Two Gialli Good Reasons to be Afraid of Freda

When one hears the term “giallo,” the name “Dario Argento” is usually within stalking distance.  Argento’s mentor, of course, was the great Mario Bava, who filmed perhaps the first of these exquisitely lurid thrillers as far back as 1963 (The Girl Who Knew Too Much).  Bava’s mentor, was the innovative 1950s master of the Italian macabre Riccardo Freda (credited with making the first official Italian horror flick, 1957’s I, Vampiri).  So, for Freda to take a dip in the genre created and popularized by his protégées is practically mandatory viewing for followers of Italian horror fantasy and mystery.  Between 1969 and 1971, Freda, in his twilight years (although he would work until 1981), helmed a pair of giallos (pl. gialli) that, for the masses who worship this species, have become either Holy Grail titles or shamefully neglected entries.  Handling by less than reputable international distributors addresses many of their scarcity/obscurity queries; the movies were re-titled, recut, and generally given shoddy lab work.  All of this has now been gloriously rectified with the recent Arrow Video Blu-Ray releases of DOUBLE FACE and THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE.  Both worth exploring, but especially for Freda completists, FACE and IGUANA admirably check off all the giallo boxes:  creepy, suspenseful, erotic, sexy, shocking, lurid, beautifully shot and with memorable music.  So, here we go.


“So, you think I’m INSANE???!!!,” shouts the main character – and with good reason – in DOUBLE FACE (aka, Liz and Helen).  Doubly so, when one realizes that these words are uttered by lead Klaus Kinski, as a bewildered and traumatized Brit business magnate.  Of course, seeing Klaus Kinski go off the rails isn’t anything new; the rarity is when is he ever ON the rails (definitely a narrative dilemma for DOUBLE FACE).  In this case, you gotta give Klaus some leeway, since Kinski, as John Alexander – a man obsessed and dominated by his gorgeous wife, Liz (the sensual-plus Annabella Incontrera)  –  is (to say the least) disturbed to come home and find her having sex with a lover.  The fact that her lover is Helen (the ultra-bewitching Margaret Lee) only adds to the husband’s eye-popping confusion.  Liz tries to calm him down, explaining she’s woman enough for everyone.  This still doesn’t sit well with John; in fact, Helen isn’t too crazy about this either.  So Liz decides to split for a respite of solitude whilst the pair blow off steam (if they don’t kill each other first).  Unfortunately, Liz’s careless driving causes her untimely death in a fiery crash.  This further trash-compacts Kinski into the lower depths of despair, mourning, guilt, and anger.  He, too, needs to get away.

Upon his return, we discover that Alexander’s holiday only made things worse; he’s mentally deteriorating by the second (as only Klaus can).  Agonizingly entering his lonelier than ever manse, he finds Christine (Christiane Kruger, real-life daughter of Hardy Kruger) a squatter – and a beauteous one – ready to swing like a gate with the demented widower.  He tosses her out, but she’s determined to cure her “landlord” of the blues.  In a hip hippie club (the kind of which NEVER existed), couples are coupling in plain sight, while, in a back room, Christine is the guest of honor at the premiere of her latest porn movie.  Alexander, reluctantly captive, waits for the lights to dim so he can escape.  Then, he sees Christine’s partner on the screen – a masked lady, yet unmistakably Liz (scars and jewelry).  When Alexander finds out that the flick was recently filmed at a flesh peddler’s magic castle, the frothing hubby leaves no stone unturned until he finds the truth – and his wife.  An admirable task – until the bodies start piling up.

Part giallo, part-“new permissiveness” middle-class fantasy, part Vertigo, but entirely mad, DOUBLE FACE is an exercise in style and lunacy, expertly handled by Freda, shot by Gabor Pogany and scored by Nora Orlandi.  The new Arrow Blu-Ray (from a specially-commissioned 2K restoration) looks amazing, bursting with vibrant colors and 1080p High Def clarity.  It is the most complete version (91 minutes) available (an “extended cut” by a dubious distributor that reportedly inserted hardcore porn footage into the film-within-the-film doesn’t count).

Chronicling the sexual revolution as only a giallo can (and getting it so delightfully and maniacally wrong), DOUBLE FACE is loaded with tons of great extras, including original English and Italian language versions (with newly translated readable English subtitles on the latter), the English and Italian trailers, audio commentary by Tim Lucas, a new video interview with composter Orlandi (plus a sidebar documentary on her career), a video essay on Freda gialli by author/critic Amy Simmons, an exhaustive photo gallery from the collection of Christian Ostermeier (featuring the German release pressbook and lobbycards, plus the complete Italian cineromanza adaptation).

Surprisingly, the movie was a major flop in the late Sixties, to the point of putting a dent in Freda’s career.  I’m not even sure whether it was ever released in the U.S. or (widely) in the UK (but, if so regarding the latter, I wonder if Mike Hodges partially channeled it while preparing Get Carter)  Well, here it is now – and it’s a pip!


While DOUBLE FACE qualifies as an embryonic giallo, 1971’s THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE is a full-blown excursion into the then-flourishing genre.  Any further proof can be evidenced by the title alone.  Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage pretty much sent Italian producers giallo-ing up the country with sex-crime thrillers, knocking the current top cine-favorite, the spaghetti western, into second place.  With The Cat O’Nine Tails (and later Four Flies on Grey Velvet) following, every Italian suit was looking for the best animal connection to this type of pic.  The Freda movie may have the most bizarre one; it’s actually explained by one of the characters.  Irish police Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan), faced with the gruesome mutilation and killing of a woman (found in the trunk of a car owned by Swiss Ambassador Sobiesky) relates to undercover ex-cop-turned-detective, John Norton (giallo/spaghetti western great Luigi Pistilli) that an iguana is a monstrous-looking creature, but harmless.  This monster isn’t harmless, but has a tongue of fire!  See? So simple.  And, in the course of events, the killings escalate to…well, fiery tongue proportions!

Pistilli, dubbed with a brogue, is a cable sweater-wearing rapacious Irishman (Italians are never subtle), living with his mother (Ruth Durley) and a daughter from a failed marriage.  Key suspects are the aforementioned ambassador (the always watchable Anton Diffring), his glam but loopy wife (the even more watchable Valentina Cortese), their authentically creepy, blackmailing chauffeur (Renato Romano), and, best of all, their drop-dead gorgeous red-headed daughter Helen (the breathtaking Dagmar Lassander); natch, randy Norton begins a torrid affair with Helen – a real bummer if she turns out to be the murderer.

Unusual for a giallo, whose real estate generally is located in Italy, with occasional forays to Spain, and London, IGUANA almost entirely takes place in Ireland.  It’s a perfect choice, with the dark, cold foreboding surroundings visually appending the pic’s dark, cold foreboding humans.  For some fresh air, there’s a brief sojourn to Switzerland (where beautiful people, even in a giallo, always go to ski).  All of this is luxuriously photographed in widescreen by Silvano Ippoliti.  A splendid score by Stelvio Cipriani nicely crowns this grisly chiller, which includes a final twist on the twist capper!

While many consider this a lesser Freda and giallo, I have to admit a certain fondness for it (of course, you’ve already got me with that title).  I venture to say that much of the “feh” critique IGUANA has undeservedly racked up is likely due to the lousy prints we’ve been subjected to for nearly fifty years.  This new 2K 1080p restoration is terrific, and may change detractors’ opinions.   To further sweeten the pot, Arrow has given us a plethora of tempting extras, including (like DOUBLE FACE) English and Italian language options (with new English subtitles), audio commentary by giallo scholars Adrian J. Smith and David Flint, a video homage by critic Richard Dyer, a documentary on Cipriani, international trailers and an on-camera conversation with IGUANA assistant editor Bruno Micheli.  Best is a new interview with Lassander, who, like fellow giallo actresses Erika Blanc, Barbara Bouchet, and Rosalba Neri, proves herself to be both perceptive and even self-deprecating hilarious.



Both titles:  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High  Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA [English or Italian options]. Arrow Video. SRP: $39.95@.














The Age of Skinocence

In an earlier appreciation of psychotronic auteur Joseph Sarno, I suggested that had his work (during the first part of the 1960s) been imported from Italy, under the moniker Giuseppe Sarno, it probably would have been heralded as an Art House sensation, rather than the flesh-peddling rep “respectable” critics (the ones who even bothered with Joe) christened him.  Seeing a new collection, a stunning widescreen Blu-Ray triple feature restoration, encompassing THE JOSEPH W. SARNO RETROSEPCT SERIES 4 (available through Film Movement, in collaboration with FILMedia/Something Weird) has done nothing to change my opinion.

The three movies presented here offer a varying menu of Sarno carnal fare.  The two most interesting hail from 1964, striking in black and white; the third, a Sarno color spectacular, is an entry from a decade later; it’s appeal, while still worth viewing, is less “shocking,” due mostly to the period from which it was released (more on that later).  Anyways, start burning the incense.


SIN IN THE SUBURBS is the gem in the triad.  Filmed “on-location” (New Jersey) in stark monochrome (by James J. Markos), this Sarno opus tackles a very volatile “hot topic” at the time:  wife-swapping and upper-middle-class private swing clubs.  Magazines like Playboy fully explored this phenomenon; some mainstream movies even dared to go there (I’m talking about the remarkable 1961 noir Mantrap, a Paramount picture/Blu-Ray that I will discuss at a future date).  An appropriate score by Sam Fiedel compliments the double-take shenanigans.

SIN‘s initial premise is simple; depraved/lonely/curious housewives are looking for an outlet to vent their passion.  Ditto, their spouses, whose fantasies degenerate into the encounters with neighbors’ teen daughters.  As scripted by Sarno, the narrative doesn’t take long to unfold (at 90 minutes, it’s one of his lengthier pics), and soon gets kinky.  Yvette and Lou are a brother and sister team, originators of a cult that suggests a satanic karma sutra coven similar to that in Sergio Martino’s horror-giallo All the Colors of the Dark; the edge SIN has is that it went there nearly ten years earlier (early-mid 1960s vs. 1970s permissive cinema is like a century in dog years).  When one matches the narrative elements to Stanley Kubrick’s final work, it carves that path thirty-five years earlier (as well as the missed op for an exploitative 1999 re-issue title Thighs Wide Slut).  Further titillation is provided by the suggestion that the brother and sister are apparently involved in the art of incestuous coupling themselves (a secret about them is revealed later in the proceedings).  Their actual intent, however, is, like in so many other illegal and amoral sects/clubs/organizations, to make a buck.  High fees are charged to these white, suburban up-and-comers to swing with their neighbors (they wear masks to hide their identities).  The club flourishes, as it validates adultery; of course, the caveat is that brother and sister now additionally have blackmail material should their cash cow be slaughtered.  Another perk concerns Kathy, a prudish, nubile teen, who discovers her mom’s (Audrey Campbell) adulterous (albeit duly founded) degeneration, and then rebels by giving herself to the club as a “hostess” and lover to Yvette.

The cast of SIN is extremely fascinating.  As usual, Sarno’s men are fairly boorish or innocuous while the women are incredibly sensual (Judy Young as Kathy matches any teen nymphette in a Lifetime Movie).  The slight nudity was certainly meant as the impetus to get the raincoat crowd into tiny Times Square theaters, but, as one can discern from the brief description of the scenario, there’s a lot more going on here than merely bodacious babes flopping around topless.  Of particular note in the thesp lineup is the actress playing Yvette, the demented sister-leader.  Billed as “Lahna Monroe,” it is nonetheless, cult/psychotronic goddess Dyanne Thorne, better known as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (although here, as a brunette, she is totally unrecognizable from what would become her notoriously beloved signature role).  This creeper’s a keeper.


By contrast, WARM NIGHTS HOT PLEASURES, lensed the same year, is almost tame (the most shocking bit for me being the disclosure of 1964 above-average New York City apartments going for $200 a month).  It covers what would become a standard hardcore/softcore porno plotline: hot showbiz-oriented roomies looking to make big money to maintain a living large lifestyle.  This trio can easily be tagged as Bad Girl, VERY Bad Girl and Total Skank.  Almost before you can say, “Where’s the rent?” at least one has committed to nude layouts in men’s magazines.  The swarms of panting admirers include noted actor Joe Santos (best known as one of the stars of The Rockford Files and tons of other TV shows/movies), here in his salad days.  The females, naturally, are way more compelling and comprise Marla Ellis, Eve Harris and Sheila Barnett.  The pic, like SIN, was shot by Markos, and has a decent score by Thomas Valentine.


The final entry, CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE is misleading.  While indeed the title’s lead Carol (Rebecca Brooke) does have some confessing to do, she isn’t the prime “wow factor” source of this Seventies epic.  The beauteous actress, Jennifer Welles, plays her widowed mom (also named Jennifer), a drop-dead gorgeous parent, strictly moral and religious (her claim to fame being the winner of the American Hausfrau of 1963 beauty contest), whose inner, private passions are unleashed by her daughter’s promiscuous lifestyle with her husband and their friends (often to Carol’s annoyance/jealousy: “Can we get off the subject of my mother’s tits?!!!”she scolds her partners, male and female ).  Mom’s “turning,” giving way to encounters with not only her daughter’s inner circle of players, but with a grocery delivery boy (to say nothing of pleasuring herself furiously) is what gives this title its mojo.  Truth be told, by 1974, this kind of stuff (even with the abundance of nudity) wasn’t a rarity.  I mean, everyone in “new permissive” Hollywood flicks was shagging on-screen, even cartoons (Fritz the Cat); and, as for what was happening in French, Italian and German imports…we won’t even begin to go there. Thus, CONFESSIONS, filmed in the period’s typical peachy color scheme by Stephen Colwell, often plays like an R-rated episode of Love, American Style.  Nevertheless with dialog (by Sarno) like “I think she likes your vibrations,” and bubblegum pop music by composer Jack Justis, CONFESSIONS remains a twee, entertaining Seventies celluloid time capsule of pre-Aids sexual mischief, where Sarno’s technical expertise increases with his budget (this one cost a whopping $25K).  Long story short, what once defined Joseph Sarno as “controversial” now melds into the more conventional.  Or, the Industry just caught up with him.  Your choice,


All three Sarno pics (on a single Blu-Ray disc) look great in 1080p High Definition (with CONFESSIONS displaying some slight surface wear; all are in remixed stereo).  There are also some enticing extras, including deleted scenes, new commentary by Tim Lucas and vintage audio from Sarno himself, his wife Peggy, and director Frank Henenlotter.  Cheap thrills were never so rewarding.

THE JOSEPH W. SARNO RETROSPECT SERIES 4: Sin in the Suburbs/Warm Nights Hot Pleasures/Confessions of a Young American Housewife. Black and white [Sin/Pleasures], Color [Confessions]; Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Film Movement Classics/FILMedia/Something Weird. CAT# N/A. SRP: $39.95.




Expressionism for the Masses

The cinematic evocation of Madison Avenue mastication (“It’s so delicious, you’ll never know it’s good for you!”), the American works of Paul Leni deserve not only the current restorations they are receiving but a wider audience for his amazing celluloid magic.  Two recent Blu-Rays, from Flicker Alley, are dedicated to exactly this task, and I’m so delighted to be able to announce and comment on the releases of 1928’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS and 1929’s THE LAST WARNING, both now available in stunning 4K High Def transfers.

Leni, perhaps one of the least known of the many great German emigres, who relocated to Hollywood during and directly after the silent era, nevertheless had a string of major successes.  Key to his rising stature in the West Coast community was the box-office smash The Cat and the Canary, the ultimate “old dark house” thriller that reached the screens in 1927.  It’s relevant to note that Leni was not grabbed up by MGM, Paramount, Fox or even Warners, but the (even then) major-minor po’ cousin Universal.

Leni, born Paul Josef Levi, began as an art director for the great Max Reinhardt.  He is generally considered by many to be (along with F.W. Murnau) the genius who brought gothic horror to cinema via his grasp of set and art design and lighting to create emotion, atmosphere and suspense.  The pic that got America interested in Leni was the 1924 horror masterpiece Waxworks.  Sadly, in late 1929, just as Leni was enjoying the fantastic successes of his brief Hollywood period, he died of blood poisoning.

It was the enthusiastic U.S. audience response to Cat (the accompanying critical kudos didn’t hurt either) that prompted Universal to give Leni full rein on a dream project, an opulent rendition of Victor Hugo’s disturbing 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs.

For Universal, this really wasn’t that much of a gamble.  The Laemlles (Carl and Carl, Jr.) were eager to flex their money muscles in competition with the big boys; more importantly, they had scored a super blockbuster epic with their 1923 adaptation of Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of the instantly recognizable silent film iconic go-to titles.

While there is much to recommend the earlier Hugo pic, Leni easily outdistances himself artistically from that movie’s director, Wallace Worsley.  The production values, under Paul Kohner’s supervision (with Leni personally working with Charles D. Hall, Thomas F. O’Neill and Joseph Wright, as well as costume designers Vera West and David Cox), like Hunchback’s, are spectacular.  While no doubt Lon Chaney was presumably (at least early on) the front runner to play the vital, contradictory proud-pathetic protagonist Gwynplaine (he had another sensational hit for Universal with their 1925 horror show Phantom of the Opera), his now superstar status at MGM likely made him unattainable.  Leni certainly wasn’t stymied and probably already had his fellow countryman Conrad Veidt in mind for the lead; Veidt, after all had become an international sensation with the release of 1919’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and later starred in Leni’s aforementioned Waxworks.  With Euro imports all the rage (Garbo, Emil Jannings, Pola Negi), convincing Universal of Veidt’s talents didn’t take too much prompting.  It is, to put it mildly, one of the great performances in cinema – be it silent or sound.

The story of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (often erroneously credited as a precursor to William Castle’s 1961’s faux Hammeresque Mr. Sardonicus) is a sad one, fitting in with classic French-set/sourced screen tragedies (Hunchback, Orphans of the Storm, etc).  In 1690, evil, corrupt and stupid King James (silent villain Sam de Grasse) captures his enemy – a noble of the Clancharlie family; before having him executed, his repugnant court jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) comes up with a horrific fate for the prisoner’s child, his beloved son Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar, Jr).  They sell the boy to gypsies, on the specific proviso that he’s turned over to “Dr.” Hardquannone (George Siegmann), a maniacal pedophile whose specialty is disfiguring children by carving their facial muscles into a permanent skull-like grimace.  Victim Gwynplaine escapes into a blizzard, coming across the frozen body of a young woman; there, nestled in the dead mother’s arms, is an infant girl – alive, but blinded.  Gwynplaine takes the baby under his wing and roams the wilderness, looking for shelter; he eventually comes across a hideous but kindly circus showman Ursus (von Stroheim favorite Cesare Gravina).  He takes the children in, and raises them as his own – an act of goodness that pays off handsomely.  As the children reach adulthood, they become star attractions in his traveling caravan: Gwynplaine (Veidt) as “the man who laughs,” and Dea, now a gorgeous young woman (Phantom of the Opera‘s Mary Philbin) as the blind angel (she initially loves her childhood savior because she cannot see him, but soon, that doesn’t matter). As a triangular pinch of sadistic spice, Freaks’ Olga Baclanova is astoundingly nasty as a gorgeous nympho duchess with a jones for lowlife coitus; her “romantic” night with Gwynplaine is, to put it mildly, an eye-opener.

How this all twists and turns toward its breathtaking climax is movie-making at its ultimate peak.  Aside from Leni’s magnificent direction, the heart-wrenching screenplay/adaptation by J. Grubb Alexander (with assist from May McLean, Marion Ward, and Charles E. Whittaker; titles by Walter Anthony) and the outstanding photography of Gilbert Warrenton, the driving force of Nature that propels THE MAN WHO LAUGHS to immortal classic par exellence is the acting of Veidt.  Often seen only as a pair of eyes covered by a lower kerchief/mask, one is treated to brilliant screen emoting as never before witnessed.  Veidt’s eyes do it all, laying forth a myriad of emotions:  sadness, joy, anger, love, hate…I’ve never experienced anything like it.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was a terrific success in 1928; so much so that when sound began making serious inroads into the industry, Universal pulled the title, and commissioned a Movietone score to be composed by Dr. William Axt.  This track, which includes sound effects, is available on this restoration, as well as an excellent, new score by Sonia Coronado.  There are also numerous other enticing extras, including a booklet by Kevin Brownlow, a visual essay on Leni at Universal by author John Soister, and a gallery of stills and promotional materials.

Frequently included as part of Universal’s classic horror catalogue (usually by folks who never saw it), THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, essentially because of the frightening imagery of Veidt in makeup, has, as indicated, been grouped in with the Castle flick (although it undoubtedly did have a visual influence).  More importantly, the grinning lead character was the impetus for Batman creator Bob Kane’s creation of The Joker.  The look of the movie, too, instantly places it in the James Whale/Robert Florey goth universe (some imagery was too gruesome for 1928; a sequence surrounding a colony of deformed grinning children was cut before the release). Of course, the fact that Gwynplaine isn’t a monster is beside the point.  That said, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, in a totally other way, earns a place in horror cinema, if only to underline that the true demons are the “normal” humans, who persecute anyone (be it for ethnicity, skin color, religion, gender or sexual orientation) simply because they’re different.


In comparison to the above, 1929’s THE LAST WARNING may seem minor.  But leave us look again.  True, it takes a basically B-movie murder mystery plot (Universal remade the title in 1939 as The House of Fear) and elevates it to high art entirely via Leni’s mastery of direction, camera and lighting.

The final work before his death in 1929, THE LAST WARNING sets its macabre Jazz Age tale of homicide within Broadway’s show business community. In fact, the murder in question (as adapted/scripted by Alfred Cohn, J.G. Hawks and Tom Reed, based upon Thomas F. Fallon’s play from Wadsworth Camp’s novel) takes place during the five-year anniversary presentation of the play where an identical killing occurred! Prime suspect/victim/heroine is Leni’s underrated lead from Cat and the Canary, Laura La Plante.  La Plante, who had a decidedly atypical look from the barrage of flapper femmes of the era, was always a personal favorite of mine.  While her name is so 1920s silent, her abilities aren’t; she smoothly made the transition to talkies, handling dialog with comic, sexy and snarky aplomb.  Yet, the fickle audiences left her in the dust.  La Plante ended up in the UK (where she made a delightful 1935 comedy, Man of the Moment).

Weaving in and out of the kaleidoscopic camera moves and compositions (some incorporating existing theater sets from Phantom of the Opera) are Montagu Love, Roy D’Arcy, Margaret Livingston, Burr McIntosh, Mack Swain, Charles K. French, Bert Roach, Slim Summerville and Fred Kelsey (as, what else?, a dumb detective).  The thrills are ever-present and fun, certainly a way-diverse Leni approach to storytelling from THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (which only further heralds the director’s outstanding hold on the medium).  Another perk of this 78-minute gem is Hal Mohr’s authentic location montage of New York City nightlife in the 1920s.  I’m agog by the nocturne montages of Times Square and Broadway; they’re absolutely jaw-dropping with wow factor enchantment.

Flicker Alley and Universal Pictures are to be duly (and dually) congratulated for their making available these silent treasures (they’re part of an on-going restoration series that Universal is engaged in with the Cinematheque francaise and The Packard Humanities Institute in the UCLA Film & Television Archive).  They look wonderful (although WARNING includes some brief 16MM footage); in keeping with company’s growing Blu-Ray catalog, the combi B-D/DVD set includes an addictive array of extras/supplements, including a visual essay by John Soister, a stills and promotion gallery, and a newly commissioned score by Arthur Barrow.  Murder was never so much of a hoot…and a holler!

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.  Black and white [full frame; 1.21:1; 1080p High Definition; also includes DVD]; 2.0 mono audio [1928 Movietone track] or DTS-HD MA [new score].  CAT # FA0062.  SRP: $39.95.

THE LAST WARNING. Black and white [full frame; 1.33:1; 1080p High Definition; also includes DVD]; DTS-HD-MA.  CAT # FA0063. SRP: $39.95.

Both titles released through Flicker Alley/Universal Home Video.




To put it mildly, WENTWORTH, Australia’s (fictional) notorious maximum security women’s lockup, is a rough place.  The joint is rife with rape, drug-dealing, lesbian debauchery, torture, blackmail and murder.  And that’s the staff!  Now, it’s all here for us Yanks to (safely) see and relish in the smash, engrossing series’ first three seasons, currently available on multi-disc DVD sets from Acorn Media RLJ Entertainment/Fremantle Media/FOXTEL.

The show, as created by Lara Radulovich, is quite brilliant in its concept and execution.  It’s both a remake and homage to Reg Wilson’s 1970’s Aussie cult hit Prisoner, Cell Block H.  Personally, I can tell you that when that series crept over the airways on our local WOR-TV station, it killed the major network competition, especially among high school and college students, and particularly film students.  I was a recent NYU graduate at the time, and can verify that the almost religious effect of the show on we Big Apple denizens had not been seen since the advent of Uncle Miltie.  Whatever we were doing came to a halt when Cell Block H reared its ugly, addictive head.  Glad to say that a similar vibe can be experienced over forty years later.  Again, God bless Acorn for providing access to this nasty treasure trove.

In Cell Block H, the most fascinating character was Franky Doyle (Carol Burns), a foul-mouthed, Sinead O’Connor-looking sadistic lesbian con who essentially owned the yard – dictating what, who, how things went down.  In WENTWORTH, Franky’s character remains the same, except she’s undergone a physical change.  She is a now a less butch, heavily tatted more “girly dyke” (to quote her roomies), magnificently enacted by the stunning Australian/Portugese actress Nicole da Silva.  As in the original, the “official” star of the show is virgin prisoner Bea Smith, played by Danielle Cormack (Val Lehman in the original).  Incarcerated for the attempted murder of her abusive husband (Jake Ryan), she’s really a fish out of water, entering the pen like Eleanor Parker had in 1950’s Caged – practically with a target on her back.  But she’s as smart as Franky, and, while they often lock heads, they occasionally team up; soon a gradually hardened Bea becomes a leader of her own mob.

The first episode begins with a bang – well, a stab, as a supposedly beloved warden (Catherine McClements) is murdered.  This has a pronounced effect upon guard Will Jackson (Robbie Magasiva, the male lead), as he was the victim’s spouse.  In rapid fashion, he degenerates into a hopped-up-on-goofballs lifestyle that infringes greatly upon on his ability to maintain the general atmosphere of chaos throughout the facility.  None of this sits well with the new warden, Erica Davidson (Leeanna Waisman), like Bea, another beauteous newbie to the prison world; unlike Smith, she harbors a suppressed lesbian jones which surfaces during her frequent Franky fantasies.  Then there’s Matthew Fletcher (Aaron Jeffery), a jocular guard, who enjoys shagging both cons and staff, the latter being a repressed mousey Vera Bennett (Kate Atkinson), who lives in her own prison, badgered by her ailing mum (Lynette Curran), whom she dreams about killing to gain her freedom.

While Jackson searches to find out who offed his wife (we find out before he does), Wentworth undergoes a drastic change:  the arrival of a malignant lady crime boss Jacs Holt (Kris McQuade).  This, like the series tends to do throughout, sends narrative tentacles spreading in all directions, and one that directly affects Bea.  Her lovely, virtuous daughter Deb (Georgia Flood) visiting the same time as Holt’s apparently innocent son Brayden (Reef Ireland), hook up.  Turns out, he’s as big a monster as his mater; soon, he’s got the girl on heroin, pimping her out and causing her demise.  Bea doesn’t take this well (it was all arranged via Jacs), and vows vengeance (indeed, the “running gag” of the show is ending each season with Smith’s murder of Holt family members – including one where she briefly breaks out to do it).

That’s Season One!

In Season Two, we learn that Warden Gorgeous couldn’t take her carnal yearnings, and has been replaced by the horrendous bisexual Joan Ferguson (Pamela Rabe).  This character is so grotesque that she makes Hope Emerson in the aforementioned Caged look like Aunt Bee.  Ferguson is a psychopath, out to seek vengeance on the killer of her GF (an inmate at another prison).  Wait till you see who it was.  Warden Joan knows no bounds and blackmails inmates to do her bidding, installs surveillance cams in everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE), punishes hold-outs with hot shots, and even has Fletcher run over by a truck (he now remains on the job, a down under version of Lennie in Of Mice and Men).  True, Ferguson gets hers, but not before two seasons of pure evil.

Notable supporting forced residents on the show include Doreen Anderson (Shareena Clanton), who gets impregnated by a male work crew lover, bussed in to do some heavy labor (another tries to rape Franky, and gets a shiv in his groin), and Liz Birdsworth (Celia Ireland), a good-natured con – until she comes within sniffing distance of alcohol (she’s been incarcerated for a DUI killing); Liz lives for the day when she can be reunited with her estranged daughter Sophie (Edwina Samuels), a wish the comes true early when the girl  is arrested and locked up in the same cellblock with mum. Gotta mention Boomer (Katrina Milosevic), a gargantuan sex-starved capo, and Maxine Conway (Socratis Otto), the slams’ first transgender inmate (and the most likeable person on the show).

On the staff side, there’s Dr. Bridget Westfall (Libby Tanner), the smoking new shrink who, too, desires Franky.  Franky, who knows how to use people, immediately feels the connection, and nurtures it to reap the many perks sensuality can provide.  Almost as a dare, Doyle starts to hang in the library, reading law books, and realizing that lawyering is a scam easily mastered to manipulate suckers.  Encouraged by Dr. Tanner (who still hides her overt feelings), Franky actually prepares for the bar (doubly serving as a non-narrative exit strategy for da Silva, who achieved superstar status because of her portrayal, becoming a drastically cooled-down hetro lead in the smash dra-medy series The Heart Guy).  Toward the end of Series Three, a now paroled Franky officially trades bars for the bar and has moved in with Libby.  Da Silva, I believe, still makes sporadic appearances on WENTWORTH, as the show continues to draw, and is now preparing for Season Eight!

Unlike its Cell Block H ancestor, which was cheaply made, WENTWORTH is an A+ production, lavishly designed (Kate Saunders, Adrian Dalton), written (Pete McTighe, John Ridley, Timothy Hobart, Marcia Gardner, Adam Todd) and directed (Kevin Carlin, Catherine Millar, Toni Garrett, Jet Wilkinson, Steve Jodrell, Dee McLachlan and Pino Amenta).  The series is likewise stunningly photographed (Craig Barden, Kathy Chambers) with effective stereo audio that showcases a fine score by Richard Pleasance.  The ancillary offshoots of WENTWORTH have resulted in friendship/partnerships between several of the excellent actresses.  McCormack and da Sylva have formed their own production company, while the former and Miloservic journeyed to New Jersey this past spring to attend a WENTWORTH fan gathering (with another planned in L.A. this November)!

The widescreen Acorn DVDs of WENTWORTH are excellent, and fully up to the company’s standards.  As I’m already on the second runs of the first three seasons, I hopefully keep my fingers crossed that Season 4 and beyond are waiting in the corridors for parole into my custody.

WENTWORTH, SEASONS 1-3. Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Fremantle Media/FOXTEL. SRP: $59.99@

SEASON 1 (3 DVDs): CAT # AMP-2533

SEASON 2 (4 DVDs): CAT# AMP-2537

SEASON 3 (4 DVDs): CAT# AMP-2538