Surprisingly Far From Greenwich

Content warning: this movie drops some rape at you from more or less out of nowhere.

Catherine Bomarzini (Sherilyn Fenn) has inherited a magnificent Italian castle with enormous statues in its gardens and interiors that seem to be constructed from second-hand sets from Labyrinth. Having lived there in early childhood before moving to America, she’s thrilled to return and catch up with Martha (Hilary Mason), the castle caretaker and her childhood nurse, as well as her old friend from art school Gina (Charlie Spalding) who moved to Italy a while back to work in painting restoration. As Gina visits, the two of them catch a travelling circus act, led by smouldering magician Lawrence (Malcolm Jamieson), and Gina is so taken with the act she gets Catherine to invite the performers over to the castle for dinner.

At this point the circus performers drug Catherine and Gina and rape them; specifically, Lawrence assaults Catherine but then switches places with his twin brother Oliver (also Malcolm Jamieson) to complete the act, and whilst Oliver is busy with Catherine, Lawrence rapes Gina for good measure. (It is also strongly implied that whilst Lawrence is busy preparing Catherine for Oliver’s attention, Gina is being gang-raped by most of the rest of the cast.)

Gina and Catherine aren’t thrilled by what happened but decide to not call the police and just deal with it themselves, and go their separate ways. However, Catherine soon finds herself adrift in waves of ghostly visions, as she tries to discern the difference between Lawrence, who looks like a gentleman but behaves like a beast, and Oliver, who behaves like a gentleman but sometimes turns into a terrifying monster. Meanwhile, when Gina gets back to work she sets to restoring an ancient painting donated to the local church that seems to depict an ancient scene that might shed some light on the tragedy of Lawrence and Oliver.

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“Death Wish” Turned Up To 11

The Death Wish movies have a lot to answer for. Brian Garfield, author of the original novel, was aghast at the extent to which the original 1974 movie seemed to endorse the sort of vigilantism his story was intended to criticise. Revisiting it later, it’s at best a movie in two minds as to whether the sort of campaign of premeditated killing on the part of Charles Bronson’s revenge-obsessed protagonist is justified.

The sequels, though… the sequels were made in the 1980s; a brighter era, an era of more simplistic moral messages, altogether a more Reagan-y era than 1974. They are vastly less ambiguous than the original; they embrace vigilantism as a 100% perfectly OK thing and are only too glad to depict Bronson slaying absurd numbers of criminals – and if those criminals happen to tend to be of particular ethnicities, all the better.

The series was much-imitated at the time, but in the long gap between 1974’s Death Wish and 1982’s Death Wish II you could see the cultural shift that made Death Wish II a viable commercial prospect happening in the public’s appetite for material like 1980’s The Exterminator, which is basically Death Wish with a flamethrower-touting Vietnam veteran protagonist for an extra dose of uncomfortable badassery.

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Having a Peep At Tom

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom out in 1960, but aesthetically and thematically feels like it could have emerged 5-10 years later and still been ahead of its time. Mark Lewis – he isn’t specified as being German in the script but actor Karlheinz Boehm doesn’t exactly go all out to disguise his accent – is a quiet, withdrawn young man who lives in the upper floors of the family home he inherited from his late father. Lewis Senior was a brilliant scientist who conducted a range of experiments of a dubious ethical nature on Mark from birth onwards, recording almost all of them on film. Having caught the shutterbug fever himself after receiving a handheld film camera from dad – a princely gift for a child of his age – Mark has grown to structure his life around the camera, converting dad’s old laboratory into his own personal darkroom. He’s landed a day job as a cameraman in a respectable movie studio and dreams of one day being a director; until that day, he earns a bit of extra scratch shooting pornography for sleazy newsagents to sell under the counter.

But that’s not all that he’s up to. Lewis’ father experiments revolved around the biological basis of fear. His textbooks line the walls of Mark’s study – and Mark himself is conducting his own investigations into fear, not on a scientific basis but on an artistic, aesthetic basis. You see, what gets Mark’s blood moving of an evening is stalking, trapping, and murdering women – and recording the process. Meanwhile, his young downstairs lodger Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), on discovering that her landlord is this handsome young gentleman, is quite keen to get to know him better – even though she spots the occasional red flag in his behaviour, and in the curious home movie he shows her of his father’s fear experiments on him. As Mark works to complete his personal documentary on fear, will Helen find herself in a starring role?

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Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

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Cool Kids On Thin Ice

It’s the exciting future year of 1999, and the big difference since The Chill Factor‘s release year of 1989 is… absolutely nothing, everyone dresses and does their hair like it is still very much the 1980s. But apparently snowmobiles are very much in fashion among cool college couples, and we join a delightfully square trio of such on a cross-country snowmobile trip somewhere generically cold and American.

After lunch at a rough little roadhouse along the way, two of the dudes, Tom (Aaron Kjenaas) and Chris (David Fields) start feeling competitive and decide to have a race on their snowmobiles to see who is the fastest. The roadhouse’s bartender points them in the direction of Blackfriar Lake, a dry lakebed nearby which would provide the flat surface they need to have a competitive race. Unfortunately, having drink several rounds of beer prior to the race, the fun ends in tragedy when Tom is thrown off his snowmobile and ends up bashing his head extremely hard against a tree.

It’s a good thing that there’s a big ol’ cabin in the woods nearby – the boarded-up main building of a Catholic summer camp, more precisely – where they can take Tom so that Chris (a medical student on the cusp of becoming a properly-qualified doctor) can assess the situation properly and so that Tom won’t just die immediately of the cold as the weather worsens. It becomes apparent that Tom’s going to need hospital attention, and so it comes down to Ron (Jim Cagle), the studly football star of the group, to go out into the storm on his snowmobile to find help whilst Chris and the women work on keeping Tom warm and comfortable and wait out the situation. How will Chris, Lissa (Eve Montgomery), Jeannie (Dawn Laurie) and Karen (Connie Snyder) pass the time? Oh, wait, looks like someone left behind a ouija board…

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 2: The Second Encounter

It’s often the case that the first season of a television show involves a certain amount of workshopping to get the central concept polished and refined, before the series really hits its stride in a subsequent season. To an extent, this is true of The X-Files, which spent most of season 1 establishing the show’s status quo and then started really delivering on that concept’s promise in season 2- but at the same time, there’s a decent chunk at the start of the season where it looks like they might be rethinking the entire concept.

As of the start of season 2 of The X-Files, the X-Files division has been shut down, Agent Mulder’s stuck in a stultifying post listening to wiretap evidence, and Scully’s teaching trainees at Quantico how to unpack corpses. In the series opener, Little Green Men – another excellent episode from the star writing team of Glen Morgan and James Wong – Mulder isn’t even sure he believes in the old crusade any more, and ponders whether his memories of his sister’s abduction are really all they’re cracked up to be. Scully, for her part, seems to want to see where the chase takes them regardless of the reality or otherwise of Mulder’s memories – working on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the inspiration for a project is rational or not if leads you to an interesting and illuminating end result.

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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.