cut of the movie to represent Questi’s original vision for the movie.

Most of the restoration was done from the original negatives, but about 14 minutes or so of material had to be incorporated as inserts from an Italian print of the movie, for which no English soundtrack exists, so if you watch with the English soundtrack the movie reverts into Italian at points. This is an interesting exercise, however, because it makes it evident what parts were removed from early versions of the movie.

Most of these are fairly minor cuts which nonetheless give a bit more flesh to some of the subplots and odd little occurrences during the movie when restored, but others are more significant – in particular, almost all the material involving Luigi seems to only exist in the Italian version of the movie, and to be honest this seems the right call since he’s ultimately a bit of a red herring and his plotline doesn’t come to anything.

Indeed, the various tangled strings at the end don’t quite come together into a wholly satisfying conclusion, as is often the way with giallos which get too excited about weaving a web of intrigue to remember you’ve got to actually stop weaving and wrap up at some point. Part of the reason the ending drags is that a major plot twist is telegraphed too much in advance, so that by the time it’s revealed it’s not so much a sudden swerve as it is the narrative finally catching up to the viewer. Whilst this oddity might not be a keeper, it’s certainly worth a watch at least once.

Blake’s 7: First Flight

Some things you don’t want to leave up to chance. Whilst all of Blake’s 7 seems to be freely available via YouTube, with no particular effort by the BBC to get it taken down, at the same time I’d wanted a physical copy of the thing just in case all that changed in the immediate future – plus, getting the proper DVDs likely meant better quality than the YouTube copies. Lo and behold, after Christmas HMV went bust (again), and in the midst of the fire sale I was able to get a boxed set of the complete series for a fraction of the usual price.

I’m going to share my thoughts on Blake’s 7 here, and like my mammoth article on Babylon 5 way back when I’m not going to flinch at dropping spoilers. If you’re averse to spoilers for a show which is now over 40 years old, then to be honest I’m not that fussed about your feelings because there’s a statute of limitations on these things, but don’t complain if you read deeper into the article and encounter spoilers.

Other sources of comparatively fresh Blake’s 7 discussion include the excellent podcast Down and Safe, featuring various professional SF authors taking it in episode by episode, but don’t get your hopes up for them to ever actually finish the damn thing – the update schedule got increasingly glacial, until their season 2 wrapup got released nearly a year and a half ago, so I suspect the odds of them actually getting to the end of season 4 are so remote as to be not worth considering. (Dear Down and Safe crew: I love your work but if you don’t want me saying mean things about your schedule, prove me wrong, mamajamas.)

A non-spoilery observation, by the way: as much as American hegemony is problematic, I am really glad that American English has given us this distinction between “series” and “seasons” in talking about television. In British English, it is the case – or at least used to be the case – that “series” was used to mean both “series” (as in the show as a whole) and “season” (as in a particular run of the show), which in retrospect is tremendously awkward because whenever you mentioned a “series finale” it was unclear whether you meant the final episode of a series ever or just the last episode of the latest run. It feels like we’ve had a bit of a sea-change lately, possibly due to the boxed set/Netflix streaming era making it more common to consume TV by the season and so much of the fodder for that coming from America.

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The Second Coming of a Lo-Fi Masterpiece

The story is told to us from, apparently, a mental institution, where our narrator Arletty (Marianna Hill) alludes to a terrible experience she’s undergone in the beachside holiday town of Pointe Dune (formerly known as New Bethlehem) – and suggests that whatever horror overtook the town is spreading outwards, and perhaps soon nowhere will be safe. Arletty’s father Joseph Long (played by Royal Dano, largely in voiceovers narrating Long’s letters and diaries), an artist, maintained a studio in Pointe Dune where he could work in solitude; Arletty received a strange letter from him, at once suggesting he was in terrible danger but urging her to stay away and not get involved, or seek help.

As she pulls into a gas station just outside town, she looks over to see the twitchy attendant (Charles Dierkop) shooting his pistol out into the darkness; when she comes over, they both hear a terrible yelp in the darkness, and his claim that it’s just stray dogs fails to convince her. We see certain other terrible things suggesting that the attendant is keeping a whole swathe of secrets, for fear of what the Pointe Dune residents will do to him, with the result that we see pretty unambiguous indications that everything is fucked long before Arletty does. It’s too late though – he’s been seen talking to her, and as she makes her initial investigations into Pointe Dune, the attendant is… dealt with.

That’s just the start of the nightmare, as Arletty learns of the past of the town – a town which used to be called New Bethlehem, before the Moon turned red one night and a mysterious stranger came from the sea to change everything, with a promise of returning some day. Just what has happened to our narrator’s missing father – and what horrors are heralded by the second coming of this Messiah of Evil?

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A Third Stupid Time Mining the Seagal Seam…

What a long, strange trip Steven Seagal has taken. As mainstream stardom has left him further and further behind, Seagal has crept deeper and deeper into the extremely dubious bosom of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In between commissioning ghostwriters to write incoherent takedowns of Obama-era immigration policies in his name, Seagal has largely become infamous for bizarre Russian propaganda in which various Aikido students do energetic flips to trick people into thinking Seagal is tossing them about because they know if they don’t they’ll get a bullet in the back of the head. What Putin gets out of stroking the ego of this increasingly strange man with an increasingly dubious #MeToo record, I have no idea.

Similarly, I have no idea why I’m back reviewing more Seagal movies, save that there’s a certain horrible fascination in watching them these days. In my first and second articles on the man’s work, way back in Ferretbrain times, I more or less exhausted all his work which saw an actual cinematic release; this article is less systematic than those and is more of a grab-bag of some of his straight-to-DVD work. Watching these movies gently fail in front of you creates an experience which is deeply uncomfortable but also is difficult to look away from – like witnessing a slow-motion car crash, except most of these movies don’t have budgets that allow for really exciting car crashes.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows

So, we’re dealing with an iconic 1990s TV series here, in the pilot episode of which (Pilot) we have a young woman showing up dead on the outskirts of a small woodland town in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Thanks to parallels with a number of deaths elsewhere, the FBI become involved, represented in part by a handsome agent who reveals slightly eccentric habits and even more eccentric beliefs. The death turns out to be part of a web of local intrigue that belies the bucolic charm of the town, and there’s frequent hints than higher powers are involved in all this.

This is not, despite all of the above, Twin Peaks; instead we’re dealing with the start of The X-Files, lovingly crafted by Chris Carter, though he’s letting his Peaks fan flag fly here. The first episode sets the formula for most of the series’ “mythology” episodes: Mulder and Scully zoot about uncovering evidence of creepy alien activity, Mulder buys into the supernatural interpretation of events, Scully resists it but increasingly finds herself coming around to Mulder’s point of view step by baby step, they discover some incontrovertible evidence that something outright fuckabooie is going on but the sinister government conspiracy as represented by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) manages to destroy the evidence yet again.

That’s a formula we’ll see repeated over and over during the run of the series, with incremental bits of additional motifs and recurring thingamuffins creeping in here and there to give the impression that we’re getting somewhere, but a quarter-century later and we all know goddamn well that it isn’t really going anywhere impressive – and with Gillian Anderson comprehensively fed up of the whole thing and no longer willing to come back after the mytharc episodes in 2018’s season 11 bombed, it looks like short of a full reboot we’ve had all the X-Files we’re ever going to get. (Conveniently, nice blu-ray sets of the TV episodes are widely available at a reasonable price, and the HD-remastered episodes are available on iTunes and other platforms at that.)

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Dead of Winter? Dead On Arrival

Struggling actress Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) is hired by retired psychiatrist/polar bear hunter Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubeš) to replace Julia Rose (also played by Steenburgen) – the lead actress on an independent film that the wealthy doctor is somehow connected to (presumably as a financial backer). Katie is told that Rose stormed off the set, leaving the production high and dry and desperately in need of someone who resembles her closely enough to finish off her scenes – but before she heads up to the main set in Canada, she has to visit Lewis’ snowbound estate in upstate New York to film some preliminary scenes.

Of course, as the audience we know a little bit more than Katie; most importantly, we saw the prologue sequence in which Rose, travelling incognito, seems to be involved in some sort of shady deal involving the transfer of a large sum of cash, only to be murdered. As it turns out, Dr. Lewis is playing a very long and curious game with the powerful Evelyn Rose, Julie’s sister (also played by Steenburgen), and has brought Katie into the conflict as a pawn in order to trick Evelyn into thinking Julie is still alive. This leaves Katie in danger both from Evelyn and the forces that killed off Julie in the first place, and Dr. Lewis himself, who sees her only as a tool to be used for this specific purpose and then… well, who knows?

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Bido’s No Bava

Giallo is an Italian genre of cinema which can best be described as an arthouse precursor to the good old-fashioned slasher movie, combining a reverence for Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock with brazenly violent and sexual content. To a large extent The Bloodstained Shadow has Antonio Bido working as an acolyte of Dario Argento’s school of giallo, as perfected on Argento’s run from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage to Deep Red. Combine the classic hooded-and-black-gloved killer that’s been a motif of giallo ever since Mario Bava’s genre-defining Blood and Black Lace, a string of murders beginning with the slaying of a medium, a killer motivated by the suppression of information about a long-forgotten crime, a painting that proves to be a crucial clue, a prog rock synthesiser soundtrack, a fakeout ending where the protagonists think they’ve caught the killer when in fact at most they’ve only dispatched an accomplice, a decades-old killing shown at the very beginning which turns out to be the catalyst for all the action, a creepy toy motif, and a recurring emphasis on the artistic, the aesthetic, and the erotic, and you end up with a film in peril of turning into Argento-by-numbers.

Bido almost saves himself; certainly, as far as Argento imitators go he pulls off a really masterful job, producing a piece which for the most part could sneak its way into the grandmaster’s own canon through the back door had it a mind to – were it not for a bungled conclusion that makes the whole thing unravel.

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