Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)‘With this suit, I could swim through the centre of the sun.’

A notorious criminal mastermind steals 10 million dollars from under the noses of the police. The authorities escalate their campaign to apprehend him, forcing an underworld kingpin and his mob into taking action against the thief. Can the villain stay one step ahead of both the combined might of the forces of law and order and the criminal underworld?

Stylish and extravagant big-screen adaptation of the popular Italian comic book series from director Mario Bava. Unlike the maestro’s previous offerings, this was a big studio production with backing from well-known producer Dino De Laurentiis, big-name stars and shot on various locations, but mostly at his studio in Rome.

The film opens with the latest diversionary tactic employed by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to snare super heist merchant, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his lover and partner in crime Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Instead of ten million dollars in banknotes, the cargo protected by a convey of motorcycle policemen is just blank paper. The real deal is going with him in an unmarked car with a much smaller escort. Law isn’t fooled, of course, and uses a smoke machine on a road bridge and a dockside crane to grab the swag. Piccoli is called in to face Minister of Finance Terry-Thomas but, after a humiliating press conference which Law and Mell disrupt with laughing gas, Piccoli gets special powers to end the Diabolik menace.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


Squeezing local mobster, Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) by raiding on his clubs and businesses, the detective strikes a deal with the crimelord: hand over Diabolik and the pressure will be off. Meanwhile, Law pulls off another daring heist; snatching an emerald necklace and escaping via a rise with a catapult. But Celi kidnaps Mell and offers Law an ultimatum: the ten million dollars and the emerald necklace in exchange for her safe return. Law accepts the deal, but still has a few tricks up his sleeve when they meet for a showdown.

Diabolik was a character created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani whose instant popularity created a whole new sub-genre of Italian comics known as the ‘Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). In his original incarnation, Diabolik was a ruthless criminal genius, who let nothing stand in his way but, over time, and after legal actions by an outraged ‘moral majority’, the character softened into more of a hi-tech ‘Robin Hood’. Fumetti neri in general split into two distinct camps, those targeted more at a juvenile audience and those ‘prohibited to minors’ which emphasised more adult themes, including far higher levels of sex and violence.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


A project to adapt the character to film had begun several years earlier with Jean Sorel in the title role and Elsa Martinelli and his lover and partner in crime, Eva Kant. However, the project collapsed quickly, and it’s unclear if anything more was shot than publicity stills. De Laurentiis acquired the rights and brought Bava on board, intending the film would accompany his production of Roger Vadim’ ‘Barbarella’ (1968) into theatres. Law was under contract to appear in that film, but delays caused by working with the SFX allowed him to take on the role of Diabolik first.

Bava was happy with his casting but less so with Catherine Deneuve who De Laurentiis selected for the role of Eva. As it was, she only lasted a week into filming before Austrian actress Marisa Mell replaced her. By all accounts, this was because Deneuve refused to disrobe for the film’s most iconic scene, where Diabolik and Eva make love naked on a revolving bed covered in money. However, given her subsequent filmography and the fact that the final scene is not explicit, it may be that Bava was able to use the situation as a way to get her released.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 


The finished film is a kaleidoscope of 1960s pop culture, with bright, eye-popping colours and a wonderful mixture of striking production design and Bava’s genius for optical effects. Rather than presenting the action in a static way to reflect its comic strip origins, Bava keeps his camera moving, deliver a fast-paced narrative decorated with stylistic flourishes which give the film a feel of hyper-reality. Bava achieved the apparent scale and complexity of Diabolik’s underground headquarters by combining the actors with Bava’s matte paintings. Other visuals were created by cutting pictures of buildings, aircraft and other items from magazines, posting them on to a sheet of strategically placed glass and then shooting the action through it. Although it sounds like a terrible idea, Bava makes it work.

There are some other noteworthy touches too. Bava uses animation to draw lines on a map, and for a photo-fit device used by the police to try and identify Eva. He also employs his usual trick of foregrounding objects to give depth to scenes, sometimes shooting through some that break the image into squares approximating the comic book panels, such as empty bookshelves and a bedstead.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


There’s a flamboyance and a real sense of freedom to the picture, fueled by a playful, liberated sexuality, displayed not by promiscuity, but the unfettered passion between Diabolik and Eva. It helps that Law and Mell have such sizzling chemistry and give note-perfect performances, sensibly resisting the temptation to play to the gallery. Celi is his usual, reliable self as boss of the criminal underworld and Piccoli underplays beautifully as our larcenous duo’s official nemesis. Thomas also provides a beautiful cameo as the government minister, begging the populace to pay their taxes voluntarily after Law and Mell blow up the tax office and destroy all the official records!

The cool 1960s vibe also gets a major assist from composer Ennio Morricone, who delivers a jazzy, uptempo score that’s an integral part of the film’s ambience. Sadly, the original tapes are no longer available, having been destroyed in a fire, and the only way to enjoy his work is to watch the film, although a re-recording from 2014 is available. Also on hand to deliver his expertise is artist Carlo Rambaldi who designed Diabolik’s iconic mask before going on to significant work in Hollywood, rewarded eventually with 3 Oscars, including one for ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

The character of Diabolik has his roots in older fictional masterminds, such as Germany’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ and the French ‘Fantomas’. Like those characters, in the source material, he plays with notions of identity, using lifelike masks to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. This idea was dropped from the film, leaving him more in common with later villains such as ‘Kriminal’. He was developed as a direct rival to Diabolik but arrived on the big screen first in the form of Glenn Saxson. In a sly tip of the hat, the bank manager who hands the ten million dollars over to Piccioli at the start of this film is played by Andrea Bosic, who served as Saxson’s official opponent in those earlier ‘Kriminal’ pictures.

There are some flaws in Bava’s film, though. The process shots and rear-projection are so hideous and poorly done that it’s tempting to believe that it was a deliberate choice, made by the director to contribute to the comic-book aesthetic. If so, then it’s one of the few visual missteps in his career. The script, credited to several writers, including Bava, is a little scrambled and untidy, but that may have been intentional too, as it does lift some sequences directly from the source material and contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

Diabolik’s return to the big screen any time soon seems an unlikely proposition, even though the global audience today shares some of the feelings of the public who first elevated the character to its iconic status in Italy after the Second World War. Specifically, a distrust of authority figures who increasingly excuse graft and political corruption by using the loopholes in a legal system designed solely for their benefit. This growing cynicism would embrace a subversive character such as this, but any new iteration would need to walk a very fine line. After all, a lot of his actions would be interpreted by most as aspects of domestic terrorism, even though he has no political agenda or desire to enforce change on the system.

Bava’s cut-price optical effects helped bring the film in for a cost of approximately $400,000 when it had originally been allocated a budget of $3 million. De Laurentiis offered him the chance to direct a sequel with the unused money, but Bava turned it down, unhappy with what he felt was interference from the studio during the filmmaking process. Perhaps the money would have been better used smoothing off some of the rougher edges of this film anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable Sixties romp, tinged with psychedelia and filtered through the genius of Mario Bava.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

Planet of the Vampires/Terrore nello spazio (1965)

Planet of the Vampires (1965)‘Apply neuro-vascular tension, suppress cortical areas X, Y Zee.’

Two spaceships answer a strange signal from the unexplored world of Aura and are forced down by sudden gravitational power. As soon as they make planetfall, crew members go berserk and attack each other with murderous intent. Surviving the madness, the Captain of the Argos and his team attempt to make repairs, reach their sister ship and find out what’s going on…

Highly influential science-fiction horror from Italian director Mario Bava, who has gained a significant cult following in recent years. Throughout his career, he worked mostly in lower budgeted genre pictures, so his talents went unacknowledged by the mainstream critics of the time, but his mastery of the visual image has led to a positive reappraisal of his impressive body of work.

Approaching the planet Aura, all looks to be going according to plan for twin spaceships the Argos and the Galliot. Then, without warning, communication between them is interrupted, and a rapidly increasing gravitational force seizes the Argos. Disaster looms but, fortunately, in the grand tradition of movie spaceship commanders, Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) manages to ‘switch to manual’ and bring the ship to ground safely. Almost as soon as his crew recover, however, they begin to attack each other in a psychotic frenzy. The seizure passes with his colleagues having no memories of their actions, leaving Sullivan with a pretty big mystery to solve.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘Who goes there?’

Receiving a mayday from the Galliiot, they locate their sister ship but find the crew dead, apparently victims of the same strange madness that they experienced. They bury the dead on the planet’s surface but find the corpses they saw in the locked control room have mysteriously vanished. Another mystery is the damage to their own ship that prevents them from leaving. Sullivan assigns Wess (Ángel Aranda) to supervise repairs, but later finds the technician attempting to sabotage a vital piece of equipment. When questioned, Aranda remembers nothing about what he was trying to do. If that wasn’t enough, outside the ship, the dead astronauts of the Galliot are rising from their tombs.

What sets this film apart and has ensured its celebration as a cult favourite over the years is the rich visual quality and style that director Bava brings to the story. A master of optical FX, framing, colour and lighting, he is able to evoke a truly alien landscape with little more than a hyperactive fog machine and some fake rocks. It’s staggering that the production cost only around $200,000 and Sullivan, who also hated the script, was almost at a loss for words when he saw the quality of the finished film.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I’m ready for my closeup, Mr Romero.’

The model work by Carlo Rambaldi is somewhat less successful, though, and looks rather dated. However, the takeoff and landing sequences are still impressive when you consider they were accomplished using resources such as cotton wool, tissue paper and an aquarium. Bava’s skill with trick shots also comes to the fore with some of the ship interiors, although it does have to be acknowledged that no cinematic spacecraft will ever rival the Argos for the most wasted space on a flight deck.

The script, mostly written by Ib Melchoir was adapted from a short-story by Renato Pestriniero entitled ‘One Night of 21 Hours’ and, although the basic concept remained, significant changes were made from the source material. The central idea of alien possession of human bodies harkens back to Don Siegel’s masterful ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) and its source novel by Jack Finney. However, Pestriniero’s story does not depict the aliens as any kind of threat. Instead, once possessed, the human ego is suppressed, allowing the id to take control, in effect turning the hosts into joyful children with no purpose but to dance and play. Sensibly, this was dropped for the film with the Aurans being given a definite, and far more sinister, purpose.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess he had the eggs for breakfast.’

The electronic score by Gino Maranuzzi Jr takes a nod toward the electronic soundscapes of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) and helps to enhance the mood of dread evoked by Bava’s stunning visuals. The sequence where the dead rise from their shallow graves, tearing their way through their plastic shrouds is a perfect combination of Bava’s visual genius and Maranuzzi Jr’s minimalist approach. Also worthy of note are the black leather and high-collars of the crew’s uniforms designed by Gabriele Mayer. They are striking, unique and impossibly cool.

It’s not a perfect film by any means. Melchoir’s script makes almost no effort to give our principals any distinguishing personality traits beyond a half-hearted attempt to provide Sullivan with some moments of self-doubt. This shortfall would not be so noticeable if there were a little more going on with the story. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script crew member Tiona (Evi Marandi) developed a telepathic link with the Aurans and that subplot might have gone some way to giving the drama the extra content that it needs. So there’s not a lot for the cast to work with, although Sullivan delivers a robust and authoritative performance that helps to ground the drama. The kind of on-screen chemistry necessary t to convey the inter-relationships and camaraderie of a tight-knit crew of characters may not have been possible because of language barriers. Sullivan was American, Marandi was Greek, Aranda was a Spaniard, leading lady Norma Bengell was Brazilian and the rest of the cast Italian, language barriers may have prevented the creation of

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

The temperatures with a little high for the time of year…

Production seems to have been a smooth affair, although it is curious that part-way through the picture the unidentified actor playing Commander Sallis of the Galliot is replaced in the role by Massimo Righi. This substitution does suggest that some reshoots may have been necessary. However, there is no record of this or any other such indicators in the finished film. There does seem to have been some issues with casting the lead female role, though. Studio starlet Susan Hart was apparently cast, but this seems to have caused some friction with AIP studio head Sam Arkoff, perhaps because she had just married his business partner James H Nicholson. Shooting began without an actress in the role before Bengell was eventually cast.

Many commentators have made hay with the similarities between the film and the Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979), and it’s fair to say that one influenced the other to some extent. One of the shots of the exterior of the downed Argos shows the ship to be a kissing cousin to the sinister space vehicle discovered by the crew of the ‘Nostromo’. More notably, when Sullivan and Bengell explore the wreck of an extraterrestrial craft on the surface of Aura, they find two giant, calcified, alien skeletons. These are not nearly as impressive as Scott’s ‘Space Jockey’ of course, but the similarity of their find is undeniable. The film’s downbeat, ironical climax was also faintly echoed almost two decades later by the ending of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982).

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess the orgy is off then…’

Sullivan was a Hollywood veteran who contributed fine work in many big studio productions, particularly in the Noir arena, and was a regular on Network TV in the 1970s. His credits include ‘And Now Tomorrow’ (1944), ‘Suspense’ (1946), ‘Payment On Demand’ (1951), Vincente Minnelli’s multiple-Oscar winner ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ (1952), ‘Loophole’ (1954), Samuel Fuller’s ‘Forty Guns’ (1957) and ‘A Gathering of Eagles’ (1963). He was also terrific as the title character of the unjustly neglected ‘The Gangster’ (1947). Bengell was an award-winning actress and singer in her native Brazil who achieved worldwide notoriety and the displeasure of the Catholic church for her full-frontal nude scenes in Ruy Guerra’s ‘The Unscrupulous Ones/Os Cafajestes’ (1962).

Model-maker Rambaldi went on to work with John Huston, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento before relocating to America and winning Oscars for his visual effects on ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982). Melchior is fondly remembered for screenwriting on science-fiction projects such as fan-favourite ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964), ‘Reptilicus (1961), ‘Journey to the Seventh Planet’ (1962), ‘The Time Travellers’ (1964) and ‘The Angry Red Planet’ (1959), also directing the last two. Roger Corman based his cult classic ‘Death Race 2000’ (1975) on a short story by Melchior. 

An important work in both the history of big-screen science-fiction and the career of director Mario Bava. An essential watch for lovers of cult cinema.