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I can’t argue with Lucio Fulci being primarily remembered as a purveyor of gore and horror. The man was certainly some manner of genius in that domain. Still, I wish he’d gone to the Western well a few more times, because I think Fulci could’ve been one of the best Euro-Western directors of all time. As it stands, he left us with a very good one in Massacre Time and a near masterpiece inFour of the Apocalypse.
This is one of those Westerns where a band of misfits sets out for a distant destination in the face of endless challenges. The misfits this time around include a rakish gambler (Fabio Testi, radiating charisma), an innocent prostitute (Lynn Frederick, radiating beauty), a barely functional alcoholic (Michael J. Pollard, radiating saliva) and a mentally impaired mystic (Harry Baird, radiating insanity). The challenges include snowstorms, a small-town massacre, cannibalism, forced peyote consumption and a persistently sadistic bandito (Thomas Milian, radiating cruelty). Fulci folds in some of his trademark gore (although no more than a lot of his Spaghetti contemporaries) but on the whole this is a haunted, melancholy piece of work that’s as likely to tug the heartstrings as churn the stomach. I certainly never expected a Lucio Fulci movie to elicit actual tears from me, but here we are.
Family man Seymour Cassel has his quiet evening home alone interrupted by lost travelers Colleen Camp and Sondra Locke, who promptly seduce him in the hot tub and then spend the weekend blackmailing and torturing him for no apparent reason. This is an exhilarating exercise in ugliness, anchored by Locke and Camp’s psychotic sexuality. Their shrill, violent nihilism is like a right-winger’s wet nightmare of the Free Love era: a pair of manic Manson Girls on the prowl without their Charlie, giggling all the way.
Cassel’s lines are awkwardly dubbed because the actor reportedly despised this movie so much that he refused to do ADR. That distaste comes through in his performance and actually improves the film. In a movie stuffed to the gills with this much loathing, it’s nice to know that some of it is genuine.
A tour boat gets shipwrecked on an island inhabited by a platoon of genetically engineered, amphibious Nazi super-soldiers bred to kill on sight. That’s a pretty over-the-top premise, but Shock Waves plays it completely straight, and thank heavens for that. What could have been just another low-rent gore-fest becomes something much more memorable, a disturbing, dread-drenched blend of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Rather than elaborate kills or gratuitous gut-munching, these zombies traffic in infinitely more chilling drownings and stranglings. Adding to the visceral terror, these castaways behave not like Horror Movie Characters, but actual human beings facing down an unthinkable situation.
John Carradine and Peter Cushing pick up paychecks and lend some street cred as a crusty sea captain and a Nazi hermit, respectively, but Shock Waves hardly needs the help. This deserves a slot amongst the all-time great zombie movies by virtue of being not much like any other zombie movie.
In the few Roberta Findlay interviews I’ve read, the director ranges from dismissive to outright disdainful of her cultish veneration as an artist. She seems to regard herself as more of a tradesperson, tossing off genre films with the familiar efficiency of a woodworker cranking out birdhouses.While it’s true that much of her oeuvre is, shall we say, undistinguished, there’s no denying that she (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, her late husband and collaborator Michael) mastered the mechanics of trash cinema as well as just about any director you could name.
Tenement might be Findlay’s masterwork, a seething, skeevy wallow in claustrophobia and cruelty. A gang of thugs gets evicted from a sketchy apartment building, then comes back at night to torture and kill the tenants for no particular reason. That may sound like a nihilistic plot, but nihilism implies more intent than I think is at play here. Roberta Findlay isn’t trying to shock us, disturb us or even entertain us. She just knows exactly what a movie like this is supposed to do and how to do it. She’s dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” and then heading home to collect her modest residuals, and bless her for that.
When word gets out that gangland informant Eddie Constantine is holed up in France, the mobsters-that-be pair up coolly efficient young hit man Henry Silva with blustering veteran killer Jack Klugman and ship them off to Paris. That’s a pretty basic mob movie set-up, but this one unfolds in unexpected fashion. Rather than double-crosses and blazing pistols, this film is more about existential yearnings and philosophical debates. That might sound like a snooze, but the edgy interplay between Klugman’s kvetchy old-jack and Silva’s no-nonsense company man is far more engaging than your standard shoot-’em-up.
There’s a lot of French New Wave in Hail Mafia’s DNA, and it also feels like a clear precedent for Quentin Tarantino’s chatty gangsters 30 years hence. The scene where Klugman and Silva bond over their shared distaste for a French cover of The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” could pass for a deleted Jules and Vincent scene.
You know those kids’ movies like A Bug’s Life or Happy Feet where an animal dreams of doing something that’s not in the nature of his or her species? Pick-up is kind of like if that character was a ‘70s softcore erotica movie. The plot, such as it is, follows a hippie dude driving a luxury bus across Florida. He picks up two hitchhiking young ladies - one a bubbly free spirit and the other a gloomy goth type - and promptly gets the bus stuck in the Everglades. From there on it’s mostly the three of them wandering around the swamp and occasionally pausing to have sex and/or psychosexual hallucinations.
This could’ve been just another skin flick for the drive-in crowd, but it’s clear that the director Hirchenson had artsier aspirations. This is a tripped-out, dreamy bit of oddness that meanders from playful to traumatic to just plain weird, all nestled in the embrace of the lush Florida wetlands. Neither the director nor any of the actors ever worked in that capacity again, which just adds to Pick-up’s hazy, mysterious charm.
I’ve seen ample evidence of how easy it was to get away with lazy filmmaking in the heyday of Euro-exploitation. When your industry is cranking out dozens of unambitious, fundamentally similar genre flicks every year, it’s gotta be tough to resist the temptation to just go with the flow. That makes it all the more exciting when I come across a filmmaker who aimed higher, as Massimo Dallamano clearly did with Bandidos.
A legendary gunslinger gets his hands maimed by a former protege turned bandit. Several years later he trains an escaped convict in the way of the gun and sets out for revenge. The story is nothing all that novel, but the style sets it apart. Dallamano luxuriates in unexpected camera angles, startling close-ups and visual flourishes that stop just short of extraneous. The most notable of these is an achingly slow dolly shot along the length of a just-robbed train, with the camera forcing us to bear witness to each and every victim of the bandits’ massacre. Extracting beauty from brutality is a hallmark of the best Euro-Western directors, and Bandidos suggests Dallamano could have ranked among them.
If you’re not familiar with Darna, you’re not alone. Despite her enduring, decades-spanning popularity in her native Philippines, the character has never really crossed over into American consciousness. That’s a shame, because if this movie is any indication, she’s a lot of fun. Darna is a superhero with a backstory resembling Captain Marvel Jr’s - an average, physically disabled young woman in her daily life, she uses a magic stone to transform into a super-strong, flying avenger who doesn’t mind showing a little skin. In this go-round she battles a race of multi-colored, equally clothing-averse space women bent on kidnapping leading Filipino scientists in order to conquer Earth.
Despite all the scantily clad ladies, this is actually sort of empowering in its own way. Not only are both the hero and the villains strong-minded, powerful women, their missions are made easier because they’re constantly being underestimated and patronized by clueless men. Obviously no movie with this much bikini-clad disco fighting is exactly going to be a feminist manifesto, but it’s more progressive than a lot of mid-’70s cinema, exploitation or otherwise. (One cool footnote: leading lady Vilma Santos is a governor nowadays. What is it with action stars and their gubernatorial ambitions?)
For good old-fashioned ‘40s style fun, it’s hard to top this lunatic entry in the Republic serials catalog. A pompous alien invader called, for some reason, The Purple Monster kills a prominent American rocket scientist and inhabits his body in an attempt to steal the Earth technology that will enable a full-scale Martian invasion. Fortunately, the scientist’s plucky niece and her boyfriend are there to run interference. Unfortunately, the Purple Monster is abetted by a traitorous mobster willing to sell out humanity for a slice of the post-invasion pie. This is whiz-bang action packed with great miniature work, white-knuckle stunt pieces and solid performances by Roy Barcroft, Bud Geary and Linda Stirling as the Monster, the mobster and the niece, respectively.