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

LIVE LIKE A COP DIE LIKE A MAN (1976) BY RUGGERO DEODATO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Uomini si nasce poliziotto so muore; Brigada anticrimen; Het recht in eigenhand; The Terminators
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Writer: Fernando Di Leo
Year: 1976
Starring: Marc Porel, Ray Lovelock, Adolfo Celi, Franco Citti, Silvia Dionisio

Synopsis:
Fred and Tony are members of an elite ‘special squad’ of undercover police in Rome, Italy which thrive on living dangerously with their license-to-kill.

Review:
LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN comes from a story by Alberto Marras (MEET HIM AND DIE), Vincenzo Salviani (THE DEVILS HONEY) and genre legend Fernando Di Leo (MILANO CALIBRO 9; THE BOSS) while it is directed by the notorious Ruggero Deodato (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST; CUT AND RUN; PHANTOM OF DEATH; THE WASHING MACHINE) so for any first time viewer it is understandable that expectations are high for this quasi-buddy cop movie.

Therefore it is almost an anti-climax when it starts with a subdued opening as Fred (Marc Porel – DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING; THE PSYCHIC; THE SISTER OF URSULA) and Tony (Ray Lovelock – OASIS OF FEAR; THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE; VIOLENT ROME; MURDER ROCK) cruise the streets together sharing one motorcycle while a song that could be on almost any light drama plays through. Interestingly it was star Ray Lovelock singing this track, titled Maggie. These opening minutes of LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN are certainly quite misleading but do serve to mark out the relationship between our two leads as intimate with their emotional bond represented by their literal physical proximity.

As the song plays out, it overtaken by the roar of the bike engine and the action begins; a handbag is snatched by a couple of thieves on a motorbike…well almost as the poor female victim had just left the bank and had her bag handcuffed to herself for security with the result being a botched and brutal robbery attempt. These sorts of crimes are presented as a common occurrence in Italian crime films of the decade, and certainly the country struggled with criminal violence throughout this period – rather worryingly motorcycle led crime is seemingly resurgent in cities such as London now due to the flexibility and quick getaway opportunities the smaller vehicles provide.

Rather unfortunately for our young thugs all of this action takes place right in front of Fred and Tony, still yet not identified to the viewer as law enforcement, leading to a ridiculous wheelie, the commandeering of a(nother) motorcycle – after all our heroes cannot share one for a chase can they – and the start of what can only described as a frantic, exhilarating chase complete with quick cuts, POV shots and tight editing.

In fact with something this good you almost don’t want it to end and seemingly neither did director Ruggero Deodato as the sequence becomes almost all encompassing showing us not just the successful weaving in-and-out of traffic but also an error or two, in one case resulting in the patio of a café getting trashed. By the end of this sequence the focus has shifted away from the criminals’ behaviour and become more about the amoral attitude of our supposed law enforcement, something that is tackled verbally by the Police Captain later, who seems unconcerned about the lack of due process. In his mind seemingly the unquestionable authority of the law and the resultant actions are clearly necessary so that wider society can flourish.

While most of the brutal justice at the hands of a lead characters in Poliziotteschi are due to them being failed by the legal system and their superiors (pretty much any Maurizio Merli character for instance falls into this group) here our officers methods are actually condoned by their superiors if not necessarily endorsed although admittedly this tolerance is pushed to the limit. Even so it makes for a rather unsettling situation especially in comparison to films such as THE CONFORMIST by Bernardo Bertolucci and INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION by Elio Petri earlier in the decade that show that what civil repression and unchecked power can do when exploited and abused by those in authority.

As LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN plays out however this would be just one aspect of Fred and Marc’s character traits that are certainly at odds with ideas of freedom, equality and due process. With these films from a bygone era it is easy to either view attitudes from a modern rather than contemporary perspective but similarly it is easy to dismiss clearly unacceptable behaviour as being simply how things were.

The argument that it was a different time and therefore cannot be judged by today’s standards is one to take note of but in more recent times it has been bandied around in relation to reports often of a sexual nature and this clearly is relevant here through the sexist and misogynistic attitude displayed by our anti-heroes.

Admittedly there is an argument in one case for the complicity of the female police secretary – although this then may lead to an off-topic discussion of implications and fear of speaking out – as they frequently beg her for sexual gratification only to be repeatedly knocked back through humour and intelligence as she proves more than a match for their advances. The same cannot be said for the sister of one of the criminals in the film, a nymphomaniac, who undergoes a rather inappropriate form of questioning…twice, later in the film.

However this opinion that we are forming of Fred and Marc is once more further complicated through the closeness of their bond and level of comfort with each other. This element lead Roberto Curti when writing in his book Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 to state that “their misogynist attitude suggests a subterranean homosexual complicity” and this is certainly an opinion I subscribe to, at least to a certain extent.

Their overtly macho posturing and attitude is betrayed by their bond of brotherhood although whether this is sexual, which I would argue not, there is a case to be made for it on an emotional level blurring the lines in how far this platonic love goes.

As a viewer we quickly come to the realisation that Fred and Tony are arrogant and semi-obnoxious, while it is hard to tell if they mean well or get a kick out of their legalised macho bullshit, although from the dialogue in the film it does seem the latter. But when their colleague is gunned down outside of their office, complete with a death fall that has to be in contention for the world’s slowest, they have an added impetus to hate crime and rack up the bodies with this pivotal event helping provide the catalyst for the remaining story.

LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN is structured like so many other eurocrime films, with an underlying story arc complete with a big boss being broken up by several minor or unrelated crimes in order to build context, character, and help drive the narrative forward through action set pieces in order to maintain attention and keep focus – some of these set pieces however are delightfully over the top and exactly what you want to see in a film of this type

One thing that helps place the film in the upper echelons of the genre however is its use of clever story direction as LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN is able to subtly shift tone and feel, with for example one sequence playing out more like a heist movie yet the holistic overall feel of the film remains consistent and coherent, never once breaking the viewers belief in the world or disrupting the flow allowing for an enjoyable and often entertaining experience.

However for whatever reason the film does seem to run out of steam towards the end and while still providing a competent ending it does appear somewhat flat compared to several earlier moments.

Essentially a brutal and amoral Italian Starsky & Hutch, LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN is a decent watch and a strong entry in the genre thanks to the  hugh level of skill of all those involved both in the cast and crew. It does not shy away from character flaws, for better or worse, and interjects some genuine humour into the film allowing it to keep the viewers’ attention without the need for constant violence.

Despite all these positives it is a shame that all of the women, with the exception of Silvia Dionisio come across either as victims of violence or morally corrupt but perhaps that is the point as very few paragons of virtue exist even on the male side with those who do not indulge in excessive behaviour often complicit in enabling it.

Through researching this film it was noted that there was due to be a sequel however due to personal differences between Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock this never really got going. If this was the sole reason then it certainly would have been interesting had Al Cliver, who had just finished working on Ruggero Deodato’s WAVE OF LUST (1975), got the gig as originally mooted.

Version Reviewed:
I reviewed this off of the 88 Films blu-ray release which offers English language audio as well as Italian language with English subtitles. Extras include a trailer and stills gallery along with the now expected reversible sleeve and a neat little poster artcard.

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.

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.