Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Horror

Blu-ray: Giallo! Restored Italian horrors on Arrow, Synapse and more

bloodblackBlood 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

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.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘Torso’

Sergio Martino’s Torso opens by ogling naked flesh. A couple of anonymous models writhe around while a photographer (face unseen, only a camera in close-up) snaps away softcore shot, interrupted by shards of flashbacks involving a child’s doll, not exactly threatening but still a bit weird. Which pretty much us gives all the building blocks for what would become standard for the stalk-and-slash horrors of the seventies: nudity, voyeurism, a traumatic memory pounding away at our killer’s perspective while his identity remains pointedly hidden. All that’s missing is the violence and we don’t have to wait long for that. Not even the first murder, in fact. An art history lecture at the international university in Perugia shows us the images of suffering saints in renaissance paintings. But there’s no blood in these paintings, as the students remark after the lecture. Rest assured that Martino makes up for that in his scenes of assaulted flesh.

One female student drives off with her boyfriend for a little car sex in the woods. The killer, his face hidden behind a white stocking mask, strangles her with his own scarf (which he gently wraps back around his own neck with slow satisfaction) and then sinks a knife into her chest (a jarringly unconvincing effect with a pasty dummy that cracks open like a shell and oozes red paint). The killer, intimidating under black leather jacket and gloves and a ratty mask, straddles two clichés, the haunted psychos of the Norman Bates variety and the hooded zombie-like automatons of Halloween and Friday the 13th.

And so begins the spectacle. For the next hour or so the audience is treated to scenes of topless dancing, languid make-outs at a hippie hangout, Sapphic seduction, nude sunbathing and skinny dipping, inevitably followed, sooner or later, by the killer strangling said lovelies, removing their tops for a little post-murder findling and then hacking up their bodies. It’s familiar slasher movie territory, right down to a cadre smirking and suspicious men constantly hanging around and peeping in, and there’s no shortage of suspects – a stalker boyfriend, a creepy professor, an ogling scarf salesman, an older lover who is always “traveling.” It gets even more familiar when four female friends, headed by British art history student Jane (Suzy Kendall of Bird With the Crystal Plumage fame) and her Italian friend Daniela (French actress Tina Aumont, Fellini’s Casanova), head out to a villa in the country and the killer follows. Meanwhile, the girls make quite a splash in the small town; they lounge around the village square looking like supermodels in a rustic shoot and the men all but gape in stunned silence at these international beauties.

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