On CONTAMINATION

A 40th anniversary tribute to Luigi Cozzi’s delirious science fiction shocker

It’s almost impossible to think that it’s been 40 years since the release of CONTAMINATION. It’s equally unimaginable that some of you reading these words have no idea what CONTAMINATION is. But for that lucky legion of fans that have indeed long-loved Luigi Cozzi’s delirious 1980 Italian sci-fi/horror romp (and former “Video Nasty”), your pulses were likely pounding as soon as you saw the headline of this piece. And for you curious lot still in the dark, allow me to illuminate.

CONTAMINATION stars ZOMBI 2 and ZOMBI HOLOCAUST legend Ian McCulloch as alcoholic ex-astronaut Ian Hubbard who is roped back into action by Colonel Stella Holmes (Canadian actress Louise Marleau) after a ghost ship drifts into the New York harbour carrying crates of acid-spewing death-sacs, the likes of which have just caused a crew of investigators to explode like blood piñatas.  Seems Hubbard was part of a doomed Mars mission many years prior in which fellow astronaut Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch) fell under the spell of some sort of egg-laying terror and vanished. When Hubbard returned to earth, raving about Martians and half out of his mind, no one believed his tales and he slipped into deep depression and hopeless addiction. Horrified to learn that the pulsing poison eggs he encountered in space are now on earth, but exhilarated that there is finally proof of his career-killing claims, Hubbard joins forces with Colonel Holmes –and NYPD cop Tony Aris (Marino Mase) – to track down the source that’s shipping the deadly, toxic eggs around the world, a journey that takes them to the steamy jungles of Columbia. Seems Hamilton had also returned to earth where he runs a coffee plantation and has become a puppet of the insidious alien lifeform, who has psychically ordered him to help bring the earth to its knees via its evil ova, packed discretely in boxes of coffee beans.

Calling CONTAMINATION an ALIEN rip-off is no insult to the film, nor is it a slight on Cozzi’s integrity or intentions. During that period of Italian exploitation moviemaking, no producer worth his salt would have dared finance any genre film that wasn’t a direct quote on an existing, profitable picture – especially if it was a profitable American picture as ensuring U.S. screens was an essential component to a European film’s success.  And that is indeed exactly how CONTAMINATION began its swollen galactic pustule-popping life, with Cozzi – fresh of the modest success of his wild space opera STARCRASH – walking into producer Claudio Mancini’s office and promising a movie that boiled down to being “ALIEN made for peanuts”, one that was originally to be called CONTAMINATION: THE ALIEN ARRIVES ON EARTH. As Ridley Scott’s masterpiece was a ground-breaking, instant global sensation, without blinking, Mancini agreed to do the movie and it was rushed into production.

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On 8MM

Another look at Joel Schumacher’s devastating neo-noir horror film

It’s as good a time as any to scribble about a motion picture that I cite as one of the most underrated horror films of the past quarter century and certainly, the most undervalued in the Nicolas Cage cannon. It’s a movie that positions itself as a noir-steeped murder mystery but goes so deeply into phantasmagoria that it becomes, almost imperceptibly, a full blown horror film. And while there isn’t anything explicitly supernatural in the film, there is a leather-clad Frankenstein monster-esque porn stud-gimp named “Machine” who acts as the angel of sexual death for an egomaniacal snuff film pimp named Dino Velvet who is so over the edge with his grim villainy that he makes Dracula look like a milquetoast by comparison.

Indeed, the movie I’m about to rave about is the Andrew Kevin Walker (SEVEN) scripted psychodrama 8MM, released in 1999 and directed by the Hollywood the late gun-for-hire Joel Schumacher, he of slick and empty entertainments like THE LOST BOYS, FLATLINERS, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the risable BATMAN FOREVER and the even more dire BATMAN AND ROBIN. Outside of the latter two pictures, however, I actually rather liked Schumacher’s solid journeyman work. He was a sleazier Tony Scott in some ways, making glossy, easily packaged product that nonetheless had covert personal kinks splashing around on the peripheral and very often, a palpable passion for movie-making at their cores. I believe 8MM to be his masterpiece and certainly, it’s further evidence that Cage is one of the great dramatic screen presences when used properly and when dialing down his patented eccentricities (though I am indeed a huge devotee of said eccentricities).

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On THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM

A look at Otto Preminger’s groundbreaking and harrowing 1955 addiction drama

I remember when Darren Aronofsky was doing the press tour for his controversial and unsparing 2000 Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, he correctly cited the film as a horror movie, one in which the monster was the heroin that seduced, dominated and decimated the lives of its fragile, deluded blue-collar characters. That’s kind of Selby Jr.’s beat, sifting through the streets and trying to find grace notes among the desperate, scrambling human beings who are forever lost to boredom, poverty and vice. But in Aronofsky’s film, the idea of addiction  is pumped up to supernatural heights, with screeching Clint Mansell music, rapid fire visuals, extreme sexual debasement and carnivorous refrigerators. Yeah, it’s a horror movie alright and one that no one who has endured it ever manages to forget.

But long before Aronofsky attacked audiences with REQUIEM, director Otto Preminger broke ground with another film about a junkie perpetually trying to outsmart the drooling monkey that claws at his back, 1955’s THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM , based on the novel by Nelson Algren. Starring iconic crooner and occasional actor Frank Sinatra in what is most assuredly his greatest performance, MAN is a film crawling out the sensibilities of the morally ambiguous and unofficial noir subgenre of the 1940s but bleeding into more dangerous, graphic territory, rejecting as it did the dying Production Code that had been sanctimoniously clipping Hollywood’s balls since the early 1930s. But Preminger was adamant that his movie did not glamorize drugs rather it showed the smack as life-decimating parasite that, once invited into its host’s life, refused to vacate until that person was dead. Preminger and distributor United Artists released the movie without the approval of the MPAA and, though their battle was hard won, their defiance was instrumental in paving the way for a new wave of American cinema that would eventually reform and dominate American cinema in the 1960s.

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On THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

Celebrating Roger Corman’s 1961 masterpiece of Gothic dread

Though he has made hundreds of films spanning over six decades, producer/director and indie genre film pioneer Roger Corman’s 8-picture “Poe Cycle” continues to be among his most celebrated and discussed works.

The story goes that Corman, who was, by the end of the 1950’s becoming fledgling studio American International Pictures’ regular house producer/director, went to AIP bosses Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson and convinced them to take the budget they’d normally use for two black and white pictures and instead combine them to make a single full color movie. The studio initially balked but eventually relented and the first entry in that experiment was 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, based on the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher”.

The Gothic, lushly realized film, written by popular writer and novelist Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”, “Hell House”, THE TWILIGHT ZONE), was a rousing critical and commercial success, a picture that bridged the gap between the drive-ins and teen-drenched “flat tops” that Corman and AIP catered to, and the arthouse, with a distinctly literate and moody European sheen that most exploitation films of the time simply didn’t have.

But as to which of the 8 remarkable Poe films is the superior entry, It’s subjective, Certainly, everyone has their favorite and latter works like the shot in England, Ingmar Bergman-influenced MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and TOMB OF LIGEIA are the most sumptuously designed of the lot. But his HOUSE OF USHER follow-up, 1961’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, is inarguably the scariest…

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On THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE

Could Jorge Grau’s 1974 shocker be the greatest zombie movie ever made?

In the early 1970s, a young, experimental Spanish director named Jorge Grau was, alongside an equally visionary, Nouvelle Vague inspired pack of bratty celluloid slingers (the likes which include THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE helmer Vincente Aranda, being championed as the future of the Spanish film industry. In the wake of Grau’s violent, sexual and historically accurate telling of the Elizabeth Bathory legend, 1973’s THE BLOODY COUNTESS, producer Edmondo Amati approached the filmmaker to direct a movie that would blatantly ride the box office coattails of the George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but add the more visceral dimension of dripping, full-blooded color, replacing the gritty, cheap, shadowy expressionism of NIGHT with a more garish, pulpy and stomach churning pallet. Grau, swayed by a larger paycheck and the chance to film in England eagerly obliged, taking the rather straight forward genre screenplay and giving it a re-write, grafting on his own, unique personality quirks, obsessions and style, “borrowing” from Romero’s creation but forging something completely fresh and deliciously offbeat.

Known on these shores under at least a dozen lurid (and occasionally ludicrous) titles, including DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW, BRUNCH WITH THE DEAD and LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, Grau’s resulting 1974 Spanish/Italian zombie shocker “Non Si Deve Profanare Il Sonno Dei Morti”, is a movie that I’ve always preferred to call by its UK moniker, THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE. Because I just love the way it reads, especially when read aloud.

London antique dealer George (a bearded, badass looking Ray Lovelock from, among many other things Armando Crispino’s AUTOPSY and Umberto Lenzi’s AN IDEAL PLACE TO KILL) is on a cross-country motorcycle trip into rural England when, after a bike crushing accident, he regretfully hooks up with the beautiful, fragile Edna (Christina Galbo from WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?) who is also traveling into the sticks to visit her mentally ill sister. On route, the pair come across a strange machine; a whirring, pulsing metallic engine sitting squarely in the centre of a farmers field. Said machine is an agricultural device that sends out waves of low frequency radiation designed to provoke insects to go mad and cannibalize each other. Science!

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On THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

An appreciation of Peter Strickland’s sensual masterpiece

What is gender, exactly? When sperm hits egg and the first spark of creation takes shape in the cozy confines of the mother’s womb, all life is… is just life. Just the blueprint of the potential of what we will become. What plumbing and genetic purpose that life will have is unknown. And then a biological die is cast and presto bingo, we have a code that defines a role in nature. But no matter what dangles between our legs, we are all amalgams of both, we all have the same chemicals and impulses, just some of us are designed to perhaps tilt strongly in one direction or another. It’s out of our hands. It’s nature.

But where things get tricky and — yawn, yes, political — is when we socialize nature. When we try to put parameters around that which should have none. Religion, media, fashion, school, all of these societal factors serve to muddy waters that should run pure. Boys. Girls. Men. Women. Beyond our biological function when it comes to mating and birthing, we are all in fact masculine and feminine hybrids. And yet we keep on trying to categorize and compartmentalize.

Which brings me to British director Peter Strickland’s ingenious and delirious 2014 masterpiece THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, a film I fell in love with instantly and which has haunted me ever since. Like his previous singular cinematic swoon, 2013’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, DUKE combines intimate drama with hyper-stylized evolutions of European genre tropes and festishizations of their iconography. In BERBERIAN it was the giallo film, focusing its narrative on a cinema sound designer who is losing his mind while working on an imagined ’70s Italian thriller. In DUKE, Strickland mines the voyeuristic, psychedelic and lush films of Jess Franco. In fact, the movie began its life as a straight remake of Franco’s 1974 exploitation shocker LORNA THE EXORCIST. But Strickland — one of the most wonderfully unconventional filmmakers alive — got bored of the idea of a remake and instead took the project in another direction. And I’m so glad he did. Because what he did here in this mesmerizing film transcends any sort of classification. Sure, it has the ghost of Franco whispering in our ears, but this is Strickland’s vision. It’s pure cinema, deceivingly simple, breathtaking to behold and intimately observed with one of the most fragile and moving film scores I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. And while THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY was exceedingly well reviewed and beloved by many, it’s still very much a secret. It’s out there. And it needs your eyes, your mind, your heart. And your other parts.

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On BLOODY MOON

Jess Franco’s slasher saga is a leering, sloppy blast

Beloved – and sorely missed – iconoclast Jess Franco first made his major movie mark in France with a series of crisp, sleazy and stylish black and white arthouse horror pictures like 1962’s THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (a quote on Georges Franju’s groundbreaking sex and surgery epic EYES WITHOUT A FACE), movies that valued high contrast photography, graphic violence and mild, soon to be abundant, female nudity. In the ensuing decades the tirelessly prolific Franco would make scores of increasingly graphic, often very personal, jazz influenced (Franco was also an accomplished composer and musician) sonnets to sex, violence and voyeurism, playing with color and working with budgets both high and low in any country that would fund his filmmaking fetish.

Which brings me to BLOODY MOON, an early ’80s German financed (the original title was DIE SAGE DES TODES or THE SAW OF DEATH) bloodbath made in the wake of the slasher craze sparked by John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and juiced up by the considerably more explicit FRIDAY THE 13th and its endless stalk-and-stab ilk. But the seriously bent BLOODY MOON (whose ample but klutzy murders landed it onto the Video Nasties list in the UK) is so much more than simply a routine masked maniac shocker. Why? Because it was made by Franco of course and, as any serious scholar of Jess’s work knows, no matter how dodgy and cheap the more downmarket Franco films could be, there was almost always something there that was uniquely his. A lazy-lidded energy, a leering point of view. Something.

The attractively greasy looking BLOODY MOON opens on a spectacularly sickening murder at a Spanish girls school by a completely un-spectacularly made-up lunatic (Alexander Waechter). Five years later, pretty young student Angela (sex film starlet Olivia Pascal) has taken up residence in the same room where the said slaughter went down and to make matters eerier, the cheese-faced killer has been released from the loony bin, apparently none too reformed.

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On THE COMPANY OF WOLVES

Neil Jordan’s 1984 masterpiece is a sensual, cerebral fairy tale

Before Walt Disney and his squeaky clean, family-friendly ilk saw fit to sanitize them, the traditional fairy tale served as far more than a whimsical alternative to kiddie chloroform. As penned by those bad old Brothers Grimm especially, fairy tales of yore were cautionary morality fantasies: dark, violent warnings about the horrors and dangers in life that lurk behind every bend and within every human heart.

Take Cinderella, for instance. In the ‘real’ story, those cantankerous, treacherous stepsisters don’t just try on the ill-fitting glass slipper; the incident plays out as a vulgar perversion of the basest kind of vanity, as each sibling bloodily contorts their feet to fit the shoe, one even hacking off a few toes to complete the task. ‘Grimm’ stuff indeed. Then there’s Snow White, the story of an unfortunate lass who is set up to be murdered by her jealous mother, a crone who hires a woodsman to drag the porcelain beauty out into the woods and pull her beating heart from her bloody chest. And then take fairy tale forefather Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood. British fantasy writer Angela Carter did. So did Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan. Their resulting collaboration on that infamous musing on temptation, recently eaten grandmothers and cross dressing canines was the brilliant and beautiful allegorical 1984 horror movie THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, certainly one of the most underrated horror films in history.

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On LAND OF THE MINOTAUR

An appreciation of the underrated British/Greek horror film

Released in 1976 in the U.S. by exploitation house Crown International to a moderately successful box office take and generally pitiful reviews, director Kostas Karagiannis‘s earthy and surreal horror mood-piece LAND OF THE MINOTAUR has been pretty easy to find on home viewing formats, popping up in rough looking pan and scan VHS versions and dodgy DVD releases in North America and in equally ugly (but thankfully uncut) editions in the UK. Scorpion Releasing even let it loose a few years back as a split disc with Norman J. Warren’s TERROR, uncut and in widescreen under it’s original title (THE DEVIL’S MEN) with little to no fanfare and that cut has been itself bootlegged to death.

Still, despite its exposure, I’ve sadly yet to hear anyone else seriously champion LAND OF THE MINOTAUR’s virtues.

So, with that, allow me to do so.

On the outskirts of a remote, inland village in beautiful, picturesque Greece (Aris Stavrou’s photography is stark and eye-filling), something secret, insidious and palpably evil lurks, sucking every too-curious young tourist into its maw and swallowing them whole. As the ever-expanding list of the curious missing travelers increases, an eccentric local Priest (the great Donald Pleasence) begins to suspect that a cult of mountain dwelling, black hooded, Minotaur-worshiping Satanists have gained a stronghold, sacrificing pretty young people to their titular stone hoof and horned, steam belching deity.

A battle of theological wits ensues between the fraught Father and the ultra-wicked village Magistrate/covert cult leader Baron Corofax (the perhaps even greater Peter Cushing in a rare, full-on chin-stroking villain role) and by the time the smoke clears and the last drop of crudely spilled virgin blood dries, only one of these admirably dedicated and faithful men will be left standing.

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On TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS

Looking back on Freddie Francis’ underrated 1973 horror anthology

Often mistaken for one of Amicus Pictures’ horror anthologies, Oscar winning cinematographer and veteran genre director Freddie Francis’ 1973 omnibus TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS is a superior British horror film and one of the finest examples of the multi-story shocker. Amicus of course cornered the market on these sorts of films throughout the 1960s and ‘70s and while they were all entertaining and skillfully produced, only 1972’s EC comics riff TALES FROM THE CRYPT truly felt like it was pushing boundaries, like it was dangerous in some way. And despite that film’s domestic PG rating, it still stands as one of the scariest horror movies this writer has ever seen. And it was directed by Francis. And TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS is directed by Francis. You see where I’m going with this…

TALES – whose title oddly foreshadows Charles Bukowski’s celebrated short story collection “Tales of Ordinary Madness” – opens with a dynamic credits sequences with green X-rays of human skulls and brains dissolving across the screen, a clear indication that this picture is concerned with the cornerstone of the greatest genre pictures, that of the shadowy, mysterious and easily damaged corners of the human mind. Its set up echoes that of Amicus’ ASYLUM (directed by Francis’ fellow Hammer Horror colleague Roy Ward Baker) but Francis – again, a trained DP – frames the film with weird angles and low camera set ups, making us feel like something is dreadfully wrong right from the start.

A doctor (Jack Hawkins, in what was his final film) visits an impossibly antiseptic, retro-futuristic insane asylum run by the kindly Dr. Tremayne, played by future HALLOWEEN legend Donald Pleasence, already at this point a stalwart of the European horror boom. Like in ASYLUM, Tremayne leads his visitor to four separate cells, where near-catatonic patients while away their days staring at walls. Each patient’s troubled past serves as a segment of the picture.

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