After the Fall of Good Taste

It is 20 years after a devastating nuclear war between the Pan-American Confederacy and the Euracs, an alliance of European, African and Asian forces. Massive contamination from radiation has largely sterilised humanity; no new human beings have been born for 20 years. The Euracs have occupied Noo Yoik and are scouring it for survivors, on whom they conduct intensely painful and invasive medical tests in the hope of finding anyone capable of producing children.

Meanwhile, the defeated Pan-American Confederacy has regrouped in Alaska (or an amusingly poor model thereof), where their leaders have discovered through old census records the existence of a woman in New York who could viably become pregnant. (How records largely compiled before the downfall of civilisation that caused mass sterilisation can indicate this is, shall we say, one of several plot points which are glossed over due to not making a lick of sense. (It actually makes sense in the end, but it seems like Parsifal is caused an awful lot of problems by the fact that the Confederacy leaders don’t bother giving full details to him.)

Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw), a badass road warrior who has a troubled history with the Confederation, is recruited by them to go on a mission into Eurac-occupied New York to retrieve the woman in question, so her eggs can be surgically harvested and used to make a viable new population on a colony mission to Alpha Centauri. Along the way he’ll have to tangle not only with various local ragamuffins and Eurac soldiers, but also the animalistic gang led by Big Ape (George Eastman), who dress in old-timey costumes and for some reason include a bunch of Neanderthal-types and full-blown Planet of the Apes-esque talking apes.

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Turning Dross Into Cat Food

In A Cat In the Brain director Lucio Fulci stars as none other than Fulci himself, with his biography here more or less in line with his biography in real life: he’s an ex-doctor turned movie director, he’s deep enough in a horror rut that if he even tried making more genteel and wholesome material he’s convinced nobody would pay to see it, and even though he’s gained a substantial international reputation his fortunes are a little faded and he’s stuck cranking out material in his standard mode. Even as he lavishes attention on his movies, using his medical knowledge to make the gore look as realistic as possible, Fulci is beginning to feel the strain, with terrible dreams and even waking hallucinations finding the themes of his movies worming their way into his real life – why, it’s even putting him off his steak tartare.

It’s time he talked to someone, and so he decides to talk to Professor Egon Swharz (David L. Thompson). Unfortunately, the professor isn’t an ethical psychiatrist so much as he’s a crazed hypnotist, and far from helping Fulci put his brain in order he sees Fulci’s condition as the perfect cover for his own project. You see, Swharz really wants to get out and do some serial murder of a viciously misogynistic variety, and Fulci is the perfect fall guy – he just has to hypnotise Fulci so that Fulci is caught in a morass of hallucinations, causing him to see himself as the killer, and then Swharz can go as kill-happy as he pleases and Fulci will practically convict himself.

Except, of course, everyone knows that Fulci is a horror director and a weaver of wild fantasies… so even when he tries to confess to the murders, will anyone believe him or will they take it as just a tasteless publicity stunt?

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Earth vs. the Flying Addicts

Margaret (Anne Carlisle) and Jimmy (also Anne Carlisle) are in-demand models and regulars on the Noo Yoik new romantic club scene, and gosh do they love themselves some heroin. Cold, ruthless Jimmy prowls around, getting money and drugs where he can and caring only for his own personal gratification. Margaret lives in the dingiest penthouse apartment in New York, which comes with a lovely view of the Empire State Building, Margaret’s abusive drug dealer/avant-garde musician/Beat poet girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and a UFO on the roof, about the size of a dozen crate of beer.

The inhabitant of the UFO is also quite into heroin – but the absolute best high, so far as the alien is concerned, is the endorphins produced by the human brain during orgasm. Margaret is cursed with a string of shitty hangers-on who don’t give two shits about consent, ranging from her hypocritical, disapproving college professor Owen (Bob Brady) who likes to cajole and emotionally manipulate her into sex to dudes who are happy to just drug and violently assault her for the shit of it. Whenever they orgasm in close enough proximity to the alien, it shoots a crystal into their brain to extract those sweet, juicy endorphins. (If you want to interpret this as an AIDS metaphor, you absolutely can – this came out in 1982, the year that AIDS officially picked up that name once the awful GRIDS acronym got retired.)

In an apartment across the street belonging to Sylvia (Susan Doukas), Jimmy’s mum, visiting UFO researcher Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) observes proceedings, having followed the UFO-heroin connection this far. With Margaret, who’s been pushed about and abused by far too many people in her life, suddenly given the power of life and death, what will she do with it, and what will she do once the enormity of what she’s done caught up with her?

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Ferretnibbles 6 – Blood and Black Death

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.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here’s another set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, I’m taking the opportunity to talk a little about a couple of very different horror movies – a Mario Bava giallo from the 1960s and a German-British historical horror feature from 2010.

Blood and Black Lace

Countess Christina Como (Eva Bartok), recently widowed, has converted her expansive mansion into the hub of a high fashion empire, and is holding a grand salon there displaying her designers’ latest creations. Meanwhile, her designers, models, and other employees are embroiled in all sorts of tangled personal affairs, ranging from the deeply embarrassing to the actively illegal. Thus, when a mysterious masked figure begins a campaign of murder and terror against them, they fail spectacularly to co-operate with the police. The confusion allows the killer to keep things going to a terrifying extent, and as individual members of the salon try their own snooping, it’s hard to say who is truly determined to find the murderer, who is just trying to cover their back, and who has far more malevolent ends in mind.

Though Mario Bava’s preceding The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo film, I’d argue that it’s with Blood and Black Lace that Bava both hit on the archetypal giallo formula (right down to the killer’s garb) and, more importantly, the distinctive giallo atmosphere; The Girl Who Knew Too Much is just slightly too jolly and comedic for me to feel like it’s a true giallo – some of the comedy was, of course, added in the American cut of the movie (Evil Eye), but it was still present in the original. Conversely, Blood and Black Lace has the same mix of aesthetic luxury, eroticism, and horror that is distinctive to giallo and which The Girl Who Knew Too Much didn’t quite hit.

Bava shows a talent for directing truly chilling death sequences – low on gore, but the implications of what is happening are ably communicated to prompt the imagination to fill in the terrible blanks. The sheer violence exhibited by the killer is shocking to behold and renders the killings thoroughly untitillating, and like I said above the classic “raincoat, hat, gloves, mask” getup of the killer created a giallo archetype, and Bava has a great eye to throw in a shot here and there which underscores the terrible nature of what is happening. (See, for instance, a shot of a statue of Zeus chasing after some nymph as the killer drags away the corpse of the first victim, or the obscene tableau established by a suit of armour that has fallen on another victim.)

Bava also breaks from the standard whodunnit formula in a major way by revealing the killer’s identity well before the climax, and showing their planning process from the inside for the final go-around. To be honest, I find the movie comes a little unstuck after that, taking a bit took long to work its way through the final stages of the plot, but the movie is nonetheless still a classic of its subgenre. I particularly liked Thomas Ranier in his role as the disapproving police detective whose efforts to solve the case keep being tripped up by the self-serving lies and chicanery of the main characters.

Black Death

It is the 1300s, and as the title implies the Black Death is sweeping Europe. In a monastery struggling to contain the infection, Brother Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), has been kept quarantined, but is let out to join the prayers for one of his fallen comrades when he shows no symptoms of the plague. The next day, though, we see him stealing food and slipping out into the town to rendezvous with Averill (Kimberly Nixon), a woman that he is carrying on a secret affair with. Witnessing the dead piled up in the streets, Osmund tells Averill to take the supplies he’s obtained and go and hide in the forest until the plague passes; she ponders whether God is punishing the two of them for their sin, and whilst Osmund denies this, he also refuses to come with her, being willing to break his vows but not willing to abandon them entirely.

Osmund’s faith and character will soon undergo sterner tests, however, for he soon takes up a challenge his brothers fear to take: to accompany the Bishop’s envoy Ulric (Sean Bean) and his mercenaries on a mission as a guide and as theological counsel. Rumour has it that a certain village in the marshes close to where Osmund was raised is not only completely untouched by the plague, but is home to a necromancer who can return the dead to life. Ulric and Osmund’s task is to establish the truth of these stories; if the village has turned to Godless and sacrilegious ways to protect them, then they must be discredited and punished less others in their desperation abandon the Church.

A German-British coproduction (the story development and ideas came from the British side of the equation, the funding and locations from the Germans), this was directed by Christopher Smith, who made substantial changes to the conclusion of the film, which as originally scripted by Dario Poloni took the movie down an unambiguously supernatural route. In contrast to this, Smith goes for a more subtle, psychological approach, in keeping with his bid to go for a grimly realistic depiction of the time. You could probably characterise this as a full-blown grimdark piece, in fact, though frankly the Black Death was such a nightmarish period of history in Europe that if you don’t go dark with it you aren’t facing up to just how awful it was. Smith even gets minor historical points right, like remembering that the medieval church as an institution was more concerned with heresy than it was with witchcraft, but that the Black Death saw sentiments against witches becoming substantially more prevalent.

The group’s journey through the plague-ravaged landscape early on not only helps to establish the distinct characters of the various mercenaries, but also helps to drive home just how apocalyptic the Black Death was. Remember, this was a disease where if you say it decimated the population, pedants will point out that if anything you are underplaying just how awful it was, with recent research suggesting that about half the population of medieval Europe died of it. Panicing mobs burning a witch or turning to murderous banditry because they can’t think of anything else to do, entire depopulated villages, the discovery of plague within the party itself – all these incidents play out on the journey and make it obvious that the Bishop’s worries about people turning away from the Church are not mere control freakery. We are watching these people work their way through a disaster of such a magnitude that every certainty in their life has been brushed aside and the entire social order is disintegrating not because of any great revolutionary impulse on the part of anyone but simply because people are dying at too great a pace to keep it together.

The attention to detail extends to the costuming and sets; of the latter, the finely reproduced marshland village that is the destination of Ulric and Osmund’s mission is magnificently realised. As far as the acting goes, everyone does a smashing job; Sean Bean is at his Sean Beaniest and gets an appropriately Sean Beany death, Carice van Houten is great as the villagers’ spooky overlord, and Tim “Lord Percy” McInnerny has a great turn as Hob, the creepily welcoming village spokesman. (In fact, I wouldn’t have believed he could have pulled off such a sinister role had I not previously seen his appearance in Edge of Darkness.)

The ending, in which Osmund finds himself becoming a killer as brutal and merciless as any in Ulric’s band (and he’s murdered at least one person for absolutely no good reason, though he is more than capable of denying this), and in which it becomes apparent that the entire mission has done no good at all beyond murdering a village full of people who just wanted to be left alone, is the final touch of bleakness on what is a decidedly bleak prospect. Although it is possible to see the film as a slam on organised religion in general, to me it comes across more as a condemnation of what happens when religion or irreligion alike take to violence to serve their ends.

The Strange Movie of Mr Martino

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.

Mrs. Wardh (Edwige Fenech) – Julie to her friends – doesn’t really have that strange a vice by modern standards – just a bit of a submissive and masochistic streak. But it’s the 1970s, and people are less clued-in about such things – and standards of consent and ethics in the community of the sexually adventurous are much less developed than they are today. Take, for instance, Jean (Ivan Rassimov) – her former lover whose sadistic streak ultimately went too far for her comfort. To get away from him, she married Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza), the US ambassador to Austria.

When Julie and Neil return after an extended recall to the States, they find Vienna in the grip of terror – for a serial killer has been preying on local sex workers, using a straight razor to slash them terribly. Julie finds herself bored, and takes to attending wild parties thrown by her sexually liberated friend Carol (Cristina Airoldi). It’s at one of those parties that she meets George Corro (George Hilton), a hitherto-unknown cousin of Carol from Australia who recently discovered the family connection thanks to an inheritance – but she’s also spotted again by Jean. As Julie enters into an extramarital affair with George, she finds herself stalked by Jean, who like a classical abuser tries to persuade her that nobody but him can truly please her. (As one of his notes dramatically states, “your vice is a locked room and only I have the key” – a phrase so dramatic that our director, Sergio Martino, would later re-use it as the title of one of his later collaborations with Fenech.)

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A Gulf of Gore

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.

Dario Argento might have the more widely-known name, but Mario Bava is arguably the director who laid the foundations of Italian horror cinema. As well as collaborating with Riccardo Freda on I Vampiri – the first Italian horror film to be produced after the Mussolini-era ban was finally lifted – his early 1960s efforts The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace set the mould for the “giallo” genre – a peculiar blend of murder mystery and horror film, frequently involving overt or sublimated erotic themes, that was itself a predecessor of the slasher movie.

Still, by the early 1970s the young upstart Argento managed to seize the momentum with works like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, whose unflinching depictions of violence made earlier works seem positively tame. A Bay of Blood – also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, Blood Bath, and a host of other alternate titles – seems to have been Bava’s attempt to catch up, with special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi at hand to depict the murders with such gruesome realism that even old hands like Christopher Lee were revolted by the end result.

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A New Strategy For Battlefield: Earth

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.

In the grim darkness of the far future there’s only slavery – humanity having been enslaved by the evil economically-driven Psychlos, tall aliens who wear big stompy boots and dreadlocks. One day, Terl (John Travolta) – the Psychlo in charge of the security of their operations on Earth – decides to see if humans can be trained to mine gold, and he picks recently-captured chump Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper) as his first test subject and begins subjecting him to vastly accelerated speed learning. This, of course, allows Tyler to realise humanity’s old accomplishments and hatch a plan to lead a daring revolution to overthrow the alien oppressors. It involves using that speed-learning tech to allow him and his pals to use some remarkably well-preserved fighter aircraft…

Battlefield Earth is a legendarily bad movie spawned from a legendarily bad book by L. Ron Hubbard, penned after he’d grown tired of cranking out Scientology material and decided to turn his hand to a bit of old school science fiction. I don’t really need to break down the deficiencies of the movie – that road’s been well-trod. For this article, I’d like to instead try out a little thought experiment: could there have been a route which would have led to the movie, if not actually being good, at least being entertainingly watchable?

Let’s put some restrictions on our thought experiment to make it interesting. Let’s say that we can’t just pirate the material – thus, like the actual filmmakers, we must still report back to David Miscavige, current God-Emperor of Scientology, and justify any changes to him. On the other hand, Miscavige is a weird tyrant, so let’s give ourselves a little advantage: let’s pretend we have an expert Miscavige-wrangler on hand who’s great at pitching ideas to him so that he will accept them, provided that some sound fiscal or doctrinal basis can be found.

Likewise, let’s assume that we have to stick to the actual story as penned by Hubbard; we are allowed to abridge and cut parts – the issued movie did, after all – but we can’t just abandon it completely.

With these restrictions in place, here’s what I reckon you could do.

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