Top Sensation (1969)

Top Sensation (1969)‘You can’t think, you don’t have the equipment for that.’

A rich businesswoman with a son who has the mind of a child takes him for a trip on her private yacht. She has employed two beautiful women to join them in the hope that if they can awaken his sexual desires, he will become a normal adult. But when they run aground on the coast of a remote island, events take a very dark turn…

Sleazy Giallo drama that combines plenty of sea and sun with an unapologetic obsession with sex. Writer-director Ottavio Alessi’s film may be taking the usual potshots at the lifestyles of the international jet set, but it’s fair to say that he seems just as interested in the considerable charms of his, often naked, leading ladies.

What is business tycoon Mudy (Maud Belleroche) to do with her ‘problem’ child, Tony (Ruggero Miti)? At his age, he should be a man, but he still acts like a child, playing with toys and refusing to speak. Even the expensive clinics in Switzerland have failed to cure him. Belleroche’s latest scheme involves taking him for a trip on her private yacht. Along for the ride are two of her employees; ruthless husband and wife Aldo (Maurizio Bonuglia) and Paola (Rosalba Neri) who are both only too happy to warm Belleroche’s bed as and when required.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘It’s ok, I saw it on a YouTube tutorial.’

The grand plan was to have Neri seduce Miti, thus making him a man and curing all his problems. It seems unlikely that this is approved clinical procedure, but it doesn’t matter because he has refused her advances anyway (he certainly does have issues!) Hired prostitute Ulla (Edwige Fenech) has also struck out, and the quartet is at a loss to know what to do next. It’s a particularly trying situation for Neri and Bonuglia as they are ‘on the promise’ of an ‘oil concession’ from Belleroche if they can succeed.

Just when all seems lost, the yacht runs aground on a sandbank. Bonuglia was supposed to be steering, but he wasn’t looking where he was going because he and Fenech were too busy having sex on the cabin floor. And, yes, there’s no need to worry about the complexities of the group’s interpersonal relationships. Apart from Miti, everyone is having sex with everyone else, and most probably in all the combinations that you can imagine.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘What do you mean, you want to talk about your motivation?’

While they are stranded, Miti makes his escape to the bleak island off the port bow and meets lonely young goatherd Beba (Eva Thulin). The others should be in hot pursuit, but Neri takes the opportunity to shoot some goats with her rifle instead (no reason, really, just a bit of harmless fun) and Belleroche has to offer to pay off disgruntled farmer Andro (Salvatore Puntillo). Meanwhile, Fenech is having intimate relations with one of the goats while Bonuglia takes some photographs of their romantic tryst. It’s hard to see why the British Board of Film Classification refused to give the film a certificate for 36 years, isn’t it?

When they finally catch up with Muti, they find him talking with the innocent Thulin and seemingly interested in her. Forming a new strategy, they invite her back to the boat where the clueless Fenech and Neri give her a ‘glamorous’ makeover, completely missing the point of why Muti was attracted to her in the first place. However, the session does provide an excuse to trap the young girl into a lesbian threesome, and that was far more important. However, there is another problem. Thulin is Puntillo’s child bride, so Neri and Fenech must provide a distraction when he comes on board. Drink proves the answer rather than sex as they can’t have it off with him obviously; he’s loud, sweaty and belongs to the lower orders. Meantime, Thulin and Muti get the chance to spend some quality time below decks.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘These split ends are a disgrace.’

It’s not hard to see why this film has quite the reputation in certain circles. It’s not pornographic by any means, but it certainly pushes the envelope, with our central foursome taking almost every opportunity to indulge their physical desires. And no, Fenech’s intimate liaison with the goat is not shown explicitly, although the naked actress and the animal seem to get fairly friendly! (I can’t help but wonder if she spent the rest of her life getting asked about that scene at respectable parties).

The subtext of the amoral rich living with no regard to societal or behavioural limits isn’t exactly subtle, and Alessi’s lingering camerawork somewhat undercuts any attempt on his part to take the moral high ground. On the one hand, he seems to be asking the audience to condemn these characters but, at the same time, revel in their excesses. But, before you dismiss the entire thing as tasteless exploitation, it’s worth noting that Neri has gone on record in recent years to praise the collaborative process on location. In fact, Alessi was so impressed with her suggestions, that he insisted she received an ‘Assistant Director’ credit.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘I know he’s your husband but he’s a bit of a dick.’

And this is a drama where the women are very much in charge. Maybe Thulin and Fenech are a little passive, but it’s Belleroche and Neri who lead the action and call the shots. The handsome but dim Bonuglia just takes orders, and Puntillo is portrayed as an ineffectual and stupid drunk. Of course, Muti remains the loose cannon on the male side of the equation with his limits never defined and the history of his ‘troubles’ left mostly ambiguous. It’s this uncertainty that provides the story’s element of suspense, although those expecting a more traditional Giallo are likely to find this a little half-hearted.

Alessi was primarily a writer who worked in both comedy and drama and was one of a half a dozen scribes who contributed to the Peter Ustinov family fantasy ‘The Man Who Wagged His Tail’ (1957). He also worked on the historical drama ‘The Mongols’ (1961), a US-Italian co-production which starred Jack Palance and Anita Ekberg and on the screenplay for jokey Eurospy ‘Dick Smart 2.007’ (1967). His only other assignment in the canvas chair was as writer-director of uneven Giallo comedy ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Toto?’ (1964), a showcase for the Italian comedy legend of the same name.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘All ahead full.’

Listing Neri and Fenech’s genre credits would take a whole separate post, but, suffice to say, both women appeared in numerous Gialli, sex comedies and horrors throughout the 1970s and Neri’s career went back to the Peplum craze of the early 1960s. Bonuglia virtually reprised his role here in ‘Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine’ (1969) and later played the male lead in notable Giallo ‘The Perfume of the Lady In Black/Il Profumo della signora in nero’ (1974). Despite a decent showing in this, her screen debut, Thulin’s career never went anywhere, and this is Belleroche’s only screen credit. Her participation is a bit of a puzzle as she was already an award-winning, best selling novelist!

A different kind of Giallo that’s a little short on darkness until the final act but has a good pace and delivers a decent level of entertainment. And admirers of its leading ladies will need no other reason to check it out.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun/Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)‘My mother is dying. A big rock fell on her.’

The legendary hero Hercules is shipwrecked on a strange shore after a terrific storm out at sea. His crew are all dead, and he’s met by a guard of hostile soldiers. Assistance arrives from a group of Inca warriors, and he learns that their land has fallen under the rule of a usurper whose followers practice human sacrifice…

In a sense, this was the last of the ‘stand-alone’ official Hercules series that had been kicked off by the international success of the 1958 film of the same name starring Steve Reeves. Yes, there were three subsequent films, but the first found the demi-god sharing the spotlight with fellow musclemen Samson, Maciste and Ursus. The next was primarily a re-edit of two previous films in the series starring Reg Park and the last was produced initially as a pilot for a television show. And, yes, this project does betray the telltale signs of a dwindling budget and dipping production values.

We join Hercules (Mark Forest) on the coast of South America, washed ashore after an apparent storm out at sea. All his men have drowned, but the bad news doesn’t end there. He’s barely had time to catch his breath before he’s under attack. Some Inca warriors come to his aid (I guess everyone was just hanging at the beach that day) and the bad guys are quickly dispatched. Getting the lowdown on local politics doesn’t take long and, within minutes, Forest has pledged his allegiance to his rescuer: Prince Maytha (Giuliano Gemma), son of the deposed King Houscar (José Riesgo).

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Stop slacking you lazy bastards!’

First on the agenda is preventing the sacrifice of Gemma’s sister, the Princess Hamara (Anna-Marie Pace). She’s due to go under the knife of the High Priest (Giulio Donnini) of villainous despot King Atah Ualpa (Franco Fantasia). Gemma is happy to entrust the task to Forest because he’s known him for an hour or two. By the time Forest and his warrior crew arrive in the city of Tiahuanaca, the shindig is in full swing. For once, the dancing girls on their endless tour of the world’s lost civilisations haven’t got the gig. Instead, there’s a troupe of male dancers in blue feathers and skull masks shaking their thing.

Luckily for Forest, high priest Donnini loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice and takes so long about the ceremony that Forest has plenty of time to snatch Pace from her pink feathered table and make a clean getaway. He covers their escape by bringing down a column in the secret tunnel. This could have backfired and buried everyone, of course, but I guess the big man understands all about load-bearing walls and architectural stuff.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Tell you what. I’ll be Doug McClure if you’ll be Caroline Munro.’

Back at the rebel village, Forest gets nearly all the credit for the rescue (I guess the other guys fighting were pretty superfluous) but, despite this victory, Gemma isn’t keen on taking the fight to Fantasia. His forces are badly outnumbered, even with some of Fantasia’s army fighting in another part of the kingdom. This isn’t good enough for Forest, however, who completely undermines the Prince’s authority in front of the whole village by suggesting an attack. Intelligence will make their warriors worth five of Fantasia’s men, he promises. He doesn’t explain how, but he does invent the wheel, so that’s ok. It’s possible that this was an in-joke by the scriptwriters, who may have been referencing earlier series entry ‘Hercules In The Vale of Woe’ (1961), which was a time-travelling spoof that used the same plot device for comic effect.

Forest has the villagers building siege towers, but his contribution to the work consists of offering the odd bit of helpful advice and hanging around with Pace instead. She’s looking after a shoulder injury he’s sustained, but it’s clear that she’d rather be looking after another part of his anatomy. The drippy romance between Forest and Pace may get consummated offscreen as director and co-writer Osvaldo Civirani cuts from their first kiss to a herd of stampeding llamas. Well, it makes a change from a burning fireplace, I suppose.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Can you hear the llamas starting to gallop?’

But it’s at this point that we start to get a hint of trouble. Financial trouble. The villagers hold a party to celebrate the upcoming battle. The entertainment is a solo dance performed by a woman with a few men as her back-up. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Well, for a start, it lasts for about six and a half minutes, and the cutaways to Gemme and Pace are tight close-ups. Forest attends courtesy of what looks like shaky b-roll footage, and he seems to be looking the wrong way! There have been a few strange editing choices up to this point, but many European films are recut for American release and sometimes with little care or attention. It’s worth mentioning the English language dub, as well. Quite obviously, no-one was in possession of the original script as the dialogue is often clunky and has characters repeating the same information to the extent that sometimes verges on the comic.

There’s also a strange subplot concerning a young boy that’s adopted by the tribe after Hercules lifts a big rock from where it has fallen on the lad’s dying mother. At the time, this seems important, and later we see him following Forest around the village as if they’re joined that the hip. But he never appears again, furthering the impression that some scenes are missing or were never filmed. Events culminate with the storming of the city, of course, and it’s pleasing to report that this is carried out on quite an impressive scale with plenty of extras and action. Unfortunately, the stunt work is uninspired, and some of the combat looks more than a little lethargic.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

The Mardi Gras was in full swing.

Where the film really scores, though, is with the costume design by Mario Giorsi. Fantasia and his Queen (Angela Rhu) wear magnificent, tall headdresses with a skull motif and lots of colourful feathers, and even the despot’s guards are decked out with feathered helmets that reach for the ceiling. The sacrificial ceremony is a riot of bright, vibrant colours thanks to Giorsi’s work, lending the scene a real style and echoing the work of horror maestro Mario Bava on ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961). Perhaps it’s a condemnation of the rest of the film’s technicians to highlight this one area to such an extent, but the work is head and shoulders above what else is on offer. Literally!

The film was producer, director and co-writer Osvaldo Civirani’s debut in those roles and, given that, he delivers a respectable picture. There are problems and signs of possible budgetary issues, but it’s still serviceable enough. He teamed with Forest again on ‘Kindar The Invulnerable’ (1965) and delivered acceptable Eurospys ‘Operation Poker’ (1965) with Roger Browne and ‘The Beckett Affair’ (1966). Later projects included several Spaghetti Westerns, a series of comedies with popular double act Franco and Ciccio and crime thriller ‘The Devil with Seven Faces’ (1971) with Giallo mainstays Carrol Baker and George Hilton.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Sorry, kid, who are you again?’

Incidentally, Italian cult favourite Rosalba Neri is listed by some sources with an uncredited appearance as ‘The Queen.’ Well, there’s only one role that fits that description in the finished film and that most assuredly is played by Rhu and not Neri. It’s possible she may have been initially on the picture and left for some reason and still appears in long shots but that’s unconfirmed. However, her list of credits is always going to be open to some interpretation. Reportedly, sometimes she would send her cousin along to play small roles she had been contracted to do when she couldn’t be bothered!

An acceptable enough muscleman outing that leaves the viewer with the impression that some of its flaws were probably down to adverse circumstances.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)‘You have inherited a king’s throne because your father has passed on. I killed himself myself in battle.’

The kingdom is in the grip of a horrendous drought, and the Queen of Mycenae demands ever-increasing levels of tribute from her subjects, including pretty young virgins to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. Is there no-one who can lead the people in rebellion against her tyrannical rule?

The Hercules movie that isn’t. Of course, 1960s American audiences were used to the exploits of every Italian muscle man being relabelled with the big man’s name on stateside release, be they Goliath, Samson, Ursus or Maciste. However, this one is an even bigger confidence trick. All we have here is a hero who casually adopts the ‘Hercules’ name when on an undercover mission in the enemy camp. Sure, he’s strong and heroic, but he’s not even pretending to be the legendary Greek demi-god. What a complete swizz.

The city of Mycenae has risen from the ashes after perishing in a fiery inferno. On that day of destruction, the young, pregnant Queen Demeter (Rosalba Neri) promises the dying King to turn the people back to the worship of the Earth Goddess. Fast forward a couple of decades, however, and she’s still got them sacrificing young virgins to the evil deity Moloch, who lives in the caves underneath the city. This so-called god is really her grown up son (Pietro Marascalchi) who is so hideous that he needs to hide in the shadows and wear a metal wolf mask to hide his ugliness! He wiles away the long hours strangling the sacrificial girls or using them as live targets when he fancies a bit of practice with bow and arrow. Everyone has to have a hobby, I suppose.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘Hello, girls!’

The neighbouring cities are planning to get together in open rebellion, but the leaders of one fo them tips their hand too early and bring down the wrath of Neri’s army. Their King is killed, and the Princess Deianira (Jany Clair) is taken prisoner. Fortunately, Mycenean good guy, lieutenant Euneos (Michel Lemoine) takes more than a passing interest in her welfare. Meanwhile, forces from nearby Tiryns are riding to their rescue, led by the heroic Prince Glauco (Gordon Scott). But they arrive too late so Scott formulates a plan to attack Mycenae from both inside and out, taking the role of one of the slaves offered in tribute to Neri so that he can infiltrate the city.

On arrival, he catches the eye of the imperious monarch immediately, probably because he’s calling himself Hercules and every evil queen in history can’t resist falling for the muscles of the big man. She offers him a job as captain of part of her royal guard with probable fringe benefits to follow. Unfortunately, things go awry almost immediately when he stops chief lackey General Penthius (Arturo Dominici) having his way with Neri’s goody-two-shoes stepdaughter, the Princess Medea (Alessandro Panaro). Thrown into the dungeon and the inevitable gig at gladiator school, it’s up to Scott form and alliance with Lemoine, foment a rebellion among the populace and find a way to get the city gates open to let in the cavalry.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘I’ve had enough of this wowdy webel sniggewing behaviour.’

This is very much an undistinguished ‘sword and sandal’ picture that has only a few points of interest to note. At first glance, it appears there is some budget here, which gives a decent scale to the climactic battle scenes. However, most of this footage is taken from director Giorgio Ferroni’s previous film ‘The Trojan War/La guerra di Troia’ (1961). The swordplay involving the principals is energetic and well-choreographed, though, with Scott convincing in both the action scenes and the quieter moments. Neri also makes for a deliciously evil queen, both as a young woman in the opening scenes and as a more mature version two decades later, which, considering she was only in her mid-twenties at the time of filming, indicates her talent as an actress. But both the leading roles are one-dimensional, and the script doesn’t give either performer much material to work with.

What’s most curious, though, is the last twenty minutes of the film. Up until then, things have been pretty grounded. Yes, there’s been talk of the Earth Goddess on the one hand, and Marascalchi being the embodiment of Moloch on the other, but no real indication that it’s any more than talk or local superstition. Then the Goddess seems to take a hand, sending a lightning bolt down to strike the sacrificial knife of high priest Asterion (Nerio Bernardi) that he’s about to use on Panaro in the public square. Maybe that could be written off as an amazingly lucky coincidence, but, then again, there’s what happens in the final act in the dusty catacombs beneath the city when Scott goes to confront Marascalchi.

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘Hit it, baby!’

Despite hating feminine beauty because of his deformity, the living god does keep a harem of young lovelies in his man cave. They seem to be under a spell of some sort, and their job is apparently just to play the drums! Anyway, when the forces of good invade their domain in the final scenes, these beauties revealed to be supernatural creatures of some sort, bringing down the roof by running about a bit and making coloured smoke appear. Weird. Especially as we never see them again afterwards. Marascalchi seems to have powers as well, making the floor collapse beneath some soldiers that are threatening him with spears. However, he seems to forget all about these abilities when he fights with Scott. The two clash with conventional weapons and then take part in an extended wrestling match. Scott even manages to hit him over the head with a table. Twice! It’s all a bit confusing really…

Scott made his film debut in ‘Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle’ (1955) as the replacement for Lex Barker in the long-running series about the exploits of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Lord Greystoke. Five more appearances in the part followed, including ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’ (1959), which remains one of the best of the Ape Man’s outings and also included a young Sean Connery in a significant supporting role. When his time in the jungle was up, Scott moved straight into Italian muscleman pictures with ‘Maciste contro il vampiro’ (1961) which was also known as ‘Goliath and the Vampires’ or ‘Samson vs the Vampires’ – take your pick. He’d starred in almost a dozen similar projects before he made it to Neri’s basement to face off against Marascalchi. Toward the end of his career, he finally got to play Hercules for real in the pilot for an aborted TV series that was later released to theatres as ‘Hercules and the Princess of Troy’ (1965).

Hercules Against Moloch/The Conquest of Mycenae/Ercole contro Moloc/Hercules Attacks (1963)

‘Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hatred. Good! I can use your hate.’

Neri became a mainstay of cult cinema in the 1960s and beyond, with starring roles in many horror pictures and Giallo films after several featured supporting roles in the Eurospy genre. She’s probably best remembered as ‘Lady Frankenstein’ (1972) or for Silvio Amadio’s ‘Amuck!’ (1972), but she always brought a quality of performance and natural screen presence to her roles, even if many of them were not deserving of her talents. Director Ferroni made some feature films in the 1940s but did a lot of documentary filmmaking before making a comeback with the visually impressive and strangely fascinating ‘Mill of the Stone Women’ (1960). Unfortunately, it seems that he never fulfiled the promise he displayed with that film, and it’s disappointing to see his name attached to a product like this.

The film was picked up for American distribution by Walter Manley productions but placing the blame for the cheating title at their door would be a mistake. The film’s original, Italian release title was ‘Ercole contro Moloc’ which literally translates as ‘Hercules Against Moloch’. The American print at least has the decency to place that in brackets after ‘The Conquest of Mycenae’ title, which, although it could be regarded as a bit of a spoiler, is far more accurate at least. However, little care was taken with the English dubbing; dialogue doesn’t match mouth movements in any respect and the voice acting is of a very poor quality. Panaro’s lines are delivered in a frightfully posh English accent that makes it sound like she’s been to a very exclusive finishing school and spends her days at garden parties thrashing the servants. It’s hilarious, of course, but it doesn’t help with serious investment in the story.

A minor footnote in the history of the Peplum film and precious little to do with Hercules.

Hercules In The Haunted World (1961)

Hercules In The Haunted World (1961)‘Perhaps he is in his room far underground, which even a servant is not allowed to enter.’

Hercules returns home from his labours to claim a princess for his bride. However, he finds that she has been bewitched and the kingdom under threat from dark forces. The throne has been assumed by her uncle, who explains that he must travel to Hades to obtain a cure for her and undo the curse that afflicts the land…

Despite being a fairly terrible film, ‘Hercules’ (1957) had been a world-wide smash and kick-started a whole wave of Italian muscleman movies that were dubbed and shown in American theatres over the next decade. Some stuck pretty near to the formula of the first film; a grab-bag of mythological bits and pieces glued together by tatty SFX, terrible dubbing and a lead actor with the charisma of a fence post. Others just left out the mythology entirely and kept everything else. But there’s always one exception to the rule. In this case: ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961).

Director Mario Bava was a cinematographer and visual stylist, who had worked previously in the ‘sword and sandal’ genre and was coming off his first solo directorial gig; gothic horror classic ‘Black Sunday’ (1960) with Barbara Steele. He also had a family connection to the character and the story: his father, Eugenio, had worked on the design of Guido Brignone’s ‘Maciste In Hell’ (1925), the silent classic that featured the original Italian ‘Hercules’ character taking a trip to the land of the dead. Itno surprise, then, that Bava gets a joint story and screenplay credit with three other writers. Also taking further duty as his own cinematographer, this gave Bava considerable creative control of the film, and he was able to tailor it to his particular strengths and sensibilities.

Hercules In The Haunted World (1961)

‘What kind of party did you say this was?’

Hercules (Reg Park) and Theseus (George Ardisson) are enjoying a little rest and relaxation after running their latest errand for the Gods. For Ardisson this means a tumble in an outdoor hayloft with dark-haired beauty Jocasta (Ely Drago), but Park isn’t playing around; he’s on his way back to home to wed the gorgeous Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). But all is not well in the kingdom. Without warning, they are attacked by a group of assassins. Park shrugs them off by throwing a wagon at them, and they run for the hills when they realise how they’re messing with. This opening scene helps to establish two important things. Firstly, there’s a healthy dose of humour in the film, something often lacking in the big man’s exploits on the big screen. Secondly, that Park’s default method of solving a problem is to throw something big at it. A wagon here, but it’s usually a rock.

When Park reaches the city, he finds that his old friend the King has passed away, but Ruffo has not assumed the throne. That position is in the hands of her uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee). He’s reluctantly assumed the responsibility because she is confused and bewildered, seemingly bewitched. Lee convinces Park that the only way he can sort things out is travel to the underworld and obtain a magic stone which will undo the spell. Unfortunately, the big lummox falls for it, even though the audience knows only too well that Lee is the bad guy here. After all, we saw him in his underground lair earlier when he summoned Ruffo from where she had been sleeping in what looks suspiciously like a coffin! She rises as if on a hinge in what was almost certainly a nod to Max Schreck’s appearance in the hold of the ship in F W Murnau’s iconic ‘Nosferatu’ (1922).

Hercules In The Haunted World (1961)

🎵 Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter…🎶

Park and Ardisson depart on their journey, getting saddled with comedy relief Telemachus (Franco Giacobini) on the way. Before they can enter Hades, though, they need to grab the golden apple of the Hesperides and tangle with the rock monster, Procrustes. And this is where Bava’s imagination and visual mastery really take over. Working with production designer Franco Lolli, he conjures up a striking vision of the underworld with a painter’s eye for detail and blending colour. Also, there’s a real sense of solidity to the sets which helps the atmosphere no end and is such a welcome change from the smooth fakery of CGI. Sure, some of the SFX have dated poorly (particularly the rock monster!) but, on the other hand, scenes where the dead rise from their tombs and battle Park are still striking and impressive today.

It’s all the more remarkable when you discover the budgetary constraints that Bava was working under. The palace set was a small stage with the director creating a sense of scale with just four pillars that he regularly moved around and sometimes resprayed. Occasionally, he was able to add a fifth with camera trickery! Similarly, one door stands in for every entrance that you see, Bava shooting with multiple angles and setups to create the illusion of a vast complex of rooms and chambers. Unless it’s pointed out, you would never notice. Bava also manages to evoke a sense of dread with these gloomy interiors that a lesser director would probably have neglected.

Hercules In The Haunted World (1961)

‘Yo, she-bitch! Let’s go! ‘

On the other side of the scale is the story, which is nothing special and bears some evidence of late rewrites and revisions. While in the underworld, Ardisson falls in love with the goddess Persephone (Meiazotide in the original Italian cut). She’s played by Evelyn Stewart, billed under her real name of Ida Galli, and it’s interesting to speculate whether her character was a late addition to the film, or whether the part originally had far more screentime. As it is, her presence in certain scenes (or lack of it) doesn’t quite dovetail with the rest of the story’s events. But it’s a minor quibble when you consider the many delicious nods to Lee’s ‘Dracula’ persona. In one memorable moment, his face appears reflected in a pool of blood on the floor; in another, he leans over the unconscious Ruffo and directly into the camera. It’s a lot of fun to see the vampire iconography in a mythological setting and, of course, Lee is as charismatic as ever. Unfortunately, and despite reports to the contrary, he was not invited back to loop any of his dialogue so we are left with voice actors delivering his lines and, although they do a decent job, they can’t compete with his imperious tones.

The film was released in alternate versions in different territories, although the changes were not as significant as made to some of Bava’s other projects, such as ‘Black Sunday’ (1960) and ‘Black Sabbath’ (1960). The UK version was almost identical to the Italian version, although it was released under the title ‘Hercules In the Centre of the Earth’. Stateside, a corny and over-explanatory prologue was added featuring VoiceOver Woman and some repeated footage of the masked Oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) who appears later on. Thankfully, no other significant changes were made. Curiously, cult movie legend Rosalba Neri is credited with appearing in the film, although you’d be hard pressed to spot her! She certainly isn’t playing Helene, Ruffo’s companion, as is often credited. Apparently, in her early career, Neri sometimes sent one of her cousins along to fulfil her contracted acting obligations, so that may have been the case here!

Hercules In The Haunted World (1961)

‘Ta-Da!’

This was Park’s second outing as the Greek Demi-god after ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis/Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide’ (1961) and it’s interesting to note the changes that Bava chose to make to the character. It’s almost as if this acts as a kind of prequel. In the earlier film, the big man was already married to the Princess Deianira (played by a different actress), and the two had an impetuous young man for a son. The character was also far more laidback and a little world-weary in his attitudes. Bava’s version is more of a young blade; quick to arms and action, although retaining the good-natured charisma that made Park probably the screen’s finest Hercules. Off the screen, he was a natural athlete and sportsman who, in later years, became a mentor to the young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ruffo had already played the Princess Deianira in an earlier version of the legend; the hopeless (but hilarious) ‘La vendetta di Ercole/Goliath and the Dragon’ (1960) with Mark Forest. She also went onto appear in another bad movie gem, the space opera trash fire of ‘2+5: Missione Hydra’ (1968). Ardisson signed on with Bava again for Viking adventure ‘Erik The Conquerer’ (1961). Patched-up horror ‘Katarsis’ (1963) with Lee followed, before a leading role in the far more effective chiller ‘The Long Hair of Death’ (1964). He returned to the mythological arena in the TV film ‘Hercules and the Princess of Troy’ (1965) and went onto grace several Eurospy and Giallo films as well as ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977) cash-in ‘The Eyes Behind the Stars’ (1978).

A visual feast from a master filmmaker that has a few hokey aspects when viewed today, but otherwise remains a remarkably entertaining experience and a classic of its kind.

(This is a revised and expanded version of a post originally published on 15th January, 2015)

 

 

Esther and the King (1960)

Esther and the King (1960)‘Don’t you ever draw a blade in my council chamber, or I will kill you myself!’

King Ahasuerus of Persia returns home after a long but successful military campaign to reports of his queen’s adulteries and the political machinations of Prince Haman. Bound by law to chose a new consort, he picks the virtuous Esther, unaware that she is a jew…

Cinemascope epic that tells the Biblical story of Esther and her relationship with the King of Persia. The project was directed by legendary filmmaker Raoul Walsh and dates from a period generally known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. This was a short time when American studios exported stars and directors to make films in Italy where projects could be delivered with the expertise of local crews at a markedly cheaper cost than back home. It was a practice that came to a sudden end with notorious money pit ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) which lost a ton of money for 20th Century Fox, despite being one of the biggest box office draws of the year.

Here we find All-American beefcake Richard Egan struggling manfully to be a credible King of Persia opposite very English starlet Joan Collins in the role of the Biblical heroine. As the film begins, Egan is arriving home, ears full of stories of his queen, Vashti (Daniela Rocca) and her less than abstemious behaviour in his absence. One of her lovers has been ‘snake in the grass’ Prince Haman (Sergio Fantoni) who unsurprisingly has his own plans for the throne. Accompanying Egan is loyal lieutenant and brother in arms Simon the Judean (Rik Battaglia) who is stopping off at his local village first so he can marry childhood sweetheart Collins.

‘I do think you could have had a bath since we got back.’

By the time he reaches the palace, Egan is in a pretty foul mood and the usual endless entertainment of dancing girls and karaoke singers does little to cheer him up. When Rocca treats everyone to an inappropriately suggestive dance routine, Egan’s had enough. She’s on the outs, and his minions search the kingdom for a new queen. Unfortunately, this involves kidnapping unwilling nubiles (no Tinder back then) and Collins gets snatched on her wedding day. Not knowing she’s promised to his friend Battaglia, he picks her to be his consort, of course. Although I can’t help thinking that he might have chosen differently if a young Rosalba Neri hadn’t disqualified herself by snatching Collins’ cloak.

From there it’s the usual court intrigues with Fantoni having a ball as the duplicitous Haman while Dennis O’Dea gets to act all wooden and noble as Egan’s Jewish adviser Mordechai. Plots and counter ploys result in a predictable finish with lots of extras driving chariots and waving swords in the air. Still, it’s nice to see a big scene like that realised with hundreds of living and breathing extras, rather than soulless and unconvincing CGI.

Esther and the King (1960)

‘I am not, and never have been, a member of the People’s Popular Front of Judea.’

So right about now you may be wondering what this film is doing on this page. Two words: Mario Bava. Yes, with ‘The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday’ (1960) in the can but not released, it was back to the workaday world for the Master of Horror. Here, he’s credited as the cinematographer, but on the Italian release print, he gets the director nod. Now, this was part of the agreement that allowed Hollywood to film on the cheap in Italy: local talent had to get prominent credit in their own country.

How much work Bava did on the film is, of course, hard to know after so much time has passed. He was the director of photography, of course, and no doubt helped to provide liaison between Walsh and the Italian-speaking crew. But did he do any actual directing? Well, he was experienced at handling large scale battle scenes, so he was no doubt involved there and there is a repeated shot of slaves turning a wheel to open the castle gates which has a touch of his painterly style and colour palette. Any more than that, it’s hard to say.

Actress Hedy Lemarr had initially optioned the screen rights to the story as a possible star vehicle, but this had not worked out. A writer’s strike in Hollywood meant the project was eventually rushed into production and Walsh had to co-write the screenplay (with Michael Elkins), a job he hadn’t tackled since 1936! Not surprisingly, there’s the usual overblown dialogue that makes it sound as if everyone is speaking in capital letters and a lot of faintly pompous speechifying.

Esther and the King (1960)

‘There, there; don’t worry about it. Not everyone can be as handsome as me.’

If Collins seems like a strange choice for Esther, she often played such roles early in her career. It was almost twenty years before she would have sex in a glass elevator with Oliver Tobias in ‘The Stud’ (1978), follow that with ‘The Bitch’ (1979) and then achieve global superstardom as Queen Bee Alexis on TV soap juggernaut ‘Dynasty.’ She does fine as the heroine here, and if her delivery seems a little too mannered at times, it was perfectly in keeping with the acting style of the era.

This is a fairly typical Biblical epic of its day; straight-jacketed by the need to play it straight with its source material, but somewhat entertaining to its target audience.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale/Pas De Roses Pour OSS 117 (1968)

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)‘What a shame. Mickey Mouse will never eat his cheese.’

Important political figures are being assassinated and the secret service in Washington believes that it’s the work of an organisation for hire. Their top agent undergoes surgery, so that he can take the place of the world’s most wanted killer in the hope that he will be recruited to their ranks…

André Hunebelle was the French filmmaker behind the 1960’s revival of the secret agent created by novelist Jean Bruce. There were half a dozen films in total and he directed most of them, although this time with the help of Renzo Cerrato and Jean-Pierre Desagnot. This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is American actor John Gavin, taking over from Frederick Stafford who we last saw wrapping up an operation in Tokyo. Gavin also tangles with the usual formula of guns, girls and gadgets, but in varying proportions.

The film opens with one of its few action set pieces; a gunfight in the street with Gavin in his role as the escaping ‘Killer Chandler’; shooting a few cops before making his getaway. It’s all staged, of course; getting him valuable column inches in the global press and piquing the interest of the sinister Major (Curt Jurgens) who’s behind this new incarnation of Murder Incorporated. Gavin is duly kidnapped and assigned the job of rubbing out a middle-east peace envoy who has brokered an unpopular truce between two warring desert tribes. To ensure Gavin carries out the task, he is injected with a poison that will kill him if he doesn’t receive two doses of the antidote to be administered on subsequent days by oily doctor Robert Hossein.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)

OSS 117 had a more personal examination in mind…

This is a decent enough set up and there are moments of creativity, but the finished product also betrays all the usual qualities of the other films in this series, both good and bad. Firstly, though, it’s well crafted. There’s a budget here and it shows; with a selection of fine locations, a solid cast and good production values.

The fight choreography is imaginative at times, with an early scene of a naked Gavin using various items to both cover his embarrassment and confound his enemies being a particularly clever and humorous highlight. There’s far more serious combat later on when he goes up against George Eastman in a the cramped doctor’s office and later on a roof of crumbling tiles. These are both well conceived and executed.

Unfortunately, that’s really as good as it gets. The only significant gadget is a large, metal ball that hangs from a helicopter and pumps knockout gas into the air. There are no big stunts, action scenes or gun battles. The film does score highly in another of the recognised departments of this type of movie, though: girls. But there’s a catch. When you assemble a top-flight trio of Euro-beauties like Rosalba Neri, Luciana Paluzzi and Margaret Lee, be sure to give them plenty of screen time and lots to do! Don’t waste Neri as a Spanish dancer who appears in one ‘morning after’ scene with Gavin and give her just a couple of lines. Don’t have Paluzzi appear in only about ten minutes of the film as a rather ‘hands on’ member of the villain’s medical establishment and then make her disappear without explanation. Lee does get much more of a look-in as the wide-eyed, thrill-seeking heroine and tries hard to give the role some weight; but it’s an underwritten character at best. Eurospy regular Seyna Seyn also has a minor role.

OSS 117 Murder For Sale (1968)

‘You can have the sports section when I’ve finished with it…’

Elsewhere there’s more evidence of a lack of due care and attention. Jurgens, who famously went up against genuine 007 Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who  Loved Me’ (1977), might have a real cool old mansion as his HQ instead of a giant submarine, but where are all his minions?

Sure, there’s Eastman as his right-hand man and Paluzzi, who wrestled so memorably with Sean Connery in ‘Thunderball’ (1965), but there’s no sense of a large-scale operation here at all, and therefore the stakes never seem all that high. Jurgens also has the ‘big lever that blows everything up’ in his office (the one so beloved of mad scientists everywhere) but it turns out to be a completely pointless plot device with no payoff.

Gavin was a capable actor, but almost a textbook case of someone who was never destined to become a Hollywood star. His handsome looks found him playing a number of bit parts in Rock Hudson vehicles at Universal in his early days, a couple of which were directed by Douglas Sirk. Gavin caught the well-known filmmaker’s eye and he cast him as the lead of war romance ‘A Time To Love and A Time To Die’ (1958) and opposite Lana Turner in ‘Imitation of Life’ (1959). Roles in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) and Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ (1960) followed but, inevitably, his contributions were overshadowed by the leads in those big hits. The lack of a subsequent success found him appearing more on television and in a few supporting roles in features. The final nail in the coffin was Sean Connery’s last-minute change of heart about reprising his role as James Bond in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971). Gavin had already won the role and was contracted to play it. At least producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli honoured the arrangement and paid him in full.

Another entry in the OSS 117 series that’s professionally made but suffers from a sloppy, uninspired script that wastes a good cast.

Full Moon of the Virgins/The Devil’s Wedding Night/ll Pleniluno Delle Vergini (1973)

Full Moon of the Virgins (1973)‘Do your architectural investigations always begin with an inspection of ancient crypts, Mr Schiller?’

An amateur archaeologist tracks down the location of a supernatural ring to Dracula’s castle, but his irresponsible twin brother sets out to reach it first. When he arrives, he finds the estate owned by a beautiful Countess, but it turns out that she remains immortal by bathing in the blood of seven virgins every 30 years…

Somewhat underpowered Euro-Horror from director Luigi Batzella (credited as Paolo Solvay) which looks pretty good but lacks both a compelling plot and interesting characters. The story focuses on twins Karl and Franz Schiller (Mark Damon), one a serious academic, the other a suave ‘man about town’ who already looks a bit like a vampire with his black cloak and pale complexion. Karl has been hitting the (dusty) books and has tracked down the legendary ring that was the subject of Wagner’s famous music cycle. Apparently, it originally arrived on Earth as part of a meteorite and has been in the possession of every famous warlord in history; Atilla the Hun, Ivan the Terrible, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, among others. And now it’s fetched up at Castle Dracula. How he knows all this is a bit of a mystery, but, you know…books!

Anyway, Franz fancies a bit of this as the ring endows the owner with unearthly and superhuman powers, so he hotfoots it for the Carpathians with the hapless Karl in eventual pursuit. Franz gets the usual cold shoulder when he mentions ‘Castle Dracula’ at the local inn, but things seem to be looking up when he finds the Castle in the possession of the Countess De Vries (the luminous Rosalba Neri) who asks him to stay for a dinner that may include her for desert. Vampires! A supernatural ring! Rosalba Neri! It’s enough to make any cult movie fan start having palpitations!

Unfortunately, what the film delivers is a rather lacklustre remake of the opening chapters of Bram Stoker’s original novel followed by an underwhelming climax. Franz is just a stand in for solicitor Jonathan Harker; finding himself locked in his room at the castle, climbing out the window, creeping down cobwebbed passages, finding coffins in the crypt and stumbling across a vampire bride. Eventually, he’s attacked by some psychedelic visuals (as well as Neri, which was probably a lot more fun) and it’s up to ‘good twin’ Karl to try and save the day. This is all fine as far as it goes but the pace is very slow and the final action isn’t helped by some truly dreadful SFX, which would have been best left on the cutting room floor.

Full Moon of the Virgins (1973)

‘Excuse me, but do you know the way to Castle Dracula?’

As per most Euro-horrors of the period, the castle is appropriately gothic and there’s rich colour cinematography from Aristide Massaccesi (later to direct dozens of exploitation pictures under many aliases, the best known being Joe D’Amato). Neri looks as amazing as ever and her performance is perfectly adequate but it lacks the spark of her best work. Perhaps she was getting a little tired of the generic roles coming her way at the time.

But the main problem here is the script, which is credited to three separate authors. After the first act, the story never really develops, becoming simply a series of predictable events padded out with occasional trippy visuals and a smattering of nudity and gore, including Neri writhing about naked in a bath of blood (which is nice). Even at less than 90 minutes, proceedings seem remorselessly padded.

Damon retired from acting in 1997 but was far better known as producer by then anyway. Beginning in the 1970s, he began hitting his stride with family science fiction pictures in the following decade, including ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984), ‘Short Circuit’ (1986) and ‘Flight of The Navigator’ (1986). Since then his name has been attached to a variety of projects; everything from the tame erotica of ‘Wild Orchid’ (1989) to hopeless horror ‘Feardotcom’ (2002) to real-life drama ‘Monster’ (2003), which snagged an Oscar for Charlize Theron.

So, is the film just an excuse to see some tried and trusted horror tropes spiced up with a little bit of blood and some beautiful women with no clothes on? Yes, of course, it is. But it’s not really anything more.

Upper seven, L’uomo Da Uccidere/The Spy With Ten Faces/Man of A Thousand Masks (1966)

Upperseven, L'uomo Da Uccidere:The Spy With Ten Faces:Man ofA Thousand Masks (1966)‘We’ve got to weave through those infra-red beams; they set off the machine guns.’

Special agent Paul Finney foils a gold smuggling operation masterminded by the criminal Kobras, but the supervillain escapes to fight another day. Suspecting that he is involved with a covert Chinese operation in Africa, Finney teams up with a beautiful CIA agent to take him down once and for all.

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is smooth operator Paul Hubschmid, fronting a surprisingly well-mounted co-production from studios in Italy and Germany (where were the Spaniards on this one?) Codenamed Upperseven, he’s knee-deep in the usual cocktail of guns, girls and low-level gadgets as he tangles with blonde iceman Kobras (Nando Gazzolo) and his bad girl sidekick Vivi Bach. There’s the usual tour around glamorous cities; this time the itinerary taking in Copenhagen, London, Basel, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Rome, and a surprisingly explosive climax at Gazzolo’s secret base in Africa.

After an opening shootout at a burning factory, we find Hubschmid in London, getting his next set of orders and spending quality time with the beautiful Rosalba Neri. However, the talented Italian actress is woefully underused, her part seemingly existing almost solely to establish Hubschmid’s credentials in the bedroom department. She does get her guitar out and give us a song, but it’s hard to judge her musical abilities, as she’s obviously been dubbed by another actress. From there, our virile star moves onto American agent Karin Dor, who’s in town on her way to supervise a big money transfer in Switzerland. Hubschmid is happy to concentrate his working hours on tracking some stolen diamonds, but inevitably the cases are connected and Gazzolo’s hand is behind it all.

The film’s main gimmick is our hero’s use of masks. He makes them himself in a backroom in his flat, and they are so life-like they look almost like other members of the cast with their heads poking through holes in the furniture. In fact, they are the perfect disguise, even when they’ve been crumpled up and hidden in one of his socks for a few hours! Considering such items were such a major part of the arsenal of Peter Graves and his ‘Mission: Impossible’ crew, it’s interesting to note that this film was released almost a year before that TV show first aired.

Let’s consider the good stuff first. The film has more of a budget than many of its kind. This allows for some pyrotechnics at either end of the movie, a hidden underground base for Gazzolo and a refreshing lack of endless ‘tourist board’ footage crammed in to boost the running time. It’s good to see Dor getting in on some of the physical action too. Ok, so she’s not Buffy, the Vampire Slayer but she’s in the driving seat during a car chase, finishes one bad guy with a sharp knife throw and, briefly, handles herself well in a fight. It’s hardly ground-breaking, but it makes her more convincing as an agent than many of her female contemporaries.

Upperseven, L'uomo Da Uccidere:The Spy With Ten Faces:Man ofA Thousand Masks (1966)

🎵And you could have it all…My empire of dirt…🎶

Unfortunately, there a few negative aspects on show as well. To begin with, the plot is muddled and lacks focus, often feeling like a few second-hand ideas thrown roughly together. There’s plenty of fisticuffs and action, but it’s all a little undenuhelming and writer-director Alberto De Martino fails to endow proceedings with any real excitement or dynamism.

Although professional enough, none of the cast members invest their roles with any real energy or approach the creation of even a mildly compelling character. It’s simply hard for the audience to care about anything that happens to them. Hubschmid began acting in his native Germany in the late 1930s, and actually appeared in films sanctioned by the Nazi regime during World War Two. It may have been that which prompted him to try his luck in Hollywood in the late 1940s, although he maintained a screen presence in his homeland too. Stateside, he was renamed Paul Christian, and enjoyed a brief career as a leading man, appearing opposite Maureen O’Hara in ‘Bagdad’ (1949), in director Don Siegel’s ‘No Time For Flowers’ (1952), and as the heroic scientist in ‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’ (1953).

Dor met Bond for real in ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967), but her career stalled after appearing in the Hitchcock flop ‘Topaz’ (1969) and with Paul Naschy in monster train-wreck ‘Assignment Terror/Dracula Versus Frankenstein’ (1970). After a brief flirtation with television, she became a respected stage actress; still working almost up to her death in early 2017. Bach graduated to playing a Eurospy heroine in ‘Electra One’ (1967), and Neri went onto cult cinema greatness in a number of signature roles.

De Martino was a journeyman filmmaker at best, whose output slavishly followed popular trends. First, there were muscleman pictures in the early 1960s such as ‘The Invincible Gladiator’ (1961) and ‘Perseus Against the Monsters’ (1963) before he jumped smartly onto the Spaghetti Western and Eurospy bandwagons. In the latter genre, he delivered ‘Ok Connery’ (1967) starring Sean’s brother Neil, and Ken Clark’s final outing as Agent 077 Dick Malloy in ‘Special Mission Lady Chaplin’ (1966). His career M.O. carried on into the 1970s as he countered ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) with ‘L’anticristo’ (1974), ‘The Omen’ (1976) with ‘Holocaust 2000’ (1977) and ‘Superman’ (1978) with ‘The Puma Man’ (1980), which remains one of the greatest bad movies ever made.

Curiously flat ‘Bond’ knock-off that’s better presented than most, but of little real interest.

Slaughter Hotel/La Bestia Uccide A Sangue Freddo (1971)

Slaughter Hotel (1971)‘It’s just that your desire to make love is obsessive compulsive. Go and take a shower.’

A masked figure stalks the halls of a private hospital for wealthy young women with emotional problems. Making use of medieval weapons, he begins a killing spree by decapitating a nurse out in the grounds…

Softcore giallo from writer-director Fernando Di Leo, who was obviously far more interested in the former elements of his tale than the latter. The story takes place in an isolated, old manor house which is now home to Professor Osterman (John Karlsen), assistant Doctor Clay (Klaus Kinski), and their small team of orderlies and nurses. The clinic caters to patients with psychological problems, on condition that they are rich young women who look great with their clothes off.

But what a strange institution it is! Far be it from me to criticise the practices of a seasoned medical professional like Karlsen, but, for a start, he seems to have a slightly cavalier attitude towards health and safety. Rather unusually, one corridor boasts an actual real life iron maiden, this torture device being secured by a chain that looks inadequate to protect a tricycle. What’s it doing there? I have no idea. It is a creepy old house, I suppose. But I have to flag him for another minor code infraction because close by is an open display cabinet filled with medieval weapons! There’s a big sword, a dagger, a crossbow, a mace and a noose. The last item is a slight concern as the patients are allowed to roam freely and we’re told at least a couple of them have attempted suicide in the past.

Slaughter Hotel (1971)

The auditions for ‘Men In Black 4’ were not progressing as planned…

And then there’s the good Professor’s clinical practices. He doesn’t seem to have any. The only medical advice he offers throughout the entire film is to tell nymphomaniac Rosalba Neri to go take a shower! Predictably her issues are the only ones we find out anything about; all the other women have cheerfully vague problems, such as Margaret Lee’s overwrought nerves, and Gloria Desideri’s occasional homicidal urges.

Di Leo admitted than he did zero research into mental health issues or institutions before he penned his script, and it really shows. Because that’s not what we’re here for, is it? We’re here for naked babes in deadly peril! Both Lee and Neri are drop dead gorgeous and we see a lot of both of them; everything in Neri’s case, although a double may have been used for some shots. I’m certainly not complaining, but they get to do very little else, and it is frustrating to see two such talented actresses being exploited like this, although hopefully they understood the nature of the project when they signed on and were decently paid. We also get perky redhead Monica Strebel as a naughty nurse with a very ‘hands on’ approach to black patient Jane Garret (in her only film). They’re about to indulge in some distinctly unprofessional activity when they stop to dance to the radio in Garret’s room. For about five minutes. At this point, there’s not a lot of the movie left. Shouldn’t we be building up to some kind of a climax (pun intended)?

There are a few killings along the way in all this, of course, but there’s no creativity to the staging or execution and no real effort is made to bring the audience into the mystery. Two policeman turn up in the last quarter of an hour and, instead of waiting for the reinforcements that are on the way so the clinic can be thoroughly searched, they set Lee up as bait for the killer! She’s happy to agree to this ludicrous plan, probably because it finally gives her something to do and, considering she’s second billed in the cast, it’s about time. But even this is a seriously damp squib with the killer initially revealed to have a serious, legitimate motive, as in most giallos, but then just going on a demented rampage with the mace! Lucky, one of our lawmen has that gun with an inexhaustible supply of bullets, which is always handy in such situations.

Slaughter Hotel (1971)

The croquet match was about to get interesting…

Di Leo began his film career in westerns as an uncredited contributor to the script of Sergio Leone’s classic ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964). He was involved with several of the spaghetti westerns that followed, including ‘Django’ (1966), and he wrote ‘Navajo Joe’ (1966), an early vehicle for Burt Reynolds. His career as a director was somewhat less distinguished and, if this example of his work is anything to go by, that’s no surprise.

The plotting is lazy, the musical soundtrack distracting, and the cast get nothing to work with at all. Kinski just hangs around looking vaguely odd and suspicious (pretty much his default setting!) and a lot of the supporting cast seem flat and disinterested. Even the usually excellent Lee seems unable to drum up much enthusiasm for once (and no wonder!) Only Neri seems to be really giving it her best, but her role is barely two-dimensional, and she can’t have been under any illusions as to the reasons that she’d been cast.

It’s quite an achievement to waste such a beautiful and talented cast so completely, but Di Leo takes up that challenge and succeeds effortlessly. For fans of the leading ladies only.

Password: Uccidete Agente Gordon/Kill Agent Gordon (1966)

Password Uccidete Agente Gordon (1966)‘You’re very sweet and one day I want you to meet my twin brother.’

The Western intelligence community suspects that a mysterious criminal organisation are supplying the VietCong with illegal weapons. When an agent investigating in Paris is killed, a top spy is sent to take his place and bust the gun smuggling operation wide open…

This week’s ‘Bond on A Budget’ is American actor Roger Browne (again!), top lining this Italian-Spanish co-production directed by EuroSpy veteran Sergio Grieco under his usual alias of ‘Terence Hathaway’ (brilliantly misspelled in the credits as ’Therence’!) But let’s ignore the first two elements of the usual Eurospy formula of Guns, Gadgets and Girls and go straight to the main attractions: Roslba Neri and Helga Liné. Both actresses had bags of experience in the genre and, together with Browne, constitute what could almost be regarded as a EuroSpy dream team! And with a safe, experienced pair of hands behind the camera, this just has to be good, right? Um…no.

Browne arrives in Paris where he’s kidnapped from a taxi at gunpoint before he’s had a chance to even check in at his hotel. Fast work by the enemies of democracy you might think! But no, it turns out that it’s just his boss who wants to brief him on the mission (this agency seems to have a peculiar idea of ‘covert operations’!) ln no time, Browne has identified his ex-colleague’s important contact, played by Neri. She’s part of some kind of cabaret act that are referred to throughout the film as a Ballet company! Their dance instructor has ‘generic villain’ tattooed on his forehead and some business ensues involving a vital microfilm (or something?)

Password Uccidete Agente Gordon (1966)

Q Division always came up with the most sophisticated new spy gadgets…

Then is off to Tripoli for the next stop on the dance tour, and Browne tags along as it seems to be the thing to do (for some reason). There he teams up with Russian agent Liné and both are kidnapped and tortured after running around quite a bit. The villains attempt to double cross each other, a suitcase explodes, people actually fire guns at each other (eventually!), and there’s a final twist that will only surprise someone who has nodded off a couple of times during the film (most people, probably).

But the main problem here is the plot. It’s completely underdeveloped, and often seems to be little more than a series of excuses to get Browne from one punch up to the next. These are quite energetic, if not particularly convincing, the realism not assisted by the intermittent introduction of a fairly obvious stunt double. And far be it from me to question the presence of the always luminous Neri, but her dance moves seem to consist of just teasing her hair and strutting about for a few seconds. That’s not really ballet, love. Actually, her role is rather brief, although there is a scene where Browne ties her up and tickles her with a feather (for purposes of information gathering, of course). Liné is wasted even worse than Neri, with almost her entire contribution to proceedings being to lend her car to one of Browne’s colleagues! The two actresses never share a scene, which may have been down to the logistics of filming, but is a crying shame (or even ‘Kriminal’ if you will). Rather brilliantly, the villains favour the old Hollywood cowboy method of shooting; one handed, hold the gun low and don’t bother to aim properly. Surprisingly enough, they never manage to hit anything. It really highlights some serious shortcomings in our villain’s recruitment policy and henchman training program.

But all these doings prompt an important question. ls this even a EuroSpy film at all? Ok, so we do have a semi-mysterious villain. What is his plan for world domination? He doesn’t seem to have one. ls there a secret base that explodes when you shoot out a control panel? Err…no. ls there a super- scientific weapon ‘that must not fall into the wrong hands’? Nope. But there is lots of ‘Tourist Board’ footage showcasing the local colour of the glamorous locations, right? No. Any action set pieces or notable stunt work? Not really. Gadgets! There must be gadgets? Um…there’s a wristwatch that explodes, does that count? Are there any outlandish trappings at all? No. Well, to be fair, Liné is tied to a table at the climax and some sparks fly about. So there is that.

Password Uccidete Agente Gordon (1966)

The rehearsals for ‘Swan Lake’ were going particularly well…

Grieco began his directing career with costume and muscleman features, before jumping on the Bond bandwagon with ‘Agente 007: Missione Bloody Mary’ (1965) (also with Liné) and ‘From The Orient With Fury’ (1965), before following up with this effort, and the underwhelming ‘Special Mission Lady Chaplin’ (1966) (with Liné again!). He also reteamed with Browne for gloriously cheesy superhero flick ‘Argoman, The Fantastic Superman/Incident ln Paris’ (1967) for which the world must always be truly grateful.

Browne himself had already done the EuroSpy thing for real on several occasions; partnering up with Liné for ‘Operation Poker’ (1965) and with Neri for Umberto Lenzi’s ‘SuperSeven Calling Cairo’ (1965). As you may have gathered, Liné appeared in a truly heroic amount of films, especially in the 1970s, and, although her credits include a lot of comedies, notable cult films include ‘Kriminal’ (1966) and its sequel, ‘Horror Express’ (1972) with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, ‘The Vampire’s Night Orgy’ (1973), ‘Vengeance of the Mummy’ (1973) with Paul Naschy, and ‘The Lorelei’s Grasp’ (1973) for ‘Blind Dead’ director Amando de Ossorio. She also found the time to star opposite legendary silver-masked Mexican wrestler El Santo in ‘Santo Contra el Doctor Muerte’ (1973)!

Neri is perhaps best remembered as the rather naughty ‘Lady Frankenstein’ (1971) and was unlucky enough to star in Jess Franco’s hopeless ‘The Castle of Fu Manchu’ (1969) with Christopher Lee. Actually, the actress worked in lots of different genres; principally Westerns and comedies, although more horror roles followed in the 1970s after her turn as the Baron’s daughter. Usually, in films where there appeared to be a limited budget for clothes.

If I’ve seemed to focus a little too much on the career history of our three principal actors, it’s mainly to emphasise what a missed opportunity we have here. All in all, this film is more of an international spy thriller than anything else; too vaguely silly to bear the stamp of Cold War realism but far too mundane to even be called a James Bond knock-off.

And a complete waste of everyone’s time.