Flesh and Blood (1922)

‘Again the cunning signal – one, two, three!’

After fifteen years behind bars, a convict breaks jail so he can see his dying wife. Rushing to her side, he is too late, so he attempts to reconnect with his daughter, who believes him to be dead. Meanwhile, the detective who arrested him before is hot on his trail…

Lon Chaney finds himself on the wrong side of the law again in this crime melodrama directed by independent producer Irving Cummings. Between major studio assignments and as a free agent, the horror icon in waiting kept busy with such projects, little knowing that international superstardom was just around the corner.

Ex-lawyer David Webster has been serving a decade and a half stretch in the local hoosegow when he hears that his wife is seriously ill. She may have disowned him, changed her name and told her daughter that he was dead, but he’ll still move heaven and earth just to see her. During his time at the bar, he saved Chinatown kingpin Li Fang (Noah Beery) from incarceration and the debt is repaid when the big wheel arranges his escape and subsequent sanctuary. But Chaney’s journey across the city’s rooftops to see his wife ends in tears. His long lost daughter Marjorie (Edith Roberts) stands distraught on the sidewalk, decked out in mourning clothes.

Determined to prove his innocence and find his daughter, who has moved away, Chaney adopts a disguise by walking around on crutches and pretending to be a crippled beggar. By chance, he encounters Roberts again at the local mission house, where the clientele calls her the ‘Angel-lady.’ Still guilty in the eyes of the world, Chaney determines that she never know his true identity and charms her instead by playing her mother’s favourite songs on the violin. He’s surprised to discover that not only is the mission moving to a new settlement house donated by businessman Fletcher Burton (Ralph Lewis) but that Roberts and the man’s idealistic young son, Ted (Jack Mulhall), are in love. The problem is that Lewis is the man who framed him all those years ago and the target of Chaney’s plans for revenge.

This project has all the hallmarks of warmed-over, second-hand ingredients assembled with little imagination or conviction. For a start, Chaney’s disguise seems nothing more than a deliberate call back to his successes in earlier productions ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919) and ‘The Penalty’ (1920). It only consists of him walking with crutches; there is no effort to hide his distinctive facial features. Whereas it’s reasonable that Roberts doesn’t recognise him after fifteen years, the fact that it prevents identification at the hands of Detective Doyle (DeWitt Jennings) and the rest of the local force is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. And it serves little to no purpose in the unfolding narrative, other than allowing for a tame ‘unmasking’ scene at the climax.

To Cumming’s credit, the film doesn’t lean too heavily on the sentimental aspects of the tale, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Roberts is cast as the typical ‘female martyr’ of cinema’s silent era, and one of the mission’s customers is a lame young boy with a ‘can do’ attitude and a cheery grin. There are also a few nice touches in Louis D. Lighton’s screenplay. Chaney doesn’t object to his daughter hooking up with the son of his old enemy so long as he’s satisfied that the lad has good intentions and he’s what Roberts wants. He’s even prepared to abandon his plans to have Lewis confess to his old crime, but, of course, Lewis objects to the match because he wants Mulhall to marry more advantageously. So, the story does develop on mostly predictable lines.

A significant issue for a modern audience may be the presence of white-bread Noah Beery in the role of Li Fang. Fortunately, his appearance as a Chinaman avoids the worst excesses of the era. He dresses in a white business suit, and his dialogue on the intertitles is free from colloquialisms or nuggets of Oriental wisdom. Also, more often than not, there were simply no Asian actors with the necessary experience to take on such a role. Of course, an argument can always be made sufficient opportunity was not available to acquire that experience in the first place.

The most positive aspect of the film is, without question, Chaney’s performance. Although he had shown a tendency to play to the gallery on occasion, there’s little evidence of that here. His David Webster is a tragic and emotional figure, but the actor plays his cards close to his chest, given the era’s style. By now, Chaney had played plenty of thugs, tough guys and villains, but his David Webster is a far more contained proposition, even in his confrontation with Lewis in the final act. His dealings with Roberts are also nicely played, even if his longing stares in her direction might come across as a bit on the creepy side if the audience didn’t know she was his daughter. But it’s good to see Chaney continuing to give it his all, even though he must have been aware that this was an inferior project.

If it seems a strange decision for Chaney to front an independent picture at a time when he was starting to make waves at the studios, it may simply have been that it was just the best thing on the table at that moment. Chaney had grown up in far from affluent circumstances, quitting school around the age of 10 to look after his ailing mother full-time. He worked as a tour guide at 14 and a carpet layer at 17 before turning to the theatre shortly afterwards. The year 1922 saw Chaney appear in no fewer than eight films, seven of them features. No one could fault his work ethic or question his success as a breadwinner.

A minor footnote in the film career of star Lon Chaney but one his serious fans will want to view, even if there is little to recommend it other than his performance.

The Vengeance of the Vampire Women/La venganza de las mujeres vampiro (1970)

‘Both her fibrous tissues and her globules will recover their functions…’

A mad scientist resurrects a Vampire Queen so he can use her blood in his experiments. Before she co-operates, however, she demands that he assist in taking revenge against the last descendant of the man who staked her. Unfortunately for her, it turns out that this man is the legendary wrestler Santo, the Man in the Silver Mask…

After a surprising diversion back through time to the Old West, where he encountered lepers and outlaws, Mexico’s favourite luchador is back doing what he does best; taking on the forces of darkness. Although this might seem like a routine assignment for the Man in the Silver Mask, director Federico Curiel delivers a surprisingly straight, brisk dose of the horrors.

It’s midnight in the graveyard, and not a creature is stirring; apart from mad medico, Doctor Igor Brancov (Victor Junco) and his colleagues, Boris (Nathanael León) and Carlos (Fernando Osés). Their objective is the coffin of Countess Mayra (Gina Romand), the leader of an 18th Century Transilvaynian vampire cult. After being staked, her followers fled to Mexico, bringing her remains along, only to be destroyed after their arrival. Junco plans to revive the vampire queen so her blood will endow immortality to the creature he has created.

Junco’s revival method is pretty straightforward; an injection of fresh blood from a young woman. In the time-honoured tradition of genre cinema, this is obviously going to come either from a woman linked to our hero in some way or a stripper. This time it’s the latter; only Junco’s goons grab her creepy boyfriend Pablo (Federico Falcón) for good measure. All goes well, but Romand refuses to donate her blood to the cause until after she’s taken revenge on none other than El Santo! Yes, of course, the Man in the Silver Mask is the last descendant of the man who staked her in the very brief pre-credit sequence.

Meanwhile, journalist Paty (Norma Lazareno) and boyfriend Detective Robles (Aldo Monti) meet with the big man for a cosy chat before he heads off to the arena for the obligatory wrestling match. Of course, Romand and Junco have scored ringside seats, and the undead bleached blonde uses her hypnotic wiles on Santo’s opponent, ordering him to kill. Honestly, I don’t know why the great man goes on wrestling; it seems like every bout turns into a death match! She also commands Santo to lose, but he’s having none of that, of course. Romand tries to do the job personally later the same night but flees with her wings between her legs…or something. She satisfies her thirst on easier prey instead, which brings Monti and the cops in on the action.

Although the plot and story development will be familiar to fans of the series and might even be dismissed as routine, it’s the treatment of the material that’s interesting here. The film is very much a straight-faced horror with more blood and naked flesh on display than usual and even a hint of the lesbian hi-jinks of Hammer’s excellent ‘The Vampire Lovers’ (1970). This approach also extended to the marketing with no sign of the familiar Silver Mask on the promotional poster, suggesting that this was promoted primarily as horror rather than a Santo picture. Indeed, apart from the wrestling, you could easily switch Santo out for 1970s Spanish horror star Paul Naschy and you’d be left with pretty much the same film.

Director Curiel had worked on the series in the early days, helming ‘Santo vs the King of Crime/Santo contra el rey del crimen’ (1962) and ‘Santo in the Hotel of Death/Santo en el hotel de la muerte’ (1963). Although neither could be described as gritty or realistic, they were presented as serious thrillers. Santo had spent the late 1960s running around Mexico as a cheap ‘Bond on a Budget, fighting aliens and even trying out comedy in ‘Santo vs. Capulina (1969). But the early 1970s found Santo alternating crimebusting with serious horror like this, beginning with ‘The World of The Dead/El mundo del los muertos’ (1970), although the trend did not last more than a few pictures.

The standout here is Romand, who is saddled with a ridiculous pair of false 60s eyelashes, but performs her role with surprising conviction and poise. Straight out of the coffin, she’s barking orders and laying down the law to the hapless Junco, who probably wished he left well enough alone. His mad scientist becomes increasingly peripheral to the action as the regal Romand rules the roost, giving the incomparable Lorena Velázquez from ‘Santo vs. the Vampire Women/Santo vs. las mujeres vampiro’ (1962) a surprising run for her money.

As was often the case, ex-grappler Fernando Osés didn’t just act in one of the film’s supporting roles. HE was on story duties too, collaborating with writer and producer Jorge García Besné. The Cuban-born Romand had appeared in one of the first two films in the Santo series, ‘Santo vs. Infernal Men/Santo contra hombres infernales’ (1961), which was shot back to back in her homeland alongside the luchador’s official debut. She was also on hand for ‘Santo vs. the Grave Robbers/Profanadores de tumbas’ (1967) and later took the other title role in ‘Santo vs. Frankenstein’s Daughter/Santo vs. la hija de Frankestein’ (1972). She also appeared in ‘Dr. Satán’ (1966), forgettable kidnap thriller ‘The Candy Man’ (1969) with George Sanders, and was a regular on two long-running TV series in Mexico in the 2000s.

Better production values than much of the series and a consistently serious tone elevate this to one of Santo’s more compelling adventures.

Cross Current/Un omicidio perfetto a termine di legge (1971)

‘Marco, what are you doing with that stick?’

A wealthy sportsman struggles with his memory after surviving an emergency brain operation. He starts to wonder if the speedboat accident that necessitated the medical procedure was really an accident at all. Then an ex-employee turns up dead after arranging a to meet him…

Disappointing Giallo thriller from director Tonino Ricci that weds a flat, matter of fact approach to a story that only kicks into gear late on. This Italian-Spanish co-production needed five writers to bring it to the screen (including the director), but, sadly, they don’t seem to have had one worthwhile idea amongst them.

The big race does not end well for speedboat jockey Marco Breda (Phillipe Leroy) when his craft cracks up, and he plummets into the water. The impact results in a blood clot on the brain and an emergency intervention by Professor Mauri (Franco Fantasia). Leroy comes through the procedure but is left with some memory loss. Fantasia warns his wife Monica Breda (Elga Andersen) that he needs rest and relaxation for a successful convalescence.

Retreating to their luxury home, they spend time hanging out with Leroy’s business partner Burt (Ivan Rassimov), racing rival Tommy Brown (Franco Ressel), and Andersen’s best friend Terry (Rosanna Yanni). Leroy feels a little disorientated despite the familiar surroundings and is bothered by headaches. Things worsen when his ex-gardener Sante Foschi (Franco Balducci) asks for an urgent meeting. It seems that he has important information for sale. But the man turns up dead the following morning, apparently the victim of a hit and run driver. Police Inspector Baldini (Julio Peña) is unconvinced that it was an accident, and Leroy starts to think he may have committed murder during a memory blackout.

From there, the story takes us into familiar territory, the setup favoured by earlier Gialli such as ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah ‘(1968) and ‘A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia’ (1970). We have a small number of protagonists in one setting whose actions are predicated by hidden loyalties and apparent shifting relationship dynamics. The question quickly becomes who is doing what to whom and how will their various schemes play out in the final act.

Unfortunately, none of this is very gripping, even when one of the quintet is strangled in the boathouse early on. The script gives none of the cast any strong material that can be used to build an engaging character and the audience response to their respective fates is likely to be bored indifference. The film throws in a whole bunch of plot twists in the last ten minutes, none of which are very imaginative, although credible enough when taken in isolation. And then, with one final flourish, knocks over this fragile house of cards with one last revelation that pushes suspension of disbelief well beyond the breaking point.

Ricci worked as an assistant to horror maestro Mario Bava on ‘Erik the Conqueror’ (1961) and finished the 1970s with a couple of silly movies about aliens living in the Bermuda Triangle. A few years later, he jumped on the ‘Road Warrior’ bandwagon with actor Bruno Minniti as a cut-price ‘Mad Max’ in the post-apocalyptic world of ‘Rush the Assassion’ (1983) and ‘A Man Called Rage’ (1984). There was more than a whiff of ‘vanity project’ about both films, although the latter has some beautiful moments of glorious stupidity.

Leroy appeared in further Gialli, such as the obscure ‘Devil’s Ransom/Senza via d’uscita’ (1970) and the poorly regarded ‘Naked Girl Murdered In The Park/Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco’ (1973). By contrast, Rassimov made a genuinely memorable appearance with Edwige Fenech in Sergio Martino’s classic ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971). He teamed up with both its star and director again for the equally lauded ‘All The Colors of the Dark/Tuttid i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave’ (1972).

A slow trudge through a turgid mystery drama, crowned by an absurd ending.

La Bruja/The Witch (1954)

‘In this case, your claims are unfortunately not only excessive but incongruous.’

Two ruthless businessmen arrange to steal a valuable formula from an elderly scientist rather than pay him a reasonable price. But the raid goes wrong, and the old man’s daughter is killed. He vows vengeance, using a deformed young woman as his instrument after transforming her into a dazzling beauty…

Dark horror fable from south of the border directed by Chano Urueta. Although Mexican genre cinema is usually associated with the outlandish adventures of various luchadors, goofy aliens, mad scientists and monsters, instead this early example takes its premise straight and emerges as a serious, dramatic horror film.

After years of hard work and research, scientist Doctor Boerner (Julio Villarreal) has perfected a revolutionary antibiotic called Triodimicine. He offers the formula to businessmen Gunther Strecker (Charles Rooner) and Jan (Fernando Wagner). However, despite the massive profits it will bring, they decide to steal it instead of paying his asking price. Acting without the knowledge of their younger partner Fedor (Ramón Gay), they send thugs to procure it from Villarreal’s laboratory by any means necessary.

That same night Villarreal is summoned to take care of carnival huckster Paulesco (Luis Aceves Castañeda), who has been stabbed in the back during an argument over a woman. The doctor saves the injured man’s life but, back home, the businessmen’s goons have destroyed the laboratory looking for the formula and killed the scientist’s pretty daughter, Mirtha (Guillermina Téllez Girón).

Villarreal is consumed by a desire for revenge and has no problem figuring out who is responsible. Unfortunately, he includes the innocent Gay in his scheme as well. Castañeda offers assistance in exchange for saving his life, but all Villarreal will take from him is a woman known as La Bruja (Lilia del Valle). The abused and disfigured young woman is happy to obey his every command, even drinking a potion that the scientist concocts from various beakers and test tubes. The cocktail turns her into a beautiful woman. After Villarreal pulls a quick Henry Higgins, she is reinvented as Countess Nora and ready to take her place in the polite society favoured by Villarreal’s potential victims.

This is a pleasingly straightforward story of love and revenge set in a horror context. Director Urueta handles the material in a direct and unflashy manner and places the focus firmly on his cast. It’s a sensible approach as Villarreal and del Valle shoulder the burden with solid performances, and Wagner makes for an excellent slimeball, even if he is a little underused. The pace is brisk, the sets lavish or squalid as the script dictates and allowances should be made for the transformation SFX and del Valle’s ‘ugly’ makeup as being of their time.

However, the production does owe an obvious debt to stories already told and movies already made. Jekyll and Hyde, the ‘Mad Doctor’ series Boris Karloff made for Columbia in the 1940s, and numerous other Hollywood horror ‘B’ pictures. The fact that Urueta’s adaptation of Alfredo Salazar’s original story follows these well-worn paths a little too slavishly is the project’s major drawback. The plot’s development is somewhat predictable, with del Valle’s reaction to her first glimpse of the handsome Gay providing far too obvious a signpost of where events will lead. There are also a few all-too-familiar genre tropes, such as the brilliant scientist automatically qualifying as a hotshot medical doctor and living alone with his beautiful daughter.

If there is a sub-text here, it’s almost certainly an unconscious one, but it does seem to suggest that outward appearance reflects inner worth. Before the transformation, del Valle may not be mean or vicious, but she is focused more on the promise of a beautiful dress than the fate of her master, although given her treatment at his hands, it’s perhaps understandable. However, post-potion, she develops into a sophisticated woman whose finer feelings become centred on Gay. He also happens to be one of the beautiful people and innocent of all wrong-doing to boot. Pretty on the outside means pretty on the inside is a flawed point of view, of course. However, extreme looks at either end of the scale dictate at least to some extent how society treats an individual. And that is a factor in the formation of personality, attitudes and behaviours.

Whether Hammer Studios knew this film is debatable, but ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ (1967) almost qualifies as a remake. Peter Cushing makes a gorgeous assassin out of ugly duckling, Susan Denberg, although the motivation for killing is hers, not his. The variations on the story employed by screenwriter Anthony Hinds muddle things a little and make it arguably weaker than Ureta’s film. On the other hand, it has the imperious Cushing, of course, who could take almost any project to a whole different level.

Urueta is remembered now for his various encounters with the wackier end of Mexican horror, particularly his involvement with the adventures of the legendary Blue Demon. However, his directorial career stretched from 1928 to 1974 and comprised over 100 titles. These included other horrors such as ‘The Living Head/La cabeza viviente’ (1963), ‘The Witch’s Mirror/El espejo de la bruja’ (1962), and, most significantly, the wonderfully unhinged adventures of ‘The Brainiac/El barón del terror’ (1962). In later years, he moved in front of the camera, taking character parts. The most notable for American director Sam Peckinpah in ‘Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974) and his classic Western ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969).

Somewhat on the predictable side and a little dated, but still a solid slice of serious Mexican horror.

A Quick Update

Hello Friends

I don’t blog about myself much, mainly because I can’t imagine it being of interest to anyone other than me. Still, I feel obliged to share a short update with you as the current situation has affected my general social media presence and will continue to do so…

Without boring you with the dreary details, I’ve been managing two life-changing and incurable medical conditions for the last ten years. No, this isn’t a preamble to a ‘Go.Fund.Me’ (although I’m always happy to accept large brown envelopes stuffed with cash, obviously). No, I cope with those conditions pretty well; the problem is that recently they got lonely and invited a third condition (and maybe a fourth?!) to join them. The new one that I have turns out to be reversible (hoo-ray!), but it will take some time and work on my part to achieve a long and sustainable recovery.

In the meantime, it affects how much time I can put into social media, so I thought it best to summarise this and do it here on my blog, where I have the most followers. So, here’s how it’s going to pan out:

This Blog

Never fear, reviews of cult movies will still be dropping every Tuesday and Thursday as usual. The reason for this is that I write and schedule posts months in advance. Currently, I’m covered until late Spring-early summer next year, and, by then, hopefully, normal service will have been resumed. Of course, I will be a little slow responding to comments, but then longtime followers of the blog will probably not notice any difference on that score!

My Novels

If you follow me on Instagram, you might recall that my writing target was to create and publish three full-length novels this year. Ridiculously ambitious, of course, but I had completed first drafts of one and two before things started to go south in August. As the first draft is by far the lengthiest part of the process for me, I was just about on target! The first of these projects, ‘Next Stop Atlantis!’, turned into a trilogy because I got so many more ideas as I wrote it (why does that always happen?), so I suppose things weren’t going exactly according to plan, but I was still well satisfied. In anticipation of getting back to work, I’ve been experimenting with ‘Speech to Text’ apps – I’ve used one to write this post – but I have to say dictation is a skill I really need to develop, and the technology isn’t exactly accurate!

YouTube

My YouTube channel is on hiatus. I had just launched my ‘Noir Confidential’ series where I was going in-depth on 80+ of my favourite Film Noirs. The idea was to identify the most essential examples, provide information on the making of the films and the talent involved, and inflict my insights and opinions on the world in general. But, most of all, it was an excuse to collect all the blu-rays, watch the films again and read all about them! I’m a huge nerd when it comes to classic Hollywood, so it was a labour of love for me. I don’t know when I can get back to it, but it’s another target for the future.

Given that I have to learn many skills in the kitchen to deliver my new plant-based diet, perhaps I should turn it into a cookery channel. Now that would be funny!

Instagram

This is something I should get back to, although the content would be limited to photos of any books I’ve bought/am reading or Blu-rays/DVDs that have dropped through my letterbox. I could include pictures of me on my daily wobble around town (it’s called exercise, apparently), but I’m not sure anyone wants to see that!

Facebook – Professional and Personal (Hey, Mr Zuckerberg, here’s my data!)

I have been absent from Fb for a while now. My professional account only contains posts transferred from my blog anyway. I’ll put a link to this post in my personal account for any friends who haven’t been in the loop on all this (hello, if you’ve read down this far, I am still alive!)

Twitter

I do have a Twitter account, but I’ve never really got to grips with it. I may be wrong, but it just seems to be a place to spread negativity and be generally unpleasant to famous people. I know I should engage with it to market my books, but I’ve never gotten around to it somehow. I do use it on matchdays to keep up with how Torquay United are doing, so there is that, I guess. COYY.

Snapchat

I don’t really know what this is.

TikTok

You are kidding, right?

So, that’s all the news that’s fit to print. I feel like I’ve hijacked my own blog to write this, but at least I’m posting it on a Wednesday, so it will soon be replaced by another movie review and will fade silently into digital oblivion.

Take care, my friends

Mark

Legend of A Ghost/La légende du fantôme (1908)

A woman travels through Hell to break a curse placed on a Prince.

Early silent fantasy from Spanish director Segundo de Chomón that echoes the work of celebrated film pioneer Georges Méliès but lacks the Frenchman’s unique stylistic flourishes and lightness of touch. 

A woman (Julienne Mathieu) sees a ghost in the old ruined churchyard overlooked by her bedchamber window. She goes to investigate, and more phantoms arise from the tombs around her. The chief spook tasks her with retrieving ‘the water of life’ from a Princess who lives in an underwater kingdom. 

Unfortunately, the way leads through Hell, so the phantoms turn into soldiers, and she finds herself decked out in battle armour and riding a fiery chariot. The Devil isn’t about to give her an easy ride, of course, and the way is filled with dancing demons, plumes of smoke and strange creatures.

Mathieu was an experienced actress working for Pathé Films in France when she married director de Chomón and brought him into the movie world. At first, he worked distributing the company’s product in Spain, but they were soon returning the favour as he began making his own films. Charles Pathé soon recognised that de Chomón’s work with early SFX techniques made him a viable competitor with the popular Méliès.

At first glance, de Chomón’s film seems a real hodgepodge, a largely incoherent parade of already familiar tropes tied to a weak, confusing narrative. It’s only after repeated viewings that it became clear to me that the copy I saw (and I’m assuming the one generally available) has some scenes appearing out of order. This is particularly evident around the halfway point, which finds Mathieu out of armour again and back in the cemetery, accepting her mission. Of course, this surreal approach to the story could have been intentional on the part of de Chomón, but it seems unlikely that a filmmaker was experimenting with non-linear narrative back in 1908. 

Viewed with this in mind, the film improves significantly, although it is unfortunate that de Chomón makes some choices that invite direct and unflattering comparisons with Méliès. The most egregious examples are the two fiery chariots that travel through Hell. These are obviously just large touring cars draped in bedsheets with large, illustrated cutouts attached. These giant faces echo Melies’ fabulous design work very closely and, of course, only serve as a reminder that this is somewhat inferior stuff. At one stage, it even appears that one of the cars briefly gets stuck on a narrow path and a few of the soldiers have to give it a quick push before clambering on board!

de Chomón’s film work was notable for its early use of stop-motion animation, although that features more heavily in films like ‘La maison ensorcelée/House of Ghosts’ (1908) than it does here. His directing career in France petered out by the end of the decade, but he carried on making films in Italy and Spain until 1916. After that, he continued his work in visual effects, making contributions to such classic spectacles as Abel Gance’s ‘Napoléon’ (1927) and, appropriately enough, Guido Brignone’s ‘Maciste in Hell’ (1925). Some modern commentators do champion the Spaniard as superior to Méliès, but the very fact that the discussion of his work always seems to take place in that context does suggest the lack of an individual voice.

Interesting to those with a passion for the early days of fantasy cinema. 

The Double/La controfigura (1971)

The sea is the colour of the sea, and the sky is the colour of the sky.’

A handsome man is shot in an underground parking garage. As he lies on the ground injured, his thoughts flashback to the events that brought him there. It all began on a beach holiday with his new, young wife…

More psychological drama than horror thriller, director Romolo Guerrieri delivers an unusual Giallo based on a novel of the same name by Libero Bigiaretti. A cast of familiar faces people the fractured narrative as Italian cinema takes another potshot at the empty, amoral lives of the idle rich.

Bleeding out on the concrete isn’t the way Giovanni (Jean Sorel) had planned to spend his day. Gunned down by the elderly Professor Bergamo (Antonio Pierfederici), his recent past starts flashing before his eyes. Where has he seen the old man before? His thoughts return to a beach in Morocco and time spent frolicking in the sand with his blonde wife, Lucia (Ewa Aulin). The couple only recently married, and the older Sorel is protective of his new bride, unhappy that she is interested in beach bum Eddie Kennan (Sergio Doria). It’s soon clear that Aulin isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but her seeming flirtatious nature is little more than youthful high spirits. However, the jealous Sorel can’t see it that way.

Meantime, there’s more trouble on the horizon for our not-so lovable hero. Despite an apparent talent for architecture and a good education, he’s preferred living off his family’s money to applying himself to the world of work. Unfortunately, economic conditions are putting the squeeze on the family business. His brother (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) suggests that he takes a more active role in affairs, but, of course, Sorel isn’t very interested.

His life begins unravelling further when thanks to his new mother-in-law, Nora (Lucia Bosè). No, it’s not the usual problem with parental disapproval, but more to do with the fact that he’d much rather sleep with her than her daughter. When Bosè joins them on their Moroccan retreat, his desire soon escalates into an obsession, especially when she starts spending time with beach boy Doria. It all culminates in a sexual assault, although Sorel finds himself unable to perform at the crucial moment. Yes, this is one screwed-up dude!

Some commentators have advanced the opinion that any movie made in Italy during the early 1970s that features murder is categorised as a Giallo film by default. There is some merit to this opinion, and it certainly could be advanced in this case. There is no mysterious killer whose flashing knife provides a quickly escalating body count or any element of ‘whodunnit’; director Guerrieri shows us the shooter in the opening scene. There is no ambiguity regarding the culprit, only his place in Sorel’s story and the motivation for his crimes.

Director Guerrieri presents this tale as a series of disjointed puzzle pieces, and it is to his credit that he keeps a firm hand on the narrative so it never becomes confusing. Particularly necessary when we’re seeing through the eyes of a storyteller whose memories are jumbled with the occasional fantasy. Ultimately, it’s more of a character study than a mystery, delving deep into the troubled mind of a fully committed narcissist. Giovanni is a man who sees the world, and everyone in it, only in terms directly related to himself and his desires. It’s has a similar feel to ‘A Rather Complicated Girl (1969), which also starred Sorel in the principal role.

The film’s major problem is its lack of plot and incident. How the puzzle pieces fall into place at the end has a pleasing irony, but it all takes place rather suddenly with little foreshadowing beyond that opening scene. The main character’s lack of backstory is also a problem. It’s perhaps understandable that Guerrieri wanted to avoid such familiar tropes as childhood trauma or repressed memories. However, there’s no suggestion of anything that has formed Sorel’s dysfunctional personality other than the ease of a life cushioned by inherited wealth, and that seems a little simplistic and shallow.

There’s also the criminal waste of supporting actors Silvano Tranquilli and Marilù Tolo, who play friends who join Sorel and Awlin on their summer break. Yes, it’s nice to see Tranquilli as something other than a cop, but the script gives neither actor any material to use. It’s a particular shame for Tolo, who still manages to demonstrate once again that she can communicate more with her eyes than many actors can do with pages of dialogue. The writing also does Awlin very few favours, saddling her with an underwritten ‘barbie doll’ role and, it’s a credit to her ability that she brings some nuance to it.

This is Sorel’s show, though, and Giallo’s favourite poster boy gives another assured turn. Equally assured in more sympathetic or more ambiguous roles, the handsome Frenchman has enjoyed a long screen career beginning in the late 1950s. He first teamed up with director Guerrieri on ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah’ (1968), a film that proved very important in popularising the Giallo, as the casting of Hollywood star Caroll Baker helped sell it to lucrative American markets. Similar projects followed for the actor, including ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia’ (1970) and ‘In The Eye of the Hurricane/El Ojo del huracán’ (1971). He worked consistently through the decades since and became a familiar face on the French small screen in the 1980s and 1990s with frequent appearances in made for television films and mini-series.

A different type of Giallo with some good qualities that falls a little short in the story department.

Ursus/The Mighty Ursus/Ursus, Son of Hercules (1961)

To be without you is no longer to live, Ursus!’

Finding that his intended bride has disappeared while he has been off fighting, a war hero sets out on a mission to find her. It turns out that she has been kidnapped by a sinister cult who practice virgin sacrifice, and he’ll need all of his mighty strength to defeat them…

Unlike the other leading musclemen of the era, Ursus did not have a biblical or mythological origin but was an invention of Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz for his 1896 novel ‘Quo Vadis.’ This tale of Ancient Rome dealt with a young aristocrat who falls in love with a barbarian slave, who comes with a bodyguard, courtesy of her Royal lineage. This hardman is Ursus, played in the 1951 film version by ex-world heavyweight boxing contender Buddy Baer. This big-budget Hollywood production was shot mainly on the soundstages of the Cinecitta Studios, eight miles outside Rome. Sergio Leone worked on it as a Second Unit director early in his career.

After the international success enjoyed by Steve Reeves as ‘Hercules’ (1958), follow up films featuring Samson, Goliath and Maciste weren’t enough to sate the Italian public’s thirst for sword and spectacle. Enter Ursus for a series of nine features, although he barely registered in the penultimate entry ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964). I guess he never really could compete with Hercules, Maciste or Samson.

This initial entry in the series finds him flying solo, though, under the direction of Carlo Campogalliani and in the person of American bodybuilder Ed Fury (real name Edmund Holovchik). As we join the action, Fury has just returned from the wars where he has distinguished himself as a mighty warrior. A return to civilian life means marriage to sweetheart Attea (Moira Orfei), but things go south immediately. On the way, he runs into Exposition Lady, in the delightful form of a blind shepherdess, Doreide (María Luisa Merlo).

It turns out that Orfei disappeared without trace two years previously on the night that her father was murdered. Merlo overheard two strangers plotting the crime while serving in the house of her master, Setas (Luis Prendes) and even managed to grab a medallion that one of them dropped accidentally. If we have any doubt of Prendes’ villainous credentials, it turns out that Merlo is blind because he ordered her punished for letting his sheep wander! Right on cue, up rides the slimeball and his flunkeys, looking to cause trouble.

Exhibiting the first example of the stellar judgement he shows throughout the film, Fury blurts out everything he’s just been told, sending himself and Merlo right to the top of Prendes’ kill list. Going on the run, the couple discovers that Orfei was kidnapped by the cult of Ziest, who live on a remote island somewhere. Merlo warns Fury not to trust merchant Kymos (Mario Scaccia), who may have a line on its location but the first thing the lunkhead does is accept a drink from the trader’s Girl Friday, Magali (Cristina Gaioni). Of course, it turns out to be drugged, and he’s captured.

Eventually, Fury and Merlo escape and, in another great decision, the muscleman accepts Gaioni’s offer to take them to the island. Of course, she betrays them. In the resulting skirmish, she is killed, and they end up on the island anyway, accompanied by Prendes. He’s part of the cult, of course, which is run by high priest Mok (Rafael Luis Calvo) with the help of a mysterious Queen (no prizes for guessing her identity).

Although the film ticks off too many of the familiar Peplum boxes to create an identity of its own, it should be evident from the summary above that Giuliano Carnimeo and Sergio Sollima’s screenplay rarely stops to take a breath. Director Campogalliani also keeps the action coming thick and fast, even if some of the fight choreography is not very well-executed. Fury doesn’t have a great deal of acting range, but an impressive physique and a friendly presence are enough in these circumstances. Adding to both spectacle and production value are leftover sets from Nicholas Ray’s MGM picture ‘King of Kings’ (1961).

In time-honoured Peplum tradition, Fury puts in some time pushing that big wheel in the diamond mine and is tempted by the wiles of the Evil Queen. He also leads a revolt of fellow slaves, who have been waiting around all this time for him to turn up. During the lengthy climax, audiences may wince at the sight of Fury’s stunt double being tossed around by a real-life bull in the arena. Presumably, this was José Balbuena (listed as ‘Bullfighter’ in the cast list), and he deserves enormous credit for what looks like highly hazardous duty, especially given the probable absence of any significant Health and Safety procedures.

Elsewhere it’s very much business as usual. The principal movers in the tale aren’t characters so much as all-too-familiar archetypes with no effort made to grant them any shading or personality. Orfei brings a little punch to the proceedings, although she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, and there’s an early appearance from Soledad Miranda. She later starred in films for cult director Jess Franco in which she displayed a striking screen presence before her premature death at the age of 27 in a car accident.

The film initially played with the more fantasy-orientated ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (1962) on American screens and, almost inevitably, became part of the ‘Sons of Hercules’ package on syndicated television. Fury played Ursus a couple of more times in the series but returned to America in the mid-1960s when the Peplum bubble burst. His subsequent screen career was a slow procession of bit parts playing cops, mercenaries and guards on network TV shows, including ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Mission: Impossible.’

By the numbers Peplum; fast-paced but rather forgettable.

The Trap (1922)

‘The morning sun was not more radiant than Gaspard.’

A trapper returns from a hunting expedition into the wilderness to find that a smart operator has stolen the title to his gold mine and turned the head of his intended bride. Consumed with hatred, he bides his time and, seven years later, puts his plan of revenge into motion…

Lon Chaney heads back out into the great American wilderness where he’d already spent some time as a trapper, most notably in ‘Nomads of the North’ (1920). Director Robert Thornby’s colourful tale of redemption and revenge was shot largely in Yosemite National Park and the spectacular setting help enhances a melodrama that moves in some surprising directions.

Gaspard, the good (Chaney) is well-known as one of the happiest men in the idyllivc French-Canadian settlement of Grand-Bellaire. He spend the summers hunting for pelts, the colder months working his mine and the rest of the time romancing his wife-in-waiting, Thalie (Dagmar Godowsky). But his mining claim gets jumped by city slicker, Benson (Alan Hale), who has the law on his side after performing some legal sheningans way beyond the illiterate backwoodsman. Hale’s silver tongue has bewitched young Godowsky too, and Chaney is left with nothing.

Seven years pass and Hale and Godowsky have a young son (Stanley Goethals) but everything else is going to hell in a handbasket. Godowsky is dangerously ill and the family business is on the verge of collapse, thanks to Chaney’s secret assistance. The trapper then orchestrates a bar fight between Hale and local hardman, Big Pierre, the Bully (Dick Sutherland) and, when shots are fired, Chaney claims he was looking the other way. Hale’s pleas of self defence fall on deaf ears and he only escapes the noose because Sutherland recovers from his wounds. 

When Godowsky finally expires from her illness, the field is clear for Chaney to take custody of the young Goethals and complete his revenge. But he finds himself beginning to care for the growing boy and, when news comes that Hale is to be released, the trapper plans one final, despaerate act of vengeance. 

After Chaney’s breakout performance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), the quality of his roles increased notably. Films such as ‘The Penalty’ (1920) and ‘Outside The Law’ (1920) may have still cast him in villainous roles, but there were more to these characters than the one-dimensional heavies he’d previously been given. There was also the occasional heroic part, and this film was unusual and that it gave him the opportunity to play someone who, by turns, fulfills both roles.

At first, Chaney is the niave, happy-go-lucky frontiersmen who sees the best in everything, and it is quite a revelation to see the actor laughing it up in the early scenes. Of course, this is soon followed by the embittered schemer who brood and plots, a persona far more familiar to lovers of the actor’s work. The fact that the influence of the precosious Goethals triggers a redemption in Chaney may seem a little corny to a modern audience, and the little shaver performed the same duty for felons Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman in ‘Outside The Law’ (1920), but it works because Chaney puts it across. This is also assisted by the film’s final act, which sees him sliding back into villainy to protect his new found happiness. 

It is surprising to see a character in a film of this vintage that not only has the capacity for both good and evil but acts on both sets of impulses, leaving the audience uncertain whether to side him with or not. Likewise, Hale is also not the one-dimensional villain that might be expected and, although some might question the way the characters change over the course of the film, the drama does take place over a number of years and it’s quite refreshing to see this level of complexity. 

In terms of performance, Chaney is a little varied here. At times, he is surprisingly understated, at others he falls prey to the overly demonstrative stylings that can devalue some silent productions to modern eyes. It’s in the quieter moments that he is most effective; trying to hide his illiteracy in the school room then realising he is holding his book upside down, befuddled by the sudden downturn in his fortunes in the first act and then unable to summon up the will to enact his revenge on urchin Goethals later on.

There are some other flaws in Thornby’s film, too, principally a failure to convey the passage of time effectively. This is obviosuly an issue with the final presentation as it is one of the keys to the motivations and actions taken by the principal players. Godowsky’s part is also terribly underwritten; we never get any solid insight into why she forsakes Chaney in the first place, and her depature from the film is very hurried. The final scenes with The Teacher (Irene Rich) are a little too pat as well, although her introduction has allowed for some of Chaney’s subtlest moments beforehand. 

Thornby’s directorial career came to a dead stop with the introduction of talkies, but Hale went on from strength to strength becoming one of the silver screen’s most familiar character actors over the next thirty years. Little John to Errol Flynn in ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938), the singing driver in the multi-Oscar winning ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934), Porthos in ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ (1939) and doomed garage owner Ed Carlsen in ‘They Drive By Night’ (1940) to name but a few. 

This film has several points of interest for the Chaney enthusiast. At the time, the actor was not tied to one particular studio and this was a one-off picture he agreed to do for Universal whilst he was attempting to set up his own production company. Those plans eventually came to nothing, but his growing status in the industry is reflected in the circumstances surrounding this production. Chaney was involved with the writing of the picture (along with legendary producer Irving Thalberg and others) and was billed for the first time as ‘The Man With A Thousand Faces’. This was somnewhat ironic, considering the fllm does not include any of his intricate makeups but the name stuck. 

Also, the film was prestigious enough that when it was originally shown in theatres, it opened with a live-action ‘prologue’. This included a tenor singing the song that Chaney is supposedly singing in the film’s opening scenes.

Another interesting fact is the film marks the screen debut of one Lon Chaney Jr, appearing as a boy in one of the crowd scenes. Considering his father vehemently opposed his son following in his footsteps, it can perhaps be assumed that Junior was visiting the set that day and decided to get in on the action!

A significant picture in Chaney’s developing career and a film that, allowances made, still stands up pretty well today.

Santo vs the Riders of Terror/Santo contra los jinetes del terror (1970)

‘No, sir, I am not escaping from justice, nor am I a leper.’

In old Mexico, a small town is thrown into a panic when half a dozen lepers escape from a nearby sanatarium. While the Sheriff and the doctor in charge try to keep order, a gang of cutthroats take the opportunity to start a crime spree and blame the escaped patients…

Santo goes West! After battling vampires, Martians, mobsters and evil scientists, it’s time for the Man in the Silver Mask to go up against some rootin’ tootin’ bank robbers in this curious diversion in his long-running adventures.

It’s bad news for young Sheriff Dario (Armando Silvestre) when six inmates stage a midnight escape from the San Lazaro Leprosarium just down the road. The lepers raid two remote farmsteads afterwards, sending their occupants screaming into the night, and the next day, the local townspeople want an immediate necktie party. Silvestre manages to keep a lid on things with the help of Dr Ramos (Carlo Agosti), the head of the institute.

Unfortunately, things escalate quickly. After a date with Silvestre, his bride to be, Carmen (Mary Montiel), surprises a burglar, and her father is shot dead while she lies unconscious on the floor. The fugitives get the blame, of course, but it’s actually the handiwork of secret gang of cutthroats, led by local bad boy Camerino (Julio Almada). Seeing an excellent opportunity to deflect the blame, he plans a series of crimes, culminating in robbing the town’s bank. Fortunately, the clueless Silvestre happens to know a certain man in a silver mask…

Quite possibly the oddest entry in the entire filmography of legendary luchador El Santo. Director René Cardona doesn’t offer any outlandish or bizarre events over the 90 minute run time, but the film is a straight Western. Over the years, cinema has given us a long list of heroic Western archetypes; gunfighters, pioneers, lawmen, drovers, gamblers, cavalrymen, homesteaders and trail scouts. Not too many masked wrestlers, though.

Of course, the story is not entirely divorced from the tried and trusted Santo formula. Early on, there’s some square ring action as he takes on man-mountain El Toro, the main attraction of a travelling show. Triumphant, of course, the great man gives the cash prize away to three watching nuns who run an orphanage. It’s also an instant decision that the lepers are probably not responsible for the bad things happening in the area. How does he know? Because he’s El Santo, of course.

What’s open for speculation, though, is when the action is supposed to be taking place. All the characters are dressed in period or classic Western clothing, and there’s no sign of the 20th Century anywhere, not even a telegraph or railroad. So is this the late 1800s? Has Santo gone back in time? Well, I guess it’s possible, given that he invented a time machine in ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure/Santo en El tesoro de Drácula’ (1968).

One of the film’s few talking points is how Cardona presents the lepers. Lurching mutely out of the shadows with the camera lingering on their disfigured faces, they bear more than a slight resemblance to the popular zombie form created by George A Romero in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968). Creepy music plays, women faint and scream and grown men head for the hills. It’s all a bit of a contrast to the scenes where Silvestre and Agosti try to explain that the lepers are just ordinary men with a horrible disease. Agosti’s words display a somewhat greater consideration of mercy than Cardona’s camera.

However, late on in the picture, when the lepers’ are allowed to appear more sympathetic, we get a strangely pointless flashback featuring the doomed romance of their leader, Jose (Gregorio Casals) and his lady love Lupe (Ivonne Govea). Perhaps this scene would make more sense when viewed in the film’s ‘sexy’ version. Yes, an alternate cut that includes female nudity did play in some territories, although no prints are currently available, and it seems lost. In another example of good taste and judgement, this version was titled ‘Los leprosos y el sexo’, which translates into English as ‘The Lepers and Sex.’

A curious and relatively anonymous chapter in the adventures of El Santo. If only he’d worn a cowboy hat.