Tuesday, November 27, 2018


I’m just guessing, but one evening director Julius Avery and screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L Smith were over at JJ Abrams’s house ingesting hallucinogenic substances in Keith Richards-style quantities when somebody posited that doing one of those big-budget war movies like they did in the Sixties – ‘The Guns of Navarone’, say, or ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – but shot through with the hip insouciance of Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ would be the best thing ever, then someone else had the brass balls to suggest that ‘The Bridge at Remagen’ was a more radical big-budget war movie touchstone than some Alistair MacLean adaptation, at which point there was a fuck-off big punch up and, at some indeterminate moment while a fist was thwacking into a face and a jet of blood was slow-motioning its way toward the flock wallpaper, yet someone else had the deal-sealing idea that what would really tie these elements together was undead super-soldiers. Whereupon the various parties picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and worked out a contract. Then did a fuckton more skag. I rather imagine the script was developed under similar circumstances.

‘Overlord’ is a dumb movie. And when I say dumb, I don’t mean a slightly vacuous or a little bit silly or even the kind of cheesy and utterly nonsensical work that leaves you undecided whether to chuckle or facepalm. No: when I say ‘Overlord’ is a dumb movie, I mean powerfully fucking stupid. It’s also the most entertaining film I’ve seen on the big screen since ‘The Nun’ – and if that isn’t a commentary on how proper cinema needs to get its act together then I don’t know what is.

The plot is almost irrelevant – mismatched grunts; sadistic Nazis; medical experiments; fire fights and fist fights; shitload of things blow up: that pretty much covers it – and the characters ciphers. There’s the Reluctant Hero Who’s Never Killed A Man Before (Jovan Adepo), there’s the Hard Ass Lieutenant For Whom The Mission Is Everything (Wyatt Russell), there’s Wiseass Italian-American Who Never Stops Talking (John Magaro), there’s the Aristocratic But Slightly Rapey Nazi Officer (Pilou Asbæk) and there’s the Plucky French Villager Who Turns Out To Be A Veritable Fucking Badass (Mathilde Ollivier). Everybody else pretty much exists to get mown down in the kind of shoot outs where one of the good guys slams in a clip and twenty minutes later they’re still happily decimating the Third Reich.

As you’d expect, every narrative beat is predictable. Injured antagonist who uses the super-soldier serum on himself? Check. Previously irascible character who risks his life to save cute kid? Check. Unorthodox mission behind enemy lines with the odds stacked at a seemingly insurmountable level? Check. Male bonding under said conditions? Check.

And violence: lots and lots of the old ultraviolence, all of it comic book and cynical as fuck in its amorality? Check, check, checkity check.

‘Overlord’ suffers from a first forty minutes or so that veers from annoying (the extended opening scene that sets up the platoon before their plane gets shot to ribbons and they’re forced to make an earlier-than-expected parachute jump has more in keeping with a Vietnam flick than a WWII movie and the tone grates) to plodding (it takes far longer than it ought to for the survivors to regroup, encounter the Plunky French Villager Who Turns Out To Be A Veritable Fucking Badass and make it to the village). Once everything’s in place, though, the pace picks up, the red stuff starts flying and it’s good unclean fun all the way to the end credits. Subject of which, head for the exit the moment they start: the hugely anachronistic song that plays over them is just fucking horrible. And further evidence that the filmmakers were off their tits on Colombia’s finest.

Saturday, November 24, 2018


In an otherwise balanced article for The Spectator on the Wilma Montesi murder case*, Alexander Chancellor refers to Piero Piccioni as “a sleazy jazz musician and composer of film music”. I can find little on the internet regarding Piccioni’s alleged sleaziness, apart from the fact that he had a voracious appetite for women (he was, at one point, embroiled in an affair with Alida Valli) and the good life. The son of Attilio Piccioni, a high-ranking member of the post-war Italian Christian Democratic Party, he was a self-taught and prodigiously talented musician whose career as a lawyer was something he bailed on as soon as he hoved into the orbit of Rome’s film community where he carved out a good career writing film scores. Over 300 of them in fact, including ‘The 10th Victim’, ‘The Nun and the Devil’, ‘The Light at the Edge of the World’, ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ and the film under consideration today, Geoffrey Reeve’s ‘Puppet on a Chain’.

The reason I bring all of this up is because ‘Puppet on a Chain’ is chiefly remembered – by those who remember it at all – as “the one with the funky Piero Piccioni score and the cracking speedboat chase”. But is there more to it than that? Let’s find out. After, that is, we’ve paused for two minutes and forty-eight seconds to appreciate the Hammond organ driven glory of the opening credits theme. Seriously, I want to own this on vinyl and only ever play it after dark while drinking a martini and wearing a velvet smoking jacket.

‘Puppet on a Chain’ is based on a novel by Alistair MacLean, published in 1969. The film was released in 1971M acLean’s fame was at its height: adaptations of his earlier books ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘Ice Station Zebra’ had made fucktons of money and he was riding high on an unbroken string of bestsellers that had commenced a decade and a half earlier with ‘HMS Ulysses’. The golden period was all but over, though. From 1973’s ‘The Way to Dusty Death’ to his swansong ‘Santorini’ (1986), the quality control of MacLean’s novels was to become unreliable at best, his slide into alcoholism not helping matters. Almost as if in imitation, the film versions struggled to find favour at the box office, with even solid second-tier adaptations like ‘Fear is the Key’, ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ and ‘Breakheart Pass’ – all of which I’d pick as an evening’s viewing over J. Lee Thompson’s bloated, talky and absurdly overrated take on ‘The Guns of Navarone’ – opening to disinterest if not outright indifference.

MacLean remains ill-served by the big screen. ‘Bear Island’ had a top-flight cast but makes so many deviations from the novel that the creative team could easily have saved themselves the outlay for the rights simply by giving it a different title. ‘Force Ten from Navarone’ also makes significant changes to the novel (a weird decision since MacLean had conceived as more of a sequel to the film of ‘The Guns of Navarone’ than to his original novel). ‘The Golden Rendezvous’ was so fucked-about-with during production that it emerged as borderline incoherent, while the less we say about ‘River of Death’ the better. Particularly galling are ‘Caravan to Vaccares’ – one of my personal faves in the MacLean bibliography – and the soap-opera-ish TV movie ‘The Way to Dusty Death’, both directed by Geoffrey Reeve. That he made such an effective MacLean adaptation with ‘Puppet on a Chain’ yet dropped the ball so badly with the other two** is borderline depressing.

So why does ‘Puppet on a Chain’ hit the spot when Reeve’s other adaptations don’t? I offer three factors:

Item one: MacLean himself wrote the screenplay for ‘Puppet on a Chain’ and therefore the degree of fidelity between book and film was a given. His greatest strength as a novelist was the ability to write cinematically. You don’t just read a MacLean novel: it unspools in your mind, in widescreen, with no expense spared on the special effects. And yet so many MacLean adaptations make the mistake of deviating from the novel. Such deviations as exist between ‘Puppet on a Chain’ in its two iterations – the most significant being the wholesale removal of one character – are there purely to condense the 250 pages of the book into 97-minute film.

Item two: the aforementioned score. Even when the film is at its most visually drab – and for much of the running time it’s as if Jack Hildyard’s cinematography is purposefully trying to avoid local colour in favour of local gloom – Piccioni’s soundtrack brings it exuberantly, vibrantly to life. And here’s an ideal place to pause again, this time to glory in the evocation of an Amsterdam when a groovy 70s swinging club looks like this …

… and you can dally with an anaemic hooker for thirty guilders:

Item three: the speedboat chase.

Let us discuss the speedboat chase. The one that isn’t in the novel. The one that damn’ near wasn’t in the film until the producers saw Reeve’s first cut and thought “oh shit, this is an Alistair MacLean thriller and there’s no big action set piece” and got Don Sharp on the blower and asked him if he’d shoot a speedboat chase. Sharp was a veteran director whose credits included Hammer productions ‘The Kiss of the Vampire’ and ‘Rasputin, the Mad Monk’, as well as a couple of Fu Manchu movies that starred Christopher Lee and, for the small screen, episodes of ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Champions’. He would go on to helm his own MacLean adaptation eight years later with ‘Bear Island’.

The speedboat chase predates that in ‘Live and Let Die’ (indeed, Sharp’s work on ‘Puppet on a Chain’ was said to have inspired it) by two years, ‘Amsterdamned’ by fifteen and ‘The World is Not Enough’ by almost three decades. It’s better than all of them. The speedboat chase is a tense, high-speed, kinetically shot and edited work of jaw-dropping awesomeness; it’s the waterways equivalent of the car chase in ‘Bullitt’ or – more suited to its down-and-dirty immediacy – the car/L-train chase in ‘The French Connection’.

In fact, ‘Puppet on a Chain’ has a certain kinship with Friedkin’s classic (made the same year): not only do both of them fit the précis “loose cannon lawman busts drugs ring whose product emanates from Europe”, but both trudge grimly through the logistic minutiae of moving the stuff, both feature essentially unsympathetic protagonists who are quick to use both gun and fist, both protagonists are rash and hasty in their actions and make mistakes, and both chase scenes end violently. The differences are that ‘The French Connection’ depicts a means of transporting drugs that is almost genius in its simplicity, while the method in ‘Puppet on a Chain’ is ludicrously overcomplicated (including pendulums, Bibles and dolls, submerged consignments retrieved by barges and helicopters and bases, warehouses and production centres on either side of the Zuider Zee); and that Gene Hackman’s performance in the Friedkin classic is the stuff of thespian legend whereas Sven-Bertil Taube in ‘Puppet on a Chain’ stomps moodily around in a leather jacket while exhibiting the dramatic range of a slightly oxidised piece of lead piping.

Elsewhere in the cast, Alexander Knox and Patrick Allen turn up and speak their lines and collect their pay cheque, Barbara Parkins looks ill-at-ease, and only Penny Casdagli seems engaged with actual characterisation. The weirdest and most grotesque scene in the novel – a sort of pre-‘Wicker Man’ scene of ritualism and violence – is re-imagined for the film and doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact. The low key scenes of investigation – following, being followed, incursions into shadowy buildings under the cover of darkness – are handled well and Reeve is certainly adept at maintaining movement and keeping tension on the simmer. Bill Lenny’s editing is focused and unfussy, each scene snapping at the heels of the previous one.

So yes, there’s more to ‘Puppet on a Chain’ than a speedboat chase and a soundtrack that makes me want to drink posh-boy booze and dress like a lounge-lizard, but not to the degree where any other element emerges as memorable or definitive enough to oust either of them from the viewer’s recollection of the film after the end credits roll. In all probability, the only thing you’ll be concentrating on during the end credits is scouring Amazon for the OST. Preferably on vinyl. That, or booking yourself a speedboat lesson.

*In 1953, the body of an attractive but unassuming lower-middle class girl was discovered near the estate of the Marquess Ugo Montagna, an infamous philanderer, the legitimacy of whose title was even in doubt. The haste of the police to close the case and the bewildering and borderline nonsensical cause of death offered by the coroner turned what might otherwise have been a minor news story into a cause célèbre that galvanised Italy. A muck-raking journalist threw all kinds of accusations in Montagna’s direction until litigation forced him to retract. This u-turn effectively pulled the rug from under a prosecution that was all set to go to court. The tragic Montesi’s death remains unsolved, although Stephen Gundle’s book ‘Death and the Dolce Vita’ works through every possible angle and at least offers Montesi a remembrance.

**Alistair MacLean adaptations account for three out of Reeve’s four directorial offerings. The odd one out is ‘Souvenir’ (1989), based on a war novel by David Hughes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Humanoids from the Deep

‘Humanoids from the Deep’ is about some fish-monsters (rather than, y’know, humanoids) who rise up from shallow coastal waters (rather than, y’know, the depths) and terrorise a small town whose livelihood depends on fishing, tourism and the economic upturn promised by the local dignitaries who are lobbying for the development of a new canning plant.

Embittered fisherman Hank (Vic Morrow) is all for the plant, convinced it’s his ticket to easy street, and reacts with naked hostility when Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena) organises his fellow Native Americans in a class action against the developers, asserting their historical claim to the stretch of river that will be affected once the plant is built.

Meanwhile, skipper Jim Hill (Doug McClure) keeps his own counsel regarding the development – although he has more in common with Hank, he’s sympathetic to Johnny – while accepting a commission to ferry scientist Dr Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) around while she conducts research into the cannery firm’s experiments with salmon-specific growth hormones.

Director Barbara Peeters focuses on the environmentalism vs industry subplot of Frederick James’s screenplay and much of the first half of ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ procedures in dour fashion at a pace that you might call measured if you were being charitable but would probably just shrug and think “screw it” and call it like it is, instead – slow!

Still, she builds up a reasonably realistic depiction (at least for a flick produced by Roger Corman) of a fishing town: the self-interested owners, the bored but perpetually horny teenagers, the shitty town hall socials, the forced jollity of the local carnival, the petty divisions and grudges that explode into fisticuffs or potentially murderous vigilantism at the drop of a hat. The talentless local C&W band. The personality devoid local radio DJ. The sheer parochialism of it all.

Slowly paced narrative or not, Peeters was definitely on her way to doing something with the material, the location and the cast (B-movie stalwarts McClure and Morrow are authentically interested in their characters, and even the congenitally wooden Turkel seems to be striving towards something maybe only two postcodes removed from a performance) and might have emerged with a halfway decent little flick had she focused on the conflict between Hank and Johnny.

Unfortunately, Hank vs Johnny as a microcosm for contemporary American battleground where corporationism and profit margins set out to ravage nature, culture and heritage is only half of the film. The other half of ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ is about rapist fish monsters.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Now, Peeters knew what she was taking on with the project – she’d helmed a number of low-budget exploitationers already – but her suggestive, cloaked-by-the-shadows approach to the Brett-Kavanaugh-with-gills part of the plot (which could, albeit distastefully, have operated on the level of visual metaphor: big business as a shadowy aggressor) didn’t go over too well with Corman who equated onscreen nudity with ticket sales.

Enter, at Corman’s behest, Jimmy T Murakami. Fresh off basing an entire space opera on Sybil Danning’s cleavage with ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’, Murakami went to town on Corman’s mandate of shoehorning into the film as much fish-monster-on-woman sexual violence as possible. Hence extended scenes where the fish monsters attack randy courting couples Jerry (Meegan King) and Peggy (Lynn Schiller), and Billy (David Strassman) and Becky (Lisa Glaser), as well as threatening Jim’s wife Carol (Cindy Weintraub) with the proverbial fate worse than death.

Now, while this kind of sleaze is par for the course in this kind of movie, and none of us approach a film like ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ (hell, even the title tells us to leave our sensibilities at the popcorn stand) with any expectation above, say, a baseline of cheap and nasty, it has to be said that there are massive stylistic differences between the 80% or so of the film that is Peeters’s work and the grubby Murakami inserts. Nor was it cool for Corman to foist these new scenes onto the film without telling Peeters. Male producer takes film off female director and gives it to a male director with a “more rape” instruction. I think we can all see what’s wrong here.

When Peeters saw the finished product, she petitioned Corman to remove her name from the production, as did Ann Turkel. Corman ignored them. Which is also not cool. You hear a lot about the amount of careers Corman helped jump-start (Scorsese’s with ‘Boxcar Bertha’ being the most frequently cited) but on this showing the guy was a knob-jockey of the first order.

Having made those comments, the question still needs to be asked, in the interests of critical fairness: how does ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ measures up as a monster movie? Well, Rob Bottin’s effects work is decent given the budgetary restraints and the fish-monsters are creepy enough … until they fully leave the water. Scenes where they plod around at the carnival in the film’s interminable set piece finale are ridiculous, mainly because the actors seem utterly constricted by the costumes and move sluggishly and falteringly as a result. It’s hard to be scared by a monster, no matter how savagely its claws can rake your flesh and how unhealthy its designs on your womenfolk are, when all you need to do to outpace it is to veer off in the other direction and maintain a pace that makes Alvin Straight look like Ayrton Senna.

Friday, November 16, 2018

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire

Riccardo Freda’s 1971 giallo location hops from London to Dublin to Switzerland, features a series of grisly murders and attempted murders using acid and straight razors, has as its protagonist an ex-cop with a violent streak brought in by his former boss when more conservative methods of investigation fail, and said individual belligerently uncovers a morass of blackmail, envy, corruption, venal snobbery and casual sex. Throw in the fact that it stars Dagmar Lassander – the frankly gorgeous star of minor genre classics ‘The Frightened Woman’ and ‘Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion’ – and we’re talking giallo heaven, right?

Mmmmm, not quite.

It’s an odd one, is ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’. The title is reminiscent of Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and Sergio Martino’s ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’ – both prototypical gialli shot through with lurid set design, POV-heavy camera work and grand guignol set pieces. ‘Iguana’ offers none of these. Visually, it’s austere: the palette is subdued, the locations drab to say that the film is peopled with privileged ‘establishment’ types, and the staging blunt and realistic rather than baroque and stylised. Nor is there any of the bizarre psychological noodlings that explain the killer’s motives in many a giallo, just a sad commentary on class and entitlement.

The film starts with a young woman being murdered. Shortly afterwards, her body is discovered in the boot of a limousine belonging to Swiss ambassador Sobieski (Anton Diffring). His eccentric and alcoholic wife (Valentina Cortese) and his shifty chauffeur, who wears sunglasses round the clock – he claims conjunctivitis – are easily the most suspicious of those present … until, that is, Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) turns up to make his enquiries and Sobieski, politely but firmly, refuses to cooperate by claiming diplomatic immunity, thereby hoisting himself to the top of the suspects list.

Lawrence responds by calling in John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a man with a violent past and a not-exactly-peaceable present. Norton, as Lawrence intended, promptly makes waves. He makes waves by dint of getting into a protracted brawl with Sobieski’s security staff and by starting an affair with his daughter Helen (Lassander). Along the way, we learn why he got kicked off the force (think Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Offence’ boiled down into a thirty second flashback). He makes for grim company, does Norton – even his courtship of Helen is a sour, cynical piece of manipulation – and yet the sleaziest, most pugnacious aspects of his personality are held in check by his domestic situation, wherein three generations of Norton’s, the other two being his mother (Ruth Durley) and his daughter coexist under one roof in an atmosphere of good-natured frustration at each other’s foibles.

Early scenes of en famille Norton are played for comic relief: Mrs Norton’s habit of losing her spectacles is set up as a running joke; the young Miss Norton’s wise-beyond-her-years shtick is cute. But as Norton’s investigation takes him closer to the truth and the culprit, his family come to the killer’s attention and the Norton women find themselves in mortal peril for precisely these reasons.

The narrative recalibration from Norton whittling down the suspects list by the simple expediency of provoking each of them into a reaction to the killer going after Norton’s family makes for a sudden tonal shift made particularly jarring since, for most of its first hour, ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ is an austere and procedural-driven giallo. Sure, it has its lurid moments – the killer’s modus operandi is a vial of acid tossed in the victim’s face followed by a straight-razor to the throat: overkill, much? – but for the most part we follow Norton as he talks to, accuses and sometimes punches people. Subject of his two-fistedness, a bit of rough ‘n’ tumble is no bad thing in a crime movie, but the film boasts two hand-to-hand set pieces, the first of which is filmed entirely in the shadows of an unlit room and blocked and edited in such a way as to suggest that the budget didn’t stretch to professional stuntmen and the actors weren’t comfortable with doing their own stunts. I’m not saying that the scene plays out in visually incomprehensible fashion, but here’s a screengrab taken at random:

The other fisticuff-centric set piece – Norton’s mano-a-mano smackdown with the killer at the end of the home invasion sequence – is shot with prurient attention to detail. Ditto the travails of Mrs and Miss Norton prior to Norton’s not-quite-timely-enough intervention. The filmmakers’ leering enjoyment of this final stretch is palpable, and the shift in tone is as if a Fernando di Leo poliziotteschi had lurched uncomprehendingly into, say, the final reel of Lucio Fulci’s ‘Contraband’. (In the interests of fairness, I’m not sure how many of the film’s failings can be laid at Freda’s door: he was apparently so unhappy with the final product that he had his name removed from it: the director’s credit goes to “Willy Pareto”.)

If for no other reason, you could make a case that ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ earns its giallo credentials purely by its title. Although you’d have to give more than a passing nod to the unapologetically tenuous bit of dialogue which explains the reference. But a giallo’s a giallo for a’ that and a’ that, and ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ offers corruption in high places, seductive and possibly duplicitous women, blackmail, jealousy, family secrets, murder most foul and if the not standard issue incompetent coppers who are a mainstay of the genre, then at least one who has to resort to unprofessional methods to crack the case. It doesn’t however, have any of the visual flair, eyeball-watering set design or style-over-substance set-piece porn that Bava, Argento, Martino and their ilk established as a gaudily beautiful template for the genre.

I’ve often said in these Winter of Discontent reviews that the cardinal sin an exploitation movie can commit – the audience, after all, has been ready to forgive bargain basement production values, bad acting, shoddy writing and wonky direction – is to be boring. ‘The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire’ isn’t boring by any means, but it’s visually and stylistically bland – and for a giallo that’s just as bad. If not worse.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Friends, Romans, fellow exploitation fans, were I to ask of you if a nudity-addled movie in which Rosalba Neri slinks around seductively could entirely be a waste of time, would I be right in assuming that your response would be somewhere in the region of an overwhelming “no”?

Thought so. And yet ‘Two Males for Alexa’ never fully lives up to its promise; doesn’t make – or even try to make – all it could of the material.

And were I to ask of you, ye same merrie bunch, if it’s ever anything less than fun to watch Curd Jürgens wolfing down a big slice of ham as he glowers moodily at the camera, would I be right in assuming that you response would be the equivalent of a large flag hung from your bedroom window printed with the legend “CURD FUCKIN’ JÜRGENS – YEAH”?

Again: thought so. And yet the colossus of Jurgens is threatened in scene after scene by the subsidence of Juan Luis Gallardo’s vacuous performance.

And, since I’m throwing out questions left, right and centre, here’s one more before we get to the meat and bones of this review: can a claustrophobic narrative of deception and sexual tension that locks its central characters in a single location and turns up the heat on them – literally and metaphorically – survive the inclusion, at the critical and most tense moment, of a series of nested flashbacks? You might be tutting and shaking your heads right now, maybe murmuring “Hmmm, probably not.” And I wouldn’t argue with you.

As you’ve probably divined from the above, I have mixed feelings about ‘Two Males for Alexa’ – mixed feelings that extend to the fact that Neri’s character is called Alexa-with-an-x in the goddamn title while the closing credits refer to her as Alecsa which not only doesn’t have an x, but is a stupid fucking spelling whichever way you look at it.

*takes deep breath*

*calms down*

*sort of*

And that’s not my only title-related beef. A Spanish-Italian co-production (that exists in different cuts for each territory), the title is either ‘Fieras sin jaula’ or ‘Dues maschi per Alexa’ – respectively ‘Beasts Without a Cage’ and ‘Two Males for Alexa’. The Spanish title is meaningless, since two of the principles end up locked in a sealed room (i.e. essentially caged), while the maschi = males translation of the Italian is literal and a better rendering of the title would be ‘Two Men for Alexa’. In the US, it showed up as ‘Two Masks for Alexa’ – a forgivable mistranslation (maschi mistaken for maschere) resulting in what I consider a better title. In Germany, it was released as both ‘Im Rausche der Sinne’ (‘In the Chaos of the Senses’ is the best I can do with that one) and ‘Bitterer Whisky’ which simply means ‘Bitter Whisky’ and not, as I originally thought, ‘Whisky That’s More Bitter Than’. Because that’d be silly. More bitter than what exactly?

Anyhoo, whatever title you care to hang on it, and whichever version you watch (the crucial difference is that you get more boob for your buck in the Italian cut), the basic premise of ‘Alexa’s Two Fellas in the Chaotic Senses of the Bitter Whisky’ is thus: while gold-digger Alexa (Neri) dallies with her stud muffin lover Pietro (Gallardo), her considerably older husband Lord Mannering (Jürgens) seethes with revenge while his daughter Catherine (Emma Cohen) frets that Alexa – her contemporary at university – is out to steal her inheritance. Catherine’s subplot is abandoned pretty quickly (in fact, her scenes seem to alternate between exposition and padding) as director Juan Logar focuses on the logistics of how Mannering frames Alexa and Pietro for his own death (that’s only a minor spoiler, btw) and leaves them, quite literally, to rot.

Only, as noted earlier, no sooner does Logar’s script put the lovers in a claustrophobic predicament than he embarks on a lengthy series of flashbacks that serve very little narrative purpose (the interrelationships and Alexa’s manipulation of Mannering to vouchsafe herself a life of luxury have already been established, and how she comes to meet Pietro is neither here nor there); moreover, when Logar finally hauls the film back into the here and now, Pietro’s reeling from a defeated escape attempt, the details of which are vague and the fallout (half the room is on fire) inexplicable. The psychological trauma the pair undergo – which should surely have been the dramatic dynamo of the film’s second half – is rushed and dependent entirely on hamfisted voiceover when so much more could have been communicated visually.

As ‘Two Males for Alexa’ stumbles towards its final moments, the script flirts curiously with the possibility of a final twist (one that, admittedly, would have been difficult as hell to achieve but utterly impressive if Logar had pulled it off) only step back from it and deliver an ending that I’m tempted to call arbitrary or banal but it isn’t even that. I’d be hard pressed, in fact, to call it an ending. The film simply stops and the end credits roll.

But still, it’s got Neri looking hot than hell on a day when there was a heatwave in the ninth circle, it’s got Jürgens alternately glowering and the screen and chewing on his dialogue like he’s not eaten in weeks, it’s got lifestyle porn aplenty (and, boy, does Logar take a twisted pleasure in subverting it), and it’s got a lounge jazz soundtrack that’s marvellously out of place with anything that’s happening onscreen at any moment. You pays your money streams for free and you takes your choice.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


I’d heard of ‘Troll 2’. Of course I had. What self-respecting trash fan hasn’t? But until know I hadn’t seen it. Not the opportunity wasn’t there, or even the inclination – after all, I’m always on the qui vive for Winter of Discontent fare. No, it was more the film’s reputation. A reputation so bad, and yet so wrapped up in adoration for its badness, that its decade-and-a-half-later making-of documentary film is titled ‘Best Worst Film’.

Me being me, I’m always suspicious when something is declared the best (or worst) of anything. Is ‘Citizen Kane’ the greatest movie ever made, was Shakespeare the greatest writer who ever lived, is the Beatle’s White Album as good as popular music will ever get? There are those – plenty of them, in fact – who will return a resounding “yes” to each of these, and argue passionately, vehemently, maybe even violently with anyone who dares iconoclasm.

Ditto with critical drubbings. Two of the biggest across-the-board critical takedowns of the last few years were Gore Verbinski’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ and Zack Snyder’s ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, both of which I had a lot of fun watching.

In short, I simply didn’t believe that ‘Troll 2’ was the worst film ever made. I’ve seen Nico Mastorakis’s soul-destroying ‘Island of Death’, motherfuckers: I’ve seen Dario Argento’s bargain basement attempt at ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, I’ve seen Lucio Fulci’s vomitous ‘New York Ripper, I’ve seen Enzo Milioni’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘The Sister of Ursula’. I have seen a hell of a lot of truly fuck awful movies. Damn it, I’ve seen ‘Quantum of Solace’, y’all.

Then I noticed that ‘Troll 2’ was due to be excised from Netflix imminently (by the time you read this review, it will probably have disappeared) and figured it was the universe’s way of telling me that the time had finally come to square up to ‘Troll 2’ and make up my own mind.

Where the fuck do I start?

Title’s a good place. ‘Troll 2’ is a film that features the world’s least scary witch and a bunch of shape-shifting vegetarian goblins and not a single everloving troll. Writer/director Claudio Fragasso – under the pseudonym Drake Floyd – was developing the film under the title ‘Goblin’ (y’know, the title that would have been the logical choice) but for whatever reason decided that an opportunity existed to cash in on John Carl Buechler’s 1986 opus ‘Troll’. Granted, ‘Troll’ had made $5million against its $1million or so budget, but it was neither a huge success nor enough of a brand name – particularly four years later when Fragasso’s effort went before the cameras – that hi-jacking its title makes much sense from a publicity perspective.

And it’s not like ‘Troll 2’ deals in goblins but just presents them as generic creatures that the undiscriminating audience could happily assume were trolls. Quite the opposite: ‘Troll 2’ takes every fucking opportunity to tell you that its antagonists are goblins. The film opens with a young boy, Joshua (Michael Paul Stephenson) being a read a fairy tale by the ghost of his grandfather Seth (Robert Ormsby) from a book with the word ‘GOBLIN’ in huge gaudy letters on the cover. Later, Joshua and his family – dippy well-meaning mother Diana (Margo Prey), grumpy disciplinarian father Michael (George Hardy) and attitudinous sexpot sister Holly (Connie Young, credited as Connie McFarland) – go on holiday to a shithole rural town called Nilbog, and just in case anybody didn’t get it, the town sign is shown in reflection, and just in case anybody didn’t get that, Joshua gasps and states in a flat inflection: “Nilbog – it’s ‘goblin’ spelled backwards!” Later still, when Joshua, with a little bit of help from ghost-grandpa, figures out that there’s something up with the townsfolk, he repeatedly informs his parents, “They’re goblins, they want to eat us.”

Which is only partially accurate: they are goblins, but they first want to transmogrify their human victims into plants because they’re vegetarians. This is actually one of the more logical concepts in Fragasso’s script. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s skip back to grandpa Seth and that fairy tale.

Sitting behind Seth’s interplay with the narrative as it unfolds, and the degree of corporeality available to him by which he can manifest (sometimes as a floating head, sometimes as an actual being capable of physically utilising objects around him) is what I can only assume is a complex set of metaphysical rules. The script, however, makes no attempt to define them and Seth’s sudden disappearances at crucial moments, not to mention the almost arbitrary time-bound nature of his supernatural powers (he can freeze time for thirty seconds to allow Joshua to figure something out, but no longer), ultimately seem as random and illogical as anything else that happens in the movie.

The fairy tale concerns a young man named Peter (Glenn Gerner) who becomes lost in the woods one day due to a fog that is so heavy he can’t see his way. He meets an enchantress (Michelle Abrams) who feeds him a green gloop that looks like regurgitated pea soup; he’s turned into a plant and becomes a light snack for the girl’s goblin besties. The film dramatises the story as Seth reads it out: the entire sequence is shot under an azure, cloudless sky, every tree and blade of grass in the woods dappled with the most glorious sunlight and occasionally, very occasionally, the special effects dude remembers it’s supposed to be foggy as fuck and a few wisps of dry ice float in front of the camera.

Keep the gloopy green stuff in mind. It’s all there is to eat in Nilbog (goblin backwards, folks!) when the family get there. The holiday is an exchange with a group of gruff, monosyllabic hillbillies, to whom Michael hands over the keys to his own house with nary a flicker of uncertainty. Turns out the hillbillies never even leave town anyway, but again we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s put the culinary non-delights of Nilbog on pause for a moment and consider the subplot wherein Holly’s putative boyfriend Elliott (Jason Wright) pursues her to the sticks in his family’s RV, taking some of friends – Brent (David McConnell), Drew (Jason Steadman) and Arnold (Darren Ewing) – with him.

Pop quiz, folks: imagine you’re a horny-as-hell teenager hoping to hook up with an attitudinous sexpot and you have access to an RV that you’re hoping will double as a passion wagon: do you light out on your own or invite three buddies along with you who your girlfriend-in-waiting can’t stand anyway? Yeah, thought so. Same here. Perhaps Elliott’s bros-on-tour decision is a tacit admission that things are doomed to fail with Holly, anyway. Maybe he was picking up on the gentle hint ultimatum she gave him before leaving to go on holiday: “It’s me or your friends,” followed by a knee in the gonads.

And indeed the first thing Holly does when she discovers he’s stalked her, bros in tow, is punch him in the face. (Remarkably, Elliott and Holly seem to end up together: I came away from the film sincerely hoping the lad never spills her drink, let alone looks at another woman!) At this point, the bros get split up: Elliott joins Holly and her family at the exchange house where they hold the most pathetic séance in the history of cinema, pleading for grandpa Seth’s help, while the locals gather outside to lay the most pathetic siege in the history of cinema.

Meanwhile, Arnold goes wandering off and meets a girl in the worlds who is being pursued by goblins. He gives the goblins a stern telling off and gets a javelin in his shoulder by way of response. In short order, he and the girl find themselves the prisoners of goblin queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud* (Deborah Reed); the girl is turned into green goo and eaten, while Arnold finds himself trapped in a plant pot as bark and twigs sprout from him. He’s soon joined by Drew. Drew’s taken a jog into town (evidently forgetting that an RV constitutes vehicular transport) to get provisions and been conned by the locals that his mates are waiting for him at chez Creedence. Notwithstanding that there’s no way on God’s green earth, given the time frame, that the locals could have encountered Elliott, Arnold or Brent, Drew takes this bit of information at face value. There’s a moment of hope as Drew tries to rescue Arnold. But it’s not to be. Creedence returns and deals with them. Mind you, the escape attempt was doomed from the outset on account of Drew trying to drag the flower pot across the floor instead of simply smashing it and encouraging Arnold to walk.

Having dealt with Drew and Arnold, Creedence uses the power of a magic stone (the script doesn’t really expand on “magic stone”, by the way) to transform from grey of pallor and dermatologically challenged to vamp in a low-cut dress and goes sashaying off to where the RV is still parked and seduces Brent with a corn on the cob. This narratively purposeless and utterly bizarre sequence (and I say that in the context of a film whose every single fucking scene could easily be described in just those terms) ends with a visual metaphor whereby popcorn stands in for ejaculation.

Okay, folks, I’ve just coasted past 1,500 words and this review has taken me to a place where I’ve used “popcorn” and “ejaculation” in the same sentence. Time to wrap this motherfucker up, methinks.

Having sat through the 93 minutes of ‘Troll 2’, I genuinely don’t know whether it’s the worst film ever made or not. It’s pretty damn bad – no argument there. The performances range from terrible to so far up the mountain of pantomime that the abyss of tragic anti-talent is visible from the peak. As an assemblage of moving images, it has been put together with an almost dedicated lack of care and attention. As an exercise in what-the-fuckery, it owns its notoriety. From “they’ve eaten her and now they’re going to eat me, oh my Goddddddddddddd” to Holly’s robotic dance, from the meat sermon to Creedence’s hand regenerating, from the hoe-down (where a rendition of ‘Red River Valley’ seems to last as long as ‘In-a-gada-da-vida) to the twist in the tale that can only work if you conveniently forget an earlier scene, you can pick for yourself the enough-to-make-your-head-explode moment that truly epitomises ‘Troll 2’.

For Fragasso has, with ‘Troll 2’, crafted a film in which nothing makes even a modicum of sense – narratively, logically or aesthetically. Things happen and people do things (often not even by way of reaction: in fact, there are umpteen moments where you would expect characters to react to events and they simply don’t) and the camera is pointed at objects and locations and it all probably tied together in some greater whole in the feverish depths of Claudio Fragasso’s mind, but on screen it just sits there. In all honesty, ‘Troll 2’ comes very close to being boring – not least in Deborah Reed’s tendency to turn each sentence of Creedence’s dialogue into several minutes’ worth of syllabic elongation, oddly placed pauses and demented eye-rolling – and it’s only gyrations of the WTF-o-meter that keep you watching.

*I don’t even want to try to unpack how all of those references fit together.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Shortly is the winter of our discontent

In time-honoured tradition (i.e. since 2010), the 13 For Halloween season segues into the Winter of Discontent, a two-month extravaganza of all things grubby, seedy and generally exploitative. And so it rolls this year. But after a short break.

Winter of Discontent 2018 will be opening its doors on the 11th November and, by way of apology for its delayed start, your humble curator will be running the retrospective till mid-January.

Some good cynical fare has already been selected. Here’s a little taster of things to come: it’s shaping up to be a giallo-centric winter and there’s a definite Rosalba Neri theme emerging.