The Merry Frolics of Satan/Les quatre cents farces du diable (1906)

The devil tricks an engineer and his servant into signing away their souls, and they attempt to flee his clutches.

Seventeen-minute silent short from film pioneer Georges Méliès that mixes his extravagant style and humour while serving as another showcase for his technical work, which was innovative in the first few years of cinema and attracted many imitators.

An old man calls on an engineer and his valet in the latter’s workshop, which displays many models of the latest modes of transportation. The old man persuades the engineer to visit his master, an alchemist (played by Méliès) who mixes up some magic pills with the help of a gang of assistants. Thrown to the ground, one of the pills bursts into a beautiful fairy, although she transforms quickly into an ugly monster. Nevertheless, the engineer signs the necessary paperwork to obtain the pills and leaves with his servant.

As soon as our heroes have departed, the alchemist reveals himself to be Satan, and his cloaked assistants transform into a gang of beautiful women. This lovely horde detains the men and persuades them to use some of the pills before the entire group depart in a train created from luggage trunks. A bridge collapse removes Satan’s brides from proceedings, and it’s up to Old Nick himself to pursue his quarry as the two men attempt to flee in a stagecoach.

Georges Méliès was born the son of a successful bootmaker in Paris in 1861. He received a formal, classical education but frustrated his teachers by his interest in art, covering textbooks with caricatures and sketches, often of a fantastic nature. A career in the theatre was inevitable, given he began building puppet theatres and sophisticated marionettes when still a teenager. Stage magic became his obsession and, when his father retired, he sold his interest in the family business to his brothers to purchase the Théâtre Robert-Houdin.

A decade of increasing success followed as he developed his skills as an illusionist and a businessman. Always interested in new ideas, he attended a demonstration of the Lumière brothers new cinematograph in 1895. Failing to buy the device, he brought a projector from London and turned it into a film camera. In May of the following year, he began showing his own films at the theatre and experimenting with camera tricks and SFX. By the turn of the century, his movies were distributed all over Europe and even exported to America. They were so successful stateside that that rival producer Thomas Edison tried to prevent their release.

This film demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Méliès work at this point in his career. It also neatly encapsulated the reasons for his initial success and his subsequent fall from grace. On the credit side, it demonstrates his marvellous sets and imaginative designs, wholly artificial but unique, often copied but never bettered. The film also shows advances in his technical work, although the techniques were now tried and tested.

The undoubted highlight of the picture is the scene of the final attempted escape by stagecoach. The horse transforms into a full-size skeletal creature and flips onto its back as Satan pushes the carriage up the slope of Mt Vesuvius. An eruption flings the vehicle into space where it sails past comets, meteors and planets, some draped with elaborately costumed women. It’s still a striking sequence.

Unfortunately, none of this was anything new. In some ways, the film almost plays like a clip show or a run-through of Méliès’ greatest hits. Watched today, it’s another testament to the director’s extraordinary vision, but it was just more of the same to its contemporary audience. Producer-director Edwin S. Porter had unleashed game-changer ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), and audiences were eager for more of that kind of realism. Méliès did try his hand at more mainstream and non-fantastical subjects but those films were unsuccessful, so it’s not surprising that he chose to fall back on a previously winning formula.

Méliès had peaked with his classic ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), based on Jules Verne’s novel ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ (1865). That the famous French novelist was a constant inspiration for Méliès is clear. Even in this comedic reimagining of the tale of Faust, we still get our two protagonists embarking on a ‘Voyage extraordinaire’ much in the manner of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in ‘Around the World in Eight Days (1873), albeit with Satan on their trail.

As always, a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of cinema’s formative influences who helped to outline the new medium’s artistic possibilities.

Outside The Law (1920)

‘Brother, we must see the new fountain Uncle Oliver spoke about.’

A high-ranking criminal begins to reform under the influence of a Chinese philosopher. The change doesn’t sit well with his associates, though, and one of them frames him for the shooting of a police officer. While in jail, his daughter joins the gang to take part in a jewel heist…

Silent crime drama from Universal that pairs rising star Lon Chaney with director Tod Browning. The duo had already worked together on ‘The Wicked Darling’ (1919), but this was the first in a series of far more significant film collaborations that continued until Chaney’s premature death.

Exposure to the teachings of Confucius through the unofficial head of Chinatown, Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren), is giving local crime boss ‘Silent’ Madden (Ralph Lewis) pause for thought. His pretty daughter, Molly Madden (Priscilla Dean), has already rebuffed the personal and professional advances of torpedo Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) and ‘going straight’ is looking more and more attractive.

However, Chaney isn’t cool down with these developments. On the one hand, he’s determined to get ‘Silky Moll’ Dean into his gang (and into his bed, no doubt), and he wants a bigger piece of the criminal action too. Taking advantage of a gun battle in the street, Chaney shoots a patrolman and frames Lewis. Although the evidence is not conclusive, the innocent man is sent up, and Dean turns to the dark side.

The gang plan to lift some jewels from a rich man’s house during a party, and it falls to Dean and cracksman ‘Dapper’ Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) to do the heavy lifting. Things go south on the night, and the duo barely escapes the police, taking a powder with the swag and holing up in a rented apartment. Forced to remain in hiding for weeks, they begin to fall for each other and start to question what they’ve done. Meanwhile, both the authorities and Chaney’s gang are waiting in the wings.

By 1920, Lon Chaney had reached a point in his career where he might not have been a star, but his name carried enough weight to be billed just below headliner Priscilla Dean in this prestigious Universal crime drama. His breakout success in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919) had come after seven years and over 100 pictures and, although the vast majority were short subjects, the title is probably a good deal higher.

Chaney was far from conventionally handsome, so a good number of those roles had been as thugs and villains, and so it’s no surprise that he infuses the character of ‘Black Mike’ with a vicious swagger and a genuine sense of danger. It’s disappointing that he displays cowardly traits when cornered at the climax, but it was something that the conventions of the time demanded. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful portrayal.

The fact that matters don’t sag too badly when Chaney is offscreen is primarily due to an excellent performance by Dean, with capable support from Oakman. The young couple’s voluntary confinement is compromised by a young boy (Stanley Goethals) who lives in an apartment across the hall. The soft-hearted Oakman fixes his kite, but Dean remains indifferent to the little moppet’s charms. Of course, she can’t resist forever, but Dean and Browning do an excellent job of conveying her inner struggle and slow conversion.

Of course, when faced with a film from this era that deals in part with ethnic minorities, some modern-day commentators will point out the casting issues. E. Alyn Warren, who plays Chang Lo, was a white American and Chaney breaks out the makeup box to play his servant, Ah Wing. There’s no story reason for this dual role; perhaps it was simply that the actor wanted a fresh challenge, and it’s fair to say that he does make for a creditable Chinese man and is almost entirely unrecognisable. One of Warren’s other servants is played by an unbilled Anna May Wong, who would later become the first Chinese-American movie star, so it is fair to say that at least some effort was made to cast appropriately.

The Browning-Chaney partnership produced ‘The Unholy Three‘ (1925), ‘The Blackbird’ (1926), ‘The Unknown’ (1927) and several other notable pictures. The director wanted his star for the title role in ‘Dracula’ (1931), but Chaney was already terminally ill by then. Problems with adapting to sound recording may have been a factor in the staginess of the later film because it certainly wasn’t anything to do with the limitations of Browning’s technique. Here, the final action scenes are staged with quick cutting and multiple setups that inject a breakneck pace and genuine excitement.

Dean was born to theatrical parents and first gained big-screen attention as a comedienne in a series of shorts starring Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran. The movie serial ‘The Gray Ghost’ (1917) proved her ticket to the top, and she became one of Universal’s top female stars, her starring projects including ‘The Wicked Darling’ (1919), which involved both Browning and Chaney. Dean and Oakman were husband and wife in real life but divorced in the mid-1920s, with the actress marrying famous ’round the world’ aviator Leslie P Arnold in 1928. Her career nosedived abruptly with the arrival of the ‘talkies’, and she retired in 1932.

A tightly written, well-crafted crime thriller that’s more than just a signpost of greater things to come.

The World of the Dead/Land of the Dead/El mundo del los muertos (1970)

‘Maybe the tarantula bit you and made you hallucinate, my son.’

In the late 17th Century, the Holy Inquisition burns four young men and a witch accused of making pacts with the devil. The sorceress vows revenge on the descendants of the Knight who accused her. Three hundred years later, she returns to fulfil the deadly curse…

Glorious cavalcade of straight-faced horror lunacy that finds Mexico’s legendary luchador El Santo facing off once more against the forces of evil. Raising the stakes is the presence of real-life rival the Blue Demon working on the side of Satan and a frenetic pace from director Gilberto Martínez Solares that was either the result of pre-release pruning or some kind of hyperactivity problem.

Once a hero, always a hero. Back in the 17th Century, the ancestor of silver-masked wrestler El Santo has allied himself with the church in a holy mission to rid the land of witchcraft and the minions of Satan. Top of the agenda is passing judgement on four acolytes of the local witch, who they believe to be the Lady Damiana Velazquez (Pilar Pellicer). The High Inquisitor (Antonio Raxel) and his clerical sidekick, the Bishop (Guillermo Álvarez Bianchi), order the men burnt at the stake.

Pellicer plots revenge against the Knight in the Silver Mask (Santo), who she holds responsible for the execution of her followers. Invoking Satan (played by VoiceOver Man), she conjures an emissary from Hell to help out. This is the Blue Knight (Blue Demon), who had been trapped in the netherworld but is now placed at her command. He fights with Santo, but the result is inconclusive and speeding up the footage in the editing suite was not a wise filmmaking choice.

As was often the case for any femme fatale interacting with the great man, the evil Pellicer is torn between seduction and assassination. Of course, Santo rejects her in favour of the church and his lady love, blonde beauty Aurora (Betty Nelson), who sleeps in full makeup, false eyelashes and a black negligee. Pellicer doesn’t take it well and attempts to kill him with a ceremonial dagger but is overpowered. Her failure displeases Satan, who commands Blue Demon to resurrect the dead to finish the job, courtesy of some tinted inserts from Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961).

These musclemen attack Santo in his home but, rather than engage in the usual grappling antics, a full-on sword fight develops instead. A swashbuckling Santo swings from the chandelier and thrusts and parries in the best Errol Flynn tradition. But it’s hard to hurt those who are already dead, and things are starting to look desperate until he realises they fear the cross, and at cock crow, they all vanish with the snip of an editor’s scissors. They don’t appear to be vampires, but the supernatural status of all Satan’s agents seems cheerfully vague here. Unfortunately, Pellicer is taking advantage of the diversion to pay Nelson a visit, and tea and scones are most definitely not on the menu.

If this all sounds like a rollicking period horror, then it is. Santo gets some nifty medieval threads, and the rest of the costuming and details look on point. Director Solares also opts to film all the devilish antics in broad daylight with the aid of only occasional swirls of fog and smoke. This approach works surprisingly well and helps emphasise the well-chosen locations; an old stone ruin and a neglected cemetery. But all this is just the first half-hour of the movie! Yes, at the conclusion of the first act, Pellicer is summarily apprehended, tried and burned, cursing the descendants of everyone involved. This concept of generational revenge is a highly familiar horror movie trope, of course, but it appears in so many Mexican films of this period that it seems to have reached the stage of a national filmmaking obsession. A movie where it fails to appear is usually a surprise.

Fast-forwarding three hundred years, we find the descendants of the original principals living in the same town, all acquainted and, of course, each bearing an uncanny resemblance to their forebears. Bishop Bianchi has been reincarnated as Father Francisco (he’s doing the same job in the same costume!), and a couple of the other supporting players from the early scenes appear as guests at a present-day party. The one notable exception is Nelson, who doesn’t appear.

Santo’s intended is now Alicia, the daughter of Don Alfonso (Antonio Rexel). As the same actor played the High Inquisitor in the first part of the film, the character is obviously supposed to be a direct descendant. This is a bit of a problem because Pellicer plays his daughter, and she is definitely from the witch’s bloodline. So exactly how did these two families converge? The film never addresses the question. Perhaps the idea of a high church official and a witch having a more than professional relationship would not have been acceptable to the audience of the time, and producers removed some explanatory scenes or dialogue.

Pellicer’s revenge is almost exclusively centred on Santo, though, and the story quickly dissolves into an almost endless series of attempts on his life. These usually feature the resurrected musclemen from earlier. One of whom appears against him in the square ring, cunningly disguised as a fellow wrestler by wearing a towel over his head. The bout doesn’t go well for our hero, who gets stabbed and rushed into the operating theatre for emergency surgery. This is an amazingly brief sequence with no apparent consequences, but it does allow director Solares to include some real-life footage of open-heart surgery (thanks, mate!)

Of course, it all ends with the great man travelling to Hell to bring back the soul of the dying Alicia. Most of these climatic sequences feature Santo and Pellicer running across ‘the bridge between life and death’ (it’s just an ordinary rope bridge in a wood somewhere) and more inserts from ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961). But Solares does stick a red lens on the camera, so everything looks appropriately apocalyptic.

Where to begin? This is one bat-shit crazy chapter in the cinematic adventures of Santo. On the one hand, it’s attempting a very sombre tone. The impressive musical soundtrack by veteran composer Gustavo César Carrión reinforces that this is supposed to be a serious horror picture. The early scenes of the cult members burning at the stake are surprisingly graphic for this vintage, with full-body makeup showing their skins beginning to blister.

But the screenplay by Rafael García Travis is so resolutely jam-packed with incidents that it quickly becomes both silly and hilarious. Santo also loses both of his separate bouts in the square ring – sacrilege! – although it’s unlikely that either result was allowed to stand. I know that wrestling rules can be flexible, but stabbing your opponent with a ceremonial dagger is probably a disqualification. Similarly, in the earlier match, Santo’s opponent did throw the referee out of the ring and then attempted to throttle him with a towel, which I’m guessing is not a move endorsed by the relevant wrestling commission.

Santo goes to Hell, thanks to his ‘sense of justice’ and a convenient camera dissolve. Truly, there wasn’t any type of problem that the great man couldn’t handle.

The Bloodstained Butterfly/Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate (1971)

‘If this is a psychotic episode, the killer won’t have a police record.’

Children playing in a park find a young woman’s body moments after she has been murdered. A man in a raincoat flees the scene, and one witness identifies him as a popular TV personality. The star is tried and convicted of the crime, but then another victim is discovered in the park, and she seems to have been killed in the same way…

Sober and downbeat Giallo thriller from writer-director Duccio Tessari, here writing with Gianfranco Clerici. The Italian-West German financing package results in a few familiar faces from both nations, and the suburban setting brings a welcome level of realism to the mystery.

Sportscaster Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia) seems to have it all; a slot on prime time television, a beautiful wife (Evelyn Stewart) and a brilliant daughter in college (Wendy D’Olive). Unfortunately, it’s all a facade. He wears a toupee on-screen, Stewart is having an affair with family lawyer Giulio (Günther Stoll), and he’s also carrying out extracurricular activities with the free-spirited Marta Clerici (Lorella De Luca). Sbragia’s life starts to unravel when pretty young redhead Françoise Pigaut (Carole André) meets death by switchblade in the local public park. Not only is she a close friend of his daughter, but a witness identifies him as the man seen running in the aftermath of the attack.

At the trial, the evidence against him is largely circumstantial, but there is an awful lot of it. Despite the best efforts of defence counsel Stoll, who is understandably conflicted due to his long-running secret affair with Stewart, Sbragia is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, daughter D’Olive has started a relationship with one of the friendly witnesses, a handsome music student named Giorgio (Helmut Berger), who may have been the victim’s secret lover. And just when Inspector Berardi (Silvano Tranquilli) thinks everything’s done and dusted, another body turns up in the park. He tries to deny the connection between the two slayings, but a third murder grants Sbragia a retrial.

Rather than employ the more extravagant flourishes of some of his contemporaries, director Tessari opts for a remorselessly realistic tone with this picture. So the action is firmly rooted in more conventional crime drama and is likely to disappoint the more hardcore fans of the Giallo sub-genre. There is a little nudity, but few scares, and the slayings occur almost entirely offscreen. Instead, the film verges on a police procedural with a surprising emphasis on forensics in the early part. One of the most effective sequences being Tranquili’s detectives desperately trying to salvage physical evidence from the first crime scene as an inconvenient rainstorm threatens to wash everything away.

To some extent, the film resembles Tessari’s previous Giallo feature, ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ (1970). However, the ‘whodunnit’ elements and red herrings don’t allow for the high level of character development and touches of bleak humour that his previous project displayed. There are still occasional moments, though, such as Tranquilli’s frequent complaints about the quality of the coffee available at the police station. Instead, the time is spent lining up all our suspects, and Tessari keeps them all in play with a sure hand, each appearing progressively more guilty than the last. If the denouement is a little disappointing, it is at least solid and logical, although a few minor details are left hanging.

The abundance of plot doesn’t allow the cast much breathing room, but performances are professional and accomplished. The only weak link in the chain is top-billed Berger, presumably included to secure the German financing. It’s not that his acting is poor; it’s simply that some shots can’t hide the fact that he was in his late 20s at the time, simply too old to be the classmate and romantic interest of the teenage D’Olive. Other German cast members, such as Stoll, fare somewhat better, and it’s always a pleasure to see the 1960s Dr Mabuse, Wolfgang Preiss, here playing the prosecutor at Sbragia’s trial.

Italian filmmakers of the late 1960s were often highly critical of the country’s idle rich, and many young and beautiful dilettantes were sacrificed on the cinematic altar of the Giallo. Although Tessari’s protagonists are far from members of the international jet set, they are still firmly bourgeois and display the same selfishness and lack of basic human values as their more privileged counterparts. Berger’s Giorgio might contemptuously refuse his wealthy father’s money and express his disgust for the Capitalist ideal, but he’s still swanning around Europe and living off his uncle’s trust fund. The action may be taking place in a more urban setting than the Mediterranean islands or the Costa del Sol, but the moral decay is still ever-present, and the animals are still hungry.

Berger found fame as the protégé, and partner, of the famous Italian director, Luchino Visconti and had a prominent role in his Oscar-nominated feature ‘The Damned’ (1969). The title role in Massimo Dallamano’s freewheeling update of ‘Dorian Gray’ (1970) followed as well as other projects for Visconti. The 1980s saw him as comic book supervillain ‘Fantomas’ on French television, and he even had a short run as a guest star on US mega-soap ‘Dynasty.’

Stewart, real name Ida Galli, took her opening bow in the Giallo with ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968) after a long list of film credits that included work with director Mario Bava and a good number of Spaghetti Westerns. She followed up with ‘The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista’ (1970) and ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione’ (1971) and later on with ‘The Murder Mansion/La mansión de la niebla’ (1972), ‘Knife of Ice/Il coltello di ghiaccio’ (1972) and the title role in ‘A White Dress for Marialé/Un Bianco vestito per Marialé’ (1972). After the popularity of the Giallo faded, she worked on throughout the 1970s, appearing in Lucio Fulci’s ‘The Psychic’ (1977), among other films.

Tessari was primarily a writer whose career followed the typical Italian film industry template. Beginning in Peplum with features such as ‘La vendetta di Ercole/Goliath and the Dragon’ (1960) and ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole Alla Conquista di Atlantide’ (1961), he crossed paths around that time with both directors Mario Bava and Sergio Leone. This led to writing assignments on Bava’s ‘Hercules in the Haunted World/Ercole al Centro della Terra’ (1962) and Leone’s ‘A Fistful of Dollars (1964). He picked up the megaphone around the same time, delivering several Spaghetti Westerns, including a couple in the popular ‘Ringo’ series, and branching out briefly into the Eurospy genre. He rounded out his trio of Giallo films with ‘Puzzle/L’uomo senza memoria’ (1974) and went on to work in a range of genres over the rest of his career. Other projects included tough mob drama ‘No Way Out’ (1973) with Alain Delon and noir icon Richard Conte and a version of the popular swashbuckler ‘Zorro’ (1975), again with Delon. He carried on working almost up to his death in the early 1990s.

Although not one of the highlights of 1970s Giallo, this is still a very well-made, accomplished thriller with much to recommend it.

The Witch/La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal (1906)

A troubadour goes to a fairy to have his fortune told. He attempts to pay for it by passing off a bag of sand as one containing gold. Furious at the deception, the fairy casts a spell and pursues the man. A nightmarish world of bizarre creatures and ghostly spirits surround the man as he attempts to find the woman of his dreams…

A 12-minute epic springing from the imagination of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. Here, he renders his usual striking visuals in a range of gorgeous colours. As per usual, the film, unfortunately, has no intertitles and, as such, the plot and characters remain open to some interpretation.

A travelling minstrel (perhaps a Prince) visits the mysterious fairy Carabosse, who some see as a witch. The handsome young man wants to know the identity of his true love. The supernatural creature (likely played by Méliès himself) responds by conjuring some demons to assist in the necessary spell. They bring in a large, wooden frame, and the likeness of a beautiful woman appears within it at the fairy’s command. Before he leaves, the man pays for the prognostication, and a sizeable four-leaf clover, with a bag of gold. He’s on a quest to find the woman in question. Unfortunately, the bag of gold is nothing but sand, and our hero finds his footsteps dogged by supernatural forces.

Carabosse lights a fire in a small cauldron, which sends out yellow smoke, which turns several different colours before the spell is cast. After that, the pursuit begins. The troubadour is chased across a rocky landscape until he arrives in a graveyard beside some castle ruins. Underneath a full moon, the graves open, and three ghostly women emerge. Other spirit figures appear, and the man uses the clover to banish them. Then he’s menaced by a series of strange creatures; a giant hopping frog, a large owl and a dragon with flapping wings and a whipping tail. A figure in white appears and drives the monsters away, and a ghostly king rises from his tomb to give the man a sword. Climbing into the ruins, he sees a woman bound with rope and attempts to free her.

By 1906, the runaway success of Georges Méliès and his Star Films company was beginning to wane. The innovative filmmaker was a decade into a career that had evolved from his time as a successful stage illusionist, his screen work reflecting both theatrical presentation and content. The dozens of short ‘trick’ films he’d created were beginning to look a bit old hat, eclipsed by productions that employed better storytelling and filming techniques as well as using the ‘jump cuts’ and early SFX that Méliès had invented.

The Frenchman responded by extending the length of his films and adding colour by hand-tinting, likely done by the Paris laboratory owned by Elisabeth Thuillier. Her studio employed 200 artists who used brushes to paint the film stock, each of them assigned a different colour. A film would pass through the hands of as many of 20 of them as various tints were added one by one. The artists at the studio were undoubtedly responsible for the hand-colouring of Méliès classic ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), the high point of the director’s career.

The main issue with this entry in Méliès’ extensive filmography is the usual one present in his work; the lack of an interesting narrative. By this point, all the technical skill, wonderfully-realised backdrops, and his unique, almost animated, style couldn’t disguise that this was simply more of the same. Many of Méliès’ longer subjects consisted of similar scenarios. His heroes and heroines would run from one scene to the next, pursued by various spectral figures, demons and monsters, and this one adheres pretty closely to that format. However, in this case, perhaps it’s understandable. The film was commissioned by Dufayel, a furnishing store, who required something they could show as a diversion for children while their parents browsed the inventory and the company salesmen delivered their patter.

Méliès was soon to fall on hard times due to some unwise business ventures and an evolving medium that was leaving him behind. By the outbreak of World War One, it was all over. He’d made his last films two years earlier, and the American branch of his company had been sold to Vitograph. Similarly, the Pathe Company now owned his Montreuil studio, even if they could not take official possession of it until 1923. Before that happened, it became a home for wounded soldiers, and Méliès and his wife performed theatrical reviews there. During the war, over 400 of his films were seized by the French Government and melted down for the silver and celluloid content which was used to manufacture heels for army shoes.

Méliès work is always of historical significance, but the primary point of interest in this example is the brilliant colouring of the images that it contains.

A Shot from the Violin Case/Tread Softly/Schüsse aus dem Geigenkasten/The Violin Case Murders (1965)

‘Because of that, I’ve been sentenced to life behind a wall of filing cabinets.’

A gang of crooks shoot a singer dead when robbing her safe and then heist a stock of gold bars hidden in a remote farmhouse. The FBI investigate, only to find the criminals are planning an even bigger job, and their top agent infiltrates the gang to try and stop them…

West German-French co-production that finds US actor George Nader as FBI super-agent Jerry Cotton. He’s this week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ speeding around the glamorous capitals of Europe with a blonde on each arm and employing an arsenal of tricky gadgets to defeat a supervillain and his plans for world domination. Only he doesn’t. To call this a Eurospy adventure at all is pushing the definition somewhat when director Felix Umgelter’s film really has far more in common with a standard crime thriller.

Events begin with our slick gang of crooks in operation, exhibiting an almost military precision as they rob the singer’s safe and lift the gold bars from their hiding place under a farmhouse. Both robberies leave FBI boss John High (Richard Münch) perplexed. How did the gang know that the singer’s publisher was hiding ill-gotten gains in her safe? How did they know the location of the gold bars? These facts were supposed to be privileged information available only to the higher echelons of the agency and a handful of other officials. Time to call in top man Jerry Cotton (Nader) to investigate, alongside sidekick Phil Decker (Heinz Weiss).

The agency has been receiving some anonymous calls that provide Nader with an initial lead. These are coming from Kitty Springfield (Sylvia Pascal), who is worried that her sister is involved with a criminal gang. What she says about their movements fits in with the crimes under investigation, and so Nader infiltrates the group at the bowling alley where they hang out. Posing as a drunk, he beats a couple of them up in a bar fight and thus becomes a trusted member of the gang! He’s immediately given a role in their latest project, a ‘Rififi’-type heist that involves setting off a bomb in a school across the street as a diversion.

The film is a slightly unusual hybrid of an adventure due to its attempt to emphasise the leading character’s ‘super spy’ credentials in the wake of the James Bond phenomena. Apart from Nader’s endless capability to rise to any occasion, there’s little else of the typical Eurospy tropes on show here. The most sophisticated gadget is a machine gun built into a violin case, and some vague flirting with Münch’s secretary (Helga Schlack) doesn’t really establish Cotton’s reputation as a ladykiller. What emerges is little more than a conventional tale of cops and robbers.

At times, Umgelter seems to be aiming for a gritty, documentary approach, assisted by the black and white cinematography of Albert Benitz. However, the decision to set the film in New York was a mistake. Obviously, the intention was to heighten its opportunities for foreign distribution, but the city appears only courtesy of ham-fisted back projection. The technique is used frequently and is never remotely convincing, giving proceedings a shabby, bargain-basement look. At one point, this stock footage can even be seen projected on to the side of a truck where Nader is clinging. Then there’s the music. Although Peter Thomas’ jazzy score is very distinctive and rightly highlighted as one of the film’s most remarkable qualities, it mitigates against the realism of events and would be better placed in a more standard Eurospy adventure.

Nader starred as Jerry Cotton in eight films for Allianz Filmproducktion and Constantin Film, the last being released in 1969. As a young man, he had starred in Phil Tucker’s notoriously ridiculous ‘Robot Monster’ (1953) before his handsome looks and rugged physique secured a contract with Universal. Unfortunately, all he received were a few supporting roles to the studio’s leading talent of the era, including his friend Rock Hudson. Nader was also gay, and there are unsubstantiated rumours that this hurt his career.

He moved into television when his contract expired, although occasional film roles followed in such low-budget projects as science-fiction turkey ‘The Human Duplicators’ (1964) and ‘The Million Eyes of Sumuru’ (1967), author Sax Rohmer’s attempt to create a female supervillain to rival his own Fu Manchu. Nader virtually retired after the Jerry Cotton series wrapped up, apart from the occasional TV appearance and one more film, Eddie Romero’s cheap and cheerful ‘Beyond Atlantis’ (1973).

Jerry Cotton is the star of more than 2,500 pulp novels released in German-speaking countries and Finland in the decades following his debut in 1954. More than 100 authors have been responsible for his adventures, and worldwide sales have reached over 850 million copies. If it’s tempting to assume that Nader’s sexuality was the reason for the character’s ‘all work and no play’ attitude towards the ladies, apparently that was present and correct in the literary works already. In recent times, Constantin Film attempted to revive the character with the film ‘Jerry Cotton’ (2007) starring Christian Tramitz in the title role. The emphasis was more on comedy, and it did not lead to a series.

More of a crime film shoe-horned into the 007 template, this is a passable way to spend 90 minutes if you can forgive some of the obvious technical deficiencies.

Roy Colt & Winchester Jack (1970)

‘Son of a crippled crow, how did you get here?’

A bandit becomes disillusioned with the criminal life and leaves his band of outlaws to go straight. He takes a job as Sheriff in a remote town but soon becomes involved in a desperate race for buried treasure. A race that soon involves his former colleagues and a villainous priest…

Although rightly celebrated now as a master of the macabre, Italian film director Mario Bava worked in other genres, and we find him here tackling a Spaghetti Western with a healthy dash of comedy. It was his third trip out West, although his previous two outings had been fashioned far more after the classic Hollywood template.

Handsome outlaw Roy Colt (Brett Halsey) is fed up with the hand to mouth existence of the outlaw life. After a friendly dust-up with his main partner, Winchester Jack (Charles Southwood), he quits his crew, heading for a respectable life and a steadier income. Riding into a nearby town, he saves old man Samuel (Giorgio Gargiullo) from the attentions of a gunman in the local saloon and is offered the tin star. However, Gargiullo was targeted because he has a map showing the location of buried treasure in the desert, and law enforcement suddenly starts to look like a poor career choice.

Meanwhile, Southwood and his boys liberate Native American squaw Manila (Marilù Tolo) from two bounty hunters taking her back to town to face the music after killing a man. Southwood’s motivations aren’t selfless, of course, but the canny Tolo has both money and matrimony on her mind. An attempted stagecoach robbery brings Halsey and Southwood together again, and they join forces to find Gargiullo’s treasure. Unfortunately, its existence isn’t a secret, and local kingpin, The Reverend (Teodoro Corrà), has his own plans for the booty.

All those familiar with Bava’s work as a filmmaker are probably aware that comedy was not the director’s forte. Science-fiction spoof ‘Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs’ (1966) is almost universally regarded as his poorest film, and sex-comedy ‘Four Times That Night’ (1971) is not well-regarded either. On the plus side, his technical skills and compositional flair are fully present and correct. Under the Maestro’s careful eye, the landscape is ravishing, and the scenes shot in the early morning desert have such a forceful quality that it’s almost possible to feel the cold air and the dirt beneath the actor’s feet. Furthermore, he uses his celebrated optical trickery to place some tall rocky formations on the skyline towards the end of the film, evoking a feeling of Monument Valley, the most famous of Hollywood’s Old West locations.

Unfortunately, beauty of composition, shot selection and graceful camera moves are not the primary requisites for delivering laughter. The director was saddled with a script by Mario Di Nardo, who had also penned Bava’s previous project ‘Five Dolls For An August Moon’ (1970). By all accounts, it was a serious drama but, once again, to say that Bava did not like Di Nardo’s work was an understatement. Rather than follow the screenplay, he added jokes and encouraged the cast to improvise. What eventually reached the screen was largely a shapeless, rambling tale that struggles to focus or achieve a consistent comedic tone.

The villainous Corrà embraces these funnies with some enthusiasm, but the rest of the cast doesn’t share his broad approach, so there’s a significant tonal clash every time he appears. Tolo handles the material to the best advantage of the other principals, even if the Rome-born actress could only pass for Native American in some weird, alternate universe. Halsey looks the part but brings little else to the table, and Southwood’s lack of charisma probably explains why he only had a short screen career.

Perhaps wisely, Bava never ventured into the West again, although his two other stabs at the genre, ‘The Road To Fort Alamo’ (1964) and ‘Savage Gringo’ (1966), are far more coherent and effective. It seems fair to suggest that the decision to throw out the original script at the last minute and aim for the funny bone was not helpful. Improvised comedy can be funny, of course, but it isn’t easy to pull off in the context of a full-length feature film. Several of the cast had already worked with Bava, which may have helped create an on-set atmosphere that encouraged the director’s decision.

Halsey was an American whose screen career initially began at Universal in the early 1950s when he was signed as a contract player. By the end of the decade, he’d graduated to featured roles in b-movies such as ‘Return of the Fly’ (1959) and ‘The Atomic Submarine’ (1959), as well as regular guest slots on Network TV shows. Relocation to Europe in the early 1960s led to initial roles in sword and sandal pictures and historical dramas before he diversified into other genres, including the Spaghetti Western and Eurospy. After starring in Bava’s ‘Four Times That Night’ (1971), he returned to the United States and did a great deal of television work. He also had a significant role in Luigi Cozzi’s trash fire Euro-Horror ‘The Black Cat’ (1989) and made a supporting appearance in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather Part III’ (1990).

Like so many Italian actors of the period, Tolo’s credits reflect the popular trends of the local industry, her career beginning in Peplum subjects like ‘Maciste, gladiatore di Sparta’ (1964) and ‘Messalina vs The Son of Hercules/L’ultimo gladiatore’ (1964). Once Bond eclipsed the Muscleman as the screen hero of choice, she graduated to the Eurospy arena, running around the glamorous capitals of Europe in vehicles like ‘Espionage In Lisbon’ (1965) and ‘Judoka-Secret Agent’ (1966). Inevitably, she appeared in some Spaghetti Westerns and a handful of Giallo films, such as ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972). Outside of genre cinema, there were roles in more prestigious, mainstream projects including Vittorio de Sica’s ‘Marriage Italian Style/Matrimonio all’italiana’ (1964), Luchino Visconti’s segment of ‘The Witches’ (1967) and she featured significantly in Edward Dmytryk’s ‘Bluebeard’ (1972) which starred Richard Burton. She retired from the screen in 1985.

Bava’s technical skills shine as usual, but the resulting film is a patchy, unsatisfying comedy-Western.

The Cat o’Nine Tails/Il gatto a nove code (1971)

‘Hey, we’re in luck! They haven’t walled her up yet.’

A break-in at a genetics laboratory seems unsuccessful, but one of its scientific staff dies unexpectedly a short time later. A blind man has reason to think that the man was murdered and enlists the help of a journalist to try and prove it…

After the surprise international success of ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969), young writer-director Dario Argento went straight back to the Giallo thriller with another twisted murder mystery. However, expectations were considerably higher the second time around, and producers recruited some better-known American talent to help sell the finished results to overseas markets.

Blind man Franco Arnò (Karl Malden) is out for his usual evening stroll with young neice Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) as his guide. Their route takes them past the neighbouring Terzi Institute, a top scientific facility researching hereditary and disease control. The sharp-eared Malden overhears a suspicious conversation as they pass a parked car and asks the child to look at the men inside, although she can only see one of them clearly. Later that night, someone slugs the laboratory’s watchman and breaks into the building. Due to the prestigious nature of the institute, the case lands on the desk of Inspector Spimi (Pier Paolo Capponi) and attracts the attention of hotshot reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus). But nothing seems to have been taken, so it doesn’t seem like much of a story.

Then things take a decidedly sinister turn with the sudden death of scientist Doctor Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), who worked at the laboratory. He falls from a railway station platform and under the wheels of an incoming train. It seems to be an accident, but De Carolis recognises him as the man she saw in the car, and Malden senses a story. Joining forces with Franciscus, the trio head off to see news photographer Righetto (Vittorio Congia), who happened to snap a shot of Alighiero’s accident. But when Francisus arrives, he finds Congia murdered, and the photo negatives are gone.

Digging deep into the Institute, Fransiscus finds they are carrying out crucial governmental research linking chromosome imbalance to criminal behaviour. He begins to suspect industrial espionage as Dr Braun (Horst Frank) lives the high life and meets surreptitiously with that late Alighiero’s girlfriend, Bianca (Rada Rassimov). Then there’s the autocratic Terzi (Tino Carraro) and his beautiful wild child daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak), who is stringing along Dr Esson (Tom Felleghy). Young genius Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani) proves none too friendly either, but Dr Momebli (Emilio Marchesini) seems harmless enough. Of course, Franciscus and Spaak fall into bed together, but events take a far darker turn when the killer targets both the journalist and the blind man.

Argento’s debut film was such an overwhelming success, both at home and abroad, that the young Italian filmmaker was under a lot of pressure to deliver a high quality follow up. Subsequently, the director has gone on record to that effect, mentioning production interference and disappointment with the final result. However, this is still a solid, entertaining Giallo with some outstanding aspects, even if it is burdened with a few noticeable flaws.

On the credit side of the scale is that Argento shows an increasing grasp of filmmaking techniques. The murder at the railway station and the high-speed car chase through the streets of Turin are cut to absolute perfection. The single-frame ‘flash forwards’ to upcoming scenes can be a little distracting, but, sensibly, Argento does not over-use the device, so it remains effective. The combination of slick visuals with another fantastic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone builds suspense, and, once again, Argento delivers some memorable kills. Malden is also superb as the retired journalist, both convincing as a blind man and presenting a fully-rounded character with the subtlest of gestures and expressions.

However, there are issues with the story. Argento’s screenplay (co-written with an uncredited Bryan Edgar Wallace) provides almost too many suspects, with the inevitable result that most are severely underdeveloped. The romance between Franciscus and Spaak is also a drag. Spaak seems strangely disconnected from the material, and Franciscus lacks the necessary charisma to paper over the cracks. It doesn’t help that the love scenes are so poorly written that their interactions are awkward and uncomfortable rather than emotionally engaging.

There’s also the business of our killer’s superpowers. Arriving at Congia’s studio to kill the photographer just as he’s developing the incriminating negative could be put down to coincidence, of course. Following Rassimov just when she discovers a vital clue to the mystery could be an example of superior foresight. But to be waiting in a cemetery at midnight just when Franciscus and Malden turn up to search for the same clue is pushing credibility just a little bit too far!

Argento injects a little humour into the proceedings with quirky minor characters, much in the manner of the pimp in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). Here we get a cop with a culinary fixation, a barber who is too keen to discuss slashing throats while on the job and housebreaker Gigi the Loser (Ugo Fangareggi), whose side-hustle is winning swearing contests in the back of a pool room.

Although an imbalance of chromosomes leading to criminal behaviour sounds like the worst kind of contrived pseudo-science dreamed up by the movies, it does have some basis in scientific fact. Although the earliest studies in Scotland in the mid-1960s suggested a direct cause and effect, that conclusion has been heavily disputed. It is generally accepted now that individuals with the extra chromosome can experience emotional difficulties. These issues can lead to aggressive behaviour, but anything more specific is thought to be an overly simplistic interpretation of the facts.

Malden was a Hollywood veteran who began his screen career after success on the Broadway stage as part of the Group Theater, which included director Elia Kazan. By the late 1940s, Kazan was a Hollywood A-Lister, winning the Best Director Oscar for ‘Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). When he came to film ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951), he cast many actors who had appeared in the hit Broadway production, Malden included. Despite only having around half a dozen film credits in small roles to that point, Malden waltzed away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Three years later, he reunited with Kazan and Marlon Brando for ‘On The Waterfront (1954) and was again nominated for the same award. A long string of prestigious projects followed, along with a succcessful transition to the small screen as Det. Lt. Mike Stone in over 100 episodes of ‘The Streets of San Franscisco’ where he was partnered with a young Michael Douglas. He died at the age of 97 in 2009.

Amongst cult movie fans, Franciscus is best remembered for following in Charlton Heston’s footsteps, as he went ‘Beneath The Planet of the Apes’ (1969) and for roping Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs in ‘The Valley of Gwangi’ (1968). In the mainstream, he had a successful television career that lasted over 20 years, from a regular supporting role on ‘The Naked City’ (1958-59), to leading ‘The Investigators’ (1961) and then in the title roles of no less than four network series: ‘Mr, Novak’ (1963-65), ‘Longstreet’ (1971-72), ‘Doc Elliott’ (1973-74) and ‘Hunter’ (1976-77).

Perhaps not the follow-up fans of Argento’s remarkable debut feature might have wanted, but still a high-quality Giallo with some genuinely memorable moments.

Blue Demon vs. The Satanic Power/Blue Demon vs. El Poder Satanico (1966)

‘Magnificent! Now to the morgue, and soon I will be free!’

An aristocratic serial killer is sentenced to hang but is found dead in his cell on the morning of his execution. In reality, he has assumed a catatonic state and is planning to wake later on, but instead, he is buried alive. Fifty years later, graverobbers disturb his tomb, and he is free to continue his murderous rampage…

The phenomenal big-screen success of Mexican wrestling legend El Santo paved the way for more luchadors to strut their stuff before the cameras, and a series of films starring Blue Demon was almost an inevitability. After all, he was the man’s great rival in the square ring, and the box office potential was obvious.

It’s 1914, and mysterious nobleman Gustavo Fernández (Jaime Fernández) has been convicted of the murders of several young women. The authorities might not have uncovered his secret lair, but they have the man and summarily sentence him to be executed. However, he has a plan which he helpfully explains to a fellow resident on death row the night before he’s due for the chop. He’s going to use his mental powers to play dead, wake up in the morgue and then make his escape. His scheme unravels when the authorities decide to take him straight to the burying ground instead. Luckily, after a half-century of watching the worms crawl by, he’s sprung from his prison by graverobbers looking for jewels, and he’s back in business.

The world may have moved on in the fifty years since his incarceration, but some things never change. His secret headquarters has remained undiscovered in all that time and, although the housework may have fallen behind, it’s still the perfect bachelor pad for this suave serial killer. Really, the Mexican authorities do have to get better at uncovering these places; almost every mad scientist, supervillain, criminal mastermind finds his secret laboratory/headquarters intact after he gets out of jail or returns from the dead. Perhaps they should set up a special unit to track these criminal lairs down. It would save a lot of trouble in the long term.

Anyway, Fernández picks up right where he left off, sending beautiful women into a trance, taking them to bed and then ordering them to walk into his household furnace. I guess he’s not a guy for long relationships. Unfortunately for him, one of the women he targets is the girlfriend of the cousin of top wrestler Blue Demon and, when the cousin is left dead at the scene, our grappling hero vows to bring his killer to justice. After some encouraging words from Santo, appearing courtesy of a brief cameo, Blue begins to investigate as Fernández continues with his reign of terror.

This was Blue Demon’s second starring picture after taking his bow as a leading man in ‘Blue Demon: El Demonio Azul’ (1965), and yes, that title does translate into English as ‘Blue Demon, the Blue Demon.’ Predictably, the filmmakers behind the series were many of those involved in Santo’s movies, most significantly producer Luis Enrique Vergara. By all accounts, the personal and professional relationship between Vergara and Santo was rapidly disintegrating by this time, so it made perfect sense for the producer to look for another star, and Blue Demon was the obvious candidate. Unfortunately, what emerged in this instance was a low-budget, patchwork adventure painfully cobbled together in a way that did little to hide its limited ambition and resources.

At first, events follow the familiar pattern for these types of escapades. The plot sets up our main villain and provides the audience with sufficient exposition regarding his history and method of operations. This is all quite promising, although it soon becomes clear that Fernández is only using his impressive mental powers to pick up chicks and get laid. Yes, that’s it; no bizarre scientific experiments, no plans for world domination; he just wants to get his rocks off. So while Fernández visits nightclubs picking up girls (a couple of them lip-synch a full-length pop song first, so I’m guessing they were singers with records out?), Blue is busy wrestling at the arena. And that’s the first half of the film. We also get Santo taking part in a match before his cameo, but this is footage lifted from ‘Santo vs. el Rey del Crimen/Santo vs. the King of Crime’ (1961).

In the second half of the film, Blue begins to investigate, but this mainly entails him sitting in a darkened room, reading a book, which I like to think was called ‘How to Defeat a Supernatural Hypnotist in 10 Easy Lessons.’ According to the English subtitles, this weighty tome also includes details of the disappearance of Fernández’s corpse and the murder of the graverobbers. Handy. All this research somehow enables Blue to locate Fernández’s hideaway (no one else could manage it in half a century, remember!). So our hero makes a quick visit to confirm his suspicions and then goes back home to ring the police. Having realised that Blue is on to him via his wonderfully unspecified powers, Fernández turns up at Blue’s home with ten minutes of the film left. Everything is set for a final epic showdown, but it turns out to be little more than an extended staring contest.

If it wasn’t for Blue and Fernández appearing in the same shot a couple of times near the end of the film, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was an example of new footage being added to an abandoned, unfinished film. Hero and villain have almost no interaction over the 78 minutes of running time; it’s padded out with pop songs, punters throwing shapes on a nightclub dance floor and Spanish-speaking VoiceOver Man filling us in on what Blue is reading in his book. Ok, Fernández does watch one of Blue’s contests from the cheap seats but it’s only because he’s hypnotised opponent Fernando Osés (who also wrote the film’s original story) to kill our masked hero, so it’s just reaction shots when his scheme fails.

But, despite all those telltale signs of something cobbled together, apparently, this was not the case. Perhaps its shortcomings speak more to an evaporating budget during the shoot? After all, the early sequences set in the past and those of Fernández stalking his prey are well-shot by veteran director Chano Urueta and boast plenty of supporting players in the nightclub scenes. However, in the latter half of the film, we get only our two principals and a couple of faceless cops. The film doesn’t even establish a heroine for Blue to save from Fernández at the climax.

Blue Demon enjoyed a movie career of over 20 titles and was often partnered with El Santo. Sadly, the two did not enjoy a friendly working relationship. Blue bested Santo in a series of matches in the early 1950s to win the NWA World Welterweight Championship but never achieved his opponent’s unprecedented level of popularity in the country, something he apparently found difficult to accept. He carried on wrestling until 1989, retiring from the ring at the age of 67. He spent the final decade of his life teaching younger grapplers his skills and died in 2000.

A rather feeble entry in the Mexpoitation genre. Fortunately, Blue Demon was better served by later projects.

Black Belly of The Tarantula/La tarantola dal ventre nero (1971)

‘With needles dipped in deadly venom, the victims are paralysed – so they must lie awake and watch themselves die!’

A businessman confronts his wife with photographic evidence of her infidelity. The following day she is found brutally murdered. Naturally, the investigating detective suspects the husband, who has gone into hiding, but a second corpse is discovered shortly afterwards. There seems to be no connection between the two women, but the method employed by the killer is identical…

Middling Giallo thriller from director Paolo Cavara coming hot on the heels of Dario Argento’s international breakthrough ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). It was far from the last time such a production would make obvious nods to Argento’s film, but it was probably the first. There’s an unknown killer in a black raincoat and gloves, a title that combines a colour with a critter and, of course, a cast frontloaded with beautiful women.

Marital bliss is a distant memory for the uptight Paolo Zanni (Silvano Tranquilli) and blonde bombshell Maria (Barbara Bouchet). Already separated, someone has been sending compromising photos of the promiscuous Bouchet to her husband. There’s a violent argument, and she turns up stabbed to death the next day. Tranquilli is the prime suspect in the eyes of the jaded Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini), of course, and his guilt seems confirmed when he takes it on the lam. But then another girl turns up dead, killed in the same unique manner, stabbed after being paralysed by an acupuncture needle inserted in the neck. Victim number two ran a shop selling expensive furs while dabbling in drug smuggling, which seems to have no connection to Bouchet.

As his investigation progresses, Giannini starts to focus on a possible blackmailing ring connected to the beauty salon run by Laura (Claudine Auger), where Bouchet was a regular client of blind masseur Ezlo Marano. Certainly, friendly waiter Ginetto (Eugene Walter) seems too good to be true, and receptionist Jenny (Barbara Bach) seems less than happy about the continuing investigation. Then there’s the darkly handsome Mario (Giancarlo Prete), who could have been Bouchet’s photographic partner and certainly seems to be showing an unhealthy interest in wealthy older woman, Franco Valentino (Rossella Falk). Giannini pursues the investigation with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm and is on the verge of quitting the force. Only his bubbly wife, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli), provides any respite from the depravity all around him.

This is an adequate horror-thriller with some good points, but it falls short in several important areas. The screenplay by Lucile Laks (based on a story by Marcello Danon) is serviceable enough but lacks complexity, with the final scenes revealing that there was a lot less going on than the audience might have thought. The climax is also somewhat contrived, and although it makes sense, it’s a little unconvincing. This lack of conviction seems to be reflected in the performances, with Giannini displaying little charisma and only Ettore Mattia registering in a minor role as a seedy private detective.

There are some weak developments in the story, too, including a sequence where the blackmailer films Inspector Giannini and his wife making love. This is quite a complex surveillance operation, with a camera pointed down into their bedroom from the high rise across the street. How did the blackmailer find out where the couple lived? I have no idea. Why does he do it anyway? No clue. All it does is lead into a scene where the film is taken from a crime scene and shown to a large room filled with senior police officers. They seem to find the whole thing pretty hilarious as the mortified Giannini storms out in a huff. Perhaps they just don’t like him; after all, someone does need to tell him that when you have an informant with crucial information about a murder spree, you don’t let them go with an agreement to meet them the next day when they will tell you everything. That’s going to go about as well as Bouchet’s ‘corpse acting’ (try not to breathe, Barbara!)

The film’s main virtues are on the technical side. As is often the case in Giallo, the killings receive the director and cinematographer’s fullest attention. These aren’t up there with the very best you will see, but they are well-mounted and reasonably stylish with some good use of extreme lenses and POV shots. By far the best aspect of the production, though, is another haunting soundtrack from the staggeringly prolific composer Ennio Morricone. On this occasion, the central motif is the sound of a woman exhaling over the music. These sounds convey a sense of dread and menace that the visuals never evoke.

A minor point of interest arises when Giannini visits entomologist Daniele Dublino. The scientist is using shipments of tarantulas to smuggle cocaine under the highly reasonable assumption that customs agents won’t want to check the cargo too closely. He also shows Giannini how a black wasp kills the arachnids (spiders aren’t insects, Mr Scriptwriter!) by paralysing them first. Of course, this ties into the murderer’s method, but it’s just a blind alley and comes over as a lame attempt to justify the film’s title.

Cavara’s film does have one significant aspect, though; its connection to the James Bond franchise. The cast features three past and future Bond Girls. Auger had appeared as Domino opposite Sean Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965), Bouchet was Miss Moneypenny in the spoof version of ‘Casino Royale’ (1967), and Bach went on to spar with Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977). And it doesn’t end there; Giannini played secret agent Rene Mathis in two of Daniel Craig’s outings as 007: ‘Casino Royale’ (2006) and ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008).

The killer’s unusual M.O. and the scenes where it’s employed are probably the only things likely to leave a lasting impression on most viewers. A reasonable Giallo, just not very memorable.