The Crimes of the Black Cat/Sette scialli di seta gialla (1972)

‘They found the head of a black cat on the tracks.’

A blind pianist overhears a blackmail plot on the night his girlfriend ends their relationship. The next day she is murdered under mysterious circumstances at the fashion house where she works. Then her cousin is killed, and he determines to investigate over the objections of the police…

Fair to middling Giallo thriller that takes some second-hand story elements from previous entries in the sub-genre and attempts to mix them into something new. Director Sergio Pastore also assembles a cast of familiar faces for this Italian-Danish co-production partially shot in Copenhagen.

Composer Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen) is unsurprised when he’s stood up by young lover Paola Whitney (Isabelle Marchall) on a restaurant date. What he doesn’t expect, however, is to overhear two voices in the next booth planning a blackmail scheme. They are vague on the details, and his blindness prevents him from carrying out an identification. The next day Marchall dies suddenly in her dressing room at work, the only clues to the cause being some scratches on her face and a strange wicker basket that disappears.

It doesn’t take long to uncover that Marchall was starting a blackmail scheme with her cousin, photographer Harry (Romano Malaspina). Their target was the manager of the fashion studio, Victor Ballais (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who’d been unwise enough to bed Ms Marchall in the glare of Malaspina’s flashbulb. Unfortunately, his playboy lifestyle depends on his wife, Françoise (Sylva Koscina), who owns the business. Unsatisfied with the efforts of Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine), Steffen determines to look into the situation himself, with the aid of right-hand man Burton (Umberto Raho) and Marchall’s roommate, Margot Thornhill (Shirley Corrigan).

Giving some old ideas a fresh coat of paint is nothing new in cinematic terms, particularly in the Italian film industry, where a slavish following of popular box-office trends was a given. So, director Pastore, who co-writes with Sandro Continenza and Giovanni Simonelli, can be forgiven for wearing his influences prominently on his sleeve. The concept of a blind detective goes all the way back to Henry Hathaway’s ’23 Paces to Baker Street’ (1956) but, of course, had been more famously revived in the person of actor Karl Malden by Giallo master Dario Argento for ‘The Cat o’ Nine Tails/Il gatto a nove code’ (1971). Similarly, director Mario Bava utilised the fashion house setting with far more style and effect for seminal early Giallo ‘Blood and Black Lace/6 donne per l’assassino’ (1964). Even the past event providing the catalyst for the murderous rampage had previously served as a plot device.

Pastore, therefore, has little to offer in terms of originality beyond the rather novel method used in some of the earlier murders. This M.O. does strain credibility more than a little, but it is the one thing the film possesses that is slightly different. The lack of ideas in the well-thumbed plot throws the weight of expectation on the technical execution and the cast, and neither really rises to the occasion. Pastore relies on an over-use of whip-pans and crash zooms to try and infuse the drama with some energy but beyond a dash of suspense in a final act scene set in an abandoned glassworks, the film never really gets out of first gear. There is also a particularly nasty kill late on, which is queasily effective thanks to some rapid editing but feels strangely out of place with what has gone before.

The cast features a roster of reliable performers, many with previous Giallo credits. They do what they can with the material, but many of the roles are severely underwritten. Steffen is perfectly convincing as a blind man but never approaches the levels of personality that Malden displayed for Argento, so he fails to engage any significant audience sympathy or investment. Raho manages some subtle moments as Steffen’s almost ever-present factotum, but the acting plaudits mainly belong to Giovanna Lenzi, here credited, as per usual, as Jeanette Len. Her performance as a drug addict blackmailed into helping the killer feels more urgent and immediate than anything else on offer.

There are a couple of nice touches for genre and horror fans, though. Steffen isn’t just a run-of-the-mill working pianist and composer; he scores films. His latest project? Apparently, it’s Lucio Fulci’s classic Giallo ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin/Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971)! There’s also a throwback to classic horror when Lenzi enters a pet shop, and all the animals go wild, recalling Simone Simone’s efforts to exchange her feline friend for a bird in Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ (1942). It transpires that Lenzi owns the pet store in this film, but it’s still a pleasing moment.

Crucially with a Giallo thriller of this kind, the mystery manages to stay engaging, even if it’s not hard to guess the killer’s identity, and everything is wrapped up a little too rapidly in the final scene. However, despite all the obvious flaws and shortcomings, the general level of production value and all-around competence does see it through. Pastore is wise enough to keep things moving, so the pace never flags, and he delivers the requisite procession of corpses to keep the audience interested, if not precisely on the edges of their seats.

Giovanna Lenzi had a role in Pastore’s first-ever film ‘Crisantemi per un branco di carogne’ (1968). The two often worked together over the years before and after their encounter with the Black Cat. They married in 1972 and remained hitched until his death fifteen years later. Lenzi had begun her screen career with a small role in the underrated Barbara Steele vehicle ‘An Angel for Satan/Un angelo per Satana’ (1966), which also starred Steffan. Minor assignments followed in early Giallo ‘A…Come Assassino/A…For Assassin’ (1966), Eurospys ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse/Le tigre sort sans sa mère’ (1967) and ‘Agente Sigma 3: Missione Goldwather’ (1967) before she snagged a more significant role in Giallo thriller ‘Deadly Inheritance/Omicidio Per Vocazione’ (1968). In the 1980s, she moved behind the typewriter and collaborated with Pastore on two projects, which she also directed, including the poorly-reviewed Giallo ‘Delitti’ (1987).

If judged on its own merits rather than compared to its far superior sources, this one just about gets a pass.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave/La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba (1971)

‘I need a fistful of ash. That’s essential.’

A troubled aristocrat is obsessed with the memory of his dead wife, Evelyn. He picks up lookalike prostitutes and introduces them to his torture chamber. Then he meets a beautiful woman at a party and falls instantly in love. The couple marries, and he plans to renovate his crumbling ancestral home, but his obsession with Evelyn remains…

Good-looking Giallo directed by Emilio Miraglia and co-written by him, Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru. The title suggests a straight horror film, but, despite some early hints of the ghastly and supernatural, it’s not likely that anyone would consider it as such.

The death of his unfaithful wife Evelyn (Paola Natale) in childbirth has seriously screwed with the psyche of eligible bachelor Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen). Rather than hit the dating scene, he prefers to frequent sleazy clubs and pick up prostitutes such as redheaded exotic dancer Susie (Erika Blanc). After surreptitiously changing the number plates on his car mid-journey (nothing suspicious there!), he gets them back to his cool pad: a suite of chic rooms in his tumbledown castle. Like all good ancestral homes, this comes with its own torture chamber, and good host Steffen is happy to give his guests the grand tour.

Concerned about Steffen’s brooding isolation, his cousin George Harriman (Enzo Tarascio) and psychiatrist Dr Richard Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) encourage him to get out more. Tarascio takes him to an outdoor party where the moody noble meets the glamorous Gladys (Marina Malfatti). It’s love at first sight, and the two get hitched and move into the old homestead straight away. Steffen instructs estate manager Farley (Umberto Raho) to renovate the property and invites wheelchair-user Aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davis) to stay. Also resident on the estate is ex-brother-in-law Albert (Roberto Maldera), who acts as caretaker and keeps a cage filled with hungry foxes. He also prowls around at night and accepts regular ‘cash in hand’ payouts from Steffen.

This is an intriguing setup, and the film’s first half builds quite nicely. Miraglia makes excellent use of some wonderfully overgrown locations, the first-class work of cinematographer Gastone Di Giovanni ensuring the daylight scenes carry as much menace as those at night. Most significant story developments occur on the grounds rather than inside, and this unusual emphasis results in some striking images and compositions.

The notion of initially presenting the audience with the apparent fact that Steffen is an insane serial killer and then slowly undermining it is an elegant idea. Although Steffen killing the girls in the first act isn’t shown, it’s heavily implied as Miraglia invites the viewer to fill in the gaps. However, later story developments start to suggest that something else might be going on and, at first, this is well-handled. However, Miraglia soon overplays his hand with a seance scene where the spirit of the departed Natale appears in mid-air courtesy of some camera trickery. This event suddenly opens up the possibility of the paranormal, which comes right out of left field, but it’s so heavy-handed that it signposts what’s really going on. Unfortunately, this is the first of a series of ridiculous plot developments which make less and less sense under close examination.

The most obvious example of this chaotic patchwork of contrived plot points centres around Aunt Agatha. To begin with, Davis (probably a pseudonym as it’s the actor’s only screen credit) looks no older than any of her male relatives, begging the question of just whose aunt she is supposed to be. It transpires later on that she’s having an affair with handyman Maldera, and she’s also faking her disability. She’s murdered a few moments after she gets out of her wheelchair, so we never find out why she was pretending to be an invalid. I guess the murderer kills her a few moments later because she’s fulfilled her function of ‘looking a bit suspicious’. The disposal of her body is also quite silly. I’m guessing that ‘falling out of a wheelchair and getting eaten by foxes’ doesn’t appear on many death certificates. Props also to the local constable who turns up for a few moments, frowns, licks the end of his pencil and proclaims her death ‘an accident’! Promotion to detective must be just around the corner.

The script ties itself in knots trying to make sense, and the director and cast aren’t up to the task of papering over the gaping plot holes. Steffen fails to conjure up any sympathy for our miserable sod of a hero as he sulks around with a face like a wet weekend at the seaside. He shares zero chemistry with Malfatti, which doesn’t sell the idea of an instant love story and immediate marriage. The only cast member to emerge with any credit is Blanc, who makes a lot out of her far too limited screen time. Some credit should also be reserved for composer Bruno Nicolai who delivers a solid and quietly appealing score.

Miraglia began his career as an Assistant Director in the early 1950s and worked his way up to solo directing duties on above-average crime thriller ‘Assassination’ (1967) starring Henry Silva. After another teaming with his star, Miraglia then delivered caper movie ‘The Vatican Affair/A qualsiasi prezzo’ (1968) starring Klaus Kinski, Ira von Fürstenberg and veteran Hollywood star Walter Pidgeon. Obscure Spaghetti Western ‘Shoot Joe, and Shoot Again/Spara Joe… e così sia!’ (1971) came after a three-year break, and his last film was another Giallo, ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times/La dama rossa uccide sette volte’ (1972). He left the industry shortly afterwards and passed away in 1982 at the age of 58.

Some excellent visuals are dragged down by a screenplay written without due care and attention.

The Double/La controfigura (1971)

The sea is the colour of the sea, and the sky is the colour of the sky.’

A handsome man is shot in an underground parking garage. As he lies on the ground injured, his thoughts flashback to the events that brought him there. It all began on a beach holiday with his new, young wife…

More psychological drama than horror thriller, director Romolo Guerrieri delivers an unusual Giallo based on a novel of the same name by Libero Bigiaretti. A cast of familiar faces people the fractured narrative as Italian cinema takes another potshot at the empty, amoral lives of the idle rich.

Bleeding out on the concrete isn’t the way Giovanni (Jean Sorel) had planned to spend his day. Gunned down by the elderly Professor Bergamo (Antonio Pierfederici), his recent past starts flashing before his eyes. Where has he seen the old man before? His thoughts return to a beach in Morocco and time spent frolicking in the sand with his blonde wife, Lucia (Ewa Aulin). The couple only recently married, and the older Sorel is protective of his new bride, unhappy that she is interested in beach bum Eddie Kennan (Sergio Doria). It’s soon clear that Aulin isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but her seeming flirtatious nature is little more than youthful high spirits. However, the jealous Sorel can’t see it that way.

Meantime, there’s more trouble on the horizon for our not-so lovable hero. Despite an apparent talent for architecture and a good education, he’s preferred living off his family’s money to applying himself to the world of work. Unfortunately, economic conditions are putting the squeeze on the family business. His brother (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) suggests that he takes a more active role in affairs, but, of course, Sorel isn’t very interested.

His life begins unravelling further when thanks to his new mother-in-law, Nora (Lucia Bosè). No, it’s not the usual problem with parental disapproval, but more to do with the fact that he’d much rather sleep with her than her daughter. When Bosè joins them on their Moroccan retreat, his desire soon escalates into an obsession, especially when she starts spending time with beach boy Doria. It all culminates in a sexual assault, although Sorel finds himself unable to perform at the crucial moment. Yes, this is one screwed-up dude!

Some commentators have advanced the opinion that any movie made in Italy during the early 1970s that features murder is categorised as a Giallo film by default. There is some merit to this opinion, and it certainly could be advanced in this case. There is no mysterious killer whose flashing knife provides a quickly escalating body count or any element of ‘whodunnit’; director Guerrieri shows us the shooter in the opening scene. There is no ambiguity regarding the culprit, only his place in Sorel’s story and the motivation for his crimes.

Director Guerrieri presents this tale as a series of disjointed puzzle pieces, and it is to his credit that he keeps a firm hand on the narrative so it never becomes confusing. Particularly necessary when we’re seeing through the eyes of a storyteller whose memories are jumbled with the occasional fantasy. Ultimately, it’s more of a character study than a mystery, delving deep into the troubled mind of a fully committed narcissist. Giovanni is a man who sees the world, and everyone in it, only in terms directly related to himself and his desires. It’s has a similar feel to ‘A Rather Complicated Girl (1969), which also starred Sorel in the principal role.

The film’s major problem is its lack of plot and incident. How the puzzle pieces fall into place at the end has a pleasing irony, but it all takes place rather suddenly with little foreshadowing beyond that opening scene. The main character’s lack of backstory is also a problem. It’s perhaps understandable that Guerrieri wanted to avoid such familiar tropes as childhood trauma or repressed memories. However, there’s no suggestion of anything that has formed Sorel’s dysfunctional personality other than the ease of a life cushioned by inherited wealth, and that seems a little simplistic and shallow.

There’s also the criminal waste of supporting actors Silvano Tranquilli and Marilù Tolo, who play friends who join Sorel and Awlin on their summer break. Yes, it’s nice to see Tranquilli as something other than a cop, but the script gives neither actor any material to use. It’s a particular shame for Tolo, who still manages to demonstrate once again that she can communicate more with her eyes than many actors can do with pages of dialogue. The writing also does Awlin very few favours, saddling her with an underwritten ‘barbie doll’ role and, it’s a credit to her ability that she brings some nuance to it.

This is Sorel’s show, though, and Giallo’s favourite poster boy gives another assured turn. Equally assured in more sympathetic or more ambiguous roles, the handsome Frenchman has enjoyed a long screen career beginning in the late 1950s. He first teamed up with director Guerrieri on ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah/Il dolce corpo di Deborah’ (1968), a film that proved very important in popularising the Giallo, as the casting of Hollywood star Caroll Baker helped sell it to lucrative American markets. Similar projects followed for the actor, including ‘One On Top of the Other/Perversion Story’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia’ (1970) and ‘In The Eye of the Hurricane/El Ojo del huracán’ (1971). He worked consistently through the decades since and became a familiar face on the French small screen in the 1980s and 1990s with frequent appearances in made for television films and mini-series.

A different type of Giallo with some good qualities that falls a little short in the story department.

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)‘Only animals and Americans get washed standing up.’

A rich old man dies, and the relatives gather at the family estate for the division of his fortune. However, most of them receive nothing; the bulk of the estate going to his niece due to a new will. Jealousies and bad feelings run high and then, inexplicably, the family butler is found stabbed to death in the greenhouse…

Knowing, black comedy Giallo from director Michele Lupo, who sends up the English Country House murder mystery with obvious delight and a little bit of style. Of course, the greedy relatives start dying off one by one after the will is read. Of course, everyone acts as suspicious as hell. Of course, the dim Scotland Yard copper blunders about without a clue and, of course, the solution is wonderfully convoluted and improbable.

The action begins on the golf course with heiress Barbara (Anna Moffo) trying to make a difficult shot out of a bunker. Sadly, she gets more than she bargained for when her swing uncovers the corpse of her cousin’s wife Pauline (Beryl Cunningham). But, never fear, the police are already on the spot as she’s not the first corpse to turn up in the previous 48 hours. Unfortunately, the forces of law and order are represented by arrogant, but dim, Superintendant Grey of Scotland Yard (Lance Percival) and bumbling local plod Sgt. Aloisius Thorpe (Gastone Moschin). From here, we flashback to the relatives arriving at the house, the reading of the will and the mysterious death of Peter, the butler (Ballard Berkeley).

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

‘You know our film’s got a really misleading poster, don’t you?’

Much to everyone’s surprise, the estate has ended up in the hands of naive Moffo, who acted as the old man’s housekeeper in his final years. There’s nothing for daughter Isabelle (Evelyn Stewart) because of her unpopular marriage to Anthony (Peter Baldwin). Also finishing out of the money are chronic gambler Ted (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), bitchy Aunt Gladys (Maria Fabri) and her stupid teenage son Georgie (Christopher Chattel). Numbers are made up by pompous Uncle Lawrence (Quinto Parmeggiani) and a mysterious, handsome stranger (Franco Borelli) who seems to have his eye on Stewart. When the bodies start piling up, it’s a real three-pipe problem for our hapless lawmen.

This is a deliberately familiar setup, of course, harkening right back to silent classic ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927) and making obvious reference to works of detective fiction, such as those of Agatha Christie. But writers Sergio Donati, Massimo Feli Satti and Fabio Pittoru choose a refreshingly satirical approach, focusing their attention on poking fun at tried and true English stereotypes. We get Chittel’s hopelessly repressed teenager, still a nasty little schoolboy at heart, even (very convincingly) faking his own suicide for a joke and then running for the hills when his leering approach to pretty parlourmaid Evelyn (Orchidea De Santis) ends with an offer of sex. Rossi Stuart is the typical English sportsman in tweed and flat cap, and Stewart is the English Rose with hidden passions.

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

‘Can I go back to helping old ladies across the road and getting cats out of trees?’

Best of all, however, is the crimebusting team of Percival and Moschin. Sensibly, they are the focus of the story, and the interplay between the two actors really helps bring the film to life and is a constant source of wry amusement. Initially, the superior Percival is utterly dismissive of his country colleague and no wonder; Moschin seems little more than an amiable oaf, blundering his way through the case with one shame-faced apology after another. But when Percival’s obvious lack of investigative abilities comes to the fore, it’s Moschin who starts coming up with the required insights with the former reluctantly coming to rely on the latter’s brainpower. It may not be tremendously original dynamic, but the two actors play it to the hilt and display excellent chemistry.

As well as some of the cast members being British, the film was partially shot in England; specifically at Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk. Imagine this reviewer’s delight when the opening shot of an Italian Giallo picture features the village sign of a place less than 25 miles from where he grew up! A surreal moment if ever there was one. Most of the cast were Italian, of course, but British audiences of a certain age will recognise Percival and Berkeley. The former was a comedian-actor who was almost a fixture on UK TV in the 1960s and 1970s, and Berkeley found everlasting fame at the age of 71 as the dotty Major on classic sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers.’

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

‘I tell you, Officer, I was only doing 35…’

There are some other notables in the rest of the cast. Rossi Stuart studied at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York before launching into a more than 30-year career in the Italian film industry, often appearing as a leading man. Initially, he plugged away in small roles but had worked his way up to more substantial supporting parts by the time he appeared in Robert Aldrich’s ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ (1962) with Stewart Granger and Stanley Baker. Some work with maestro Mario Bava followed, notably the lead in ‘Kill, Baby…Kill’ (1966). There were also appearances as Commander Rod Jackson in two episodes of Antonio Margheriti’s quartet of science fiction pictures about space station Gamma One. Later notable projects included Gialli ‘The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave’ (1971), ‘The Crimes of the Black Cat’ (1972) and ‘Death Smiles On A Murderer’ (1973). His career went into decline after that, but there were still appearances in poorly regarded horror ‘The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance’ (1975) and one of Alfonso Brescia woeful quartet of ‘Star Wars’ knock-offs ‘War of the Robots’ (1978).

Stewart got her first big break playing Persephone in Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and then had a supporting role in Luchino Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ (1963), appearing under the name of Ida Galli on both occasions. Bava also used her in ‘The Whip and the Body’ (1963) before she worked her way up to the female lead in Spaghetti Westerns. Her first notable Giallo was behind Carrol Baker and Jean Sorel in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968), but it was only after this project that she became closely associated with the sub-genre. ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’ (1971) was followed by ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ (1971), ‘Murder Mansion’ (1972), ‘Knife of Ice’ (1972) and ‘A White Dress for Marialé’ (1972) by which point she was often playing the lead. When the craze for the horror thrillers began to wane, she made several pictures in the organised crime genre, although there was still a late-career appearance in Lucio Fulci’s horror mystery ‘The Psychic’ (1977) to come. Although she made a handful of appearances afterwards, she effectively retired at the end of the 1970s.

A fun comedy Giallo that may not be a world-beater, but still delivers a thoroughly well-crafted and entertaining 90 minutes.

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.

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.

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)‘In medicine, it is called a para-logic ultra-inhibition.’

An unhappily married woman is having an affair with her husband’s twin brother. Then a face from her past shows up with blackmail on his mind. Rather than pay up, the lovers decide to turn the situation to their advantage…

Serviceable, but ultimately fairly absurd, Giallo thriller from director Javier Seto who co-wrote the screenplay, and also has a partial credit for the original story. Initially, it’s an intriguing setup with many possibilities, but the finished film resembles nothing so much an extended television episode crafted for a suspense/mystery anthology show. Perhaps it would have been better presented in that format and length.

Young wife Denise (Teresa Gimpera) has a problem. She’s tired of small-town life with successful, but dull, businessman John (Larry Ward) and longs for glamour, excitement and the bright lights of Paris. An affair with John’s twin brother, Peter (Ward, again) isn’t really helping too much and the two long to be free of John’s control. Their plotting has come to little, however, until opportunity knocks in the form of Gert Muller (Giacomo Rossi Stuart). He’s an old flame from Gimpera’s murky past and demands money to keep quiet about what he knows. So, our two lovebirds put a long considered plan into action, taking advantage of both Peter’s job as a druggist working for John and the latter’s epileptic condition.

Inducing a seizure and keeping John under wraps for a couple of days, allows Peter to impersonate his brother. In that guise, he sleeps with his own occasional girlfriend Annie (Silvana Venturelli), and rendezvous with Rossi Stuart at the money drop as if by accident. Afterwards, he and Gimpera use a mixture of drugs, electro-shock therapy and re-enactments to convince John that it was he who did these things. Later on, when he comes out of his stupor, he comes to believe he has killed Rossi Stuart, and the scene is set for a long-term committal to an institution for the insane, leaving Peter to step into his brother’s financial shoes.

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)

‘We are not singing ‘I Got You Babe’ again…’

Yes, the premise is a little hard to swallow. Apparently, Peter is au fait with brainwashing techniques because he saw them practised in Vietnam, but that does seem a little too pat as we’re given no further information on his experiences. Also, the final act finds credibility taking a powder as the story lurches across the thin line between the implausible and the unbelievable. The tight focus on the lead characters also gives events a very small-scale feel; sure, a couple of doctors are consulted, and the police hang around a bit, but they hardly get much of a look-in. On the bright side, Gimpera does make an excellent, cold as ice femme fatale, although Ward is merely adequate in his dual role.

Ward was an American actor who worked mostly in TV; initially in Westerns, including playing the lead on short-lived 1960s series The Dakotas’. As the decade progressed, he diversified, appearing on shows such as ‘Lost In Space’, ‘I-Spy’, ‘The Fugitive ‘, ‘The Outer Limits’, ‘The Time Tunnel’, ‘The Invaders’ and many more. In the late 1960s, he picked up a few roles in Italian films, mostly Westerns, before moving back into US TV in the 1970s. He also wrote and starred in poorly-regarded Pilipino horror ‘The Deathhead Virgin’ (1974). Gimpera was still active in 2016 after a long history of credits ranging from Jess Franco’s feeble Eurospy ‘Larry, the Inscrutable’ (1967) to a lead role in Victor Erice’s acclaimed arthouse picture ‘The Spirit of The Beehive’ (1973), a film which Guillermo Del Toro has acknowledged as a major influence on his work.

Macabre/Vjale AI Vacio/Journey To Emptiness/The Invisible Assassin/Shadow of Death (1969)

‘For that fashion sense, you deserve to die…’

Rossi Stuart’s time on the big screen began with biblical epics, sword and sandal films and Westerns before he appeared opposite Vincent Price in ‘The Last Man On Earth’ (1964). Work with horror maestro Mario Bava followed in ‘Knives of the Avenger’ (1966) and ‘Kill, Baby… Kill’ (1966) before Eurospy ‘The Big Blackout’ (1966), and a couple of appearances as heroic Commander Rod Jackson in space operas directed by Antonio Margheriti. The next decade brought a number of other Giallo outings, including ‘The Weekend Murders’ (1970) and ‘The Crimes of the Black Cat’ (1972). However, by the end of the decade, he had been demoted to material such as Alfonso Brescia’s dire ‘Star Wars’ (1977) rip-off ‘War of the Robots’ (1977). He remained active until the late 1980s and died in 1994.

A middling Giallo thriller that provides an acceptable level of entertainment but requires some serious suspension of disbelief in the final stages. And as for what a couple of the film’s English titles are supposed to mean…well, your guess is as good as mine.

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.