Monday, August 2, 2010

Tragic Ceremony (1972) review


Camille Keaton (Jane), Tony Isbert (Bill), Luigi Pistilli (Lord Alexander), Luciana Paluzzi (Lady Alexander), Jose Calvo (gas station attendant)

Directed by Riccardo Freda

The Short Version: Odd and obscure Italian curio has a bizarre, muddled storyline, but makes up for its deficiencies with some ghoulish atmospheric qualities. There are several sequences that are typical of European nightmare movies and while Freda's film is often a confusing affair, the creepy visuals provide enough of a distraction to buoy this flawed picture slightly above average.

A group of hippies find themselves without gas during a raging thunderstorm. Amidst the pouring rain and violent lightning, the group find an ominous mansion and are invited in by the aristocratic owners who are having a party with a number of guests. Later that night, the young group make the discovery that both the homeowners and the guests are all satanists. The Devil worshippers, in a trance like state, begin killing each other allowing the horrified hippies to escape. However, something evil follows them from the castle and begins killing them all one by one.

The director credited with creating the boom of Italian horror with the release of I, VAMPIRI in 1957, helms this confusing, eerie and bloody obscurity from the early part of the 1970's. The English title fits perfectly with a particular sequence midway into the movie, but for whatever reason, the makers decided to market this as what would appear to be an early example of a police thriller/Giallo hybrid. The actual film itself is diametrically opposed to the images that title brings about.

Camille Keaton, later to play an exterminating female avenger in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978), does little here but look hypnotized. Later on in the film, though, this look fits her character when she becomes the target of the devil worshippers. Busy character actor, Luigi Pistilli (FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE), is seen briefly along with the alluring Luciana Paluzzi (THE FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO) as the couple hosting the satanic bacchanal.

Dark Sky Films presentation of TRAGIC CEREMONY is a subtitled Italian version which presents the movie in its uncut version. What's curious here is that generally, foreign movies were often truncated for export whether it be dialog scenes, or bits of gory violence. Well, in this original version, there appears to be a lot of exposition missing in several places as a few plot devices suddenly disappear, or are never fully explored leaving the viewer puzzled.

However, the film is rich with Gothic atmosphere and more than a few wholeheartedly creepy moments perpetuate the grim aura haunting Freda's movie. The loud, penetrating, yet repetitive score by the reliable Stelvio Cipriani aids these scenes and even had me tempted to look over my shoulder on a couple occasions while watching this film with all the lights out. Maybe it was the nostalgia of reliving those days of seeing similar horrors late at night on television? Maybe it was just the fact that Freda's movie is frequently successful in conveying a sense of dread and horror? It's probably more of the latter than the former.

Utilizing the tried and true formula of a group of young kids stranded in a storm with a big, spooky mansion nearby in the midst of ensuing terror has been done hundreds of times before and since. I've always enjoyed this story conceit and never seem to tire of it, especially when its done with a deft hand sprinkled with some tense moments. Freda's movie brings to mind the recent HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) with a subtle dash of RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) and a shocker final moment that has been used in several movies after.

Probably the most bizarre and garishly gory moment in the movie would have to be the 'tragic ceremony' of the title. As the satanists prepare to sacrifice Jane, her friends break in just in time to save her. Instead of chasing the intruders, the Devil's disciples decide instead to violently kill each other instead. Carlo Rambaldi (PERSEUS THE INVINCIBLE, KING KONG, ALIEN, E.T., DUNE) created the graphic head splittings, gunshots and decapitations seen during this ostentatiously gaudy showcase. From here, the group are stalked and killed one by one by a mysterious killer, or force of evil which is revealed during the last scene of the movie immediately after a doctor (of all people) explains everything for those who might be a bit confused.

I enjoyed TRAGIC CEREMONY quite a bit. If I were being critical, I'd say it was merely an average picture with little to recommend it outside of some interesting visuals and crippled by a fractured script and occasionally confusing narrative. I've yet to see a movie from this director that I would deem a great experience all around, but this comes pretty close. From a movie fans perspective, those visuals and creepy situations are enough that I will be watching this movie again in the near future.

This review is representative of the Dark Sky Films DVD

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: The Klansman (1974) review


Lee Marvin (Sheriff Track Bascomb), Richard Burton (Breck Stancill), Cameron Mitchell (Butt Cutt Cates), O.J. Simpson (Garth), Lola Falana (Loretta Sykes), Luciana Paluzzi (Trixie), Linda Evans (Nancy Poteet), David Huddleston (Mayor Hardy Riddle), Hoke Howell (Bobby Poteet)

Directed by Terence Young

The Short Version: James Bond director, Young was behind the camera on this raucously out of control trash that wants to be a serious movie about racism in the deep South, but settles for tasteless, neolithic thrills and unintentional hilarity. This is often lumped in with blaxploitation movies. A true gem in the history of big studio embarrassments.

The Juice don't like "crackers" in his soup

Nancy Poteet is raped inside her car one night by an unseen assailant. The locals in town get word that it was a black man who committed the crime. This riles the numerous Klan members in Atoka County and they set about finding the rapist. Enraged, a small group of klansmen chase after two young black men and brutally kill one of them. The other, Garth, manages to escape. Amidst much violence between racists townsfolk and a group fighting for equal rights, Garth sets out to kill the group of men responsible for his friends death. Meanwhile, the Klan attempt to force a crippled white man out of town sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement while the sheriff is torn between doing what's right for either himself, or the town.

There are a lot of words one could use to describe Terence Young's THE KLANSMAN. It's wildly erratic, slipshod, mean spirited, sloppy, ill conceived and one of the best, worst movies of the 1970's, the decade where seemingly anything was possible. The film is a conundrum. It tries and wants to be an important film on race relations in a small Alabama town, but fails spectacularly. It does succeed in being a tasteless, lazily put together and big budget exploitation movie. Based on the novel by William Bradford Huie, a writer/reporter who incited the ire of the KKK during the Civil Rights Movement during the late 50's and into the 1960's.

The film is no doubt an embarrassment to Huie's work and noted controversial director, Samuel Fuller, was originally tapped to direct. Also writing the script, Fuller eventually walked away from the picture when the studio ordered major changes from proposed nervousness regarding the racist tone of the script. Whatever fears Paramount may have had, they apparently paid the production little attention as the finished film is one of the most offensive and simultaneously ridiculous train wrecks to ever chug through a theater chain.

O.J. Simpson (left) and Lee Marvin (right)

At the time, Paramount was a breeding ground for these kinds of movies teetering on a line between entertainment and bad taste. Black action pictures such as THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972) and its sequel, SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1973) are two rare and racially charged westerns starring Fred Williamson. Both those films use racism as a plot device to propel the story and give the audience even more incentive to cheer on the heroes. MANDINGO (1975) was another movie, a big movie, actually, that caused an enormous stir at the time. Seeing it now, it's more of an important movie about a dark time in man's history. The sequel, DRUM (1976), falls more in the category inhabited by the movie being reviewed here. For THE KLANSMAN (1974), racism is used purely for shock value. Whatever moralistic intentions inherent in the original script, or Young's original vision is lost in a miasma of misplaced monologues and half hearted attempts at poignancy.

Linda Evans and Richard Burton

There's several poorly explored plot strands littered throughout the script all vying for screen time. One concerns Nancy Poteet (the lovely Linda Evans of THE BIG VALLEY and DYNASTY TV shows), who is raped at the beginning of the movie. The town shuns her since they believe she was raped by a black man. Her church no longer wants her there and she, herself, believes no man will want to touch her ever again. Burton's character touches her, though, despite the film abruptly dropping a romantic angle between him and Trixie, a secretary working at the police station played by the gorgeous Italian actress, Luciana Paluzzi. She seems to have been dubbed, but if not, she pulls off an American accent beautifully.

Luciana Paluzzi and Richard Burton

Another angle the film fails to capitalize on is the message the picture is purported to be built around. In between sniping out the racist cracker bastards that murdered his friend, O.J. Simpson delivers a late arriving, Malcolm X styled speech about violence being the answer to the problem. The scenes of him taking out the bad guys are occasionally handled sloppily and the Klan funeral complete with burning crosses just prior to O.J.'s ambush is very funny. The mere presence of The Juice as an avenging angel is disturbing in light of the events that took place 20 years later in 1994.

Lola Falana

Young's movie is predominantly concerned with violence and as many creative uses for the 'N' word as possible. Yes, it does present a dark side of humanity that still exists today (on both sides, black and white), but seldom approaches the material seriously focusing far more emphasis on the vast amount of exploitation potential. The movie was apparently an embarrassment for many involved including the actual town the picture was shot in. The behind the scenes was reportedly just as chaotic as the finished film itself.

Both these offscreen rowdy alki's have several scenes where one or the other is pouring each other drinks. I bet they looked forward to multiple takes

Allegedly, both Marvin and Burton were sauced the length of the shoot, but you could scarcely say much regarding Burton considering the character he was playing is an alcoholic. Marvin is actually the most interesting character in the movie as the somewhat confused sheriff who doesn't quite know which path to take; should he do what's right, or do what it takes to get himself re elected? If Marvin was drunk the entire time, he hides it damn well. Burton, though, is pretty hilarious. His Southern accent comes and goes about as much as the movies narrative structure.

Cameron Mitchell gets rough with Lola Falana

Cameron Mitchell does more here to solidify his then downward spiraling career as a force to be reckoned with in the exploitation arena than in a dozen other trashy movies he appeared in. He plays a nasty character with a hilariously stupid name; Butt Cutt Cates(??) I suppose if my parents had named me 'Butt Cutt', I'd be mad at the world, too. Mitchell is Bascomb's violently racist deputy who displays the depths to which he will sink during a scene where he rapes Lola Falana's character while other klansmen gleefully watch.

This scene is just too funny for words

The Karate fight between Burton and Mitchell deserves mentioning as it's one of the most riotously funny moments in the entire movie. Burton does his best (even with his bum leg) to appear effective with his "deadly" strikes, but it's painfully obvious Mitchell oversells each and every reaction to Burton's blows. It's one of a handful of highlights spread out among many lowlights throughout. Any minor remnants of a serious movie is thrown through a plate glass window during the explosive finale. In it, Lee Marvin and O.J. take on the Klan members (all decked out in their white sheet attire) in a bloody shootout that leaves just about everyone dead. Even the lovely Lola Falana picks up a shotgun and takes out some punks. Her alluring figure is one of the few true bright spots found here. To see a far more successful and respectable treatment of a similar film treading the same ground, check out Ralph Nelson's superior and taut dramatic thriller, ...TICK...TICK...TICK (1970).

Character actor spotters will also recognize Hoke Howell among the cast. Howell frequently played scuzzy characters (SLAUGHTER'S BIG RIP-OFF), or redneck roles (gas station attendant in KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS). David Huddleston, the redneck, racist Mayor in THE KLANSMAN was also a comedic, dumb, racist cowboy in Mel Brooks's classic, BLAZING SADDLES (1974).

There is no current legit release of this movie and one isn't likely. There are numerous bootleg versions with different running times out there, though. Reportedly, the Paramount VHS is the most complete version running anywhere between 112 and 120 minutes. Other versions are a more widely accessible, but cut television version running 100 minutes. Oddly enough, this version retains many of the racial slurs, but cuts out expletives and nudity. Several spots reveal some major editing has taken place. An uncut Dutch(?) DVD was briefly available, but is now difficult to find. Hopefully, this trashy non classic will surface in a more complete version to remind people of just what kind of celluloid sleaze passed for entertainment back in the 1970's, clearly the most creatively free and violently raw decade in history.

The Centerfold Girls (1974) review


Andrew Prine (Clement Dunne), Jaime Lyn Bauer (Jackie), Aldo Ray (Ed Walker), Jennifer Ashley (Charly), Tiffany Bolling (Vera), Janet Wood (Linda), Teda Bracci (Rita), Talie Cochrane (Donna), Paula Shaw (Mrs. Walker), Francine York (Melissa), Ray Danton (Perry), Janis Lynn (Room mate), Mike Mazurki (The Caretaker), Charlie (Miss January)

Directed by John Peyser

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

The Short Version: Superior sleaze spectacular from the savage 70's, the decade of primo exploitation excellence. Despite its low budget, the filmmakers deliver a grand and grim good time for lovers of screen sadism. Andrew Prine is one scary bastard stalking and slashing a bevy of beautiful women in an almost constant state of undress.

A demented psychopath stalks and ultimately carves up beautiful young women who have posed nude in a popular men's magazine.

With such a basic and simple plot, you'd expect this movie to be like any other run of the mill pseudo stalk and slash picture. But there's a lot more to this movie aesthetically than what is found in typical sleaze pictures. While this movie has enough grim and nasty attributes for several other movies combined, Peyser directs this film in a unique style. Framed in a similar fashion as the anthologies of Amicus, the three separate vignettes are connected by Andrew Prine's stalking serial killer, Clement Dunne.

There are no titles to these tales, the end credits list them as 'The First Story', 'Second Story', 'Third Story'. The three story arc is an ingenious way of telling this cinematic tale and allows for a large number of disingenuous and unbelievably repulsive characters to enter and exit the picture with regularity. Nearly everyone in the cast plays an individual whose either a sadist, or lacking in social skills, or bereft of any fragment of decency. One thing I did notice is that it seems Tarantino may have been highly influenced by this movie for his boring as all hell second half of that awful stinker, GRINDHOUSE (2007).

Clement delights himself in choosing his next victim by first circling their faces with a red marker, then cutting their heads off in their nudie magazine spread once he's done them in. Stalking his prey first by taunting them with harassing phone calls, when he finally gets his hands on them, he states he doesn't want to hurt them, he only wants to "help" them. This leads to an unpleasant death by straight razor. However, during the last segment, Clement meets his match with the fiesty Vera played by exploitation favorite, Tiffany Bolling.

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS is quite simply one of the best sleaze pictures of the 1970's. It has an incredible amount of nudity on display. There are naked women everywhere. The camera follows them from the shower, to the bedroom, to changing clothes and also their photo shoots in the men's magazine that so interests the mad murderer in the film. The fact that so many of the "normal" people spread throughout the movie are cruel, lascivious, guileful, or plain out arrogant lends this production an all encompassing mean spiritedness lacking in other movies of this type.

The first segment, arguably the best, is the most tragic. Jackie is a model hoping to land herself a nursing job. While staying at a relatives home in the country, she meets a seemingly naive young girl and takes her back home with her. Only a short time later does Jackie realize this purportedly innocent young lady keeps company with a group of loud and vicious hippies (One of whom is Teda Bracci of BIG BIRD CAGE fame). This group (a possible nod to Krug and Company from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) proceed to brutalize, humiliate and rape Jackie. She manages to escape and is saved by Ed (sleaze veteran, Aldo Ray) and his wife, who run Camp Wanachee and its neighboring motel. Well Ed turns out to be a sleazy bastard, himself. Then Clement (who has been stalking Jackie the whole time), also staying at the seedy motel, shows up to "help" the mortified nurse-to-be with his straight razor.

Regardless of what viewers think of Craven's sadistic trash classic, it was inarguably an influential and essential piece of filth filmmaking. It's resonance can be felt in numerous other movies such as THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973;particularly it's poster), another prime piece of putrescent pie. The use of the unwanted house guests as violence prone interlopers makes the character of Jackie all the more tragic. Virtually everyone she comes into contact with is either a liar, lecher, or murderer. This opening 33 minute portion of the film is suitably downbeat and easily the best of the three. That's not saying the others don't have there own qualities, just this opener is the most cruel.

The second segment deals with another model named Charley who has found herself staying at a somewhat lavish home overlooking the ocean, having been hired by two sordid smut producers. There are other models staying at the big house and Clement is nearby carefully watching and stalking his prey before selecting those he wishes to "help" first. This story has more than its fair share of shallow, callous individuals. Francine York plays the bitch of the bunch, the producer of the show and actor, director, Ray Danton (DEATHMASTER, PSYCHIC KILLER) is her seedy partner in crime.

The last segment is the one that stars Tiffany Bolling of BONNIE'S KIDS (1973), WICKED, WICKED (1973), THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973) and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977). She plays Vera, an airline stewardess who lives in a posh apartment building. She's a bit more resourceful than what Clement is used to and proves to be more of a challenge for our serial stalker slasher. When Clement kills a blonde woman believing it to be Vera, the intended target takes off for a small town outside Santa Barbara. Clement traces her there and the hunt is on. Again the director shows us that in this sordid cinematic world, virtually everyone are wretched and immoral. Clement uses this to his advantage to get close to Vera in one of the best sequences in the entire movie.

Andrew Prine is calculatingly evil as Clement Dunne, the repulsive killer who enjoys not only carving up pretty women, but collecting a single shoe from his victims. He lives in a psychologically stimulative world of black and white surrounded by the moralistic and metaphoric ramifications that are associated with his choice of color adorning his dress and even his living quarters. While Clement is clearly a maniac, he firmly believes what he is doing is virtuous by cleansing the dirt from the world, hence his affirmation of "helping" these women.

Prine was one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation movies during the 1970's and 1980's. He had been in numerous westerns and TV programs prior to, and during his terror tenure. He had a supporting role in the John Wayne flick, CHISUM (1970) which featured not only Forrest Tucker (THE CRAWLING EYE), but also a villainous Christopher George and Richard Jaekal, who reunited with Prine in William Girdler's GRIZZLY in 1976. Prine was the lead in SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES (1971) and also the demented ringleader in TERROR CIRCUS (1974;aka BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD). He was one of the doomed captives of the Devil in THE EVIL (1978) and also one of the carnivorous visitors in the original V series.

The films writer and production overseer, Arthur Marks, will be of interest to exploitation fans having directed some of the finest drive in fare ever made. The Tiffany Bolling action classic, BONNIE'S KIDS (1973) and a slew of blaxploitation fare including BUCKTOWN, FRIDAY FOSTER (both 1975), the blax horror fave, J.D.'s REVENGE and the star studded MONKEY HUSTLE (both 1976). Marks also helmed the racially charged cult favorite, DETROIT 9000 (1973).

THE CENTERFOLD GIRLS (1974) is a highly recommended venture for those who love nasty exploitation features with that 70's vibe and style that was a signature of the decade. Despite the rampant nudity and sordid atmosphere, the way the film is shot and directed adds an undeniable air of professionalism to the whole enterprise. If the film were a "dirty" magazine, it's one well worth checking out for the articles and the bevy of beauties on display.

This review is representative of the Dark Sky DVD

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