September 29, 2015


It's that time of the year again. The 31 Days of Horror (more or less) Review Blog-a-thon starts this Thursday. Last year I went for more mainstream films, stuff you could find on Netflix or TV, with a few stopovers into Alien Invasion flicks and Nature Run Amok movies. This year, the first two weeks will be dedicated to the infamous Video Nasties. The third week will feature non-Godzilla Japanese monster movies and the fourth will cover seven films from my absolute favorite sub-genre, the Italian giallo film.

I'll also be re-posting old film reviews at The Films That Witness Madness Review Depository, with the first three weeks devoted to more Video Nasties than you can shake a severed limb at. The final week will feature giallo reviews.

That's 62 reviews in 31 days with the possibility of even more. It's gonna be good. It's gonna be great. So check back on October 1st for the review of THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI (aka THE NIGHT OF THE HOWLING BEAST) and pop on over to the FTWM Review Depository for a review of BLOOD FEAST.

September 21, 2015


I woke up this morning to learn of the passing of Mario Caiano, a prolific, if largely forgotten, figure in Italian genre film. Though his filmography mainly consists of spaghetti westerns, Caiano made frequent pit stops in the Peplum and the police thriller, with a stay over or two in the lands of horror and Nazispolitation. I only ever reviewed a single Caiano film in the five years I operated Films That Witness Madness, the excellent CALLING ALL POLICE CARS. That review, originally posted in November 2013, is reprinted here.

CALLING ALL POLICE CARS feels like the spiritual successor to the Massimo Dallamano's excellent "schoolgirl films" WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?. Dallamano died before he could complete what would have been a loose trilogy of thematically linked films, but his screenplay for the completing film was put before cameras in 1978 by director Alberto Negrin and released as RED RINGS OF FEAR. Mario Caiano's CALLING ALL POLICE CARS could have just as easily finished the trilogy. Like Dallamano's films, CALLING ALL POLICE CARS deals with teenage sexuality (both the awakening of and the exploitation of), male preoccupation with sexual desire, societal pressures caused by class inequality, tough cops, scandal, and brutality. WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS? straddled the nearly impossible to define border between the giallo and the poliziotteschi, and CALLING ALL POLICE CARS follows suit. By using policemen as the protagonists, these films would fall squarely into the realm of the poliziotteschi, but the mechanisms operating at the narrative level scream giallo.

When Fiorella, the 16 year old daughter of a very famous, very rich surgeon named Andrea Icardi, goes missing, police inspector Fernando Solmi steps in to lead the investigation. Days go by without a break in the case until a K9 unit helps track the girl to a lake outside of Rome. A diving crew quickly brings the body of the girl, bound to her motorbike with rope and shot once in the neck, ashore. With little more to go on than tire tracks and a couple of cigarette butts, Solmi his men begin weaving their way through a tangled mess of suspects and suspicions. A major turning point in the case comes when the doctors performing the autopsy discover Fiorella was three months pregnant. They turn their attention to Momolo, a tavern owner with a history of sexual deviancy. Despite the firm conviction of the police chief that Momolo is guilty of the crime, Solmi doesn't buy Momolo as the murderer. A new find in the forensics lab turns up an even more disturbing lead. A thin thread of fabric turns out to contain traces of chalk. From there, things tumble quickly downhill in a landslide of deviancy, deceit and bloody murder.

CALLING ALL POLICE CARS (titled THE MANIAC RESPONSIBLE on some prints) is not a thinly plotted film. The narrative is dense and concentrated, with multiple suspects appearing and reappearing throughout the films tight 95 minute running time. Were it not for the sure hand of Mario Caiano, the film might have been a mess. Caiano is not as well known as his more prolific contemporaries, Fernando Di Leo and Damiano Damiani, but his visual style was uniquely suited to this kind of film. Uncluttered and relatively free of fuss, Caiano's direction keeps the film moving at a noticeable clip. While he lacked Di Leo's ferocious energy or Damiani's uncanny ability to create nerve wracking action set pieces, his steady hand brings a kind of emotional gravity to the film. Many poliziotteschi feel like popcorn movies but CALLING ALL POLICE CARS feels much more mature and weighty. There isn't much in the way of subtext to be explored here outside of the usual rich vs. poor/money leads to corruption tropes that are so common in poliziotteschi, but that isn't to the film's detriment. If anything, it helps the films narrative (written by prolific giallo/poliziotteschi writers Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru) move smoothly along while Caiano's camera keeps the film anchored in reality.

The more serious approach taken by Caiano defuses many of the screenplays more exploitative elements. While CALLING ALL POLICE CARS deals with teenage prostitution, abortion, murder and sexual abuse, it doesn't ever seek to trade its moral outrage for cheap thrills. Much of the films (often full frontal) nudity is supplied by teenage girls (or at least by actresses who look like teenage girls) and we are made to identify with the lecherous older men who stare Fiorella down as she walks across the way in her bathing suit at the films beginning. This is a castigation, not a come on. The film, though it flaunts fresh flesh, is quick to note that we, the audience, have the same troubles as these older men. That is to say, that we quickly move from simple sexualization to objectification without batting an eyelash, but as the film progresses, we are led down the moralistic path of recognizing that these women, used for their sexuality, are more human than the men who judge and use them. Even during the films one true scene of exhibitionistic fantasy, our minds are constantly taken back to the haunting image of Fiorella's body being dragged from the lake or her lifeless, pale body lying still upon a table in the morgue. We are made to share Solmi's outrage at the desecration and exploitation of the young girls. It is this desire to punish not only Fiorella's murderer but the men just like him that ultimately drives the story forward.

While this lack of exploitation thrills keeps CALLING ALL POLICE CARS on the fringe of the popular poliziotteschi, I can't help but think its desire to play straight is what makes it so special. Poliziotteschi really were a dime a dozen in the mid 1970s in Italy and most of them just blur together into one giant mass of bullets, bombshells and fisticuffs. But Caiano's film stands out. It plays the same kind of game as Di Leo's films did, but it feels like altogether different kind of film. It has a real somber tone, a definite air of pathos that is missing from most films of its kind. I can't say it belongs at the top of the genre but it definitely deserves rediscovery and reappraisal. It has a definite effect to it and a genuine power.

September 8, 2015


Mark Rosen’s 1983 slasher THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW begins with the now familiar Past Trauma. A woman named Dorothy undergoes a difficult delivery. Once the child has been born, her doctor, Nelson Beck, delivers the bad news. There was, as is always the case, complications. Years and years later, Dorothy, now simply called Mrs. Slater, is the house mother of your typical 1980s b-movie sorority. Seven sorority sisters are hoping to celebrate their graduation by throwing a party, something their crabby house mother refuses to let happen. Angry after being interrupted mid-coitus by Mrs. Slater and her sharp-nosed cane, one of the sisters, Vicki, proposes a good ol’ sorority prank, one that involves the dirty sorority swimming pool and a handgun loaded with blanks. Naturally, the prank doesn’t go as planned. One of those blanks turns out to be the real deal and Mrs. Slater ends up floating dead in the pool. Fearing jail time, Vicki and her sisters, including Final Girl Katey, decide to wrap the corpse in towels and sink it in the pool, but before you can say DIABOLIQUE, the body goes missing. And so does one of their sisters. And then another. And another until someone finally puts two and two together and realizes that they’re being stalked by a mysterious killer.

1983 was rather late in the slasher cycle. Three years after hitting the mainstream with FRIDAY THE 13TH, the slasher film had become completely stale and routine. By now, the only difference between the films was the frequency of murder and the clothed/unclothed ratio of actress screen time. Most of the slasher films released only played a few weekends, some only in drive-ins, and then disappeared. THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW was not one of those films. It did reasonably well at the box office and actually managed to receive a few (relative to the norm, of course) decent reviews. So why isn’t it very well known these days? 

I think the answer is that THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW isn’t your usual blood n’ tits slasher film. There’s a genuine level of visual sophistication here with a script that never dives into the usual waters of camp. This is a suspense first kind of slasher, one that borrows liberally from superior hack and slash chillers like HALLOWEEN and BLACK CHRISTMAS (in fact, Harley Jane Kozak’s character Diane seems purposefully modeled after Margot Kidder’s Barbara, and at least one of the quick killer reveals directly references Bob Clark’s reveal of the psychopathic Billy). Even the throwaway whodunit? angle is treated with a bit more care here. Throughout the entire film, Rosen misdirects the viewer, leading us to believe that Mrs. Slater lost her child during the delivery and is now suffering the side effects of the radical (and untested) fertility treatments she underwent all those years back. Only the child isn’t dead. Eric is alive and well, living in the attic, hideously deformed and deranged from the drugs that aided his conception. When the good Doctor Beck finally arrives on the scene, he is anxious to take Eric alive, if only to shield himself from the repercussions of unethical fertility experimentation on Mrs. Slater. He drugs poor Katey and attempts to use her as bait. This leads to a brilliantly devised suspense sequence with Katey suffering some Lynchian hallucinations and visions, replete with Bava-esque lighting schemes, as she tries to distance herself from Eric, all culminating in a truly nail biting confrontation in a dark attic, Eric dressed from head to toe in a jester’s costume.

The film’s ending was re-shot and re-edited to something much more like BLACK CHRISTMAS, with both our Final Girl and killer potentially alive and well. This was the usual way of doing things in the 1980s, a decade where any lousy film could spawn ten or more lousy sequels. But a sequel never came and honestly, I’m happy with that outcome. THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW now exists as a really decent one-off film, like the aforementioned BLACK CHRISTMAS or MY BLOODY VALENTINE. I mean, we were certainly not suffering from a shortage of Sorority House Massacres at the time and really, I don’t know where Rosen could have gone with a sequel. Everything that needed to be done was done the first time around, and it was done incredibly well, despite a few performances that barely reach the high school drama department level. 

But lo and behold, there’s a remake. 

I put off watching Stewart Handler’s 2009 remake, SORORITY ROW, because I knew that everything I loved about the original would be carved out and replaced by the usual mainstream horseshit. And man oh man, were my fears confirmed within the first five minutes. Here we have five sorority sisters, all of whom are either sociopathic or just remarkably shit human beings. The Prank Gone Awry this time is a double dip of nastiness. After one of their sisters, Megan, realizes her boyfriend is cheating on her, the sisters give the boyfriend date rape drugs to use on Megan. So while the boyfriend is trying to have sex with the supposedly drugged Megan, the five sisters gleefully watch on their computer as the second phase of the prank goes into motion. Megan begins to choke and the boyfriend panics. When the sisters come to help, they find Megan “dead”. That’s right, we’ve moved from LOL date rape to LOL you killed your girlfriend. Because they might still have a shred of ethics and morals left to get rid of, they decide to take the prank even one step further, transporting Megan’s “dead body” to a secluded lake so they can, I shit you not, dismember her. The boyfriend, understandably panicked, decides to ram a tire iron through Megan’s chest (because apparently air in the lungs is what makes dead bodies float), killing her for real.

At this point, you would think someone would finally grow something resembling humanity and sure enough, Cassidy steps forward, wanting to call the police. But nope, Jessica, the alpha sister of the group, is dating the son of a Senator and doesn’t want her future prospects ruined, so the girls decide to blackmail Cassidy into silence and toss Megan’s body (and the tire iron) down a convenient mine shaft. An unspecified amount of time later, the five sisters, one of whom, Elle, is perpetually on the brink of a mental breakdown, are graduating and you know what that means, right? Of course you do. It’s time to throw one of those parties that only ever happen in the movies, a riotous bash featuring topless Penthouse pets, a Jacuzzi filled with bubble bath in the front yard, and enough kids to fill three college campuses. And amid all this idiocy is the killer, a hooded dude or dudette with a fancy tire iron rigged with knife blades, spikes and hooks, all the better to decimate absolutely everyone but the five sisters involved in Megan’s accidental death. Seriously, the killer spends more time killing random nobodies than he/she does main characters. 

And of course no one notices this until the Someone Who Knows What They Did Last Summer starts sending text messages, threatening to call the police unless they meet him (or her) at the scene of the crime. When the girls arrive, they find Megan’s ex-boyfriend (and killer) all drunk and suicidal, having cut his wrists. He still has the strength to verbally assault our five *ahem* heroines so naturally they run him over a bunch of times with their car and return home to an empty house. From this point on, the movie ditches it’s already thin credibility completely, with everything from a massive house fire to Carrie Fisher shooting the place up with a shotgun splashing all over the screen. The final reveal (and you can consider this my attempt to help you not waste your time) is of course a total joke. The killer is not the Senator’s son, Megan’s kinda-sorta slutty younger sister or even Megan herself (the film keeps bringing up this possibility even though she had a fucking tire iron driven through her heart). It’s Cassidy’s boyfriend, the college valedictorian we’ve seen three times the whole movie and has had maybe ten lines.

If it isn’t obvious from the missing three words in the title, SORORITY ROW is less than half the movie Rosen’s film was. It’s a middling, half-assed slasher film that wouldn’t have felt out of place during the hey, let’s make a SCREAM rip-off late 1990s. It’s one of those movies that confuses attitude with characterization, giving us five leads with absolutely no semblance of personality. The only time the film isn’t jump cutting all over the place to the beat of loud, horrible pop music is during the suspense sequences and that would be a gift if it weren’t for the fact that the film repeatedly telegraphs its scares. It does have all the gratuitous nudity and bloodletting that the slasher films of the 1980s had, but it has absolutely no charm, wit or sense of fun to it. It’s a mental battering ram, slamming you in the forehead over and over again with its bloated idiocy, ramming its flashy, attention deficit disorder visuals into your eyes, beating you about the face with its tired, pathetic narrative. It’s a terrible, unholy mess of a film, the kind of slasher that would have found an audience back in the 80s but has no business even existing today.

Like Rosen’s original, the final shot of SORORITY ROW promises a sequel and I hope beyond hope that, like its forebear, a sequel never materializes.