Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Short Film: Ego zhena kuritsa / Hen, His Wife (Soviet Union, 1990)

Some seven years ago, we presented a classic underground short film, Suzan Pitt's Asparagus (1979), as our Short Film of the Month for February 2010 with a simple narrative of the when and where we first saw it. It was not our intention to write a critique or a review; we simply wanted to convey the moment when that short stole our heart and, likewise, throw in a few off-the-wall details to unsettle and/or annoy the reader. (Anyone for "a young virgin who shaved once or twice a week at most"?)
And three years later, in 2013, we actually seemed to annoy someone: yet another person who, as so often nowadays, lacked the balls, shaved or not, to use their real name — yes, we're talking about you, "Anonymous" — and was more interested in what they thought should be said than what the writer wanted to say.
And so they spleened, indefinite and oddly chosen pronouns and all, in those pre-Trump days: "It is strange how badly the internet has damaged critical thinking. Perhaps it is its nature, preventing considered reflection prior to posting babble before the author forgets what tiny thought just flashed through its [sic] brain.
"This is a somewhat uncomfortable film, I believe intentionally, compelling the viewer to resist and retreat from organic engagement while at the same time remaining visually focussed. The deliberately paced motion, although possibly an unintended result of the obviously painstaking production technique, gives a sense of trance.
"I enjoy it, knowing it will be over soon."
While we can possibly see whence Anonymous's end reaction — "I enjoy it, knowing it will be over soon" — to the film came, particularly if one is of the kind that finds stuff like Magritte's or Dali's paintings as just too weird, we also tend to think that if the above was indeed the intention of the filmmaker, then for the most part Asparagus is a failure. (Organic engagement was and is paramount, in our case; the short even increases ours as it progresses. Furthermore, for all that which is surreal or strange in the short, nothing is actually disturbing enough to be labeled as "uncomfortable". At least not in our book; more gentle souls might disagree.)
Nevertheless, when we stumbled upon this month's Short Film the other day, Anonymous's well-written second paragraph actually came to mind: it is 100% applicable to Ego zhena kuritsa / Hen, His Wife, this truly odd animated short made by Igor Kovalyov almost two decades ago in what was then the Soviet Union.
This 13-minute animation, while engaging, is disquieting enough that one looks forward to its end even as one remains transfixed by what transpires. We would not advise watching it on acid, for though beautifully drawn and narratively intriguing, it is also queerly disturbing on the visual, emotional, and intellectual levels. The interplay of the repulsive aspects with attractive ones induces an indeed odd "organic" experience, as although the viewer ends up being seduced by the very repulsiveness that makes the short so striking, the viewer also never truly stops feeling repelled. Not that anything is truly repulsive here: it is far more simply disquiting.
Like Asparagus, Hen, His Wife leaves much opportunity for interpretation, arguably even more so than in the older film; and like the older film, much that seems to infer intention or possible interpretation nevertheless also remains enigmatic despite the overt feeling of both symbolic significance and visual purpose.
The basic setup is simple: An anthropomorphic hen housewife lovingly, hectically, tends to her ill, blue-headed husband in an apartment they share with their pet, an oversized, hybrid centipede with human head. Their tranquil life takes a turn for the worse when they receive an unexpected visit from a dichotomous "friend" who sows the seeds of discontent…
The Full Short:

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

R.I.P.: Umberto Lenzi, Part 1: 1958–63

6 August 1931 – 19 October 2017 

"A mostly unsung titan has passed." The great Umberto Lenzi has left us! In a career that spanned over 30 years, the Italian director churned out fine quality as well as crappy Eurotrash in all genres: comedy, peplum, Eurospy, spaghetti westerns and macaroni combat, poliziotteschi, cannibal and giallo. Here's a look at his movies...

An Italian in Greece 
(1958, dir. Umberto Lenzi)

Original title: Mia Italida stin Ellada. Little is known about his first directorial project, made in Greece and co-written by Tersicore Kolosoff, who also appears in the movie credited as "Terpsi Lenzi". The plot, according to the Greek Film Archive and Nice Translator: "A lady's man falls in love with an Italian student, whom he visits in Greece. When she discovers that he is not a painter but the bad-mannered son of a rich businessman, she decides to reject him. He remains persistent, however, and after many funny situations he wins her love."
According to some sources, Nana Mouskouri's song Arrivederci Ellada comes from the movie
Nana Mouskouri
Arrivederci Ellada:

Love and Chatter
(1958, dir. Alessandro Blasetti [3 July 1900–1 Feb 1987])

Italian title: Amore e chiacchiere. According to imdb, Lenzi appeared somewhere in the background of this comedy drama for which the lead actress, Carla Gravina, in her second film role, won the Best Actress Award at the 1958 Locarno International Film Festival. We here at A Wasted Life prefer her performance in Alberto De Martino's 1974 Eurotrash copy of The Excorcist (1973 / trailer), L'anticristo.

Trailer to
The Antichrist:

The Dam on the Yellow River
(1960, dir. Renzo Merusi [1 Nov 1914–29Jan 1996])

Original title: Apocalisse sul fiume giallo. Umberto Lenzi was assistant director on this "anti-communist propaganda movie" starring Anita Ekberg; it was her first movie after La Dolce Vita (1960 / trailer). In his book Dam, Trevor Turpin says that Apocalisse sul fiume giallo "tells the allegedly true story of a 1949 Communist plot to blow up a dam 'to convince the world of our power'. In the film, rafts full of explosives are floated to the dam. The hero (played by George Marshall [sic, he meant: Georges Marchal]) reaches one of the rafts but is too late, and the dam blows up, costing 'millions of lives'."
Pre-credit scene & credits:

Io bacio... tu baci
(1961, dir. Piero Vivarelli [26 Feb 1927–7 Sept 2010])

No English title 'cause the movie never made it to anywhere they speak English. Umberto Lenzi was assistant director on this early musical comedy from Piero Vivarelli, the future co-scriptwriter of Sergio Corbucci's classic Django (1966) and director of Il dio serpente (1970 / scene), The Black Decameron (1972 / German trailer) and Satanik (1968 / trailer), among other stuff. Sergio Corbucci cowrote the script and, interestingly enough, a song performed in this movie, Adriano Celentano's 24mila baci, was co-written by Lucio Fulci (see: Zombie [1970], City of the Living Dead [1980], Manhattan Baby [1982], Demonia [1990], and The Red Monks [1988])!

Adriano Celentano
24mila baci:
The plot as given by Baldinotto da Pistoia at imdb: "Adolfo Cocchi has a building firm but his plan to build a set of buildings is been stopped by an old former Garibaldian, Don Leopoldo, who refuses to sell his property. A group of young people go to his house to play and sing. Marcella (Italo singer Mina), Cocchi's daughter, who has a beautiful voice, goes to visit Leopoldo and falls in love with Paolo (Umberto Orsini). They have an idea: open a night-club called 'Io bacio... tu baci'..."

Guns of the Black Witch
(1961, dir. Domenico Paolella [15 Oct. 1915–7 Oct. 2002])
Original title: Il terrore dei mari. Umberto Lenzi was assistant director on this low-grade pirate movie that got released in the US on a double bill with Eddie Romero's Lost Battalion (1960) by American International Pictures.
The plot, from TCM: "In the 17th century, people of a tiny Caribbean island refuse to pay tribute to their tyrannical Spanish rulers, and as a result they are attacked and massacred by the soldiers of the villainous Guzman (Livio Lorenzon). Two boys, Jean and Michel, escape and make their way to a pirate ship. Years later, and now officers of the Black Witch, they plan to overthrow the colonial government and avenge the massacre. In an unsuccessful raid, Jean (Don Megowan) is wounded, and Michel (Germano Longo) is captured. Jean is nursed back to health by Elisa (Emma Danieli of The Last Man on Earth [1964]), the island governor's daughter, but Michel turns traitor and joins Guzman in a plot to capture Jean and his pirates. Also in the plot is the fiery Delores (Silvana Pampanini, seen below not from the movie), who wants revenge on Jean for having rebuffed her. But Michel, Delores, and Guzman are all killed in their effort to capture the pirates; and Jean and Elisa are free to continue their courtship."
Has nothing to do with Lenzi —
The trailer to

Constantine and the Cross
(1961, dir. Lionello De Felice [9 Sept 1916–14 Dec 1989])
Original title: Costantino il grande. Umberto Lenzi was one of three assistant directors on this Italo semi-biblical epic that, at least in the US, seems to be in the public domain. Romae Vitam says the movie is "One of the rare ones that tells the story of Constantine, the emperor who legalized Christianity in Europe and who built a new Rome, in the city that used to be called Constantinople."

TCM has the plot: "In the early years of the 4th century A. D., the warrior Constantine (Cornel Wilde) […] is summoned to receive honors in Rome. En route to the city with his friend Hadrian (Fausto Tozzi), a centurion, he is ambushed by the soldiers of Maxentius (Massimo Serato), his political rival, who shifts the blame for the attack to the Christians. After leaving the wounded Hadrian in the care of Livia (Christine Kaufmann), a Christian maiden, Constantine arrives in Rome. Livia is imprisoned for her beliefs but is released through the intervention of Constantine, who is accused of treachery and forced to flee the city, leaving behind his betrothed, Fausta (Belinda Lee), Maxentius' sister. Subsequently, […] Constantine is acclaimed Emperor of the West; and he announces a position of toleration towards the Christians. He weds Fausta, but […] Maxentius becomes ruler of Rome, continues the cruel persecution of the Christians, and has Livia tortured and killed. Fausta travels to Rome to sway him, but he holds her prisoner and conspires to attack Constantine's forces in Gaul. […] Constantine defeats his enemies, rescues Fausta and his mother, and assures freedom of worship to the Christians." 
Constantine and the Cross
Full movie: 
Michael's DVD mentions that "Cornel Wilde's starring career was effectively over by the time this film was made. […] Belinda Lee was a British film star who moved to Italy in the late 1950s. Sadly this seems to have been her final film, and she would not live to see it released. In 1961 she travelled to California to visit friends and was killed in a car accident there, aged only 26. The lovely Christine Kaufmann was a teenage German actress whose major claim to fame would be a brief marriage to Tony Curtis, although she continues to appear in films."
Michael fails to take into account that though someone's main claim to fame in the US might be a marriage, in the German-speaking world Christine Kaufmann (11 Jan 1945 – 28 March 2017) enjoyed a bit more appreciation as an actress.

Queen of the Seas
(1961, dir. Umberto Lenzi)

Original title: Le avventure di Mary Read. Lenzi finally directs another movie — with "Tersicore Kolosoff (nee "Terpsi Lenzi" in 1958's Mia Italida stin Ellada) as assistant director.

Girls with Guns, which says the movie "has stood the test of time fairly well, except for a romantic ending which is both predictable and unfortunate" and that the "brisk 85 minutes […] helps paper over holes in the plot", has the plot: "Starring Lisa Gastoni as Mary Read, a highwaywoman who takes a spot on a corsair ship run by the unfortunately-named Captain Poof (Walter Barnes of High Plains Drifter [1973 / trailer]). After his demise in a sea-battle, Mary takes over the ship, leading daring raids on any and all who cross her path, on sea or land. Given Poof was working with the approval of the British crown, and supposed to be targeting only its enemies, this provokes a reaction, in the shape of Captain Peter Goodwin (Jerome Courtland), who is ordered to take care of Poof, unaware he has been replaced by Mary. However, complicating matters, he also knows her personally, having been locked up in prison with her back in England, and had a brief fling with Read at the time. Can he bring his former love to justice?"

A Scene
Queen of the Seas:

The Triumph of Robin Hood
(1962, dir. Umberto Lenzi)

Original Italian title: Il trionfo di Robin Hood. Cult Action has a plot description: "While returning home from the Third Crusade, King Richard the Lionhearted is captured by the Germans and held for ransom. While he is being imprisoned, his conniving brother, Prince John, takes control of the regency and plans to oust Richard from the throne. Meanwhile, Robin Hood and his men are trying to collect enough money to get their king back from the Germans. However, the evil sheriff of Nottingham, Baron Elwin, attempts to stop them."
The full Italian movie
English subtitles:

Robin Hood Movies calls Lenzi's version a "light-headed but surprisingly colorful Italian film. Burnett, a Rock Hudson look-alike is Robin Hood, Gia Scala is 'Anna' rather than Marian, and [Canadian-born bodybuilder] Samson Burke, pictured below, is Little John."

Don Burnett and Gia Scala were husband and wife at the time the movie was made; it is Burnett's last movie. On April 30, 1972, 38-year-old Gia Scala was found dead in her Hollywood Hills bedroom from an overdose of sleeping pills. The actor playing the Sheriff of Nottingham, Arturo Dominici (2 Jan 1918 – 7 Sept 1992), was in many better movies than this one, including most Sergio Leone movies, including A Fist Full of Dollars (1964), and the two horror Italo classics Castle of Blood (1964 / trailer) and Black Sunday (1960).
Has nothing to do with Lenzi —
The trailer to
Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960):

Duel of Fire
(1962, dir. Umberto Lenzi)

("Quien es mas macho, Fernando Lamas o Ricardo Montalban?") Lifelong Republican Fernando Lamas (9 Jan 1915 – 8 Oct 1982), the father of Lorenzo Lamas, headlines this movie as a man out for revenge. AIP picked this one up for US distribution. Original Italian title: Duello nella Sila.

Film Affinity has a detailed plot description: "The young sister of protagonist Antonio Franco (Fernando Lamas) rejects the advances of a middle-aged baron [... and] is then waylaid by outlaws — the passengers are all killed but not before she has been gang-raped! Franco [...] sets out on his revenge by first eliminating the lecherous nobleman [...]. His plan to get even with the desperadoes, however, is more elaborate — as he determines to infiltrate the outfit and learn the names of every man responsible for his sister's violent death; to this end, he finds an unexpected ally in British lady journalist Miss Parker (Lisa Gastoni) [...]. Anyway, the hero's baptism of fire sees him single-handedly liberate one of their number from the gallows; besides, he falls for the redheaded sister (played by Liana Orfei of Mill of the Stone Women [1960 / trailer]) of another member. Before long, the true nature of both Lamas and Gastoni are discovered [...]. The last act, then, acquires Shakespearean overtones [...] as the dusty ground becomes riddled with corpses [...].

31 seconds
of the
opening credits:

Sandokan the Great
(1963, dir. & writ Umberto Lenzi)

Original Italian title: Sandokan, la tigre di Mompracem. Lenzi makes a — *sigh* — Steve Reeves (21 Jan 1926 – 1 May 2000) movie, his first of two, the second being a direct sequel to this one. Based on a novel by the Italian author Emilio Salgari, who invented the character of Sandokan, a fictional pirate of the late 19th century (he first appeared in print in 1883). The script was co-written by Víctor Andrés Catena and Fulvio Gicca Palli, the former of whom later co-wrote the Crazies (1973 / trailer) inspired trash film Panik / Bakterion / Monster of Blood (1982 / first 5 minutes). Steve Reeves, some might remember, began his career with an Ed Wood Jr movie, Jailbait (1954).
Reeves always looked the best and most convincing when shirtless and in a well-packaged bathing suit. Still, it should be pointed out that at the time this movie was made, Reeves was one the best paid actors of Europe. This movie, by the way, shot on location in India — or at least parts were.

Mondo Esoterica has the plot: "In colonial Malaysia, the fugitive Prince Sandokan (Steve Reeves) discovers that his father is being held awaiting the death sentence by the British. He is walking into a trap set by Lord Guillonk (Leo Anchóriz of Horror: The Blancheville Monster [1963 / Italian trailer]), who is desperate to capture the rebel and stop his activities on the island. Sandokan's friend, the Portuguese adventurer Yanez (Andrea Bosic of Manhattan Baby [1982] and Formula for a Murder [1985 / German trailer]), is able to bluff the British that Sandokan is dead, and with their guard down the prince and his small band storm Guillonk's house and capture his young niece (Geneviève Grad). They take her as a hostage but soon she comes to sympathise with their aims and when the group is ambushed by the British, she travels with them deep into the uncharted jungles..."
Original trailer
Sandokan the Great:

Samson and the Slave Queen
(1963, dir & writ. Umberto Lenzi)

Original Italian title: Zorro contro Maciste. Fantastic Musings has the plot to what they call "the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of sword-and-sandal/masked swordsman movies": "When a Spanish King dies, he leaves behind two daughters, one of which will become queen. Both daughters want to see the King's will; the good daughter (Maria Grazina Spina) wants to know whether she will be queen, but the evil daughter (Moira Orfei) wants to suppress it and make sure that she gets the crown. Each one sends a hero to get the will for her; the good daughter sends Zorro (Pierre Brice of Night of the Damned [1971 / credits sequence]), the bad daughter sends Samson (Alan Steel), who isn't aware of that daughter's evil ways."

In the USA, Zorro flew from the title and the unfamiliar Maciste became the legendary Samson. Indeed, seldom did any Italian Maciste film ever reach other lands with the hero keeping his name, for although the character of Maciste — created by Gabriele d'Annunzio (screenwriter) and Giovanni Pastrone (director) — is one of the oldest in cinema (he was first played by Bartolomeo Pagano [27 Sept 1878 – 24 June 1947], seen below, in the silent movie Cabiria [1914 / full movie]), he is generally unfamiliar outside the land of Lo Stivale.
The music of the movie was also changed for its US release, with Les Baxter's soundtrack replacing that of Angelo Francesco Lavagnino. El Zorro, of course, was a fictional character created by writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 for the story The Curse of Capistrano, published the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. Zorro made his first film appearance soon thereafter, in 1920, in Douglas Fairbank's silent movie The Mark of Zorro (full film).
(Re)Search My Trash says: "What a silly little film, a very clumsy attempt to combine the Zorro- and Maciste-myths in some fantasy kingdom outside of time and space (ok, not outside of space, that's an exaggeration) — and its cheaply made, too, probably the shoddiest-looking period piece made by director Umberto Lenzi in the early-to-mid-1960s... and yet the film manages to be quite charming in its naivety despite (or even because of) everything, an extremely simplistic-yet-likeable adventure yarn that you might find easy to enjoy if you're still in touch with your inner-child... Oh, and while Alan Steel is adequate in his role but nothing special (though he turns out to be one of the better Maciste actors), Pierre Brice is pretty amusing as Ramon/Zorro."
Muscleman Alan Steel (7 Sept 1931 – 5 Sept 2015), Steve Reeve's former stunt double, was born Sergio Ciani in Italy. That's him above with costar Moira Orfei (21 Dec 1931 – 15 Nov 2015), image taken from the fun blogspot Peplum. Dunno why, but when we were wee lads he never made our hearts go pitter-patter the same way as Steve Reeves did.
The trailer
Samson and the Slave Queen:

Slave Girls of Sheba
(1963, dir. Giacomo Gentilomo & Guido Zurli)

Original Italian title: Le verdi bandiere di Allah. According to the Peter Rodgers Organization, this B&W movie is in the public domain in the US. Umberto Lenzi worked on the screenplay alongside Amedeo Marrosu, Sergio Leone, Adriano Bolzoni and the film's co-director Guido Zurli. Giacomo Gentilomo, a serious filmmaker trapped making movies for the masses, retired from films soon thereafter to become a painter /example of his work found below). Guido Zurli stayed in the business, the highpoints of his cinematic art being his movies Gola profonda nera / Black Deep Throat (1977 / opening credits), with Ajita Wilson, and that trash classic, The Mad Butcher (1971 / trailer).

The website Harem Girl & Slave Girl has the plot: Slave Girls of Sheba is "sort of two movies for the price of one. Things start with troubles caused by the tyrant Damitrius. We meet up with the film's two heroes, Dimitri (Jose Suarez), a young man whose father is hanged and girlfriend stolen by Damitrius, and Japhir (Mimmo Palmara), Captain of the Black Eagle whose raid on the same villain goes horribly wrong. Storyline two starts after a quick visit to Sheba to pick up a couple of slave girls, hence the title, and the discovery that there's a plot against Japhir. Once back in his home port of Constantinople, Japhir is taken captive and it's up to Dimitri and a friendly monk to get word to the Sultan before Japhir, or even the Sultan himself, is killed. Once this wild and pretty comical romp is over, it's back dealing with Damitrius to finish what they started."

The trailer

The Invincible Masked Rider
(1963, writ & dir Umerto Lenzi)
Original Italian title: L'invincibile cavaliere mascherato. Aka Terror of the Black Mask and, in Germany, oddly enough, as Robin Hood in der Stadt des Todes: "Robin Hood in the City of Death".
Written, as always, in cohort with other Italo-scribes: Gino De Santis (co‑scribe of Atom Age Vampire [1960 / trailer]), Guido Malatesta and Luciano Martino, the last of whom went on to be the producer of dozens of fun Eurotrash films like Slaves of the Cannibal God (1978).
TCM has the plot: "During a plague in 17th-century Higuera the despotic Don Luis (Daniele Vargas of Lo zombo, tu zombi, lei zomba (1979 / Italian trailer]) sequesters himself and his minions in his castle. A masked cavalier, however, penetrates this sanctuary and quickly dispatches the don's henchmen. His appearance coincides with the arrival of the tyrant's stepson, the timid Diego (Pierre Brice), whom the despot betroths to Carmencita (Hélène Chanel), orphaned daughter of the former governor. Having gained entrance to a feast celebrating the epidemic's end, the masked swordsman kills the don during a duel. Shedding his guises of masked intruder and stepson, the cavalier reveals himself to be a Spanish officer, Captain Naderos, and he proclaims his love for Carmencita."

Catherine of Russia
(1963, writ & dir Umberto Lenzi)

Original Italian title: Caterina di Russia. Needless to say, hardly as much fun of a movie as Sternberg's The Scarlett Empress (1934 / scene) starring Marlene Dietrich. Lenzi's version of Catherine's tale likewise stared a German in the lead role: Hildegard Knef, of Die Mörder sind unter uns / TheMurderers Are Among Us  (1946), Alraune (1952 / she sings) and Witchery (1988 / trailer), among other movies.

The Italian Film Review says, "German-born Lost Continent (1968 / trailer) star Hildegard Knef is pretty good as Catherine of Russia but it is Raoul Grassilli, an actor who mostly worked in television, who really steals the show as the bonkers czar. He rocks. [...] Catherine of Russia could be considered an action film of sorts but it is mostly a tale of court intrigue. The major success of the film comes from the fact that the lead characters are ones with whom the viewer is able to sympathise and the costumes and are great too."

Everywhere one looks online for the plot, the same plot description in given: "Caterina (Knef) finds out that her husband Peter Tzar (Grassilli) of Russia, is plotting to kill her. She sets Count Orlov (Sergio Fantoni) free from prison, Peter's sworn enemy, becomes empress of Russia and leads the Cossacks army against him."
An indiscriminate scene
Catherine of Russia:

Go here for Part II: 1964-68