Directing from the abyss!

Articles and Interviews

In 2017 a chat online led to me to the strange Italian film CREATRUES FROM THE ABYSS aka PLANKTON, which I subsequently picked up on DVD for only a couple of pounds. Receiving the disc just a few days later I was excited to see what all the fuss was about and immediately stuck it into my home entertainment system, cracked open a drink and sat back as what could only be described as nautical lunacy unfolded.

Once the credits had finished rolling and my senses came returned I was left with so many questions not just about the film itself but also the director; who the hell was Al Passeri and why hadn’t I heard of him or this film before?

A quick cursory search online seemed to confirm my initial suspicions, Al Passeri must have been either one of many non-descript one-hit Italian directors who got involved in the VOD boom of the early nineties or perhaps a low budget director using a pseudonym, not wanting to stifle a potentially promising career while still needing to make some money and learn his craft.

Neither of these hypotheses turned out to be true and instead I wound up discovering a man who had spent the previous two decades toiling away in the background of Italian genre cinema before getting his directorial break.

Born in Nocera, Umbria back in 1950 Alvaro Passeri would move to Rome soon after, where he has lived ever since. A keen artist from his teenage years, he enjoyed painting and musical studies but perhaps it was his interest in electronics that would ironically set him up for a career in the creative world of film making. After graduating in Sculpture at the Art Institute of Rome he spent a few years working backstage in the opera before landing a position as a sculptor on the TV series JESUS OF NAZARETH starring Robert Powell and Laurence Olivier, a production that I am sadly familiar with due to attending a Catholic school in England and being forced to watch it during lessons in which the teacher felt particularly lazy.

Anyway back to Alvaro Passeri; he followed up this initial foray in the world of film with sculpture and special effects on the 1977 rampaging octopus flick TENTACLES by Ovidio Assonitis. This additional work came around as the previous crew member charged with creating the effects had unfortunately missed a lot of them out, resulting in the director calling up Alvaro and giving him his first opportunity to not only showcase his emerging talent but discover a new world of (professional) enjoyment.

After working on the set of  CALIGULA by Tinto Brass the following year, a flurry of work rolled in and a young Alvaro Passeri would go on to gain more experience with a number of productions including work by Enzo Castellari (THE SHARK HUNTER), Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH; ALIEN 2; HERCULES), Paolo Cavara (LA LOCANDIERA), Sergio Martino (2019 – AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK) and even with the great directors Sergio Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) and Dario Argento (INFERNO), for whom he contributed scenic artwork and special effects including the building of the gothic castle.

Looking back to this period we are presented with an impressionable rookie on the set (not to mention literally building them) of several masters of the Italian scene, with these experiences both direct and indirect helping to skill him in the art of working with small budgets. No doubt a necessary skill as over time the horror and fantasy markets started to wane, especially in Italy.

Alvaro Passeri took these experiences and formed his own production and special effects company in 1982. This is the reason why his company carries that number. From this moment on his career would continue in the fashion and frequency he had no doubt become accustomed to despite the market downturn.

He would later go on to return to working with Enzo Castellari as well as with the likes of Ruggero Deodato (THE ATLANTIS INTERCEPTORS; THE BARBARIANS; OCEANO) and several other known directors such as Aldo Lado, Dino Risi, Duccio Tessari and Sergio Martino. Not to mention the legendary Lucio Fulci on productions of THE NEW GLADIATORS and AENIGMA.

When asked about his time working with Lucio Fulci, a man who several have said is demanding and cruel on set, Alvaro Passeri remembers fondly their working relationship as the iconic director would allow him to get on and work without supervision, trusting in his output.

However these cult films were only one aspect of Alvaro Passeri’s work and he would also have the opportunity to contribute and work on several other genres and films, most notably the critically acclaimed CINEMA PARADISO by Giuseppe Tornatore.

Speaking with Alvaro Passeri about what it was like watching these directors both from afar and up-close it becomes apparent that he took the most out of these opportunities and was always learning and very appreciative of everyone’s unique skills; not only technique from the likes of Giuseppe Tornatore but also some practical ideas from the future Hollywood directorial star James Cameron, for who Alvaro Passeri spent a month with in the early 1980s. This period also included the making of a piranha effect for the film PIRANHA II. No doubt this professional collaboration was the result of Ovidio Assonitis who had acted as an uncredited director on the film.

With all these experiences, in 1992, now 42 years old, Alvaro Passieri finally took the step into directing with his first feature film – CREATURE DAGLI ABISSI otherwise known as CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS or PLANKTON depending on which English language market you are in, and it is this film that was the catalyst for this article.

A film that combines elements of the aforementioned PIRANHA II, just look at all the flying prehistoric fish and POV shots, with John Carpenter’s THE THING, in regards of hideous ‘alien’ mutations; and then throws in more than just a touch of off-the-wall bizarre humour; It really has to be seen to be believed and honestly I would recommend that you did see it!

To quote one guy on Twitter (@Seamaster73) who replied to me after a post regarding the film, he described it as: “The film Jaws *could* have been…if it had featured a scene in which a woman gives birth to caviar”. If you are a fan of crazy low budget horror then that description should be sending you straight to Amazon (other suppliers are available).

Now the plot itself is quite straight forward, a bunch of obnoxious teens head out in a boat for a party only to get stranded at sea. Luckily they come across a deserted yacht which just so happens to be kitted out for two things – sex parties and mad fish-based science, what else!

Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth our party animals get down to the business of getting down, well most of them….only to soon realise something fishy is going on and they are not alone on board….with hilarious consequences.

According to the ever increasingly inaccurate IMDB, it was shot on a reported budget of $250,000 across Miami, USA and Rome, Italy and was written by the no doubt fictitious Richard Baumann (whose only other credit was starring in 2 episodes of a 1950s TV series CAVALCADE OF AMERICA). Hmmmm. Although I do suspect the credited story co-coordinator John Blush may have had an early career role in this although all the internet details are very fuzzy. Now what was it I saying earlier about pseudonyms?

Having spoken to the director he admitted that he undertook the old b-movie director trick of inventing many of the crew in order to give the appearance of a bigger production than it actually was and this is perhaps closer to the truth.

In fact the director would go on to say “I could not write that I had done everything, in addition to the actors my troupe was 5 people, you realise that this movie was produced with the money that in a normal movie pay only the lunch for the crew.” Making the film even more of low budget triumph and success and to my mind, I even doubt the budget given on IMDB as when you have the special effects knowledge on hand and quite frankly set the movie in one location your costs are in all likelihood notably reduced.

Having been privileged to get the opportunity to speak with the director, I go on to explain to him the purpose of my interest and how I discovered his largely forgotten film from 1992 [although it was trapped in distribution hell for a couple of years before finally being released].

He seems humbled and somewhat surprised admitting that he “did not know that ‘CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS’ had fans” and that although he “had directed the film with great passion” he still could believe that it was gaining new fans.

To me this really highlights the benefits of the digital age to film makers and older work, no longer are these esoteric films the hidden away in the confines of murky store basements or underground mail order catalogues available only to the chosen few but now with the click of a button people from all across the world can discuss and share their latest find or oddity and within minutes trailers found and viewed thus perpetuating the cycle.

Although kept busy with special effects work (including on the terrifically titled and themed but hugely disappointing JURASSIC PARK rip off CHICKEN PARK) it would be a further sixteen years before Alvaro Passeri would return to direct.

Between 1998 and 2004 he made a further four films (THE GOLDEN GRAIN [check out the trailer under its original title FANTASTIC GAMES at the very end of the article]; THE MUMMY THEME PARK; FLIGHT TO HELL; PSYCHOVISION – many of which are now on YouTube) but these were not met favourably by many critics and in 2004 he hung up the directors cap as the commercial market and backing for these sort of films had completely disappeared.

Despite this end, Alvaro Passeri had worked on and contributed to several significant and notable Italian films and gave us the highly entertaining and memorable CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS and for that I salute him!

Nowadays he spends his time on his passion of mechanical electronics, robotics and music. You can find out more and visit his official website here.

Finally I would like to thank Alvaro Passeri for his time and generosity in replying to me and humouring what must be a strange request from a random viewer about a film that is now 25 years old!

If you have even just a few pound (or dollars) find this gem on Amazon where it is cheap, grab some drinks and snacks and settle in for a night of fun. I always believe that films should at least entertain or have something to say, the rare few have both, and this film certainly does one of those two.

Addition: After posting this article I spoke a little more with Alvaro Passeri about his time in the industry and his favourite pieces of work to which he intrigued me by describing his follow up directorial effort FANTASTIC GAMES, which was retitled THE GOLDEN GRAIN after a distributor shall we say acted not in the best interest of anyone other than themselves forcing a drastic overhaul.

Intrigued by this I probed a little further and to my delight the director posted online a showreel trailer for the film – I was certainly captivated. A million miles away from the crazy fucked up fish violence of CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS, instead FANTASTIC GAMES comes across as if Luigi Cozzi made a 1980s sci-fi combined with THE NEVERENDING STORY and INDIANA JONES by way of the Jim Henson Company and Ray Harryhausen.

After this movie was completed the bottom really did fall out of the industry and he saw his budgets reduced down to a tenth of what they once were. Reminiscing on this point he displays some regret over whether he made the right decision to continue in the face of increasing obstacles but when you own the studio and have the responsibility of several people’s livelihoods to contend with it suddenly is a whole different situation.

I hope Alvaro enjoyed his time talking to me as much as I did him, and looks back fondly on a career not only well spent but still enjoyed by b-movie and cult film fans across the globe.

Check out the trailer for PLANKTON aka CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS below

DOLCEZZA EXTREMA (2015) BY ALBERTO GENOVESE

Reviews

AKA: Sick Sock Monsters from Outer Space
Director: Alberto Genovese
Writer: Massimo Vavassori
Starring: Alessandro Bianchi, Giovanni De Giorgi, Marco Antonio Andolfi, Paola Masciadri, Massimo Muntoni, Alberto Pagnotta

Synopsis:
In an unspecified year in the future, the Captain Pixws and his space pirate crew are forced to deliver tanning showers to every corner of the universe. Dolcezza Extrema starship will live an extraordinary adventure.

Review:
I feel that this review is almost pointless as after reading that synopsis the majority of film fans will have already decided if this film is for them or not. Clearly this film is absolutely bonkers, as a former drug taking hard rocker Captain Pixws (Giovanni De Giorgi) hurtles through space to sort out these bloody tanning showers and his crew of a plankton-loving (sock) fish, a desperate doctor who needs crew members to get ill in order to remain in a job and also nymphomaniac puppet who just wants satisfaction.

This plot is intentionally bizarre and the film revels in its own insanity proving at times hilarious while potentially borderline satirical of today’s body worship culture. Oh did I not mention that as well as tanning showers the beings in this film have to work out and achieve good bodies in order to stay warm enough to live. Yep, you read that right. So is this a take on today’s body worship culture or just a tale of ridiculous absurdity?

Away from the unique plot the fact that the film is filled with relatively cheap yet effective CGI (it was shot in front of a green screen) and some pretty nifty sock puppets, of which credit has to be given to the crew for the majority for, which rather than being just a quirky gimmick actually turn out to be a rather inventive bit of fun.

Additionally the music, courtesy of Antony Coia deserves special mention which on the whole was nicely done, varied and slightly bonkers; perfectly suiting the tone of the movie. One downside however is that even at just 80 minutes DOLCEZZA EXTREMA does unfortunately lag in some places and disappears into its own vortex of absurdity at others and so could benefit from a little bit more editing to tighten it up and add to the punchiness as witnessed in the trailer. Talking of punchiness the humour was a little hit and miss for me and I believe it will be for a number of viewers also but thankfully it is not jarring or too far off in terms of intention and so does not negate the overall experience of watching the film.

Born outoof a love for film and creativity this is a film which can be best described as a charming oddity, one that unsurprisingly had been picked up by Troma and distributed under the title SICK SOCK MONSTERS FROM OUTER SPACE, and it is either a piece of satirical genius or simply the writer Massimo Vavassori and director Alberto Genovese having fun and letting us join in with the laughs…I would recommend you have a drink beforehand and just go with the flow.

So if you are looking for a sexualised, surreal sci-fi film with puppets then DOLCEZZA EXTREMA is the film for you. If not, well I doubt you even made it this far in the review.

As well as Troma the film is distributed in Italy (and so should be reasonably accessible for all Europeans) on DVD and Blu-ray and if you are lucky you will be able to pick up a copy with a sock puppet! Makes sense and is certainly better than just a cardboard slip (which you may also get with certain editions).

THE MAN WITH MY NAME (2017) BY SIMON O’NEILL

Reviews

AKA: L’uomo con il mio nome
Director:  Simon O’Neill
Writer: Simon O’Neill
Year: 2017
Starring: Simon O’Neill, Ruggero Deodato, Luigi Cozzi, Catriona MacColl

Synopsis:
Irish writer/director Simon O’Neill investigates the career of the only Simon O’Neill more popular than him on the IMDB – who just so happens to be the Italian scriptwriter Giovanni Simonelli.

Review:
After a brief introduction on who he is (he’s Simon O’Neill) and who the other Simon O’Neil’s are on IMDB we get started with a whistle-stop tour of some of the career highlights from Italian scriptwriter Giovanni Simonelli aka Simon O’Neill.

This straightforward opening sets out the premise quite clearly, instantly drawing loose comparisons to the British TV series ‘ARE YOU DAVE GORMAN?’, but although THE MAN WITH MY NAME is centred around this novel concept it is certainly not limited to it.

With the purpose of this documentary now explained we take to the road in a bid to hunt down more information on Simonelli, beginning in the most unlikely of places – Luton!

Here Simon meets a talkative Ruggero Deodato and they discuss not only the translation of an Irish name but also the use of pseudonyms in the Italian industry during the sixties and seventies. This is an area we all know a bit about but in my opinion is never discussed enough, and so it is a pleasant surprise that this topic forms a significant part of the documentary as Catriona MacColl, Luigi Cozzi and (archive footage of) Antonio Margheriti, a frequent collaborator of Giovanni Simonelli, all go on to discuss the necessity of changing one’s name in order to boost the chances of success, be it with English-speaking audiences or even Italian.

On an unrelated note, one thing that does come across during the discussion with Luigi Cozzi, is how alive he becomes when talking about film and the industry. As always he is captivating and so easy to listen to, cementing his place as one of the sweetest guys in horror and sci-fi.

Back to the documentary and at this point it is in danger of being sidetracked away from the actual premise but through a Simonelli related story, Cozzi brings things full circle and we are back on track.

Lead first by some archive footage of the man himself, the late Giovanni Simonelli, we are soon joined by his son who seems genuinely surprised and curious that a random Irish man was making a short film about his father.

Although clearly shot on a very low budget, THE MAN WITH MY NAME works not just on an endearing labour of love level but because, no doubt thanks to Simon O’Neill’s professional experience, it provides a tightly edited and terrifically structured look at both an unsung member of the Italian b-movie scene and also the nuances of working in the fringes of Italian cinema as the brief running time touches on additional topics such as the anglicising of names and the disdain of native audiences for the work of their own countrymen. It is also refreshing for once to not have the subject as a Dario Argento or a Lucio Fulci, but rather someone who perhaps is not well known even though their films are.

A celebration of Italian b-movies and those who helped bring them to us, THE MAN WITH MY NAME is light-hearted, fun and guaranteed to put a smile on the faces of fans of Italian genre cinema. Admittedly for some this may come across as too lightweight, but it was never meant to be a detailed analysis and should not be judged as such.

Sure if it had bigger budget then it would look more polished and ok it could have featured more clips and longer interviews but that is not what this is necessarily about nor is it really in the spirit of what I believe Simon O’Neill set out to achieve.

The Man with My Name is currently on the festival circuit. Find out more information on the official website.

Version reviewed:

An online screener of the film.

CONTAMINATION (1980) BY LUIGI COZZI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Alien Contamination; Alien on Earth; Toxic Spawn
Director: Luigi Cozzi
Writer: Luigi Cozzi, Erich Tomek
Year: 1980
Starring: Ian McCulloch, Louise Marleau, Marino Mase, Sigfried Rauch

Synopsis:
A cargo ship drifts into New York harbour. Its crew: all dead, their bodies horribly mutilated, turned inside –out by an unknown force. Its freight: boxes upon boxes of growing, pulsating green eggs. It soon becomes clear that these eggs are not of this planet, and someone intends to cultivate them here on Earth. But who? And to what end? [Taken from the Arrow blu-ray release]

Review:
Released only a year after Ridley Scott’s seminal ALIEN, Luigi Cozzi has openly stated that he never set out to copy this film but nonetheless due to just a couple of story choices many people have, incorrectly, dismissed CONTAMINATION as just an another Italian rip off. 

Opening with a helicopter over New York city we quickly discover a seemingly abandoned cargo ship that on further investigation turns out to not be as abandoned as first thought. With the crew all brutally killed all that is left are strange green eggs. Strange indeed.

With this initial set up now established writer/director Luigi Cozzi wastes no time getting to the action and within the first ten minutes we have our first (slo-mo) chest bursting sequence and we can tell that this sci-fi adventure is going to pack a punch.

After this incident NYPD Lt. Tony Aris (Marino Masé) is taken in for questioning by Col. Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) and they discover that what they are dealing with is not of this world. This first act of the film is well paced and helps to set up the remainder of the story, aided by the strong chemistry between the two leads which allows Cozzi’s under-appreciated humour to shine through. 

Already, as previously mentioned, the viewer is able to determine that this film – at least plot wise – is not an ALIEN imitator despite liberally borrowing specific elements of that film.

By this point of the story our leads have discovered that although these eggs are from space, that someone must have brought them back. With that revelation former astronaut, Commander Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) is brought into the mix. The introduction of McCulloch is well timed and helps maintain the films momentum while driving the story into the second act and, as ever, McCulloch is on top form as the pitiful, disgraced alcoholic Hubbard. From here on out it the film becomes more of an action-romp as the trio set out to uncover the mystery and save the world culminating in a gripping finale with the unveiling of the gelatinous tentacle waving Cyclops overlord and Hubbard’s transformation back to the hero he once was.

For me, whether he is firing his rifle madly or cracking a joke, McCulloch steals the show adding an extra level of entertainment thanks to his strong performance and interaction with the other two key characters. The casting of McCulloch was particularly inspired thanks to his popularity not just in the TV show SURVIVORS but off the back of his tremendous performance in ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS, the success of which is believed to have helped his land this role.

Cozzi shows his ability to carve a decent story and then back it up with a competent level of directorial skill but more importantly considering the budget, he shows his creativity to defy budget limitations as he utilises the darkness and shadows to great effect in the underground scenes while making use of multiple cuts in the finale to overcome obvious defects with the monster. But I would once again like to bring up the script and the humour contained within. Cozzi sometimes states that people did not get the humour but it is in there and works really well providing a tonal balance to the film and giving it that extra layer of enjoyment.

This is a fun and entertaining film that is much more than of its parts and this release in particular should be a definite purchase for all genre and cult film fans. Sure there are some flaws and a couple of the sets look cheap (not to mention an ineffective final monster) but what do you expect from a film now thirty-five years old.

On a side note, oddly enough despite being a Sci-Fi fantasy film, CONTAMINATION still managed to end up on the UK’s Video Nasty list, but was not prosecuted, meaning that star Ian McCulloch featured in three investigated films (ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS and ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST). The film would then be passed not only uncut but with a 15 rating 24 years later.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 2015 Arrow blu-ray release and once again Arrow hit it out of the park with the additional features. The dual disc (blu ray/dvd) release also features the older documentary ‘Luigi Cozzi on Contamination’ which provides an interesting insight to the films genesis alongside behind the scenes footage detailing how things were actually shot and the challenges the cast and crew faced.

Alongside this is a fantastic Q&A with Ian McCulloch and Luigi Cozzi. Filmed at one of the Abattoir film festivals this Q&A just goes to reinforce both the genuine nature of both of its contributors as they run through 40 minutes of delightful anecdotes and background information from their own perspective of the films history. Sadly, the ‘Sound of the Cyclops’ feature with Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini, in which he discuses the score and a lifetime of making music for Italian horror is a little dry and adds (relatively) little compared to the other features despite its diverse angle of approach.

Back on track is the more recent ‘Luigi Cozzi Vs Lewis Coates’ interview in which Cozzi looks back on his entire career which is fascinating viewing and provides a bit more detail to some answers he gives in the earlier Q&A particularly in how disappointed he was with the final Cyclops that he was forced to use in the films finale.

The extra features do not stop there however as we get a critical analysis of the Italian genre movies which sought to cash-in on popular Hollywood blockbusters and the wider breath of this review is refreshing and sure to be of interest of anyone interested in Italian and cult cinema. Also featured is a theatrical trailer, a graphic novel based on the original screen play and an audio commentary with Chris Alexander who is also the primary contributor to the collectors booklet also included.

The film itself has been restored in 2K  and is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks fantastic. Overall this is a phenomenal package giving new life to a little known sci-fi entry from thirty five years ago that still holds up today.