Monday, November 17, 2008
THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM 1967 aka CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD aka THE BLOOD DEMON (German DVD title: DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDEL)
Christopher Lee (Count Frederick Regula), Lex Barker (Roger Mont Elise / Reinholt von Marienberg), Karin Dor (Baroness Lilian von Brabant), Vladimir Medar (Fabian)
Directed by Harald Reinl
Count Regula, sentenced for the murders of twelve virgin women, is condemned to death by being drawn and quartered. Thirty-Five years later, Roger Mont Elise, a lawyer, is traveling in Bergenstadt hoping to find any information of his lineage. A peculiar one-legged man meets him in the street one night and hands him a letter written by a man named Count Regula. The letter is an invitation to the castle Andomai. On his way to the citadel, Roger happens upon a Baroness Lilian von Brabant and her servant, Babette, being assaulted by a group of black clad, masked bandits. Rescuing them, Roger sees that Lilian also has a letter sent by Count Regula.
The four continue on together and after encountering one horror after the other, the group end up at their destination. The night of horror continues as the four guests encounter the evil Count Regula and his sinister plan of obtaining eternal life through his revenge on the descendants that had put him to death.
Director Harald Reinl fashions one of the most atmospheric olde world horror movies ever made. Easily holding its own with the best of Bava, Reinl's film showcases a nightmarish quality delivering an ever thickening air of spine-chilling ambiance similar to, and in some ways, surpassing the Italian fright film master. Reinl was probably most famous for his numerous entries in the 'Winnetou' series of West German western films which began with the classic, TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE (1962). Reinl's gruesomely opulent dungeon and torture opus is apparently based on Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Pit & the Pendulum'.
Lex Barker makes for a decent enough hero, if a little bland. Barker will probably be best known for his role in five Tarzan movies. He later went to Europe and had a grand career appearing in various action and western films most notably the West German WINNETOU movies. The gorgeous and alluring Karin Dor is a true beauty and bears a passing resemblance to famous British horror actress, Barbara Steele. Like Barker, the stunning Karin Dor featured in a fair number of the 'Winnetou' films as well as landing a role as a Bond girl in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967).
Christopher Lee's participation would be one reason to raise curiosity in the picture, yet he's not in the film very much. You see him briefly at the beginning, and not again until the last 22 minutes when he is resurrected via his undead servant. His second entrance also unveils his villainous purpose and just exactly why he murdered twelve virgins and was well on his way to ending the life of a thirteenth victim till he was captured. In typical olde world horror fashion, Regula needs the blood of thirteen virgins to obtain immortality. He prefers the women to live out their last moments in agonizing and paralyzing horror to enhance their fear just prior to his extracting the victims blood.
Chris Lee is undoubtedly most well known for his numerous and seemingly inescapable portrayals of Dracula in the Hammer Films series as well as similar roles in other films. Lee played the vampire like villain, Lyco in Bava's fusto horror film, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1962). His role here as Count Regula is not only similar in name, but at the end, he is abhorred by the sight of the cross; demanding Roger toss it away lest he be destroyed.
As per the Gothic horror trappings, there's the typically eerie scene wherein the protagonist inquires of the location of an historically blood soaked bastion. Of course, no one in the surrounding village will speak up, simply ignoring the curious hero rushing off in fear. Of course, there is also the one individual (usually a man of the cloth) that dares to give the probing protagonist the directions he seeks. In this case, it's a holy man carrying a gigantic cross amidst a procession to ward off a devilish monster. There are also the foreboding warnings to turn back as well as the frightened carriage driver who continuously pleads to head back to the safety of the village.
There's an abundance of religious symbolism throughout the film. This imagery occasionally makes for a surreal experience. The coach carrying the group to Castle Andomai pass by several effigies of devout iconography out in the middle of a barren landscape. The filmmakers surely were inspired by Mario Bava for the many different color schemes during the more dreamlike moments. The most obvious is the opening segment in which Regula is condemned to death and just before his sentence is carried out, he has a golden mask aligned with spikes placed on his face. The most noteworthy sequence rife with Bavaesque imaginings is the Forest of the Dead sequence.
On their way to the castle, Roger and his companions enter a haunted forest. Within the hellish woodland, they find trees which sprout human limbs and bodies. Traveling deeper within, the group soon encounters dozens of hanged individuals dangling from the fog encroached trees. The coach driver, whom had been begging to turn around, dies leaving the four travelers stranded.
The mysterious man seen earlier in a burned out guest house, suddenly leaps atop the carriage and absconds with the two women inside. Roger and Fabian must now make the remainder of the trip on foot. Once the two men reach the castle, they find it in ruins adjoined by a creepy graveyard near the entrance. A spiked door creaks open leading into a dungeon and upon entering, the real horror begins.
When they first meet earlier in the film, Roger and Lilian take notice of the peculiarity of their two letters. Roger seeks to learn about his parents, while Lilian is on her way to take possession of her mothers estate. The two share something else aside from their letters from the man called Regula. Lilian's mother had given her a crucifix before she died and Roger was left a medallion bearing the image of a mountain and a saint as its crest. Fabian explains that only aristocracy have a coat of arms such as the one Roger possesses and that it's unusual for such an upper class family to abandon their child. When the two later encounter the revived Count Regula, Lilian learns that it was her mother who turned Regula over to the authorities and Roger's father was the one that sentenced him to death.
About the only negative I can levy at the film is the score. It's not very memorable especially when compared with any of Hammer's, Bava's or Margheriti's horror works. The German audio track on this region 2 dvd features a nice opening cue as Regula is taken to his final judgement. This cue, however, was replaced in the English version without the accompaniment of music, instead containing the more somber sound of church bells ringing the background.
The pervasive tone and mood of this movie totally takes your attention away from any of the characters including the venerable Chris Lee. It's definitely a triumph of style over substance like a nightmarish fairy tale brought to life. If you are a fan of Gothic horror cinema, you would do well to track down a copy of this picture. Despite the lack of a memorable score, this one comes highly recommended.
This review is representative of the German E-M-S DVD (R2). This DVD contains an English dubbed audio track in addition to a German language track. No English subtitles are provided. For those curious, Christopher Lee dubbed his voice for the English version.
ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN 1979 aka L'ISOLA DEGLI UOMINI PESCE aka SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK aka SCREAMERS
Claudio Cassinelli (Claude de Ross), Barbara Bach (Amanda), Richard Johnson (Edmond Rackham), Joseph Cotten (Professor Marvin)
Directed by Sergio Martino
Having been lost at sea for days with a number of convicts from a downed prison vessel, Lieutenant Claude de Ross and company run afoul of strange creatures that attack them amidst a fog enshrouded reef. Awakening the following day on the beach of a beautiful, yet dangerous island, the group find the place is inhabited by the aristocratic Edmond Rackham and his much younger wife, Amanda. Ignoring warnings to leave the isle, strange and mysterious happenings such as voodoo rites and the appearance of humanoid like fish monsters lead to many unanswered questions for the inquisitive Lieutenant. While Claude's shipwrecked detainee's begin disappearing, horrifying as well as fascinating secrets are finally revealed about the atoll and its residents as a disturbed volcano threatens to destroy the island paradise.
Easily the most ambitious of Martino's unrelated horror/adventure/fantasy trilogy which include MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (1978) and THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER (1979). Here, Martino crafts an interesting variation on H.G. Wells's classic story, 'The Island of Dr. Moreau', itself having been made into movies since the 1930's. Martino manages to cram so many elements such as the army of fishmen, the voodoo priestess and her followers, the volcano that threatens to erupt any minute and the lost city of Atlantis! Martino manages to fit elements of the Wells's story in addition to the search for a hidden treasure 2,000 feet below the ocean's depths.
With so much potential and variety in the plot, the setting is ripe for a smorgasbord of thrills and excitement. Although Martino gels all his ingredients successfully, the pacing just drags at times, peddling when it should be full steam ahead. The film itself could have done with a bit more editing, cutting away some of the extraneous fat and toning up on the rhythm to make it move at a more lively rate. Such a thing was attempted by Roger Corman the following year (more on that later) when he released the film through New World Pictures.
However, there's more than enough good moments throughout and the final 15 minutes piles on the action and spectacle. Considering what must have been a small budget, Martino goes the extra mile as usual in delivering more than what the budget will allow. The monster suits are fine. Nothing overly spectacular but they suffice in there function to add entertainment value or move the plot along when necessary. Some extra touches could have made them more believable but the film would have been a far lesser affair without them. The creatures are often seen accompanying some fine underwater photography and it's also obvious the performers inside the suits have been outfitted with air tanks under their costumes during some of the wider shots near the end.
But compared with Martino's other two films often linked with this one, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) is extremely tame in the violence department. Far more fantasy oriented than gory exercise in mayhem, this may turn a number of fans off to this picture but it's definitely got a lot more going for it in the overall plot and adventure aspects of the production.
The late Claudio Cassinelli is the main star here although Barbara Bach precedes him in the credits. Cassinelli has a commanding presence and I'm curious if he dubbed his own voice here. His character of Lt. Claude de Ross, who is also a medical officer, is constantly at odds with Rackham and finds out late in the film why Rackham has kept him alive for so long. Cassinelli gives his all here and he starred in Martino's two other films in this unofficial trilogy, another of which also starred Barbara Bach. Cassinelli, as is already widely known, was killed in a helicopter accident while filming HANDS OF STEEL (1986), also directed by Sergio Martino.
The actor left behind a plethora of vibrant roles in many a fan favorite spanning various genres of European cinema as the giallo (THE SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR in 1975), crime movies (KILLER COP in 1974 and BLOODY PAYROLL in 1976 among them), giallo/crime hybrids (WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? in 1974) and even playing the mythological Zeus in two abominably bad movies, HERCULES (1983) and THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (1984) from director Luigi Cozzi. With so many intriguing movies on his resume, his star will never fade.
Barbara Bach on the other hand, is beauty personified but she seldom does anything more than waltz around looking like she's in a state of catatonia or possibly entranced by the voodoo priestess in the film. Most of her other performances follow a similar pattern. However, she was quite lively in CAVEMAN (1981), the film in which she met her husband, former Beatle Ringo Starr. Bach was, of course, fondly remembered for her star turn alongside Roger Moore in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) as well as the embodiment of lust in the cult favorite UP THE ACADEMY (1980). In addition to her two Martino horror/fantasy films, she had previously featured in a handful of Italian giallo and crime movies prior to her nabbing the role in the Bond film.
Respected British actor Richard Johnson stars as the villainous Edmond Rackham and he plays the role rather viciously sometimes bordering on the comical. His near constant butting of heads with Cassinelli grows a bit tiresome here and there but by the end, he proves to be quite the sophisticated and determined bad guy reaching an almost Bondian level of villainy in his plans. Johnson will forever be remembered by Italian horror fans for his role of Dr. Menard in Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (1979). In ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979), Johnson is dressed more or less identical to his outfit seen in the flashback in Fulci's movie. Perhaps these two were shooting at the same time? Johnson also appeared in Martino's THE BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER the same year playing a hermetic and loony priest residing in a cave warning those of the dangers of the great alligator of the films title.
Joseph Cotten appears briefly here revealing a good chunk of this films mystery and his scenes amount to about 5 minutes of screen time. Cotten is no stranger to foreign cinema and it is often stated that when American actors reach the end of their illustrious careers in their homeland, they resign themselves to foreign shores as it's the last plateau where their career still holds weight.
To me, this notion, whether it be true or not, is a bit insulting to foreign productions. That the star of CITIZEN CANE (1941) did a large number of often critically maligned European (and one Japanese) productions, those critics should not forget the fact that he also appeared in three US films considered three of the worst of all time--DUEL IN THE SUN (1946), THE OSCAR (1966) and HEAVEN'S GATE (1980), a film that seriously crippled United Artists. His roles in foreign films include LATITUDE ZERO (1969), THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971), BARON BLOOD (1972), SYNDICATE SADISTS (1975) and GUYANA, CRIME OF THE CENTURY (1979).
Also, Bobby Rhodes is seen as one of Rackham's native servants. Rhodes is recognizable from BIG ALLIGATOR RIVER (1979) and most memorably in DEMONS (1984) and DEMONS 2 (1986) among his credits.
The cinematography by Giancarlo Ferrando is nothing short of stunning. Full advantage is taken of some truly magnificent locations. Locales that, if not for the air of horror and danger present, are almost idyllic. The photography here is a definite highpoint and something that is shared with the other two evidently more violent Martino horror/adventure films. Numerous times the actors are framed amidst awe-stricken shots of island fauna, beach locales surrounding the isle or massive caverns like the one seen during the films last half.
Likewise, the soundtrack by Luciano Michelini is ambitious in its scope going for scene specific stingers, voodoo enhanced jungle beats, melodic, sometimes romantic passages and even one cue that sounds reminiscent of one heard in the score for Lenzi's EATEN ALIVE!(1980). Like most Italian genre films of the time, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN was released in America and suffered the worst fate of Martino's three jungle adventure films.
ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) was released to US theaters sometime in the Summer of 1981 in a seriously bastardized, severely altered and truncated version from United Pictures Organization and Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Corman apparently was displeased with Martino's original version and between himself and a director named Miller Drake, commissioned an entirely new opening sequence to accentuate the horror aspects of the film. This new opening segment featured Cameron Mitchell, Mel Ferrer and a group of unknowns as 19th century pirates searching for gold and being attacked by the fishmen (these new effects shots were created by a young Chris Walas) and showcased some decapitations and throat rippings. The fishmen seen in Martino's original movie are not seen in this new opening sequence.
In addition to this gory opening, some 15 minutes were removed, new music was added and the title was changed to SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK. The film died quickly but Corman wasn't finished yet. A new trailer for the film was created but under the newly christened title, SCREAMERS. This new version utilized the tagline, "See a man turned inside out!" and featured footage of "this guy running around covered in slime...all his veins hanging out, chasing a girl in a bikini." This new snippet was shot by trash peddler Jim Wynorski. The "new film" opened in Atlanta, Georgia and stories of incensed patrons destroying the drive-in due to the lack of seeing a man turned inside out resulted in the shot from the trailer being inserted into the film at some point or other.
The added scene was not in any video version I saw as it never existed in the original film nor, presumably, the initial amalgamation from New World Pictures. Reportedly, the SCREAMERS version made some money. To make matters worse, the SCREAMERS version lists a Dan T. Miller as director which is apparently a pseudonym of Joe Dante although Dante had no known involvement on this film other than being an employee of New World prior to Corman's tinkering and subsequent release of the Martino movie.
In 1995, Martino would direct a made for Italian TV movie sequel entitled THE FISHMEN & THEIR QUEEN. This oddity was included as an extra on the out of print Marketing Films DVD from Germany. This NoShame Italy DVD is lovingly restored save for a brief bit during the opening moments. The sound is robust and clear on the English track included (for a change) here. The biggest surprise and also the most disappointing, is the inclusion of an hour long doc on the making of the film as well as some of his other movies as told by Sergio and Luciano Martino and Massimo Antonello Geleng. What's disappointing about it is that there's no English options for this special feature.
A fine fantasy adventure film from one of Italy's best and most versatile fantastic film directors, Sergio Martino. ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) may not appeal to hardcore fans of Italian genre cinema but there is much to appreciate here in the idea motivated script and cinematography despite the occasional pacing problems. The film is relatively safe enough for younger viewers due to the lack of any gore or nudity but then they may be distracted when the creatures are not on screen. Regardless, any Serious Martino fan should have this in their collection. Those expecting something along the lines of his cannibal opus or post apocalyptic landscape might do better to look elsewhere.
This review is representative of the NoShame Italy DVD (R2). There is an English audio track in addition to the original Italian audio. The generous extras do not have English subtitles.