Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974) review


Rosanna Schiaffino (Vivian), Chris Avram (Patrick Davenant), Eva Czemerys (Rebecca Davenant), Lucretia Love (Doris), Paola Senatore (Lynn Davenant), Gaetano Russo (Duncan Foster), Andrea Scotti (Albert), Eduardo Filiponi (Man in the Nehru Jacket), Howard Ross (Russell), Janet Agren (Kim)

Directed by Giuseppe Bennati

"The actors are present... and now the play can start."

***WARNING! This review contains nude images***

The Short Version: The sins of the father are visited on his descendants in this Italian Giallo modeled on Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians' about nine high-society types being bumped off while locked inside an abandoned playhouse. Bennati's stylish thriller collides with the paranormal barely 30 minutes in, teases the audience with it, before finally embracing its ghostly underpinnings during the finale. Till the curtain closes it's all a big mystery as to the identity of the killer wearing one of the eeriest masks that rivals those of all your finer slasher epics. Often surreal in a dark fairy tale sort of way, Bennati's directorial tour de force is a nice melding of erotic mystery and the supernatural; so reserve your seat for this haunted play.

Nine men and women on various levels of the social strata assemble at an abandoned theater owned by the ultra wealthy Patrick Davenant. After a massacre occurred there some 100 years earlier, it's alleged to have an ancient curse attached to it. A short time into their night of debauchery and scheming, the high-end visitors find themselves trapped inside while a masked killer picks them off one by one.

A lesser known Gialli when compared to the works of Argento and Bava, KILLER is a sumptuously mounted, beautifully photographed piece of Italian cinema gifting its audience with more than a few moments of genuine goosebumpery. Benatti's horror film is a nightmarish descent into the darkest recesses of man's psyche; it's a mystery why it isn't a more well known affair. The script, thick with exposition, finds common ground with exploitation elements like gratuitous nudity, lesbianism and an incest plot device that is the backbone of the narrative.

Outside of one particularly cruel set piece, the violence--one of the elements the Giallo is known for--is mostly subdued. Bennati is more interested in building a sense of dread whether through the black-cloaked, masked murderer, an ancient curse manifesting itself after a century hiatus, or the duplicitous plotting of the upscale victims-to-be. Stalking them all is the aforementioned mysterious figure whose face is adorned with one of the most unsettling masks imaginable. Be mindful, though, that the killer isn't the only presence with murder on their mind. Complicit in the mayhem is the ominous, maze-like theater.....

Described by Russell (Howard Ross) as "Dracula's summer home", the supernatural atmosphere of Gothic horrors is creeping around every corner of the labyrinthine theater; it's found in various objects and possibly residing in one of the bodily forms trapped inside for the night. In a deviation from the genre norm, the film marries the typical 'black-gloved killer' trope with the haunted castle scenario of numerous Italo terror tales of years prior. The latter is personified in the form of doors locking on their own; paintings whose portraits magically change; and a fantastic bit of camera trickery (you'll know it when you see it) that confirms one character is more than what they seem. 

Whatever the film cost to make, the production got an enormous boost of value by shooting inside the Teatro Gentile da Fabriano in the town of Fabriano, in the Marche region of Italy. A 19th century medieval playhouse, it was built in 1869 after a previous theater, The Aurora, was destroyed by fire in 1863. Named after the famous Italian Gothic painter, Gentile da Fabriano (1370–1427), the theater opened in 1884.

Giuseppe Aquari's camera gives the viewer a guided tour of every nook and cranny within the foundation of the theater; not only the main levels and boxes, but backstage and beneath the establishment where the (scripted) tombs of the Davenant's are located. It's here, beneath the catacombs, where the Gothic ambiance strangles the viewer till the big reveal in the closing minutes. The filmmakers put on quite a show by allowing the theater to be as much of a player as the doomed cast.

Michele Soavi might of been inspired by Bennati's unique approach when he made STAGE FRIGHT (1987). Putting the two side-by-side, both films are indigenous to the times in which they were made. KILLER has a high erotic quotient, less reliance on blood and gore, and is in the thriller vein; while STAGE FRIGHT owes more to the slashers of the decade with an escaped lunatic picking off his victims with various sharp implements. KILLER does show signs of classic slasher archetypes like a masked killer and a few scenes where said stabber is lurking undetected behind an intended victim.

Other films with similar themes include the Euro horrors of Renato Polselli's IL MOSTRO DELL'OPERA (1964) and Pete Walker's THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW (1973).

"They used to say that one of my ancestors, many, many centuries ago... was a feudal prince, a powerful land-owner. It seems he came to realize that those of his court that he'd always trusted and were apparently loyal wanted him dead. So one day he decided to throw a banquet... in this theater. He killed them all... one by one. Exactly what happened no one knows. But ever since my family has been under a curse... once every 100 years...."

Romanian actor Chris Avram is Patrick Davenant, the wealthy businessman whose circle of friends aren't all that friendly to him. Each of the nine has a backstory--some of which are more sordid than others. There's actually ten characters within the walls of the enormous theater; a few of which are more sinister than we are initially aware. The elder Davenant is the most conflicted of the bunch. He's had a few of the fur-wearing women in his bed... including his daughter! Some of them, though, have moved on from laying down with him, to laying him in his grave.

Among the gala cast is Rosanna Schiaffino. She receives top billing; which makes sense considering she was a fairly big name after appearing in several Hollywood productions like THE VICTORS (1963) and THE LONG SHIPS (1964). As Vivian, she's something of a stand-out with her elegant portrayal of Patrick's ex-wife; he having split once he realized she had a previous life as a prostitute. Schiaffino is quite good in the role, not only put-upon by her ex-husband, but by some of the others she's inadvertently forced to spend the night with.

The sensual Paola Senatore (Janet Agren's sister in Umberto Lenzi's trashy Jim Jones-cannibal combo, EATEN ALIVE! [1980]) plays Patrick's daughter and, as we realize before the film has even gotten warm, one of his handful of love interests. Most of the female cast strip away from their expensive clothing, but Ms. Senatore stops the show with her curtain-raising, robe-dropping gyrations in front of a mirror late in the picture. 

A younger Janet Agren, later of Lenzi's EATEN ALIVE! (1980), Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), and HANDS OF STEEL (1986), is yet another of Patrick's romantic entanglements. In this case, she's engaged to be his wife, but prefers the arms of her former lover--the less monetarily inclined Russell, played by Sword & Sandal and Euro-western actor Howard Ross.

With so many pluses and virtually zero minuses, KILLER benefits once more by Carlo Savina's snappy score. Everything from the melancholic main theme; to the 'boogie down' cue of Senatore's hot n' heavy wardrobe malfunction; to the menacing sounds of horror, these are all very easy on the ears.

A unique entry in the genre, this is a must-own for Giallo fans. The thickening plot interwoven with the supernatural elements can get modestly confusing at times, but multiple viewings reveal additional clues that add to the maddening fun of the whole thing. This was the last film in Benatti's career, and his first and only Giallo... a shame he didn't return to the 'whodunit' well again. Worthy of its good notices, with its great cast and an impressive setting inside the Teatro Gentile da Fabriano, an unsettling night of horror is guaranteed at this show.

This review is representative of the Camera Obscura R2 DVD (also available in bluray). Specs and Extras: 1.85:1 16x9 anamorphic widescreen; Italian and English language; English and German subs; Audio commentary; interview with writer Biagio Proietti; interview with Howard Ross; Italian and English trailer; photo gallery; booklet (all extras have English subtitles).

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Humongous (1982) review


Janet Julian (Sandy Ralston), David Wallace (Eric Simmons), John Wildman (Nick Simmons), Janit Baldwin (Carla Simmons), Joy Boushel (Donna Blake), Lane Coleman (Bert Defoe), Shay Garner (Ida Parsons), Page Fletcher (Tom Rice),  Garry Robbins (Monster)

Directed by Paul Lynch

The Short Version: Much better than Lynch's petite PROM NIGHT (1979), his HUMONGOUS horror film feels like an unacknowledged remake of Joe D'Amato's ANTHROPOPHAGOUS (1980); and with a similar sounding title to boot. If you've seen FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981) and the excellent proto-slasher, TOWER OF EVIL (1972), you may experience some deja vu there, too. An immense portion of this Canadian small fry slasher's running time is gobbled up with lengthy scenes of people walking around while the prodigious psychopath makes infrequent appearances. The presentation on the Scorpion Releasing DVD allows you to finally see what's actually going on; and, in its uncut version, yields some surprisingly potent moments. Still, in the annals of the genre, HUMONGOUS remains little more than half-pint horror.

In 1946 Ida Parsons is raped by her boyfriend while attending her father's party at their island lodge. One of her dogs gets out of its cage and mortally wounds the attacker. Ida finishes him off, but she is left both emotionally scarred and pregnant. Decades later, a group of friends set sail aboard a yacht for a weekend getaway. After a careless accident destroys the vessel, the passengers end up stranded on the fog-enshrouded Dog Island. It's sole inhabitant rumored to be the reclusive Ida Parsons, the young adults attempt to find help but ultimately stumble upon a horrific secret in the form of a 7ft disfigured maniac.

After PROM NIGHT (1980), Paul Lynch wanted to direct another horror movie; the result was HUMONGOUS, a less than impressive sophomore outing to a film that was even less remarkable save for the participation of Jaime Lee Curtis. According to Lynch, while waiting for HUMONGOUS to begin filming, he came close to helming a thriller with Charlton Heston and his son. Preferring to wait it out for his own horror project to begin shooting, Lynch passed on the Heston offer, claiming it had no story and reminded him--of all things--ALIEN (1979). That film, MOTHER LODE (1982), ended up being directed by Charlton Heston himself, and was the closest the iconic Tough Guy came to producing a horror picture.

Beginning on a powerfully bleak note, the HUMONGOUS pacing quickly becomes sluggish, taking a long time to get to the island where the cast are given quite the workout; walking from one location to the next. More walking ensues as the cast takes what seems like forever to find the clues that piece together the backstory of who was, and is, on this God-forsaken atoll. Meanwhile, the monster infrequently stalks, but never slashes, these island intruders; this seven-foot freakshow prefers to use his hands--killing dogs and humans alike.

Garry Robbins, who plays the colossal killer, would act in a similar capacity in 2003s excellent backwoods slasher throwback, WRONG TURN (2003). We never get a clear look at him; and the one time we do, it's after he's been consumed by fire, leaving his face resembling a burnt grilled cheese sandwich. Some of his scenes are greatly enhanced by Brian R.R. Hebb's often moody cinematography... especially since you can now see what's going on during the night-time sequences. The photography is arguably the film's greatest asset.

The young adults in this one are all fairly resourceful with only one of them being massively obnoxious. Nowadays, virtually the entire cast in these movies are insufferable. The final girl (played by American actress Janet Julian), like a handful of others at the time, breaks tradition by having sex. Unfortunately, her character isn't all that interesting. Joy Boushel, who buys the farm a little past the halfway mark, delivers a perkier performance. Still, genre fans don't watch these types of movies for character development, they watch them for the horror and gore; and HUMONGOUS is lukewarm in those departments as well.

Paige Fletcher, who plays the rapist in the opening sequence, went on to become THE HITCHHIKER, the popular 80s adult thriller series that ran for six seasons between 1983-1991.

One other thing the film does well is it's history of Ida Parsons via a series of photographs over the opening credits; and again in a scrapbook found in her house on Dog Island. What is lacking is a flashback, or some dialog linking Ida's love for her dogs to her deformed, enraged son who has killed and eaten them all. It's there, if ambiguous. The overall presentation of the killer offspring is little more than your average backwoods slasher.

One film that HUMONGOUS seems to channel--whether intentional or not--is Joe D'Amato's ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980). In that one, vacationers are stranded on a Greek Isle and run afoul of a giant cannibal played by George Eastman; who has killed and devoured everyone save for an old woman. D'Amato's movie is superior in building tension, but both films have pacing problems;the one's in HUMONGOUS are particularly enormous.

Lynch's obscure entry in the slasher canon hasn't had a great reputation with either fans or critics due mainly to the aforementioned, painfully dark photography as presented on its videocassette release in the 1980s. When it played on HBO the version aired was much clearer. This current release from Kino/Scorpion is a vast improvement on the film's previous home video releases (as you can see from the screencaps). Combined with the easier-on-the-eyes picture quality and a complete version (from a tape master), the experience of viewing HUMONGOUS is far more satisfying for the few attributes it maintains.

This review is representative of the Kino Lorber/Scorpion Releasing DVD. Specs and Extras: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; Katarina's Nightmare Theater Mode; audio commentary with director Lynch, writer William Gray, horror historian Nathaniel Thompson, moderated by Katarina Waters; R-rated opening scene; original trailer; additional trailers; running time: 01:33:55

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