Knives of the Avenger/I coltelli del vendicatore (1966)

Knives of the Avenger (1966)‘We’ll string them up to dry like cod in the north wind.’

A tribal queen in hiding from the renegade who is trying to take her absent husband’s throne is saved from his men by a mysterious drifter. The stranger bonds with her son, but comes to learn that his own violent past is a part of her tragic story…

The European success of Richard Fleischer’s big-budget Hollywood production of ‘The Vikings’ (1958) prompted a cycle of similar Norse adventures from Italian cinema in the 1960s. However, by the time that Sider Films attempted to enter the fray, audience interest had waned, and their production collapsed through lack of funding just a couple of weeks into shooting. After several attempts to remount the picture, the producers engaged horror maestro Mario Bava to salvage the project.

Arald, King of the Marvar (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) has been away from the Northlands for three years on a voyage searching for food. In his absence, warlord Hagen (Fausto Tozzi) has returned after banishment and is attempting to take the throne. He intends to marry Stuart’s wife, Karin (Elissa Pichelli, billed variously as Lisa Wagner or just Lissa). She has fled, going into hiding with her young son, Moki (Luciano Pollentin) after being warned of imminent danger by sorceress Shula (an unidentified actress, possibly Gordana Miletic). One fine day, wanderer Helmut (Cameron Mitchell) comes riding by and saves Pichelli and her son from the attentions of two of Tozzi’s men. He decides to stick around, and the three make for a cosy family unit. It’s obvious Mitchell is smitten, but Pichelli reaffirms her loyalty to Stuart even though she’s not sure that he’s still alive.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

Family meals were always a bit awkward…

When Pichelli finally fills in Mitchell on her history, it’s a bit of a shocker. On the day she married Stuart (then a Prince), tribal loose cannon Tozzi murdered the family of rival chieftain, Ruric, not realising that the King (Amedeo Trilli) had just negotiated a lasting peace. A masked Ruric takes revenge by burning the tribe’s villages to the ground, raping Pichelli and having Trilli put to the sword. All this is bad news for Mitchell’s romantic intentions because he is Ruric, having spent the last few years trying to escape the memory of his crimes and, with Tozzi back in the neighbourhood too, a showdown is inevitable.

This was not the story of the film that began shooting with original director Leopolda Savona. When Bava came on board, probably keen to work again with his friend Micthell, he re-wrote the entire script, throwing out most of Savona’s footage and re-shooting about three-quarters of the film. All in six to seven days! Although this seems like a recipe for absolute disaster, this was Mario Bava, a man who had extensive experience salvaging other director’s projects, usually uncredited. It was just such an assignment, on ‘The Giant of Marathon’ (1959) with Steve Reeves, that led to Bava finally getting the opportunity to direct in his own right. So, although there are some issues with story continuity, it’s fair to say that most audience members would have no idea that this was such a troubled production.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

‘What was that you were saying about my haircut?’

What Bava fashioned was pretty much a Viking western, and many commentators have pointed out the general story similarities to George Stevens’ classic ‘Shane’ (1953), which was apparently one of Bava’s favourite pictures. Given the short time he had available to knock the story into shape, it’s not perhaps surprising that he would have modelled his outline on such a tried and trusted original. There’s even one scene where Mitchell rides into town accompanied by the strains of a Marcello Giombini score that has an echo of Ennio Morricone’s work on the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. What does he do when he gets there? Go straight to the tavern and get into trouble with the locals, of course!

Inevitably, given the circumstances of production, there are some problems with the narrative. We’re never entirely sure of when Pichelli learns of Mitchell’s true identity; in fact, we only know that she does because she calls him by his real name in passing during an unrelated conversation. There’s no big dramatic scene in which she learns the truth, and she seems remarkably forgiving to a man who raped her and whose soldiers killed her father. If it wasn’t for that one use of his name, you might reasonably assume from her behaviour that she never finds out. The similarity of Mitchell and Pollentin’s hair colour and style also makes it pretty clear that the boy is the result of that rape, but the issue is never directly addressed.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

‘Eyes on my face, creep!’

Bava also struggles to establish the geography of the world in terms of the proximity of the various locations. Whilst in the family hut, Micthell and Pichelli hear Pollentin’s cries for help, but it takes a horse ride for Mitchell to arrive at the beach and come to the lad’s rescue. Similarly, Pichelli has been told to go far away to avoid Tozzi but seems to have set up home surprisingly locally, given the time to takes some characters to get there from the town. Also, Tozzi appears to know where she is but, rather than go there himself until near the end of the picture, keeps sending various minions to get her, only to have them bested by Mitchell. It’s also notable that the locale doesn’t look much like the frozen Northlands, although the script does try to address this by having Mitchell complain about the cold and take the warmer robes of a man he has just killed because the winter months are just around the corner. It’s not very convincing, but at least an effort was made.

But there are some outstanding sequences. The first combat between Mitchell and Tozzi in a darkened tavern is a tour de force of lighting and camerawork with the protagonists facing off like wild west gunslingers before launching into an energetic mixture of fisticuffs and a wrestling match, punctuated by throwing knives. The climactic scenes in the ‘sacred caves’ are also beautifully shot with splashes of colour evoking both the Hades of Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and the early scenes of his previous Norse adventure ‘Erik The Conqueror’ (1961). The fact that Bava saves these slightly more esoteric touches for this final location is entirely appropriate. After all, these are the caves where the dead lie and supposedly speak through the local prophetess.

Knives of the Avenger (1966)

The wedding photographer had been at the punch again…

These final sequences are surprisingly brief but, in a way, appropriate, as Tozzi never seems to be a very threatening villain, little more, in fact, than the local tavern bully. This is not due to Tozzi’s performance; it’s because we hear about all his dastardly crimes second hand, the audience seeing far more of Mitchell’s violent past. However, it’s that bloody backstory and subsequent search for redemption that give the character a depth that the actor exploits to the full with his engaging performance.

A fast-paced and enjoyable adventure with a stamp of quality provided by the visual flair of its director. Given the circumstances of its hurried production, it’s one of Bava’s most outstanding achievements, even if it’s not one of his finest films.

Blood and Black Lace/6 donne per l’assassino (1964)

Blood and Black Lace (1964)Guaranteed! The 8 greatest shocks ever filmed!’

A young model is brutally slain by a masked killer in the grounds of a major fashion house on a stormy night. Without an obvious motive for the crime, the police investigation flounders, but then another girl is killed. Is the culprit a crazed psychopath or is there something more behind the murders? It seems that everyone involved has got something to hide …

Massively influential horror thriller from Italian director Mario Bava which has rightly earned the status of a cult classic. The avalanche of Giallo thrillers that dominated the Italian film industry until the mid-1970s may have been unleashed by Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969), but his debt to this film is clear. Its fingerprints are also all over the American slasher craze of the early 1980s, even if those films are painfully simplistic by comparison.

There are dark secrets aplenty at the fashion house owned by Contessa Cristiana (Eva Bartok) and managed by her lover, Massimo (Cameron Mitchell). The killing of top model Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) ignites a whirlwind of murder, violence and death. Next to go is blonde bombshell Nicole (Arianna Gorini) who has the misfortune to discovers Ungaro’s diary and is killed at the antique shop of her drug-addicted lover, Franco (the excellent Dante DiPaolo).

Too many suspects is a major issue for poor police Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner).  Possible motives and alibis make for a bewildering puzzle. Is designer Cesare (Luciano Pigozzi) the victim of a psychosexual obsession? What’s up with his pill-popping assistant Marco (Massimo Righi) and does the Marchese Morelli (Franco Ressel)’s relationship with dark haired model Greta (Lea Lander) play a part? Although the escalating violence of the crimes suggests a male perpetrator, suspicion also falls on models Peggy (Mary Arden) and Tao-Li (Claude Dantes) who have secrets of their own to protect.

The central mystery here may owe some debt to writers such as Agatha Christie, but it’s well-balanced and genuinely surprising, with twists and developments unsuspected right until the end. But what sets the film apart is the stylisation that Bava brings to the table, creating something little short of a visual masterpiece. Almost every shot is a perfect blend of technique, lighting and colour, evoking a unique atmosphere that drips with fear and menace, whilst still drawing the audience deeper into the mystery. The interiors are almost impossibly rich in detail, giving the impression that the director hand-selected every single prop on display, and positioned it on the set himself. Given that the film takes place in a world of haute couture, where appearance is everything, this approach is a perfect fit.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)
There are no main characters in the film either; it’s most definitely an ensemble piece. This provides further uncertainty as to how events will develop and heightens the tension. The fine cast is another plus; Mitchell is enigmatic, Bartok regal, and all the other players invest their roles with a distinct personality, Lander’s nervous beauty being the quiet standout. Mention must also be made that filming took place in English and it was actress Arden who tweaked the script’s dialogue to sound more natural. She was a top model herself, having appeared on the covers of Italian Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and in other top fashion magazines.

Bava began his career as a cinematographer and graduated to the director’s chair with gothic classic ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday’ (1960); a reward for being a multi-talented ‘fix-it man’ on more than a few projects abandoned by other directors. Although this film was not a big hit at the time (and he followed it with a western!), it’s influence has become legendary. As per usual, all was achieved on a shoestring budget, dolly shots realised by placing the camera in a child’s red wagon and riding it around the set. This is particularly notable in the fashion show scenes where multiple characters move in and out and across the moving frame in what must have been tightly choreographed sequences.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Given the graphic nature of the kills on display, and some are still pretty strong, it was inevitable that the film was mangled by censors worldwide. There’s not too much blood on show here but, before this, murder on-screen was generally a ridiculous swift occurrence with victims barely putting up a fight. The women here are struggling for their lives with a far greater determination. This increases both the realism and the uncomfortable nature of those scenes for the audience.

The fact that the victims are beautiful women, mostly in some state of undress, has given rise to accusations of misogyny and objectifying women, but that’s a very superficial interpretation of the film. These female characters are objectified already, by the fashion industry in which they work, one that has caused many, many more real-life tragedies than a single motion picture could ever achieve. Bava portrays it as a world of artifice with a sleazy underbelly, brilliantly assisted by the moaning brass and jazzy touches of Carlo Rustichelli’s outstanding musical soundtrack. Additionally, Reiner’s ultimately fruitless investigation concludes that the killer is a ‘sex maniac’, but that’s not the case at all; each of the murders has a very specific motive woven into the complex narrative, and are driven by necessity rather than just bloodlust.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Mitchell worked with Bava on several pictures, although only two where he occupied the canvas seat, Viking epics ‘Erik The Conqueror’ (1961) and ‘Knives of the Avenger’ (1965) and went onto appear in many Cult Cinema titles, of extraordinarily variable quality. This was Barktok’s penultimate big-screen role as she was retired by the close of the decade. She was married four times, although two were marriages of convenience, and gave birth to one child, a daughter, in 1957. Although still married at the time to actor Curd Jürgens, she later claimed that the father was Frank Sinatra, with whom she had an affair when working on ‘Ten Thousand Bedrooms’ (1956), her only American picture. In the early 1950s, she worked in the UK, starring in a couple of minor science-fiction entries; ‘The Gamma People’ (1956) and ‘Spaceways’ (1953), an early Hammer production. Most of the other female members of the cast have few additional credits. Arden appeared in Giallo ‘A For Assassin’ (1966), the underwhelming adaptation of the successful stage play by genre stalwart Ernesto Gastaldi, but enjoyed far greater success as a prominent globe-trotting businesswoman after she retired from the screen.

A masterful exercise in filmmaking with a breathtaking visual tapestry, this groundbreaking work proved to be a significant influence on the horror genre as well as crystalising the elements of what modern audiences consider to be an Italian Giallo film. It’s an outstanding motion picture and the work of a true cinematic genius.

(This is a revised and expanded version of a post originally published on 3rd January 2017)

Erik The Conqueror/Gli Invasori/Fury of the Vikings (1961)

Erik The Conqueror (1961)‘It’s fate. All our moves are predestined.’

Sent by the King to broker a peace treaty with the invading Viking hordes, an English nobleman instead springs a deadly trap. As the Norseman are massacred, the two young sons of the Viking king are separated. Twenty years later, when hostilities resume, the grown-up boys find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict, neither having any knowledge of the other’s true identity…

The success of Richard Fleischer’s ‘The Vikings’ (1958) starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis kicked off a mini-craze of Italian pictures featuring the exploits of the Norsemen which lasted through most of the 1960s. At first glance, it might seem strange to find director Mario Bava contributing, but the horror maestro only had two official solo pictures to his name before production began, and he regularly worked in more mainstream genres throughout his career.

The occupying Viking army is driven from English shores after being betrayed by the duplicitous Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi). Not only is King Harald (Folco Lulli) killed in the battle, but his two young sons are separated, Erik left behind when the Norsemen flee with his brother, Eron. English King Lotar (Franco Ressel) applauds the result, but not Checchi’s treacherous methods and exiles him from the kingdom. This proclamation proves to be a tactical error when Ressel gets an immediate arrow through the neck, courtesy of Checchi’s right-hand man, who is able to shift the blame to a dying Norseman. Wandering the battlefield at sundown, the grieving Queen Alice (Françoise Christophe) finds the infant Erik and decides to bring him up as the son she can never have.

Erik The Conqueror (1961)

‘You can’t scare me – I’ve faced off against the Man-eater of Hydra and the Supersonic Man!’

Two decades later, the Vikings are spoiling for a return match and set out in their longships for English shores. Their forces are led by the grown-up Eron (a blonde Cameron Mitchell), and he’s got a greater motivation than simple revenge. Vestal Virgin Daya (Ellen Kessler) and he are in love, but she’s consecrated to Odin and the only way he can free her from her vows is to become a King and take her as his wife. Mitchell meets the English navy head-on, little knowing that they are led by his brother Erik (George Ardisson) who now goes by the name of Lord Helford. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the slimy Checchi is still trying to get his hands on the throne by marrying the reluctant Christophe.

This is a film intended purely as a commercial, Saturday night crowd-pleaser. The narrative drives from one story beat to the next with a remorseless energy, and Bava delivers frequent bursts of well-mounted action. The film even opens in the middle of the initial battle and only stops to take a breath afterwards to establish the necessary plot points and the characters that inhabit the drama. Motivations aren’t complicated, the adventure is highly traditional and the themes of brotherhood and duty are familiar enough. It has the spirit of the old swashbucklers of classic Hollywood, although it lacks the humorous sparkle that many of those pictures possessed.

Erik The Conqueror (1961)

‘Remind me; am I supposed to be the Evil Twin or is it you?’

In terms of the plot, Bava’s film plays much like a reworking of ‘The Vikings’ (1958). The action is centred on opposing brothers who don’t know each other, and individual scenes are clearly inspired by sequences from Fleischer’s original hit. The breakneck pace may have been an attempt to cover some of the story’s shortcomings and implausibilities. When Ardisson is washed up on the shores of the ‘Land of the Vikings’ after his navy is defeated, we can just about swallow it because the film doesn’t tell us where the sea battle takes place. But when it turns out that Mitchell’s stronghold is only a stone’s throw from the beach where he wakes, suspension of disbelief becomes a little harder. This becomes even more challenging when the first person to find him is Rama (Alice Kessler) who happens to be the twin of Mitchell’s paramour. Of course, the two instantly fall in love, and Ardisson mutters something about fate and predestination. But it sounds more like he’s making a sheepish apology on behalf of the screenwriters.

But what most cult film fans are here for is Bava, of course. So how is the great man’s first Viking epic? Well, it’s a lot of fun, and his fingerprints are all over it. Some of the most striking scenes recall moments from his previous films. We join the Vikings passing judgement on an unnamed couple who have transgressed holy law. A warrior and a Vestal Virgin have been caught giving in to temptation. The lovers are bound in barbed wire, there are close-ups of skulls, and they get the same kind of treatment that Barbara Steele and Arturo Dominici received in the opening scenes of ‘Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan’ (1960). These Norsemen spend a lot of time underground, and their home turf is a Technicolor Hades of fluorescent greens and splashes of purple which can’t help but provoke memories of Reg Park’s trip to the Underworld in ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961). That’s even the great tree of the Hesperides at the back of their throne room! In short, it’s gothic at times and with a beauty that’s always ravishing.

Erik The Conqueror (1961)

‘I think we should all dress up as trees. They won’t be expecting that.’

This is never more evident than in the scene where Christophe finds the child Erik on the beach. The sky boils with heavy cloud and the sun has almost set on the far horizon. It’s sheer visual poetry. There’s also the climactic scene where Ardisson goes to rescue Ellen Kessler from the clutches of Checchi. He has her chained to a wall and facing a deadly spider that’s due to escape its cage when the final grains of sand run through an hourglass. The shot compositions look like they belong in a film made for millions – dollars rather than lira. The sea battle is also of note as the only time the ocean makes an appearance is in long shot; up close it’s all actors on sets, but the combination of fog, camera movement and water splashes creates a stylish and acceptable illusion. The sequence wasn’t without its drawbacks, though; the fog proved somewhat toxic forcing Bava off the set. This may have contributed to his six-month break from film after the picture wrapped, although the director also reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown around this time.

There’s further evidence of Bava’s technical wizardry with the SFX. The climactic confrontation between the brothers takes place in front of Christophe’s royal castle, which is heroically played by a photograph that Bava cut out of a copy of National Geographic magazine. That sounds like the worst effect imaginable, but the fact is that it looks more realistic than much of the CGI in current films. Bava simply mounted the picture as part of a glass matte shot, and put a waving flag on top of the hill in the distance. Lining the image up with the landscape and shooting through the glass, it appears that the castle is sitting on the hill with the flag waving from the top of the battlements. Like all the best SFX, it’s not something you even notice when watching the film. It’s only afterwards when you find out how Bava achieved the effect, that the shot becomes so incredibly impressive.

Erik The Conqueror (1961)

‘Careful; you’ll have someone’s eye out with that.’

Bava tends to get all his plaudits for his work behind the camera. After all, visual miracles were his main area of expertise. However, that does tend to overshadow his work with actors. The Kessel Twins were a German musical act who had become all the rage in the cabarets of Paris and, although they had previous film experience, they were still primarily stage performers. Here, they make credible Vestal Virgins even if their presence would have been quite a headscratcher to real-life Vikings, being as they were Priestesses who served the goddess Vesta in Ancient Rome.

Our two leading men both display a natural physicality and charisma, Ardisson having played second lead Theseus in ‘Hercules and the Haunted World’ (1961). Mitchell went on to appear twice more for Bava, his vacation in Europe in the 1960s partly down to alimony and the IRS. He returned to the US in the last years of the decade to become a TV star on Western ‘The High Chapparal’ but returned to Europe afterwards, although the quality of the films he made was often lacking. Sadly, both Ardisson and Mitchell have passed on, but the Kessel Twins are still going strong, performing on German television as recently as 2016.

Erik The Conqueror (1961)

‘I’m telling you; this stuff will give you hair as blonde as mine.’

The film was a big hit in Italy, but failed to find foreign distribution until two years later when it appeared in the UK as ‘Fury of the Vikings’. A US release followed, although ten minutes of the film was cut. Bava returned to the Land of the Norse with ‘Knives of the Avenger’ (1965) which again starred Mitchell.

A thoroughly enjoyable historical romp with more than a little touch of class.

Autopsy of A Ghost/Autopsia de un Fantasma (1968)

Autopsy of a Ghost (1968)‘The meat taste like meat, and the hell ham taste like a bunch of devils!’

A lost soul trapped in the dungeon of his ancestral home is given a final chance at redemption by Satan. If he can persuade a woman to lay down her life for him, he will be allowed to ascend to heaven. The devil arranges for a mad scientist and his extended family to come and stay at the spooky old house, thereby providing some possible candidates…

Demented, anything goes, relentlessly juvenile comedy cocktail from south of the border, courtesy of director Ismael Rodríguez. It’s a frenetic, hyperactive mix of knockabout humour, slapstick gags and pure, uncut silliness that almost has to be seen to be believed. At times it seems to have been aimed at children, but at others has a more adult tone to its attempted laughs. What’s truly amazing about it is the presence of notable Hollywood names Basil Rathbone, John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell.

Rathbone is the spirit of Canuto Pérez, a suicide from 400 years earlier who hangs about in the basement dungeon of his old dark house, arguing with his own skeleton (heroically played by an unconvincing life-sized puppet). However, his centuries of anguish could soon be over. Satan (Carradine in a red bodysuit with horns and a spiked tail!) offers him a way out, and he’s arranged for crazy inventor Mitchell (who wear two pairs of spectacles at the same time) to rent the old pile and bring some eligible females along. These include his lovely daughter Galena (Amadee Chabot), who seems to have been shortchanged by the wardrobe department and wears a bikini throughout. Can Rathbone’s get one of the ladies to fall for him and make the ultimate sacrifice?

You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.

‘It’s still better than a real job.’

Mitchell also has his problems. His crackpot inventions aren’t making any money, and his large family have been evicted from their last home. He’s put his faith in new mechanical man Caruso, but when he’s activated all he can do is make fart noises! It’s because he’s the victim of an act of sabotage perpetrated by older robot Vitola (Famie Kaufman in a cardboard costume, ginger wig and short skirt).

And if there weren’t enough characters and plot already, Rodriguez chucks in the idiot son of Mitchell’s former business partner (whose brain is tilted sideways apparently), his annoying little brat of a son and various other stooges and hangers-on. To make things even more complicated, a gang of useless criminals have hidden half a million dollars in the property and want it back, but agent Jaime Blondo (Carlos Piñar) is hot on their trail.

So the scene is set for an endless series of misunderstandings, pratfalls, frantic running about, loud screaming and general pantomime. Rathbone attempts to seduce various women with little success, the matriarch of the criminal gang falls in love with his skeleton (yes, really!) and Carradine hangs around in the background smirking a lot and breaking the fourth wall by twirling his tail and literally winking at the audience. Director Rodríguez never pauses to take a breath, rushing from scene to scene with reckless abandon, sometimes even speeding up the footage so we can arrive even earlier. Sometimes it’s all quite baffling. But too often it’s just the comedic equivalent of nails down a chalkboard.

Autopsy of a Ghost (1968)

‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’

If you’ve read Rathbone’s autobiography ‘In and Out of Character’ (1962), you’re probably aware that he had no illusions about his immense talents as a thespian(!), and his place in the pantheon of great classical actors. However, you can’t deny his commitment to the cause here. He throws himself around the cheap sets with abandon, quotes a little Shakespeare and even does a few dance steps.

Rathbone was always the consummate professional in a film career that began in 1927, saw him Oscar-nominated twice, teach Errol Flynn how to fight with a sword and create the screen’s greatest Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, this was to be his last performance. He died of a cardiac arrest in a New York shortly afterwards. The film was shot in Mexico City, and Carradine always maintained that the altitude had been too much for Rathbone’s heart.

Curiously enough, the film seems to possess two endings. On this occasion, I was finally able to watch a print with English subtitles, but previously I’d seen one without a translation. That version had an ending featuring Carradine spinning around at high speed in a chair being splattered with faeces and an ‘A’ bomb explosion. This version did not. Perhaps I just dreamed it. Bad movies can do that to you.

An exhausting, knockabout farce with infantile humour that tries the patience from beginning to end.

Maneater of Hydra/The Blood Sucker/Island of the Doomed/La Isla de la Muerte (1967)

Maneater of Hydra (1967)‘It looks like a cucumber, but it tastes just like meat!’

A group of half a dozen tourists take an organised sightseeing trip to a remote island. Their host is a Baron who is also a top scientist, whose particular field of expertise is the breeding of rare plants. Unfortunately, he is a little more enthusiastic about his hobby than is strictly healthy…

Slightly dreary Italian Euro-shocker from writer-director Mel Welles, who had appeared in Roger Corman’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (1960), and also directed part of that film uncredited. It obviously made quite an impression on him, as we have a similar setup here with mad Baron Cameron Mitchell up to all sorts of horticultural improprieties in the privacy of his own greenhouse. His motley crew of houseguests include feuding couple Rolf Von Nauckloff and Kai Fischer, clean cut George Martin, winsome Elsa Montés, middle-aged camera nut Matilde Munôz Sampedro  and nerdy botanist Hermann Nehlsen. Fischer is making a play for every guy in a pair of trousers, Montés faints a lot and Martin is generally very clean-cut. Yes, the script gives none of the actors anything on which to base a shaded performance, and all that remains for the audience is to guess in which order this roll call of ready-made victims will meet Mitchell’s little pet.

Despite the simplicity of the set up and plot, events also make little sense. Mitchell’s motivation in inviting paying guests is largely unexplored, beyond a passing reference to financial considerations made by a third party. However, in terms of his erratic behaviour and subsequent developments, it looks far more likely that the visitors were always intended to be on the menu. But there is some entertainment value in the atrocious English dub track, which seems to cover the entire cast, including Mitchell. Although Fischer is obviously playing a promiscuous character, the truly terrible voiceover work has her seemingly permanently on the edge of an orgasm, which livens up the rather slow proceedings a little.

However, carnivorous plants are nearly always good for a laugh, and the last 15 minutes or so do not disappoint. It doesn’t approach the hilarity of pictures like ‘The Woman Eater’ (1959), or the Ed Wood scripted ‘The Venus Flytrap’ (1970), but there’s still some excellent moments with various members of the cast thrashing about with rubber branches. But the only real reason to sit through this is Mitchell, who avoids eye-rolling histrionics but still delivers a consistently funny performance, although it’s hard to tell whether it was intentional or not. His best scenes are where he fawns over his creation behind closed doors in a strangely intimate way, which may go a long way to explain why he’s so obviously totally disinterested when Fischer manages to get him in a lip-lock. Which, when you think about it, is quite worrying…

Mitchell began as a contract player in films like John Ford’s ‘They Were Expendable’ (1945) before graduating to bigger roles in ‘B’ Westerns. He played Harry Loman in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ on Broadway, and in the early 1960s he took a starring role in Mario Bava’s classic horror ‘Blood and Black Lace’ (1964). TV stardom followed in long-running Western show ‘The High Chaparral’, but his career in film had already faded into cheap Euro-Horrors and exploitation material by then. Throughout the next few decades, it seemed that he would take a paycheque for anything and everything, starring in projects like hilarious Italian Superman knockoff ‘Supersonic Man’ (1978), Jerry Warren’s notorious (and incredible) ‘Frankenstein Island’ (1981) and stone cold bad movie classic ‘Space Mutiny’ (1988).

Maneater of Hydra (1967)

‘I don’t fancy yours much!’

The rest of the cast were mostly Spanish (Martin’s real name was Francisco Martinez Celeiro), but Fischer was a Czech, Von Nauckhoff from Sweden and Nehlsen was German. Montés had a featured role in Jess Franco’s awful ‘Sumuru’ picture ‘The Girl From Rio’ (1970) and Fischer was one of the leads in ‘The Goalkeeper’s Fear of The Penalty’ (1972), an early film from cult director Wim Wenders!

Welles directed a handful of films, including cult favourite ‘Lady Frankenstein’ (1971), but is better known as actor, with parts in ‘Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy’ (1955), ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II’ (1989), ‘Dr Heckyl and My Hype’ (1980), ‘The X From Outer Space’ (1967) and midnight movie favourite ‘Attack of the Crab Monsters’ (1957).

Sadly, a poor script with almost no effort at character development, and precious little internal logic, means this one is rather formulaic and, at times, a bit of a chore. However, riding to the rescue are Cameron Mitchell and a ridiculous climax, which together almost make the journey worthwhile.

Mutant War (1988)

Mutant_War_(1988)‘What I am and what I’m up to, I’ll explain later, right now something’s going to happen…’

Scientists explode a new kind of bomb to save the Earth when it’s threatened by a horde of pig-faced aliens, It works but years later unknown radiation has devastated the planet and human kind struggles to survive in a world full of mutations….

Tongue in cheek zero budget Mad Max-wannabe from Brett Piper, the director of ‘A Nymphoid Barbarian In Dinosaur Hell’ (1990). It’s a sequel to the same team’s alien invasion flick ‘Galaxy’ (1986). Roaming the wasteland is Harry Trent (the returning Matt Mitler); once an alien fighter but now just the one man who can make a difference (apparently). He drives the obligatory dune buggy with a cannon on top and wears a long coat and shades. He even wears these at night, because it’s more important to look cool than stay alive, right? But, to be fair, he does take his sunglasses off to drink from a bottle he’s found lying in the street (sensible) and look through some old porn mags. Is this film supposed to be satire? I’m not sure it’s that deep, to be honest.

The mutants take two basic forms; there are the human versions who are much like the walking dead. They can’t procreate, but kidnap what big-haired human women are left in order to keep trying. The others are huge monsters made of play doh that look as if they’ve been animated on a workbench in the back of someone’s shed. Ray Harryhausen would not have been impressed. Mitler faces them all down with his zappy weapons and his sparkling repartee. In fact, it’s a relief when they do appear because he actually shuts up for a minute. The hero as asshole certainly can work; Ash in the ‘Evil Dead’ films for example, but here the same idea is delivered without wit or subtlety and quickly becomes annoying.


Don’t worry, we’ll be going direct to video…

But who is this appearing as the chief of the mutants? Why, it’s Cameron Mitchell! Almost ten years after he fought with ‘Supersonic Man’ (1978) and only a half dozen since he was a human blood bank on ‘Frankenstein’s Island’ (1981) for bad movie legend Jerry Warren. Mitchell rivals John Carradine as the man who would appear in absolutely anything (Space Mutiny (1988)!!), but it’s hard to imagine he got much of a paycheque for his performance here, delivered partly through the miracle of voiceover.

You do have to admire the filmmakers (somewhat misguided) ambition in trying to present an apocalyptic adventure such as this on a non-existent budget, but perhaps it would have been more sensible to attempt a smaller scale project. As it is, this comes across as barely professional at times and is never even remotely convincing.

The most interesting aspect is the unusual musical soundtrack, credited to The Astral Warriors.

Space Mutiny (1988)

Space Mutiny (1988)‘Surrender, or be blown to astro-dust!’

The ‘Southern Star’ is carrying the last remnants of humanity across the galaxy, looking for a new Earth. Along the way they are menaced by space pirates, but the biggest danger is much closer to home.  As part of a plot to drive them towards a planet of his own choosing, their renegade security officer begins orchestrating acts of deadly sabotage.

Oh dear. Once in a while you come across something so remorselessly bad is just impossible to say a positive word about it. This is such a film. Yes, the SFX, miniature craft and the space battles aren’t bad. That’s true. But as they’re lifted wholesale from ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (1978), I’m afraid they don’t really count!  Cylons become space pirates, beefcake star Reb Brown sits in a mismatched ‘Viper’ cockpit and some of the footage runs backwards. It’s seamless.

Moving inside the ‘Galactica’ (sorry the ‘Southern Star’), we come across the next big problem: the set design. Have you ever heard of brick walls inside a spaceship? Well, this baby’s got ‘em!  Above decks may be all blank plastic walls and early 1980s home computer graphics, but where the ‘real work’ gets done? Well, that resembles an old, deserted factory. With a couple of motorised golf carts and daylight coming in through the windows. Apparently, cinematographer Vincent G Cox was aware of the last problem and used filters to give the light an orange glow. Fine. Good man. Unfortunately, no one informed the processing lab and they colour-corrected the orange glow back into daylight!  Oops.

Space Mutiny (1988)

The Engineering Deck of the ‘Southern Star’.

Then there’s the star-studded cast. Commander Adama is played by Cameron Mitchell in a silly, stick-on Father Christmas beard. He’d been a regular on late 1960s TV hit ‘The High Chaparral’ but his movie career had taken in such epic millstones as ‘Supersonic Man’ (1978) and Jerry Warren’s hilarious ‘Frankenstein Island’ (1981). Beefcake hero Reb Brown was both the late 1970s TV movie ‘Captain America’ and ‘Yor, Hunter from the Future’ (1983) (‘Yor!!! He’s the man!’)

Brown’s real-life wife Cisse Cameron is our heroine. Her other movie credits are pretty limited. But, best of all, opposing them is bad guy John Phillip Law, briefly a star in Europe in the 1960s (‘Barbarella’ (1967) and ‘Diabolik’ (1968)) whose stateside career never really took off. He doesn’t so much chew the scenery here as projectile vomit pieces of it toward the camera. ‘Take that, you space bitch!’ he screams whilst simultaneously having some kind of a medical episode.

Next up is the script. It’s not very good. Actually, it’s often stupid and rather painful. Character motivations are illogical and actions simply make no sense. After appointing Beefcake as their new champion, the bridge crew throw a drinks party, seemingly forgetting their imminent peril. A group of mysterious telepathic women in leotards come on board and spent all their time dancing in slow motion and indulging in allegedly significant (but completely meaningless) voiceovers. What have they got to do with anything? Search me. All the dialogue is terribly bland or desperately contrived.

So what happens? Well, our heroine’s a feisty one (apparently) and blames Beefcake for the death of her (unseen) friend when he piles his Viper up in the Galactica’s landing bay. The two hate each other on sight (yawn!) but, in no time at all, they’re snuggled up on the deck in the hydroponic garden. ‘Can a woman buy a man a drink in your galaxy?’ she simpers, delivering the best chat-up line ever. Mind you, seconds before that she’d been doing fairly obscene things with a hula-hoop on the dance floor, so he’d probably got the idea already. (Nice to see hula hoops making a comeback in the distant future). Meanwhile, Law and his lieutenants are blowing things up and silencing undesirables (‘This is mutiny, this is treason, which I warn you I must report!’) They also have a troop of goons who run around a lot and wear balaclava helmets. Well, it can get pretty cold in a spaceship sometimes. Especially when it looks like a deserted factory.

Space Mutiny (1988)

He’s the Man !!!!!

Our golden couple clue into the conspiracy, of course, and have to be silenced. There is a lot more running about with colourful ray gun fire and goons taking headers from gantries every few seconds. Strangely they always do this in pairs wearing those balaclava helmets so we can’t see their faces. Why? Well, there are only two stuntmen named in the credits. You figure it out.

Anyway, Cameron gets captured and Law makes a kind offer to sort out her orthodontic requirements (‘It’s not unlike dental equipment on Earth; not that you’d know anything about that!), but she escapes by convincing her guard to strip to his underpants. It’s probably the least persuasive seduction scene ever put on film. The cracking climax features a nail-biting chase on the motorised golf carts (‘You meddling fool’ / ‘Son of a bitch!’) and the credits roll accompanied by an excellent slab of 1980s synthesised cock rock: “My moment is here, my moment is now… Here I stand! On the Edge of a Dream! The future before me and time in between…” Wow. It’s a real ‘punch the air’ moment!  I know I did.

To be fair, original director Dave Winters had to bail early due to family problems and replacement Neal Sundstrom was really ‘sold a kipper’ when he picked up the ball. Both of them tried to get their names taken off the finished film, although Winters was not successful.

But not everyone showed such a deplorable lack of enthusiasm for the project. Lt Lemont (biggest hair on board) is killed fairly early on when she uncovers the despicable machinations of Law and his woolly helmeted friends. Even so, she still turns up at her station on the bridge later on in the film. Twice. Now, there’s dedication for you!

Altogether now… “Maybe I’ll fall and maybe I’ll fly… Here I stand!  On the Edge of a Dream!”

Frankenstein Island (1981)

Frankenstein_Island_(1981)‘Oh, disciple of the golden thread, the power ye seek shall be given! It shall be given! The power! The power! The power! The power!’

Four friends on a balloon trip are wrecked on a remote island, where the descendants of Frankenstein and Van Helsing are experimenting with… stuff.

Jerry Warren is one of the cult figures of bad cinema. His forte was to take foreign language films and combine them with new footage for American release. Occasionally, he actually created a new film of his own but they were almost always featured a healthy percentage of stock and library footage. By the early 1980s, Jerry’s career seemed to be over. He’d directed his last film a decade and a half earlier, the much ridiculed ‘The Wild Wild World of Batwoman’ (1966). But there was time for one last hurrah and what a sign-off it was: the (almost) legendary ‘Frankenstein Island’ (1981).

It’s an original Jerry screenplay too, taking elements from the Frankenstein mythos and a cave girl picture and blending them brilliantly with Jules Verne’s ‘Mysterious Island’. We begin in Verne’s territory with our potential castaways adrift in a balloon in the middle of a violent storm. Only we don’t actually see them in the balloon. Not quite. What we see instead is some library footage of several balloons in flight together with some explanatory conversations dubbed over the footage. And the sky looks kind of blue and clear rather than stormy. Oh, well.

Anyway, our heroes are washed up on a beach with a rubber dingy. There’s Robert Clarke (‘The Hideous Sun Demon’ (1959) himself!), three other blokes and a dog called Melvin. We never really find out anything about them apart from the fact that Clarke is supposed to be a top scientist (or something?) One of these twerps suggests finding some trees so they can build a raft, at the same time he is leaning against their dingy, which looks perfectly seaworthy. Melvin widdles on some seaweed, possibly providing some kind of subtext or maybe just comic relief. Moving into the interior, our heroes find a tribe of cave babes in leopard skin bikinis (actually descended from aliens) and some pirates. We know they are pirates because one of them has an eyepatch and cackles a lot. Cameron Mitchell is a mad castaway being used as a bloodbank by Sheila Van Helsing Frankenstein, played by Warren’s wife Katherine Victor in a silly blonde wig. Mentioning any other place by name results in a silly noise and a severe pain in the left forearm.

The stars of the re-booted 'MacMillan & Wife' weren't really hitting it off...

The stars of the re-booted ‘MacMillan & Wife’ weren’t really hitting it off…

Are you following it so far? Ok. Sheila is keeping her husband alive with Mitchell’s blood and a small pink box standing on one of its corners that spins around on a bench at high speed accompanied by another silly noise. This is so hubby can channel the spirit of her great grandfather, the original Dr Frankenstein. He’s played by John Carradine (superimposed on some of the action having been filmed at an entirely different time). Carradine rants endlessly apart the ‘power of the golden thread’ and resurrects his monster from a watery grave for the finale.

Sheila keeps a brain in a jar in her lab and has a goon squad of blokes in woolly hats, black sweaters and jam jar bottomed glasses. We don’t know who they are exactly but apparently they don’t have a bloodstream. Clarke wanders about a bit looking vaguely confused, Victor loses it as she has some kind of ‘a turn’ near the end and there’s a mass bundle, which was undoubtedly made up by the actors as they went along. The twist in the tale is also completely nonsensical.

Sometimes you come across a movie that simply defies analysis. ‘Frankenstein Island’ (1981) is car crash cinema; a unique film experience so awful that it is beyond criticism.

Jerry, people may have said that you couldn’t direct traffic, let alone a film, and they’d be right. But you still did it 11 times anyway.

Sleep well, Jerry, my friend. I’ll have a pint for you tonight.

Buy ‘Frankenstein Island’ here if you dare!!