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.

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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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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Burning Tensions and High Stakes In the Civil War

Released in the States as The Conqueror Worm for the sake of implying a connection to the successful run of Poe adaptations that Roger Corman had helmed and Vincent Price had starred in, Witchfinder General only shares Vincent Price in common with those movies. It was directed by Michael Reeves, an up and coming talent whose career was cut short when he died shortly after making this of an accidental overdose, and produced for Tigon, a production company making a bid to outdo Hammer by offering up films with similar subject matter fronted by horror icons and often featuring content more extreme – and more imaginative – than Hammer themselves were willing to offer at the time. (The production was also co-funded by AIP, home of the Poe adaptations – hence the retitling, hence the involvement of Price.)

The story takes place during the English Civil War (the famous mid-17th Century one, not the earlier one with Stephen and Matilda). Richard is a soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, fighting the Royalist forces whilst hoping to make a future for himself and his fiancee Sara once the war is done. Their happy plans, however, are disrupted when their sleepy home village is visited by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) whilst Richard is away on duty. Hopkins, accompanied by his disreputable assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell), roams around the country exploiting the disorder and panic caused by the war, showing up in towns and villages which have written to them asking for their help and presiding over witch trials that make those in Salem look like a model of balanced and fair jurisprudence.

They are well paid for this work, and they relish the opportunity to torture their suspects to their hearts’ content (though Stearne is much more honest with himself and others about how much he enjoys this part of his work than Hopkins, who maintains a holier-than-thou facade. They’ve been summoned to the village to interrogate the local priest – Sara’s uncle – and Hopkins wastes little time in extorting sexual favours out of Sara in return for stopping the torture. Eventually, Stearne ends up raping Sara, Hopkins loses interest in her, and her uncle and two local women are eventually strung up for witchcraft. When he returns and discovers what has happened, Richard embarks on a campaign of revenge that he’s determined will put an end to Hopkins’ reign of terror – but what will he end up losing before the job is done?

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Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, Direct Like a Sleazeball

Italian B-movies aren’t exactly averse to sensationalism or extreme content, and in his prime Ruggero Deodato wasn’t averse to cranking both dials up to 11. Most known for infamous video nasties with a shockingly nihilistic ethical worldview such as Cannibal Holocaust and The House On the Edge of the Park, Deodato also turned out this entry in the poliziotteschi subgenre – a particular style of Italian crime film from the 1970s which emphasised extreme violence and a murky worldview in which the line between cop and criminal was thin at best.

Perhaps the closest equivalent in American cinema would be Dirty Harry, since like that movie the poliziotteschi genre often entails applying the amoral worldview and extreme violence of Sergio Leone-esque Spaghetti Westerns to a modern-day cop story. Even by such standards, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is an ugly and bleak piece. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock) are police officers in a special undercover squad, which uses highly advanced computer intelligence correlation systems to predict the actions of organised crime and help the cops get to where they need to be before crime happens. They’re also vicious thugs with little compunction about, for instance, straight-up murdering pursued criminals if they reckon they can get away with it, and wildly irresponsible to boot. (There’s a great scene at one point where they practice their sharpshooting skills by running around shooting over each others heads at tin cans, in a sort of William Tell-themed obstacle course.)

The major target of their squad is the organised crime gang headed by Roberto “Bibi” Pasquini (Renato Salvatori), and their heavy-handed tactics only get more brutal when Bibi’s goons assassinate one of their colleagues on the squad. Torturing goons, burning the parked cars of rich clients of one of Bibi’s elite casinos (along with two car park attendants/guards), it’s all fair game as far as they our cop “heroes” are concerned. Maybe Fred and Tony do get results – but there’s a mole in the police department who’s willing to leak their identity to Bibi. Once Bibi finds out who they are, can the duo survive his revenge?

Deodato rarely misses an opportunity to get sleazy and exploitative – there’s a bit where the two cops confront Lina Pasquini (Sofia Dionisio), Bibi’s sexy young sister, and she more or less literally drags them into bed with her – and he’s also got a real way with violence, opening the film with a really over-the-top motorcycle chase that might just qualify as the movie’s best action sequence altogether. However, it’s also kind of a chore to sit through – you cut from heartless, self-centred, amoral policemen to heartless, self-centred, amoral gangsters, and sooner or later you find that there’s nobody to really root for in the movie.

This would be fair enough if it were something like The Shield, where underpinning the tough cop talk and ruthless action there’s a more nuanced and serious examination of corruption in police work and violence begetting violence and so on. However, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man doesn’t carry itself like that – instead, it gives every impression of wanting to be a light-hearted Lethal Weapon type affair – if Lethal Weapon had implied at one point that Danny Glover and Mel Gibson raped the big bad’s girlfriend, directly showed them murdering and torturing people, and then showed their boss coming out of nowhere at the very end to kill off the bad guy whilst the aforementioned implied rape is happening offscreen. Like Dirty Harry and its imitators, the polizioschetti films are often accused of being fascistic celebrations of vigilante violence on the part of the police; Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is one of those movies where such accusations hit the nail on the head.

Also, when Bibi’s boat gets blown up at the very end, it’s very obviously just a tiny model boat floating in a puddle.