Tuesday, April 15, 2014

THE DEVIL'S MEN aka LAND OF THE MINOTAUR

Kostas Karagiannis, 1976
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Peter Cushing, Luan Perwea

“I suspect the Devil has taken over this village.”

Father Roche, a priest located in an isolated area of Greece, requests help from his friend, detective Milo Kaye, who is living in New York. Milo arrives to learn that visitors, particularly archaeologists, are going missing and Roche is desperate to find what’s become of them. Milo and a stranded tourist, Laurie, are discouraged to learn that Roche thinks the disappearances are the work of a Satan worshipping cult that believes in human sacrifice, though Milo can come up with no better explanation. Soon they come across the path of the strange Baron Corofax, originally from the Carpathian Mountains and undoubtedly up to no good.

This should be great. It’s one of few Greek horror films from the period (other than Island of Death), it stars Donald Pleasence and Peter Cushing, has an impressive score from Brian Eno (how did this even happen?), and a song from the great Paul Williams, plus decent production values, and a quality set. Sadly, Eno’s score is probably the best thing about The Land of the Minotaur. The cult scenes are straight out of Manos: The Hands of Fate and include the most bargain basement cloaks I’ve ever seen, as well as some lighting effects that rival Manhattan Baby.

Nothing really makes any sense in this U.K.-Greek-U.S. coproduction. Father Roche begs help from a detective who doesn’t believe in the supernatural at all (or religion, presumably). We also eventually learn that the only person who can defeat the evil is Father Roche himself, which he does with crosses and Christian mumbo jumbo. There’s also a hilarious scene where Roche spies a baby playing with a toy with an odd symbol on it, and he somehow recognizes that it’s an ancient Pagan symbol for human sacrifice. The ending is absolutely dizzying. The heroes chase the cultists, run from the cultists, and are chased by the cultists. It’s a never-ending chase where characters make incredibly stupid mistakes, bad decisions, and really never resolve anything.  

Weirdly repeating a campier version of his role in Prince of Darkness, Donald Pleasence gives a solid performance, as always, and chews scenery with gusto, but Peter Cushing is clearly just phoning this one in and doesn’t give a damn about the proceedings. Not that I can blame him. Hammer bit-actress Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire) does a lot of screaming, makes some stupendously dumb decisions that lead to her swift capture, and has numerous baths interrupted by cult members.

Pleasence and Cushing worked together on a TV version of Nineteen Eighty Four and The Flesh and the Fiends; this is undoubtedly a low point for both of them, which is really saying something when you consider some of the depths Pleasence’s career reached (here’s looking at you, Halloween 5 and Night Creatures). Director Kostas Karagiorgis plays Milo and you really have to wonder why he cast himself in such a major role.

One of the film’s biggest issues is that it seems confused about whether it wants to be pagan horror or satanic horror. This duality is even reflected in the two titles: The Devil's Men and Land of the Minotaur. While Cushing is apparently in a pagan horror film, Pleasence seems to be in a Christian/satanic horror story. The central figure could easily be the Minotaur of Greek mythology and follow that loose plotline (child sacrifice – everyone’s favorite), but the script makes an abrupt switch around to Satan, somehow.

I can’t actually recommend Land of the Minotaur. It should have been a much better film than it is (it’s total garbage), but however much I want to dislike it, I just can’t. If you like the most bottom of the barrel Z-grade movies, check it out, otherwise keep clear. The level of badness reached by this film is almost impressive. I’m still waiting for someone to make a quality, compelling horror film about the original legend of the Minotaur, which is thoroughly creepy. I guess if you’re going to watch this, look for the uncut version under the U.K. title The Devil’s Men. It’s available as a double feature DVD with Terror, another of Karagiorgis’s films. Good luck. 

THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK aka IL PROFUMO DELLA SIGNORA IN NERO

Francesco Barilli, 1974
Starring: Mimsy Farmer, Maurizio Bonuglia, Aldo Valletti, Donna Jordan

Sylvia’s life is beginning to unravel. After she sees a picture from her childhood and is forced by her friends to sit through a séance, memories from her childhood begin to haunt her. She sees the ghost of her mother in her bedroom mirror, a woman in black applying perfume. Is she losing her mind or is she the victim of a conspiracy? Those around her, including the infirm neighbor in her apartment building, another neighbor who claims to be her friend, and Sylvia’s demanding boyfriend all begin to act strangely towards her. Just as her paranoia and suspicion grows, a sinister man from her childhood starts following her around and a young blonde girl comes to visit one night. What is going on in Sylvia’s life?

This neglected Italian film is only loosely a giallo and delves far more deeply into the category of psychological horror. As with Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark, the central plot revolves around a woman who may be losing her mind or who may be the victim of a cruel conspiracy involving those closest to her. As with ‘70s horror films like All the Colors of the Dark, The Corruption of Chris Miller, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, this is largely concerned with the effects of a past trauma on a woman’s adult life. Sylvia’s father drowned, her mother was raped, and later died suspiciously (she possibly committed suicide). Sylvia was likely abused by her mother’s aggressive lover. A photograph kicks off painful memories of the past and soon she begins to smell her mother’s perfume, which triggers her psychosis.

There are dream sequences (it is impossible to tell whether these are waking hallucinations or actual dreams), lapses in time, a hint of the ghostly and the supernatural, and a double: Sylvia’s younger self who comes to play. It’s impossible to concisely describe this film, though you will absolutely love it if you enjoy the works of David Lynch, surreal giallo or Italian horror films like Don’t Look Now, Lisa and the Devil, Short Night of Glass Dolls, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Kill Baby Kill, All the Colors of the Dark, and House with the Laughing Windows, or Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno, though it is probably most like a blend of Roman Polanski’s Apartment trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant).

Stylish and disturbingly poetic, the film greatly benefits from Nicola Piovani’s impressive, melancholic score. There’s some lovely cinematography from Mario Masini that seems to have been somewhat influenced by Mario Bava, though perhaps that sort of comparison is inevitable. The film also benefits from some solid performances, namely from its lead. Mimsy Farmer (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Autopsy) is excellent here as Sylvia, appearing in nearly every frame and running through the gamut of an unhinged female victim type: vapid, blank, confused, terrified, disoriented, reactionary, sympathetic, sexual, violent, etc. While she’s not the most memorable actress in Italian cinema, she’s perfect for this role. Farmer is American born, though most of her major performances were in European films. Ironically her nickname, Mimsy (her real first name is Merle) is from a line in Lewis Carroll’s Jaberwocky. The young Sylvia has a strong resemblance to Alice of Alice in Wonderland and the two Sylvias later reenact the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

The Perfume of the Woman in Black isn’t a perfect film and it won’t please everyone. It gets off to a slow start and builds carefully. The plot is frequently confused, turns in upon itself, and stumbles on a few early non-sequitors that don’t lead anywhere, but add to the disorienting, threatening mood. Examples of this are the scene where they discuss the presence of magic and witchdoctors in Africa, and when Sylvia cuts her finger on a tennis racket and her friend erotically sucks the blood off of her hand, to her disgust. What would feel like a normal scene – or most likely filler – in another film, has a menacing, unpredictable quality here.

The Perfume of the Woman in Black has been released on DVD from Raro Video, another in their increasingly impressive catalogue. They also have plans to release it on Blu-ray sometime this year. The film comes highly recommended. It is far from predictable and is perfectly suited for multiple viewings.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

LISA AND THE DEVIL aka LISA E IL DIAVOLO

Mario Bava, 1972
Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Sylva Koscina, Alida Valli, Alessio Orano

Lisa and the Devil concerns the titular Lisa, an American tourist traveling in Spain. She separates from her group, presumably to do some last minute hopping, and is unnerved when she views a fresco of the devil. She is also distracted by some lovely music, which she follows though the labyrinthine city and then gets completely lost. She keeps running into strange, inexplicably disturbing man named Leandro and panics when no one will give her directions. A couple offers to give her a ride, though their car soon breaks down in front of a villa. The villa is owned by a blind Countess and her creepy son, who thinks Lisa is the reincarnation of his dead lover. It also turns out that Leandro is their butler, but might be more than he seems. The couple and Lisa accept an invitation to stay the night, but bodies begin to pile up and Lisa realizes she may never escape. 

This Italian/Spanish/West German co-production is one of Bava’s finest and most difficult films. It ranks as one of my personal favorites in the great director’s catalogue, though it’s impossible for me to choose just one. Due to the box office success of gothic throwback Baron Blood, Bava was given the financial and creative freedom to make any film of his choosing. The result is a delirious, nightmarish, and challenging culmination of all his previous filmmaking experiments. Simply, Lisa is a dream-like meditation on death, decay, and spiritual longing. This intensely personal, poetic film is a celebration of the visual, and trumps narrative logic at every turn. I can see how this would be frustrating for anyone who is a newcomer to Bava’s work or Eurohorror, and is expecting a more straightforward, linear plot-line. Some of his finest and most disturbing images appear here - mannequins, strange music boxes, doll heads, the crumbling, maze-like villa, dream sequences, decaying corpses, etc.

Lisa and the Devil is the kind of film that demands constant attention — you could certainly watch it numerous times and still pick up on new things — and asks more questions than it answers. As with all his films, it is absolutely beautiful and also excels from a technical standpoint. German actress Elke Sommer (A Shot in the Dark, Baron Blood) proves she is more than a lovely window dressing and her wide-eyed expression fits perfectly with the film. Telly Savalas (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Dirty Dozen) excels in his role as the satanic, lollipop-licking Leandro, always appearing when you least expect him. Keep your eyes peeled for familiar faces in the rest of the cast, including the intimidating Alida Valli (Suspiria), Sylvia Koscina (Juliet of the Spirits, The Crimes of the Black Cat), and Eduardo Fajardo (Django). The score by Carlo Savina, which borrows from Joaquin Rodrigo's popular "Concierto per Aranjuez," is one of the best in any Bava film. 

If you’ve seen any of the DVD releases of this film, you might be curious about House of Exorcism, which has the same cover. When Lisa failed to find a distributor, producer Alfredo Leone (Sergio’s brother) ordered Bava to shoot a new version of the film, House of Exorcism, released in 1975. To say it is a travesty would be too kind. When Bava refused to finish, Leone took the helm and reshot and reedited this mess of a film that costars Robert Alda as a priest trying to cure Lisa of satanic possession. In short, this is an irredeemably lousy rip-off of The Exorcist that makes The Exorcist II look like an inspired piece of filmmaking. 

There are several versions of Lisa on DVD and most include a print of House of Exorcism, such as the delightful Mario Bava Collection from Anchor Bay. The latest release is the Kino Blu-ray, which is the most complete in terms of special features. In addition to both films, it includes an informative audio commentary track from Tim Lucas on Lisa, commentary from Alfredo Leone and Elke Sommer on House, trailers, and a new interview feature, Bava on Bava, with Mario’s son Lamberto. This film comes highly recommended, though it must be greeted with patience and an open-mind. Avoid House of Exorcism at all costs, unless you’re trying to punish yourself for some reason. 

NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS aka L'ULTIMO TRENO DELLA NOTTE

Aldo Lado, 1975
Starring: Flavio Bucci, Macha Meril, Marina Berti, Irene Miracle

“Take it easy, don’t be afraid. We simply want to see what’s between your legs.”

Two girls — Lisa and Margaret — are taking a train from Germany to Italy to spend Christmas with Lisa’s parents. During the train ride, they meet two unsavory young men — Curly and Blackie — who seem harmless at first. Blackie tries to rape a beautiful blonde woman in the train’s bathroom, but she turns the tables on him and enjoys the encounter. After Lisa and Margaret witness the two met get into a violent fight, they try to move further down the train and wind up switching trains. Unfortunately Blackie, Curly, and the blonde find the girls and things escalate to torture, sadism, and rape, all because the blonde woman wants to have a little fun. Lisa and Margaret both wind up bloodied, beaten, and dead by the end of the train ride.

Blackie and Curly begin to turn on the blonde, finally realizing that they will soon be in serious trouble. Blackie kicks her and cuts her knee. This requires stitches and — as luck would have it — Lisa’s parents are waiting at the train station and as her father is the only doctor around, he takes them home to stitch up her leg. Her parents eventually put two and two together, partially thanks to a radio broadcast, and realize their daughter’s murderers are right in front of them, primed for revenge. 

I said in the central article for my series on ‘70s horror that I wouldn’t be reviewing any Italian horror, because giallo is such a massive subgenre that it deserves its own section. Night Train Murders is one of the exceptions to this rule, because it is essentially a spin on Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and is not a giallo. I didn’t not include the former film on this list, because I think Night Train Murders is the superior film. More attractive and professional, it improves upon Last House in nearly every way. Let’s not forgot that Last House itself was a remake/re-imagining of Bergman’s devastating The Virgin Spring, still the original and superior version of this tale of rape and revenge. 

The film improves upon Last House on the Left in three ways. The first is that the ringleader of all the sex, violence, and sadism is an attractive, well-off bourgeois woman (Macha Meril). Though Aldo Ladd makes it seem like she’s going to be the first victim, he turns this convention on its head: she is not only a willing participant, but pushes the men towards murder and sadism. The second improvement is that the film doesn’t operate on the level of raw, gut-wrenching violence. Most of the atrocities take place just off screen and the film relies on an atmosphere of claustrophobia, repulsion, and anxiety. Finally, the girls are random victims of violence, rather than in Last House on the Left, when the female characters stumble into their plight because they are trying to score some drugs. 

Banned in the U.K. as a video nasty, much of the violence takes place off screen, though the film does contain rape, torture, murder, and one memorable moment where a virgin is violated with a knife. The scene where her friend is so upset that she begins uncontrollably vomiting is equally as powerful, however. The violence in Last House on the Left is often so brutish that it becomes cartoonish, where the subtleties in Night Train Murders work in the film’s favor. 

Ennio Morricone’s minimal, haunting score is driven by a particularly creepy piece of harmonica music that marks the arrival of the two men — and of violence. Director Aldo Ladd made a name for himself with underrated giallo films Short Night of the Glass Dolls and Who Saw Her Die? Though he isn’t generally regarded as one of the forerunners of giallo films or Italian horror, he has plenty to offer for the more curious Eurohorror fan. This has some nice production values, effective cinematography, and very moody lighting that adds to the increasing feel of dread and claustrophobia.

The film also has a series of solid performances and there are a lot of familiar faces from Italian horror: Irene Miracle (Inferno), Macha Meril (Deep Red), Flavio Bucci (Suspiria), the wonderful Enrico Maria Salerno (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Dalilah Di Lazzaro (Phenomena, Flesh for Frankenstein), and Marina Berti (What Have They Done to Your Daughters), etc. French writer and actress Macha Meril, so memorable as the psychic in Deep Red, steals the film here and gives one of the best performances of her underrated career. 

Also known as The New House on The Left, Second House on The Left, Don't Ride on Late Night Trains, Last Stop on the Night Train, and Xmas Massacre, among others, Night Train Murders comes recommended to anyone with a tolerance (or love) for rape-revenge films. If you haven’t seen any, this would actual be an ideal introduction. It is available on Blu-ray from Blue Underground with a great transfer and some nice special features. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

BLOOD FOR DRACULA

Paul Morrissey, 1974
Starring: Udo Kier, Joe Dallesandro, Vittorio De Sica, Maxime McKendry

“The blood of these whores is killing me!”

A sickly vampire, Count Dracula, is unable to find any virgin blood – the only kind he can digest – in his homeland of Romania, so he and his faithful servant Anton journey to a Catholic country, hoping to find some virgins. They wind up in Italy at the home of the Marchese di Fiore, a man with four young and beautiful daughters. The Marchese has fallen on hard time because of his gambling habit and he and his greedy wife are desperate to marry off one of the girls. Thinking the wealthy Count is a likely target, they give him free reign of the household. Unfortunately a studly servant has had this way with two of the daughters, so when Dracula samples some of their blood, he almost dies. Two sister remains, but will Dracula or the lusty servant get to them first?

Also known as Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Young Dracula, or Dracula cerca sangue di vergine e… mori di sete (Dracula is Searching for Virgins’ Blood and… He’s Dying of Thirst!), this was shot back to back with its predecessor, Flesh for Frankenstein and contains much of the same cast, crew, locations, and themes. This gory, funny, and imaginative take on Dracula is perhaps more clever and accessible than director Paul Morrissey’s interpretation of Frankenstein. Here, the famous Count suffers and is nearly dying because he must drink virgin blood, but can’t seem to find one anywhere – an equally hilarious and disgusting conceit.

This Italian-French co-production by an American director with a mostly European cast feels solidly like some of the Eurohorror being made during this period, though perhaps with more of an emphasis on camp, farce, and comedy. It is also set apart by a fabulous performance from Flesh for Frankenstein’s star Udo Kier. He is again incredible, though he plays a very different character from the Baron in Flesh for Frankenstein. He is sickly (and allegedly lost 20 pounds for the role), repressed, and contained in a way the hysterical, almost bombastic Baron was not. His Dracula is a tragic, sympathetic, and pathetic figure, and the camera presents him as fragile and beautiful, a being from another age.

Kier is sort of forced into the role of hero or protagonist because his rival, Joe Dallesandro’s Marxist gardener/servant Mario, is incredibly unlikable. He talks about raping the youngest daughter and does so later in the film to allegedly protect her from Dracula’s vampiric wiles. As with Flesh for Frankenstein, Dallesandro is incredibly virile and spends much of the film nude or having sex. He also makes the film far more ridiculous with his persistent and out of place Brooklyn accent. It makes me wince just to think about it.

Arno Juering returns from Flesh for Frankenstein to reprise a similar role as Kier’s sidekick, though he is far creepier and more hilarious here. There are a number of familiar faces, including Stefania Casini (Suspiria) as the most promiscuous of the daughters, director Vittorio de Sica as the Marchese, director Roman Polanski as a clever villager, and genre actresses Silvia Dionisio (School Girl Killer) and Milena Vukotic (The Monster of the Opera) as two of the daughters.

Overall Blood for Dracula is a tighter film with fewer plot holes. It will probably be more accessible for newcomers as it lacks the explosive gore and semi-explicit sex of the first film. While Flesh for Frankenstein was heavily censored, initially given an X-rating in the U.S., and dubbed a video nasty in the U.K., Blood for Dracula was barely touched and mostly passed over by censors. For those who loved the first film, never fear – there is still plenty of offensive sex, violence, comedy, and gore. There are a number of excellent set pieces, for example the scene where Dracula vomits up non-virginal blood is quite lengthy and graphic.

There are a number of ‘80s horror films that use HIV and the AIDS outbreak as a theme and though Blood for Dracula is too early to be included in this loose subgenre, it seems like an obvious precursor. In addition to this subtle theme (that I am perhaps reading into the film after the fact) and Morrissey’s odd conservatism, Blood for Dracula is a more political beast than Flesh for Frankenstein, though no less beautiful. While Flesh for Frankenstein might be my favorite for its sheer insanity and balls-to-the-wall offensiveness, Blood for Dracula comes highly recommended. There’s a wonderful DVD from Criterion, though it has long fallen out of print and is quite expensive used. You can find it streaming on Amazon or rent the disc on Netflix. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN

Paul Morrissey, 1974
Starring: Udo Kier, Monique van Vooren, Joe Dallesandro

"To know death, you’ve got to fuck life in the gall bladder."

In a remote castle in Serbia, the Baron von Frankenstein begins experimenting with corpses to create the perfect Serbian, so that he can form his own army of idealized beings that will obey his every command. He is helped by a perverse, somewhat mentally challenged assistant, as they set out around the countryside to find an ideal male head to add to an almost complete male body. Meanwhile, the Baron’s wife (and sister) takes on a new servant, a virile farmhand named Nicholas, to pleasure her in the Baron’s absence. After Nicholas’s friend becomes part of the Baron’s experiment, he begins to suspect that something in the castle is not quite right…

This American-Italian-French coproduction was shot in Italy and Serbia, giving it a thoroughly European feel. It’s hard to believe that artist Andy Warhol was ever involved in a horror film (let alone two), but he lent his name and cash to both Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, gruesome, hilarious, and explicit spoofs of classic horror’s two most beloved monsters. While Blood for Dracula is generally considered the more popular of the two, Flesh for Frankenstein is my personal favorite.

Co-written by director Paul Morrissey and Tonino Guerra (Blowup), Flesh for Frankenstein was released in 3-D, which would really be a sight to behold, though I’ve never had the chance to experience the film that way. This was essentially a U.S. marketing gimmick, as was renaming the film Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. Also known as Frankenstein 3-D and The Frankenstein Experiment, this production was allegedly co-directed by Italian horror and sci-fi master Antonio Margheriti (Castle of Blood, Yor, The Long Hair of Death, and many more), but star Udo Kier later dispelled this rumor. He said that Margheriti was never on set and later sources claimed that the director’s name was only used to get Italian funding.

Perverse, gory, and utterly unhinged, this certainly doesn’t look like a ‘60s Gothic horror film. The colors are vibrant, blood is plentiful, and thanks to 3-D organs explode across the screen. This endearingly over the top film was shot back to back with Blood for Dracula, which contained much of the same cast and crew, including Kier in another inspired performance. Though there are some wonderful set pieces, including the estate, laboratory, and countryside, Kier is the real draw here and it’s hard to take your eyes off him. With his thick German accent and hysterical ranting about finding the perfect “nasum” (nose/profile) to create a Serbian master race, he manages to range the heights of comedy and depravity in nearly every scene. While he’s absolutely perfect and hilarious for the entire film, his death scene, which involves throwing his own amputated hand at Dallesandro and sliding orgasmically onto a pole that is impaling him, is a real work of art.

Monique Van Vooren (The Decameron) is fittingly aristocratic as Baroness Katrin, though she is almost constantly overshadowed by the men in the film. Joe Dallesandro (Killer Nun) is downright distracting with his outrageous Brooklyn accent, which stands out like a sore thumb amongst all the other European actors. Serbian actor Srdjan Zelenovic, who plays his friend, is absolutely beautiful and the camera worships him at nearly every turn. It’s a shame he wasn’t in more European cinema from the period and mostly stuck to Serbian film. Dalila Di Lazzaro (Phenomena, Frankenstein ‘80) is lovely and memorable as the female creature and tolerates quite a lot of abuse and manhandling from Kier. Arno Juerging is delightfully twisted and creepy as the Baron’s assistant. He and Kier have great comic rapport and it’s easy to see why Juerging was asked to return for Blood for Dracula in a very similar role.  

It’s also worth mentioning that the most terrifying child in all of Italian cinema – Nicoletta Elmi from Demons, Deep Red, Baron Blood, Bay of Blood, Death in Venice, Who Saw Her Die? – appears here as the Baron’s daughter. She and her brother feel much more like an eerie set pieces than two fully functioning characters, but they effectively set the film up for a sequel when they take up their father’s scalpels, presumably to begin his experiments again.  

While I absolutely love Flesh for Frankenstein, it’s an acquired taste and is certainly not for the faint of heart. Basically everything Paul Morrissey can do in the name of bad taste is done, including some serious armpit licking, two generations of incest, horrendous sexual noises, frontal nudity for nearly all the characters, murder, decapitation, mutilation, guts bursting out all over the place, and, to top it all off, Kier engages in necrophiliac sex with the viscera of the female creature. Despite the fact that it is extremely gory and graphic, Carlos Rambaldi’s (Alien) effects are really a sight to behold.

Flesh for Frankenstein comes highly recommended and is one of my favorite ‘70s horror films. It is also among the funniest. There’s a nice Criterion DVD, though it is out of print. You can buy it used on Amazon, watch it there streaming, or rent the disc from Netflix. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

BABA YAGA


Corrado Farina, 1973
Starring: Carroll Baker, George Eastman, Isabelle De Funes

Valentina is a sexy fashion photographer in Milan with a love of partying. One night she decides to walk home from a party, partly to escape the aggressive attentions of filmmaker Arno. She has an accidental run-in in the dark with a Rolls Royce driven by the older, wealthy, mysterious, and very stylish Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga may or may not be a witch and seems to have put a curse on Valentina's camera. She also has a bizarre sway over Valentina and a disturbing obsession with her that seems to be sexual in nature. Soon Valentina discovers that her beloved camera has the power to wound or kill and is determined to find out the truth about Baba Yaga. Events quickly spiral out of control and propel the film into a surreal, dreamlike world. Of course, as we can all guess, Arno persistently ignores Valentina’s rebukes and must have her from a horrible, lesbian sadomasochistic fate.

A cross between Eurohorror, the Fantastique, and exploitation, I'm not really sure what genre Baba Yaga officially belongs to, but this is part of its charm. This is a love-it-or-hate-it Italian film in the same neighborhood as Lisa and the Devil, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Blood-Spattered Bride, or Daughters of Darkness. Loosely based on the Valentina comic strip by the late, great Guido Crepax – known for his erotic comics, particularly
 Histoire d'O – it is not quite a faithful adaptation, but remains a highly underrated, forgotten entry in European horror.

I can under why Baba Yaga has not become a popular favorite. It has a slow pace, a difficult plot to follow, and an unclear conflict and resolution. I'm not sure that this will bother fans of ‘60s and ‘70s Eurohorror, but it is definitely not as well-known as something like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, because it lacks explicit gore, highly stylized death scenes, and suspenseful plot with plenty of twists and red herrings. For fans of Crepax, Baba Yaga doesn't really manage to capture Valentina, though I think it’s better to only consider the comics a loose inspiration.

Personally, I think it is a lovely film. It's perhaps best appreciated alone, on a dark, stormy night, when your mind is free to wander along with Valentina’s fantastic journey and appreciate the surreal dreaminess of the film. There are a lot of beautiful visuals, ranging from Valentina at work as a somewhat erotic fashion photographer, to a disturbing dream sequence where she is forced by a group of mutated Nazis to jump into a foreboding-looking hole in the ground.

Everything about Baba Yaga has a kind of confused quality that, for whatever reason, adds to its surreal charm. The casting is a mixed bag. Giallo actress Caroll Baker (So Sweet, So Perverse, Knife of Ice) is not old enough or frail enough to play an aging witch, though this adds to the surrealism of the film and she does manage to impart alternating currents of sexual attraction and menace. The inexperienced Isabelle de Funes seems vaguely unsure of where she is or what role she is playing, which ties in neatly with Valentina's larger issues of identity that pervade the film.

And though I LOVE (love love) George Eastman (you should know who he is if you consider yourself a horror fan), his character Arno represents my biggest qualms with the plot and writing. Initially Valentina asserts her sexual and emotional independence by turning down his advances and then his desire for a relationship. She lives alone and seems content with her lifestyle and career ambitions. The film begins to walk the line of subversion when Valentina is clearly attracted to Baba Yaga, particularly her lifestyle of lesbianism, mysticism, and sadomasochism. But George Eastman has to come in and ruin everything, saving the day and reinstating heterosexual normative values into a film that seems so anxious to get away from them. However, if someone was going to start kicking down doors, taking names, and rescuing damsels in distress, it should probably be the multi-talented, 6’9” Eastman.

I would recommend this for fans of Italian cinema and Eurohorror, particularly if you like any of the films I mentioned above. If you're going to watch any version, make sure it is the Blue Underground release, which has a cleaned up print and includes the previously cut scenes of frontal nudity. There are also two documentaries, including a particularly good one about fumetti (Italian comics) and Crepax.

Note: Don’t confuse Baba Yaga with the Russian fairytale figure of the same name. While the tale always terrified me as a child and would have made an excellent horror film, it has no relationship to this film. But if you are at all interested in horror-themed folklore or fairytales, do read the tale and the Wikipedia entry linked above.