Wednesday, July 18, 2018

5 Dolls for an August Moon (aka: 5 Bambole per la Luna D'Agosto)

(1970) Directed by Mario Bava; Written by Mario di Nardo; Starring: William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edwige Fenech, Howard Ross, Helena Ronee, Teodoro Corrà and Ely Galleani; Available on Blu-ray and DVD


“Everyone seems to be waiting for something that’s not happening.” – Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg)

What were the swinging ‘60s/’70s like? If 5 Dolls for an August Moon is any indication, the days and nights were occupied with swilling ample amounts of J&B, lounging on rotating beds, and trying to avoid being murdered by your groovy companions. Say what you will about this era (at least from a cinematic perspective), but it wasn’t lacking in style. No one ever accused director Mario Bava of lacking in style either, and his giallo offering has a plentiful supply.

Bava shot his low budget murder mystery on location near Anzio, Italy. The ultramodern house featured in the film was a combination of a convincing matte painting (exterior) and sets on a soundstage (interior) in Rome. Millionaire/industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corrà) invites a group of friends, including two other industrialists, to his remote island estate of for a weekend of debauchery and merriment. The partygoers watch as Marie (Edwige Fenech) shimmies in a skin-tight gold outfit that leaves very little to the imagination, followed by a prank, in which she fakes her own death. But, as the old saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and greed gets the best of everyone. Each of the three industrialists attempt to woo chemist Gerry Farrell (William Berger), who’s invented a formula for a revolutionary form of resin (who knew resin was so lucrative?). Farrell declines each of their $1 million offers, and the guests start dropping off one by one.

In a genre known for unconventional flourishes, 5 Dolls for an August Moon* further distinguishes itself with inventive camerawork (expect plenty of nutty zooms), splashes of color and plot conventions turned on end. As Bava biographer Tim Lucas points out in his DVD commentary, the film continually subverts our expectations. Of course, this could have been Bava’s way of thumbing his nose at the material (he was reportedly unhappy with the script, a thinly veiled, unauthorized remake of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians). As one character points out, everyone keeps waiting for something that never quite happens. What does happen, however, is an explosion of style and tone.   

* Fun Fact: Although the film underperformed elsewhere, it did well in Turkey, where it was marketed as an Edwige Fenech vehicle, under the (roughly translated) title Revenge of the Woman with the Spirit of the Snake. It might have been a boost for Fenech’s career, but didn’t accurately describe her peripheral role (source: DVD commentary).

One of the movie’s greatest conceits is that everyone has an ulterior motive. It’s a foregone conclusion that everyone is hatching a scheme or stands to profit in some way. The only questions are: Who’s in league with whom, and who will be left alive? The closest we get to a marginally likeable character is Farrell, but he’s emotionally distant, a bit of a killjoy (witness the opening party scene), and his motives seem less than pure. The most enigmatic character is the caretaker’s daughter Isabel (Ely Galleani), who flits about the island with reckless abandon. Her apparent carefree attitude is nothing more than a smokescreen, as we suspect she’s plotting, along with the rest of them. With all of these moody, self-absorbed individuals, there’s no one to connect with on an emotional level, but I suppose that’s not the point of this exercise in deceit and subterfuge. In this movie, everybody clearly has something to hide (except for me and my monkey?)*.

* With all due apologies to Lennon and McCartney.

Piero Umiliani’s* lively jazz score keeps us constantly engaged and amused throughout all of the skullduggery. I like to think this is what the late ‘60s sounded like (if you omitted the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, etc…), at least in my idealized view of that tumultuous decade. The score has an impishly playful quality, especially apparent when the victims’ bodies are stored in a walk-in freezer and unceremoniously hung up like slabs of meat, bobbing on hooks to the strains of carnival music.

* Fun Fact: Umiliani is perhaps best known for the famously (or infamously) infectious song “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” which appeared in the Italian sex film Sweden: Heaven and Hell (1968), and later became a Jim Henson staple on The Muppet Show.

According to Tim Lucas, Bava felt 5 Dolls for an August Moon was his worst movie, but that’s selling it short. There’s much to like, with an attractive cast, engaging visuals and a sense of playfulness. Sure, I wanted to enjoy it more (I couldn’t help feeling distanced from the characters), but I enjoyed the ride while it lasted. Is it worth your time? Even casual Bava fans will surely want to check out this oddball giallo. And if you’re not a Bava fan, you still might be inclined to give it a whirl, if only for the pleasure of watching the upper crust destroy each other.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

(1971) Written and directed by Dario Argento; Original story by Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi and Mario Foglietti; Starring: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Oreste Lionello and Francine Racette; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…I killed this guy. I didn’t even know him. It was an accident. The police don’t know about it, but somebody else does. Someone who was there – took pictures of me killing him. Now they’re blackmailing me. But that’s not all. It isn’t just anyone. Someone who knows me pretty well...” – Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon)

Hmm…what to kick off Giallo Month with? Considering the multitude of available genre titles, I pondered some of Dario Argento’s contributions. Deep Red, arguably his best-known giallo film, was the first to spring to mind, but that would be too obvious. While I can’t guarantee I’ll have anything new or original to say about Four Flies on Grey Velvet (aka: 4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio), it’s the lesser-known Argento film, and worthy of further examination.

Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a rock band, is being stalked by a man in a black suit and fedora, and eventually decides to confront him. Roberto follows him into an empty opera house, and in the ensuing struggle, the man is stabbed with his own knife. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure in a creepy kewpie doll mask watches from a distance, photographing the fatal altercation. He shortly receives a series of phone calls and an unwelcome late-night visit from the individual that witnessed the incident. Roberto concludes he’s being manipulated, but he’s afraid to discuss it with the police, fearing he’ll be jailed for the stalker’s murder. Assisted by his friends and a bumbling private detective, he conducts his own search for the killer. He must also contend with a strained marriage, as his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) begins to eye him with suspicion, and he has an affair with her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette). As the people around him begin to meet horrible ends, he’s no closer to learning the identity of the witness, or what they want from him. The answers spell certain peril for anyone who digs a little too deep, and could lead to Roberto’s demise.

One of the film’s most interesting conceits proposes it could be possible to extract a vital clue from of one of the victims by examining the cadaver’s eyes. Using an experimental type of forensic research, police investigators attempt to view the final thing the murdered woman saw, by examining an image that remained on one of her retinas. While this works great as a plot device, with some basis in actual research conducted in the late 1800s, the reality is much more prosaic. The research was based on false assumptions, stemming from the early days of photography, which equated the eye with a camera, and the retina analogous with film (Source:

One of the best things about Four Flies on Grey Velvet is how it’s populated with a colorful assortment of supporting characters that provide much-needed levity to the intense story. The characters are so much fun that they threaten to steal the spotlight from the leads whenever they appear. Roberto seeks the advice of his irascible hermit friend Godfrey, aka “God” (Bud Spencer), whose initial appearance is heralded by a “Hallelujah” choir. Their meeting leads him to God’s companion, a lovable vagrant known as The Professor (Oreste Lionello). Roberto hires private detective Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who’s been in business as a private eye for three years but hasn’t solved a single case (with a string of 84 failures). Marielle’s performance isn’t likely to win any points with GLAAD for his groan-worthy stereotypical gay portrayal, but his character manages to be sympathetic. There’s also a goofy mailman who has an unfortunate tendency to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Because this is an Argento film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has more than its share of delightfully eccentric moments and weird, artsy shots. In one memorable scene, Roberto meets with God and The Professor in a coffin expo, filled with an assortment of strange caskets. In another scene, with Roberto’s band in a recording session, we’re viewing a shot from inside a guitar looking out. I’m not sure who would be hiding inside the guitar, but it’s an interesting vantage point. In a later scene, there’s an intriguing shot of a shiny dagger dropping toward its victim.* Besides the obvious phallic imagery of daggers and syringes, the movie delves into additional Freudian territory when Roberto is startled awake by a recurring nightmare, recalling a bandmate’s story about a public execution in Saudi Arabia. The story creeps into Roberto’s subconscious, as he repeatedly sees a head being chopped off (Is it a case of castration anxiety or fear that his head will be next on the chopping block?). 

* If you turn the shot around 90 degrees, it’s oddly similar to the silver ball in Phantasm (1979). Even if it wasn’t a conscious choice, I’m left to speculate if it could have indirectly influenced such an iconic visual in Don Coscarelli’s film.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is full of red herrings designed to steer you away from the trail, along with dubious psychological explanations for the killer’s behavior and a cool, if scientifically suspect plot device. Accompanied by a discordant Ennio Morricone score, designed to keep you on edge, Argento’s film takes us on a subjective, often polarizing, visceral experience. Like a good thrill ride, it’s filled with surprises and thrills, which pause only a moment for you to catch your breath before the next shock. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is another stylish offering from Dario Argento, which keeps you guessing until the end, and ranks among his best.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

June Quick Picks and Pans

Highway 61 (1991) Director/co-writer Bruce McDonald’s bizarre odyssey (his style could be described as David Lynch by way of Jim Jarmusch) is a road trip like no other. Pokey Jones (Don McKellar) is a socially inept barber living in a small town in Ontario, Canada. His humdrum life takes an interesting turn when he discovers a dead heavy metal musician in his backyard, and meets up with Jackie (Valerie Buhagiar), a roadie for the band. They head south to New Orleans, with coffin in tow, while pursued by a mysterious man who might be the devil (Earl Pastk). Like any good road trip, it’s full of weird surprises along the way, accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack. It also features a host of cool cameos, including Peter Breck and punk icon Jello Biafra. To describe the myriad twists and turns would spoil most of the fun. Highway 61 is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Note: Big thanks to Michael Denney (follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWDenney) for recommending this weird, wonderful little film.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) This 1978 made-for-TV movies starts with a goofy premise, but has the conviction to follow through. The cast plays it straight throughout, without resorting to camp, which works to the movie’s advantage. Richard Crenna and Yvette Mimieux star as Mike and Betty Barry, an ordinary couple in an ordinary suburban family. After the family dog meets an untimely end, their grief-stricken kids adopt “Lucky,” a cute German shepherd puppy with an evil streak. Not long after Lucky enters their household, odd things begin to happen, with tragedy befalling anyone who gets in his way. Sure, it’s silly, but I dug it. Maybe you will too. Hammer enthusiasts take note: Martine Beswick appears in the prologue as the leader of a satanic cult.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

The Angry Red Planet (1959) A rocket from an ill-fated Mars mission returns to Earth with half of the crew missing. The other half isn’t doing so well, either, with Dr. Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden) clinging to her sanity, and Col. Thomas O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr) teetering near death. You might think it was a progressive touch on the part of the filmmakers to include a female astronaut among the crew, but she’s mainly there to scream and endure sexist remarks from her fellow space travelers. Most of the story is told in flashback, as the intrepid explorers encounter hostile flora and fauna on the red planet. In an interesting touch, the scenes that take place outside the ship on the Martian landscape are tinted red (pro tip, taken from personal experience: don’t watch this when you have a headache), but the real highlight is a rat-bat-spider thing that terrorizes the crew. The basic concept (i.e., astronauts run into malevolent alien forces) has been recycled numerous times, sometimes to better effect, but it’s interesting to see one of the earlier examples. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Blood Freak (1972) A drug-addled drifter (Steve Hawkes) eats some experimental poultry and transforms into a bloodthirsty turkey man (only his head changes). He goes on a rampage, abducting young women and draining their blood. The best part of the movie is host Brad F. Grinter (who also directed and co-wrote the film), who pops in like a low-rent Rod Serling, to comment on what we’re seeing. Was it all a hallucination? Did anyone really die? Who knows. Blood Freak has some dubious entertainment value; just don’t expect body horror along the lines of Cronenberg. I’m not sure if this was meant to be taken seriously or it was intended as a joke (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), but if you sit through the whole thing, the joke’s probably on you.

Rating: 2 stars. Available on DVD