Thursday, August 8, 2013

Adventures in Downloading!! Vol. 4

Cruel Jaws (1995)
Arriving very late in the Italian Jaws rip-off genre, Bruno Mattei's TV movie version of the killer shark classic is widely reputed to be the worst of the lot. Shot on-location in Florida, and fully cast with atrocious local talent, the real reason everyone seems to dismiss Cruel Jaws is that it supposedly has no original shark footage, instead stealing scenes from the original Jaws, Jaws 2 (1978), Great White (1981), and Deep Blood (1990). While one can definitely spot a few instances of outright theft from Jaws 2 and Great White (very sloppily edited together to boot), I didn't notice any from the other two. If that weren't bad enough, the musical score steals shamelessly from the Star Wars theme.

Two scuba divers retrieving top-secret military information from a sunken vessel are trapped underwater by a crafty shark, who then takes out their boat and its skipper. When a body washes up on shore, youthful expert (on what? who cares?) Billy Morrison, on vacation with his girlfriend Vanessa,  is called in to investigate. He concludes that a tiger shark is on the loose and the local coast is in grave danger. Meanwhile, Billy's old friend Dag Snerensen, the owner of a struggling SeaWorld-type park (who looks like a melting Hulk Hogan), is clashing with Samuel Lewis, an obnoxious hotel developer who wants the park's land for his new lavish project. The family conflict between the Snerensens and the Lewises takes up most of the film's "action" until a wind sailing race is disrupted by the man-eating nemesis.

Naturally there is not one original thing about Cruel Jaws. Francis is clearly modeled after Richard Dreyfuss' character in the Spielberg film, right down to the glasses, and sheriff Francis Berger is a poor Roy Scheider replacement; the shark's rampage is poo-pooed by Samuel out of concern for the tourist trade and the annual regata; a key character is eaten, making the pursuit of the shark personal; a buoy attached to the shark warns swimmers of its appearance; and of course the now-famous line, "We need a bigger helicopter!" This also being an Italian exploitation film, logic flies out the window at every turn. A cute little girl in a wheelchair can't walk, but her legs miraculously work well enough to swim around with dolphins. Vanessa and her friend Glenda call a bumbling horny male pursuer "Dickbrain! Dickbrain!", you know, like all American girls do. Vanessa, in fact, gets some of the choicest bits of dialogue: "Billy, I want you to find the tallest skyscraper you can, and then go throw yourself off...and then go fuck yourself!" Because of the stolen footage, the shark changes varieties from a tiger to a great white and back again. If Mattei's pastiche piece had a bit more lovable goofiness to it, it might be enjoyable, but instead it more than lives up to the brand of worst Jaws rip-off to date. It does, however, make me want to watch Castellari's Great White over and over again.

The Seven Vipers (1964)
The late writer/director Renato Polselli is pretty much synonymous with the trashiest cinema Italy had to offer in the 1970s. The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973) is probably his most popular due to its constant presence on the American DVD market, but obscurities like The Truth According to Satan (1973), Revelations of a Psychiatrist on the World of Sexual Perversion (1973), and Oscenita (1980) continue to blow the minds of adventurous Eurocult enthusiasts. Delirium (1972) is perhaps his most coherent work, but it still lives up to the title. In the previous decade, the director bounced from genre to genre. His best-known 60s film is, predictably, another horror outing (The Vampire and the Ballerina), but this comedy of the sexes is not without its moments of amusement.

Shot on-location in Buenos Aires, our story follows Lorenzo and Erika Montesanto, a married couple who work together as executives in a factory. Following an accident at home involving their young son, Lorenzo mandates that Erika retire from her office job and stay home with the children, aiding their nanny Inge with their care. But Erika becomes restless. She's a modern woman, you know. To get even with Lorenzo, she plans to use Argentina's marriage laws and lawyer Emilio to divorce him and get half of his money and custody of the children. Sounds like a laugh riot, huh? After much melodrama and plentiful vicious behavior by the film's heartless women, nauseating Italian comic duo Franco and Ciccio show up as lawyers to deliver the final blow to the film's entertainment factor.

Written and produced by its star, the mysterious Vincenzo Cascino (rumored to be a wealthy businessman who just wanted to make movies), Seven Vipers refers to the seven women in the film, giving an indication of the misogyny to be found here. It's never terribly funny or clever, the many twists in the script aren't so much surprising as they are ludicrous, and all of the characters are thoroughly reprehensible save Lorenzo's saintly secretary Mitu. There may be some interest in the lovely female cast members, including Solvi Stubing (Strip Nude for Your Killer), Lisa Gastoni (War of the Planets), voluptuous Gloria Paul (Three Fantastic Supermen), Annie Gorassini (Danger: Diabolik), Valeria Fabrizi (Women in Cell Block 7), Nicole Tessier (Demons), and the very busy Carla Calo (Diary of an Erotic Murderess). UK writer Matt Blake liked the film far more than I did, and his review can be found here.

Man without a Memory (1974)
Released as Puzzle in the US, this memory loss thriller bears a striking resemblance to Danny Boyle's latest misfire Trance (2013), but actually presents an involving mystery with characters you care about and genuinely surprising twists along the way. The impossibly good-looking Luc Merenda stars as Peter Smith, a psychiatric patient who has been living with amnesia for the past six months. He is surprised by a visit from an "old friend" who promptly punches him in the face, whips out a gun, and demands to know, "Where did you hide it?" The mysterious visitor is able to divulge three important pieces of information (Peter's real name is Ted Wollen, he is British, and is married to an Italian woman who lives in Portofino) before being shot in the back through the window of Peter's apartment. A perfectly timed telegram and airline tickets lure Ted to Italy, where beautiful Sara (Senta Berger, lovelier than ever) works as a swimming coach with at-risk youth. Her home has been invaded several times by a black-gloved figure who never steals anything, but is clearly searching for something. Upon Ted's arrival, he learns he was a negligent husband and vows to start over fresh with Sara, but then another figure from his past following him around town, George, threatens to remind him of just how bad of a guy he really was.

Imagine a more coherent and less frenzied version of Umberto Lenzi's Spasmo (released the same year), and you would have something similar to Man without a Memory, a very solid and undeservedly obscure entry in the giallo genre. Stylishly photographed and edited, and despite a deliberate pace never boring, director Duccio Tessari has put together a surprisingly effective giallo that avoids most of the cliches of the genre and delivers the suspenseful goods. Tessari is responsible for other memorable Italian cult films in various genres, from Eurospy (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to poliziotteschi (No Way Out) to spaghetti westerns (A Pistol for Ringo). Also writing most of his own screenplays, his resume is so peppered with superb films that I firmly believe he is a Eurocult auteur in sore need of some belated critical and fan attention.

The ensemble here is one of the all-around strongest casts I've seen in any giallo. Merenda, around the time he was starting to become a regular in Italian crime films, proves his mettle as an actor, transforming Ted from a blank slate into a fully formed character we care about, and as a stuntman, throwing himself into a rough and tumble fight scene. Berger, usually sexual window dressing in her many films, is given a chance to genuinely act in a very compelling role. The film really belongs to her, as she becomes an incredible "final girl" in the nail-biting final act, frantically struggling to start a chainsaw to defend herself against the psycho bursting through a locked door. Anita Strindberg, with her striking cheekbones and uncomfortable-looking implants, appears briefly as an important mystery woman from Ted's past. Bruno Corazzari is a suitably menacing George; one of his best scenes features him throwing lit matches at Sara, a scene borrowed from Stanley Donen's Charade (1963) (something George himself admits to). Even the little boy character, Luca, an archetype usually obnoxious and unwelcome in films like this, is an important part of the story, well-portrayed by Duilio Cruciani from Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (1972).

In summary: this is one of the best gialli you've never seen, one that has very quickly climbed onto my list of genre favorites. It's just that good. See it however you can. Note: I watched the film in its original Italian with English subtitles. The trailer below is the English dub. It's fine...but try to see it in the original language. It makes it so much more effective.

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