Painting the Town Red

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO/MVDvisual MONTH

SPOILER ALERT:  I’m going to give away the climax.  Wait, no – not from this brilliantly-conceived 1970 giallo masterpiece, aka THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (now in a superb 4K Ultra Special Edition from the sinister folks at Arrow Video/MVDvisual), but from my annual end-of-the-year best platter list.  This title will definitely be there and here’s why.

Back in 1970, I was vacationing in the mountains of Budd Lake, NJ.  Every morning, I would scan through the New York newspapers for upcoming movie events.  One dawn, I saw the ads for an Italian import, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.  I read the smash reviews (quotes of which would be used in subsequent wide-release posters and lobbies); they favorably compared the pic to Hitchcock, specifically Psycho.  Damn, I had to see it!  As soon as summer ended, I did my best to track PLUMAGE down, and instantly became a Dario Argento fan.  From hereon in, I would diligently seek out all his later works, (at least up until 1998’s The Phantom of the Opera), not always an easy task; PLUMAGE would be the exception to the U.S./Argento rule – the best reviewed and, often, the easiest to see.

Yes, LSS, this was the first movie officially directed by Dario Argento (some spaghetti western foreign releases credit/cocredit him on Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die and 5-Man Army, 1968 and 1969, respectively).  Prior to PLUMAGE, I vaguely knew the name due to his having cowritten the story to Sergio Leone’s 1969 triumph Once Upon a Time in the West (along with Bernardo Bertolucci, no less).

Argento was raised in a show business family, and, like a true movie buff, was addicted to Hollywood fare – specifically, the horror and thriller genres.  Looking for a first directorial entry, the novice picture-maker was delighted when Bertolucci lent him a copy of Fredric Brown’s creepy 1949 novel The Screaming Mimi (already ably filmed in 1958 by Gerd Oswald).  Dario adapted the book to his tastes – tempering it with many flourishes and homages to his mentor, Mario Bava (no credit would be given to Brown, a typical Italian dodge earlier used by Leone when he freely adapted A Fistful of Dollars from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – a move the Japanese director didn’t let him get away with).

Any movie is difficult for a first-time director, and PLUMAGE banged this cliché home over the 29-year-old’s head – with a sledgehammer.  Although supported by his family (Argento’s father Salvatore served as a producer), the production company head of Titanus wasn’t sure of what to make of young Dario’s “strange” style.  He wanted him replaced, and even went as far as contacting Terence Young to grab the reins.  It was only after Salvatore went to plead his case that the matter was settled.  On the day in question, the senior Argento entered the production office to see the female executive secretary traumatized.  Asking what was wrong, the frazzled woman replied that she had just seen a rough cut edit of a scene from CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and couldn’t shake her fear and terror.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The movie went on to become a mammoth hit, financially and critically (playing at one theater in Milan for three years!).  Calling it influential is an understatement – it begat the entire giallo genre (although elements had been present in Italian cinema since Bava’s 1963’s Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1964’s Blood and Black Lace).  PLUMAGE’s animal moniker sparked a series of murder thrillers with non-humans in the title (The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, etc); even Dario continued the trend with The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (the latter, like Brown’s Mimi, paying celluloid “homage” to Tourneur’s Leopard Man).

The deliciously warped plot of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE revolves around American ex-patriot Sam Dalmas, a once-promising author, now experiencing a severe case of writer’s block.  Reduced to penning puff pieces for a local paper, Dalmas plans to return to the States with his British girlfriend Julia.  One night, while passing an art gallery, he spies a man fighting with a woman from inside the glass-encased front.  There’s the flash of a knife, and Dalmas’ intrusion stops the assault.  It turns out this is but the latest of a series of violent murders that has rocked Rome.  Dalmas and the woman, socialite Monica Rainieri, are now the only living witnesses, and, with gentle police pressure, the writer is convinced to remain in Italy a bit longer.  Using his own investigative skills as a reporter (and with his block now lifted from the rush of adrenaline), Dalmas delves into the mind of the killer, and soon places himself, Julia, and his friends in mortal danger.

There’s some truly eerie, unnerving stuff here, primarily the origin of the case, an old Pieter Bruegel the Elder-influenced painting (The Hunters in the Snow) revised to depict the rape of a woman in a pastoral winter scene.  A meeting with the artist (the great Mario Adorf, in a wicked cameo) proves to be enlightening and disgusting; Adorf’s, (aka Berto Calsalvi) loft/apartment is a haven for caged cats.  (“Never [ate] any [cats], huh?,” he asks Dalmas, after having the writer join him for a meal; that really grossed me out in 1970!).

Earlier, I alluded to the problems debut director Argento had with PLUMAGE.  That extended to the cast.  Tony Musante, an excellent actor who had appeared in the spaghetti western The Mercenary (1968) and the Argento-coscripted drama Love Circle (1969), was a fine choice for the lead.  But his method approach proved to be a pain in the ass.  Reportedly, Musante would bang on Argento’s door at three in the morning, demanding to discuss the next day’s shoot and his character’s motivation.  Argento termed him as the most difficult actor he had ever worked with.  Eva Renzi, the beautiful West German actress (of Danish-French parentage) was even worse.  While terrific in the pic, she not only refused to help promote the movie, but would forever refer to CRYSTAL PLUMAGE as “career suicide.”  Shortly before her passing in 2005, she gave several video interviews (one included here), basically trashing everything on her resume, particularly PLUMAGE.  Not surprisingly, Renzi was married to the equally not nice actor Paul Christian/Hubschmid (James Garner and George Kennedy worked with Renzi on a 1968 light-hearted thriller, The Pink Jungle; Garner’s critique:  “We used to call her Eva Nazi.”) Despite the thesp’s bizarre protestations, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE remains her best/signature role.

The remainder of the cast is aces, and comprises Enrico Maria Salerno, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Rosita Torosh, Werner Peters, Karen Valenti, Reggie Nalder, Carla Mancini, and the wonderful Suzy Kendall as Julia; the shots of the leather-gloved killer’s hands are Argento’s.

The behind-the-scene credits are equally extraordinary.  The outstanding d.p. Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) shot PLUMAGE (his first movie in color) in the spacious widescreen process, Cromoscope (actually the Italian version of TechniScope).  Ennio Morricone provides the score (nothing more needs to be said).

In 1970, PLUMAGE was released in the U.S. through a small company called UMC.  The prints were okay, but, even then veered toward a warm shade of magenta.  Not until the advent of DVD were the import copies properly restored to a semblance of what the cinematographer and the director intended.  This was aided immensely by Arrow’s later 2017 Blu-Ray restoration.  All of that pales (literally) to the new 4K Ultra evocation.  CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, in 2160p, is now…well, crystral-clear, and popping with rich, deep colors that aesthetically relate to the grisly origin of the painting which unleashes the maniac, all framed in velvety black (now really black, not dark red or bluish grey).  The 1.0 mono soundtrack is offered up in either the English language or Italian version (the latter with English subtitles).

And then there are the extras: audio commentaries and interviews with film scholars discussing the movie, its connection to Fredric Brown, the giallo genre, and more.  Further supplemental gold comprises additional interviews with Argento, supporting player Gildo di Marco, and, as indicated, an archival visit with costar Renzi.  Fans will plotz at a 60-page illustrated booklet, plus a foldout double-sided poster, featuring the original and newly-commissioned one-sheet artwork, six postcard-size renditions of the Italian lobbycards (also double-sided) – all housed in a beautiful sturdy slipcover!

Exceptional in every sense of the word, the 4K BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is mandatory for every thriller, giallo, Argento collection!  The good news is that Arrow is preparing similar editions of Cat O’Nine Tails and Deep Red (and, hopefully, ALL their Argento titles).  Can’t wait!

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 2160p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA [English language or Italian w.English subtitles].  Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # FCD2157. SRP: $59.95.

The Cold Rush

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO/MVDvisual MONTH

A Western Northern, featuring familiar sagebrush trappings in the wilds of the Klondike, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, the last of the superb Universal-International oaters directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, rides into town via a mind-blowing deluxe two-disc Blu-Ray, thanks to the gang at Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.

Perhaps the darkest Jimmy Stewart-Tony Mann character ever, the pic’s Jeff Webster isn’t merely short-fused or violence-prone (as in Winchester ’73 or Bend of the River), he’s a wanted murderer coming off a dodgy trail ride to Seattle (where the cattle is to be shipped to the ravenous miners in Alaska).  Even though his m.o. seems standard fare: attached to a cantankerous sidekick (the cantankerous Walter Brennan) and deeply devoted to a dream (owning a ranch), his behavior is anything but.  Webster’s a dictionary of psychological ticks – a loner, apathetic to the fates of others (even those on his side), who nevertheless is bound to a reprobate; and (blatantly) carnal with a bad girl/entrepreneur he meets along the way (a cool Ruth Roman).  Uncaring to the point of sociopathy (about folks who’d give their lives for him), Jeff fits right in with the thoroughly corrupt element in the North.  Hanging (shooting/knifing/strangling) Judge Gannon (John McIntire at his finest) is one of the most difficult specimens in the Mann playbook, evil beyond words, yet sinisterly jovial – often more so than Stewart’s forced rare gregariousness (“I’m gonna like ya,” he announces to Jeff upon their meeting. “I’m gonna hang ya, but I’m gonna like ya.”).  Along the way, there are some splendid, colorful supporting players, including Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, Steve Brodie, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson. Jack Elam, John Doucette, Robert Foulk, Chuck Roberson and Kathleen Freeman and Connie Gilchrist (the latter as a pair of shopkeepers/restauranteurs, christened Hominy and Grits).  Gorgeous Corinne Calvet, usually cast as a sultry femme fatale, portrays the second female lead – a rugged tomboy; it’s obviously her least glamourous role, yet, bizarrely enough her sexiest.  And her best.  Stewart’s go-to equine, Pie, is also on-hand/hoof, and delivers his greatest performance as well.

The awesome non-homo sapien star is the majestic Jasper National Park location, where the movie was lensed in spectacular Technicolor by the magnificent d.p. William Daniels.

THE FAR COUNTRY, as excellently written by Borden Chase, is chock full of truly outstanding sequences – the highlight pinnacle (ironically, speaking of mountains) being Stewart watching as many of his copadres ride to their death, following a short cut up a glacier that culminates in an avalanche.  With almost glee, he listens to their screams, as Brennan and Calvet plead with him to help the doomed caravan.  Stewart’s initial response is a brittle I-couldn’t-care-less/I-warned-them rebuttal.  It’s goose-bump worthy.

Art sort of imitated life when it came to the partnership between Stewart and Brennan in reel life, and, Stewart’s and Mann’s in real life.  After a string of wildly successful westerns, action-dramas and even a musical (The Glenn Miller Story), their professional union came to a vicious halt (Mann’s refusal to helm 1957’s Night Passage); they never spoke again.  With the exception of 1965’s Flight of the Phoenix, Stewart stopped playing nutjobs and went on to a later career of lovable…well, Jimmy Stewart characters.  Mann graduated to a sensational run of classic movies, including Men in War, God’s Little Acre, Man of the West, and, then the super epics, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Arrow Blu-Ray of THE FAR COUNTRY is loaded with extras, including two versions of the movie.  In the early mid-Fifites, Universal-International was dicking around with widescreen aspect ratios, and, on occasion, released their titles in 2.0, along with the standard widescreen 1.85 (it should be noted that the industry’s first standard widescreen pic was 1953’s Thunder Bay, a U-I entry, directed by Mann and starring Stewart).  While both show signs of grain, particularly when it comes to opticals, I suggest sticking with the general 1.85 version; in 2.0, the top and bottom cropped images are a bit too tight and claustrophobic (even though Mann favored that “closing in” approach for his noirs), especially for a tale relying on the massive breathing room vistas of this movie (it makes me wonder if Mann or Daniels were informed that there would be an alternate super-wide edition); mono audio on both versions is fine (abetted by the usual routine U-I supervised score by Joseph Gershenson, culled from stock music composed by Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein, Henry Mancini, and Frank Skinner).  Other terrific supplements include a documentary on Mann and Stewart at Universal, featuring Alan K. Rode, C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Schlesinger and Mann’s script supervisor Michael Preece; there’s also another shorter take on THE FAR COUNTRY by Kim Newman, plus audio commentary, image galleries and the original theatrical trailer.

Admittedly, the least of the Mann-Stewart westerns, THE FAR COUNTRY nevertheless stands out miles above the competition (there has never been a disappointing Anthony Mann western).  The depiction of human darkness lurking amongst the beauties of Nature is a contradiction that is genuinely chilling (in physical and emotional climate)…and memorable.

THE FAR COUNTRY. Color. Widescreen [either 2.00:1 or 1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.  CAT # AA060.  SRP: $39.95.

Cutting (and Disemboweling) Edge Giallo

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO MONTH

Leave it to the Italians to deliver the goods as marquee-graphically promised, via the insanely enjoyable 1975 guilty pleasure, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, now on Blu-Ray from the crew at Arrow Video/MVDvisual.

Perhaps the most infamous title in the genre (and think about that!), both in the actual moniker and the scenario, STRIP NUDE goes for the jugular (no pun) from frame one, and doesn’t stop until the fade-out.

The plot is actually quite lofty for a giallo – leaving the usual sordid greed/lust reasons for on-screen carnality/carnage to the competition.  The revenge narrative revolves around the punishment for a beautiful model’s botched abortion, the gynecologist in question being deservedly liquidated.  But not long after, everyone connected to the dead girl’s place of vocation (red flag, it’s called The Albatross Agency) and the late doctor are gruesomely and lovingly (in that de Sade way) dealt with – entering the netherworld with much pain and humiliation.

The Albatross itself is a scummy outfit, albeit an incredibly successful one, run by a hard-assed Gisella Mayer and her impotent husband Maurizio.  Everyone in the joint, from the models to the staff to the celebrated photographers are lowlifes living the high life.  The agency specializes in nude shoots for major clients (a situation that likely flew in the Italy of the 1970s, but never would here).

The key players are Carlo Gunther, a ruthless, reckless camera virtuoso and Magda Cortis, a production assistant, who aspires to be photographer herself.  Carlo is a womanizing creep while Magda isn’t above sexing up men to get what she wants.  Naturally, they fall in love.

When not working, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo, who, fun fact, may actually be a relative of mine!) cruises posh spas, looking for talent.  There, he meets the luscious Lucia (the luscious Femi Benussi).  Before you can say “pushin’ the cushion,” they’re screwing in the sauna, the reward being an Albatross modeling audition (to this day, I’m not sure that the two thesps weren’t actually getting it on).  Benussi gets the gig and a lesbian liaison with Gisella, before she’s turned into ground round.

Indeed, one might think that STRIP NUDE is just an excuse to objectify gorgeous women.  I should mention that the male victims, too, are subjected to the same ritual; our murderer is an equal opportunity psycho.

As one might suspect, STRIP NUDE is one of the more lowly gialli, even though it boasts a top-notch cast:  Castelnuovo, Benussi, and female lead – the genre’s iconic goddess, Edwige Fenech.  The supporting cast is likewise crammed with renowned flesh and fury, and features Solvi Stubing, Amanda, Franco Diogene, Lucio Como, Erna Schurer, Gianni Airo, Silvana Depreto, Claudio Pellegrini, and Giuseppa Meschella.  It’s directed and cowritten (the latter, with Massimo Felisatti) by Andrea Bianchi, a movie-maker known for going that extra mile, when it comes to lurid set pieces (think Jesus Franco with talent).  His widescreen compositions of the many killings are Grand Guignol to the max, ably shot by Franco Delli Colli (while occasionally a bit grainy, the results are elegant mini-nightmares worthy of Madame Tussauds on smack); the appropriate 70’s lounge music comes by way of Berto Pisano.  As its name suggests, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER offers kaleidoscopic montages of sex and violence, each seemingly attempting to out-gross the other.  It’s true, that some of this might offend certain viewers, but, if so, what are you doing watching a movie called STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER?

The new Arrow Blu-Ray of STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER is a revelation for those used to the decades of bootlegs and decent (but unremarkable DVDs).  Of course, it’s complete and uncut, but that’s merely the beginning.  The platter offers various ways to watch the pic, encompassing two versions of the opening horrific gynecological sequence (tinted blue or not), plus the English dubbed edition (dialog by Gene Luotto) or the original Italian dialog cut (with English subtitles).  I suggest the Italian language version, as the subtitles are way more raunchy and sardonic than the Anglo dubbing allows (at the spa, as jealous beauties watch Benussi sashay to and fro in her scant bikini, the comments are bitchy hilarious:  “You forgot to shave this morning”).  Additional supplements incorporate separate interviews with the movie’s production manager, Tino Polenghi, assistant director Daniele Sangiori, stunning costar Erna Schurer, lead Castelnuovo, a special mini featurette on Fenech by film historian Kat Elinger, audio commentaries, and an image gallery.

Likely to shock even those addicted to the giallo genre, STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER is a notoriously grisly entry that nevertheless is a must for the 70’s Italian thriller completist.

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; LPCM mono (Italian w/English subtitles, or English dub).  Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV188.  SRP: $39.95.

Perple Haze

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO MONTH

An eerie, atmospheric thoroughly satisfying noir, 1946’s BLACK ANGEL stalks viewers on Blu-Ray, thanks to the gang at Arrow Video/MVDvisual/Universal Studios.

Based on a novel by the great Cornell Woolrich, an author made for The Movies, BLACK ANGEL added to the increasing number of the writer’s works (occasionally, under his pseudonym, William Irish) adapted for 1940’s cinema; within the space of five years, studios from Paramount to RKO to Monogram would be giving us such deliciously evil fare as Street of Chance, The Leopard Man, The Chase, Deadline at Dawn, Fall Guy, and, I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (the last entry, a contender for one the greatest noir christenings ever).  Suffice to say, his penchant for twisted twisty conclusions is in full bloom here.

BLACK ANGEL revolves around the music business end of night clubbery, so you know you’re in sleazy territory from frame one.  Beautiful, talented, and satanically skanky Mavis Marlowe delights in torturing her hired help, her song-writing ex-spouse, her coworkers, and just about everyone else.  Mavis’s greatest joy, however, is her blackmailing sideline, enormously helped by the woman’s ability to corrupt otherwise loyal husbands into adulterous situations.  That she is found brutally murdered comes as no surprise to anyone who knew her.  What troubles the detective division, particularly head sleuth Captain Flood, is the plethora of suspects.  Numero uno is supposed cheater Kirk Bennett, seen exiting her apartment shortly before the murder, and leaving enough fingerprints and other incriminating evidence to guarantee a ringside hot seat.  And it does.  Swearing his innocence seems to be falling upon deaf ears, save his stunning wife (and former band singer), Catherine’s.  Prior to Bennett, the only serious suspect was the ex, Marty Blair, a once-brilliant pianist/composer, now a hopeless alcoholic (thanks to Mavis).  Prone to violence, Marty has the perfect alibi, courtesy of his buddy, Joe; when drinking, which is often, Blair is locked up for the night in an apartment bolted from the outside.

Now sober, Marty joins forces with Catherine, and they quickly become kindred spirits (“I had a wife who needed killing and you had a husband who took care of it.”) – teaming up to solve the case as the upcoming execution draws closer.  And they soon have a suspect of their own: Marko, the sadistic, pervy owner of a top nitery, where they soon score a singer/accompanist gig.  Marko’s no fool, though, and secretly is on to them…with his own diabolical agenda.

A spine-tingling noir with a wallop of an ending (thanks to an excellent script by Roy Chanslor), BLACK ANGEL is one of those amazing Golden Age movies that often falls through the cracks.  Made by Universal in 1946, it was definitely meant to be a follow-up to their smash 1944 entry Phantom Lady (also available through Arrow, and likewise based on a Woolrich work).  It was the final pic of underrated director Roy William Neill (a master of moody, unnerving cinema whose resume went back to the silent era, but is probably best known for the studio’s Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce), who died on December 14, 1946 (BLACK ANGEL was released on August 2).  It was also the first movie for a newly-liberated Peter Lorre (who plays Marko, and, no big surprise, quite magnificently), just freed from his Warners contract, and now an independent thesp-for-hire.  The star is noir icon Dan Duryea, and (again, no big surprise) he’s terrific as Marty.  Catherine, the duly devoted wife, guilty-ridden by her growing affection for Duryea’s character (and it’s reciprocal) was a complicated role, ably enacted by recent signee June Vincent.  The remainder of the cast is top-drawer, and features Constance Dowling (as Mavis), Wallace Ford (as Joe), Broderick Crawford (as Flood), John Phillips (as Kirk), plus Hobart Cavanaugh, Freddie Steele, Marion Martin, Eddy Chandler, and Mary Field.

In the meticulously researched 2005 Lorre bio, The Lost One by Stephen D. Youngkin, June Vincent recounted the joy of working with Lorre, whom she was pleasantly surprised to find a deeply intelligent, kindly and snarkily funny costar; yet, he took acting very seriously.  Seeing that the newbie was nervous (and worried about an upcoming scene where he had to hurt her), Lorre did his best to calm her down “We did [the scene] a couple of times, and I was not a good enough actress to come across with it correctly.  He whispered in my ear, ‘Now, listen, you think about something else this time. I’m really going to hurt you…He didn’t hurt me badly…but…enough so that I reacted the way I should.”  More than physically, he prepped her psychologically.  “And then I realized what he had done.”

The Arrow Blu-Ray of BLACK ANGEL has been worth the wait.  The 1080p visuals are beautifully contrasted from 35MM elements, giving the Paul Ivano photography that extra midnight sidewalk rain shimmer.  Universal’s house composer Frank Skinner provides a suitable score; a slight fly in the ointment regarding the music is that this new mix infrequently dwarfs bits of dialog; suffice to say, it’s a minor carp.

Of course, being an Arrow title, there’s a boodle of extras, including a gallery of stills and promotional materials, a video homage by film historian Neil Sinyard, audio commentary by Alan K. Rode, and the original theatrical trailer.

An elusive noir absolutely worth checking out, BLACK ANGEL is sure to become a screening repeat offender in your library.

BLACK ANGEL. Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 PCM audio. Arrow Films/MVDvisual/Universal Studios. CAT # AA054. SRP:  $39.95.

Grindmansion

AUGUST IS ARROW VIDEO MONTH

The Golden Age of Grindhouse, where exploitation hit the roadkill, was undoubtedly the 1970s.  The lax guidelines on the new permissiveness resulted in an abundance of nudity and violence, and ratcheted up the swarms of smarmy producers and fly-by-night distributors who couldn’t wait to spatter their splatter across the screens of Times Square and its comparable nationwide hardtops and drive-ins.

Indeed, this decade gave “extreme” fans a cache of favorites and, occasionally, standard movie buffs some notable guilty pleasures.

Immersed in these skin/horror/giallo/kaiju/chop socky imports were periodic valiant efforts to do something a little more deep.  That so many lurid Italian thrillers are now categorized as high art is fact; but, once in a blue moon, American works, too, strived to be a bit more enriching.  The task at hand was to deliver the required goods, but with a “stab” at attempting something better; i.e., the cinematic equivalent of cauliflower disguised as pasta.

Two varying examples are Stanley H. Brasloff’s 1972 drama TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, and, Alfred Sole’s better-known 1976 horror flick ALICE, SWEET ALICE, each now available in special Blu-Ray editions from Arrow Video/MVDvisual.

In a nutshell, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN is what we sophisticates call “a lollapalooza!”  I mean, this pic packs so much into it (in a good way) that it’s difficult to choose a theme to concentrate on.  While the narrative is exploitation heaven, the execution is straight forward, well-acted and directed.  The movie, in short, is a jaw-dropper, and, again, in a good way.

Young, pubescent Jamie Godard lives at home with her single mom.  Jamie is obsessed with her estranged father, booted from the home by his wife – a total ice-cold harpie.  “Daddy” still sends Jamie Christmas and birthday presents – toys, as if the now-blossoming woman is still a child.  And Jamie reacts in kind.  She fondles the stuffed animals, and, uncontrollably begins to get aroused.  Mater, disgusted by the display, dubs her “unnatural,” and wants her gone.  “Daddy” was, after all, removed because he’s a serial cheater, into kinky sex with hookers and high-priced call girls.  Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?

Jamie retreats into a fantasy world, and snags a job at a toy store (her dream position).  There she meets Charlie, who promptly falls in love with her.  Thinking he’s into toys as much as she is, Jamie returns his affection, and they marry.  It’s a union from Hell.  Jamie is frigid, petrified of normal sex; Charlie is concerned but, like his wife’s mom, doesn’t consider getting the girl psychiatric help.  Instead, he repeats the “father” route, and seeks pleasure elsewhere.

At work, Jamie meets Pearl, an attractive older woman customer who is sympathetic to the innocent salesclerk.  They become friends, and Pearl invites Jamie to visit her apartment in Manhattan.

But Pearl is a top flight sex worker, living with  slimy pimp Eddie, who immediately attempts to force himself on Jamie, hoping to groom her.  In doing so, he unleashes the inexperienced female’s sexual fury, a casual “come to Daddy” aside, which turns her on.  Jamie becomes the most popular pony in the stable (elder johns are pre-appointment told to refer to themselves as “Daddy”).  Pearl, who eventually reveals her bisexuality, makes a move on the now-hardened, satiated Jamie, who rebuffs the older woman (using her own mother’s epithets, verbally smacking the veteran whore down).  Pearl retaliates by setting her up with her own father (whose whereabouts she’s always known), after calling him ahead of time, to make sure he uses the trigger word “Daddy.” 

It does not end well.

This movie totally knocked me out.  It’s so much better than most of the Times Square fare that was dumped on the Deuce during the 1970s and 1980s.

Filmed on a low, low budget in and out of Manhattan and the accompanying suburbs, TOYS is smartly directed and cowritten by Brasloff (the latter with Macs McAree).  The recent Arrow Blu-Ray also reveals how well it’s photographed (by Rolph Laube), popping with neon and garish colors that, when appropriate, mimic the era’s toy commercials (one line to Charlie by a delivery man is particularly chilling:  “I hear you married a real doll”).  The music, too, volleys between period synth and a haunting ballad, “Lonely Am I” (by Cathy Lynn and sung by T.L Davis), good enough in 1972 to get its own 45 single.

Then there’s the game cast, notably Evelyn Kingsley, Harlan Cary Poe, Luis Arroyo, and N.J. Osrag.  Of special interest is the mother from Hell, played by former Big Band singer Fran Warren!  Best of all, of course, is the female lead, Marcia Forbes, giving a multi-leveled performance as child-woman Jamie.  A beautiful, talented actress who should have had an extended career; as far as I know, this is her only credit.

Typical of Arrow is the plethora of extras included in the package, most prominently a fresh 2K transfer from the 35MM elements, the aforementioned 45 single (newly transferred), various video essays and featurettes, audio commentary by Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain, and the original trailer.  The LCPM mono is just fine.

Don’t be fooled by the sordid promotion; this is not your standard T & A flick geared toward the weird dudes in the raincoats crowd.  It really is a notch above.

1976’s ALICE, SWEET ALICE is one of the most disturbing pictures ever to come off the grindhouse circuit.  It certainly transcends its roots, and has become an authentic stand-alone horror-thriller – a rep well deserved.

None of the low budget trappings are evident, as the pic is excellently photographed (John Friberg, Chuck Hall), scored (Stephen Lawrence), produced (Marc Greenberg, Richard K. Rosenberg), and, creatively directed (by Alfred Sole, who also coproduced, and cowrote the narrative with Rosemary Ritvo).

ALICE is a damning look at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, as personified by a Paterson, NJ congregation.  Whether this was the overall intention or not, it sure freaks this Jew out.  The focus of the work is placed upon a beguiling adolescent, Alice Spages, who lives with her single mom, Catherine, and kid sister, Karen.  Karen is the charmer of the family, the obvious favorite; Alice is the bad girl, in fact, the bad seed.  She delights in torturing her younger sibling, as well as the family’s grotesque pervert landlord, who, surrounded by cats and soiled clothes, spends his days listening to old 78s.

Alice’s proudest accomplishment is her private museum, hidden within the conclaves of the building’s basement.  There she has collected pieces of communion wear, hideous masks, cutlery, and an enormous jar, in which she breeds cockroaches.

This horrid existence would be enough for any creepy movie, except that this is just the beginning.  All Hell hasn’t broken loose yet, but is about to.

Karen is brutally murdered during her pre-communion ceremonies, the child’s stabbed and mutilated body tossed in a church box and set on fire.  Alice is the obvious suspect, and with good reason; the girl has been under observation by the local priest, nuns and neighborhood teachers for quite a while – and earmarked for a stay in a mental institution.  Catherine refuses to commit her, and now is additionally saddled with her interfering shrew sister, Angela, and her re-married ex, Dom, who has returned for the funeral, but stays on to investigate the strange events.

And they’re about to get stranger.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE, when not skewering the Church, smashes the world of grown-ups.  Every adult in the picture is a nightmare; Paterson, NJ itself is a Hell on Earth, seething with decay, whose population comprises gossiping human gargoyles and their henpecked husbands, vengeful nuns, the scarifying parish housekeeper, a senile Monsignor, and pervy/slimy police (including a sex predator polygraph technician).  And we mentioned the landlord.  Is it any wonder Alice turned out the way she has?  Even her caring parents are tainted (nearly adulterous when reunited, and only halted when Dom’s new wife calls, concerned that he’s okay).

Things don’t get much better when the violent attacks escalate, perpetrated by a feminine specter wearing one of the church’s yellow rain slickers, a mask, and brandishing an extra-long butcher’s knife.  Guilt by association, Alice’s sins send her to a Dickensian psychiatric facility that can only make her already demented mind go deeper into the abyss.

And then it gets even worse.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE went from intriguing grindhouse sustenance to guaranteed late-nite TV fodder, due to the fortuitous casting of 11-year-old Brooke Shields, who was two years away from zooming to A-lister, courtesy of Pretty Baby.  Her name often got starring lead order on the old VHS boxes.  This is deceptive, as Shields doesn’t play Alice, but the younger victim, Karen, and her screen time is fairly short.  She’s pretty good in it, though, but can’t compare to the true star, Paula E. Sheppard.  Like a demonic Ellen Page, Sheppard is concurrently sympathetic, snarky, evil, awful, terrifying.  She has become a cult movie icon because of this movie and her only other screen appearance, as the equally impressive Adrian in 1982’s Liquid Sky (Sheppard’s since flipped show biz the bird, and has, supposedly, been living a normal family life).  Other notable performances include, Mildred Clinton, Niles McMaster, Rudolph Willrich, Michael Hardstark, Kathy Rich, Gary Allen, Peter Bosche, Alphonso DeNoble (as the gruesome, odious landlord; think Larry Tucker in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor), and especially Linda Miller as the fragile mom Catherine (FUN FACT: the stunning Miller is the daughter of Jackie Gleason, the wife of Jason Miller, and mom of Jason Patric); LSS, even without Sheppard, the women are far more impressive than the men.  Like the above TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, ALICE has much in common aside from depictions of screwed up girlhood; both were filmed around the New York/New Jersey area, and each features a supporting role filled by a former singing female luminary (as indicated above, TOYS has Fran Warren, and ALICE offers Lillian Roth, seen here as a police pathologist)

As stated, ALICE was extremely well directed and co-written by Sole, who cites Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) as a major influence (I get it, the rain slickers, etc.); personally, I see this pic having evolved from the gialli of Dario Argento (particularly Deep Red, 1975), Ducio Tessari (The Bloodstained Butterfly, 1971), and Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972); it may have even influenced Antonio Bido’s The Bloodstained Shadow (1978). The movie would also make a good double bill with Pete Walker’s The Confessional (1976) or a handful of Father Ted episodes.

The Blu-Ray Special Edition of ALICE, SWEET ALICE is dazzling, making Friberg’s and Hall’s images pop, and giving an added oomph to the weird production values (for some reason, the pic is set in 1961; all sets, cars, artifacts, and clothing nicely reflects this – the illusion only ruined by the male cast’s Seventies’ hairstyles and sideburns).  A vault of extras append the new 2K restoration (from the camera negative), including alternate opening titles, trailers and TV spots, Holy Terror (the television cut), interviews with costar McMaster and director Sole, and audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith.  The main transfer uses the original title, Communion (definitely not as exploitation-friendly).  Like TOYS, ALICE’s LCPM mono soundtrack has been excellently preserved.

Two pics absolutely worth checking out for those who revel in the glories of Time Square, the unusual and the era, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN and ALICE, SWEET ALICE demonstrate how good a “sleazy” title could be in the right hands.

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN.  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LCPM mono.  Arrow Video/MVDvisual.  CAT # AV221.  SRP: $39.95.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LCPM mono. Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV213. SRP: $39.95.