A Fistful of Blu-Rays

Arrow Video may be best known for their blu-ray releases of cult horror cinema, but they’ve had a fine line in Westerns over the years; here’s a couple of releases from them I’ve found particularly interesting, both from the boom of Spaghetti Westerns that followed Sergio Leone’s classic Fistful of Dollars and its sequels. These two are particularly interesting for the very different attitudes they have – one is morbidly nihilistic and melancholy, the other is intensely moral (but not without reservations).

Cemetery Without Crosses

Our story begins with Ben Caine (Benito Stefanelli), husband of Maria (Michèle Mercier), falling foul of the brutal Rogers family; they kill him and force Maria to watch, and then go and burn the ranch house that the Caines shared with Ben’s brothers.

Before the disaster, Ben and his siblings seem to have scammed the Rogers somehow; the surviving brothers make sure to split the loot between themselves and Maria. She takes her share and brings it to Manuel (Robert Hossein), who used to be a good friend to Ben and her. Manuel is a strange, haunted gunslinger who lives in a ruined ghost town and who always puts on a single black glove before he’s about to get violent. Maria commissions him to help her get revenge – which comes in a form she didn’t expect, but is more than happy to exploit if it will twist the knife in her enemies’ hearts. In the long run, a terrible confrontation is inevitable.

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The Sophisticated Soavi

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Italian horror cinema is generally held to have had a peak of creative accomplishment in the 1970s and a rather sad decline in the 1980s, with the former masters of the genre suffering from diminishing returns and a tidal wave of second-rate material glutting the market.

A happy exception to this critical slump is the work of Michele Soavi. After serving an apprenticeship with a number of small acting parts and stints as an assistant director or second unit director for more prominent directors like Lamberto Bava, Joe D’Amato or Dario Argento, Soavi would direct four movies that are often taken to represent the best in Italian horror of the 1980s and 1990s.

Unfortunately, his career was derailed when he was forced to step back his involvement in the industry to care for his terminally ill son, though in the 2000s he did make some non-genre TV movies, and it’s still possible that – particularly with recent blu-ray releases of his own movies and those projects he assisted on coming out – the stars might align to allow him to produce another horror feature one day. If he does, these are the films that work will be measured against.

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Dario Argento’s Horror Disasterclass

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Italian horror cinema had a funny old journey in the 20th Century. After returning from the dead in the 1950s, when the Fascist-era ban was repealed, it didn’t really catch fire until Mario Bava gave it a welcome shot in the arm in the 1960s. Then a new generation of Bava-inspired auteurs (and utterly shameless ripoff merchants) rose in the 1970s, with Dario Argento reigning as the decade’s dark overlord. However, by the time the 1980s got into full swing the wheels were beginning to come off. Older hands were slowing down or becoming regrettably inconsistent, and the balance between stylish, artsy originals and schlocky formula material – the two types of movie the scene was best known for – started to swing dangerously towards the “disposable bullshit” side of the coin.

The Demons series seems to have been Dario Argento’s attempt to mentor the next generation of Italian horror directors. Enjoying a break from directing after wrapping up his Phenomena, Argento took on the role of producer and co-writer, with Lamberto Bava (son of Mario Bava) in the director’s chair. Perhaps the most important thing Argento brought to the table was his name, since it was one of a select few with genuine gravitas outside of the Italian horror bubble and it allowed him as producer to secure a budget for the movies that was well in excess of Lamberto’s earlier efforts.

Another protegee of Argento’s, Michele Soavi, acted as assistant director on the first movie and performed a couple of cameos in it, having collaborated with Lamberto in a similar capacity in his earlier A Blade In the Dark. In the long run, Lamberto Bava’s reputation has tended to be overshadowed in horror critic circles by his father’s, and he seems to have had most success outside of horror with his Fantaghiro series of fantasy TV movies. Conversely, Soavi seems to have done rather better out of the deal, with Argento giving him the same producer-and-cowriter help to produce his subsequent movies The Church and The Sect; moreover, Soavi’s final horror movie, Dellamorte Dellamore, is widely seen as the best Italian horror release of the 1990s, if not the final movement of Italian horror’s golden age. And Soavi… well, he doesn’t look back on the Demons films too fondly, writing them off as “pizza schlock”. Is he being unfair or ungrateful, or does he have a point? Best way to find out is to crack open the two-disc Arrow Video rerelease of the movies and see for ourselves…

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