Libido (1965)

Libido (1965)‘Sure, Paul, and sometimes you also use my father’s pipe!’

Almost 20 years after he witnessed his father commit a sex murder, a young nobleman returns for the first time to the family home where it happened. It isn’t long before things start to go bump in the night, but is the house haunted or is his father actually still alive? Or is one of his house guests responsible?

Dark, twisted thriller from Italian wrtier-directors Ernesto Gastaldi and Vittorio Salerno. It’s often listed as an early example of a Giallo, that batch of disturbing, sometimes graphic, precursors to the American slasher movie that took Italian cinema by storm in the late 1960s. The definition of film genres is quite a tricky business and, whereas certain elements of this production definitely became staples of the Giallo, in other ways it’s quite different.

Handsome little rich kid Christian (Giancarlo Giannini) has grown up traumatised after seeing his father kill a blonde tied to a bed in a roomful of mirrors and then throw himself into the sea. Which would be enough to unsettle anyone. Now, it’s only three months until he comes of age and into the family fortune, so he’s persuaded to go home again by his father’s lawyer Luciano Pigozzi. Luckily for the audience, the guys bring along their partners; dark-eyed beauty Dominique Boschero, and dim blonde Mara Maryl. But events of the past have left their mark on Giannini, and it’s not long before he starts seeing signs of his father everywhere. After all, his body has never been found!

Obviously, this setup doesn’t seem very original these days, but it can be difficult to evaluate that quality when so many variations on the same theme have appeared in the years since. Actually, Giannini tumbles fairly quickly to the idea that someone is trying to send him mad to get at his money, even if it does seem to be working! He quickly unravels after hearing mysterious footsteps, finding his childhood windup toy and seeing a dark figure in the rain. It’s clear that he has problems anyway; preferring to play peeping tom when Pigozzi and Maryl fool around to getting hot and heavy with his wife Boschero. They even sleep in separate rooms! It’s probably the fact that our protagonist’s sexual hang-ups are central to the plot that has given rise to its association with the Giallo genre, along perhaps with a scene that features a killer in black gloves.

Libido (1965)

“Sure, you’re having an existential crisis but I need to check my Instagram feed…’

The real strength of this film lies in its script which constantly wrong foots the audience and keeps everyone guessing. Yes, it’s always more of a question of ‘who’ rather than ‘why’ but the mystery is never less than fully engaging. In fact, this is an object lesson in how to make an effective film in one location with a small cast. Sure, the final reveal owes a debt to an earlier film (no title because it’s a slight spoiler), but even then there’s still another fine twist to come.

Another highlight are the all-round excellent performances of a cast who exhibit lots of screen presence and acting chops. Although his name might not be immediately familiar, Giannini has enjoyed an incredibly long and successful film career, even being Oscar nominated as Best Actor in a Leading Role for Italian comedy ‘Seven Beauties’ (1975). He’s perhaps best known to modern audiences for playing Rene Mathis in Daniel Craig’s opening Bond film ‘Casino Royale’ (2006) and its sequel ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008). Pigozzi might not have ever reached those heights but he was active for over 40 years in the industry, appearing in everything from classic Mario Bava chillers like ‘Blood and Black Lace’ (1964) and ‘Hatchet For The Honeymoon’ (1970), to many Spaghetti Westerns, the atrocious ‘Devilman Story’ (1967) and ‘guilty pleasure’ favourite ‘Yor, The Hunter From The Future’ (1983). lt would take too long to list everything that would interest a fan of cult cinema.

Our two women are also worth noting. Boschero was a riot in deliciously campy superhero romp ‘Incident In Paris/Argoman, The Fantastic Superman’ (1966), played in Peplum like ‘Ulysses Against Hercules’ (1952) and big budget comedy ‘Paris When lt Sizzles’ (1964) with Audrey Hepburn. She also did musicals, Eurospys and, inevitably, a couple of Giallo pictures in the early 1970s. Maryl had a much briefer career, appearing just seven films over 27 years. Five of these had Gastaldi in the canvas chair, probably because he was her husband. It’s a shame that she didn’t act more often as she’s a lively presence here and obviously a lot brighter than the character she plays as she is credited with this film’s original story. Gastaldi was mostly a writer himself, penning scripts for over 100 films in many different genres; biblical epics, sword and sandal dramas, Westerns, horror films (some of which starred Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele) and cult favourite ‘2019: After The Fall of New York’ (1983). He also worked several times with horror maestro Mario Bava and on several later projects for director Sergio Leone, including ‘Once Upon A Time ln America’ (1984).

This film may not be a lost classic, but it’s still an efficient, well-acted, well-written murder mystery with an edge, keeping the audience fully engaged until its pleasingly dark resolution. Worth seeking out.

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Jungle Manhunt (1951)

Jungle Manhunt (1951)‘Ever think of selling blow up patches for bubblegum?’

A series of native villages are mysteriously attacked by living skeletons, burnt to the ground and their men kidnapped. Meanwhile, a young photo-journalist engages Jungle Jim to help her search for a flier who disappeared nine years earlier when his plane went down…

We’re back in the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden again for the ninth film in the ‘Jungle Jim’ series with ex-Tarzan Johnny Weismuller. As per usual, this no-budget extravaganza is brought to us by legendary penny-pinching producer Sam Katzman, who teams up here with director Lew Landers. Under the name Louis Friedlander, he’d delivered Karloff-Lugosi classic ‘The Raven’ (1935) but his subsequent career was almost exclusively in b-pictures, although he did work on interesting projects such as ‘The Return of the Vampire’ (1943) with Lugosi, and horror-comedy ‘The Boogie Man Will Get You’ (1942) with Karloff and Peter Lorre. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1940s, his name was attached to such forgotten programmers as ‘My Dog Rusty’ (1948), ‘Adventures of Gallant Bess’ (1948) (about a heroic horse), and a number of Westerns with fading cowboy Tim Holt.

This picture comes at us from the typewriter of Samuel Newman, who was making his debut with the series. However, it’s no surprise that his story doesn’t stray from the well-established formula, although we are spared the usual opening five minutes of library footage accompanied by actor Leland Hodges explaining what a jungle is. Instead, we’re straight into the action with tribal Headman Rick Vallin (a white man born in what is now the Ukraine!) having his Friday night out spoilt when his village is raised to the ground by a war party of nasty natives led by a trio of skeleton men waving burning torches. Women and children are bloodlessly slaughtered and the men carried off.

So what’s going on? Well, it turns out that dastardly mad scientist Lyle Talbot (‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ (1959)) needs slave labour for his secret mining operation. He’s discovered a way to turn volcanic rock into diamonds (just add water, apparently!) but the workers get radiation poisoning and drop dead after a couple of days. Now, I’m fairly sure these working ‘terms and conditions’ contravene at least some applicable employment statutes, even those in place in 1951, and I doubt that he was offering medical insurance or a good dental plan either. So he’s forced to adopt rather aggressive recruitment procedures and these are carried out by his own tribe of native minions, although why they follow his orders is anybody’s guess. Also I’m not at all certain what purpose the skeleton men serve in his operation. Perhaps Katzman had some Halloween costumes left over from another production and was determined to get full use out of them before returning them to the shop.

Jungle Manhunt (1951)

‘Blimey! Who does he think he is?!’

Meanwhile, Weismuller is saving pretty brunette Sheila Ryan after her boat capsizes. Her small safari is being bankrolled by a millionaire who wants to find his lost nephew. This lad was a pilot and football star who was lost in the jungle almost a decade earlier. Of course with Weismuller’s help, she runs across him in about ten minutes flat. He’s adopted his own tribe (just like Talbot) but has brought them some of the key benefits of Western Civilisation instead, including sidewalks, explosives and the clothes line.

Rather brilliantly, he turns out to be played by real-life Los Angeles Rams star Quarterback Bob Waterfield in his only movie role. Now, l can’t comment on whether Waterfield was as good on the field as Kurt Warner (or even Jared Goff for that matter!) but I can tell you about his acting ability. He didn’t have any. I suppose it was fortunate that he was married to Hollywood icon Jane Russell, who had enough talent in front of the camera for the both of them. A few years after this, they formed a production company together, their first release being big hit ‘Gentleman Marry Brunettes’ (1955).

Given the general lack of charisma on display from our male leads, a lot of the drama’s heavy lifting falls to Ryan. Thankfully, she was an actress with bags of experience, getting her big break opposite Sidney Toler in Charlie Chan thriller ‘Dead Men Tell’ (1941), supporting Laurel and Hardy in ‘Great Guns’ (1941) and ‘A-Haunting We Will Go’ (1942), singing in musicals like ‘The Gay Caballero’ (1942) and appearing in a string of B-Westerns. She’s the best thing in this film by a mile, providing a nice line in light sarcasm, charm and the personality that the rest of the project so desperately lacks. Talbot also adds another cad to his rogue’s gallery of low-budget villains, and must take a lot of credit for his straight-faced delivery of the surprisingly detailed explanation of his scientific process. Personally, I have my doubts as to the validity of his experimental model, especially considering that all it has produced is enough diamonds to fit in a couple of film cans!

Toward the end of the film, our heroes take a complete left turn into the desert, doubled superbly by the ranch belonging to stuntman and famous Gorilla-suit actor Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan. This detour seems solely for the purpose of meeting up with some old friends; the battling giant lizards from ‘One Billion BC’ (1940). As usual, they’ve given nothing else to do apart from fight, and some of their moves and choreography are beginning to look a bit tired and predictable more than a decade after their debut. How they must have longed to do a drawing room comedy or a light period musical! Still, it was a living, l suppose. We’re also treated to a fight between an octopus and a shark, both of whom aren’t usually found in African rivers. Perhaps they escaped from a local aquarium.

Jungle Manhunt (1951)

‘I told you, I only kiss on the first date.’

There is one more thing. If you watch the trailer for this film, you’ll catch a very brief glimpse of Weismuller fighting a man-sized dinosaur behind some of the credits. The creature looks a little like a Tyrannosaurus Rex but a lot more like someone dressed up to entertain kids at a toddler’s birthday party. Perhaps it was even played by Corrigan, intent on extending his range.

The sequence even featured on the poster, and a production still survives. Sadly, it didn’t make the final cut, thus depriving the world of what looks like one of the most hilarious bad movie moments in the history of cinema. For shame, Mr Katzman, for shame!

Also starring Tamba (the Talented Chimp).

Target For Killing/Das Geheimnis der gelben Mönche (1966)

Target For Killing (1966)‘Our secret agents in Pakistan and Vietnam communicate regularly by telepathy.’

A veteran special agent is assigned to protect a young girl who has been marked for death by a mysterious criminal organisation who work in secret from a monastery. He soon discovers that their leader is using ESP and a revolutionary brainwashing technique to further his mad ambitions…

Fast-paced Austrian/German/Italian Eurospy that features ex-Hollywood matinee idol Stewart Granger as this week’s rather silver-haired ‘Bond On A Budget.‘ Granger had some previous experience in these kind of shenanigans as the lead of ‘Red Dragon’ (1965) which often gets bundled in with this genre, although it was more of a crime thriller really. In fact, despite a new name, he is supposed to be playing the same character, as his exploits in the previous film are referenced by local Police Commissioner Rupert Davies.

The story opens mid-flight with ‘marked woman’ Karin Dor being chatted up by our handsome hero. He seems to be making progress, but can’t help noticing the flight crew heading for the back of the plane and, a few seconds later, their parachutes deploying below. How they managed to leave without compromising cabin pressure is a bit of a mystery, but we’ll let it pass. Luckily, Granger was a pilot in the war about twenty years earlier, so he’s able to land the plane with only a slight wobble. The control tower doesn’t even need to talk him down! Now, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but all someone without specific training will achieve in those circumstances is to pile up on the runway (if they’re lucky enough to make it that far). Yes, I know screen personalities as diverse as Doris Day in ‘Julie’ (1955), Karen Black in ‘Airport ’75’ (1974), David McCallum as TV’s ‘The Invisible Man’ and Lou Ferrigno as ‘The Incredible Hulk’ have all accomplished the feat without breaking too much of a sweat, but it’s simply not possible. You may as well expect to manage re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after attending an open day at Cape Canaveral.

So some serious suspension of disbelief is essential here, and the script often does little to help the audience in that regard. There some silly business about Granger being scared of Davies’ pet snake (which he keeps in his office!) and super villain Curt Jurgens has a stable of scantily-clad babes draped all over the furniture at his HQ just because he likes the way they look. Associate Dr Yang (Luis Induni) can read people’s thoughts and turn them into mindless zombies. Although they do have to receive electric shocks and stare into an aquarium at the same time! There’s also a scene where Jurgens’ chief Lieutenant Scilla Gabel shoots off multiple rounds with her machine gun, then ‘blows it out’ and rubs the barrel of the weapon against her cheek. Now, we know her character gets turned on by pain, but burning your face off with hot metal might seem to be taking things a little too far! As it happens, it seems to have no effect on her at all. She must have thick skin, I guess.

Target For Killing (1966)

‘What do you mean I’m too old for this shit?’

The production also looks a little tatty here and there, but all these shortcomings can be forgiven when you consider the wonderful casting. For a start there’s Granger, still oozing Hollywood charisma in his 50s and fully committed in the surprisingly violent fight scenes. Dor went onto to tangle with the real thing in the shape of Sean Connery in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) and Jurgens crossed swords with Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977).

Not enough for you? Minor villain and eventual rat fodder Adolfo Celi came out on the wrong end of another encounter with Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965) and the lovely Molly Peters was 007’s personal masseuse in the same movie! On top of all the Bond connections, we get Klaus Kinski as a conflicted trigger man, Davies who was TV’s ‘Maigret’ and Erika Remberg who appeared with Moore on the small screen in ‘The Saint‘.

Curiously enough though, with the notable exception of Granger, the most memorable performance here is from Gabel. Her only major credits are an appearance in Joseph Losey’s misfiring ‘007’ satire, ‘Modesty Blaise’ (1966) and opposite Gordon Scott in ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ (1959) (which featured support from a pre-stardom Sean Connery!) Here, she oozes a playful, dangerous sexuality in various tight fitting outfits, leaving little doubt about her character’s preferences and motivation. While Jurgen plots, she’s  always in the background, usually stroking some inanimate object or other in a suggestive way! Although, rather brilliantly, in one scene she’s just doing her knitting!

This is quite an entertaining Eurospy if you forgive the slightly uncertain tone; the film never really deciding how serious – or silly – it wants to be. Yes, there’s a bit of an age gap between our romantic leads, but who could blame a young woman like Dor getting her head turned by the handsome Granger? After all, he’s just so damn suave and capable! If ‘Bond’ had come along a decade earlier, he would have been on the shortlist for the role. No question about it.

Good fun if you’re not too demanding.

Fantômas (1913)

Fantômas (1913)‘Remain tonight, sublime murderer.’

A daring hotel robbery and the murder of an English nobleman point to the activities of a major criminal who is a master of disguise. The Sûreté appoint their best investigator to the case and he becomes obsessed with catching the lawbreaker…

Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s 1911 novel ‘Fantômas’ was a smash hit in France when it was published, and the villain went on to become one of the nations’ most popular characters in crime fiction. The rights were snapped up almost immediately by the Gaumont Studio and a series of five films rushed into production. This may not seem particularly noteworthy in these ‘franchise friendly’ times, but it was truly groundbreaking at this point in cinema history. The first was a fairly faithful adaptation of the opening novel, scripted and directed by the experienced Louis Feuillade, and is sometimes referred to as ‘Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine’.

With the novels all the rage, it may have looked like an easy win for Feuillade. However, he was faced with some problems. Allain and Souvestre had a fairly unusual working method. They would outline the general story and then work on alternate chapters before bringing all the story threads together at the end. Only they didn’t communicate during the majority of the process! This allowed for a truly prodigious output (a new novel every month!) but did have a rather noticeable effect on the finished work. The first book is simply stuffed full with events, subplots and characters, some of whom seem to be assuming a vital importance to the story, only to suddenly vanish in the following chapter! Although this sounds chaotic; to the credit of the authors, the book is never less than entertaining and is actually vaguely reminiscent in a way of Dickens (whose novels were typically released in episodic form while he was still writing them!)

Given that this first film runs only a scant 54 minutes, obviously all the subplots had to go, and the main storyline needed a lot of simplification. Instead of opening with the murder of the Marquise de Langrune, Feuillade starts with Fantômas (René Navarre) lifting the jewels of the Princess Danidoff (Jane Faber), and goes right to the discovery of Lord Bentham’s murdered corpse. This completely obliterates the characters of Charles and Etienne Rambert and much of the novel’s plot. As a result, when we meet the heroic Inspector Juve (Edmond Breon), his friend Jérome Fandor (Geroges Melchior) is simply a bland sidekick, rather than Charles living under an assumed identity because of a false accusation of murder.

Fantômas (1913)

‘I’m sorry Monsieur, but you need a valid ticket…’

Instead, Feuillade concentrates a great deal on the book’s final chapters when Navarre is caught, imprisoned and attempts to escape. lt’s an interesting decision, but not an entirely successful one. With our knowledge of Navarre’s crimes limited to one theft and an off-screen murder, it’s hard to really invest in the notion of him as a criminal genius. Fantômas is supposed to be close to a mythological figure, whose very existence is questioned by many.

The film fails to convey that ambiguity and softens the character somewhat, removing some of his threat as well as his mystique. This is never more obvious than the cop out in the film’s final scene, although perhaps that was inevitable given the era when the film was made.

Having said that, there is still plenty to admire here. lt’s a slick production with a high level of technical and production expertise. There’s a good mixture of studio and location work and the story moves fluidly thanks to good performances, direction and editing, even if things slow down far too much in the final act. The performances are surprisingly restrained, with Navarre in particular shining in various ingenious makeups. It might not be a Lon Chaney level of transformation but it’s still quite impressive. The photography is also top notch with scenes tinted to convey different times of day, as well as providing pleasing visual contrasts.

Fantômas (1913)

‘I’ve got a real bad feeling about this…’

I watched this as part of the double DVD set issued by Artificial Eye, and it’s a fine example of how to present a silent film to a modern audience. It comes in a clear, sharp print and the musical accompaniment is entirely appropriate, never proving a distraction but informing events and the emotional states of the characters onscreen.  It’s always a pleasure to see such care and attention lavished on a relic of cinema’s glorious past and only appropriate when it’s as significant as this.

If you happen to be familiar with the book, this might seem to be little more than a rush through edited story highlights, but it’s undoubtedly an important film in the history of cinema. It’s a signpost to some of the modern industry’s common business practices and audience viewing habits and preferences.

After all, you could argue that ‘Fantômas’ was the world’s first summer blockbuster!

The Skydivers (1963)

The Skydivers (1963)‘Coffee? I like coffee!’

The operator of a skydiving school dismisses a drunken mechanic and attempts to hide his own infidelities from his wife. When he breaks off his latest affair, the slighted woman teams up with the fired employee, and together they hatch a cunning murder plot…

Writer-director Coleman Francis only made three low-budget films in his short career; the other two being the rather odd ‘The Beast of Yucca Flats’ (1961), and the incomprehensible ‘Night Train To Mundo Fine/Red Zone Cuba’ (1962). Both have achieved cult status for their strange qualities. The first stars everyone’s favourite bald Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, and was shot without synchronised sound. Francis covered this technical shortcoming by filming people from behind and adding a bizarre narration. The other featured a surrealistic plot, including an 8-man invasion of Cuba, and a theme song performed by John Carradine. Those projects have prompted some commentators (most probably with tongue firmly in cheek) to proclaim Francis as a visionary auteur who didn’t play by accepted filmmaking rules. Sadly, his final film proves that the truth was a lot more prosaic. He simply didn’t know what he was doing.

For a start, the plot of this effort is painfully conventional. Harry (Anthony Cardoza) and wife Beth (Kevin Casey) own what is allegedly a skydiving school. l say allegedly because no-one ever seems to take any lessons, they just make jumps from his small plane over the airfield (and boy, do they make a lot of jumps!) Our ‘hero’ is carrying on with local cougar Susie (Marcia Knight) who is supposed to be seeing Frank (Titus Moede) who Cardoza has just fired. In another riveting development, Casey gets her head turned by Cardoza’s war buddy Joe (Eric Tomlin) who turns up to fill the mechanic’s shoes. After Cardoza gives Knight the brush-off, she goes back to Moede and the two cook up a nasty scheme involving acid and a night-time ‘jump’ taking place after a party at the airfield (obviously a common social event in skydiving circles).

This is a standard setup, of course, and for most filmmakers, it would be the ‘jumping off’(!) point of a more complex and developing story. Unfortunately, in this instance, that’s it. The entire plot. What we get instead is an endless parade of hilariously inane dialogue exchanges by the principals, not helped by being filmed in very short scenes separated by some truly ham-fisted editing. There are no establishing shots beforehand, we just cut ‘cold’ to characters standing like statues in the frame. Example: cut to two-shot of goofy photographer next to anonymous skydiver. Photographer: ‘Wonder how high they’re going to jump?’ Skydiver: ‘l don’t know.’ Cut to next scene.

The Skydivers (1963)

‘So just how much money did you give Coleman?’

To make matters one hundred times worse, the drama is played out by what must be one of the worst acting ensembles in cinema history. Only the unusually named Casey even attempts some kind of a performance, with the others struggling to muster a single facial expression between them. Cardoza appears almost catatonic throughout as he mumbles his dialogue from a face stuck in what could be considered the dictionary definition of a ‘blank expression.’ lt’s unbelievably boring and strangely hilarious at the same time.

Francis does show better general technique than in his previous two films but it seems he was still not too well acquainted with the concept of ‘coverage’. Specifically, failing to film characters reacting or listening when not speaking in a dialogue scene. As a result, we get the same identical cutaway of Casey in two separate scenes, which Francis might have got away with if they didn’t happen within a few minutes of each other. Similarly, there’s an edit within a group scene where someone probably flubbed a line (or perhaps Cardoza just fell asleep) and, with no close up of one of his actors to cut to, Francis simply edits on the same shot, with the result that all the actors ‘jump’ a few inches one way or the other!

As far as action goes all we get is one extended punch up in semi-darkness between Cardoza and Moede and a couple of skydivers plunging to their deaths. Unfortunately, these doomed aeronauts defy the laws of physics to do so; one second flying high in the sky, the next welcoming the earth with a sickening thud. Newton would not be impressed. There is a climactic car chase, but it mostly features a bunch of people we’ve hardly noticed before, all of whom seem suddenly to be conveniently armed.

The Skydivers (1963)

‘How much!!!?’

The supporting cast are obviously non-actors who bunged Francis a few quid to get his film off the ground and take their bow on the silver screen. These include a girl dressed as an ice skater on roller skates and a hipster in dark glasses with a rooster under one arm. But we do get the cool grooves of Jimmy Bryant and his Night Jumpers who give us ‘Tobacco Worm’ and the ‘Ha-So Stratosphere Boogie’. One couple dance and others jig around a bit in the background.

Cardoza was an actor/producer and was also involved in Ed Wood’s ‘Night of the Ghouls’ (1959) and John Carradine’s dreary encounter with ‘Bigfoot’ (1970), a film that also featured Tomlin in the role of ‘3rd Ranger.’ Knight had a few bits in low budget productions, including reptilian horror ‘Stanley’ (1972) and ‘Mako…The Jaws of Death’ (1976). The only participant who had a brush with the mainstream was Moede, who early on in his acting career had small roles in ‘Pork Chop Hill’ (1959) starring Gregory Peck and the Jerry Lewis comedy vehicle ‘Visit To A Small Planet’ (1960). Fast-forward a few years and he was playing ‘Boo Boo’ in Ray Dennis Steckler’s notorious superhero train wreck ‘Rat Pfink A Boo Boo’ (1965). Eventually, Moede moved into the adult movie arena as a writer-producer-director and took jobs on other productions as a stills photographer, camera operator, and cinematographer. Rather brilliantly, he’s credited as ‘sound mixer’ on Francis’ semi-silent ‘The Beast of Yucca Flats’ (1961)!

This is truly a very, very bad film, but fans of Francis’ quirks and oddities are best advised to stick to his other two efforts.

Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs…or should that be coffee?

The Embalmer/ll Mostro Dei Venezia (1964)

The Embalmer (1965)‘No living woman possesses your mysterious fascination or your sweet repose.’

A young reporter believes that a series of mysterious disappearances are the work of a mad killer, but neither his editor nor the police believe him. When some pretty young students arrive on a sightseeing tour, he becomes romantically involved with their teacher, unaware they have been targeted as potential victims….

1960s Italian thriller which is sometimes tagged as an early example of the Giallo genre, but also bears a passing resemblance to Gaston Leroux’s classic creation ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ Again, we have a cloaked figure who looks like a living skull (even if it’s obviously a cheap mask) who is skulking around in the catacombs and indulging in a little kidnap action. But this dubious Romeo hangs out beneath the canals of Venice, rather than the Paris Opera House, and he’s not fixated on one girl and her vocal talents. No, he’s happy to spread the love and preserve the objects of his affection in some kind of museum of beauty.

Leading the charge for the forces of truth and justice is hotshot reporter Andrea (Luigi Martocci hiding under the rather bizarre pseudonym of Gin Mart). He spends a lot of time arguing with the local police and the front office about the missing girls, convinced they’re the victims of a crazed psychopath. Exactly why he’s so certain is never addressed. Yes, we know he’s right because we’ve seen the Embalmer at work, but there’s no explanation of how he knows. Something lost in translation, perhaps. But not to worry.

Pretty teacher Maureen Brown turns up on a sightseeing trip with a dozen young victims (sorry, students), which include the saucy Grace (Anita Todesco). Being a gentleman (and having the hots for Brown), Martocci offers to give them the grand tour of the city. And he does, prompting the audience to feel they have suddenly wandered into a travelogue rather than a mystery thriller. It’s at this point that proceedings become distinctly dreary. Martocci argues with the authorities, Martocci chats with a couple of losers who hang about the canals, the Embalmer potters about in his lair, occasionally emerging in scuba gear to snatch another victim, Martocci takes the girls to another tourist destination…and repeat.

The film only runs 83 minutes but feels seriously padded. At one point, Brown enters a room where we just know she’s going to find a secret passage. She does, but takes about five minutes to press the right stone in the fireplace. Ok, so it wouldn’t be credible if she stumbled across it immediately, but the director could have just cut to something else to infer that time had passed rather than remaining with her until she finds it. There are some serious credibility problems as well. The villain’s lair is peopled with skeletal monks who sit around in what remains of their robes, prompting the question of exactly how they died or if the Embalmer simply employed a very strange interior decorator. He’s also given zero backstory, so we’ve no clue as to his motivations or what triggered his strange rampage.

Apparently, this is the longest version of the film (shorter cuts were released) so perhaps some story exposition was sacrificed in favour of more tourist shots of Venice. There’s also a peculiar nightclub scene featuring a guy who emerges from a coffin on stage and attempts to strangle his guitar. To be fair, it’s a setup for a later ‘jump scare’ but that turns out to be an unintentional ‘laugh out loud’ moment instead. Also the killer’s secret identity is obviously flagged about fifteen minutes from the end but the film still has him running about in his skull mask up until ‘the big reveal’ in the final moments. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t think the audience were bright enough to work out his identity?

The Embalmer (1965)

Finding new LED bulbs to fit his lair was an endless problem…

On the plus side, some of the locations are good but the black and white cinematography can’t muster the same sense of slow decay and dread evoked by director Nicolas Roeg in his masterful ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973). Each victim is marked out by a still frame, which is an interesting stylistic touch, but removes any suspense because we always know the identity of the next corpse.

However, some allowances do need to be made. This is the US release of the film presented by Walter Manley Productions and, of course, it would be preferable to see the original version. The English dub track has been added with a predictable lack of due care and attention, with Martocci referring to ‘those drowned girls whose bodies have never been recovered’. Also the Embalmer’s occasional soliloquies in his lair are likely to provide giggles, rather than chills. The heavy-handed soundtrack isn’t helpful, either, often blaring out a ‘big band’ sound behind scenes where the film needs to build suspense. Whether this is the work of credited composer Marcello Gigante or is another addition by Walter Manley Productions is unclear.

Writer-director Dino Tavella only made two pictures, the other being obscure war drama ‘Una Sporca Guerra’ (1965) which appears to have had a domestic release only. This film came out on a double bill with Michael Reeves’ ‘She Beast’ (1966) in the US and Jess Franco’s ‘The Diabolical Dr Z’ (1966) in the UK, both of which are significantly better in every department.

A serial killer whose activities seem to have been partially funded by the Venice Tourist Board is a highly unusual mix but, unsurprisingly, it’s not a successful one.

James Tont – Operazione D.U.O. (1966)

James Tont - Operazione D.U.O. (1966)‘We in the intelligence service always keep some tungsten dentures handy.’

James Tont survives three attempts on his life while giving a speech at the world’s first convention of secret agents, but is tripped on the stairs by a little girl. Recuperating from his injuries at a private clinic, he competes with a mysterious tycoon for the affections of a beautiful nurse, but their struggle is to take on global consequences…

We’re back in the company of Lando Buzzanca again as the Italian comic actor runs around the glamorous capitals of Europe as this week’s ‘Tont On A Budget.’ This is a sequel to domestic hit ‘James Tont – Operazione U.N.O.’ (1965) and opens with our smarmy hero at the espionage conference, encountering Mata Hari’s duplicitous elderly sister and various other shady types. Apparently, he’s the keynote speaker and delivers a robust defence of the technological advances in spy craft which are threatening to leave the more old-fashioned agents behind. That’s potentially quite an interesting story idea, but this certainly isn’t the film to explore it.

Instead, Buzzanca fetches up at a private clinic in Geneva where his broken leg seems to heal instantly, thanks to the bedside manner of Nurse Clarissa (Claudia Lange). Unfortunately, he has a rival in elderly billionaire Magnus Spring (Loris Gizzi, playing a different role from super villain ’Goldsinger’ in the first movie). Part of Tont’s treatment includes a bath in radioactive water(!), but it’s the temperature that kills him when someone messes with the dials on the control panel. His demise prompts world-wide headlines and a televised funeral, which rather proves that he wasn’t much of a ‘secret’ agent, after all.

James Tont - Operazione D.U.O. (1966)

Tont always remembered to put the seat down…

In a shocking twist, our hero is not dead! It was just a ruse to fool the mysterious super villain (now who could that be?) Apparently, he’s recruited a gang of ruthless Beatniks to swipe various nuclear gewgaws for some reason or other, so Buzzanca puts on a stupid hairpiece, gets hip and goes undercover as cool cat Bingo Kowlaski.

At groovy hangout ‘The Blue Dolphin’, he performs a far out song about how much he hates the sky, and this gives him enough kudos to be invited into the criminal gang! He also links up with beautiful, but sadly misguided, Helene (France Anglade). From there, it’s a simple matter of being reduced to the size of a sheet of paper, getting smuggled into Cape Kennedy as dehydrated food, stealing a rocket from the launch pad and trying to foil a plot to send the dome of St Peter’s in Rome into space and steal the Vatican’s treasure.

If all these madcap antics and wild story ideas sound quite appealing, then it’s truly a staggering achievement to the filmmakers abilities that the film drags so much. Sure, there’s a submersible disguised as a giant turtle, Buzzanca makes it into space more than a decade before that other fellow in ‘Moonraker’ (1979) and Gizzi wiles away the time playing a board game based on the exploits of another, certain secret agent (he loses!) But the jokes are forced and predictable, the action half-baked and Buzzanca doesn’t have the necessary charm to put things across.

Bruno Corbucci was in the director’s chair on his own for this effort, and at least it seems there was a little budget available this time. The production made it to London at least, although there’s a suspicion of some ‘guerrilla filming’ going on with some of the ‘tourist board’ crowd scenes. But the most remarkable fact connected with the film is that 8 writers worked on it! Perhaps this goes some way to explain all the different story elements, but does prompt a much more fundamental question. Couldn’t any of them have come up with some decent jokes?

James Tont did not return for any further adventures.