Sunday, January 25, 2015

Operation Lipstick (1967) review


 

OPERATION LIPSTICK 1967

Cheng Pei-pei (Li Hsiao Bing), Paul Chang Chung (Chang Yi), Liu Liang Hua (Yu Mei Die), Tina Chin Fei (Kuen Kuen), Tien Feng (Manager Liu), Ku Feng (Inspector Ma), Peng Peng (Li Peng), Yang Chih Ching (Chu Tien Wai), Fan Mei Sheng (hook-handed gangster), King Pai Tien (Lo Tin), Wu Ma (Hun Chu), Hu Tung (Dr. Au Tai Man), Huang Chung Shun (Hung Ying), Chao Hsin Yen (Hsiao Jin)

Directed by Inoue Umetsugu

The Short Version: Linear, but fast-paced and fun Shaw Brothers spy shenanigans finds various thieves and criminal masterminds after a secret microfilm. Cheng Pei-pei is at the center of it all, playing a nightclub dancer who also happens to be the daughter of the King of Thieves. The expected intrigue and subterfuge ensue, but rarely taking itself seriously. Easily one of the best collaborations between Shaw Brothers and the Japanese filmmakers that were brought to the studio in the late 1960s. A highly sought after jewel in the Shaw crown for those with an interest in their non-Kung Fu output.


Dr. Au unveils a breakthrough in atomic energy that, in the right hands will benefit mankind, but in the wrong hands could destroy it. Burning all his documents, the enterprising scientist puts his life's work on microfilm. However, the ruthless Chu Loong syndicate kills the scientist and all those connected with him in an effort to raise the price of the microfilm to the highest bidder. The catch is locating it first, well hidden that it is. A band of thieves and con-artists led by nightclub singer and dancer Li Bing learns of the coveted item and is recruited by a counter intelligence agency to procure the microfilm before the villains do. 


By the time OPERATION LIPSTICK hit theaters, there had already been a small number of spy pictures at Shaw's (beginning with Lo Wei's THE GOLDEN BUDDHA in 1966), spurred on by the success of Cantonese Bond imitations from earlier in the decade. A playful take on the genre was inevitable. With that said, this OPERATION is one of the best, most enjoyable of its kind. The movie coasts from the very first frame to the last -- rarely, if ever stumbling. Umetsugu, a Japanese director with a slew of standard, yet polished credits during his Shaw tenure, shows a deft touch for comedy in his breezy spy spoof. Sort of the Hong Kong answer to the same years CASINO ROYALE. Interestingly, both films were released in the same month.


Umetsugu's script isn't loaded with action, but the brisk pace is carried by a healthy string of fantastic set pieces rife with comedic touches and vibrant colors; an altercation in a Turkish bathhouse and comical hysteria aboard a ferry are among them. Additionally, with all the various clues leading one step closer to the location of the microfilm, a sense of intrigue and adventure is created to go along with the usual spy tropes.


Gadgets are a spy's best friend, and Umetsugu supplies his script with a few of them; these include earring communication devices, a trick trunk, and a perfume bottle that sprays a mist rendering a person unconscious. The best, and most memorable of these are a trio of assassins wearing dark sunglasses who moonlight as nightclub singers. Recalling the Three Blind Mice of DR. NO (1962), their gimmick is in their instruments -- lethal banjos that conceal firearms (see above). The exact same device turned up in the hands of William Berger in Gianfranco Parolini's spy western SABATA (1969) starring Lee Van Cleef.


The atmosphere may be uniformly light-hearted, but some scenes are extraordinarily brutal for such a fluffy film; examples being a couple of knifings and an electrocution. These are sporadic instances, but films with this type of aura generally have no casualties in them. There is one possible explanation, though. Kuei Chi Hung, Hong Kong's most infamous (yet underrated) purveyor of cinematic violence and the macabre, was an assistant director.


One of a handful of Japanese filmmakers brought to Hong Kong for a cross-pollination of cinema styles, Inoue Umetsugu was already known for helming musicals; and he carried this tradition to the Shaw Studios. Working for all the major production companies in Japan, Umetsugu's output for Shaw's had a certain quality about them, although much of his HK work were little more than remakes of Japanese films made by him and other colleagues. OPERATION LIPSTICK was his first of two spy films for the company (the other being the elaborately ludicrous THE BRAIN STEALERS [1968]).

 
The graceful Cheng Pei-pei shines in every scene she's in, and every bit the definition of adorable. There's a playful sexiness on display in her role as the thieving sister of a family of thieves. She's far away from the character Golden Swallow of COME DRINK WITH ME (1966) -- a role repeated in the following years film bearing the same name. She has limited fighting ability in this one, relegated to some Judo style maneuvers (as was always the case in the Shaw spy pictures) here and there, yet these appear and disappear from one scene to the next; although her martial skill vanishing act isn't as jarring as Lily Ho's in THE BRAIN STEALERS.

Around the time this film was completed, Pei-pei was sent to Japan for seven months to study advanced choreography. While there the actress shot two weeks worth of location shooting for the aforementioned GOLDEN SWALLOW and FLYING DAGGER (both 1968) for director Chang Cheh.


Paul Chang Chung was one of Shaw's then small stable of leading men; considering moviegoers went to theaters to see the women before Chang Cheh introduced the masses to musculature and masculinity with THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967). Paul's presence in such pictures as THE GOLDEN BUDDHA (1966), THE BLACK FALCON (1967), and KISS AND KILL (1967) gave him a brief time to shine as Asia's answer to Agent 007. He performs the same service here.


These HK variants won't make anyone forget James Bond; if anything, these lightweight, but entertaining counterparts make intriguing comparative studies. Umetsugu is obviously having a grand time playing around with genre conventions. He's in on the gag and wants the audience in on it, too. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the end when our two main characters break the fourth wall with a wink to the audience. Die-hard Shaw Brothers fans and devout worshipers of spy cinema will get the most out of this (it's never been released on video or digital); as will those who are curious to see the Hong Kong approach to old Hollywood style filmmaking.

You can purchase this film HERE.
 

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Devil's Wedding Night (1973) review


 

IL PLENILUNIO DELLE VERGINI (THE FULL MOON OF THE VIRGINS) 1973 aka THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT

Mark Damon (Karl Schiller/Franz Schiller), Rosalba Neri (Countess Dracula), Esmeralda Barros (Lara), Xiro Papas (The Vampire Monster), Gengher Gatti (The Mysterious Man)

Directed by Paolo Solvay (Luigi Batzella)

The Short Version: Fans of Rosalba Neri will be saying 'Fangs for the mammaries' in her clothes shedding lead role as Countess Dracula in Luigi Batzella's budget-drained slice of Euro horror. It's the Devil's Wedding Night, and Neri invites both male and female companions into her naked clutch biding her time till the resurrection of her plasma-loving partner, Count Dracula. Batzella crams everything from LeFanu's 'Carmilla' to Wagner operas into this Hammer Films inspired horror hodgepodge. Topping the carnal cake is twice the Mark Damon (in a dual role); yet that isn't enough to deter ones attention from the seductiveness of Neri and a bounty of babes, bare breasts, and blood.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***


Archaeologist Karl Schiller goes in search of the legendary Ring of the Nibelungen, alleged to have once belonged to Count Dracula. Believing the ring to be located in the Carpathian Mountains, Karl hopes to find it, and put it on display in the Karnstein Museum of Archaeology(!). Meanwhile, his twin brother, the womanizing gambler Franz, wishes to lay his greedy hands on the ring as well. Smelling money if he can get to the ancient relic before his brother, Franz stops at a remote village where he learns of the Night of the Virgin Moon; a diabolical ceremony that occurs every 50 years when five virgins are summoned to Castle Dracula and never seen again. 


Bargain basement filmmaker Batzella (as the pseudonymous Paolo Solvay) did relatively few movies -- and even fewer that could be considered good -- in comparison to some of his more well known colleagues, but this ostensibly cheap, if creative picture is one of his "best". The limited resources of the production are in evidence, but what's here is occasionally ambitious. This extends to the script which, depending on the version you're watching, will bear the names of different writers (more on that later).


Taking inspiration from J.S. LeFanu's 'Carmilla' and Hammer vampire movies (particularly the Karnstein trilogy), the plot of Batzella's fang-filled film is a veritable sanguinary salad of elements lifted from those pictures, shades of Stoker's novel, and a dash of Wagner's opera, 'Der Ring Des Nibelungen'. An atypical Euro spin is prominent, frequently going further than Hammer ever did in the lesbian angles, and the nudity and blood that gave such scenes that je ne sais quoi demanded of them. Direction is lackadaisical and the action is further hindered by repetitiveness. For example, a sequence is interrupted multiple times by shots of Damon galloping on a horse, and backed by ill-fitting cues from Bulgarian composer Vasil Kojucharov. Numerous scenes of Damon walking around haunted corridors of the castle give the actor a lot of exercise while making the viewer tired. While we're on the subject....



Mark Damon essays two roles as the Schiller twins -- one is righteous and the other is self-centered. Aside from combing his hair differently, you can't discern the two despite their opposite personalities. Nearly interchangeable, you almost forget Damon is playing twins. Franz Schiller -- the adventurous, loutish, sex-obsessed brother -- is a combination of Jonathan Harker and Paul (Christopher Matthews) from SCARS OF DRACULA (1970); far more the latter than the former with his penchant for money and Lothario lifestyle. The trajectory his character takes, ahead of the main character to the castle is akin to Harker, if a lot more virile.


The actor became a regular in Italian cinema, and a favorite of the horror genre particularly in Corman's HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963). Damon was back in Italy in 1965 for his first western in Sergio Corbucci's JOHNNY ORO (1966). Another 'Johnny' flick followed in rapid succession with JOHNNY YUMA (1966); this was the first onscreen pairing of Damon and Rosalba Neri. They were together again in 1972s THE GREAT CHIHUAHUA TREASURE HUNT. Batzella's sexy vampire opus was their third pairing.


In between acting and producing duties (the latter beginning with THE ARENA [1974]), Damon wrote a handful of scripts; one of these was co-scripting THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT. He's not credited on the Italian print, but on the English dubbed version his pseudonym of Alan M. Harris shares credit with executive producer Ralph Zucker. Damon worked with Neri again, but as a producer on the aforementioned THE ARENA, a co-production with Roger Corman. The two men initially butted heads over using Margaret Markov (whom Damon was dead-set against for her unknown status in Italy), but he came around eventually. Ironically, he and Markov -- she 24 and he 40 -- would get married in 1973, and they remain together today.


Rosalba Neri (billed as Sara Bay on dubbed release) has done it all, and shown it all over the course of her varied, illustrious career. She's played the damsel in distress (HERCULES AND THE BLACK PIRATE), ill-fated saloon girl (ARIZONA COLT), sex bomb (TOP SENSATION), and even a dementedly sexy mad scientist (LADY FRANKENSTEIN). Her role as Countess De Vries is among her best, even if the movie comes up short. Neri does far better with the role than the similar one essayed by Ingrid Pitt in Hammer's disappointing COUNTESS DRACULA (1971). She drains the role of all that it demands, becoming one of the best onscreen interpretations of the Blood Countess to date. There's one scene in particular that's probably the best shot footage in the entire film where she seems to float across the screen where the lightning flashes against her form as she holds the blood-red ring into the air (see insert).


Aside from Damon and Neri, the chaotic script contains some things that make absolutely no sense at all; to compensate for the confusion, the writers toss in a bald-headed, hunchbacked vampire, a zombie-like female servant, and a bizarre old man who pops in and out of the narrative much like John Forbes-Robertson in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970). Additionally, Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen is the coveted object of Karl's obsession; supposedly an all powerful weapon, yet it's easily defeated by a talisman already in Karl's possession -- an Egyptian amulet, of all things. The script even finds room to turn Neri into a gigantic bat!

 
The cinematography of Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D'Amato, billed on the US cut as Michael Holloway) has a few admirable moments of Gothic resonance; although these aren't a patch on 60s Bava, or Hammer for that matter. D'Amato reportedly directed some of the movie; such as the opening chase of the girl in the woods and the classic blood bathing sequence.

 
Composer Vasil Kojucharov did mostly westerns, and his musical score for THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT, at times, sounds like it belongs in one. It's not a very memorable soundtrack, but a few of the cues fit the onscreen morbidity just fine. The best beats occur during the Blood Ceremony sequence.



Unfortunately, director Luigi Batzella will likely remain best known for the execrable THE BEAST IN HEAT (1977), the nadir of the short-lived Italian Nazi cycle of exploitation pictures. However, of his resume, THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT has had the widest circulation on television via Elvira's Movie Macabre back in the 1980s. The English dubbed version was released from Shout Factory as a single, and double feature DVD edition with LEGACY OF BLOOD (1971). 

 
Below are some differences between the English dubbed print currently available, and the European release from CineKult. There were additional, racier sex scenes shot, but not used in the Italian cut (some of these shots can be seen drenched in red during the opening credits). Images of some of these are below, as well as alternate nude shots found in the trailer that are not present in the actual movie. These are denoted with captions.

Still of a nude shot not in the finished film. Esmeralda Barros is clothed during this shot in the film.

Still of a nude scene not in the finished film.
The Italian version opens differently than the US release. The English version begins with a POV shot of a woman running through the forest. We then see shots of this woman frantically sprinting past the trees in a nightgown. Then back to the POV angle. Then the camera acting as spectator as she makes her way further into the woods. She stops and turns, immediately screams, then starts running again. Now the camera is from the POV of whatever is chasing her (some of this footage is seen in an 'alternate opening' found among the DVD extras). It's here where the Italian language version begins. As usual, the credits are different between the two versions.

Still photo of a different, more revealing angle from the sex scene between Neri and Barros while Damon watches. Note he's swinging the amulet which doesn't seem to bother either creature of the night.

Bits and pieces are missing in the Shout DVD due to print damage (the tavern owners daughter finding Franz's amulet; a close up of Neri wearing the Nibelungen ring; etc). Sound effects are added to the US dubbed version that aren't present in the Italian original; these include moaning and a kooky laugh heard during the 'Blood Bath' sequence. Another creepy cackle is heard over the closing moments as the driver-less coach rides away.

Shot from trailer that's different from the same scene in the film. Barros is clothed at this time.

Rosalba Neri
The opening and closing credits are a cornucopia of confusion in terms of the performers and multiple duties undertaken by both cast and crew. Mark Damon plays both roles of Karl and Franz Schiller. He's credited as such in the dubbed prints ending credit crawl. But in the Italian original, the role of Franz is inexplicably credited to Sergio Pislar! Esmeralda Barros (KING OF KONG ISLAND, W DJANGO!) is listed as playing her characters name of Lara in the Italian, and listed as 'The Zombie' in the US end credits. Ditto for Francesca Romana Davila billed as Tanya in the Italian, but is credited simply as 'The Innkeeper's Daughter' in the US end credits. Curiously, the US dubbed version carries some actor credits during the ending crawl that aren't present on the Italian print. These are as follows: The Innkeeper (Mort Baxter--Carlo Gentili; not listed at all), 1st Villager (George Dolfin--Giorgio Dolfin C.S.C.; Italian opening credits only), 2nd Villager (Stephen Hopper--Stefano Oppedisano C.S.C.; Italian opening credits only). Furthermore, the rest of the technical crew are Anglicized names in the US end credits; ie assistant director Romano Scandariato is billed as Robert Price-Jones.

Alternate shot from the trailer. In the film Barros only touches one of the girls breasts, and the girl never makes eye contact with her.
Alternate shot from trailer. Neri extends her right leg in the film.
Another curio between the two credit sequences are those of the writers. The Italian lists the two screenwriters only during the end crawl, and they are Walter Bigari (also billed as production manager in opening credits) and director Batzella (under his Paolo Solvay pseudonym). Meanwhile, over on the English version, the screenwriters are entirely different -- Ralph Zucker and Alan M. Harris (Mark Damon's pseudonym). The next credit following the writers is exclusive to the English print -- "From an original story 'The Brides of Countess Dracula' by Ralph Zucker and Ian Danby". Apparently a great many hands were all over multiple slices of this celluloid pie.



Batzella's movie may make one pine for the finer days of Italian Gothics; those that made the flimsiest of budgets appear sturdy by comparison. Its strength lies in the high dollar quotient of sleaze; of which there will be many buyers. It's at least more entertaining than the boredom of Jean Rollin's (yet his cinematography is superior) near dialog-free vampires, and bereft of the bungling found in any number of Jess Franco pap. If you're a fan of Hammer's Gothic output, or Oldeworld set Euro horror shot on real locations, the THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT is an occasion you may wish to attend.


This review is representative of the Italian CineKult R2 DVD. Extras and Specs: Trailer; trailers for other CineKult releases; Nude For Dracula featurette: interviews with Franco Gaudenzi, Rosalba Neri, Joe D'Amato; alternate opening sequence; alternate ending; 16x9 widescreen 1.85:1 (box states 2.35); running time: 1:19:40; No English options. Box states Italian subtitles, but they could not be activated.
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