Monday, May 30, 2011

Thrill Me

"And as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is going to be a thriller."

I got rid of my cable awhile back, and thanks to Netflix and sites like Hulu and Crackle, I haven't missed it one bit. In fact, I've actually been able to catch up on shows I haven't seen in decades. One such show is the Boris Karloff hosted Thriller series from 1960. Last month, I watched all 37 first season episodes on Instant Watch, most of which I had forgotten about or just plain hadn't seen. Ordinarily, I wouldn't post about a TV show, but there was so much crossover talent involved in the writing, directing and acting of Thriller, that it seemed somewhat relevant to film discussion. Thriller is a pretty much forgotten show that was somewhat overshadowed by The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits in the viewing public's mind mostly because there seemed to be very few reruns after the show's initial two-year stretch while the other series hung around in perpetual syndication. In re-watching Thriller though, I found it had a much higher batting average of hits to misses episode-wise. To be sure, TTZ and TOL had some stone cold, classic episodes, but many people forget all the mis-fires, duds and repetition that came along with the memorable single eps. It's not surprising when there are over 3 dozen episodes being cranked out per season that there would be some mediocrity. What is surprising is just how few of the Thriller episodes were poorly written or executed. A big reason for the show's high quality has to do with the scripts which were often adapted from works of established writers. Robert Bloch wrote or adapted no less than ten scripts for the series alone. The directing talent was also experienced, solid talent which consisted of people like Ida Lupino, who helmed nine episodes, and John Brahm who directed a dozen. The actors were a mixed bag of everything from up-and-comers, like Warren Oates, Rip Torn and Richard Chamberlain to established screen character actors like Henry Daniell, Alan Napier and Jeanette Nolan. Below, I've listed seven of the best episodes that I'd recommend to anyone who just wants to sample the show. Some are notable for the actors involved, some for superior atmosphere, but all are well written with superior black and white cinematography.

The very first episode of the Thriller series, Twisted Image, often gets lumped in with a couple of earlier, weaker entries, but it is a unique story that involves a female stalker who is subsequently stalked herself. Natalie Trundy is superb as the seemingly sweet, office girl who begins making moves on a married, successful executive played by Leslie Nielsen. George Grizzard is the dapper but envious office boy who covets Nielsen's status and begins stalking his stalker. Trundy's performance puts the D in delusional and her character was way ahead of her time in terms of obsessive stalkers. I had no idea how the story was going to play out and it had a twist that I never saw coming. Score 7/10

Episode 7 The Purple Room features a starring turn by a very young and surprisingly handsome Rip Torn who plays a prospective heir who must spend the night in a spooky house in order to inherit the property. Richard Anderson and Patricia Barry co-star as cousins who are in line to inherit the estate. A familiar story but it does have a couple of nice twists and there's some decent tension building early on. Rip Torn is great as the cynical relative (Did Torn ever play a character who wasn't obnoxious?).  The house he has to stay in looks vaguely familiar:                               Score 8/10


Episode 8 The Watcher has a truly disturbing opening with a self-appointed moral avenger drowning a young girl in a pond. Martin Gabel plays the wolf-in-the-fold killer quite well. Richard Chamberlain appears as the boyfriend of the female protagonist who is played by Olive Sturgess. The episode gets really suspenseful around the halfway point and has an almost urban legend feel to it. The latter half loses a little steam, but its well worth watching overall. 7/10

Episode 15 The Cheaters concerns a pair of eyeglasses that reveal truth to the wearer - which is never a good thing. Several stories are strung together with the glasses as the lynchpin each time. Surprisingly effective show that moves right along due to the multiple story lines. Jack Weston and Harry Townes star in a story by Robert Bloch. Score  7.5/10

Episode 16 The Hungry Glass is worth watching just for the 60's television icons-to-be. Captain Kirk, The Professor and Elly May Clampett (William Shatner, Russell Johnson and Donna Douglas) all appear in this entry. If that wasn't enough, it is also based on a solid Robert Bloch story. It's very much a modern day, gothic-type ghost story set in a large, spooky manor on the coast which has just been purchased by The Shat's character. As in most  of the Thriller series, the B & W cinematography is outstanding, but this is one of the best looking and most atmospheric of all the shows. It's also an essential for any fan of 60's TV. Score 8/10
Note: Bill's guest starring turns in most of the anthology shows usually wind up with him looking like this by the end:

Episode 27 Late Date concerns a young man, played by Larry Pennell, who comes home to find his older brother (Edward Platt) has just murdered his adulterous wife. The older brother is resigned to turn himself in, but the younger brother has other ideas. This one is a straightforward crime drama but it is taut, fast-paced and suspenseful as the Pennell character keeps trying ever harder to cover up his older brother's crime. Score 7.5/10

Maybe because it reminds me of The Old Dark House, or maybe because it has Beverly Washburn of Spider Baby, or maybe because it has the best atmosphere of any episode and literally starts out with a bang, but whatever the reason, episode 30 - Parasite Mansion is my favorite of the first season. The opening is very strong as a school teacher, played by Pippa Scott, tries to navigate her car through a downpour and has to take a detour when a shot rings out. She wakes to find herself in an old creaky mansion that's populated by a very strange family whose matriarch is an old lady played in a wonderfully demented performance by screen veteran Jeanette Nolan. I swear I saw Nolan's eyes spinning with lunacy during a close-up. Fans of the show may argue that The Hungry Glass is the best episode of the first season, but I found the family in this one irresistible, especially Nolan's nutty granny, James Griffith's emasculated son, and Washburn's shy and reclusive granddaughter. The story isn't quite as strong as the acting or atmosphere, but it's still a superior, spooky 50-minute ride.
Score 8.5/10

Honorable mentions:

Episode 14 Man in the Middle  Great set up as a man overhears a kidnapping/murder plot and the prospective kidnappers notice him. Mort Sahl is criminally miscast as the ordinary shlub who just wants to mind his own business, but Werner Klemperer, of Hogan's Heroes fame, is truly menacing as the would-be kidnapper. 6.5/10

Episode 22 The Fingers of Fear I really debated putting this in the recommended list above as it has a really creepy child abduction story line that works quite well. Ubiquitous character actor Nehemiah Persoff plays the cop on the trail of the abductor. 7.5/10

Episode 23 Well of Doom Gothic chiller loaded with atmosphere and another appearance from the great Henry Daniell and a giant Richard Kiel. 7/10

Episode 32 Mr George Ida Lupino directed this episode which reminded me a lot of Curse of the Cat People probably due to the presence of the little girl. 6.5/10

Episode 34 The Prisoner in the Mirror Henry Daniell returns with Lloyd Bochner and the future Mrs C from Happy Days. Strong episode with a solid ending. 7.5/10

Episode 35 Dark Legacy Only slightly above average episode, but it's made awesome by the presence of Henry Silva who plays a good guy for once. Unfortunately he's not the lead. 6/10

Episode 37 The Grim Reaper The Shat is back! and this time with Mrs Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schaffer. Henry Daniell also puts in another appearance in this story adapted by Robert Bloch about a cursed painting. Solid. 7.5/10

And for those that want to delve further than these episodes, but want to dodge the clunkers, here's a list of the less watchable episodes of Thriller:

Episode 2  Child's Play   This one gives away its one suspenseful moment in the prologue. Watch that and skip the rest as its grating and preachy. 3/10
Episode 11  The Fatal Impulse  With a woman unknowingly carrying a bomb around with her, this should have been more suspenseful, instead it was kind of ridiculous. Great pedigree with a script based  on a John D MacDonald story and starring Robert Lansing and Elisha Cook Jr, it kind of dragged.  4.5/10
Episode 18  Man in the Cage  Veteran actor Phillip Carey plays a man looking for his brother in Tangier. Unexpected twist near the end but, meh. 3.5/10
Episode 24  The Ordeal of Dr Cordell   Despite the presence of Robert Vaughn and Marlo Thomas, this one plays like a really bad Jekyll and Hyde movie. 4/10
Episode 28 Yours Truly, Jack theRipper Maybe my expectations were too high, it was directed by Ray Milland based on a story by Robert Bloch, but was like watching a boring costume drama. Ihave a friend who loves this episode,  I just couldn't muster any interest. 5/10

As I said, the first season is currently playing on Netflix Instant watch. I noticed also that the box sets have dropped substantially in price. Along with the original Outer Limits, it's one of the few TV box sets of the era I'd recommend owning.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Whoops, No Apocalypse

"You hate your job. You hate your life. But you want to feel something special ... You're rushing off to something that's not even there."
-Randy (David Duchovny) in The Rapture.

It happens every decade - some Christian guy says The Rapture is coming and I pack up all my valuables into an end-of-the-world knapsack... and then absolutely nothing happens. It's enough to make me question religion. These guys have a worse forecasting track record than local television weathermen. I, for one, want some accountability. Whoever is crying wolf, or end of days in this case, needs to be punished, or at least subjected to a shaming of biblical proportions. Now, I've discussed this matter with the two soft-spoken, over-dressed gentlemen who ride bicycles around my neighborhood and knock on my door every Saturday, but they just can't seem to give me specific dates and times when stuff is going down. Even if they could, their judgement is highly suspect already, I mean, what kind of a goofball wears dress slacks while riding a bicycle? So I  figured I'd tweek the Lord's nose this time, and in an attempt to help The Rapture arrive, I watched the movie The Rapture on Saturday when The Rapture was suppose to occur. Even if it didn't occur, I could say in all honesty, "I saw The Rapture on Saturday" (In your face Gabriel!). Now, if you're reading this post, it means the real Rapture didn't occur again, so please, let the shaming begin. If you're not reading this post due to the apocalypse, see you in hell y'all ;-)

Long before Mimi Rogers worked with David Duchovny in The X-Files, she co-starred with him in Michael Tolkin's 1991 film, The Rapture. Set in modern times, the film tells the story of Sharon (last names of characters are conspicuously absent in the film), a 411 operator, played by Rogers, who spends her days in a tedious, soul-deadening job. The subdued opening camera shot of numerous phone operators in a myriad of cubicles spoke volumes and really emphasized Tolkin's skill of storytelling and tone-setting by using a single shot. He does this again and again throughout the film in lieu of a lot of expository dialogue and it's tremendously effective. Sharon tries to make up for her dull days by spending her nights in hedonistic debauchery with Patrick Bauchau's super cynical and super sleazy Vic. I love Bauchau in everything he's in as he always seems to bring a knowing complexity to every role,  rarely playing a character that's simply good or evil, but one that always has depth. Together, Vic and Sharon prowl late night spots to find fellow swingers with which to indulge their decadents. One can easily imagine that this has been Sharon's life for many years. She is the perfect candidate to be "saved" or "born again" as her life completely lacks any spiritual component or meaning in general. Tolkin, who also wrote the script, begins her journey towards the light in a very incidental, almost random, but very believable way. First, Sharon overhears a conversation among three believers in the lunch room at work, then two evangelist solicitors show up at her apartment, then a couple she's sexually cavorting with reveal more insight into the supposed coming apocalypse. The information Sharon gleans from these people, coupled with her growing sense of existential and emotional emptiness set her on a path that will seemingly either lead to self-destruction or redemption. This is basically the first half of the film and it appears on the surface to be almost an advertisement for Christian Fundamentalism. Sharon's sordid life is the stuff hardcore Christian nightmares are made of and it's easy to see how an otherwise non-religious woman would consider a spiritual path out of her loneliness and despair. Tolkin deserves a lot of credit for creating characters who are never two-dimensional props, be they Christian or otherwise. He does not set up any straw-men or supply easy answers. In fact, the strength and point of the screenplay is in the questions it raises as a result of Sharon's decisions. Does Sharon repent? Is she saved? Does The Rapture occur? What is her role in it? And what is Fox Mulder doing sporting a mullet?

Very spoiler-ly questions, so I'll discuss in the section below. However, if you haven't seen the film, I'd highly recommend checking it out on the blind as there are some really surprising moments in the latter half that are better experienced in the dark. 
The Rapture is very well written especially the roles played by Rogers and Duchovny. Rogers does a solid acting job given the fact she really has to run the gamut emotionally. Bauchau is superb as I've said, and even former Penthouse model Carol Davis is believable in a role which oddly parallels Roger's character. Duchovny has his acting style set on low key, but it works for him here. Much of the supporting cast is excellent, particularly the bike evangelists played by Scott Burkholder and Vince Grant, the disgruntled employee, played with just the right amount of anger, by Patrick Dollaghan and Will Patton as the compassionate, but skeptical, sheriff's deputy. The movie looks very good overall, but Tolkin had to substitute symbolism a lot toward the end. That's fine since the movie is more of an intellectual piece that lends itself more to symbols than a literal visual thriller. The front-loaded sex scenes are suitably sleezy, but never get too explicit and are pretty tame by today's standards. The MPAA actually was on target for once warning of only "Strong Sensuality" in the rating's box. For those that enjoy being challenged theologically and otherwise, I'd highly recommend this film.  Score 8/10

 Spoilers for The Book of Revelation and the movie The Rapture below -

If the first half of the film is an ad for Christianity, the second half is an argument against it IMO. First off, Sharon does receive a sign from God in a dream and becomes a fervent believer. She convinces former lover Randy to also become a believer. She is filled with religious ecstasy by her new found faith, but is told by a young prophet known as "The Boy" that The Rapture is still several years away at least. In the meantime, Sharon and Randy have a daughter and several years go by. Randy is then tragically killed in a workplace violence incident. This scene is one of the most effective in the movie as it is so cold-blooded and sparks one of several engaging religious discussions in the film. Despite her loss, Sharon's faith remains as strong as ever. She subsequently sees images of her late husband in the desert. "The Boy" tells her she must go to the desert with her daughter and wait for a sign. Sharon believes this means The Rapture is coming and drives out to the desert with her daughter. With no supplies, Sharon and her daughter begin to starve and suffer from exposure. Sharon's daughter begs to go to heaven and to see her father. Sharon ultimately kills her daughter so that she will go to heaven, but can't bring herself to commit suicide, because it is the one sin that will not be forgiven. Sharon is then taken to jail. Then, in one of the ballsiest screenwriting moves ever, The Rapture comes! I love the fact that Tolkin went this far when he already had a thought-provoking and solid film completed. He could have ended the movie with Sharon in jail, ironically meeting up with a swinger who has also become born again. But Tolkin really pushed it by bringing on the apocalypse as it's laid out in The Book of Revelation. As I said, there's a lot of symbolism used, but the general idea is conveyed. Sharon winds up in a place akin to limbo where she meets her daughter who says she can go to heaven if she'll love God. Sharon refuses.
End of movie.

What should Sharon have done? Would things have worked out if she waited? Was she sincere in her conversion? Should she have converted at all? Was she insane? Was she selfless or selfish?
I've tried and tried to get my Fundamentalist family to watch this movie as I genuinely think it would spark an interesting dialogue. I've also tried to get non-religious friends to watch this for the same reason. Neither group is interested, and that's a real shame as there are many theological and non-sectarian points of interest in the film that would foster real discussion and debate about the most important of life's questions. When it comes to art like this, I guess instead of believers and non-believers, it comes down to open-minded and closed-minded. For those open to spiritual questions, I can't recommend this film enough. But even as an entertainment, it is excellent and engaging and much more interesting than waiting for the real Rapture. I think.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fresh Out of Jungle Boogie

Quick, name any three jungle movies made in the last decade...

What? You can only think of one starring a big monkey and directed by the Hobbit guy? OK, I'll give you some help with the other two -
End of the Spear (2005) directed by Jim Hanon
Jungle (2000) directed by Ram Gopal Varma

There are a few others I couldn't think of off the top of my head, like Anacondas 2: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid or even Curious George if you really want to stretch the definition of a jungle movie. But my point is this, as a genre, jungle movies are almost extinct nowadays. Compare the previous decade to say the 1950's where you could have loaded down a herd of water buffalo with all the jungle movies that were released. There was Mogambo with Clark Gable, The Naked Jungle with Charlton Heston, Green Fire with Stewart Granger, Elephant Walk with Elizabeth Taylor, Green Mansions with Audrey Hepburn, Harry Black and the Tiger also with Stewart Granger (he made a career out of these) Fury of the Congo with Johnny Weissmuller, Jungle Hell, Jungle Manhunt, Jungle Drums of Africa, Jungle Moon Men...
No, wait!
I haven't even started in on the dozen Tarzan movies made in the 50's. But I guess you get it. Jungle movies used to be a thriving genre and now they're all but gone and it's not likely they'll ever come back.  Sure, we'll get the odd King Kong or Tarzan remake every 10 or 20 years, maybe even an Alan Quatermain flick, but the genre itself lays rotting like an old elephant carcass in a forgotten graveyard.
The reason for the demise of the jungle movie genre is likely a one-two punch of oversaturation of the market and the racial inequality overtones in many of the films. The indigenous characters rarely came out looking good to say the least. They were portrayed, at best, as subservient, and at worst, cannibalistic.
I started thinking about all this after re-watching Liana, Jungle Goddess. It's an odd curio out of West Germany that was made in 1956. It stars Hardy Kruger as Thoren, an archeologist, photographer and all-around good egg.  His character is on a research safari with a team that includes, beautiful physician Jacqueline Goddard (Irene Galter), who, not surprisingly, has a crush on him, Tibor Teleky (Peter Mosbacher), who, not surprisingly, has a crush on her, and a few other scientists that round out the team. After the characters are established, the team soon runs into trouble with the local natives and Thoren is captured. He is quickly freed by... a white jungle girl!!! He reports his findings back to his more than skeptical fellow scientists and you can pretty much figure out what happens from there. The movie is basically a female Tarzan flick, with Tarzan, or in this case Liane, being "rescued" from the jungle and taken back to London, or in this case Hamburg, where she's in line for a huge inheritance if her identity can be verified. Of course, an evil relative, played by Reggie Nalder is going to do everything in his power to keep Liane from what is rightfully hers.

Predictable? Sure, it is. It's also awesome due mostly to Kruger, Marion Michaels, who plays the jungle girl, aka Liane, and Nalder, who plays the evil nephew Viktor. Kruger is an international star best known as the airplane engineer who butts heads with Jimmy Stewart in the original Flight of The Phoenix, but he also co-starred in another jungle picture with John Wayne, directed by Howard Hawks, called Hatari! in 1962. Kruger's good looks, blond hair and friendly smile make him the perfect hero. Michaels is a stunning combination of cute, sexy and vivacious. The film was originally marketed to adults in the US (make that male adults) as Michaels sports nothing but a thong in the first part of the film (her hair is strategically long, but fails to cover the goods on several occasions). The weird part is, that outside of the partial nudity, the movie has a really sweet, innocent tone due mostly to Michaels engaging performance. It could easily have been a family film but for the lack of a bikini top. Kruger, as Thoren, maintains his gentlemanly demeanor at all times while around the barely-dressed, smoldering jungle kitten despite being told by the Doc that Liane has the hots for him. Yet another reason to root for his character. In fact, none of the male characters get leery-eyed or disrespectful except for two early villains who want to capture Liane for sideshow-type purposes. Even Nalder's character Viktor only regards her as a rival to the family fortune and doesn't acknowledge her very apparent sexuality. Speaking of Nalder, this is one of the largest parts I've seen him tackle and he was just awesomely slimy in it. Like the best bad guy characters, Nalder's has a perfectly rational reason for wanting Liane out of the way and he keeps trying, in ever more desperate attempts, to keep her from her inheritance all the while believing he's in the right in a sociopathic kind of way. I just wish Nalder had had more parts like this instead of the small, monster, mysterious or exotic guy parts he often played.

There are quite a few flaws with the movie. As in many films of the genre, the establishing jungle shots are almost all front-loaded into the film. There is some under-cranking used to speed Liane up a tree or make a car chase go faster. The edits are anything but smooth causing some real jumpiness. I won't pick on the story or characters, just say either you'll roll with them or be taken out of the film entirely.

In any event, the fun, charm and suspense of the film can be credited in most part to the great cast. The story is familiar, but still likable. There's a decent amount of jungle animal and native footage early on to keep the viewer interested and at 83 minutes, it's a quick and surprisingly enjoyable ride. The film can currently be found for free on the internet, unfortunately the quality of the copies I've seen has been subpar with the colors washed out, some print damage and a lot of audio scratching. Still, the movie is  such an oddity, it's a wonder it is available at all.

Score 6.5/10

Now I just have to figure out where to find the sequel...

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dagmar's Hot Pants

Just to win a free pizza from a co-worker and because I love an Italian mystery, over the past week, I watched the following 21 giallo films:

Cold Eyes of Fear (Castellari)
*Deadly Sweet (Brass)
*La Residencia (Ibanez Serrador)
Slaughter Hotel (Di Leo)
Knife of Ice (Lenzi)
*The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (Bennati)
Black Belly of the Tarantula (Cavara)
*In the Folds of the Flesh (Bergonzelli)
The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Barilli)
*The Weekend Murders (Lupo)
*Delitto passionale (Mogherini)
A Quiet Place to Kill (Lenzi)
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Martino)
* Amer (Cattet and Forzani)
* Damned in Venice (Liberatore)
My Dear Killer (Valerii)
The Pyjama Girl Case (Mogherini)
The Sister of Ursula (Milioni)
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Argento)
Cat O' Nine Tails (Argento)
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento)

*first time viewing

Of the eight films I had never seen, I think only one, Delitto passionale, disappointed. The most impressive of that group was easily Amer followed closely by La Residencia. But the film I was most surprised by was 1978's Damned in Venice, a copycat of several occult and giallo movies made earlier in the decade such as Rosemary's Baby and Don't Look Now. It also had a few scenes that were clearly influenced by Fulci and a few original ideas of its own. It wasn't the best on the list by a long shot, but if this type of film is your thing, I'd definitely check it out.

Of the films I'd previously seen, some were old favorites like the Argento and Lenzi films, and some I hadn't seen in years or had only viewed once and felt the need to revisit. I forgot just how good The Perfume of the Lady in Black is, for example, and for those who loved Amer, I'd recommend checking this one out. Mimsy Farmer gives a stellar performance and the film is one of the best looking and most artistic of the genre. The most surprising of the previously viewed films, however, was one I saw just last year for the first time, The Sister of Ursula. I fully expected not to be shocked by the high level of sleaze on my second viewing, but Ursula somehow exceeded my expectations yet again and I found myself laughing out loud at the over-the-top sex scenes. It was likewise far from the best of the gialli, but it was also a surprisingly solid looking and well-written film for all of its sleaze.

Synopsis - Two sisters stay at a coastal resort hotel in Amalfi where a killer has begun stalking victims with an unusual weapon.

This ain't your daddy's giallo. Right out of the gate, just after the credits finish at the three minute mark, we get the all-important clothes-changing scene by Ursula's sister, Dagmar. Now I know, this isn't unusual in a giallo or a soft-core film, but what makes it strangely uncomfortable here is that Dagmar strips nude with her sister looking on and wearing an odd neutral look on her face. "Daggie" (as Ursula calls her) also has a habit of sleeping in the buff while sharing the hotel bed with her sister. Now there doesn't seem to be any apparent incest going on which somehow makes these scenes even stranger and more inexplicably creepy/disturbing. It was at this point, on my first viewing, I thought the director Enzo Milioni was going to substitute sleaziness for story, and there would be a series of soft-core vignettes placed in between lame filler scenes that tried to pass as a mystery. I was right and wrong. The sex scenes continued to come (no pun) faster and harder (OK, pun intended), but I was very surprised at the effort put into the story, cinematography and direction.

The real star of the film is the hotel that is situated on the Amalfi coast. Milioni takes full advantage of the set location with incredibly beautiful exterior shots. There are so many films that supposedly take place in exotic locations but let the scenery go to waste with just one or two establishing shots. Milioni shoots in the hotel, around it, over it, under it and everywhere in between often getting some real breathtaking shots of that gorgeous coast and cliffside into the movie. No one can accuse the filmmakers of The Sister of Ursula of phoning this one in. Milioni and cinematographer Vittorio Bernini had to have burned some calories finding locations and setting up shots at just the right time of day to get the nice aesthetic results they achieved. The sex scenes look relatively bland by comparison with the exception of one shot in a tower which does give it some atmosphere. I'm guessing this film did more damage than good to the resumes of Milioni and Bernini as it appears they both did limited work after Ursula. That's a shame, because it appears each has some skills if you look beyond the exploitation aspects of the movie.

The lead actors in the film are Barbara Magnolfi who played Olga in Suspiria, Stefania D'Amario who has done some nunsploitation, nazi-sploitation, the Fulci film, Zombi and Lenzi's, Nightmare City and Marc Porel from Don't Torture a Duckling and Seven Notes in Black. Magnolfi, who plays Ursula, is kind of a depressed emo character with possible clairvoyant powers. She does a fair job as the high-strung, buzz-killing, yet sensitive and ethereal younger sister. For being the titular character, Ursula's sister, Dagmar is a little underdeveloped outside of the nude scenes and the fact that Ursula believes she's a nympho ("You just like being shagged, you bitch!"). The focal character seems to be much more Ursula than Dagmar which caused a great deal of confusion on my initial viewing as I often got the two sisters identities switched. 

This is Ursula - not her sister

The story resembles a slasher in that an unknown killer is offing victims immediately after, or sometimes even during, the sex act. The story differs from a slasher by the type of weapon used which isn't a knife, ax, meat cleaver or even a harpoon but's a... you just have to watch the movie, OK?

There is a subplot involving Porel's awesomely arrogant Filippo ("Get in the car, we're going to get lunch and then make love, even if you don't want to!"), as well as the decadent hotel manager and a lounge singer with the fantastically cheesy name of Stella Shining. In addition, the hotel manager has a bi wife who has a partner named Jenny whom the manager seems not to be fond of judging by the Conan O'Brien-type stare down that occurs between them. That Milioni, who also wrote the screenplay, was able to weave all these characters together in a coherent plot that involves a drug ring, a serial killer, infidelity, a secret identity, psychological disturbance, possible clairvoyance and massive amounts of kinky sex is pretty impressive. The story, somewhat incredibly, all does make sense in the end and the movie works outside of the sex. Which doesn't mean I think the sex should have been edited or even toned down. It's what makes the movie unique. I can't think of another giallo that has pushed the envelope this far and has still come out watchable. The film isn't great, but it is far better than it should be, given all the seemingly disparate components that shouldn't blend well together and yet somehow work.

On the downside, the film lacks atmosphere which is mostly due to the mediocre music. It doesn't annoy, but it sure doesn't lend anything to the proceedings whether they be scary or sexual. The acting is likewise a little generic and seems very forced at times. Porel is easily the best actor involved and even has a little charisma, but most of the other actors were kind of like weak tea, they served their purpose but didn't add any spice which considering all the sex, is not a good thing. Speaking of which, of all the actors involved in love scenes, did I have to see the middle-aged, not-that-good-looking, hotel manager guy get it on ferociously? When I first watched the movie, I was still chuckling about how wildly inappropriate the sex scenes were several minutes after their occurrence and losing the plot points that followed.
On the other hand, it is a movie that can be enjoyed on purely a camp level with the actors occasionally emoting just a bit too much or being just a bit too ardent in the boudoir. And that scenery and hotel makes me want to book my next vacation in Amalfi, even if there is a sex killer on the loose with an unorthodox weapon. Overall, I think even non-giallo fans could get something out of The Sister of Ursula even if it is just laughs and titillation, but I think there's surprisingly more to the film than that.

Score 7/10

Monday, May 2, 2011

A 21-giallo salute

A creepy, black-clad assailant, a hero, helplessly trapped in an art gallery (twice!), a stuttering, informant/pimp nick-named 'So Long', a loony, loft-inhabiting artist with a strange recipe for stew, a scary looking assassin clad in fluorescent yellow, and an eerie, almost child-like painting that holds the key to a mysterious killer - these are just a few of the memorable things from my favorite film. It seems like only yesterday when I first saw it (insert wavy flashback lines here).

Fearing that if left to my own devices, I would spread Jello on the kitchen floor and set the sofa on fire Cosby-style, my parents carelessly took me with them to my first giallo film at the tender impressionable age of nine. If the movie in question had been The Sister of Ursula, it would have been tantamount to child abuse. Fortunately, the film playing was Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. It was a film that would popularize the giallo genre, but strangely, it would also break some of the genre's fundamental rules. The film had virtually no nudity or sleaze (one victim wore a somewhat transparent nightgown), there was little on-camera violence and very little blood. Unlike the vast majority of gialli that would follow, Bird was almost family friendly. So in the end, it didn't freak me out, but instead fostered a love of the genre. Even though I was a tad too young to understand everything that was going on in the film, a lot of it stayed in my head over the years. It is, without a doubt, my favorite giallo and one of my favorite films. It's also the only movie I can point to and say 'this movie is solely responsible for my subsequent viewing of one hundred others like it.' 

In honor of the film that kickstarted one of my favorite genres, and to win a bet I made with a co-worker, I'm going to be watching twenty-one giallo movies over the next seven days. Some I haven't seen, some are old favorites. In any event, I look forward to being hip deep in murder and sleaze over the next week. I'll post the films here and comment on the best and worst when I return.

Lunga sangue vivo, nero guanti e tette!