Archive for Lucio Fulci

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Michael J. Pollard’s ass is a dish best served cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2022 by dcairns

This piece contains spoilers and in fact they’ve already started.

The Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel identifies the four horsemen of the apocalypse as Sword, famine, Wild Beasts and Pestilence but in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations their names are given as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. But here’s Lucio Fulci to settle the debate: they are Stubby, Bunny, Clem and Bud. As played by Fabio Testi, Lynn Frederick, Michael J. Pollard and Harry Baird. The judge’s decision shall be final.

We really enjoyed FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… (1974). It’s unusual. Alex Cox is fairly dismissive of it, as he is of all post-1970 spaghettis. He points out that with its pop music soundtrack and soft-focus, backlit, long lens cinematography, it strongly resembles a TV commercial of the period. I’d Like to Buy the World a Gun. This is true, and the songs are fairly diabolical, though they do add to the weirdness which is one of the film’s key virtues, and Fulci’s love of diffusion is evident in his horror movies too. Giving a romantic gloss to hardcore prosthetic gore is agreeably perverse.

The violence has a point, which coincides with what I take to be the point of Fulci’s horror films, which aren’t scary but deal with a disturbing idea — human beings are composed of meat. Fulci being a doctor (!), like George Miller (!), he seems to have had a sense of mission in teaching us this valuable if depressing truth. (The sadism in Fulci is clinical and lacks joi de vivre, it’s more squalid and abject.)

The colour-supplement beauty may have a point too, but at any rate for those who don’t enjoy the Leone aesthetic — orange makeup, clogged pores in massive close-up, dust — here’s an alternative. Scenic beauty and spouting rubber appliances.

As with his previous (1966) western, MASSACRE TIME (haven’t seen it yet, but going by Cox’s report), Fulci stages a lot of squib-splatter effects, not otherwise seen much in the Italian west. If he was doing that in ’66 he was really ahead of the curve — ahead of Penn and Peckinpah. I’ll check that one out and report back.

Fiona christened these guys “the notorious Elephant Man Gang.”

This one begins with multiple “explosive bullet hits” spurting red, red vino in an opening massacre largely unconnected to whatever plot the film has (arguably, it has none). While it’s going on, our main characters are spending a night in the jail, which introduces them. Fabio Testi (literally “Fabulous Balls”) is a smooth gambler, Lynn Frederick, soon to marry Peter Sellers, is a pregnant hooker, Michael J Pollard is passed-out drunk (and, in reality, apparently high as a kite) and Harry Baird is a gravedigger who sees dead people. While the town’s other undesirables are being slaughtered by white-hooded vigilantes, and the sheriff stuffs his ears with bread, Fulci crash-zooms in on Baird’s frightened face…

Run out of town on a cart, our ill-matched quartet head for the next town — and never get there. That’s the closest thing to a plot. Also, they meet up with outlaw Tomas Milian, who carves inverted crosses carved under his eyes and is basically a wild west Charles Manson, an idea I suppose someone was bound to explore at some point. Manson’s actually living on a wild west movie set makes it inevitable.

Milian, much less appealing than in DJANGO, KILL! (a Christlike Yojimbo) or THE BIG GUNDOWN (a scrappy underdog), is a horrific villain. His arrival triggers a spate of actual animal killing, in the Italian cannibal movie vein: he’s a one-man REGLE DE JEU hunting party. Getting the foursome high on some ill-defined peyote or something, he stakes them out in the desert and rapes the stoned Frederick. This is staged in a very spaghetti western manner — a lingering build-up with a startlingly sudden conclusion. It’s at once highly exploitative and slightly squeamish, as if Fulci wanted to get the sadists aroused and then leave them high and dry.

The four, having briefly become five, are now reduced to three, two, one. Pollard, a veteran of the European western, having played romantic lead (!) in LES PETROLEUSES/THE LEGEND OF FRENCHIE KING, dies (too soon!) from a gunshot wound. Baird goes fully schizo and serves Pollard’s severed buttock to his friends as a meal, then capers off. ALWAYS ask what the “large animal” your crazy friend found and butchered actually is.

Frederick gives birth, and dies. Her baby, born in an all-male town of eccentric outlaws, is adopted by the whole community, and christened “Lucky.”

“What’s the surname?” wondered Fiona.

“Bastard,” I suggest.

The slender thread of plot running through the latter half has been a revenge quest — Testi gets his revenge, in a messy and unpleasant manner, and walks off, crying.

W.H. Auden said that works of art are not divided into the good and bad (and ugly), but the interesting and boring. This movie is, I submit, interesting. Lots of implausible, childish stuff, but Fulci for once seems to actually care about and like his characters, or at least made us do so. Everyone is post-synched but apart from Testi, their real voices have been used — Frederick’s combination of wild west saloon gal and stage school brat is rather adorable, and Baird just plays it with his Guyanan accent. Revenge is an imperative, but it’s main value is, it seems, to allow the hero to grieve.

The acting is, as Cox might say, “a certain kind of acting.” Or certain kinds. Frederick strives to condense as many facial expressions into as short a space of time as possible. It’s strange to see such a porcelain doll countenance moves so much. Her line readings are frequently incomprehensible, even though she has perfect elocution — it’s that opera singer thing, where everything is enounced beautifully but has no relation to natural speech and so the brain stumbles over it. The protean features, however, are the natural uncontrolled expressiveness of a child, something Frederick never offers in any other performance. Pollard is just out of his face, agreeably so. Baird is given a lot of conflicting stereotypes to contend with (singing spirituals AND cannibalism) but his character’s craziness is benign, and atypical. Rather than being afraid of spooks, he likes them. Testi’s character arc is, on one level, the retrieval of his shaving kit, on another it’s the classic revenge motive, but on some other unstated level it’s an attempt to become involved with humanity. It’s not at all clear if this is a good idea for him.

Maybe the film’s unusual sentiment and humanity comes from the Bret Harte stories it purports to adapt; maybe from Ennio de Concini, co-writer, whose varied credits include DIVORCE: ITALIAN STYLE and Bava’s likeable THE EVIL EYE/THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Maybe Fulci was in an unusually sympathetic mood: perhaps DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING had a brief purgative effect on his toxic sensibility.

There is, as usual with Dr. Fulci, a lot of unpleasant imagery, and the prosthetics are as usual gloated over until the seams show. But there is very attractive imagery too. The sense of the west as a nightmarish world of anarchic violence, in which our protagonists are defenceless innocents, is touching and scary and unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s like if you digitally erased Clint from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and left the weak and the bad to get on with it. The title is hard to parse, since these four are not powerful destructive forces, and do the 1880s count as an apocalypse? One is forced to conclude that, in Fulci’s universe, the apocalypse is happening ALL THE TIME.

FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… stars Zorro; Tatiana Romanoff; C.W. Moss; Big William; Provvidenza; Tatum, the killer; Agente della Pinkerton; and Dr. Butcher.

Beck 7: Call the Shots

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2022 by dcairns

With an extremely strong reputation in its native Sweden, MAN ON THE ROOF, adapted from the seventh Martin Beck novel, The Abominable Man, is not only the most faithful adaptation thus far, but certainly the best. And the two qualities are not unrelated. While it’s possible to adapt a book with fidelity to its events and still get the tone completely wrong — see the first version of THE MALTESE FALCON for evidence — it doesn’t hurt if the person doing the adapting has some trust in the original work. The second necessary quality is understanding. Bo Widerberg, writer-director of TMOTR, has both.

The novel risks repeating the premise of the previous entry in the series: a man, pushed beyond endurance by social forces, takes an insane and bloody vengeance on those who personify said forces. In Murder at the Savoy, the victim is a businessman who embodies the worst qualities of Swedish capitalism. In The Abominable Man (Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle) the victims are the police, who, as an institution and a few individuals, have comprehensively destroyed a man’s life until he goes full Charles Whitman.

We begin with the murder of a senior copper in hospital, a chilling and ultimately exsanguinary scene — there’s a long-held static shot just staring at a corridor, mostly empty, waiting for something awful to happen, that puts me in mind of EXORCIST III. The music, resembling an emphysemic bumblebee playing a folded paper and comb, is unsettling. The eyeball staring from between the curtains, a swipe from Argento’s DEEP RED, is alarming — and arguably wrong for this kind of realist film. And then we’re in a handheld, fast-cut assault, blood slathering every surface, as the killer strikes with an ex-army bayonet (a device seldom exploited in horror movies, oddly enough). There are some prosthetic effects here, I think, but rather than lingering on them like Lucio Fucki, to get his sadistic money’s worth, Widerberg cuts so rapidly we’re not quite sure just what we’ve seen, which makes it much more powerful — overwhelming in its speed and savagery. Janet Leigh’s rubber stomach in PSYCHO, penetrated by kitchen knife with subliminal brevity, is probably at the back of his mind. One might compare it to the icepick slaying that opens BASIC INSTINCT, but there the strictures of the MPAA shifted things from full-on Fulci mode to a more Hitchcockian swiftness, so we don’t see Rob Bottin’s effect of the steel point going up the victim’s nostril, emerging at the top of the nose and reentering the eye, for which I am grateful personally.

Widerberg’s handheld approach, a mere documentarist tremor elsewhere in the film, becomes a frenzied set of lunges here, and enables us to feel that WE are slipping chaotically in the murderee’s spilled gore. It’s characteristic of the film that the vaguely vérité observational style becomes something more furious and expressive/expressionistic during instances of violence.

Widerberg is in take-no-prisoners mode. Though his source novel is frank and bold, he does tend to amp things up, stressing the disgusting details, even everyday ones like a toddler with a filthy backside (in the book, a throwaway line of dialogue, now a disgusting chocolaty image). And Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s deadpan, low-affect dryness, though still admirably present, is joined by a sometimes startling intensity.

The casting is tip-top. There’s nobody I objected to. Almost nobody, except the mousy Ronn and the gruff Hult (above), is the way I pictured them from the book, but I didn’t mind. They were close enough. Beck (Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt) is older and fatter. Larsson (Thomas Hellberg) is more rock ‘n’ roll — but a goofy Swedish rock ‘n’ roll. Kollberg (Sven Wollter) is slimmer. But they’re all fine. Torgny Anderberg, who plays the ineffectual police chief Malm here, plays the series’ other ineffectual police chief, Hammar, in the nineties series with Gosta Ekman. He’s very effective at being ineffectual.

I note with satisfaction details like Beck building model ships, and sleeping on the couch (he’s gradually withdrawing from his marriage, in a very passive way). While the books stress that Stockholm is polluted and falling to bits, Winderberg’s camera can’t help but see how colourful and attractive much of the city looks. Oh well, you can’t do anything about photogenics, unless maybe you’re Tom Hooper.

The only characters not present are Krisitiansen and Kvant, who make their final appearance as a comic team in the novel. Since setting them up would take too much time and be a distraction, Widerberg quite sensibly replaces them with some anonymous cannon fodder. It’s the kind of tweak I can cheerfully allow.

It’s a film of two halves — the typically plodding initial investigation yields to a full-on siege situation as the vengeful gunman takes to his rooftop. Then we have helicopter assaults, tear gas, all kinds of mayhem, presented on a spectacular scale and with rather disconcerting relish by the director.

An oddity of this book is the way it features several gory cop-killings, while the authors insist that the dangers of working for the police force are routinely exaggerated. In the interests of drama, Sjöwall and Wahlöö have done quite a bit of that exaggeration themselves: an undercover policewoman is endangered in Roseanna, a junior detective murdered in The Laughing Policeman, Kollberg gets stabbed in The Fire Engine that Disappeared, and this one is the bloodiest yet (but Widerberg adds even more carnage). So the point is worth making, and over the next couple of books they make it repeatedly: it’s in the interests of the police to exaggerate the dangers of their job, and by citing “assaulting a police officer” as the reason for their own violence, they get to fake the statistics with impunity.

The only thing that doesn’t quite come off in this one is the very ending. Like Capra’s MR. SMITH, Beck ends the novel unconscious, and things are concluded with a strange, funny line from Larsson (he’s a strange, funny man) — its abruptness is the whole point in the book, but it must have seemed TOO abrupt for the film, and Widerberg adds a zoom-in and b&w freezeframe on the slain killer, mistimed to make things both abrupt AND fussy. But this is a quibble: the film is a rarity (my first Widerberg, though): everything seems loose and free, and at the same time JUST RIGHT.

THE MAN ON THE ROOF stars Valle Munter; King Hrothgar; Mr. Big; Inspector Andersson; Dirch Frode; ‘Mandel’ Karlsson; Linus; Märeta; Evald Hammar; and Jean Sibelius vanhana.

Murder Most Fowl

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2016 by dcairns

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This is more like it! Possibly. (Like what?)

Lucio Fulci’s DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING is at least kind of interesting, which makes it an improvement on his CAT IN THE BRAIN. Unfortunately, what makes it interesting is partly wrapped up in the solution to its whodunnit aspect, so it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers. See you on the other side if you want to keep this one a mystery.

The setting is Sicily, with a backwards town, the bone-dry hills, and also a giant motorway flyover as settings. Florinda Bolkan is largely reprising her role in IL DEMONIO, with a side order of voodoo doll hexing. Someone starts murdering little boys, and she’s a suspect as she’s been sticking pins in their effigies. I mean, that kind of thing never looks good. In the manner of gialli, hardly anybody emerges from this with credit — some of the suspect child-killers are more appealing than the cops. The kids are PARTICULARLY horrible. I felt, on the whole, pretty good about them getting killed. And that’s not, you know, my regular stance.

Best kid death is the one who turns up in a water trough, transformed by some kind of reverse-Pinocchio magic into an unconvincing mannequin (shades of EVENING PRIMROSE). Well, said Fiona, dead bodies DO look unconvincing…

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As the movie goes on, surprising sympathies do start to emerge. The journalist hero (Tomas Milian) is at least somewhat capable and cool, and the heroine (Barbara Bouchet), a former drug addict and all-round minx who teases one little boy by lolling around nude, doesn’t get killed for it. Which is refreshing. People who are not cops or rustic villagers are allowed to be somewhat OK, if weird. Sex, on the other hand, is consistently gross.

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The most problematic scene is midway, when a group of villagers viciously beat Bolkan to death. This is one of Fulci’s trademark nasty, prolonged set-pieces, more pornographic than suspenseful. On the one hand, he scores it with a love song playing from a transistor radio, for disturbing counterpoint, and stages it in a churchyard. The victim has become quite sympathetic and we know now she’s innocent. Also, in a clear violation of standard gialli rules, the killers are an anonymous mob and they’re never punished for this murder. Bolkan doesn’t even die at the scene, but crawls off and expires by the roadside.

But the attempts at making this killing upsetting and meaningful, a condemnation of the vigilante impulse and of primitive rural communities, are somewhat undercut by Fulci’s typically gloating visualisation of violence. Maybe it’s because he was a doctor, or maybe because he felt the need to compete with the mayhem of Argento et al, or maybe he was just a sick sonofabitch, but Fulci always feels the need to go that extra mile, usually straight through someone’s aorta.

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Fulci’s restless visual mucking-about is in evidence here, but not as manic as in LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (a great stylistic smorgasbord, the one film where he competes with Bava for baroque invention). Mainly he uses the wide screen for diopter shots to create impossible deep focus, or does the opposite, racking focus between giant foreground forms and tiny background people. He likes this trick so much he spends ten minutes in the middle of the film literally doing nothing else.

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Then the killer turns out to be a pedophile priest, which isn’t surprising in plot terms because his apparent NICENESS made him very suspicious in Fulci’s vespiary of a dramatis personae, but IS surprising sociologically. Sure, there’s the KILLER NUN, but I haven’t seen a giallo with a killer priest before. There was one godawful dull thing in which he SEEMED to be a priest but turned out to be an impostor, thus rubbing the movie of its one point of interest. What was that called? Maybe best forgotten, slightly unfair to spring another spoiler on you about a random different film.

Anyhow, the film admitting that there are homosexual and pedophile priests seems kind of radical, and using a priest as killer, well, that’s anti-clerical if anything is, right? And exposing this via a soccer montage is, uh, interesting.

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The title is explained by a mutilated Donald Duck doll, which ties this in with THE NEW YORK RIPPER in some strange way, for in that unpleasant movie, Fulci gives his killer the voice of Donald. This is not amusing, as you might think — it is very, very disturbing. Something must have happened to old Lucio some time way back when, involving the anthropomorphic, bottomless sailor Duck, and his mental associations with Disney’s Number Two character are a bit unpleasant.

Also: Georges Wilson, Irene Papas. Rated R for Rancorous.