Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '78 - Ira Brooker ""

Friday, November 30, 2018

Underrated '78 - Ira Brooker

Ira Brooker is a writer, editor and trash cinema enthusiast living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His Letterboxd account is a document of a life poorly spent. You can find his writing all over the place, and especially at atalentforidleness.blogspot.com, irabrooker.com and @irabrooker.
Also, Check out Ira's horror fiction story "Voices" on the Psuedopod podcast." http://pseudopod.org/2018/11/09/pseudopod-621-voices/

Mardi Gras Massacre (Directed by Jack Weis)
I’m not even going to try mounting a defense for “Mardi Gras Massacre” being one of my all-time favorite movies. This sort-of story of a well-dressed religious fanatic sacrificing “evil” women to a pagan god while the dullest detective in New Orleans half-heartedly tries to track him down is a sloppy, cheap, slow-moving, incredibly repetitive chunk of regional filmmaking that’s more or less an uncredited remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “Blood Feast.” Like Lewis’s film, this one featured enough rubber-torso gore to land it the list of banned British “Video Nasties,” but there’s not a whole lot setting it apart from a few dozen other proto-slasher flicks of the era. And yet…

There’s something about “Mardi Gras Massacre” that just clicks for me. As a former New Orleans resident, I’m a sucker for most forms of NOLAsploitation, even/especially a Mardi Gras-set movie that’s 80% interior shots of people chatting in dimly lit rooms. I love everything about this film, from leading man William Metzo playing his serial-sacrificer sort of like Tony Randall doing a Boris Karloff impression, to the agonizing romance between our charisma-free cop and an erstwhile sex worker, to the parade of delightfully non-professional bit players who add the movie’s only splashes of authentic New Orleans weirdness.

Look, if you told me you were disgusted, annoyed, or just flat-out bored by “Mardi Gras Massacre,” I wouldn’t argue with you for a second. Me, I just can’t escape the allure of clunky car chases through an empty French Quarter, a rhyme-slinging hippie pimp named “Catfish,” a ritual murderer who knows the local Chinese delivery joint’s number by heart, and all the other skeevy, low-rent charms of this lovable little mess.
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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Directed by Fred Schepisi)
While this movie routinely turns up on lists of the greatest Australian films of its era, it seems to be largely overlooked here in the United States. That’s a real shame, not just because it’s rather a great film, but also because it’s still deeply relevant. Tom E. Lewis cuts a memorable figure as an eager, upwardly mobile young Aboriginal Australian slowly and painfully realizing that the turn-of-the-century white society to which he’s worked so hard to ingratiate himself will not only never accept him, but will never stop scorning him outright.

It’s a work as visually beautiful as it is thematically ugly. The climactic sequence where a final racist indignity pushes Jimmie over the edge — which landed the movie on the fringes of Britain’s Video Nasty scare — is one of the most frankly brutal scenes of violence I can recall on film. Filled with echoes of American Westerns and blaxploitation movies, it’s all the more effective because its brutality is as much psychological and societal as it is physical. Even though it runs up against some of the problems endemic to a white writer and director tackling a thoroughly non-white story, it stands as a striking bit of work that still has a lot to say.
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China 9, Liberty 37 (Directed by Monte Hellman)
Quick, name me a more attractive onscreen couple than Fabio Testi and Jenny Agutter circa 1978. Whoever you just said, you’re incorrect, because there ain’t no such animal.

Ordinarily it kind of grosses me out when reviewers focus too heavily on actors’ physical attractiveness, but in this case it’s a key part of what makes this gorgeous Western work so well. Hired gun Testi is contracted to bump off Agutter’s stubborn husband Warren Oates, whose homestead has the temerity to block the way of a planned railroad line. Things get complicated when Testi strikes up a friendship with Oates and a romance with Agutter, inevitably spiraling into a deadly showdown fueled in no small part by Oates’s resentment at being the least beautiful corner of a love triangle.

As you already know if you’re familiar with the Monte Hellman brand, none of this plays out conventionally. Sure, there’s as much Western violence as befits a movie that casts Sam Peckinpah in a supporting role, but the overriding tone is one of melancholy and yearning. It’s a far cry from your standard-issue Western, buoyed by three hugely charismatic leads and the impeccable eye of one of ‘70s cinema’s most undervalued mavericks.
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Rings of Fear (Directed by Alberto Negrin)
It takes a fair bit to qualify as a particularly sleazy entry in the grimy field of Italian giallo flicks, but intercutting an overtly sexualized abortion sequence with a wild dildo orgy at an all-girl boarding school will do the trick.

Otherwise a fairly standard mean-girls murder mystery, “Rings of Fear” (aka “Trauma”) is peppered with audacious flourishes that set it a cut above many of its genre-mates. A grounded lead performance from the eternally charismatic Fabio Testi keeps things from tipping too far into silliness, no small feat in a movie that involves marbles as murder weapons, a rollercoaster as a torture device, and some unintended applications of the aforementioned dildos. 

The Uranium Conspiracy (Directed by Menahem Golan)
Before Menahem Golan and Cannon films really established themselves as the 1980s’ leading purveyors of nutso schlock, they tried their hands at some more earnest genre filmmaking. From what I’ve seen of those earlier films, they tend to be messy, uneven affairs punctuated by moments of inspired lunacy, which is certainly the case with “The Uranium Conspiracy.”

Built around a charismatic lead performance by... well, I’ll be, it’s Fabio Testi again! I really like Fabio Testi. Anyway, Testi anchors a mildly James Bond-ish espionage thriller about a murky plot to sell the titular uranium to terrorists. The story’s neither here nor there, as the big hooks for this film are the swell lead turns by Testi and Janet Ă…gren, some impressive location shooting (it was filmed in The Congo, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Venice, Gibraltar, Salzburg, and Trieste!), and a number of thrilling action set pieces, including a boat/car/foot chase through the canals of Venice that’s maybe the best one of those that I’ve seen.

So yeah, this is the third-best Fabio Testi vehicle, the second-best Venice-set thriller, and the second-best Italian-Austrian crossover on this list, but that says more about the awesomeness of 1978 than it does about “The Uranium Conspiracy.”
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Cat in the Cage (Directed by Tony Zarindast)
Would you like to see several seasons’ worth of soap opera plots condensed into a single, barely coherent, vaguely gothic thriller? Sure you would! There’s hardly a point in me trying to describe what happens in “Cat in the Cage,” because EVERYthing happens in this movie: vengeful cats, feuding families, ocean treachery, Colleen Camp, possible cannibalism, killer nurses, aimless car chases, secret siblings, gonzo gunfights, scheming chauffeurs, and Sybil Danning playing to somewhere several stories above the rafters.

You get the idea that writer-director Tony Zarindast had half-a-dozen ideas for weirdo melodramas that he just couldn’t wait to get on the screen, so he chucked them all into the same plot. Nothing makes a lick of sense, major plot threads are introduced and abandoned willy-nilly, and it all adds up to a boggling, slightly exhausting burst of madness.
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Magnum Cop (Directed by Stelvio Massi)
Fans of Maurizio Merli (and if you’re not, you really ought to be) look to him as the most righteously furious of all the ‘70s Italian movie cops, an even more aggro Clint Eastwood with a quick fist and a world-class moustache. That makes it a bit of a shock to see Merli smirking and fumbling his way through a comedy-tinged detective flick playing a private eye who’s way closer to the Elliott Gould model than the Humphrey Bogart one. I can’t say casting Merli against type works 100%, but the movie’s a blast regardless.

Down-and-out private dick Merli gets called to Austria to track down a missing heiress, and along the way gets tangled up in a high school prostitution ring that may have ties to murder, blackmail, and Joan Collins. It’s all as sleazy as you’d expect, but played with a breezy touch that brings to mind a low-rent take on Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” Also, despite the title, Merli is pointedly not a cop in this, but that sure wasn’t gonna stop anybody from trying to coast off of Dirty Harry.

The Bloodstained Shadow (Directed by Antonio Bido)
A young academic visits his priestly older brother in Venice just in time for the local cabal of wealthy occultists to start getting bumped off by a mysterious, cloaked assassin. This moody murder mystery gets big points for style, bringing to mind the great Italian gothic horror flicks of the ‘60s. Lino Capolicchio breaks the macho mold with a refreshingly nerdy lead turn, and the murders are impressively staged, particularly a motorboat showdown in the Venetian canals. It all comes off feeling almost wholesome by giallo standards, which, considering that the plot involves blasphemy, pedophilia, elder abuse, and serial murder, says a fair bit about the genre.
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The War of the Robots (Directed by Alfonso Brescia)
When the subject turns to insane, overly ambitious European “Star Wars” rip-offs from 1978, most folks will understandably gravitate toward “Starcrash.” While I’ll agree that “War of the Robots” doesn’t quite measure up to that particular bundle of bright-eyed sci-fi madness, I’ll note that “War of the Robots” DOES feature an army of androids in matching Emo Phillips haircuts.
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