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.

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.

Toxic Love – Amore tossico (Claudio Caligari, 1983)

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From the very first grainy frame of Toxic Love you somehow sense: this isn’t going to end well. In this gritty tale of despair director Claudio Caligari invites the viewer to spend 90 minutes with a group of young heroin addicts in the outskirts of Rome. The film doesn’t feel acted, there’s great sincerity and directness to the non-professional actors’ performances. Monotonous and technically primitive at first, Toxic Love soon grows on you. The characters become likeable once you see past the horrible squalor they inhabit. Simplistic camerawork and unpretentious mise-en-scène become the perfect means to tell this harrowing story. With it’s very real and graphic scenes of shooting up and sparse use of Mariano Detto’s often grating, occasionally moving Casio keyboard drones, Toxic Love nevertheless remains a humanistic picture – it’s characters, with their buck teeth, greasy hair and romanesco dialects are, by virtue of their unkempt naturalness, endearing and more convincing that any pro actors’ attempts at portraying the drug culture .

Todo Modo (Elio Petri, 1976)

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With this technically dazzling and perversely humorous film Elio Petri tackles the trickiest and least cinematic of subjects: corruption. Supported by a stellar cast of euro titans (Mastroianni, Volonte’, Salvatori, to name a few), the underrated master of satire threads with amazing grace where Godard and Costa-Gavras have so splendidly failed. Luigi Kuveiller’s fluid camera glides through the oppressive, drab interiors framing the sweating culprits with surgical precision, set to Morricone’s haunting sounds. Petri’s very own brand of twisted humour helps the often bewildering proceedings along. Soon to be re-released in a restored edition, Todo Modo is a challenge of the most pleasurable kind.

Fallece Luciano Ercoli

R.I.P. Luciano Ercoli

La abadía de Berzano

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Esta mañana el famoso crítico italiano Marco Giusti se hacía eco de una triste noticia en su muro de Facebook: el fallecimiento de Luciano Ercoli a los 84 años de edad en Barcelona, lugar donde el cineasta italiano tenía fijada su residencia desde hace ya algún tiempo. Aunque activo principalmente en labores de producción, su carrera suele ser evocada gracias a los tres giallos que dirigiera a principios de los setenta con similar elenco técnico-artístico: Días de angustia, La muerte camina con tacón alto y La muerte acaricia a medianoche, considerados a día de hoy tres de las mejores muestras del estilo por parte de los aficionados.

Nacido el 19 de octubre de 1929 en Roma, Ercoli se sentiría atraído por el cine desde bien temprano. Acorde a estas inquietudes, con tan solo diecinueve años abandonaría la carrera de derecho para comenzar a trabajar dentro de la industria…

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I Vampiri (Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava – 1956)

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When a young girl’s body is fished out of the Seine drained of blood, it’s up to the trench-coated reporter Lantin to discover the secret of the modern-day vampires, all the while resisting the advances of the melancholy Countess du Grand.

Cinematographer-turned-director Mario Bava flexes his creative muscles while performing a last-minute job of stitching together a poorly-plotted Riccardo Freda quickie. The meandering tale (co-scipted by the ultra-prolific Piero Regnoli) is a hodgepodge of kidnappings, mad scientists and family curses (with the inevitable dead relative’s portrait hung in a cobwebbed chamber) interspersed with deadly dull police procedural scenes. Moments of genuine tension are regrettably brief and I Vampiri is only marginally watchable thanks to some elegant crane shots and arresting interplay of light and shadow.

While there is no denying the sumptuousness of the well-composed shots, it’s unjust to call I Vampiri an atmospheric film, for it takes more than a fog machine and some fake skulls to weave macabre cinematic poetry. I Vampiri dedicates more running time to nondescript ballroom scenes and irrelevant police procedural scenes then to depiction of the mad doctor’s macabre experiments or the kidnappings which give start t the story. Freda directs skillfully yet indifferently, never reaching out to the audience. Concepts of emotional involvement and catharsis seem alien to the veteran director who must have been too exhausted hustling backers for money to breathe life into a potentially exciting film. Pacing is leaden with most actors appearing uncomfortable inside the spacious Cinemascope shots, plastered over with Roman Vlad’s generic score.

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Leading man Dario Michaelis’ acting amounts to little more than standing around looking skeptical with his hairdo perfect and trench-coat buttoned up; Antoine Balpetré’s crazed scientist easily elicits more sympathy than this perpetually scowling failure of a protagonist. Apart from the always dependable Paul Muller in a supporting role and some cleverly conceived and flawlessly executed visual trickery courtesy of Mario Bava, I Vampiri has little to offer. Renato Polselli would achieve livelier results four years later with his grotesque and entertaining L’Amante del Vampiro/The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), written by Ernesto Gastaldi.

La città si difende (Pietro Germi , 1951)

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A surprisingly little talked-about film, Four Ways Out / La città si difende blends neorealism and film noir influences with somewhat uneven results.

Four amateur robbers pull a heist during a football match before splitting with bagfuls of cash. With their nerves frayed by the experience and seemingly the whole city against them, will these militant paupers live to enjoy their new-found wealth? The fact that, despite their misery, they’re not devoid of compassion, works against these would-be gangsters. Each time one of the robbers behaves humanely, the consequences are grave, with the most intelligent gang member meeting a particularly nasty end. Speaking of ends: the finale sees a desperate youth give in to the mother’s tearful pleading and hand himself over to the solemn and horrifyingly grey cops. Thus, the law at its’ most bureaucratic and the family institute connive to bring yet another doomed generation to its’ knees.

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La città si difende is a an imperfect film, a film at odds with itself but also a fascinating film. It’s not clear who’s side the filmmakers are on: while undeniably a attempt at social criticism, the films sways between sympathy for the robbers and their condemnation.

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Whatever misgivings one might have regarding the overall message, the casting is dead on, from the excellent leads to the bit part players: the stroppy ticket officer on the tram, the creepy lowlifes Paul Muller’s desperate ex-painter gets mixed up with, to the stern, pig-faced cops – every rugged tormented face tells its’ own story.

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La città si difende presents the viewer with a fairly rare opportunity to see the prolific Swiss actor Paul Muller in an early and substantial role. Muller, with his distinctive looks, went on to appear in dozens of genre films, including Jess Franco´s low-budget masterpiece Eugenie De Sade (1971) and the Fantozzi films with Paolo VIllaggio. Muller´s face is the face of European cinema, he has acted alongside such stars as Alain Delon (Plein Soleil) and Ingrid Bergman (Viaggo in Italia), worked with E.M. Salerno and Andrea Bianchi, Umberto Lenzi and Riccardo Freda.

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Cinematographer Carlo Montuori (Bycicle Thieves) and camera operator Goffredo Belissario should have been decorated for their achievement, as technically La città si difende is beyond praise. Knowingly framed and expertly photographed in high-contrast black and white, the film’s visual impact is undeniable. Night scenes in particular are highly atmospheric, the impressively mobile camera capturing terrified characters as they scuttle through nightmarish post-war Rome, dwarfed by the towering blocks of flats.

La città si difende may bot be for everyone  but it’s most definitely cinema.