Ursus, the Terror of the Kirghiz/Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi/Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964)

‘Her mind is sick and in the hands of the dark spirits.’

The Prince Regent of the Kirghiz is determined to claim the entire kingdom for his own and exterminate the Cherkes tribe, who live as hunters and trappers. The countryside is in thrall to a mysterious creature, who is slaughtering merchant caravans without mercy. The leader of the Cherkes, begins to suspect that the two things may be connected…

It was the seventh time out for strongman Ursus, birthed as a minor character in the pages of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s epic 1896 novel of Ancient Rome’ Quo Vadis?’. Italian film producers cast him as a rival to Peplum musclemen like Hercules and Goliath and dropped him into a variety of adventures in whatever location and time period was convenient for their purposes.

After seizing the throne of Sura on the mysterious assassination of the Grand Khan many years earlier, Prince Regent Zereteli (Furio Meniconi) is now feeling a little anxious. His cousin, Princess Amiko (Mireille Granelli), will come of age in a few months. Then he’ll have to abdicate in her favour as she’s the daughter of the Khan. She’s not interested in wedding bells either because she’s busy playing footsie in an underground love nest with the hated Ursus (Reg Park), leader of the Cherkes.

Park is focused on tracking down the local monster, though, with his efforts aided by the unexpected arrival of his quick-witted brother, Ilo (Ettore Manni). Back at camp, amnesiac beauty Kato (María Teresa Orsini), who joined their tribe as a little girl, is also devoted to the cause. Meniconi decides to take Park off the board by blaming him for the creature’s deadly handiwork and using this as an excuse to crack down hard on the Cherkes and strengthen his royal position.

It’s a serviceable, if hardly startling, setup, but it has potential. Unfortunately, in the hands of scriptwriter Marcello Sartarelli, the story fails to develop in an exciting way, leading to a listless and lengthy second act. However, the scenarist achieves some measure of redemption by throwing in a couple of unusual twists near the finish. Some of these are not particularly credible, but it’s good to see a climax that has a little more going on than just the usual big battle. Also it’s a nice touch when the Lost Kingdom Dancing Girls add some male partners to their troupe and mix burlesque bumps ‘n’ grinds with a touch of Ballet!

However, there is little real humour on display, and that’s an issue over the 90 minutes. The straight-faced approach robs Park of the effortless charisma that he brought to his two earlier appearances as Hercules, and he struggles to make much of an impression as a result. Also, Ursus is no superman on this occasion. Instead, he’s merely a capable leader who’s a bit handy in a scrap, so his exploits are reduced to some average swordplay and fighting a man with a blanket over his head, who leaps about making strange noises like a giant bird.

In a similar vein, although Meniconi is a big man, he’s too long in the tooth to make for a dynamic villain because he brings so little to the table in the combat scenes. There’s also some dodgy ‘day for night’ shooting and a suspicion that some of the more crowded scenes appear courtesy of another film. After all, the business end of the conquest of Sura seems to be accomplished with barely half a dozen men. Although if that is the case, the older footage is well-integrated. Inevitably, the film received the usual ‘Hercules’ makeover when it eventually arrived on American shores.

The failure of producers to mould Ursus into any one particular incarnation led to an inevitable lack of a clear, established identity. After this outing, his next appearance was in a minor role as a thuggish ape-man in tag-team hi-jinks ‘Ercole, Sansone, Maciste e Ursus gli invincible/Samson and the Mighty Challenge’ (1964). Linked only by his name, his status as a hero and little else, it’s perhaps inevitable that the character became the forgotten muscleman of Peplum.

The director here was Antonio Margheriti, a man with a truly remarkable career in Italian genre cinema. To list all his contributions would double the length of this post, but there were many notable projects. Early Science-Fiction efforts like ‘Assignment: Outer Space/Space Men’ (1960) and ‘Battle of the Worlds/Il pianeta degli uomini spenti’ (1961) (with Hollywood legend Claude Rains!) were followed by gothic horrors like ‘Horror Castle/La vergine di Norimberga’ (1963) and ‘The Long Hair of Death/I lunghi capelli della morte’ (1964). The following decade brought Giallo ‘Seven Deaths in the Cats Eyes/La morte negli occhi del gatto’ (1973) and martial arts hi-jinks ‘Mr. Hercules Against Karate/Ming, ragazzi!’ (1973).

Perhaps the director’s best-remembered films are the bat-shit craziness of ‘Yor: The Hunter from the Future/Il mondo di Yor’ (1983) and ‘The Wild, Wild Planet/I criminali della galassia’ (1966), both rightly celebrated as cult favourites. Margheriti’s name certainly wasn’t any guarantee of quality, but his films were almost always fast and entertaining. He was helped out on this one by Ruggero Deodato, whose duties as Assistant Director apparently stretched to some work fully in charge. Later on, he became notorious for the scenes of violence and animal cruelty in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980).

There are some interesting aspects to this one, but they’re buried pretty deep beneath the relentless mediocrity.

Killers Are Challenged/A 077, sfida ai killers/Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca (1966)

‘I’ve been kissed better by my Dachshund.’

Three international scientists have been collaborating on a new energy source that will make fossil fuels redundant. Two of them are murdered, and the third decides on plastic surgery to hide his identity. The CIA assign their best agent to take him into protective custody, but his mission becomes complicated when enemy agents target the scientist’s wife…

Frustrating spy-jinks from director Antonio Margheriti in a French-Italian co-production that stars US actor Richard Harrison as this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget.’ It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Secret Agent Fireball’ (1965), with Harrison reprising the role of operative Bob Fleming, this time on the loose in Casablanca and tangling with the usual mixture of guns, gorgeous girls, and low-budget gadgets.

Inventing a new energy source for the benefit of humanity is fine in theory, but scientists Maxwell and Boroloff soon discover the drawbacks when they are rubbed out. Remaining partner Coleman (Marcel Charvey) disappears, booking himself a session with a plastic surgeon to change his face. The CIA get wind of his location and send top agent Bob Fleming (Harrison) to bring him in. After some reluctance on Charvey’s part, Harrison succeeds in having him delivered to Geneva economy-class via some knock-out drops and a coffin. However, hostile forces are closing in on the egghead’s estranged wife, Terry (Wandisa Guida).

Of course, Harrison gets the job of protecting Guida, but it’s far from an easy gig. Wheelchair-bound oil magnate Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi) will pay anything to have the discovery suppressed and has hired a criminal gang to do the job. Harrison goes on the offensive by romancing their beautiful but fairly hopeless operative Moira (Mitsouko), whose heart isn’t really in her work anyway. She soon incurs the displeasure of handler Halima (Janine Reynaud) and the unseen boss of the outfit. Several attempts are made on Harrison’s life, and he finds himself indebted to the mysterious and sexy Velka (Susy Andersen), who seems to have a knack for turning up just at the right moment.

In terms of plot and execution, this is pretty much your standard Bond riff of the day; scientists in the crosshairs, an invention of global consequence, a series of captures, escapes, fights and gunplay. However, Margheriti’s film does have some interesting elements, especially considering the Italian connection. Not always noted for their national cinema’s favourable presentation of women, here it’s the fairer sex in the ascendancy, albeit not too overtly. Although Harrison is the nominal lead and displays the usual smug arrogance of the alpha male secret agent abroad, he’s often shown as less than capable as the sexy Andersen, who saves his life more than once and out-manoeuvres him at every turn. He’s also very slow to tumble to the identity of the head of the gang, who are almost entirely women. Of course, they bring in men for the strongarm stuff, and oilman Cecconi provides the bankroll, but otherwise, it’s the girls in charge.

Having the men mainly reduced to delivering the physical aspects of the film works well here because Margheriti knows how to shoot action. The fight scenes are athletic and surprisingly violent, with Harrison and his various opponents performing well. The film’s highlight is an extended barroom brawl that displays the director’s familiarity with classic-era Hollywood Westerns. There’s a wonderfully humorous slant to all the mayhem, which is echoed in knowing moments elsewhere in the film. This includes the inexplicable presence of an English taxi driver who ferries Harrison around and thwarts the bad guys with a car horn that shoots jets of foam! Unfortunately, these comedic moments are too few and far between, with most other events coming across as serious, even rather downbeat on occasion. Because Margheriti doesn’t commit more to the comedy, it creates a tonal clash that can make things feel disjointed.

This is even more unfortunate because it’s plain that Andersen really gets the humour, giving the audience a playful, knowing femme fatale who thoroughly enjoys her work. There’s a natural sexual chemistry in her scenes with Harrison too, who plays the lover with other women elsewhere in the film but never with such conviction. The remainder of the cast fade into the background somewhat, although Guida scores as the ice-cold Terry. A bigger budget would undoubtedly have helped as the stunt work is mainly limited to dummies diving from high places and an empty car falling into the harbour at the climax. Gadgets are also in short supply, restricted to various bugging devices and a bomb hidden in a cigarette lighter.

The fact that the finished product is a cut above most of the spy shenanigans emerging from Europe in the wake of ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) is probably down to the team of Margheriti and scriptwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Margheriti was a veteran of genre cinema whose solo debut in the director’s chair was science-fiction adventure ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1960). He worked extensively in horror, Giallo, Peplum and Spaghetti Westerns, also delivering another Eurospy, the disappointing ‘Lightning Bolt/Operazione Goldman’ (1966). His films are sometimes cheesy, often uneven, but almost always entertaining in some way.

Gastaldi is celebrated as one of the foremost screenwriters of the Giallo, with premium entries such as ‘So Sweet…So Perverse/Così dolce… così perversa’ (1969), ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971), ‘All the Colors of the Dark/Tutti i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave’ (1974). He also directed his own classic example, the unfairly overlooked ‘Libido’ (1965). Like Margheriti, he worked in many other commercial genres, including science-fiction with ‘The Tenth Victim/La decima vittima’ (1965) and the Spaghetti Western with ‘I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death/Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino’ (1969). There were also Peplum projects such as ‘Perseus Against the Monsters/Perseo l’invincibile’ (1963) and horror for the likes of iconic director Mario Bava with ‘The Whip and the Body/La frusta e il corpo’ (1963).

Andersen had a surprisingly brief career given her excellence here, debuting as Suzy Golgi in ‘The Warrior Empress/Saffo – Venere di Lesbo’ (1960). A role in the ‘I Wurdalak’ segment of Mario Bava’s classic portmanteau horror ‘Black Sabbath/I tre volti della paura’ (1963) was followed by four releases in 1964 which was her busiest year by far. After this excursion into the Eurospy arena, she made only four more films, finishing her screen career opposite Klaus Kinski in crime drama ‘Gangster’s Law/La legge dei gangsters’ (1969).

One of the better examples of the Eurospy, although more concentration on the comedic aspects would have helped elevate it further.

Snow Devils/La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin (1967)

Snow Devils/La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin (1967)‘Do you remember what that hairy ape said about a secret base?’

The polar ice caps start to melt at an alarming rate, causing global flooding. A weather station in the Himalayas is attacked by unknown forces and its crew all but wiped out. The Commander of Space Station Gamma and his right-hand man are recalled from their intergalactic posting to investigate and save the Earth…

This was the last in a loose series of four Italian space operas directed by Antonio Margheriti, under his usual pseudonym of Anthony Dawson. All featured the heroic activities of Space Station Gamma One and hit the big screen over six months, the first three being released over a few weeks in the summer of 1966! This tardy conclusion finds Jack Stuart (real name Giacomo Rossi Stuart) returning as the square-jawed Commander Rod Jackson from ‘War Between the Planets’ (1966) which was the third of the films. The first two had found the station under the command of Mike Halstead (Tony Russell), the last of which was the deliriously demented ‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966). This time around, there’s a little more James Bond than Flash Gordon about Stuart, and the action is partially based on Earth, but the final act is all too familiar to fans of low-budget science-fiction of the time.

Things are looking grim in the Earth’s shiny space-age future. General Norton (Enzo Fiermonte), head of UDSC (United Democracies Space Command) is wearing his best frowny face. It never rains, but it pours. It’s not enough that the temperature of the planet is on the rise and the ice floes are melting. No, one of his weather stations in the Himalayas has been trashed as well. The culprit? Persons or monsters unknown. The scientific team have all been killed except for Lt Jim Harris (Renato Baldini) who is AWOL. Time to call in Jackson: Rod Jackson. Yes, there’s no one more qualified to go on an undercover mission than one of the most famous faces in the cosmos. And yes, he doesn’t bother with a false identity because everyone does know who he is.

Snow Devils/La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin (1967)

‘Cool threads, Daddio!’

Fiermonte sends him, along with Man Friday, Captain Pulasky (Goffredo ‘Freddy’ Unger) to the Himalayas. Their cover story is that they are mounting an expedition to hunt for the Abominable Snowman. At first, it seems unclear why they need to assume this fiction at all, after all, Baldini’s fiancee, Lisa (Ombretta Colli) is already on-site looking for her man so presumably what’s happened to the weather station is public knowledge. And how investigating this incident is supposed to help with figuring out why the world is on the brink of environmental collapse is also a bit puzzling. That is what Stuart and Unger are supposed to be looking into, after all.

But it turns out that our heroes have a right to be cautious. Their original plan was to scout the area of the weather station by helijet, but their vehicle explodes on the ground the night before their flight. This looks like the work of local guide Sharu (Wilbert Bradley) who seems to be a fully-paid up member of the school of cartoon villainy, grinning and smirking for all he’s worth behind their backs. Apparently, there’s no time to get them another vehicle (I guess UDSC are a bit short in their helijet pool?), so Stuart and Unger decide to tackle the slopes on foot. In a staggering development, after Stuart won’t let her come along, Colli puts on a parka and joins incognito as one of the bearers. In a further shocking development, the bearers all desert when they reach slopes that are ‘taboo’ (Stuart and Unger obviously being unfamiliar with the behaviour of natives on safari in jungle films of the 1930s and 1940s).

Snow Devils/La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin (1967)

‘The plumage don’t enter into it. It just pooped down my back.’

Now, if this all doesn’t sound good, the first act of the film turns out to be quite fun. For a start, we get Fiermonte’s minions trying to contact Stuart, who is on leave from the space station. They try to track him down at various locations. Firstly, they ring a Countess who is playing crazy golf in her bikini(!), then at a martial arts dojo. In the end, they reach him at a country club where he is doing what all square-jawed, handsome playboys do in their spare time: getting beaten at draughts by a young kid (that’s ‘checkers’ to any Americans out there). This is all quite silly, of course, but seems to be setting the audience up for the kind of tongue-in-cheek romp akin to Russell’s insane visit to ‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966). Unfortunately, it turns out that Stuart isn’t in for the same kind of trip.

Things start to drag a little when our heroes begin trekking across the snowy slopes. It’s plain the cast did go on location to mountains somewhere and, for once, this footage is well-matched with the studio work. Colli and Stuart inevitably end up kissing in his tent, but, instead of taking the usual 007 approach, Stuart acknowledges that she’s lonely and needed comfort, and takes things no further. What a gent! And that’s all the romance he gets, despite the obvious interest of sexy Lt Sanchez (Halina Zalewska) back on Gamma One. Eventually, the expedition is attacked by a group of green-furred yeti when they take shelter in a cave and, best of all, it turns out that they’re not our everyday Abominable Snowmen at all, they’re aliens!

Snow Devils/La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin (1967)

The publicity photoshoot for ‘Lord of the Rings’ wasn’t a complete success.

Once they are captured, Earth’s new green furry overlord, Igrun (Furio Meniconi) gleefully explains everything in the best supervillain manner when he really doesn’t have to. These extra-terrestrials have evolved on an ice world and are looking for a new place to live, so they have decided to terraform our planet. I’m not sure how melting the ice caps would help in this respect? Perhaps they should have just hung around for 50 years and let global warming do that for them. Anyway, our heroes are banged up in a cell with the lost Baldini. Although the tiny room’s only feature is a very large wall cover over an air duct, it’s never occurred to the weather station commander to use it to try and escape but, no worries, Stuart is right on it. Yes, this is one of those movies where only the hero is allowed to come up with a plan, or have any ideas, even when they would be blindingly obvious to an 8-year old.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that all the fun starts draining out of the film. Stuart and his gang take on Meniconi via some (very) conveniently available chemicals and a conflict that’s over far too quickly. The rest of the film centres on the search for the alien’s main base, which involves a lot of the Gamma One personnel staring at read-outs and scratching their heads. Even Stuart falls asleep at his desk, perhaps mirroring the reaction of most of the audience. The final wrap up is defiantly unspectacular but far worse is the fact that all this post-Himalayan ‘action’ has taken up almost the entire second half of the film. Or at least it seems that way.

Snow Devils/La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin (1967)

‘Is it quitting time yet? I’m dying for a pint.’

As well as delivering the ‘Gamma One’ quartet, director Margheriti also travelled to the stars with ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1961) and made early 1960s Euro-Horrors with both Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele, including Steele’s solo turn in the particularly notable ‘The Long hair of Death’ (1964). He also directed a couple of low-grade Eurospys, and the best screen muscleman, Reg Park in ‘Hercules, Prisoner of Evil’ (1964) (which actually featured him as ‘Ursus’, not Hercules!). Working in the Italian film industry at this point, inevitably he also helmed some Spaghetti Westerns and Giallo films, including ‘Seven Dead In The Cat’s Eye’ (1973). But, of course, the zenith of his career was that wonderful stew of caveman, dinosaurs, aliens and robots that the world came to know as ‘Yor, the Hunter from the Future’ (1983).

Sadly, this film is one of his lesser efforts. Initially pleasing, but soon more than a little boring. Some fun concepts are wasted, which, if handled with more flair and creativity, could have made for an enjoyably cheesy experience.

Mister Superinvisible/L’inafferrabile invincibile Mr. Invisibile (1970)

Mister Superinvisible (1970)‘Each molecular combination can always be related to the intensity of the various components of its structure.’

Industrial spies target a research laboratory searching for the cure for the common cold, but the blame falls on a top biochemist when an experimental virus goes missing. He’s unable to refute the allegation until he accidentally consumes a potion sent to him by a colleague from Nepal and becomes invisible. With his newfound superpower, he sets out to track down the real culprits…

Is there a lamer science-fiction movie sub-genre than the ‘invisible man’ comedy? The darkly funny moments cooked up by Claude Rains and director James Whale for ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) really should have been the beginning and the end of it. Unfortunately, many filmmakers have gone back to this (dry) well ever since. Here, our old friend Antonio Margheriti (as usual credited as Anthony M Dawson) tries his hand at the pump and comes up as empty as everyone else.

Work at the Geneva Research Institute is a hoot for Doctor Peter Denwell (Dean Jones). He’s brilliant but eccentric; driving an old 2CV and feeding his shaggy dog a plate of eggs and bacon at the breakfast table. Even wackier is colleague Ignazio Leone, who specialises in creating exploding eggs for some reason (obviously closely related to germ research). But, worse than all this wackiness, our hero is also socially awkward; completely tongue-tied when he tries to confess his feelings for beautiful colleague Irene (Ingeborg Schöner). She’s also in the sights of slimy corporate yes-man Harold (Gastone Moschin), so Jones needs to get a move on, or the rich oaf will beat him to the punch.

Mister Superinvisible (1970)

‘You… you imbecile. You bloated idiot. You stupid fat-head you.’

Things get even worse for our clumsy but loveable hero when Virus D is found to have been stolen during a live television broadcast. This new strain is a combination of all the cold germs known to mankind, and there’s bound to be tears before bedtime if it ‘falls into the wrong hands.’ Jones is blamed for the lax security in his lab and is facing the old heave-ho when his helpful lab monkey adds a little pep to his afternoon coffee.

The concoction turns out to be an invisibility potion sent from a colleague in Nepal. Hilarious hi-jinks follow, including a scene where Jones sabotages a restaurant date between Schöner and Moschin. Later on, he tracks down the missing virus to the Museum of Magic run by Mamma Spot (Amalia de Isaura). She happens to be Moschin’s mother, and he was the thief all the time! Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather!

It’s quite obvious what the production was going for here: a family-friendly Disneyesque comedy. They even imported Dean Jones to star; as he’d done similar duty for the House of Mouse in ‘That Darn Cat!’ (1965), ‘The Ugly Dachshund’ (1966) and ‘Monkeys, Go Home!’ (1967). Most famously, he’d co-starred with Herbie the Volkswagen Beetle in ‘The Love Bug’ (1968). To drive the point home, they even partner him with scene-stealing shaggy dog sidekick Dylan. And, to be fair, Jones’ likability is the film’s main asset, although there’s no denying that Schöner makes for an appealing heroine. Veteran character player Luciano Pigozzi also delivers his best silly Peter Lorre impression as one of the villains, and that’s mildly amusing. Once or twice.

Mister Superinvisible (1970)

The costume party was not a success…

The real problem here is the script: a lazy, lifeless tramp through all the usual ‘invisible man’ comedy beats. Margheriti tries hard to inject some energy into some of the later scenes, but it amounts to little more than the cast turning up the volume on their line delivery and running about frantically.

The restaurant scene has some possibilities at tickling the funny bone but goes on way too long, and the SFX when Jones is partly visible are atrocious. Of course, the implications of Jones’ work being utilised as a superweapon aren’t addressed in any serious way, and neither is the animal experimentation going on in the labs. Just where is Leone getting hundreds and hundreds of eggs? A battery farm? I think we need to know.

Margheriti didn’t have much experience with comedy (at least not intentionally!), being more at home with serious, if sometimes outlandish, material. 1960s science-fiction epics like batshit crazy ‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966) and more conventional ‘War Between The Planets’ (1966) were followed by Giallo thrillers and ‘Killer Fish’ (1978) with Lee Majors, before he peaked with ‘Yor, The Hunter From The Future’ (1983). Pigozzi appeared in many of his films, and together the two carved out long careers in the twilit world of cult cinema.

All told, not a very entertaining experience. Jones and the cast do their best with what they have, but it’s precious little.

Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude… si muore (1968)

Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)‘I have to look for some worms for my darlings.’

A young woman is strangled in her bathtub, and her body shipped to an exclusive girls’ school in a trunk. Shortly afterwards, one of the students is sceretly murdered and, while the search for her goes on, the killer is already lining up the next target…

Early Giallo thriller from Italian director Antonio Margheriti (credited as usual as ‘Anthony Dawson’) that leans far more heavily toward the murder-mystery aspect of the sub-genre. This approach differs from the later incarnation, which featured far more graphic violence and nudity and paved the way for the American slasher horrors of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yes, the setup is classic exploitation: a private girls finishing school with a ready-made roster of eye-candy and potential victims. However, the emphasis is on the story and guessing the killer’s identity, rather than the more sensational elements of the situation.

It’s vacation time at the St. Hilda’s School for Girls, but, unfortunately, not all the students have left for the holidays. You see, it’s tough being a daughter of privilege; parents are often too busy making millions to bother with you. So, spring break involves lounging around by the pool in the beautiful Italian countryside, playing a spot of tennis if you want and contemplating the contents of your large checking account. But there’s a summer romance in the air for pretty young redhead Lucille (Eleanora Brown), and it’s getting a little bit serious. Unfortunately, the object of her affection is handsome Richard Barrett (Mark Damon), and he happens to be the school’s riding instructor. Headmistress Miss Transfield (Vivian Stapleton) and new teacher Ms Clay (Ludmilla Lvova) are not likely to approve of this extra-curricular activity. After all, it’s not likely to stay under wraps for long with kookie gossip-monger Jill (Sally Smith) prowling the campus looking for excitement.

Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)

‘But I thought I was going to meet James Bond. Why else would I be in the shower?’

However, there’s far more serious intrigue afoot with the sudden disappearance of classmate Betty Ann (Caterina Trentini). This development brings the forces of law and order, represented here by veteran British character actor Michael Rennie and his assistant Franco de Rosa.

The investigation proceeds quickly, with suspicion falling first on resident gardener/handyman/peeping tom Luciano Pigozzi. After him, it’s the suddenly absent Damon, eccentric Professor André (Aldo De Carellis) and skin-diving instructor Di Brazzi (Giovanni Di Benedetto). It’s worth mentioning here that this school has a somewhat unique curriculum: skin-diving, tennis, horse riding and fencing. Maybe all finishing schools are like that; I wouldn’t know. Back at the plot, the clues and killings pile up and Margheriti does a good job of lining up all the suspects. When we get to the final reveal, it may not be all that original, but at least it makes sense. All the threads are securely tied, even if how the killer expected to get away with it is another mystery entirely! Once the murderous scheme is concluded, it wouldn’t be remotely difficult for any detective to put the pieces together.

This is a decent thriller, delivered with consummate professionalism in all departments. Fans of better known Giallo pictures are likely to be disappointed by the (very) discreet nudity and the almost bloodless kills, but there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Horror maestro Mario Bava was involved with the genesis of the project, originally titled ‘Cry Nightmare’, and it’s interesting to speculate how his visual genius might have shot these locations. Still, director Margheriti was a capable, if not always inspired, hand on the tiller.

Margheriti has a long and extraordinarily variable filmography, including science-fiction: ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1960)‘The Wild, Wild Planet’ (1966) (a personal favourite of mine), toga pictures like ‘The Fall of Rome’ (1963), horrors such as the under-rated ‘The Long Hair of Death’ (1965), Eurospy flicks ‘Lightning Bolt’ (1966) and ‘Killers Are Challenged’ (1966), and a couple of Hercules pictures, including ‘Ursus, il terrore dei kirghisi’ (1964). He also tackled Vietnam-based action films, crime dramas, Westerns, a rom-com, a driving movie with Joey Travolta, some Indiana Jones rip-offs, a knock-off of ‘The Abyss’ (1989) without a budget, and finished off his career making films starring ex-undisputed World Middleweight Boxing Champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He also co-directed Andy Warhol’s notorious ‘Flesh For Frankenstein’ (1973) and was solo in the canvas seat for the epic ‘Yor, The Hunter From The Future’ (1983), which still awaits recognition as one of the greatest films of all time.

Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)

‘They only released us in black & white in Germany? In 1968?!’

Margheriti might have been a directorial ‘gun for hire’, following whatever trend was out there, but, if you want a crash course in the history of cult cinema, you could do worse than check out his filmography; he pretty much did it all. The same can also be said for veteran character actor Pigozzi, who plays the tree-hugging janitor here. He often worked for Margheriti and has many other interesting, and sometimes bizarre, credits to his name, such as ‘Devilman Story’ (1967).

The strongest element of this project, though, turns out to be a nice surprise, both in the writing and performance. It’s the character of Jill, played by Sally Smith. At first, she seems like the irritating comedy-relief; bitching about the other girls, playing inane pranks and generaly getting on the nerves of everyone involved, including the audience. But when Rennie arrives, she develops a crush on him (despite the significant age difference). This could have been allowed to become creepy, but instead both actors pull it off with quiet wit and natural charm. Smith begins her own investigation to help out, and, by the end of the film has emerged as the heroine, showing smarts and bravery in equal measure. It’s an excellent, well-judged turn by Smith that makes you wish the movie had been centred on her character, rather than spending so much time with Brown and Damon. They aren’t weak in the acting department, but their roles are not as well-developed and interesting.

Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)Naked You Die/School Girl Killer/The Young, the Evil and the Savage/Nude... si muore (1968)

‘You mean, I’m the best thing in this movie?’

Smith didn’t have an extensive screen career, mostly playing on British TV before this, including an episode of ‘The Avengers’. She appeared in only one more film before taking a break of over 20 years, but this new phase included only a few scattered credits at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 90s.

Brown had a major supporting role in director Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Two Women’ (1960), which starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and an Oscar-winning Sophia Loren. This film seemed to be her final role as she retired from the business at the age of 30. However, a couple of producer’s credits in the last couple of years have been followed by a part in ‘Un Amore Così Grande’ (2018); a film released half a century after this one. Now that is one hell of a career break! Interesting that both leading women pretty much quite the business after this film. Perhaps filming was not a happy experience.

American Damon began his career on TV but soon graduated to leads in small movies, including the surprise smash hit ‘House of Usher’ (1960) with Vincent Price. After his career stateside failed to take off, he tried his luck in Europe, appearing mostly in Spaghetti Westerns, but also landing the lead in the Eurospy picture ‘Agente segreto 777 – Operazione Mistero’ (1965). Moving into the producer’s chair later in the following decade, he quickly racked up a diverse list of credits including big hits ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984)‘Clan of The Cave Bear’ (1986)‘9½ Weeks’ (1986)‘Short Circuit’ (1986) and cult favourite ‘The Lost Boys’ (1987). Subsequent decades found him involved in less notable projects such as ‘Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time’ (1991)‘The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo’ (1997) and the execrable ‘Feardotcom’ (2002). But he bounced back with ‘Monster’ (2003) which featured an Oscar-winning Charlize Theron and has half a dozen future projects lined up at the time of writing.

A thoroughly professional, efficient thriller that’s not likely to be a favourite of those who enjoy the more extreme examples of the Giallo experience.

Il Planeta Errante/War Between the Planets (1966)

Il-Planeta Errante (1966)‘Your’e an a-ok officer except for one thing – you never learned how to take orders.’

Space Station Gamma 1 is the Earth’s last hope for survival as it investigates the cause of the extreme weather conditions that are devastating the planet. The station’s crew detect a strange object in nearby space and set out to investigate…

Completely humourless Italian space opera from the directorial hands of Antonio Margheriti (better known to English-speaking audiences as Anthony M Dawson). After a co-directorial credit, Margheriti began his long career in the film industry with a similar property to this: ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1960) which also featured a heroic space station crew as man’s last, best hope. Margheriti had initially left the genre alone after that, specialising in ‘sword and sandal’ melodramas but returned in 1966 with a vengeance, delivering a loose quartet of science fiction ‘epics’ that were all centred around the activities of Space Station Gamma 1.

This film was a followup to ‘La Morte Viene Dal Planeta Aytin’ (‘Snow Devils/Devil Men from Space) (1966) and main man Giacomo Rossi Stuart returned as square-jawed Commander Rod Jackson. Also returning were heroines Ombretta Colli and Halina Zalewska, although, somewhat curiously, Colli  now appears to be playing Zakewska’s character from the first film! Something lost in translation on stateside distribution perhaps. Enzo Fiermonte also features again as big cheese General Norton, and other supporting actors reappear.

So what’s the film like? Well, it’s pretty tedious. We open with a news report of the chaos on Earth, although it looks suspiciously like stock footage of real life disasters, and a lot of it is in black and white. Scientists and military types meet in small offices (no ‘big table’ conference for them!) to sort it all out, and decide it’s a gravitational anomaly somewhere in space. Rossi Stuart and his crew get the gig, and track down the problem to an invading planetoid with psychedelic lighting. Rossi Stuart is in love with Communications cutie Lieutenant Colli but is engaged to civilian Zalewska, who also happens to be the General’s daughter. She arrives on the station right in the middle of the mission (really!?) so she can scowl at our lovebirds and make a bitchy remark or two. Yes, that’s all she does!

Anyway, there’s some aggro between Rossi Stuart and his rebellious second in command (yawn!), everyone speaks in meaningless military terminology (‘We have an immediate five-seven with full priority!’) and it all ends up with a predictable life or death, self-sacrificing mission on the planetoid. In fact, it all bares more than a passing resemblance to Michael Bay’s bloated bore-athon ‘Armageddon’ (1998), except without the ‘edgy’ MTV rock and endless shots of the fluttering stars and stripes.

Il Planeta Errante (1966)

Let’s go to work!

As far as I can tell, this was only picked up for US release after ‘Star Wars’ (1977) when an English dub track was added and the film retitled. Although the running time is barely 80 minutes, it appears that little was cut. However, Voiceover Man makes frequent intrusions to provide a very serious running commentary, presumably in case we’re not sure what is happening.

Production information on the Gamma 1 quartet is hard to find and the films don’t seem to follow any noticeable story arc. Leading man duties for the other two films were assumed by US actor Tony Russel, which included the gloriously silly and far more entertaining ‘I Criminali Della Galassia/Wild Wild Planet’ (1966).

This, on the other hand, is a dull, dreary space opera without an original thought in its head.

Hunters of the Golden Cobra (1982)

Hunters Of The Golden Cobra (1982)‘Hang on to your jollies, we’re going after him!’

Two British officers in the Philippines in the 1940s tangle with a murderous cult while trying to retrieve a relic with supposedly supernatural powers.

Cheap and cheerful Italian knock off of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981) with swashbuckling David Warbeck punching, shooting and quipping his way from one life threatening danger to the next in his search for ‘The Golden Cobra.’ Not only is the statue a rallying point for a sinister group of local fanatics, it’s also apparently the key to immense riches. This means Warbeck gets saddled with treasure hunter Luciano Pigozzi and his niece, Almanta Suski, whose long lost twin sister just happens to be the high priestess of these snake-worshipping villains. Also along for the ride is John Steiner’s upper crust British Intelligence officer, who provides some much needed comedic moments.

The film tries hard to deliver the same level of thrills as its (obvious) inspiration, and the paper-thin plot is little more than a vague excuse for a series of fist fights, car chases, gun battles and last minute escapes. Unfortunately, director Antonio Margheriti (working under his usual alias of Anthony M Dawson) didn’t have a Hollywood budget to work with so there is little notable stunt work or big set pieces. There’s an attempt at a big, fiery finish, but it’s more of a damp squib than anything else. And that’s the film’s main weakness. There’s no dynamism to the action on offer and a complete lack of style in the delivery.

Hunters Of The Golden Cobra (1982)

His new piece of performance art did not meet with widespread approval.

Marghetti was actually a director with a long pedigree in fantasy cinema; ‘Assignment Outer Space’ (1960), ‘Wild Wild Planet’ (1965) and ‘Killer Fish’ (1979) to name but a few of his outlandish pictures. A year after this release, he reunited with Steiner and Pagozzi for the spectacular chuckle fest and guilty pleasure that is ‘Yor, The Hunter From The Future’ (1983), but there’s little of that level of entertainment here.

The explosion of home video rental in the early 1980s was the ideal market for a project like this: put some colourful artwork on the video box, take a couple of ‘name’ actors slumming it, and mix them into a plot reminiscent of a current hit of the time. A sound business plan, but the results here are stubbornly unremarkable.

Yor, The Hunter From The Future/Il Mondo Di Yor (1983)

Yor,_The_Hunter_From_The_Future_(1983)‘Yor’s World! He’s The Man! Yor’s World! He’s The Man!’

Yor wanders the prehistoric wastes alone, flexing his pecs, until he saves a young woman and her protector from a predatory dinosaur. He knows nothing of his origins; the only clue he has being the strange metal medallion that he wears around his neck. His quest for meaning leads him into unbelievable adventures.

Wild and wacky Science Fiction low-budget epic from Italian director Antonio Margheriti, here hiding under his usual Anglicised pseudonym of Anthony M. Dawson. Margheriti had plenty of previous form in the fantastic arena, from more ‘realistic’ output such as ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1961) to pop culture blow outs like ‘Willd, Wld Planet’ (1965). Here, he gives us an old-fashioned quest with a new fashioned twist; elements of prehistoric tribal drama combined with laser battles and robots.

Yor is Reb Brown, an actor who had been TV’s Captain America, and would go on to fight lycanthropes in ‘Howling II: Stirba Werewolf Bitch’ (aka ‘Your Sister Is A Werewolf’) (1985) and top-line the hilariously awful ‘Space Mutiny’ (1988). Here, he rocks a silly blonde wig, loincloth, furry boots, and a goofy expression as he struts around a desert landscape to the hair metal soundtrack song ‘Yor’s World!’ Before long he’s iced a rampaging Triceratops that threatens dark-haired Corinne Cléry and her faithful old retainer Luciano Pigozzi. Obviously, no-one knew that, despite its fearsome appearance, those particular dinosaurs only ate plants. Cléry has a question: ‘Why are all men not like Yor?’

Yor befriends the black-haired tribe, but muses on his mysterious origins: ‘It’s like a question burning inside of me, a question without an answer. Am I the son of fire?’ Cléry attempts some kind of erotic tribal dance (probably) and, although it looks a bit half-hearted, it certainly gets Yor interested. But, before he can act on his intentions, his new hairy friends are attacked by some even hairier men. Yor helps to defend the settlement by pushing over all the buildings and setting fire to everything. Nice one, Yor! But he does redeem himself by rescuing Cléry from their evil clutches by flying into a cave hanging from the corpse of a giant bat. Cléry has more observations of her own: “Yor, you’re so different from all the other men I’ve known.”

Your takes on men wrapped in bandages to save a blonde priestess, Yor kills a dimetrodon after it chews up his axe (don’t worry, Yor, it’s back in one piece in the next scene), Yor goes boating, Yor snogs the priestess. In between all the carnage, Yor offers many philosophical insights and observations. On modern technology: ‘Damn talking box!’ On tyrants: ‘You believe you’re a god, but you think like a murderer.’ On local cuisine: ‘The blood of your enemy makes you stronger.’ Of course, it all ends in a massive laser battle against the mechanical hordes of a cloaked John Steiner, who might be an illusion but, like, has to ‘physically push the button’. Well spotted, Yor!

Yor, The Hunter From The Future (1983)

Yor! He’s The Man!!

The model work and SFX are incredibly variable, with everything from the ridiculous giant bat to a cave flood that is surprisingly well realised. The dinosaur battles feature practical models, and those are stiff and unconvincing, with tongues being the only obvious moving parts. The fight scenes and choreography aren’t exactly a triumph, either, with villains regularly attacking our hero one at a time, but, then again, I’ve seen a lot worse.

Cléry came to fame, or perhaps notoriety, in the title role of the erotic movie ‘The Story of O’ (1975) and had been a ‘Bond Girl’ in ‘Moonraker’ (1979). Pigozzi was a veteran of Italian cinema, whose long career included appearances in Westerns, Thrillers, Police Procedurals, Eurospy movies, and horror pictures for cult director Mario Bava. Steiner also appeared for Bava in the underrated ‘Beyond the Door II/Shock’ (1978), which was the master’s final film.

It’s hard to dislike a movie that cheerfully crams in dinosaurs, androids, cavemen and spaceships, and it would be dangerous to incur the wrath of Yor by doing so. After all, he is The Man.

Just remember: this is Yor’s World. We just live in it.

Horror Castle (1962)

Horror_Castle_(1963)Women’s Virtues Made him a Killer!

A young bride returns with her husband to his native Germany to stay at his ancestral castle. Somewhat unusually, there’s a torture chamber in the front room; a permanent museum to his famous ancestor, the psychotic ’Punisher’. If that wasn’t unsettling enough, on her first night, she hears strange voices and finds a fresh corpse in the iron maiden…

Standard 1960s Euro-Horror inevitably starring Christopher Lee dubbed by another actor. It was usual practice in the local industry not to bother having the original actors loop their dialogue, probably for budgetary reasons. Here, it doesn’t hurt too much as Lee’s role as the scarred custodian of the sinister museum is mainly peripheral, with main performing duties falling to leads Rossana Pedestà (from the entertaining Italian ‘Seven Golden Men’ caper movies) and George Rivière (Castle of Blood (1964) – not the same movie!)

The story is nothing special, either; a lightweight mystery/horror, presented without any noticeable sense of style by director Antonio Margheriti. He’s much better known as Anthony M. Dawson and his long career as a director includes such ‘classics’ as ‘Yor, The Hunter From The Future’ (1983), ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1961) and ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’ (1980).

On the plus side, the castle interiors and brief outdoor locations are pretty good (a trademark of Euro-Horrors of the period) and there’s a definite Hitchcockian flavour to the proceedings; with particular echoes of ‘Rebecca’ (1940).  A sinister housekeeper channels Mrs Danvers and Podestà begins to suspect her often-absent hubby of all sorts of indiscretions.


Her attempt at a Hi-Five was destined to fail…

But we never really engage with the story, even the potentially interesting Nazi sub-plot, as the leading protagonists are painted in such broad, dull strokes that the actors are unable to invest them with any great personality. It also doesn’t help that the supporting characters are so generic as to be almost invisible: the maid, the police inspector, the American special agent.

Much worse than that, any potential atmosphere is shredded by the distracting and clumsy musical soundtrack; punctuating every ‘shock’ with a heavy-handed ‘sting’ or deafening crash of instruments. Of course this may have just been tacked on to the English language print, but the big reveal in the early scenes is presented in just such a way; followed immediately by the opening credits playing over the cool strains of some be-bop jazz! Perfectly breaking the mood and setting the scene for the hilariously jolly japes to come. Only, hang on, it’s actually supposed to be a horror film…

But there is an important lesson to be learned from all this: girls, if your boyfriend has a museum of torture in his house, it’s probably best to think twice before booking the church…

Assignment: Outer Space (1960)

Assignment_Outer_Space_(1960)‘Every baptism has its mystery, even out here in space.’

A reporter is sent to get a story on the men and women exploring deep space in the 21st Century. At first it all seems routine enough but he gets more than he bargained for when a crash landing on the planet Mars puts the Earth in the path of certain destruction.

Italian Science Fiction drama filmed for both the international and domestic markets. Brilliantly named star Rick Van Nutter (Felix Leiter in ‘Thunderball’ (1965)) plays reporter Ray Peterson; sent spacewards in a model rocket to cover the investigation of ‘fluctuating radiation in Galaxy M12’. Leaving the model, he goes floating off to space station Zulu Xtra 34 with no means of propulsion or safety line. He arrives ok but is not welcome. His mixture of arrogance and idealism bringing him into immediate conflict with the hard nosed Commander.

This poorly dubbed space drama is an attempt at a serious story sunk by weak special effects and some less than original plotting. The obligatory wandering meteorite makes its inevitable appearance, causing a space accident that is an inept mixture of tight facial close-ups and more poor model work. Our hero meets the female member of the crew as she tends plants in the hydroponic garden but, just as we’re about to groan about a ‘woman’s place’, we discover that she’s actually the station’s navigator. On the other hand, a mention of Christmas Day brings a fanfare of festive trumpets on the less than subtle music track. Dramatically, it’s a little on the dull side but acceptable if you’re in a forgiving mood.

The director was Antonio Margheriti, who normally hid under the more stateside friendly name of Anthony M Dawson (although it was Antony Daisies here!). This turned out to be his first step on a decades long path of cult cinema, which found him delivering intergalactic adventures such as ‘Battle of The Worlds’ (1961) (with Hollywood star Claude Rains!), and a loose trio of films about the adventures of Space Station Gamma 1, which include the borderline-insanity of ‘Wild Wild Planet’ (1966). There were also some horror projects starring Barbara Steele, most memorably ‘The Long Hair of Death (1965) and cult movie classic ‘Yor, Then Hunter From The Future’ (1983).

'I've told you before about having beans for breakfast.'

‘I’ve told you before about having beans for breakfast.’

However, the film does have one great virtue that sets it apart from other movies of the era. This is space exploration depicted as a job. Instead of shiny surfaces, spacecraft interiors are mechanistic and functional and the uniforms are zippered overalls rather than silver foil suits. This crew is made up of working stiffs simply doing a job; focused, emotionless, even robotic. There is no humour in their interactions with each other because they know that one lapse in concentration can be fatal.

So, although there is little in the way of the camaraderie to be found in the ‘Nostromo’ from ‘Alien’ (1979), the attitudes and look on display do pre-date aspects of that Ridley Scott’s classic.

But, yeah, they do communicate with Earth via a teletype machine. And when the spacecraft crashes on Mars, we do see a glimpse of what looks suspiciously like a building and the rear end of a car behind the explosion. Oh, well, you can’t have everything…

Buy ‘Assignment:Outer Space’ here