Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972) – Gary Sherman directs this underrated (and for years largely unseen) British horror film about the last survivor of a literal underground clan (trapped in a subway construction cave in a century before) who emerges from his cave to hunt for food on the London Underground. Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division. It takes the death of an OBE to get the police looking into the spate of disappearances on the London Underground.
The killer, an unspeaking, primitive figure called the “Man” in the credits (Hugh Armstrong), is also in some ways the protagonist. Drooling and diseased, suffering from plague and malnutrition, he hunts the tunnels of the Underground for food for his dying mate (June Turner). Donald Pleasance steals the film as the unconventional, sarcastic Inspector assigned to the case and then meets his match in a single scene with Christopher Lee as an arrogant high class MI-5 agent. Not so David Ladd (son of Alan Ladd and brother of co-producer Alan Ladd Jr.) as an American in London and Sharon Gurney as his girlfriend and soon-to-be captive of the Man. Their self-involved manner and disdain for the lower classes stands in contrast to the purity of the underground couple but the film stumbles over their scenes together.
Apart from that, however, Death Line is a remarkable horror film.
Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD) Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)
A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.
Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.
Death Walks at Midnight – image courtesy of DVD Beaver
Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.
Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…
Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.
Man, Pride and Vengeance (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – There were hundreds of spaghetti westerns produced by Italian studios in the sixties and early seventies. Only a small percentage of them were particularly good, and fewer still genuinely great. You’d think we’d be running out of discoveries by now but Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967), from director Luigi Bazzoni and star Franco Nero, is a respectable find. Based on the novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee, with Nero as the loyal, straight-arrow soldier José demoted after he’s tricked by gypsy hellion Carmen (Tina Aumont), it’s the rare spaghetti western that is actually set in Spain, where it was shot.
In this take, José is has no fiancée to betray, which perhaps makes him more susceptible to Carmen’s flirtations, and Nero plays him as an affable career man whose equilibrium is completely upset by the surge of emotions—lust, rage, resentment, jealousy—that the wild free spirit brings out in him. Aumont makes a cheeky Carmen, not malicious so much as unapologetically mercenary and sexually independent but with a code of conduct that she follows faithfully. She pays her debts, which complicates José’s life more than he can handle. Soon he’s on the run from a murder charge and joins her criminal gang, where he meets her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski), fresh out of prison and ready to take charge of the gang and take on anyone he sees as a threat. While José earns the nickname “Preacher” for his insistence on a disciplined plan and a non-violent execution of the stage robbery (both a moral and practical decision; murder brings out the soldiers in force), Garcia is like unstable dynamite pulled from the storage of a long prison sentence and ready to blow at the slightest nudge.
Compañeros (Blue Underground, Blu-ray) is an ironic title, but then as a spaghetti western—a genre steeped in mercenaries and con men and double crosses—it would have to be. Swedish gun runner Yodlaf (Franco Nero), in Mexico in the heat of the revolution to sell his weapons to the highest bidder, and hot-headed Mexican peasant turned revolutionary officer Vasco (Tomas Milian in a beret that evokes Che Guevara) are certainly not compañeros by any stretch of the definition. It’s only good timing that prevents Vasco from killing the blue-eyed stranger, and orders from his gun-shy but glory-hungry General that sends him along on a quest to free the idealistic revolutionary leader Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) from American captivity at Fort Yuma. They make a great screen team, verbally jabbing and prodding one another along the way even when they are forced to rescue one another (left to their druthers, they’d go on alone). Nero plays the witty, worldly cosmopolitan (and, blue eyes and lightly bleached hair aside, the most Mediterranean Swede in the cinema) and Milian the wily survivor, acting on impulse and lobbing insults to his Swedish partner between paeans to his twinkling blue eyes.
Sergio Corbucci is one of the three great Sergios of the spaghetti western (along with Leone and Sollima) and the director of two of the genre’s classics, Django (1966), which made a star of Franco Nero, and the Great Silence (1968). Compañeros (1970) leans into the political arena that Sollima specialized in, using the political chaos and opportunism of the revolution as a volatile cultural backdrop filled with warring factions and freelance mercenaries, while driving the film with capers and cons and capture and escapes. They cross the border, break a prisoner out of an American Fort, and tangle with a dope smoking bounty hunter with a wooden hand and a loyal falcon named Marsha. Jack Palance plays the laconic mercenary John, puffing on joints and smiling a crooked grin as he lazily springs traps and puts his prisoners to sadistic tortures, and his stoner delivery sends the film into a whole realm of weirdness.
Complicating things even more are the (not always clear) conflicts within the revolution, with the grandstanding General Mongo only in it for personal gain and the idealistic Xantos playing the Gandhi of the Mexican Revolution, a pacifist who preaches non-violence while everyone is trying to kill him. That includes the opportunist Mongo, who needs Xantos for his payday but also finds him a threat to his agenda. Sort of. The details are murky, but that’s hardly a problem for a genre all about betrayals and greed. And yet Corbucci, who helped define the the amoral tone of the genre in Django, develops a streak of idealism that builds through the film until it blossoms as a defining theme without any sense of irony or insincerity. While he may not embrace the pacifism of his inspiration Professor, Corbucci certainly respects his integrity, a virtue not always seen in the genre, and presents it without cynicism. And that is quite a feat in a film with a body-count and a mercenary cast of this magnitude. It’s a wily good time with a rousing finish.
The Blu-ray debut features both the American version and the disc debut of the longer Italian cut (with four minutes of additional footage). Both editions, which have been newly mastered from the original negative, offer the choice of English and Italian language soundtracks (the restored scenes to the Italian cut are only in Italian with English subtitles, making them easy to spot). Image quality is great and the DTS-HD Mono soundtracks have that distinctive spaghetti western sound of studio-recorded dialogue and post-synched library sound effects. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack sounds great.
Carried over from the previous DVD release is commentary by film journalists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke and the 17-minute 2001 interview featurette “In the Company of Companeros” with interviews with stars Franco Nero and Tomas Milian and composer Ennio Morricone.
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Blue Underground) Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)
It’s official: Blu-ray has redefined my home repertory schedule. DVD is the format of home video debuts and rarities unearthed, but the Blu-ray release calendar has become my guide for revival screenings of films not seen in years, maybe decades, and sometimes for classics that I never got around to seeing in other forms.
Thanks to Blue Underground, Dario Argento’s number has been coming up with some frequency (see my review of Inferno here). This month, two early Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.
The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tails continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.
James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Their meeting is a narrative contrivance to team them up (what reporter rushing to a scoop would take the time to explain what’s going on to a blind bystander?), the hot-shot reporter with all-access to crime scenes and police officials and the retired journalist, blinded years ago, who spends his days caring for an orphan and solving puzzles. Malden comes off as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence. Only when the little girl is kidnapped does Malden falter, the fun tipped into danger and the stakes become personal.
There’s nothing unique or daring in this handsome CinemaScope production, and little of the bravura flights of style that will define his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. Even the spare score by Ennio Morricone looks back to traditional Italian horror, which Argento left behind for the pounding prog rock scores of his subsequent films. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition and a mystery that twists and turns with almost arbitrary direction.
The beginnings of his trademark style can be glimpsed in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is his touchstone, only Argento’s mini-symphonies of murder aren’t about fooling viewers into thinking they’ve seen more than is actually onscreen. He uses the discreet shots to foreground the assault on the flesh and the shedding of blood and impress audiences with his spectacle. A body pushed in front of a speeding train is punctuated with a close-up of the engine colliding with the skull and the freefall of another victim is just the prologue to the desperate grasping for purchase before the crush of impact, complete with the crumple of the body. It’s not exactly sadistic—Argento is like Malden’s character in the movie, delighting in the design and execution of his set pieces like a puzzle—and he doesn’t revel in their suffering. It’s all rather dispassionate, a matter of cinematic engineering.