20 June 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE

"But at least it wasn't directed by Joe D'Amato."

With those words I ended my most recent Video Nasties review, of the heinous Nazisploitation picture SS Hell Camp AKA The Beast in Heat AKA La bestia in calore. I did not do this accidentally, for even then did I know that the late Aristide Massacessi, as Mr. D'Amato was called at his birth, was soon - too soon! - to make his first appearance in the annals of this weblog.

The occasion is his 1980 opus Antropophagus, better known to English speakers as Anthropophagus: The Beast (its UK video title in the Nasties era), Anthropophagus: The Grim Reaper, or just The Grim Reaper (the censored US version). By any name - the word is a fancy-ass way of saying "human-eating", by the way - it's not really very good.

Mind you, I only mean that it's not very good in an objective, universal sense. As a Joe D'Amato film, it's the next thing to a masterpiece; it is almost completely functional as a narrative, and very nearly effective as an atmospheric horror film.

Before I get into that, though, I guess I should spend a bit of time explaining exactly what's up with D'Amato, so you can understand why the most surprising thing, by far, about the movie is that I didn't want to kill myself after it was over. Like a great many European exploitation filmmakers in the 1970s, it is easiest to describe his career as "between 175 and 200 movies, roughly", and most of those, especially before the dawn of the 1980s, were sleazy to a degree that I rather lack the vocabulary to describe. Prior to Antropophagus, his most famous movies, I suppose, were his contributions to the "Black Emanuelle" series. These were erotic thrillers, knock-offs of the groundbreaking French art-porno Emmanuelle (note the face-saving - and lawsuit-dodging - change in the number of "M"s), starring Laura Gemser as an international undercover reporter whose adventures include way more explicit sexual encounters than you'd expect of, say, Christiane Amanpour.

The Black Emanuelle films started off tawdry; in D'Amato's hands they became flat-out repugnant, bottoming out with Emanuelle Around the World, which prominently features a snake-on-woman bestiality scene (faked, thank the Lord), and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, which marries the sordidness of Emanuelle to the moral viciousness of the cannibal subgenre. These films - like nearly every other D'Amato film I have seen - combine "so bad it's awe-inspiring" cheap filmmaking with such intensely scuzzy incidents, be they dispiriting violence, blithe racism, degrading sex, or a heady combination of the three, that after you've seen one, you feel like all the showers in the world aren't going to be enough to clean the filth off your soul.

The man directed, for fuck's sake, a movie titled Porno Holocaust.

So with all that baggage coming into it, Antropophagus didn't really have to do very much to impress me; if it could meet the criterion "have zero rape scenes", that alone would pretty much guarantee its position as the best D'Amato film I've ever encountered (and the film meets that criterion, and more besides: impossibly for this filmmaker, there is only one unclothed female breast in the whole movie, poking out of a gaping robe). The fact that it flirts, from time to time, with being genuinely decent is just the cherry on top. Especially since, whatever it flirts with, it's in a stable long-term relationship with profound suckitude.

Opening with a scene that feels a bit Jaws-ey without straight-up ripping-off Jaws, the first thing Antropophagus shows us is two Germans on a Mediterranean beach. The girl (Simone Baker) gets pulled down by a Something as she tries desperately to clamber onto a boat; the boy (Mark Logan) simply gets a good old-fashioned cleaver to the face. Then we jump forward in time: you'd assume that it's a few days later, from the editing, but the script later makes it seem like it has to be months if not years. We have five friends touring the Greek islands - and the names in the English dub I watched don't match up exactly to the names cited by the IMDb, but we're probably looking at Maggie (Serena Grandi) and her husband Arnie (Bob Larsen) - Maggie's pregnant - as well as Carol (Zora Kerova), a sort of amateur spiritualist, and Danny (Mark Bodin), who used to have a thing with her. There's also a man named either Andy or Alan, depending on who you trust, and he's played Saverio Vallone. None of these characters or actors are interesting in the slightest, but they luckily meet someone who is: Julie, played by Tisa Farrow in her last role, following a brief spate of cult-beloved movies at the end of the 1970s including Zombi 2 (and in case you noticed the last name and wondered: yes, her sister is Prudence Farrow, the subject of the Beatles song "Dear Prudence". They also had another sister who was an actress, but she made no exploitation films and is thus of little interest to us now).

Julie needs to hitch a ride to an obscure island to meet some British friends; the others want to find a cool non-touristy place to visit; and so they head off, with only Carol feeling "off" about the whole thing. Once they get to the island and find it uninhabited, Carol's hunch starts to seem a bit more accurate, but it takes a little bit before anyone finds anything more foreboding than just quiet, empty spaces: there's the mysterious blonde (Rubina Rey) who keeps staring at them from faraway spots, and there's the fact that the ship, where Maggie stayed after breaking her ankle, has apparently drifted far away (we already know that she and the remaining guy - whose name I cannot even pretend to spell, and who is not in the credits - have been attacked the by Something). As they look around for the missing Brits, they only find the Brits' blind daughter Rita (Margaret Mazzatini), who keeps blabbering about the creature that smells of evil. And it won't take very long until that creature, a towering man-beast with latex all over his face (D'Amato regular George Eastman), makes his presence known, by killing the tourists one by one.

Besides its lack of unendurable sleaze, and its shockingly non-terrible production standards, here's something else I didn't expect from Antropophagus: it's basically a slasher film. I don't think that phrase could possibly have made its presence felt in Italy by 1980, mind you, but the structure is there: a bunch of people isolate themselves, and for quite a long time they don't know what's going on, and during that time they get picked off. Replace "Greek island" with "New Jersey woods", and "towering man-beast" with "towering zombie in a hockey mask", and I don't suppose I need to tell you what franchise you've basically described.

Not that "it's like a slasher film" is praise...

But there is that niggling fact that Antropophagus really, actually gets something right: the setting is amazing, and D'Amato and cinematographer Enrico Biribicchi manage to complete avoid screwing it up. Shot on a cluster of Greek and Italian islands, the film takes place in a world of bright white masonry walls and dim, run-down interiors, and it just feels haunted. The film's slow development gives us plenty of time to absorb that setting, too; and the brief flashes of Eastman's man-beast are just enough to keep the tension up. It helps immensely that Eastman really is an imposing man, and that he has good crazy eyes; even through the immensely fake prosthetics, his character always seems truly threatening and unhinged, a perfectly wonderful bogeyman.

That is all I've got in me for praise. For even at his best, D'Amato wasn't any damn good as a film director, and that "slow development" that I just complimented in one way proves in another to be a damning flaw: the film is exceedingly dull, especially from about minute 5 to minute 40, when all we're doing is watching a bunch of virtually interchangeable characters walking around confused, and talking about how confused they are. Also, whenever he has to actually present a scare scene, rather than just showcase the uncanniness of the mise en scène, D'Amato falls flat on his face: the one exception is a character's completely unexpected death-by-hanging (readily the film's greatest moment). Otherwise, it's a lot of horribly misjudged zooms - an Italian genre trademark, and one that D'Amato abused with abandon throughout his career - and leading moments that imply a scare is about to happen so baldly that when it comes, we've already moved beyond. My favorite directorial fuck-up, though, has to be his use of the ol' spring-loaded cat trick: in this case, it's the cutest damn grey kitten EVER, and it jumps onto a piano and then runs across the keys like it's playing, SO CUTE. Cute, I think, is not one of the things we expect or want in a movie noted for its gratuitous violence.

Oh yes; did I forget to mention the violence? Antropophagus was quite notorious in its day, and it ended up on the Video Nasties list in Great Britain on the strength of one effect in particular; but for the life of me, I can't figure out what the big deal was. Besides some splattered stage blood for texture (a knife wound here, some scraped flesh there), there are only four big gore effects in the movie: the cleaver in the face in the opening, a ludicrously fake throat bite just before the one-hour mark, and then the two biggies, right near the end. I'd be loath to spoil them, but anyone who wants to see Antropophagus probably has heard of them and that's their only motivation: so at one point, the beast rips out Maggie's unborn child and bites it, and at the very end, having been fatally wounded, he pulls out his own intestines and gnaws on them. Conceptually, that's some harsh stuff, no two ways about it. But neither scene is particularly queasy-making, I'm sorry: the "fetus" could not possibly look any more fake (it was a skinned rabbit), and even in the uncut version - the hideous, wicked, brutal uncut version - the whole thing lasts about three seconds. As for the bit where he munches his own guts, that at least looks real - but despite Tisa Farrow's heartfelt whimpering, there's nothing convincing about the moment. The creature doesn't look at all like he's actually holding his own entrails; the scene is disgusting only in the way that watching a man eat leftovers from a butcher's shop would be in any case.

With virtually no gore, that leaves only the plot and the atmosphere; besides being infinitely slow-moving, as I said, the script also suffers from the general complaints of Italian horror, in that it is made up of nothing but coincidences and stupid character decisions and a mysterious backstory that's not actually mysterious, and even less is it compelling (as to how much sense it makes! well, it explains not a damn thing, other than that the island's cannibal monster once had cannibalistic tendencies. Good to know).

So on the whole Antropophagus offers little for anybody. Once again, a film made the Nasties list for only marginally good reasons, and thus earned a certain undeserved measure of notoriety; though certainly, Antropophagus had a wicked reputation even before the DPP got in the act. Why, I cannot say - plenty of Italian movies are far more disturbing and gross than this. Still, it finds a uniquely terrible director at his very best: like a dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well, but etc.

And at least it wasn't directed by Jess Fra-

Body Count: 11, not counting the rabbit-fetus, nor the several already-dessicated corpses littering the beast's lair.

Nastiness Rating: 3/5, a little Nasty. There really is no denying that the two big gore setpieces come from an extremely sick place, and that wins some points. But still, the execution is extremely lame, and no impressionable child looking to be corrupted is still going to be watching 78 minutes into a 92 minute feature, having waited through dozens of talky scenes of people not having sex or doing any of the other usual horror movie filler.

3 comments:

Dr Walpurgis said...

The sequel - ROSSO SANGUE, aka ABSURD - is Massacessi's best film by a country mile, and long overdue for a decent DVD release.

Troy Olson said...

All I've seen of this film are those two gore scenes you speak of and though they are inventive, I found them quite laughable, especially considering Farrow's odd reaction to a man eating his own guts.

Can't wait for the Franco review...

Tim said...

Sadly, though Mr. Franco has plenty of Nasties to his credit, I don't have the stamina to look at one of his films in such close proximity to a D'Amato. And with a Mattei film coming later this summer, I fear that Jess is going to have to wait for a while to make his triumphant debut on this blog.