Wednesday, February 28, 2018

ITALIAN EXPLOITATION EXPLOSION VOL. 1:
"BLACK CATURDAYS & BLACKER SUNDAYS"


My first foray into the heady, marinara soaked waters of Italian-helmed exploitation films ended up involving a lot of felines, a lot of horror and several weekends worth of mostly enjoyable viewing. That it happened to coincide with a week's worth of cat-sitting in real life is just one of those curious things. Some late Fulci, some early Bava, some early-mid career Argento, as well as a stray Margheriti tossed into the mix. Have you been a good gatto? Okay, then here's your first seven treats...


#1 - THE BLACK CAT (1981)
Lucio Fulci 

Think your beloved furball is hot shit for doing this on YouTube? Allow me to direct you to the little onyx disruptor at the center of Lucio Fulci's early '80s Edgar Allen Poe adaptation. Opening closed doors with its paw is but one minor trick in its "very particular set of skills" kit. This kitty can also cause automobile accidents with its mind, start house fires with a flick of its whiskers, orchestrate elaborate murder-suicide crime scenes, and hypnotize unstable college professors into doing its homicidal bidding. How's that for a little devil LinkedIn resume?

While not quite the caliber (or catliber) of Fulci's more adventurous sleaze-horror masterworks (The New York Ripper, The Beyond, Zombi 2), The Black Cat does have its own distinct pleasures. It's comparatively light on the gore but heavy on the cat POV tracking shots, Pino Donaggio score and crazed Patrick Magee (of A Clockwork Orange renown). Manipulative felines aside, watching that guy wander through smoky graveyards with a Nagra and a microphone recording supernatural groans like the tomb whisperer version of Gene Hackman in The Conversation is all it took to hypnotize me.

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#2 - A CAT IN THE BRAIN (1990)
Lucio Fulci

No, the title is not just a metaphor. Or a bad Italian to English translation. The opening credits do actually feature a live feline munching on brains. A Cat in the Brain is late-career Lucio getting all meta on your ass, basically doing his goremeister's version of Day for Night or 8 1/2. Fulci himself plays a guilt-plagued horror director troubled by disturbing real-life visions (kill clips from his other late '80s movies). He seeks out a psychiatrist and, whaddya know, the guy turns out to be even more deranged than him.

Basically, this is Fulci's Hot Rocks or Forty Licks, a greatest hits compilation hastily pieced together in the editing room with Scotch tape and the barest of self-reflexive premises. It's a cynical cash-grab, sure, but also a playful nod-and-a-wink mea culpa. For Fulci diehards, it's a good excuse to see the maestro in the flesh, if only occasionally, intercut with juicy footage from some of his lesser, later films (did I say "greatest" hits?). The transitions may not be the smoothest, and the back-to-back gore scenes do tend to get porn flick repetitive. But, if it's a quick dose of Lucio you're craving with little to no narrative to get in the way, Un Gatto Nel Cervello should suffice as the cinema equivalent of a late-night helping of canned, microwave SpaghettiOs.

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#3 - TWO EVIL EYES / "The Black Cat" (1990)
Dario Argento

Crime scene photographer/still life artist Harvey Keitel traipsing around Pittsburgh with a bad attitude and a beret? You had me at "Helloooo!" This is Argento's half of his short film double-header with the late George Romero. Also, his equally twisted (and equally loose) take on the same Edgar Allen Poe story that Fulci tackled nine years earlier. While the titular black cat in Argento's version may not possess the same degree of supernatural powers as Fulci's fantastic feline, it sure seems to annoy the hell out of the already borderline Keitel. After his girlfriend Annabel takes a liking and takes it in off the street, Harvey vindictively begins using the cat in photo shoots, which subsequently morph into a kitty murder crime scene. When Annabel spots her vanished pet on the cover of his latest photo collection, she is understandably pissed. This only leads to her murder and Keitel's increasingly ridiculous (in a good way) attempts to cover it up. But then, wouldn't you know it, that same damn black cat reappears anyway!

Though only an hour long, Argento's take on the Poe story is a full feature's worth of fun. This is primarily due to the casting of Keitel but also Argento's gung-ho commitment to lurid crime scene compositions and increasingly absurd murder cover-up attempts. There's a particularly fun one involving a life-size photo of the dead girlfriend's face taped onto her corpse to fool the neighbors. And the ending? Let's just say it's the best kind of "cliffhanger."

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#4 - THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971)
Dario Argento

A "cat horror" film in name only, this nascent Argento giallo wriggled its way onto my watchlist because I'm generally unschooled in the earlier parts of his career and needed to do some *cat*ching up. A reporter and a blind puzzle solver (Karl Malden in full-on Stevie Wonder mode) team up to investigate a murder at a medical facility. Lots of leather cord stranglings and talk of chromosome testing ensues. There's a particularly nifty suspense sequence involving a carton of potentially poisoned milk that I won't, er, spoil.

To be honest, I've already forgotten most of the plot particulars (it's hard to keep score in these purposely convoluted Italian murder mysteries). But I will say that the cinematography was gorgeous, and the Ennio Morricone score made it all go down nice and easy. I am now eager to proceed to the other two parts of Argento's "Animal Trilogy." Flies, birds, etc.

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#5 - SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (1973)
Antonio Margheriti

Cats or no cats, I'll watch anything with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg in it simply to marvel at the paired genetics involved in creating daughter Charlotte, one of my favorite actresses. Yes, Serge may be a sleepwalking blank slate police inspector in this, but, boy oh boy, is vacationing cousin Birkin easy on the eyes (cat's or otherwise). This is one of those Clue-style drawing room giallos set in a lavish castle where the guests get picked off one by one by a unseen killer who you generally guess the identity of midway through. It's definitely not my favorite sub-set of the giallo genre, but, hey, a cat appeared frequently in the story (a relatively benign ginger this time) not to mention-- bonus-- a caged orangutan. As for the seven deaths, yes, that seems about right. I wasn't keeping count. SPOILER: The butler didn't do it. Nor did the orangutan.

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#6 - BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Mario Bava

My first legit Bava horror flick! Also, Bava's first credited directorial effort. I'd only seen Planet of the Vampires before this. Enjoyed the costumes in that one, but wasn't otherwise sucked into the Bava vortex. Black Sunday may be the one that does the trick. From the very first baroquely detailed black and white frames, you know you're in the hands of a master visual stylist. Then when they put the iron studded mask over condemned witch Barbara Steele's face and hammered that sucker in, I had to pause my Filmstruck stream to check the date. 1960? Pretty gruesome for that era. Pretty gruesome for any era, actually. Early aughts torture porn hacks, eat your heart out. Bava has you all beat by at least 40 years.

Sorry, no cats in this one from what I recall. But reincarnated Barbara Steele does pal around with some pretty baller Marmaduke type dogs (see above pic).

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#7 BLACK SABBATH (1963)
Mario Bava

What is the sabbath anyway? Is it Saturday, or is it Sunday? I guess it depends on your particular Judaic/Christian/Wiccan upbringing. For Bava, it's a good excuse to string together three horror shorts loosely based on stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov and de Maupassant. As with most horror anthologies, it's a hit or miss affair. Mileage and scares may vary. My favorite was the Tolstoy segment with Boris Karloff (who also serves as interstitial narrator) playing a returned from the dead wurdalak. What's a wurdalak, you ask? Well, it's kind of like a zombie that specifically targets its still living loved ones instead of being a mindless, equal opportunity brain-eater. Perhaps the miserable never-ending money train that is The Walking Dead should take a lesson. Next season, make your boring zombies wurdalaks! Better yet, cancel that sucker and fast-track David Fincher's World War Z-2: Rise of the Wurdalaks.

While Black Sabbath is no Black Sunday, it's nice to see Bava's meticulous frames burst into beautiful Technicolor this go-round. The gore and jump scares may be tame by today's standards, but in each segment you can see the template being laid down for many more bloodthirsty modern chillers to come.

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