mandag 19. januar 2015

Death Has Blue Eyes/Το κορίτσι βόμβα

Greece, 1975

Directed by Nico Mastorakis

Peter Winter, Chris Nomicos [Hristos Nomikos], Maria Aliferi, Jessica Dublin, Louise Melinda, Marie Elise Eugene, Andrew Johnson [Andreas Ioannou], Philip Sherwood, Clay Huff, Jean-Claude Petit, Gerard Gonalons, Danny Rochas, George Ranger, Maurice Rutherford, Bill Peyton, Thom Arahouas

Greek-born director and screenwriter Nico Mastorakis managed to carve out something of a name for himself in the 1980s when he set up his own production company Omega Entertainment in the US and began churning out a series of enjoyable and well-cast low-budget exploitation movies such as Blind Date (1984) starring a young Kirstie Alley, Nightmare at Noon (1988) with Wings Hauser, Bo Hopkins and George Kennedy, and Hired to Kill (1990) with Brian Thompson, Oliver Reed, George Kennedy and José Ferrer. But the one film that everyone always remembers is the one Mastorakis made in his native Greece: the notoriously violent and offensive Island of Death (1976), which was banned in a number of countries and ended up on Britain’s infamous Video Nasty list. Less fortunate is Mastorakis’ debut, Death Has Blue Eyes, which he wrote and directed shortly before Island of Death. I’ve long wanted to see this evasive film, whose terrific giallo-esque title had me intrigued since the first time I heard about it, but as it turns out, this strange little film is nothing at all like a giallo.

The plot circles around a young man named Bob Kowalski (Peter Winter), who arrives in Athens where he is reunited with his best friend Ches Gilford (Hristos Nomikos). Bob and Ches are both con men and they spend most of their days pulling off petty scams or trying to get with hot women.

Ches and Bob

One of the pair’s favorite scams is to dine in fancy hotel restaurants and then pass themselves off as hotel guests and charge the bill to a random hotel room. But one day this con job goes awry when the room Bob and Ches tell the waiter to charge the bill to is revealed to belong to the two women sitting at the table next to them. The women are Geraldine Steinwetz (Jessica Dublin), an elegant middle-aged woman, and her sexy, blonde daughter Christine (Maria Aliferi). The two women seem amused rather than angry and don’t care to report the incident, but Bob gets a bit freaked when Christine reveals that she knows his name and his way of operating. He gets the distinct impression that she can read his mind.

Bob gets busted... Geraldine...

...and her lovely daughter Christine

Next, Bob and Ches head to fancy villa owned by an unattractive but rich old bag that Ches is screwing. She’s out of town for the moment, so Ches is living in her house together with a buxom blonde named Maria, who prances around totally naked (except for a small apron) and acts as his maid and lover.

The trusty Maria

Luckily for Bob, Ches is such a good sport that he lends out Maria to him. And later they get into a steamy threesome. But, unfortunately, Ches’ rich lover misses him so much she decides to come home early and is mortified to find him getting it on with Maria and Bob in her bed.

Bob and Ches’ fun is spoiled by the arrival of Ches’ sugar mama

This unfortunate incident puts a permanent end to Ches and Bob’s luxurious living, so they kiss Maria goodbye and hit the road in search of new adventures. But wait a minute! “Wasn’t this supposed to be some kind of thriller?”, you might be asking yourself at this point, and indeed, so was I when I first sat through this. We’re about 20 minutes into the film and so far it has played out more like a moronic sex comedy than any kind of thriller. But all of that is about to change (well… sort of) when Bob and Ches are contacted by Geraldine Steinwetz, the middle-aged woman from the hotel restaurant. Geraldine reveals that the reason why Bob felt as if Christine was reading his mind earlier was because that’s exactly what she did. “My daughter is a mind reader... Of enormous abilities!” Geraldine proudly proclaims. She then explains that two months ago, while in Warsaw, Christine unwittingly became witness to a political murder. She saw the killer’s face and before she could control her incredible psychic abilities she immediately knew his name and who had hired him to kill. So now Christine and Geraldine are being hunted by a deadly organization out to silence them, and Geraldine’s master plan for how to avoid this is to hire Bob and Ches to protect them. It doesn’t make a lick of sense that Christine and Geraldine would put their safety in the hands of two petty amateur scammers – even Bob and Ches themselves question this strange decision – but Geraldine insists that this is how it’s got to be and she offers to pay them well and cover all of their living expenses.

Naturally, Bob and Ches agree to act as protectors for Christine and Geraldine, and they go about doing so by taking the two women out on the town to dance, drink and party! During a nocturnal trip to some local café, the jolly foursome dance and have fun while the locals are inexplicably throwing plates on the floor! Is this some kind of Greek custom??

Plate throwing!

But the fun is interrupted when a motorcycle-riding assassin shows up and starts shooting up the place. In the ensuing hysteria, poor Geraldine is separated from the others and is left to fend for herself while Bob, Ches and Christine manage to get to the car and escape.

Bob, Ches and Christine escape...

...but are chased by motorcycle-riding assassins...

...while Geraldine is left to fend for herself

After fending off a series of deadly motorcycle assassins, the trio makes a stop on a beach, where they decide to put up a tent and light a fire. Unfortunately, yet another motorcyclist assassin shows up the next morning. Bob, Ches and Christine hide while the assassin goes to search their tent, and as soon as he’s inside, Christine concentrates super-hard and uses her psychic powers to blow up the tent! Wow! Apparently, Christine does a lot more than read minds.

Mind over matter!

But they’re not out of the woods yet. The mysterious killer organization has sent a helicopter that’s shooting at our three friends. Bob wants Christine to blow it up, but since the budget isn’t big enough to blow up a helicopter, Christine just whines that “No, I can’t! I’ve tried! It’s moving!” Will Bob, Ches and Christine make it out alive? And will there be more sex and comedy? I won’t spoil it for you, but chances are pretty good you’ll be able to guess the answers to both of those questions.

Helicopter assassins

You know, it’s funny how people keep raving about Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and its unexpected midway shift from cynical action-crime flick to vampire horror comedy, while completely ignoring the genre-bending wonders pulled off by Nico Mastorakis two decades earlier with Death Has Blue Eyes, and which he would continue to employ in many of his American film. But, unfortunately, Mastorakis executes the genre hopping in his debut feature without any sort of finesse or cleverness – erratically jumping from sex comedy of the dumbest sort to somewhat of a thriller, only to quickly change gear and morph into more of an action film and then continuously puncturing the action with further acts of funny business and softcore sex. Ironically, Mastorakis’ unyielding attempts to cater to all tastes only results in a tonally schizophrenic film that will likely appeal to no one at all. Well, except for lovers of demented, WTF Euro cinema that is, and that’s actually a pretty big crowd. Even so, it still isn’t a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but if you approach it the right way, the film’s incredible daftness can be quite endearing.

There are way too many wacky highlights to mention but I really must give proper due to two stand-out sequences. The first one comes when the constantly horny Bob tries to hook up with a voluptuous blonde stripper named Debra, who invites him to come to her club to watch her “dance”, but once he gets there he finds the place deserted. Debra suddenly appears behind him – wearing a tight blouse shirt that is barely able to contain her jutting tits – and Bob exclaims that “I didn’t expect to find you in a place like this. I though you invited me to watch you dancing”. “No, I invited you to see me shooting!” replies the sexy Debra and whips out a gun.

Debra, the trigger happy stripper

Luckily for Bob, he’s able to overpower her, and with the gun in his possession he forces Debra to strip for him. Why? Hell if I know, but I guess Mastorakis was ready to use any excuse for piling on some naked flesh.

This scene is so awesome that the UK distributors saw fit to plaster it all over the poster – accompanied by a completely misleading tagline!

The second scene also involves Bob! This time he hooks up with a sexy race car driver – played by the lovely Marie Elise Eugene, who later went on to play the sassy black nightclub singer in Maurizio Pradeaux’s Athens-lensed giallo Death Steps in the Dark (1976). While the two of them are getting hot and heavy, Christine uses her psychic abilities to connect to Bob’s mind to see what he’s up to, and for whatever reason that gets poor Bob all limp-dicked and unable to continue with the lovemaking. He then picks a flower from a bouquet on the table and places it in his disappointed lover’s ass crack before sitting down in a corner to sulk! And, no, I’m not making any of this up!

Christine’s psychic probing messes with Bob’s libido!

Other plus points include some very slick cinematography and stylish camera angles, as well as some rather nice car stunts and a couple of cool plot twists in the final third to shake things up. But, unfortunately, for all these positives there are at least as many negatives, including an occasionally clunky soundtrack, a truly horrendous English dubbing job, jumpy and haphazard editing and all the constant comedy stuff with Bob and Ches that just isn’t funny at all.

A complete absence of logic sense also plagues the film throughout its duration. A lot of things seem to happen completely at random, with the characters doing stuff because the script requires it but without any sort of comprehensible motivation to back up their actions. For example, why do Ches and Christine say that the car is out of gas and ask Bob to get out and push – only to drive off and leave him behind on his own? And later when he catches up with them again, none of them mention the whole thing. And likewise, why are Bob and Ches so obsessed with trying to talk women into having threesomes with them, and why do they share hotel room? Why does Ches only charge $20 for his services as a gigolo? Why does the head of the killer organization describe Ches as a karate expert when we never get to see him put those skills to use? And why do Geraldine and Christine think it’s a great idea to hire two dimwitted horn dogs to protect them when Christine does a much better job of protecting them by herself? I mean, not only does she blow up tents with her mind but there’s also a super cool scene in a bowling alley where she uses her psychic powers to get an assassin to strange himself to death. It’s not often you get bombarded with this sort of facepalming daftness at such frequent intervals, though, and it certainly adds to the unintentional hilarity.

Christine fends off an assassin

To be fair, I should add that the version I saw clocked in at only 77 minutes. Apparently, there’s a version released in the UK – under the dreary title The Para Psychics – which is supposed to run a full 90 minutes. It’s possible that this version makes more sense, but I wouldn’t bet on it!

The British VHS release

I’m not at all familiar with leading men Peter Winter and Hristos Nomikos (credited under the anglicized pseudonym Chris Nomicos) but I found them both to be thoroughly unlikable and lacking in the charisma department. The stunningly beautiful Maria Aliferi, however, makes for a very sexy and appealing heroine. She’s terribly charming and has a very expressive face.

But the biggest delight in the cast is American cult actress Jessica Dublin as the mysterious Geraldine. Her fascinating acting career started in Italy in the late 1960s, when Dublin was already in her early 50s, and she gained some recognition through a series of performances that highlighted her audaciously extravagant style to comedic effect, such as her role as Bud Spencer and Terence Hill’s mother in the western comedy Trinity is Still My Name (1971), as well as small roles in the gialli So Sweet, So Dead (1972) and Sex of the Witch (1973). She then relocated to Greece and continued her acting career there but was mostly relegated to mere cameo roles. Mastorakis was actually one of the few Greek directors to take full advantage of Dublin’s brash style and uninhibited nature – first with her sizeable turn in this film and then to maximum effect in the notorious Island of Death, in which the then 57-year old actress gets naked for the camera in the role of a rich, perverted maneater who enjoys getting pissed on during sex. And upon her return to the US, Dublin became a repertory player for Troma Entertainment – achieving much popularity for her role as Toxie’s mom in the two Toxic Avenger sequels in 1989. What a career! Now, her part in Death Has Blue Eyes is admittedly far more subdued than her more famous roles but it’s still great to have her around!

Maria Aliferi and Jessica Dublin are the high-points of the film

The spectacular Jessica Dublin

To sum it up, Death Has Blue Eyes is a really weird film that sounds a lot more intriguing than it really is. Recommended to undiscriminating Euro-trash lovers only.

© 2015 Johan Melle

The cast:

Peter Winter as Bob Kowalski

Hristos Nomikos as Ches Gilford

Maria Aliferi as Christine Steinwetz

Jessica Dublin as Geraldine Steinwetz

??? as Debra

Andreas Ioannou as Leader of the organization

Marie Elise Eugene as The race car driver

??? as Fred Kealing

??? as Maria

Clay Huff as The black assassin

??? as Ches’ lover

søndag 11. januar 2015

The Skin Under the Claws/La pelle sotto gli artigli

Italy, 1974

Directed by Alessandro Santini

Gordon Mitchell, Tino Boriani, Geneviève Audry, Ettore Ribotta, Mike Monty, Agostino De Simoni, Renzo Borelli, Mirella Rossi, Franco Rossi

Alessandro Santini is surely one of the more obscure figures of Italian cult cinema – remembered only for a couple of collaborations with Italian cult movie great Renato Polselli and his frequent partner-in-crime Bruno Vani. Santini debuted in 1971 with the trashy erotic drama Questa libertà di avere... le ali bagnate (translation: This Freedom to Have... Wet Wings), which he co-wrote with Polselli and which starred Mark Damon and Rita Calderoni. Next, he co-directed the satanic horror film Una vergine per Satana (A Virgin for Satan) together with Bruno Vani but the film was never finished and some years later Polselli shot new scenes based around the old footage and released it as Casa dell’amore... la polizia interviene (House of Love... the Police Intervene) in 1978. Santini’s second stab at the horror genre was the film I’ll be reviewing here: the zero budget oddity La pelle sotto gli artigli, made in 1974 and given a limited release the following year before vanishing into complete obscurity. Years later, the presence of beloved B-movie actor Gordon Mitchell in the cast and the general trashiness of the film led to its “rediscovery” and it’s currently circulating among collectors in a scuzzy-looking print from a Spanish VHS with audio from an old Italian TV recording slapped on top of it. No English version was ever prepared and hence no official English title exists but it’s currently going under the bootleg title of The Skin Under the Claws (a direct translation of its Italian title) so that’s what I’ll stick to.

Late at night, a mysterious man picks up a young prostitute (Polselli regular Mirella Rossi) in a park. She willingly gets into his car and, as usual in these films, doesn’t seem to find it the least bit strange that the man is wearing a hat and sunglasses and silently ignores all of her questions. “Be nice! Let me see what color your eyes are and I’ll show you what color my panties are!” she purrs in a failed attempt to entice him into remove his sunglasses.

Btw, what IS the color of her panties? Pink?? You can’t really tell from this poor-looking version

The man brings the hooker back to his place, and naturally, it doesn’t take long before the poor girl is brutally stabbed to death and her lifeless body is unceremoniously dumped near a fountain.

The first victim

The hot-tempered, chain-smoking Commissioner Rinaldi (Ettore Ribotta) is in charge of the investigation and he is left dumbfounded by the findings of the medical examiner (played uncredited by trash movie extraordinaire Mike Monty). Traces of skin have been discovered under the dead girl’s fingernails but, inexplicably, said skin is heavily decomposed. The cranky commissioner won’t hear of such nonsense: “I can’t believe a putrefied corpse visits prostitutes and then kills them!” he growls. But before long another young woman is found dead – hacked into pieces and stuffed into two heavy suitcases – and others follow in quick succession, and they all have traces of decomposed skin under their fingernails.

Commissioner Rinaldi is on the case...

...and he’s not too convinced about the medical examiner’s findings

In the meantime, we follow a separate plotline involving Professor Ernest Helmut (B-movie legend Gordon Mitchell), a brilliant scientist who’s conducting strange experiments in his private clinic. After a series of brain transplant experiments on baboons, Professor Helmut believes he has finally found a way to beat death itself and ensure eternal life. His handsome assistant, Dr. Gianni Dani (photo-novel star Tino Boriani), is awestruck by the professor’s findings and marvels at the thought of how this could revolutionize science. But Helmut’s other assistant, the rather frumpy Dr. Silvia Pieri (Geneviève Audry), is appalled by the idea of tampering with the natural cycle of life. “When we travel on a crowded train, we don’t want anyone to get on. In fact, we’d like people to get off. Life is a miracle, but so is death”, she argues.

The brilliant Professor Helmut...

...and his strange research

Silvia and Gianni

Shortly afterwards, Silvia and Gianni are shocked to discover that Professor Helmut has died of a sudden heart attack. And what’s worse is that someone has stolen his corpse! Gee, I wonder if the professor’s bizarre experiments and his sudden death and disappearance could somehow be connected to the murdered women with decomposed skin found under their fingernails!

From the plot description alone, this bizarre mad doctor movie with giallo tendencies may sound like a grandiose Euro-trash classic but, unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as cool as it sounds. Much of the blame rests on writer-director Alessandro Santini’s inept screenplay, which is crammed with hysterically silly dialogue and preposterous nonsense from beginning to end. And, at just 76 minutes, it is still badly paced due to a series of padding sequences featuring minor characters. The best example is a completely irrelevant scene in which Gianni and Silvia visit an eccentric painter friend of hers. The painter has two buck naked models who pose for him on the sofa, even though the painting he’s making is of something else entirely! When quizzed about this, he goes off on some pretentious tirade about how the two naked broads inspire his shapes and colors. It’s a totally inconsequential scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the film, and said painter is never seen or heard from again.

The painter’s “models”...

...and what he's actually painting

I love how the bored-looking models just continue to sit lazily in the sofa reading their magazines and not bothering to get dressed when visitors arrive

Also not helping matters is the fact that Santini insists on treating the whole thing as some big mystery and trying to throw some suspicion on the Gianni character, even though for anyone with a smidgen of genre knowledge, a mere cursory glance at the cast list will be sufficient to figure out who the real madman at large is.

In keeping with his screenwriting skills, Santini’s direction is thoroughly incompetent. Since the only available versions of the film are rather poor-looking TV and VHS prints, it is impossible to properly evaluate its aesthetical qualities but it’s evident that this was made on a virtually non-existent budget. The whole mess is shot in an unimaginative point-and-shoot style in what I can only assume were the cast or crew’s private homes – adorned with some truly hideous-looking 1970s wallpaper – and then patchily edited together.

A couple of examples of the ghastly décor and wallpaper on display

The all-around cheapness also means that all of the killings take place off-screen as there clearly wasn’t enough money for special effects. There’s a lot of talk about gruesomely mutilated corpses but we never actually get to see any of them except when covered by white sheets. Probably sensing that this approach would be off-putting to sleaze hounds (who, let’s face it, are the core audience for such films), Santini tries to make up for it by piling on a lot of senseless nudity, which is executed with the same level of incompetence.

The closest we get to seeing the mangled corpses

Some scattered attempts to liven up the proceedings

But while The Skin Under the Claws may be a terrible film, that’s not to say that it’s completely without its charms. As long as you’re in the right frame of mind, there is some great fun to be had with its endearingly inept direction, trashy atmosphere and above all its loopy writing. The script boasts numerous WTF moments – including the killer’s out of the blue attack on three peasant girls, and a really ludicrous twist ending – and the dialogue is ripe with hysterical one-liners (my personal favorite being the “Let me see what color your eyes are and I’ll show you what color my panties are” line).

But arguably the most memorable part of the film is a scene in a nightclub where a miserable-looking black woman (who must have been chugging down a heavy brew of sedatives and J&B before going on stage) performs a hilariously unenthusiastic naked tribal dance that is completely out of tune with the inappropriate music. There are only four patrons in the audience (I guess the budget didn’t allow for extras either) and they all look as though they’re about to fall asleep. A priceless moment!

The film’s pitiful nightclub act...

...and the miserable-looking spectators

Poor Gordon Mitchell! He was a solid lead in Italian sword and sandal films in the early 1960s, but whereas most of his peers (including Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Mark Forest) retired when the popularity of such films started to wane, Mitchell kept on working and the 1970s saw him really scraping the bottom with appearances in such grade Z nonsense as Frankenstein 80 (1972), Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (1974), Achtung! The Desert Tigers (1976), Holocaust 2: The Memories, Delirium and the Vendetta Part Two (1978) and Black Gold Dossier (1979). But even with such tough competiton, The Skin Under the Claws still ranks as one of Mitchell’s absolute worst films from the period. He doesn’t really have a whole lot to do here but it’s always nice to have him around and he does add a certain cult appeal to the film. Another welcome addition is Mike Monty – probably best known for his appearances in a series of cheap Filipino-lensed jungle adventures by Antonio Margheriti and Bruno Mattei – as the bespectacled medical examiner, though he sadly never gets to interact with Mitchell. Polselli starlet Mirella Rossi is thoroughly wasted as the hooker killed at the start of the film – with Santini barely allowing us a good look at her face – but there’s a pretty good role for Ettore Ribotta (a prolific character actor in the photo-novels published by Lancio and Grand Hotel) as the amusingly grumpy commissioner.

Gordon Mitchell hams it up in typically enjoyable Mitchell-fashion

If you get a kick out of watching ridiculous and hastily slapped together zero budget, grade Z Euro-horror then you really need to seek out The Skin Under the Claws. Everyone else, however, is better off seeking out something else.

© 2015 Johan Melle

The cast:

Gordon Mitchell as Professor Ernest Helmut

Tino Boriani as Dr. Gianni Dani

Geneviève Audry as Dr. Silvia Pieri

Ettore Ribotta as Commissioner Rinaldi

Mike Monty as The medical examiner

??? as Brigadier Tacconi

Renzo Borelli as The porter

??? as Cinzia, the nymphomaniac

??? as Barbara, Cinzia’s roommate

??? as Maurizio, Barbara’s boyfriend

??? as Goffredo, the painter

Mirella Rossi as The prostitute