Monday, September 23, 2013

Survive! (1976) review


Hugo Stiglitz (Francisco), Norma Lazarino (Silvia), Luz Maria Aguilar (Mrs. Madero), Fernando Larranaga (Madero), Pablo Ferrel (Raul)

Directed by Rene Cardona

***This review/article uses screencaps from both the US and Mexican versions on the VCI DVD. It also utilizes images from magazines from the time to help put Cardona's movie in perspective***

The Short Version: Rene Cardona Sr.'s most internationally well known movie is this oft slandered rendition of human fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. Based on the true story of the Andes Mt. survivors who consumed human flesh to survive, Cardona's original version is faithful to its source; and much better than its more well known, disemboweled US counterpart. The latter jettisons much of the exposition and focuses primarily on the sensationalism; and does so rather sloppily. Despite its place in the annals of trash cinema, Cardona's production is an occasionally compelling disaster movie punctuated by several moments of revulsion made all the more disturbing in that they actually happened.

On October 13th, 1972, Uruguayan flight 571 carrying 45 passengers went down in the snow covered Andes Mountains. During the two months they spent trapped in that snow-drenched hell, the group gradually dwindled in number from injuries, freezing temperatures and hunger. Running out of food and other supplies, a decision was made that if they were to continue living, they would have to eat the bodies of the dead passengers. Ultimately, a plan to hike out of the mountainous tomb was put into effect, but this, too, proved a treacherously difficult undertaking.

A lot of folks dismiss this Mexican made 1976 production based on the true story that shocked the world back in 1972. Reportedly, even the producers who bought the rights to the picture hated it. Paramount Pictures, the company that ended up distributing it in America hated it. Essentially a bastard child of their 1976 release slate, a lot of changes were made to make the film palatable for American consumption. 

Shorn of some 26 minutes of footage (from its original 111 minute running time), the picture ended up being something of a surprise success for Paramount. Since its theatrical release, the movie subsequently fell into relative obscurity, although it used to turn up regularly on television throughout the 1980s. 

A 1993 American production called ALIVE pretty much buried the '76 version -- rarely to be spoken of again. Even in later articles about the Andes Mountains ordeal, the Cardona movie goes unmentioned while the '93 picture steals the limelight every time. However, the original, unedited Mexican version does have merit; and seen today, it's much better than its reputation suggests. The slipshod US release on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired -- yet it, too, has its fans.

Comparing the two cuts present two vastly different movies in more ways than one. Raul Lavista's subdued, barely there score was replaced by a noisier one from Gerald Fried that never matches the horror of the situation. It sounds more like it belongs in a family, or light-hearted adventure movie than a picture with the sort of grim subject matter this one has. High spirited musical cues just do not mix well with being buried under mountains of snow and cannibalism. Lavista's music is almost non-existent. The sounds of penetrating wind and piercing cold add much to the subtlety of the somber score.

Exposition and major sections of the film were re-edited, or cut away from the narrative; gory moments showcasing corpse carving, exposed intestines of frozen bodies, and pus oozing from leg wounds were trimmed slightly. SURVIVE! does have opening B/W images of the films cast on the Rugby field (see above) and closing images of the cast aboard the plane. These shots are not present in the original Mexican release. 

With all its alterations, the US release does move at a faster clip, but the original version (under the title of SUPERVIVIENTES DE LOS ANDES) is better acted and more engaging. The dubbing in the English release is mediocre, and the dubbers don't even try to deliver their lines with any conviction. With much of the unsettling footage retained, the gutting (and shuffling) of exposition makes SURVIVE! feel more like an exploitation movie than a serious drama based on a real life event. You could refer to the US cut as the 'Greatest Hits' of SUPERVIVIENTES DE LOS ANDES. 

This being the late 1970s and pre STAR WARS (1977), trashy exploitation movies were still in vogue; and big studios were not immune to their charms. The ballyhoo for SURVIVE! was suitably unpleasant for the market it was seemingly being geared towards. The ad campaign and theatrical marketing accentuated the repellant sensationalism of the narrative. These grisly moments only made up a small portion of the original picture, but the American cut was built around them.

Shot at the prestigious Churubusco Azteca Studios (home to the more popular examples of vintage Mexi-horror cinema from the late 50s and 1960s), it's actually fairly epic in its unexpurgated form. Some scenes have a level of poignancy you wouldn't expect from the man who brought such films as WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964), SANTO VS. THE STRANGLER (1965), SANTO IN THE TREASURE OF DRACULA (1969) and NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969) to the Silver Screen. Cardona's movie was respectful, and incredibly faithful to the actual events.

Some of the films more powerful moments include the moment where the cannibalism becomes a gruesome reality for the survivors. One of them is sent out onto the frozen landscape where he begins the torturous task of carving away the flesh from the back of one of the frozen dead. As he cuts and shreds away red meat from bone, he cries at the awful act he must do.

The scene that follows the above described one is just as strong. The freezing inhabitants of the wrecked plane's fuselage silently file out one by one to partake in the eating of flesh. With each passing passenger, a woman and her husband sit shocked and disgusted, not wanting to comprehend the reality of what's happening.

With the original Mexican version a lucrative production in its homeland, and SURVIVE! being a sizable international success, director Cardona's son (producer on the picture) quickly capitalized on the films success by embarking on two more lurid pictures of sensational disasters -- one was yet another shocking true story (based on Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre starring Stuart Whitman) and the other was a rehash of SURVIVE!. CYCLONE (1978) was basically a reworking of the senior Cardona's movie, but the scenario was transposed to the ocean as opposed to the Andes. 

The plot is virtually identical about a myriad group of vacationers stranded at sea after they're caught in the middle of the title natural disaster. The results are the same, only there are bigger names amongst the cast; and CYCLONE's ending is vastly different, as well as being nihilistic.

The story of the Andes Mountain survivors was an incredibly shocking story at the time. Above is a photo of the actual passengers taken before the crash (Photo above from this 2012 article HERE). Rarely had such a tale of human endurance and triumph of the will over adversity and extreme hopelessness caught the public's fascination the way this one did. The actual events could have been stripped from an Irwin Allen disaster picture of the time period, but with an added, and suitably appalling plot device. 

Andes Mt. article from the September 1974 issue of Stag

The ordeal had been the subject of many headlines and magazine articles. It was first published in book form in January of 1973 by author Clay Blair Jr. Titled 'Survive!', this 280 page thriller was the source for Cardona's movie. A reprint of the book came in 1976 bearing the cover tag, 'Now a major film'. Later that year in 1973, there would be another publication detailing this amazing story.

Los Angeles lawyer and writer Enrique Hank Lopez wrote a book on the tragedy with the exploitational title of 'They Lived on Human Flesh'. Released in September of 1973, the 192 page pocket book was the first of multiple editions throughout the decade. But like Cardona's movie, a book by Piers Paul Read gets repeated recognition while Lopez's is largely forgotten. However, the late lawyers book was partially reprinted as a story in the September 1974 issue of Stag magazine.

The terrible tale was also sensationalized in periodicals. One such article was 'We Ate our Buddies to Survive' -- a triple tale of cannibalism passed off as true accounts in the March, 1975 issue of Men (see spread above); a salacious nudie magazine from purveyors of male pulp publications, Magazine Management Company Inc. Other 70s mags from this company (like Stag) featured high quotients of exploitation value, spectacular artistry for its trashy "true stories", and nude pictorials of lovely ladies.

British author Piers Paul Read wrote a best-selling book in 1974 titled 'Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors'. Revised and reprinted a number of times, it got a lot of attention and accolades over the years. At the time, Read stated some of the survivors who were interviewed for the book were not happy with the way he presented their story. With so much already out there regarding this remarkable tale, more was to come after Cardona's movie was released, and subsequently dropped off the radar.

Photo from Stag Magazine, Sept. 1974

In 1993 came the big budget US production of ALIVE, directed by Frank Marshall. It was based on the aforementioned Piers Read book from 1974. As so many criticize the Mexican production for certain budgetary deficiencies, similar negatives apply to this glossier Hollywood picture. Sadly, this picture is the one that is always cited in articles when the subject of the Andes tragedy and triumph is revived. It's as if the Cardona film had never existed; or was as much an embarrassment now as it was perceived to have been by its foreign handlers back in the day. 

At the dawn of the new millennium, even more about the tale was forthcoming, and the '76 production would remain buried. Below are several more documentaries and adaptations that show this story of heroism and determination is still a potent topic some 40 years later.

Mountain climber Ricardo Pena realized a lifelong dream to explore the area where the 45 Andes plane crash victims lived, died and survived. The results of his excursion was published in a 2005 issue of Backpacker Magazine. Amazingly, Pena found a number of artifacts in and around the crash site including a wallet belonging to one of the survivors, Eduardo Jose Strauch! Pena has so far been the only person to repeat the event by hiking the route taken by Parrado and others during their torturous ordeal.

Photo from September 1974 issue of Stag Magazine

Fernando "Nando" Parrado, one of the survivors, wrote his own account of what happened with the 2006 book, 'Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home'. It expanded upon the best-selling 1974 book from Piers Paul Read, and was possibly done as a result of dissatisfaction with Read's tome.

In 2007, Uruguayan filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon directed a documentary that was told from the mouths of many of the actual survivors. STRANDED aka STRANDED: I'VE COME FROM A PLANE THAT CRASHED ON THE MOUNTAINS included both simulations of the event and actual news footage upon their return to civilization.

Yet again, another documentary surfaced in 2010. This one was titled I AM ALIVE: SURVIVING THE ANDES PLANE CRASH. Brad Osborne's two hour long reenactment is told from Parrado's perspective. Some of the survivors participate (including Roberto Canessa and Eduardo Strauch), as does Ricardo Pena. It debuted October 20th, 2010 at 8pm on The History Channel.

In July 2013, 'Mortal Rituals' was published. Another book on the Andes Mountains survivors, Matt J. Rossano analyzes the story from an evolutionary perspective.

On November 1st, 2011, VCI Entertainment released a special edition DVD that ended up not being so special. It contained a widescreen version of the American SURVIVE! release, and also the uncut, and superior Mexican version SUPERVIVIENTES DE LOS ANDES. Unfortunately, the Mexican version of the film lacked subtitles despite what the box stated -- yet English subtitles are present for the English dubbed print and also the trailer for the Mexican version. 

Photo from Stag September 1974
So even today, Rene Cardona's once profitable, and popular motion picture remains a much maligned and overlooked affair. That film -- in its original form -- much like the story its based on, was a cinematic triumph for a director who was more inclined to make disposable theatrical filler. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch, but it's far better than its low-level reputation would have you believe.

This review is representative of the VCI DVD.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Sinful Dwarf (1973) review



Torben Bille (Olaf), Anne Sparrow (Mary), Clara Keller (Lila Lash), Tony Eades (Peter), Werner Hedman ('Santa Claus')

Directed by Vidal Raski

The Short Version: Nauseatingly grubby little movie about a cackling, slobbering half-pint half-wit and his equally wacko mother who run a sex slavery ring out of their attic. Gore fans will find nothing to hold their interest, but the overbearingly filthy atmosphere and sadism successfully supplants spurting blood and severed limbs. A few well done sequences are undone by graphic sex scenes that plummet the film further into the abyss of gloriously reprehensible cinema trash. The trollish Torben and the absolutely gorgeous Ann Sparrow are the main attractions here. Sadly, this was Sparrow's first and last film and Torben didn't go on to do a string of mini-madman movies. You'll feel ashamed for watching it, so take a shower afterward.

A struggling writer and his new bride decide to stay in a cheap boardinghouse till they can afford a new home -- so they settle on a place no sane person would deem a suitable dwelling. Run by a drunken, scarred mother and her demented midget son, the newlyweds are oblivious that the crumbling flophouse they opt for covertly moonlights as a sex slave ring hidden away in the attic. Using kidnapped young girls doped up on heroin, the diabolical duo quickly set their sights on the writers beautiful wife. 

There really isn't much to say about this grotesque early 70s trash. There's virtually no plot to speak of. The movie tends to repeat itself multiple times over in lazy photographic fashion -- Olaf leads a customer upstairs to pick a girl where overlong sex scenes take place on dirty, soiled mattresses; Mary expresses dislike of the house they're rooming in; Olaf's inebriated mother, whose face is caked in makeup, sings and dances; Olaf shakes and giggles -- stir and repeat. 

The films life's blood is built around a string of aforementioned sex scenes that may or may not be simulated. And since the performers throw themselves into these moments, these passionate scenes of porking end up being better acted than anything else in the movie. Although the walking meatloaf that is Olaf is an eyeball popping showstopper.

A subplot involving a local shop owner nicknamed Santa Claus doesn't go anywhere. His only function being to provide the evil dwarf and his mother with the heroin used to dope up the kidnapped girls. The drugs are stuffed inside of teddy bears. This introduces a crime element that doesn't enhance the sleaze quotient. If anything it feels like padding -- much like the lengthy pseudo porn segments.

Raski's movie was not only a career killer for him, but also for many of the films performers. Easily the most unfortunate of these is Anne Sparrow; the shapely, well endowed wife of Peter, the writer. Outside of the miniscule lunacy of Torben Bille, Sparrow is the only other thing about the movie worth watching -- and that's based solely on her physical attributes.

The one genuinely good thing in Raski's movie is the fleeting BABY JANEsque exposition granted the psycho-sexual midgets mother, Lila Lash. Formerly some sort of showgirl, or Burlesque dancer, she now lives out her miserable existence as an alcoholic -- running a seedy bed and breakfast doubling as a whorehouse. The scars on her face speak of some detrimental act of violence that may have led to her decline, but we never learn much more beyond the peripheral. 

The music, if you can call it that, occasionally has an artistic flourish such as a cue or two that mimics Olaf's obsession with wind up toys. Otherwise it's just noise utilized to add to the tasteless nature of the movie.

Shot in what appears to be sync sound, and in English, the cast is made up of Danish and English performers.

The title sinner, Torben Bille, apparently did double duties both as the lead heavy and as a set decorator of all things. He's not onscreen as much as you'd expect, but when he is, it's difficult to take your eyes off of him. Bille hobbles and skulks around the limited set smiling and slobbering with psychotic glee while his eyeballs repeatedly threaten to fall out of his head. Just hearing him speak his lines is enough for even the most intellectually challenged to get the hell out of the ramshackle shithouse. Bille is amazing to watch, nonetheless. For whatever reason, he never made a series of psycho pygmy pictures afterward.

This minor 70s effort is a film of limited appeal. There are better movies out there about, and or featuring killer dwarfs, but only a few others that are as offensive and tasteless as this one. The trailer down to the films title never sells you more than you get -- which isn't much. And with nearly the entire movie taking place inside the dilapidated fleapit lodge, THE SINFUL DWARF could easily be turned into a stage play. I bet it would have sold an enormous amount of tickets on the grand guignol circuit back in the day.

This review is representative of the Severin DVD.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Top Sensation (1969) review


Rosalba Neri (Paola), Edwige Fenech (Ulla), Maud De Belleroche (Mudy), Maurizio Banuglia (Aldo), Ruggero Muti (Tony), Eva Thulin (Beba), Salvatore Puntillo (Andro)

Directed by Ottavio Alessi

***WARNING! This review contains an image of nudity***

The Short Version: Leaving nary a stone unturned, this rare Italian sex thriller sets a course for a myriad number of subjects and taboos during its carnal voyage at sea. Politics share beds with such topics as bestiality, incest and rampant sexual deviancy. Of course, all this leads to murder in a shocking finale that portends to be a morality play by capping the last shot with a biblical quote, no less! On this 'Love Boat', everybody screws everybody one way or another. Starring two of Italian genre cinemas most sensual, and popular actresses, TOP SENSATION is a top film for fans of sleazy European movies. 

A dominating, abusive oil baroness whisks her mentally deficient, pyromaniacal son off on a yacht cruise in the hopes of turning him into a man via sexual stimulation. To do this, she invites a greedy, sex-hungry married couple and a voluptuous prostitute along for the voyage. When the young man shows interest only in matches and his toys, a break comes when the yacht runs aground near a small Mediterranean island inhabited only by a beautiful farm girl and her oafish husband. Coming out of his shell, the boy shows a strong interest in the peasant girl. Tragically, the resulting culture clash leads to disastrous consequences.

Italian cinema has had a long history of taking themes not uniquely their own and making them so. They've also shown a tendency to take pure escapist entertainment and make a blatant political statement out of it. Their westerns are arguably the most famous example whereby politics glaringly raided the typical 'Cowboys and Indians' scenario. The crime pictures that replaced them were understandably political; even more so. Their horror films didn't escape subtextual social relevance, either. TOP SENSATION is, on its outer crust, a sexploitation picture that takes advantage of many opportunities to showcase its cast of lovelies both in bikinis and out of them; wantonly indulging in their carnal proclivities. But at its core, it would seem the director wanted to explore other areas outside of the female form.

About ten minutes into the film, it becomes apparent Alessi's movie is not only about sex, but about social class warfare via the seduction and subjugation of the gullible and the peasantly. This leftist cinema oasis propagates the myth that the rich are all evil and the poor are all naive, existing only as toys of the wealthy to be manipulated and played with; and discarded when their purpose is served. Like any other tale of good vs. evil, it makes for interesting cinema. The prime theme here -- at least in this reviewers eyes -- is greed. Greed takes shape in multiple forms, whether it be sexual or monetary. Greed knows no social status, and this is displayed in the film.

Without giving too much away, there's only one character in the picture who is remotely virtuous -- the inexperienced goat herder, Beba. Her character is devoutly innocent. Once she is enticed aboard the yacht, her mud-caked shoes and wooden staff she wields are a stark contrast with the gluttonous surroundings of the modernist interlopers. This barely inhabited island likewise clashes symbolically with the fancy seafaring vessel. The island represents purity. It's uncorrupted just as its two bumpkin occupants are uncorrupted. On the flipside, the yacht represents lust, greed, and decadence in its purest form.

Granted, Mudy, the overbearing, bossy, butchy businesswoman is the only wealthy character presented to us. We don't know how she accumulated her riches -- on her own, or inherited -- but all of her guests want a piece of her pie. The married couple, the devious Aldo and unscrupulous Paola, will do anything for an oil concession. The bubble-headed prostitute Ulla has dollar signs dancing in her head, as well.

Beba's husband Andro is revealed to be a chauvinist at one point; providing the catalyst by which the equally domineering Mudy takes advantage to sway Beba into liberating her femininity. Even here, Mudy's intentions are anything but good. Her pep talk isn't to awaken Beba from a doting housewife, but to manipulate her into awakening her son's libido. Unbeknownst to Mudy, her son Tony harbors deep hatred for her -- the origin of which we never learn. Tony is the most emotionally scarred character in the movie; at least from what we're given visually. 

Taken into context, Alessi's movie is populated by fragile, easily influenced, deceptive, or unstable characters. Nobody is totally free of guilt. 

When it's not politicizing social classes, TOP SENSATION moonlights as an erotic thriller; the camera frequently making love to its curvaceous cast, yet its sex and sleaze quotient titillate without going too far. With voyeuristic intention, Rosalba Neri (in one of her best roles) and Edwige Fenech (in one of her earliest roles) are the real reasons to watch. Not to mention that the yacht itself is rigged with surveillance cameras!

There's not only lesbianism and voyeurism, but a scene of bestiality wherein a goat takes a liking to one of Fenech's breasts before dipping between her legs to bring her to orgasm! The taboo of incest finds room amongst the carnal deviancy as well. If you view the ten minutes of additional scenes from the US version, you'll see even more sex, extended and alternate nude shots not present in the Italian release. Furthermore, nine minutes of additional scenes from the German version (mostly new footage shot for that market) are included on this set.

Sante Romitelli's music has some good cues, even though its catchy main theme feels out of place given the subject matter. The picture closes with this soaringly romantic theme; ironic in that the few remaining alive will not be for very long.

Camera Obscura's double disc DVD is the best version available of this rare, nearly lost film. It's not perfect, though. There's noticeable gaps in the script suffered by a drought in some of the characterizations; although we're teased with just enough exposition for some to get an idea of how they operate. The many nude scenes easily distract from this, although the social subtext is omnipresent. It often feels like there's two movies being made here. Diehard Euro fans will dig it regardless. The ingredients of a trash classic are present and accounted for, yet the film never quite goes too far over the top. Still, there's enough to offend passersby, and plenty to satisfy fans of European sexploitation fare.

This review is representative of the Camera Obscura R2 2 disc DVD.

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