Jack the Ripper ( Jess Franco,1976)

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When not busy treating the very poorest of London’s paupers, Dr. Dennis Orloff (Klaus Kinski) likes to slash a prostitute or two. He’s Jack the Ripper, you see. After the good doctor is done with them, his trusty lobotomized handmaid dumps the bloodied remains into the Thames. Scotland Yard’s inspector Selby is on the case, aided by a blind beggar and his dancer ex-girlfriend (Josephine Chaplin – Downtown Heat) .

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This lavishly produced trash from producer Erwin C. Dietrich is Jess Franco’s auto-remake of his early classic Gritos en la La Noche/The Awful Dr. Orloff. With an international star in the lead, Jack the Ripper retains the classical, traditional essence of Jess Franco’s early B/W works while amping up the blood and sex factor.Such Franco themes as peeping, sexy dance routines, unusually wise and perspicacious blind characters, ineffectual policemen are all present in Jack the Ripper.

Often underused in Jess Franco films, Klaus Kinski is allowed sufficient screen time in Jack the Ripper this time around and does a good job portraying the mysterious Whitechapel maniac as a frigid, Victorian-era repressed gent with mommy issues.

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With impressive production values, including period costumes and props, Jack the Ripper remains a trash film with nothing much to say – but a stylish and entertaining one. Peter Baumgartner’s quality cinematography can be unsubtle, with exterior nighttime scenes lit so throughly that they seem unnaturally bright at times (this is more noticeable in the Bluray release). Some less-disciplined shots here and there suggest that Franco did get to handle some of the camerawork himself. A beautifully crafted flashback/hallucination scene of Kinski being taunted by the ghost of his prostitute mother foreshadows the dazzling visual abstractions Jess Franco would explore some forty years on with the likes of Paula-Paula.

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Klaus Kinski stalking a terrified Lina Romay through a nocturnal pine forest is a highlight. With no score, just some ambient sounds, the scene is a masterclass in subtle chills. Jess Franco spares no close-ups when capturing Lina Romay’s and Josephine Chaplin’s stunning natural beauty, in an out of authentic period costume. The dubbing is, as per the norm, wretched. German-language track is somewhat more restrained and serious. Klaus Kinski doesn’t have his own voice in either language version, which is of course a sin.

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An improvement on The Awful Dr. Orloff in terms of pacing and consistency, Jack the Ripper packs a good deal of blood and strangeness into its shortish running time. You don’t have to be a Jess Franco fanatic to appreciate what Jack the Ripper has got to offer.

The Devil’s Honey / Il miele del diavolo ( Lucio Fulci,1986)

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From the uninvitingly flat vaseline-coated zoom-in on the protagonist’s face in the opening scene of The Devil’s Honey it immediately transpires that director Fulci is merely going through the motions with this erotic thriller. Bernard Seray (Hell of the Living Dead) is a delight in a supporting part as the overwrought, bitchy producer. Brett Halsey has impressive biceps but looks tired throughout. Lucio Fulci makes an uncharacteristic cameo as a street vendor. Technically competent bur lacking commitment The Devil’s Honey isn’t the film to remember Lucio Fulci by.

Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies ( Jack Sholder,1998)

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Do you remember Artisan Entertainment? The independent company that most famously released The Blair Witch Project, but also brought us many straight-to-video sequels, such as the dreary Candyman : Day of the Dead and the very decent Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies, before being bought out by the expanding Lions Gate.

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Coming from Jack Sholder (who helmed the darkest in tone entry into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and an effective slasher Alone in the Dark), Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies is a cost-effective follow-up to Robert Kurtzman’s 1997 Wishmaster. Made with half the budget of the original film and released straight-to-video, Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies is another opportunity for Andrew Divoff to shine in the role that made him famous. Despite its smaller budget, Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies is, if anything, an improvement on the original, that got carried away with the special effects at the expense of the story. The script (by Sholder himself) is focused and the many violent deaths caused by the evil Djinn are certainly graphic and imaginative. Holly Fields (Alien Interceptors) is suitably desperate as the girl who’s unwittingly unleashed the Djinn in the course of a robbery gone badly wrong. The Russian flavour is something that sets Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies apart from the first film. During his stint behind bars, the Djinn recruits the services of a small-time Russian mobster who’s supplying him with souls, while Holly Fields’ character turns to Russian Orthodox Church for spiritual salvation.

With simple, assured direction from Jack Sholder and some bloody special effects scenes (CGI is used very sparingly, thank god), Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies is quality low-budget horror and the last watchable Wishmaster film. Two more utterly worthless sequels followed, without Andrew Divoff or anything to recommend them for.

Dirty Game in Casablanca / Juego sucio en Casablanca ( Jess Franco,1985)

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A surprisingly linear (one could even say restrained) thriller from the notoriously erratic Jess Franco, Juego sucio en Casablanca stars William Berger as an alcoholic american novelist Dean Baker. His family life wrecked, himself toying with suicide, Baker starts an affair with Jill (Analia Ivars), a young girl he’d met at a disco. The depressed scribe soon regains his lust for life as five strangers hunt him through the streets of Casablanca.

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The cinematography is serviceable, without much experimentation. One could easily mistake Juego sucio en Casablanca for an 80’s TV movie. Jess Franco’s many unflattering closeups  (Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, Day of the Cobra) show William Berger looking run-down. There are some occasional visual flourishes which remind us we’re watching a Jess Franco film, such as the sequence at the harbour, with the setting sun shining right down the lens, creating that dreamy look Franco was so adept at capturing.

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Juego sucio en Casablanca is a conventional, somewhat melodramatic thriller, sticking closely to  the screenplay by Santiago Moncada (Hatchet for the Honeymoon), which was previously filmed by Tulio Demicheli (Dracula Versus Frankenstein / Monstruos del Terror) as Ace of Hearts/Juego sucio en Panamá (1975).

It’s very strange seeing Jess Franco attempt such a low-key Hitchcockian thriller during his busy softcore period. With not much in the way of originality, today Juego sucio en Casablanca is chiefly interesting  not for the elaborate yet implausible plot, but for how Jess Franco adapts his meagre resources to bring this pulpy story to life.The characters keep talking about big money and New York city while stuck in humble hotel rooms doing nothing much but smoking. Jess Franco generates the right ambience with generous helpings of stock footage, an ‘ethnic’ score and some suitably exotic Costa del Sol locations (familiar from Mil Sexos Tiene La Noche).

Analia Ivars looks great as Berger’s love interest, while  Antonio Mayans and Ricardo Palacios are not given enough screen time. Lina Romay can be spotted in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo as one of Dean Baker’s fans. 70s bit-part baddie Luis Barboo plays of the gamblers, but his character turns up dead too soon.

With nothing much to recommend it, Juego sucio en Casablanca remains an oddly tame entry in the Jess Franco canon.

Demons 2 / Dèmoni 2… l’incubo ritorna (Lamberto Bava, 1986)

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A virtual remake posing as a sequel, Demons 2 is plot-wise almost a twin brother to Demons. Yet plot isn’t really the thing to focus on when talking about Italian horror. These films are rich in atmosphere, visual inventiveness and often esoteric subtext – a combination which makes them such a delight to watch. Both Demons films, scripted by the tireless Dardano Sacchetti, are of course complete failures from narrative standpoint. They present us with cardboard characters behaving irrationally, story lines leading nowhere and riddled with countless plot holes. None of these shortcomings stop the two Demons films and other similar Italian horror classics from being enjoyable films that withstand and improve on repeat viewings, though. Cinema cannot be reduced to just linear storytelling, character arks and three-act structure. Those things pertain to drama and literature, and while cinema has adopted them, it also has other means of keeping the viewer watching, otherwise such frankly badly-written films as the Demons would  never have become the worldwide cult favourites they are today. Nor would the many arthouse films which deviate from straightforward storytelling tropes have their audiences. So, what is it that makes Demons 2 and others of its ilk so special?

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The answer is simple: Demons 2 is cinema (Soderberg has made a nice comment on cinema/movies distinction in his San Francisco festival speech). Cinema at its most sincere and unadulterated. Heavy on atmosphere and offering the viewer a blood-splattered spectacle, without trying to be meaningful beyond the required minimum. Demons 2 has a unique, recognisable style and a look to die for.

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Coming from Lamberto Bava (one of Italian genre cinema’s less-esteemed filmmakers) whose films somehow manage to be incredibly visionary and utterly boneheaded at the same time, Demons 2 has its fair share of problems.  Apart from loose plot threads, Demons 2 also features a very crappy mini-demon stalking Nancy Brilli around her apartment. Presumably imitating Gremlins, Lamberto Bava dedicates lengthy screen time to a fake-looking monster puppet that’s supposed to project menace but barely manages to totter around the set instead. DoP Gianlorenzo Battaglia uses heavy strobe lighting to obscure the crappy effects work during this drawn-out, seizure-iducing sequence. These quibbles aside, Demons 2 is still a must-see, with its many demon attacks and grotesque make-up and effects work from Sergio Stivaletti. After the initial box-office failure of his subtle and studied debut feature Macabro, Lamberto Bava would embark on making small films quickly and efficiently, often for TV and invariably from terrible screenplays. To many viewers the two Demons films represent the pinnacle of Lamberto Bava’s film career, due to  Dario Argento lending them his then-marketable name and providing substantial budgets to film gory mayhem and violent ‘humans vs. demons’ confrontations.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, Demons 2 retains the German setting (the demons outbreak takes place inside an apartment block in Hamburg) and some of the cast from the first film. Lino Salemme (Demonia, Delirium), who played the coke-head punk Ripper comes back as a security officer and Bobby Rhodes (The Last Hunter), famous for playing Tony the Pimp, takes on the role of Hank the gym instructor. Simon Boswell picked the bands for Demons 2 soundtrack and he’s signed up some legends: The Smiths, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Cult and other amazing acts, as well as contributing some excellent tunes himself. The new wave/alternative selection of songs is worth the price of admission alone.

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Stylish, violent, illogical, visually splendid/sonorously mind-blowing, crafted with a lot of skill and featuring a young Asia Argento in one of her very first screen roles, Demons 2 is prime slice of 80’s eurohorror.

House of 1000 Corpses ( Rob Zombie, 2003)

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Colourful epileptic gory carnival that is Rob Zombie’s feature debut has been around for close to fifteen years now. A lot has changed in the meantime – Rob Zombie has made a career in the genre, including two atrocious Halloween films and an ambitious, if uneven, The Lords of Salem, the whole torture porn genre has bloomed in  the years following the original Saw and Hostel films. Now that the dust has settled, it’s easier to see the virtues of House of 1000 Corpses.

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There’s no denying that Rob Zombie has a pretty fertile imagination. Sick as his visions may be, there’s a lucidity and vividness to them which marks him as one to look out for in the future. And yet these visions stay on the somewhat abstract, artistic plane – too refined to be just spontaneous, inarticulate trash which the filmmaker clearly draws his inspiration from.

The beautiful electric blues and neon greens of Captain Spaulding’s roadside establishment are captured beautifully by cinematographers Alex Poppas and Tom Richmond. Rob Zombie’s own hand-held grainy insert shots are also effective in their deliberately crude, low-tech fashion.

While the passing of the years may have placed House of 1000 Corpses in a more advantageous light, it could do little to ameliorate Sheri Moon’s performance, which remains just as fake and annoying now as it did back in around 2003. It’s nice to spot Michael J. Pollard (Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse) in a bit part. Rob Zombie’s subsequent films would be studded with genre icons in cameo appearances, from Ken Foree to Richard Lynch, Udo Kier and beyond.

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There’s something endearing in Rob Zombie’s earnest attempt at all-out transgression, his appetite for the bizarre and the grotesque. Even at its most meaningless, monotonous, confusing and crazy the film retains a visionary quality and unfaltering enthusiam which renders it likeable. Maybe it’s the excellent cinematography or the brilliance of Bill Moseley and Sid Haig as the sickos. Maybe it’s the over-indulgent, messy editing. The charm that would be missing from the 2005 sequel  the Devil’s Rejects which is more dry, often visually ugly and leaves an sickly aftertaste, despite retaining cult film heavyweights Moseley and Haig and having a superior narrative structure to House of 1000 Corpses.

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It is of course an abomination to think that it took a whole $ 7 million to make a movie that’s inspired by cheapo exploitation films. Transgress all you want, but had it not been for Rob Zombie’s working relationship with Universal, no way would he have got House of 1000 Corpses made with this high level of production values. The sound mix is amazing and the film is edited with great precision (I’m referring to purely technical quality of the execution, which is a separate thing and doesn’t affect the resulting film’s coherence or pacing).

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When House of 1000 Corpses first came out it felt weird, incoherent, hyperactive, bloody and disgusting yet lacking genuine thrills or tension. It still is all of these things. What’s changed? The whole horror film panorama has shifted. Today, seen in the context of Rob Zombie films that were to follow and in wider perspective of horror genre development, House of 1000 Corpses looks considerably more attractive. Too slick and well-connected to pass for a real grindhouse film, House of 1000 corpses nevertheless has its heart in the right place. And what a dark, perverse bastard of a heart it is!

Monster Dog (Claudio Fragasso, 1984)

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If genre films were all about good cinematography and atmospheric music, Italian cinema of the 1970s and the 1980s would be the most popular in the world, for even the dreariest Italian genre films from the era can offer some great visuals and a decent score (and often also impressive gore and some over-the-top stunts). Yet to make a quality film you also need a screenplay, and this is where the spaghetti horror’s weak spot has always lain.

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The majority of Italian independent genre films we’re pre-sold on the strength of a catchy title and a hyperbolic poster, and once the producers secured a sale, the film would have to be delivered in a matter of weeks, which left no room for finer aspects of storytelling. Prolific scriptwriters – Ernesto Gastaldi (mainly known for penning scores of giallo films), Dardano Sacchetti (every genre under the sun, wrote for Bava, Argento, Margheriti but is best known for his works on Lucio Fulci’s zombie films), Piero Regnoli (everything from early Renato Polselli films to Fulci’s swan song Voices from Beyond, not forgetting Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City and Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground) would be called in to deliver scripts to impossibly tight deadlines. Unsurprisingly, the storylines they came up with would often involuntarily take on surreal dimensions, with the characters behaving in a decidedly casual manner in the freakiest of situations or, on the contrary, bursting into fits of near-homicidal rage with no apparent motive.

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Gigantic plot holes notwithstanding, a good number of these hastily written scripts, when given to a skilled director and with at least some financing, would result in genre classics.  It was not uncommon to have a feature written in the course of a single weekend – no wonder that even the finest examples of Italian genre cinema are woefully lacking in the dialogue department. The 1984 horror Monster Dog is no exception. This small-scale horror film from the director of Zombie 4: After Death oscillates between entertaining stalking scenes and agonizingly bad dialogue interludes.

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Written by Claudio Fragasso (Bruno Mattei’s partner in crime throughout the ’80s), Monster Dog was made around the same time as Rats: Night of Terror, a post-nuke exploitation rehash of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Set in the US but shot in Spain, Monster Dog is the only feature film to have the legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper in the lead role. Cooper has appeared in supporting parts in a good few films (John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness among them). Cult actor Ricardo Palacios (Blood of Fu Manchu, The Ark of the Sun God) appears as the sheriff.

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Monster Dog boasts some half-decent bloody scenes, with clunky animated monster head popping out of the bush or bursting through doors at pleasantly brief intervals, plus two exclusive Alice Cooper songs (Identity Crisis is a personal favourite). For such a low-budget film, the cinematography is well-executed (and highly reliant on blue-tinted lighting, so popular in ’80s horror), with an occasional shot looking like it could belong in a more upmarket production. When the monster dog attacks, Fragasso treats us to some moist closeups of gore, something the director would later perfect in Zombie 4:After Death. Had it not been for such head-achingly bad dialogue, Monster Dog could have been a minor classic. As it stands, the film is enjoyable enough, but its daftness is likely to make you cringe now and then.

P.S. some trivia: Monster Dog was produced by Carlos Aured, responsible for an over-the-top 1973 horror film Horror Rises from the Tomb starring Paul Naschy.