lørdag 1. desember 2012

Skin 'em Alive/Scorticateli vivi

Italy, 1978

Directed by Mario Siciliano

Bryan Rostron, Anthony Freeman [Mario Novelli], Charles Borromel, Thomas Kerr [Giuseppe Castellano], Karin Well, Pier Luigi Giorgio, Stefano Cedrati, Ettore Pecorari, Antonio Diana, Giulio Lucatelli, Jean Emile, Aurelia Saba

Mario Siciliano was a somewhat undistinguished yet interesting writer-director who through his own production company Metheus Film churned out a significant amount of action, western, erotica and horror movies before settling with pornography. I’ve previously reviewed his supernatural giallo Evil Eye (1974) and his fairly well-known porn movies My Swedish Aunt (1980) and Orgasmo esotico (1982) for this blog, and what strikes me about Siciliano’s films is that while they are rarely entirely successful, they nevertheless tend to be quite intriguing. This is also the case with his sleazy and cynical mercenary adventure Skin 'em Alive.

The plot kicks off in an unspecified European city where we meet Rudy (Bryan Rostron – dubbed by the ubiquitous Ted Rusoff), a down on his luck guy who is in trouble because he owes money to a gang of mobsters. After getting beaten up and given a 24 hour deadline to cough up the money, Rudy does what he always does when he is in trouble: asks to borrow money from his sexy, long-suffering fling Evelyn (Karin Well – dubbed by Susan Spafford). She’s been let down by Rudy numerous times in the past, but is never able to turn him down when he comes knocking on her door.

The long-suffering fling with the heart of gold

After a bit of lovemaking, Evelyn reluctantly gives Rudy the money he needs, and he uses it to travel to Africa and meet up with his German half-brother Franz (Charles Borromel), who is the commander of a mercenary group fighting against rebel natives. Franz is a truly despicable character who speaks with a hilariously exaggerated German accent, and who gets his rocks off by raping the native women and torturing prisoners by melting their faces with a blowtorch!

Meet Franz, the psycho mercenary

Rudy knows that Franz is in possession of a lot of valuable diamonds and asks his half-brother to share some with him so he can go to America and start afresh. Unsurprisingly, the nasty Franz is not interested in helping out, and orders Rudy to get lost. “Your presence here turns my stomach, and I care about my health”, he sneers – before promptly going off on a mission. The mission, however, does not go well as Franz and his men are ambushed and taken prisoner.

Back at the camp, the group’s second in command, Barney (Mario Novelli – dubbed by Robert Sommer), is very much satisfied with being promoted in Franz’s absence, and shows little interest in organizing any rescue operation. And while Barney and the other mercenaries spend much of their time getting hammered on J&B (what else?) and behaving like idiots, Rudy seizes the opportunity to seduce Franz’s woman – a local black girl – in hopes of getting her to reveal the whereabouts of Franz’s hidden stash of diamonds.

Rudy gets comfy with his brother’s woman

Unfortunately for Rudy, it turns out Franz keeps the diamonds on him – sewn into his belt – so Rudy starts pressing Barney about throwing together a rescue team. Barney isn’t too willing, but because the rest of the group is unimpressed with his leader skills, he reluctantly gives in. Thus, Rudy and Barney embark on a perilous rescue mission, joined by a group of fellow mercenaries who are all plagued by various problems: Fred (Pier Luigi Giorgio) has a craving for dangerous missions because he is impotent and feels he has no real reason for living; Stephan (Stefano Cedrati) is illiterate and suffers from an inferiority complex; Stafford loves poetry and is prone to sudden mental breakdowns; and the vile Arthur (Giuseppe Castellano – dubbed by the always awesome Robert Spafford) is simply an asshole whose only source of pleasure is to pick fights or cause trouble for others. The unstable group’s problems are further amplified by their constant sipping of J&B, and the rescue operation is bound to be quite bumpy – with plenty of sleazy thrills in store for the viewers.

When you have to trek through the vast African savanna on foot...

...and encounter constant attacks and nasty jungle traps...

...it’s nice to have some soothing J&B handy. Gotta love how the Italians always manage to fit in some J&B - no matter where a film is set

As you may have surmised from the plot summary, Skin 'em Alive is an ugly and nihilistic film – laced with violence, rape, racism and bleak cynicism. There isn’t really anyone to root for since pretty much all of the characters are either selfish or vile. Franz and his men are of course the worst, as they rape and murder without blinking an eye, and are clearly enjoying themselves in the process. At the other end of the spectrum are the many victimized blacks, but truth be told, it is hard to care much about any of them since they are never developed as characters even in the most rudimentary form. The film never invites us to care about any of these people, who are never portrayed as anything other than nameless victims whom the camera never lingers on for very long. The only possible exception is Franz’s unnamed woman – mockingly referred to as “Miss Droopy” – who at least shows traces of a personality and exhibits a bit of sassiness.

The sassy “Miss Droopy” is the only black character in the film to show some semblance of a personality. Unfortunately, I have no idea who the actress who plays her is, but her voice is dubbed by veteran Brit dubber Silvia Faver

Even our main character Rudy is not a particularly likable type, and he comes across as a selfish guy whose only concern is getting his hands on his brother’s diamonds. By his own admission he dislikes violence, and while he does not partake in any violent acts (not until the climax, anyway), he also does not protest or speak up against the violent behavior exhibited by the other characters. Instead he observes these acts without any visible concern or care. Now, it must be mentioned that Rudy’s seemingly unaffected behavior may at least partly be down to bad acting as he exhibits the same wooden expression throughout the duration of the film. Handsome, blonde Bryan Rostron had previously played small roles in The Inglorious Bastards (1977) and Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade (1978) but this was his first and only leading role, and he never appeared in any further films. He’s so stiff that I can only assume he was a last-minute replacement for a better and more experienced actor, but given the cynical tone of the film, his stone-faced expression more or less works for the character.

Rudy as he looks throughout most of the film

In any case, what mars Skin 'em Alive is not its cynical attitude or lack of sympathetic characters but rather Mario Siciliano’s direction, which is fairly lifeless. It’s a competently shot film, by all means, but Siciliano fails to ignite the action scenes with any real spark. The film’s most fundamental problem, however, is the fact that it falls short as an exploitation film. Yes, it’s trashy, exploitative, and full of sadism and violence, and yet it still manages to come across as rather tame and toothless. While there is plenty of sex and violence on display, these scenes are not very graphically portrayed – there’s hardly a drop of blood in sight, and the sex is very much downplayed. And in spite of the title, no one actually gets skinned alive at any point (the closest we ever get is some brief dialogue mentioning that Franz has previously skinned many of his enemies alive). Not that films needs to have gore in order to be entertaining, of course, but when a film caters to the sensibilities of an exploitation movie audience, which Skin 'em Alive so clearly does, and then fails to deliver the expected mayhem and bloodletting, it is bound to disappoint. As it is, one cannot help but wonder how this could have turned out had it been made by the likes of Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato or Joe D’Amato instead.

A typical example of a scene that plays out much less graphically than what you would expect from a trashy exploitation film

The film is not without its charms, however, and it scores some good points for Stelvio Cipriani’s excellent and funky disco theme. This catchy tune is admittedly far too upbeat for a gritty film such as this one but it undeniably livens up things. Gino Santini’s cinematography is not bad, either, and boasts some very nice-looking African scenery. Another high point is the cool supporting cast, who are able to breathe some much needed life into the film. Charles Borromel, best remembered for his part as the frenzied crew member in Alfonso Brescia’s dismal space opera War of the Planets (1977) and as the cop on the case in Joe D’Amato’s gory horror hit Absurd (1981), turns in a delightful scenery-chomping performance as the sadistic Franz. He is ably supported by stuntman/actor pro Mario Novelli, who acts his part as sleazy mercenary to the hilt, but the biggest scene stealer of all is without a doubt veteran bad guy actor Giuseppe Castellano, who is terrific as the repugnant Arthur. He shoots, fights, rapes, murders, and sips J&B like he’s never done anything else in his life. A great, great actor who has never really received all the recognition he deserves.

Giuseppe Castellano steals the show

Cast in the role of Evelyn, Rudy’s long-suffering gal, is the very sexy Karin Well, a veteran actress of grade Z nonsense whose best known performance is probably as one of the protagonists of Andrea Bianchi’s infamous zombie romp The Nights of Terror (1981). Apparently, Karin was somewhat of a favorite to Siciliano, who had already used her in his wonderfully-titled crime film The Satanic Mechanic (1977), and who would subsequently cast her in his porn movies Erotic Family (1980) and Dangerous Love (1981), albeit in non-hard roles. Here, Karin’s role is fairly marginal – she basically shows up for some T&A and a few brief flashbacks scattered throughout the running time – but she’s very cute and easily the most sympathetic presence in the film.

Karin Well provides the obligatory T&A

In sum, Skin 'em Alive is too tame to live up to its potential as big exploitation hit but it nevertheless has a memorably trashy and cynical atmosphere, enjoyable performances (especially by Borromel and Castellano) and a killer Stelvio Cipriani score, and that makes it good for a rainy day viewing at least.

© 2012 Johan Melle

The cast:

Bryan Rostron as Rudy

Mario Novelli as Barney

Charles Borromel as Franz

Giuseppe Castellano as Arthur

Karin Well as Evelyn

Pier Luigi Giorgio as Fred

??? as Stafford

Stefano Cedrati as Stephan

??? as Peter

??? as Franz's woman

Aurelia Saba (???) as Local girl

mandag 29. oktober 2012


Italy, 1989

Directed by Peter Del Monte

Jennifer Connelly, Gary McCleery, Laurent Terzieff, Charles Durning, Donald Hodson, Olimpia Carlisi

To many Jennifer Connelly fans, Dario Argento’s bizarre Italian horror film Phenomena (1984) is probably the strangest item on the esteemed actress’ resume. It is not the most obscure one, however. That honor goes to another Italian film, the strange Etoile.

Connelly plays Claire Hamilton, a young and beautiful ballerina who travels to Budapest in order to try out for a renowned ballet school. At her hotel, Claire by chance encounters a fellow American named Jason Forrest (Gary McCleery) when he picks up a ballet shoe she has dropped. The geeky Jason is in Budapest to assist his eccentric, clock-collecting uncle Joshua (Charles Durning) but he is so enchanted by Claire’s beauty that he quickly forgets about everything else. Claire finds Jason charming and it doesn’t take long for romantic feelings to develop between the two.

A ballet shoe brings Claire and Jason together in true fairytale fashion

Charles Durning is onboard to provide comic relief as the clock-collecting Uncle Joshua

Unfortunately, Claire’s ballet audition doesn’t go too well. While waiting in line, she listens to one of the rejected ballerinas tearfully relating how badly she was treated, and when Claire’s name is called, she freezes. Unable to face the audition room, she flees in panic but loses her way and ends up on the stage in an empty, old theater. Instinctively, Claire starts to dance on the stage – not knowing that the ballet school’s director, Marius Balakin (Laurent Terzieff), is observing her from the darkened audience row. Marius can’t believe what is happening before his eyes. “Natalie”, he blurts out in amazement and drops his cane to the floor. Frightened, Claire balks from the stage and escapes to the sunny streets outside.

The ballet director appears to recognize Claire

Shortly afterwards, strange things start happening. In her hotel room, Claire finds a bouquet of black roses, with a note reading, “Welcome back, Natalie”. Upset by everything that has happened, Claire decides to go back to America but while she is at the airport waiting for her flight, a certain Natalie Horvath is called to the information desk. Overcome by inexplicable impulses, Claire heads to the information desk, where she is picked up by a chauffeur (Donald Hodson). He takes her to the estate of Marius Balakin, where she is assured that everything is “exactly the same as it was then”. Claire is overcome by memories of someone else’s past – quickly losing the sense of her own identity as she starts to take on that of the mysterious Natalie.

Claire begins to assume the personality of the mysterious Natalie

Poor Jason is distraught and worried when Claire doesn’t recognize him and insists her name is Natalie. It turns out there are dark forces at work, and once Jason learns the truth about the people behind the ballet school and who Natalie Horvath really was, he must fight a desperate battle to save his beloved Claire…

The theme of a young woman going to study at a creepy ballet school abroad recalls Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria (1977) but other than this plot point, Etoile couldn’t possibly be more different from Argento’s film. In spite of clear horror film elements such as the eerie musical score, the presence of dark, evil forces and the plot point of Claire inexplicably assuming the identity of a woman from the past, Etoile never truly feels like a horror film. But it doesn’t feel like a real drama either. It’s as if the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, and it feels both vague and unfocused – not to mention overlong at 100 minutes.

Only occasionally does the film feel like a horror movie

However, the film’s chief flaw is the romance between Claire and Jason, which isn’t credible for one single second. This is mainly due to Gary McCleery, who has neither the looks nor the charisma to be a believable love interest for the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly. Though clearly meant to be sympathetic and geekily charming, the Jason character instead comes across as awkward and slightly creepy right from the introduction scene where Claire drops her ballet shoe – Cinderella style – and Jason picks it up. He returns the shoe to Claire and starts bombarding her with questions: “Are you an American too?”, “Are you a dancer?”, “Are you here to dance?” etc. Claire is clearly in a hurry and wants to leave but he just keeps the questions coming while staring at her in a rather creepy way. And so it continues – with Jason’s infatuation for Claire seeming more like an unhealthy obsession. Played far too intense by McCleery, Jason comes across like classic stalker material, and it defies all possible logic that Claire should end up falling for someone like him. It is very unfortunate that the romance between Jason and Claire fails at both convincing and engaging the viewer because the film relies heavily on their relationship as the main narrative driving force – with Jason’s battle to rescue his beloved taking up much of the running time.

Jason looks and behaves seriously creepy throughout the film

One of the all-time least credible cinematic romances

It is unfortunate that Etoile fails to come together because it does have a few things going for it. Firstly, Jennifer Connelly delivers a very solid performance – coming across as charmingly sweet and angelic in the role of Claire, and later making the switch to darkly seductive as Claire is overtaken by the spirit Natalie.

Jennifer Connelly as the sweet and innocent Claire...

...and as the dark, seductive Natalie

The film also benefits from a quietly effective orchestral score, as well as stunning picturesque locations and lush art direction. It’s definitely a stylish and atmospheric work but in spite of its appealing visuals Etoile is little more than a good-looking package with nothing inside. It is an empty film that is sorely lacking in both substance and drive.

The film undeniably looks gorgeous

The cast is quite small and the focus is so firmly on Connelly and McCleery’s characters that none of the supporting actors are given much chance to shine. Nevertheless, French actor Laurent Terzieff manages to be effectively sinister as the mysterious ballet school director. The presence of Hollywood character actor Charles Durning as Jason’s eccentric uncle is quite a surprise but, unfortunately, Durning’s acting is way over the top and he is sorely in lack of a director who is able to rein him in. His out of the blue meltdown in a phone booth is nothing short of embarrassing but that doesn’t prevent it from being the most enjoyable moment in the film.

Charles Durning’s phone booth meltdown is one of those moments that you just have to see to believe

While undeniably stylish-looking, this dark fairytale is frustratingly vague and uninspired. It feels empty and the story fails to really engage but what well and truly kills the film is the unbelievably annoying Jason character – a problem which is greatly amplified by Gary McCleery’s terrible performance in the role. That said, Etoile is definitely the most obscure film on Jennifer Connelly’s resume and she does deliver a solid performance, so for dedicated Connelly fans it might be worth tracking down. Everyone else can skip it, though.

© 2012 Johan Melle

The cast:

Jennifer Connelly as Claire Hamilton

Gary McCleery as Jason Forrest

Laurent Terzieff as Marius Balakin

Charles Durning as Uncle Joshua

Donald Hodson as Balakin’s chauffeur

Olimpia Carlisi as Ballet madam