HOUSE OF SALEM (2016) BY JAMES CROW

Reviews

Year: 2016
Director: James Crow
Writer: James Crow
Starring: Andrew Lee Potts, Jessica Arterton, Jack Brett Anderson, Liam Kelly, Leslie Mills, Dean Maskell, Anna Nightingale, Nalân Burgess

Synopsis:
A group of kidnappers become a child’s unlikely protectors after discovering they have unwittingly been set up to take part in a satanic ritual. As they begin to uncover the truth of the house they find themselves trapped, they must battle demonic forces and uncover a legacy of over a hundred years of murder in the name of the Devil

Review:
Coming from experienced short film British writer/director James Crow, HOUSE OF SALEM represents his sophomore feature effort and continues with the rough theme of the occult which could be seen in his debut CURSE OF THE WITCHING TREE.

The film opens in familiar horror territory; a beautiful babysitter (Nalân Burgess) and a young child who clearly has either suffered some early trauma or has some mystery in his past. It is never just a normal kid perhaps with a tough paper round.

Early on we learn that the child, Josh, suffers from nightmares if he does not take his pill and rather unsurprisingly he deceives his babysitter into believing he has taken these bringers of peaceful sleep. Now this action also serves another purpose as we, the viewer, are thrown into uncertainty about whether what we are about to view is real or all in Josh’s head.

Whichever is the case it does not matter and we are not given the time to overthink for very quickly an armed gang, dressed in scary clown masks infiltrate the house and kidnap the boy leaving the babysitter unconscious on the floor. 

After being taken to an isolated rural estate house, Josh starts to hear voices, but not only ones that want to protect him but ones that do not have his best interests at heart. At this point the film slowly develops more supernatural overtones and what was only hinted at before begins to dominate the proceedings as the waking nightmare becomes more vivid. These moments are more than competently handled aiding the unsettling possibilities of both the house and those behind orchestrating the kidnapping. 

Objectively speaking however the opening act is a little slow for my tastes and suffers from inconsistency in terms of quality which reduces the impact and arguably the interest of what has the potential to be an engaging slow burning occult mystery.

Thankfully however by the second act the script begins to find its rhythm as more breadcrumbs are laid and engagement generated in regards to the real mystery behind the safehouse that the gang find themselves holed up in at the request of an unknown client.

Soon all around the property a mysterious symbol begins to appear with increased frequency as do the hallucinations of not only Josh but also those who took him. During this middle act HOUSE OF SALEM really hits its stride managing to create some genuine moments of tension and intrigue but unfortunately the film seems unable to capitalise on this resulting in a final act that was executed perhaps not as well as it could or should have been.

As with many low budget films the locations are limited and although not directly, HOUSE OF SALEM is comparable to that of a siege movie, Perhaps think in terms of the hospital in the terrific American film THE VOID, although much less expansive and a much lower budget. 

One aspect of this almost siege like environment is that it places by emphasis on the acting, simply by default more than anything. This is both a strength and weakness of HOUSE OF SALEM as the few moments of action are unfortunately weak while the acting, which takes precedence is a little inconsistent although Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills and Dean Maskell put in commendable performances while Liam Kelly in his first credited role as the boy Josh makes a strong start to his acting career.

Despite its promise HOUSE OF SALEM is unfortunately neither claustrophobic or brave enough in its depiction, I am talking both in terms of script and visuals, resulting in an inconsistent movie in which moments of inane and weak dialogue are followed by genuine tension. The pieces for success are all there and James Crow clearly knows his stuff leading me to suspect that these lulls and moments of inconsistency are down more to the transition from short to feature length production.

HOUSE OF SALEM is one of those small independent films that hovers around in distribution limbo for a couple of years after being made, before finally being granted a long overdue release. Thankfully though it manages to avoid being dated or missing a trend and so this delay has not or should not affect its release.

Overall there is still enough to recommend about this sometimes effectively tense movie to make it worth your while picking it up  but if you are looking for an independent occult horror film might I recommend the Italian films CUSTODES BESTIAE by Lorenzo Bianchini or SHANDA’S RIVER by Marco Rosson ahead of this one.

HOUSE OF SALEM is receiving a home entertainment (DVD) and digital release courtesy of Left Films and Wild Eye Releasing coming October 1st 2018 if you are interested.

ROSSA VENEZIA (2003) BY ANDREAS BETHMANN

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Porno A Venezia
Director: Andreas Bethmann
Writer: Andreas Bethmann
Year: 2003
Starring: Sabine Ironheart, Romana, Marianna Bertucci, Jens Hammer, Daniel Ortolan

Synopsis:
After killing her cheating husband a woman is released from prison and goes on a killing spree while detailing her memoirs of a cruel and sexual prison experience.

Review:
Within the first five minutes we witness a very drawn out act of cunnilingus that only changes to become an act of fellatio and then as with all pornos, penetrative sex. Immediately we know that we are not in for a mystery as dark and labyrinthine as the winding streets of Venice but rather an overlong and uninspiring porno…with murder.

Now director Andreas Bethmann doesn’t show us this gentle lovemaking just to arouse us but rather additionally to build the importance for when we discover that one of our two love makers is actually committing infidelity and soon a jilted spouse enters and blows them away. Thankfully not in that way.

ROSSA VENEZIA isn’t afraid to take the sex and violence ethos of horror to a new level but struggles to successfully weave in any depth or context as it intersperses footage of a gate and decaying house and all this before the credits finish. Rather surprisingly after what we have just witnessed the post-credit shots, the camera positioned on the front of a gondola, do actually work and Bethmann gives us some hope that there might actually be a filmmaker behind all of this after all.

All hope is soon lost however as ROSSA VENEZIA descends into a depraved female in prison tale that has more in common with a third rate porno (and a fourth rate horror) and this makes the attempts to discuss duality using Venice as a metaphor seem a little pretentious painting Bethmann as a pseudo-intellectual with illusions of grandeur. The best example of this would be that while a voice over attempts to discuss this very nature not only does the dialogue lack any substance or depth but the on-screen image is that of a female masturbating, ANIMA PERSA this most certainly is not.

Any film that makes GIALLO A VENEZIA look almost erotic and sensual deserves recognition but sadly not for the right reasons.  Riddled with terrible acting, terrible sex and a terrible attempt to inject an understanding as to the nature of human kind at two hours and thirty five minutes long this feature film is at least two hours and thirty four minutes too long.

Certainly brutal in places (it is a German splatter porno after all) but this dull memoir’s only real redeeming point is the all too brief POV shot use but it cannot be recommended even for the most ardent underground cinema lover.

On a side note the film also features the euro-exploitation legend Jess Franco (who has appeared in several of Bethmann’s projects) and his wife Lina Romay which can only be down to their personal friendship as opposed to a reading of the script.

TORSO (1973) BY SERGIO MARTINO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale; Carnal Violence; Torso – Violencia carnal; The Bodies Presented Traces of Carnal Violence
Director: Sergio Martino
Writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Sergio Martino
Year: 1973
Starring: Suzy Kendall, Tina Aumont, Luc Merenda, John Richardson

Synopsis:
Students at a Perugia summer school are being killed with the only clue being a red and black scarf. In order to get away from an obsessed, spurned suitor, American Jane and her friends decide to travel to an isolated villa in the country, only for the spate of killings to follow them.

Review:
Beautiful women and ugly violence combine in this psycho-sexual thriller from Sergio Martino. Wasting no time in getting to the point (or arguably also the clichés) TORSO immediately introduces us to the power, or rather temptation of the flesh, placing it at the heart of this violent mystery. As a camera shoots pornographic images, white flesh becomes entangled inside a black, featureless room and a child’s doll is shown to us, clearly hinting at a future significance and perhaps perversion.

This intriguing beginning soon gives way to a summer school in the beautiful Italian city of Padua and after a quick introduction to our key group of characters we jump to yet more sex although this time it is rudely interrupted by a menacing POV shot, a technique by  now firmly established in the genre. It is here that first exemplifies one of the values that Sergio Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi bring to the genre as what could be an exploitative, simple yet mediocre sequence is imbued with genuine moments of tension before giving way to moments of light relief, for the viewer at least, as post-murder, the assigned Detective Martino questions a local peasant who was in the area.

As a result of these slayings the local police make a plea to the art students providing them with one key piece of identifying evidence and one of our group, Dani (Tina Aumont) just knows that she recognises it from somewhere…but where, although she seems desperate to pin the blame on her creepy and infatuated classmate Stefano.

In a bid to get away from it all, her voyeuristic Uncle sends her and her friends off to his isolated rural villa as he needs to leave the country on business. Needless to say the group of girls arrive in the village and cause quite a stir with the local men including with the local part-time Val Kilmer look-a-like and full-time village idiot, but they aren’t the only ones with their eyes fixed on the group as death follows them too.

Culminating in a tense and engrossing final act, including the inversion of the conventional (killer) POV scene where in this case we witness our protagonist spying on the unaware killer, the film will have you screaming for the final girl to not try and escape and these scenes really are a credit to the terrific pacing which never once loses the viewers attention in its orgy of suspicion, violence and sex.

This is thanks to the skill and experience of Ernesto Gastaldi and Sergio Martino that throughout the films tight 90-minute runtime that it manages to spend enough time on the supporting cast and wider narrative allowing for not only the foundations of the overriding mystery to be set but also for the successful framing of the narrative allowing the possibility of a few potential killers to remain instead of relying on a cheap trick at the end.

As a result we have a decent story that manages to divulge information and implicate with every turn and although a little heavy handed at times on some beats (the fall down the stairs for example) this is at least done out of necessity in order to drive the narrative forwards. Credit also has to go to the duo for the subtle injection of humour at work, primarily provided by the background characters, which helps provide a tonal break for the viewer allowing the films more convoluted aspects to remain fresh and engaging.

Featuring almost as many suspects as breasts and a rampant killer this top tier giallo will undoubtedly entertain fans of the genre. Despite having a motive based upon a slightly flimsy origin, albeit one that perfectly conformed to the tropes of the genre at the time, TORSO works because it manages to strike that perfect balance between exploitative sleaze, violence and mystery.

If you are yet to watch this film get online or to your local store and pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed and in all likelihood will love this film to bits. If the dodgy cover is putting you off, don’t worry it has a reversible sleeve which you will most certainly use.

Finally I would like to give regular Sergio Martino cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando (ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK; YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM…;THE VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS; the list goes on but you get the picture, and the pun I hope) credit for his work on this film in which he creates many iconic moments while maintaining that level of consistency and visual coherence that to me, helps define a Sergio Martino film.

Version Reviewed:

The 2017 blu ray release from Shameless Films is as one would expect, superior to the previous DVD versions. In direct comparison to the 2007 Shameless DVD it is not only a nicer looking HD version but includes English language scene inserts, which although not necessarily vital do add an extra level of completion or rather variety .

Shameless have also answered my gripes with the previous DVD release, in so much as they have now included an ‘Italian version’ with revised English subtitles (although the inserted scenes remain in Italian with English subtitles as the English language track was never recorded for these) and this time they have actually included a genuine ‘extra’ feature away from the usual company portfolio showreels (but don’t worry a couple of trailers for the most recent blu’s is included here) – in the form of a new, 22 minutes interview with director Sergio Martino.

In this interesting and somewhat (although minor) revealing interview the director briefly discusses the influences of the character traits held by the killer as well as how the production came about. Sergio Martino goes on to speak rather candidly, and sadly fleetingly, about a few of the casting choices and also some elements of the film that he is now not so keen on…and a few sections that he is, not to mention the origins of the now iconic white mask.

THE UNFORTUNATE LIFE OF GEORGINA SPELVIN CHAINED TO A RADIATOR (2014) BY ANDREAS MARFORI

Reviews

Director: Andreas Marfori
Writer: Andreas Marfori
Year: 2014
Starring: Erika Kamese

Synopsis:
The unfortunate life of Georgina Spelvin chained to a radiator see’s a young foreign girl with immigration problems encounter a man she thinks can help. Only to be betrayed in a tale of entrapment, humiliation and perverted sexual obsession

Review:
Coming from Italian writer/director Andreas Marfori, best known for his trashy 1988 film EVIL CLUTCH aka IL BOSCO, and featuring the theatrical actress and pop singer Erika Kamese (who looked for a while to become a staple of the modern Italian horror scene), THE UNFORTUNATE LIFE OF GEORGINA SPELVIN CHAINED TO A RADIATOR looks to tell the story of a true event…with artistic licence of course.

Opening with the eponymous Georgina Spelvin (Erika Kamese) nervously taking the subway train, an unseen narrator, sounding suspiciously like a computer programme, provides exposition regarding her situation, in which we learn that she is travelling to meet, the ominously named ‘Weird guy’.

As the overly descriptive title suggests the basic just of what will happen, Andreas Marfori wastes no time in getting to the point in an almost sped up first act. It is however to the directors credit that not only does it flow extremely well but as viewer you are instantly drawn in as Georgina meets the ‘Weird guy’ who is promising her salvation.

It is here that Marfori makes a key decision as he switches from third to first person perspective. However this is not necessarily servicing the usual POV narrative but rather the interactive pornographic movies that seek to place you into the action. To make you complicit with the act with the effect being to enhance the intensity of the piece, to a limit, as it is almost that you, the viewer are going along with the degrading acts even against your better judgement or morals.

Back to the film and Georgina is pleading for assistance, but rather than help, our faceless ‘Weird guy’ chloroforms poor Georgina and in under two and half minutes Marfori has completed his set up ready to humiliate and punish.

The film also introduces chapters displaying the stages of Georgina’s new, entrapment life cycle. This is a novel and unique idea, similar to the stages of grief, adding a nice little narrative to a film that admittedly is lacking in plot or substance. However these chapters are visualised with a child’s drawing, the same one Georgina also possesses, although quite what this means I could not work out as it is certainly not a map. All this is immediately forgotten however as the shot changes to a now topless Georgina handcuffed to a radiator. All the while our computerised narrator reads some brief poetry over the images of Kamese who beautifully conveys the beleaguered Georgina as she wakes and comes to the realisation of her predicament.

The next chapter is that of questions, of begging and thanks to Kamese’s delivery it is hard not to feel a little guilty. But we are powerless to help as her humiliation and subjugation begins. It has to be said that a lot of this humiliation happens off camera or is carefully hidden through strategic camera placement, lighting or audio and those expecting perversity on the level of El Gores SNUFF TAPE ANTHOLOGY or Zanuso’s BEYOND MADNESS are barking up the wrong the tree. However the emotional effect is more powerful than these examples perhaps for this lack of gratuitous action. Although that is not to say this is handled in good taste either but rather with a stark, bleak and brutal edge for which the cinematography contributes to.

For the most part this works and thanks to the decision to shoot with the viewer in the place of the perpetrator the final element of sexual humiliation and degradation is a success despite culminating in one of the worst results of ejaculation I have ever seen. Thankfully however Kamese is a trooper and once again she sells it as the emotionally broken Georgina pleads one last time to be set free.

A fittingly brutal and uncompromising conclusion sees out this eighteen minute short that will appease its target audience while providing a talking point for those who merely dabble in independent and genre cinema.

There is much to recommend about this short film from its strong pacing and narrative (especially considering it’s limited scope), the physical performance of Kamese as she portrays the abused Georgina and the subtle and sparse but no less well thought audio. However, the computerised narrator is a strange decision as surely they could have found a native English speaker to record the lines while the editing could do with some improvement as it appears a bit jerky and amateur at times. Finally while the concept will appeal to a certain audience it may not have enough over the top action for those used to the releases of labels such as Black Lava Productions or Toetag Pictures…but those people still should endeavour to hunt down this film as it is most definitely worth their attention.

It is at times an uncomfortable watch. Gritty and unashamedly realistic in it’s context forcing one to contemplate on the life of many female illegal immigrants or transients who may disappear without anybody noticing whether for human trafficking, slavery or worse. Whether provoking this area of thought is intentional or not, it cannot be escaped and only Marfori will truly know if that was his aim or if this is merely titillation for a niche audience.

On a final note while I try not to refer to other articles or reviews, when researching this film only a couple of English language web pages existed with one referring to this film as a snuff style porno but if this was their idea of a porno then they need to get out more…or rather stay in more.

Edited to add – I had the pleasure of speaking to the director of the film for my previous site, Cosi Perversa, about his cinematic decisions and aims and can genuinely say that I support this movie in both it’s provocative intent and execution. While I may not have understood everything as evidenced in my review there is a lot more bubbling under the surface.

<Edited to add: Please check the comments on how to get hold of and watch this short film. It has been released by the fantastic Darkside Releasing on the same blu-ray disc as SOVIET ZOMBIE INVASION, also from Andreas Marfori. You can order it here!

THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST (1977) BY UMBERTO LENZI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Il cincio, l’infame, il violento; O Cínico, O Infame, O Violento; Le cynique, l’infâme, le violent; Die Gewalt bin ich
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Writer: Ernesto Gastaldi, Dardano Sacchetti, Umberto Lenzi
Year: 1977
Starring: Maurizio Merli, John Saxon, Tomas Milian, Renzo Palmer

Synopsis:
Luigi ‘Chinaman’ Maietto bursts free from the big house and sets in motion his revenge on the man who put him there, the legendary Inspector Leonardo Tanzi. When an assassination attempt leaves Chinaman believing the heroic officer dead, Tanzi uses his new found anonymity to bring down the numerous crime organisations that are helping ruin his beloved city.

Review:
THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST represents the return of Inspector Tanzi as moustachioed blonde Maurizio Merli reprises his role as the vigilante Inspector from ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH (aka ROMA A MANO ARMATA; THE TOUGH ONES, ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON and BRUTAL JUSTICE in the USA).

No doubt commercially THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST with so named as a riff off of Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and it wastes no time in getting started as within ten seconds we witness a mugging. This undoubtably sets the tone for this ramped up sequel before it cuts into the by now clichéd shots of cars cruising the city as a flurry of criminal activities take place, and police cars speed around including past the iconic Milanese duomo instantly placing this film away from its predecessor.

After the opening credits we meet Tanzi, now a murder mystery novel consultant who discovers as he returns home from his surely unfulfilling job that someone has left an obituary note for marking his date of death as that very day. A bad omen for things to come. Thankfully he still possesses a gun so we know at least he will be safe…although I am certain his hands are registered weapons.

Jump to a shot of a police teleprompter and we learn of a criminal named ‘The Chinese’ who has just broken out of jail while the police inspector Astalli (played by genre regular Renzo Palmer – DANGER DIABOLIK; STREET LAW; VAI GORILLA; THE BIG RACKET and also alongside Merli in WHITE FANG TO THE RESCUE) calls in Tanzi to warn him that this criminal, who Tanzi apparently helped put away, might be looking for some payback. A hunch that we know is justified and ends up with our Inspector being dispatched…or so it seems allowing the action and characters to be transported back to Rome, even if most of them are meant to be elsewhere. With the basic plot now outlined we are free to enjoy the rest of the film and meet the rest of our cast.

With that we can say hello to our friend Tomas Milian, who plays The Chinese aka China, and he is quickly joined on screen by John Saxon, playing the American-Italian gangster Di Maggio. After a bit of fun small talk they get down to talking business…illegal business.

All of this and more has happened in just twenty minutes by  which time we have met our three main characters, how they relate to each other and witnessed just why Saxon is the top Mafioso in the city. All of this means a battle for justice, money and ultimately for vengeance is on the cards.

Tanzi’s struggle sees him once again pitted up against several hoodlums as the plot develops and ends up using almost anything available to him in his bid to bring criminal to justice including faulty wiring, stage lights, a camera which leads to a witty one-liner or even a sound board to burn a guy’s face, particularly brutal even for this film although the acid attack runs it close. As you can probably surmise there is a lot of action in this film and it is quite quickly paced with the result on our ex-Inspector becoming more and more desperate when faced against overwhelming odds, which is evidenced by the time he car jacks an innocent woman in a bid to get away from some crooks.

For all the desperation of the character however quite often Merli is in pure 70s playboy mode, the model of masculinity throughout the film even when he is hilariously traversing a corridor of laser beams, bordering on the comical as the film takes on almost a 60s spy thriller vibe thanks to the look of the ‘beams’ aka red string and the use of lighting.

On the contrary, Milian’s character China is a lot more relaxed and in control however some might argue the actor is disinterested but I would disagree although the character is a lot less repugnant than Il Gobbo in ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH and a little less unhinged which no doubt lends itself to this opposing view. Sure Milian’s performance is perhaps not as good as in the earlier film, who knows if the frustration of working with Merli boiled over resulting in the genuine bitterness on screen which was absent here but his performance as ‘The Chinaman’ is more than competent here while Saxon is his usual reliable self but it is quite clear that he only has a supporting role here.

Behind the camera things are just as good and it is apparent that even in the short time from the first Tanzi film, Gastaldi & Lenzi have increased their understanding of the genre’s constructs, its requirements and most importantly its audience. While the sporadic use of POV help ramp up the tension when necessary and shows how Lenzi has utilised all the tricks of the trade learned through his years of gialli and mystery.

Witty, violent and pure fun THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST is a film free from all societal and institutional story restrictions and this is its greatest asset as it allows Tanzi to go straight up against China and by extension Di Maggio with the usual building vinaigrettes giving way to a longer over riding narrative broken up by almost inconsequential crime peppered about to keep the momentum going.  The benefit is the scriptwriters ably manage to combine narrative context with action seamlessly allowing for an action packed, fast paced film but also this time with a compelling story arc that elevates the film to the upper echelons of the genre.

However for those of you who have read Curti’s fantastic book, Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 will find an opposing opinion to my own and so depending on your own personal approach to the genre you may wish to delve a little further into investigating this film.

Where I do agree with Curti however is in the use of the females, as often with Eurocrime films they are merely there as instruments for either the story or setting up an action set piece and here it is no different and although to judge a film by modern day sensibilities is always a dangerous thing to do it is clear who this film was aimed at and what the prevailing attitude was at the time.

Nevertheless it is an enjoyable straight forward film and if you want a bit more humour I recommend the English dub which mocks Merli’s stereotypically un-Italian blonde hair and blue eyes but whatever your audio preference grab a beer and a copy of the 88 Films version for a guaranteed fun night in.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 2017 blu ray release from 88 Films. It’s a high-definition transfer from the original camera negative and I doubt the film has ever looked this good. Audio wise it has a restored English soundtrack, a restored Italian soundtrack and obviously English subtitles.

What’s more 88 Films have put in the effort and commissioned some extras just for this release, well perhaps not technically as some of it appears to be cut from the same source as the extra’s on the SYNDICATE SADISTS release but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The extras include eurocrime expert Mike Malloy talking about the film for just over ten minutes in an informative and humorous segment where Malloy tells of about the story happening behind the camera as well as in front of it. I’m happy to say Malloy takes to the camera like Merli to a backhanded slap and I certainly hope 88 Films use him some more…and unsurprisingly he does feature on the SYNDICATE SADISTS release as well.

Further extras include ‘Armed to the teeth again: An interview with Umberto Lenzi’ which contains a couple of revelations (such as the motivation of Milian during filming of ALMOST HUMAN) and tales covering both his own films and the animosity between Merli and Milian and the problems this caused. Although Lenzi does appear to misremember a few bits of his films this is forgivable considering the period of time that has passed and the great volume of work he has been involved with. Furthermore it is clear that this is part of a longer interview with segments taken for other releases.  In addition to this we also get ‘The cynic, the rat and the sadist: An interview with Tomas Milian’ where the actor seems to talk more about SYNDICATE SADISTS and therefore really should be on that release instead of this one. Regardless Milian is an interesting fellow to talk to and his discussion about his choice of dubbing artist, Ferruccio Amendola if you are interested, is an interesting insight into an area not often covered while he also discusses this films sequel, ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH, a release I am hoping 88 Films acquire soon.

SHADOW (2009) BY FEDERICO ZAMPAGLIONE

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Rémképek
Director: Federico Zampaglione
Writer: Federico Zampaglione, Domenico Zampaglione, Giacomo Gensini
Year: 2009
Starring: Jake Muxworthy, Karina Testa, Ottaviano Blitch, Chris Coppola, Nout Arquint

Synopsis:
Returning from a devastating tour of duty in Iran, David decides to go on a mountain biking adventure in the Alps to put his horrific memories of war behind him but the nightmare has only just begun.

Review:
SHADOW opens up in almost DELIVERANCE territory as hero and war veteran David sticks up for fellow traveller Angeline in a remote bar as she is harassed by two aggressive hunters. This altercation sets up the proceedings well and without dwelling on the past (or even the present) but it does manage to drive the film forwards as it turns into a tense survival thriller (which is at odds with the films marketing) and it is not until an exposition conversation between David and Angeline later that the seeds of future misfortune are sown.

This occurs at around the halfway mark as the film shifts not only tone but also the sub-genre as it becomes more sinister and the roles of hunter and hunted become somewhat reversed.

Sequences skip ever so slightly, almost like a dream in a bid to drive the narrative forwards leaving the viewer sometimes unsure as to how they arrived there but thankfully due to the strong technical (and visual) competencies of the crew things never feel jilted or forced and before you know it SHADOW has reinvented itself as a potential torture porn film. Whether this was always the intention or simply an attempt at improving commercialisation (after all it was shot in English to appeal to an international market) we can only speculate but from Zampaglione’s aversion to showing us gore (one scene excluded) that is vital to these films I know which way I would argue. However that is not to say that SHADOW doesn’t make up for it in other ways, for what those films lack in subtly and atmosphere SHADOW has in abundance thanks to its nightmarish and atmospheric feel and subtle, sly, sometimes political, humour. Zampaglione has made something that has substance along with the style even if it is potentially at the risk of alienating some of the core audience….but potentially not the mainstream.

It is also around this point that we meet the true villain of the piece. Looking somewhat like the creature from Christopher Smith’s 2004 British film CREEP, here the toad-licking stoned mad scientist Mortis is granted a subtle emotional depth thanks to actor Nout Arquint who portrays the disturbed harbinger of death perfectly. In my opinion one of the films strongest scenes centres on Arquint and the aforementioned toad, where the strong acting performance combined with a building powerful musical accompaniment really works, raising viewer expectations that it is such a shame that the very next scene fails to deliver off it and this ultimately sums the film up.

There is a lot to praise SHADOW for, from the tremendous locations that take in dense, thick forests and misty, snow-capped mountains all the way to dark, decrepit lairs not to mention a fantastic soundtrack (unsurprising considering the directors background) and editing of such a high quality you are always engrossed into the film.  The scant 74 minutes fly by thanks to some great scenes and the editing mixing it up with fast and frantic cuts along with slower, more drawn out and tense scenes which really allowing the viewer to be absorbed into the world Zampaglione has created without ever feeling bored or comfortable.  

But not everything works as the main villain is woefully underused (and had much unrealised potential) while the varying accents of the international cast took a little bit of adjustment but thankfully aren’t a major issue as they all put in strong performances. However the key gripe many viewers will have is the ending. Almost certain to make the majority shout at their TV screen it is a shame but it could not be changed as Zampaglione weaves in many ever-so-subtle and intricate clues throughout the film leading to one final result.

Overall SHADOW is a strong calling card for a very promising director but it never quite consistently hits the right notes as it just falls short of all of the genres it takes it influence from and one would be better off checking out French films such as FRONTIER(S) or THE ORDEAL as well as North American films such as LIVE FEED and HOSTEL first instead.

On a side note director Federico Zampaglione is also the frontman for unconventional Italian pop/rock band Tiromancino who have put out over ten albums since 1992 and helps explain the fantastic use of music in this film.

Version Reviewed:

I watched the UK Frightfest Features release which presents the film in 16:9 format. The disc comes with a few extras including the obligatory trailer, a stills gallery and a 22-minute behind the scenes featurette. This extra is surprisingly engaging and allows not only for some interesting shots of the production but we also get to understand why a pop-rock star has turned genre director. Federico Zampaglione’s love for the alternative cinema of his nation is infectious as he speaks of his love for Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci – a love that no doubt culminated with his film TULPA. Worth twenty odd minutes of anyone’s time I actually felt a bit more love for the film because of it as my initial anger at the ending subsided thanks to seeing the work and decision making that went into the film justifying minor yet key decisions on the whole.

THE WASHING MACHINE (1993) BY RUGGERO DEODATO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Vortice mortale
Director:  Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Luigi Spagnol
Year: 1993
Starring: Philippe Caroit, Ilaria Borrelli, Katarzyna Figura, Barbara Ricci

Synopsis:
A police detective investigates the murder of a man found dismembered in a washing machine and is drawn into a web of deceit and murder by the dead man’s lover, Vida, and her two sisters, Sissy and Ludmilla.

Review:
Many will be intrigued by this giallo not just for the peculiar name but also because it is directed by the infamous Ruggero Deodato (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK), a director who is not widely known for his gialli despite this film, PHANTOM OF DEATH and DIAL: HELP all falling loosely into the genre. 

Coming two decades after the golden period of giallo, it is unsurprising that this effort is more influenced by the sexual sleaze that infested the sub-genre in the late eighties as THE WASHING MACHINE delivers a trashy, twisted and bizarre tale of love, jealousy and murder which is as high on (simulated) eroticism as it is suspense.

Set in Budapest, the film begins as it intends to continue, with a sexualised argument between wannabe playboy Yuri and his girlfriend Vida. Thinks however take an almost sinister edge as their kissing is spied on by one of Vida’s sisters while later on a third sister joins them to see Yuri out of the apartment. 

After this argument and make-up everything appears fine. That is until in the night one of the sisters, Ludmilla is awoken by a noise and while investigating discovers Yuri’s dismembered body in the washing machine…which would then disappear somehow before the police arrive.

Enter the blue-eyed and not of sound mind Inspector Stacev who seeks to pump the three sisters for information as to not only where the body lies but if there in fact was even a murder. Matters become complicated as the sisters each spin (pun intended) a different tale to the inspector, while seducing him with their charms, sending the Inspector into a downward spiral of obsession and lust as he seeks to discover what truly happened that night.

During the course of the police investigations by Stacev and his suspicious yet diligent subordinate Nikolai we are introduced, if only very briefly, to several potential subplots such as a suitcase full of money and jewels; currency money laundering and even S&M all of which might be relevant to plot or not but at a loose push all could fit in with elements but I feel that might be stretching the level of complexity that this film possesses. Interestingly, after the S&M revelation a character commits suicide (off-screen) and then that whole plot thread appears to be dropped as quickly as it was introduced and so we ask the question was this part of a wider story removed from the final cut or merely substance behind one of the characters motivations?

In THE WASHING MACHINE Deodato has crafted a highly sexualised giallo but one where the mystery is still quite strong, and it is because of this that the film works as you are intrigued as to what is actually happening as you start to doubt if what you are seeing is even real as represented by the lack of a body. This is supplemented by the additional element of the Inspectors mental instability which Deodato represents both in his loss of objective and professional rationalisation and also with the way that the (editing) shots are put together.

One of the films strengths is that it does not try to emulate a bygone era but rather plays with the conventions within a contemporary lurid framework, as it interlinks eroticism and mystery together with a playful nod to the tropes of the genre where the viewer will expect one thing but be suddenly given another. Meanwhile Deodato never misses a trick to mislead with this climaxing with a fake ending but the timing of this would indicate that there was more to come.

It is also worth noting is the excellent score by Claudio Simonetti, which not only helps to heighten the mood of the scenes but also lends the film that ‘Italian’ feeling which could have so easily become lost due to the Euro-pudding cast and eastern European location.

Ultimately THE WASHING MACHINE is a bizarre and sleazy yet somewhat fun film with a fantastically crafted mystery at its heart. But one that sadly almost seems to play in the background in order to make way for the almost hallucinogenic nightmare of sex and deceit. Featuring more twists and turns than a curly-wurly, Ruggero Deodato packs the film with multiple red herrings and knowing nods to successfully bring things together for a fitting finale but one which unfortunately still leaves many elements unanswered.

Despite being one of the best of the time period (it did not have much competition) this is one for trash and gialli aficionados only, but if that last term described you then you won’t be disappointed with the feast of flesh that THE WASHING MACHINE provides.

Oh and pay attention, as with many directors working in the genre, Ruggero Deodato gives himself a little cameo appearing as a neighbour to the inspector.