Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Zeder / Revenge of the Dead (1983)

Pupi Avati’s Zeder has been an odd enigma of an Italian horror film to me. I’m not really sure what it is trying to do, but its mystique and mismatched place in the genre are part of what make it special. While watching it, I usually wonder what it is we are looking for or what the lead character is so obsessed and serious about, and yet I can't help always feeling drawn in. It’s a movie searching for something deep and menacing, and it does eventually find it, but the journey along the way is a challenging, spine-chilling, and memorable one with an impressively creepy payoff and a serious lead performance from Deep Red’s (1975) Gabriele Lavia. I also like the way it alludes to a kind of sinister underbelly to the city in a way that is similar to Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974). 

What I buy most about Zeder is the academic and research side, fixating on knowing and overcoming death. The scientific field approach, with shady occultist researchers and their cameras and experimental equipment is pivotal to one of the best scenes. 

Stefano’s (Lavia) investigations become a paranoid obsession that he never really lets up on once he starts on it. Being a writer and a college student (overdue for graduation it seems), his focus feels like a thesis from hell.


 

Zeder is a fairly restrained horror film with an unrestrained soundtrack (by Riz Ortolani), which results in some strangely histrionic moments. Don’t get me wrong, it is badass, with some dissonant violin string shrieking and heavy bass booms, but when the music abruptly gets loud and scary, sometimes I wonder what’s happening that would command such gravitas to the visual of two characters casually walking along the street catching a taxi or Stefano starting into a sprint just to investigate something vague. Even the start of Stefano’s investigations is triggered by something that would seem like no big deal to most. Stefano’s beautiful wife, Alessandra (Anne Canovas), gifted him a used typewriter for their anniversary. One night while he’s typing, the ink ribbon comes undone, and when he starts unspooling the ribbon, the imprinted macabre words, about barriers of death and something called “K-Zones,” written by the previous owner, catch Stefano’s attention (the way this is filmed and framed makes unspooling an ink ribbon fascinating and alarming). A morbid curiosity results, as he becomes unusually fixated on the writing, retyping it all on to separate sheets of paper. 


 

Stefano later visits a lecturer on occultism at a University, Professor Chesi (John Stacy), to look over his recorded manuscripts. After reading them, Chesi reveals his familiarity of K-Zones which allow the dead to return to life and that they were researched by a Dr. Paolo Zeder (who had himself buried at the house during the intro flashback). Stefano later learns of his typewriter’s original owner, a priest, Don Luigi Costa, with help from a police lieutenant friend, Guido (Alex Partexano). The chase for the elusive and mysterious Don Luigi Costa is essentially the primary goal of Stefano’s investigations, which are met with loads of deception, murder, and conspiracy theories that makes this zombie/giallo/Lovecraftian/Italian horror film a bit incoherent and quite difficult to pin down, but I actually kind of enjoy it for that. In this case, for some reason, not really being able to have a handle on the film makes for an interesting re-watch every time, and I’m usually unsure of what I’ll make of it each time I watch it.  


 

I’ve always loved Gabriele Lavia as the unsettled alcoholic jazz musician from Argento’s Deep Red, especially his drunken conversations with a sober Markus Daily (David Hemmings) (for some reason I had found these parts relatable and almost cathartic). So, I thought it was kind of cool having Lavia as a disturbed lead in Zeder (I consider him to be a part of Italian horror and giallo royalty thanks to roles in films like Beyond the Door (1974), Deep Red, Inferno (1980), and Sleepless (2001)). Here as Stefano he is a bit reminiscent of the traditional giallo protagonist: morbidly fascinated with what is going on but getting in over his head, risking himself and those around him. Stefano is a pretty plain t-shirt and blue jeans all the time kind of guy, but he is still compelling and dead serious about his business. Lavia just has this intense glare that really sells his character's interest and predisposition towards his investigations. Until his obsessive quest takes over, he is good to his wife and does seem to care for her, and Alessandra in turn is supportive of his writing and his investigation and is usually there for him, more so than he probably deserves. This is something he truly realizes towards the end, when grief and desperation take over. 



I remember thinking that Zeder was really pushing the Pet Sematary (1983) angle with the ending, only to be surprised later to learn that Pet Sematary, the book, originally came out a few months after Zeder’s original release in Italy (likely a coincidence, but still pretty cool for Zeder). 

Zeder is unpredictable and subverts expectations. Like Avati’s Arcane Sorcerer (1996), it does have a few parts that gave me the jitters, and it does get under your skin like Avati’s House with the Laughing Windows (1976). The movie itself almost doesn’t seem to fit in with its Italian horror brethren of the time, which doesn’t matter, because it is still pretty good, despite being a bit slow and iffy at times. It’s different and somehow manages to hit all the marks of a good ‘80s Italian horror film (atmosphere, gore [albeit restrained], a bombastic score, zombies, killers, mystery, subtle gothic horror influences, a faint Lovecraft influence, etc.). For me, it was like nostalgia, familiarity, and novelty all at the same time. 

I also appreciate the scientific angle that almost grounds it a little in reality at times so that being presented with the unreal is all the stranger and more shocking (that discovery that Paolo Zeder’s theories were well founded). It ends up being more in line with what the mind would experience discovering horrors in reality. Like the film, these realistic horrors would be difficult to grasp and pin down but also quite hard not to obsess over. 

© At the Mansion of Madness





 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

There’s no other experience quite like Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, or even the alternate clothed Spanish version Las Vampiras. I recall coming across the DVD of this film on the shelf in the foreign-film section at (the now defunct) Hastings Entertainment, and, being a newborn Jess Franco fan at the time, I knew I wanted it. I had just come off of Jess Franco’s Macumba Sexual (1983) and was ready for more. Only problem was I remembered being a little too self-conscientious about looking like a weirdo bringing a film called Vampyros Lesbos up to checkout, but I bit-the-bullet and proudly made my purchase. 

To tell you the truth, I’d like to relate my first-time experience watching Vampyros Lesbos, but I honestly cannot seem to remember a lot about it, other than that I noticed some similarities to Macumba Sexual. I do remember that afterwards, I quickly picked up Jess Franco’s She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), which was made around the same time and also starred the sultry Spanish beauty Soledad Miranda in another arousing but also sympathetic role. 

While re-watching Vampyros Lesbos more recently, despite seeing it several times before, I noticed that I had forgotten a lot of specifics to the storyline, but I still remembered my favorite parts quite well while also realizing new favorite parts. It just seems to become more enriching upon each viewing, opening itself up further each time I revisit it. It never feels old, overwatched, or stale. Basically, it’s a real keeper that should be kept close and revisited at least once a year. Every scene is worth savoring.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Blood and Roses / Et mourir de plaisir (1960)

Roses always fade in a Vampire’s hand.”-Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg

I’ve always loved the supernatural femme fatale Carmilla since I was first introduced to her in Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972). There was something so appealing about the sapphic predatory vampiress from J.S. Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, whose influence was all over the erotic vampire films from the 1960s and 1970s I loved, and more. After I reviewed The Blood Spattered Bride, naturally, I felt compelled to read Carmilla, a short but marvelous piece of gothic literature. I loved the dark, forested isolated castle setting and the peculiar relationship that develops between Laura and Carmilla. After reading it, I felt I had hipster boasting rights to tell people who never heard of it that I knew of and read a vampire book that was written twenty-five years before the more well-known Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Now, the book, Dracula is much more developed, but it is astounding how many story similarities there are between Dracula and Carmilla (itself sharing similarities to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished Christabel (1816)). I don’t think there can be any doubt that Carmilla heavily influenced Dracula. 

It’s been a delight to explore different adaptations of Carmilla, such as The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Crypt of the Vampire (1964) as well as movies influenced by Carmilla like Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Daughters of Darkness (1971). I remember thinking back in 2013 that the time was right for new Carmilla movies. I must have been asleep the last seven years, because I only recently learned that there have been new Carmilla films being made, such as The Unwanted (2014), The Curse of Styria (2014), Carmilla (2015), a Carmilla web-series that eventually got a follow-up movie called Carmilla the Movie (2017), and most recently Carmilla (2019) from Emily Harris. I just recently checked out the 2019 movie, and all I can say is, what a powerful ending. I’d say it comes pretty close to the modern Carmilla film I was hoping for.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Emanuelle and Joanna / Il mondo porno di due sorelle (1979)

So, here we are, nearly ten years in to writing for this site, and it would look like I’m finally getting around to covering an Emmanuelle movie… Well, not quite… In fact, Emanuelle and Joanna seems to me to be an anti-Emmanuelle movie, since I believe the literary Emmanuelle is mainly about embracing and normalizing sexual taboos. Whereas the protagonist in Emanuelle and Joanna is haunted by sexual taboos and is seemingly punished for her altruism by providence, or the scriptwriter if you prefer. I felt it was much too negative to be in line with the sexually positive but still iconoclastic spirit of the writings of Emmanuelle Arsan (Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane) and to me had a little more in common with the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Emanuelle and Joanna, who I’m assuming are the two women seen on the movie poster engaging in what is surely a kind of esoteric sex ritual, aren’t even in the movie. The lead sisters, alluded to in the film's Italian title, are Emanuela (Sherry Buchanan) and Giovanna (Paola Montenero). I don’t feel duped at all though, because this is the kind of shit I go for, a pleasing dark piece of dated erotica that sends its protagonist down a rabbit-hole of perverts.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Candle for the Devil / Una vela para el diablo (1973)

The pleasures I tried to deprive myself of assailed my mind more ardently…” –Madame de Saint-Ange (Marquis de Sade)


I feel like A Candle for the Devil (aka It Happened at Nightmare Inn) from Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Martin, director of the astounding Horror Express (1972) and the rare gem Aquella casa en las afueras (1980), was that demented shocker I was always looking for when I was channel surfing as a kid looking to satiate my thirst for something twisted with big bloody kitchen knives and bloody nightgowns. It’s also an intelligent and thought-provoking film with enough memorable moments to prevent anyone who watches it from entirely forgetting about it. I had only seen it twice, in its cut and uncut version, but for years it had been stored in my memory as a truly special Spanish horror film that I knew I would revisit someday to write about.

After I first watched it, I remember feeling cheated out of the definitive experience of A Candle for the Devil after finding out the version I watched titled It Happened at Nightmare Inn from a bargain DVD box set was heavily cut, omitting the graphic violence and nudity. I still thought it was a pretty sweet film even in its censored form, but of course that’s not the version I wanted for my collection, and so I later ordered off for a DVD-R containing the uncut A Candle for the Devil, with Esperanza Roy’s (from Return of the Evil Dead (1973)) nude scenes thankfully intact. The film has since been released on Blu-ray in 2015 by Scorpion Releasing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Devil in the Flesh / Venus in Furs (1969)

Have you heard about the lonesome loser, beaten by the Queen of Hearts every time?” -Little River Band 

The book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Venus in Furs (1870) is a great inspiration to those of us who wish to be better poets for the women we love, the women we worship, the women we want to be dominated and enslaved by in the bedroom. I found a lot to relate to from Masoch’s writing, but I was kind of bummed that the book turned out to be a cautionary tale in the end. (Way to kink-shame, Book.)
  
Massimo Dallamano, cowriter and director of one of the best gialli ever made, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), directed a couple good modern adaptations of Victorian era books: the aforementioned Venus in Furs and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. Dallamano’s Dorian Gray from 1970 really feels updated for its era, trying something a little bit different while remaining faithful to the spirit of the novel. The same could be said of the Dallamano directed Devil in the Flesh (aka Venus in Furs, not to be confused with the Jess Franco film of the same name, from the same year).

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Justine (2016)

Justine, your prison was my kingdom come.” -Virgin Steele 

Were it not for Jess Franco, I probably would not have had even a passing interest in the writings of eighteenth century troublemaker Marquis de Sade, Donatien Alphonse Franҫois, but thanks to Franco films like Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969), Eugenie (1970), Eugenie de Sade (1973), and this prominent S&M aesthetic very much characteristic to a lot of Franco’s films (as well as Renato Polselli’s), it was only a matter of time before I would wonder: “why the hell am I not reading de Sade?”. Reading a book by de Sade had been on my bucket list for a good six or seven years. (It didn’t help that I was partially turned off by de Sade after watching Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) due to the film’s shocking depictions of cruelty and grossness that the Jess Franco films rarely reached). 

Well, I finally read my first de Sade novel, recently, titled Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and it was all kinds of fucked up. It was cruel, disgusting, evil, sickeningly disagreeable… And I could hardly put it down. I won’t go as far as to call it a horror novel, but a lot of the sadists poor Justine encounters are outright terrifying, especially the head-cutter character. De Sade seemed to pull no punches. He morally outraged to the extreme and probably intended to.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Assignment Terror / Los monstruos del terror (1970)

Halloween always gets me in the mood for the classic Universal monsters, so I thought I would revisit a Spanish monster mash-up (done in the vein of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944)) that I had not seen in over ten years.

Assignment Terror is one of the Paul Naschy films I revisited the least for some reason. Naschy wrote and starred in it, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking it needed a little more Naschy. Paul Naschy’s scripts usually come off as real personal projects, but, even with the presence of the Universal monsters that inspired Naschy’s childhood love for horror, I didn’t quite feel that as much with Assignment Terror. But to be fair, it is quite early in Naschy’s filmography. Plus, I can see how Naschy might’ve thought it best to have his tragic lycanthrope character Waldemar Daninsky step aside a little to make room for the other classic monsters. In the end, it still ends up being Naschy’s show and what I think is an alright old-school monster movie that has got a few neat tricks up its sleeve. The whole thing is of course messy and flawed but also kind of whacky and fun.