Friday, January 17, 2020

DARK AUGUST 1976




     Another one rescued from the VHS only domain this low-key thriller mixing witchcraft, spiritualism and New England folk-horror was for me the highlight of Arrow's American Horror Project Vol. 2. Written (along with J.J. Berry) and directed by Martin Goldman (who had been  a NYC ad-man), it's a wonderfully creepy little film that relays on mood and suggestion rather than shocks to carry itself along and is one of those films that can stick in ones craw long after your viewing. 
    After a combination of a messy break-up with his wife and a heavy bout of mid-life crisis New Yorker Sal Devito (J.J. Berry from HARPER VALLEY P.T.A. and a semi-regular on TV's BARNEY MILLER) heads off for the comfy confines of rural Stow, VT to begin a relationship with local art gallery owner Jackie (his real life wife Carolyn Barry) and to pursue an artistic career in painting (along with it would seem a dream of wearing denim from head to toe). Living with Carolyn, he begins building a studio in the backyard and has in a buddy another refuge from the big city, Theo (Frank Bongiorno THE FIRST DEADLY SIN) an ex-lawyer and now similar denim-clad potter.
    Sal seems like he doesn't quite fit in with the small town vibe and already carrying around a load of guilt from abandoning his wife and kids his life get further complicated when he mistakenly runs over & kills the young granddaughter of a local hermit/quasi-warlock (William Robertson CHRISTMAS EVIL). We only see the accident through Sal's flashbacks which he remembers as clearly being not his fault (with the police coming to same conclusion we learn), however the girl's grandfather sees things differently. The grandfather invokes a black magic curse upon Sal which leads him to seeing an ominous hooded figure lurking in the woods aling with accidents befalling himself and those around him including a bloody accident with a handsaw at his studio construction site.




    Looking for answers Sal consents to a Tarot card reading done by Theo's wife Lesley (Kate McKeown SWEET KILL) who foretells looming danger in his future and in turn she refers him to local white witch/spiritualist Adrianna Putman (Academy Award winner Kim Hunter) who advises Sal in breaking the curse that requires him to take such drastic steps as burning down his studio.
    At its core, a New England-based version of M.R. James classic English ghost story Casting The Runes and it's later Jacques Tourneur directed NIGHT OF THE DEMON film adaption, DARK AUGUST is reliant on mood and creeping dread. Although a PG rating, it is however a 70's PG rating, which means a few splashes of blood and some fleeting nudity. The climax of the film gets a bit heavy handed (especially if you're an animal lover) and is kind of head-scratching seeming to be more gimmick driven then the proceeding atmosphere of the film.
   Although he was in his 40's at the time of filming Berry's Sal is stated in the course of the film to being 38 which fits in more with his fear of encroaching middle-age. While he also feels at guilt in regards to the accident  he also argues with his wife back in NYC (showing he really hasn't left that life behind) and gets into a heated phone call with a client from his "previous life" in regards to some commercial art jobs he still has from his days in the 9 to 5 world. all of which weigh heavily on him which lead to bad decisions such as confronting the dead child's grandfather and practically begging for forgiveness.




    There's also a get-back-nature trend of the period although here it's all involving older middle-aged men which while Sal's friend Theo seems comfortable with his new life, Sal himself seems like a fish out of water in the small Vermont town. Although he comes across as likeable guy he shows a darker side at some points, as he takes to poping tranquilzers and wondering around the house with a shotgun. The real-life marriage between he and Carolyn Barry helps as there seems to be a real spark between them and their lovemaking scene isn't filmed for erotic content, but just as a normal middle-aged couple in bed.
     Kim Hunter has a small but important role in the film and as an Oscar winner from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE it was probably quite a coup for a small production to land her.  She's quite good in her small but meaningful role and her presence adds quite a bit of gravitas here. Best known at the time for her role as Zira in PLANET OF THE APES from 1968 she had a lifelong interest in spiritualism which is most likely what drew her to the part and according to the director commentary on the Arrow release she took an active part in the film's promotion doing press appearances in Vermont.
     A regional horror film through and through the film makes great use of its Vermont locations using all piratical sets from actual houses and commercial buildings in Stowe. The cinematography by Richard E. Brooks (BLOOD RAGE and THE CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH) has a beautiful late-summer green & sunny New England feel to with shots of the forbidding looking distant mountains bringing a Lovecraft atmosphere. There is many shots of people gazing through windows which brings to mind Robert Altman's work (particularly IMAGES from 1972). Except for the horror elements the film is a commercial for rural Vermont and although I've never been there, it's nice to think that maybe Stowe is still the folksy little artist village as shown here.
   As included in the American Horror Project Vol. 2 box, thee Arrow Blu in addition to a commentary by director/co-writer Martin Goldman also has a wonderful documentary by comic artist Stephen R. Bissette titled The Hills Are Alive: Dark August and Vermont Horror which covers the entire spectrum of Vermont genre film making & folklore.













Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Rosalba Neri News # 31 CASA D'APPUNTAMENTO aka THE FRENCH SEX MURDERS 1972 On Blu




    Upcoming in 2020 Vinegar Syndrome has announced the release of Feridnando Mergighi's 1972 giallo CASA D'APPUNTAMENTO (aka THE FRENCH SEX MURDERS). Featuring an all-star including Anita Ekberg (LA DOLCE VITA), Evelyne Kraft (THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN), Howard Vernon (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF) and one of this blog's other favorite actresses Barbara Bouchet (and reunited with Rosalba from Silvio Amadio's weird & trippy AMUCK from 1972). Sadly, they do not share any screen time is this upcoming release however. There's a post on this here.
    The film also stars Humphrey Bogart look-alike Robert Sacchi who in full Bogart mode here is a minor annoyance, highly ludicrous or combination of the two depending on your feelings. In spite of its cast the film is a rather minor giallo but it's always good to check another another one off Rosalba's filmography as far as HD. The cast alone make this one highly watchable and there's some neat twists & turns, plus it features even more red-herrings then usual in the plot.
   Produced by American huckster/producer Dick Randall who specialized in low budget exploitation films, the plot concerns the murder of a prostitute at a high-class Paris brothel. Rosalba pays a nightclub singer Marianne and with giving too much away we also get to see a Carlo Rambaldi prosthetic Rosalba head. Randall also had a hand in producing two other Rosalba vehicles with LADY FRANKENSTEIN from 1971 and THE GIRL IN ROOM 2A in 1974. 






Monday, January 13, 2020

BEWARE MY BRETHREN (aka THE FIEND) 1972

"In the name of the Brethren he washed away 
the sins of women ...and led them to the Gates of Hell!"

"Sinner... meet your maker!"


"It's a Sickness of the Soul!"





     In the early 1970's the British horror industry began to move away from the Gothic style horror of Hammer with companies such as Tigon producing films like WITCHFINDER GENERAL(1968) and THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971) while still being period horror pieces also injected a healthy dose of sadism and sex into the proceedings which was far different then Hammer's splatters of bright red blood and "wink-wink" flashes of female skin. There was also a move toward more contemporary based films that featured sex and/or psychotic driven killers along with none-too-subtle plots concerning religious & conservative hypocrisy such as what Pete Walker was directing with such films as HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (1974) and THE CONFESSIONAL (1976), along with the sex, sadism & gore work of Norman J. Warren in SATAN'S SLAVE and the sci-fi based INSEMINOID.
     Director Robert Hartford-Davis career has sadly become a small footnote in the history of British horror. Partly due to his tragic early death at the age of 53 in 1977 he none-the-less directed a sizable chuck of interesting films including the early sexploitation GUTTER GIRLS (1974), the really bizarre GONKS GO BEAT (1964), the underrated Gothic THE BLACK TORMENT and the sleazy & sordid CORRUPTION (1968) with Peter Cushing in his most jaw-dropping role and the blaxploitation BLACK GUNN (1972) with Jim Brown and Martin Landau.
    Re-tilted in the U.S. BEWARE MY BRETHREN from its more straightforward British title THE FIEND it opens with juxtaposed scenes of fanatical minister figure giving a fire & brimstone sermon over a baptism which is inter cut with a young woman being stalked and brutally stripped and killed before being tossed in a river all of which is set wailing gospel number by Shirley Bassey impersonator Maxine Barrie.




   Straight away we're introduced to Kenny (Tony Beckley WHEN A STRANGER CALLS and THE LOST CONTINENT) whose a kind of roving security guard dressed in full uniform and riot helmet  and whose in the midst of a violent knock-down fight with a pair of crooks before being rescued by a police inspector (David Lodge INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED) who informs Kenny about the finding of the woman's body from the opening scenewhich was one more in a string of recent brutal murders. Kenny lives with his mother Birdy (Ann Todd SCREAM OF FEAR) and they both have fanatical religious beliefs that are prodded along by the above-mentioned zealot minister (played in wonderful scene-stealing glory by the great Patrick Magee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE).
    The film quickly sets up a spoiler-free reveal of the killer being Kenny with his other part-time being a pool attendant which along with his nighttime guard job allows him a full range of victims including prostitutes and other woman who he feels are of "loose morals". In a homage to Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM Kenny also records his victims words before killing them ("Two punds for a playabout in the back of yer truck") and spends his off time gleefully listening to them in his basement (decorated with Goya prints of dismembering) while the film cuts to McGee delivering a fire & brimstone in the church.
    There are several startling (and sometimes darkly humorous) juxtapositions in the film including a newspaper headline screaming "Third Nude Found!" before cutting to Kenny slowly polishing his nightstick and a women's naked body falls out of a cement mixer while Kenny scrapes cement residue carefully off his boots.




    Birdy has a large home and allows Magee's flock (named The Brethren) to worship there while she plays the organ. There're references to Birdy's husband leaving her and Kenny in the distant past which brings up some Oedipus atmosphere along with vague hints of incest. In addition, Birdy suffers from diabetes which is treated by visiting nurse Brigitte (Madeleine Hinde SCHOOL FOR UNCLAIMED GIRLS) and her treatment must be kept secret from minister Mcgee whose fanatical beliefs forbid the use of traditional care. Birdy's nurse Brigitte tells her concerns about Birdy to her sister/roommate Paddy (a wonderful chain-smoking & wise-cracking Suzanna Leigh from LUST FOR A VAMPIRE) whose an investigative reporter and immediately begins poking into the Brethern. The film ends with a startling (and slightly bonkers) climax as we see Kenny slowly unravel even more mentality along with the pity we feel for Birdy and the emergence of Mcgee's minster as an example of evil almost on par with serial killer Kenny.
    The main cast is excellent with Anne Todd a standout as the mother who slowly begins to realize what her son is while desperately clinging to her religious beliefs. Considered one of the most beautiful English actresses she was married to David Lean for 8 years during the 50's. Tony Beckley is quite good playing a mentally unbalanced killer who we do feel some pity for and there's a wonderful scene where he desperately tries to hand out flyers for the Brethren to uncaring pedestrians as seems to the task as a penance. Suzanne Leigh has great fun in the role of as Paddy and there's a wonderful scene between her and Todd late in the movie that revels more about Todd's character and her feelings toward Kenny. The film is also interesting in that it doesn't have a male central hero to save the day (and heroine) as Brigitte's doctor boyfriend washes his hands of the situation and quickly leaves it to Paddy to investigate.
    With its naked female bodies hanging on meat hooks or tumbling out of cement mixes BEWARE MY BRETHERN has very grim atmosphere about it with a seediness and sordidness that seems to creep into every frame. Borrowing serial killer troupes from PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM it combines these with the new "permissiveness" of 70's horror cinema and looks forward to Pete Walker's work a couple years down the road and makes a nice companion to the major studio 10 RILLINGTON PLACE from 1971. The film's screenplay is by Brian Compton (GIRLY) and was photographed by Desmond Dickinson who also was the DP on TROG, THE HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND, THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR, BERSERK and BURKE AND HARE among others. At one-point Kenny enters a cinema that's playing SCARS OF DRACULA.
     Part of the film's flying under the radar status for years was that the BBC imposed some serious cuts on it upon release with the full strength version appearing in the U.S. on a murky looking VHS in the 80's (which I remember renting and seemed to have lurked on the shelves of every mom & pop video store). Odeon released the uncut version on DVD in 2011 and Vinegar Syndrome put out a beautiful Blu-ray/DVD  in 2018 with a highly informative commentary by Samm Deighan.










All screen shots above are from the Vinegar Syndrome DVD