Thursday, January 30, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Etruscan Raiders

Year: 1982
Director: Sergio Martino
Cast: Elvire Audray, Paolo Malco, Claudio Cassinelli
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

The Italian giallo genre was in pretty dire straits by the time the Americans picked up the reins of hacking and slashing in the early 80's. While the countrymen still had some juice left in them (we were still five years off from Michele Soavi's delightful StageFright: Aquarius), post-Friday the 13th Italy had mostly produced forgotten dreck from clean-up hitters like Gianni Martucci's Trhauma and Riccardo Freda's Murder Syndrome, or unrepentantly nasty permutations from more well known shlock directors like Ovidio G. Assonitis' Madhouse and Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper.

When Sergio Martino (the director of Your Vice is a Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key, which is actually almost as good as its title) jumped into the fray in 1982 with The Scorpion with the Two Tails, I hoped he would bring some of his 70's bravado to deliver something the was at least stylish and watchable.

And as usual, my hopes were gutted with a butcher knife.

The Scorpion with Two Tails begins, as so many Italian genre riffs do, in New York City, where Joan Barnard (Elvire Audray) learns of the death of her archaeologist husband Arthur (the John Saxon), who recently discovered the ruins of an Etruscan tomb in Italy. She flies to Italy to attempt to solve his murder, bringing her friend Mike (Paolo Malco of The New York Ripper) along with her.

There she gets mixed up with a variety of colorful persons, including a mysterious Contessa (Marilù Tolo) who was housing Arthur, a rival archaeologist named Paolo (Claudio Cassinelli), and a troop of mafiosos/grave robbers/nude photographers who it turns out were engaged in illegal drug trade with Joan's father. She has lots of dreams about Etruscan rituals involving the tomb, and her increasing hysteria would led us to conclude that she is most likely a reincarnation of an immortal ancient priestess.

This has almost nothing to do with the plot, but it's what we spend at least 60% of the movie focusing on, so it's probably worth mentioning.

The supernatural genre elements here are pretty, well, generic. Usually with a plot like this, the Italians have to rely on their lurid stylistic sensibility and sensational murders to goose things up a bit. Unfortunately, the one factor that makes The Scorpion with Two Tails unusual also ruins any chance it had to be interesting: it was originally produced for television (conflicting reports say either a TV movie or a miniseries that was chopped into feature length). I can't say I'm intimately familiar with the broadcast standards of Italian television in the 80's, but it seems to have been pretty comparable to the U.S., considering every ounce of the requisite blood or lurid sexuality of the giallo has been removed from this movie.

As you'll see at the bottom of this review, Scorpion has an unusually huge body count, but more than fifty percent of the kills use the exact same M.O. (twisting someone's head around backward, sometimes in a cool special effect but mostly offscreen), and the ones that don't all take place in the flurry of a two minute shootout. It's boring is what it is, and robbing a giallo of its slasher elements removes any reason to be interested in talking about it. The plot certainly doesn't step up to the plate, because it really deeply concerns itself with having the characters search for a crate of drugs they already found earlier in the movie.

All that we're left with is a heaping helping of overbaked giallo dialogue, a bunch of dreams where random things are covered in maggots, and Mike being a lecherous drag chasing after a woman so recently widowed there's still a chalk outline on the floor.

Maybe it would have been more interesting if John Saxon hadn't departed the movie after five minutes.

Warning: SPOILERS abound for the remainder of the review, not that you should watch this movie anyway. 

Our lead isn't particularly fun to spend time with either. Even though she is revealed to be an immortal Etruscan priestess, she still spends all of her time shrieking and fainting and being incapable of doing anything but wait for her narrative to be pushed forward by a man. A character this doe-eyed and helpless would be irritating under any circumstances, but especially when she's explicitly magical. Call up a swarm of rats to devour your enemies or something. Anything!

There are only two things I liked about this 94 minute gauntlet called a motion picture. First, the production design of the ancient tombs was actually pretty good, avoiding any fakey, obviously foam rocks or anything. Every chamber felt appropriately dusty, weighty, and old.

The second is that the final five minutes go absolutely batshit, with the out of the blue proposal that the true treasure of the tomb is an antimatter diamond surrounded by an antigravity force field that controls the balance of the universe, a fact which introduces no conflict whatsoever because the killer's neck is summarily snapped anyway. Oh, and also Mike was undercover for the DEA and faked his own death, but now they're in love. It's a whole thing.

If the movie had been operating at this wild telenovela register the whole time, it might have been a 10/10, but as it stands I had to sift through cubic kilometers of packing peanuts to find anything worth caring about in this empty shipping crate of a movie.

Killer: Paolo (Claudio Cassinelli)
Final Girl: Joan Barnard (Elvire Audray)
Best Kill: All the kills are exactly the same, so I'm just gonna have to go with the John Saxon one for the novelty of him being Janet Leigh-ed early on in the movie.
Sign of the Times: The ancient Etruscans apparently shopped for makeup at Bonnie Tyler's local drug store.
Scariest Moment: Mike's corpse starts walking, with its head still turned around backward.
Weirdest Moment: Anti-matter diamond, motherfuckers!
Champion Dialogue: "I certainly wouldn't talk in Etruscan to you at night."
Body Count: 17; but it certainly doesn't feel like it - I included deaths that occur in dreams that are most likely flashbacks to another life.
  1. Husband has his neck snapped in a dream.
  2. Wife has her neck snapped in a dream.
  3. Woman #1 has her neck snapped in a dream.
  4. Woman #2 has her neck snapped in a dream.
  5. Arthur has his head turned around backward.
  6. Mr. Forte has his head turned around backward offscreen.
  7. Old Man has his head turned around backward offscreen.
  8. Eva has her neck snapped.
  9. Joan's Dad is shot.
  10. Contessa is shot.
  11. Security Goon #1 is shot.
  12. Security Goon #2 is shot.
  13. Mafioso #1 is shot.
  14. Mafioso #2 is hit with a falling rock.
  15. Mafioso #3 is hit with a falling rock.
  16. Anducci hangs himself.
  17. Paolo has his neck snapped.
TL;DR: The Scorpion with Two Tails is an exceptionally dull giallo that doesn't even muster the energy to compete with its American slasher counterparts.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1177

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Sex And The Single Monster

Year: 1982
Director: John Hough
Cast: John Cassavetes, John Ireland, Kerrie Keane 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I've been so deep into this slasher movie marathon for so long that I've started to recognize names that wouldn't be uttered in anybody's household from here to Timbuktu. Regardless, John Hough is the reason I was excited to pop in The Incubus, because he directed the low budget 1988 gem American Gothic, a film I've been happy to wave the banner for on many an occasion. Pair that with some cool, eerie poster artwork and you've got me on the hook.

Unfortunately, the lesson I consistently fail to learn during this project is that a poster is not a movie. Even though every single poster, alternates and all, for The Incubus is a drop dead gorgeous specimen (to the point that I could populate this entire review just with different posters - and I will), none of that visual firepower is enough to make a movie worth sitting through for 93 minutes. But more on that in a sec.

First, we must witness this poster that makes the movie look like some sort of heavy metal album cover was adapted into a paperback novel.

Observe the small town of Galen, which is being beset by a terrible tragedy. Local women are being raped so violently that their uteruses are exploding (oh, the 80's, a time when somebody thought this would be a super cool plot hook). Town doctor/autopsist/creepy old man Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes) has been working with the cops to solve the murders, but waiting for the only survivor Mandy (Mitch Martin) to regain the ability to speak is taking too long. Also he needs time to himself to reminisce about his 18-year-old second wife who died under mysterious circumstances.

Sam's daughter Jenny (Erin Flannery) keeps ignoring his orders to stay inside to visit her loser boyfriend Tim (Duncan McIntosh of the same year's Murder by Phone - stay tuned) who keeps having terrible dreams about a woman tied up in a dungeon every time there's a new attack. also on the case is intrepid reporter Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane), who strikes up a gross flirtation with Sam despite their age difference appearing to be a flat fifty years. Anyway, it's pretty clear these attacks are supernatural. 

Even though the word "incubus" isn't spoken for about 75 minutes, we the audience know the title of the fucking movie we came to see, so it's not entirely shocking that there's a penis demon wandering around town. But who is the one channeling his presence? Tim? His creepy grandmother Agatha (Helen Hughes of Visiting Hours)? Or someone else from this small town with a population huge enough to host midday concerts in packed movie houses?

Or perhaps it's this sexy demon haunting some heroine from an 18th century gothic novel...

Full disclosure: the effects which bring the titular Incubus to life are really really good. Fuller disclosure: You get to see them for a full ten seconds in this 93 minute movie. Hope you brought your camera! I'd say a picture would last longer, but then again almost anything would. 

So what are we left with for those remaining 5,570 seconds? A pretty miserable slog, to be honest. The Incubus has all the gritty, grotesque flavor of a mid-70's grindhouse exploitation epic, but it's too demure to fully commit to its hog wild concept. Not that I want the endless rapes to be onscreen. In fact, I am tremendously glad all I had to suffer through was a little slow motion screaming, and not a relentless slew of sex crimes like Don't Answer the Phone. But the fact remains that this movie is by design a story about sex, violence, and a monster, and it features almost none of those things.

To be fair, the rest of the things it's about aren't achieved particularly well either. As a mystery with a mounting body count, The Incubus is extraordinarily messy, forgetting to show us scenes about suspects, non-Cassavetes characters, and especially victims until they suddenly are jolted awake and thrown into play way too late in the game. One victim, a docent at the town museum, we meet in the very scene where she dies with about two lines of dialogue. About twenty minutes later Cassavetes randomly drops a line about this woman being his wife's cousin. About fifteen minutes after that, we learn her name. Tell me, how am I supposed to care about following a mystery that can't even follow itself? All this builds up into a tedious double parlor room sequence that spends fifteen minutes in two locations to establish that yes, there's an incubus, and then cuts to credits before anything actually happens.

And don't even get me started on the bizarre subplot about Laura Kincaid being a doppelgänger for Sam's dead second wife, which immediately leaps out the window and is never heard from again.

This beautiful poster is just mocking me at this point.

At the very least, The Incubus makes some swings toward atmosphere that occasionally connect. The score is a creepy atmospheric blanket over the whole thing, and the decision to run the opening credits over a shot that slowly zooms out to reveal a human eye is pretty stylish. And the decision to mount a camera under a character's wheelchair as she zooms around is... odd, but at least creative. Unfortunately, the editing takes a bit of a beating, presenting events in a bizarre kaleidoscope of smash cuts. 

But with a script that's this much of a shambles, even if it was perfectly cut together it would still seem completely random and aggrieved, as if individual parts of each scene want nothing to do with one another. So the redeeming qualities available to us here are limited. I didn't hate the experience of sitting through this movie, but I could have been staring at a blank screen for an hour and a half and edified myself to the exact same degree.

Killer: The Incubus [as embodied by Laura Kincaid (Kerrie Keane)]
Final Girl: Sam Cordell (John Cassavetes)
Sign of the Times: Every time a character turns on a radio, out screeches hair metal so terrible that I don't even want to put it on my slasher movie music playlist, which includes some real dreadful shit.
Best Kill: In one of the only sequences that betrays its slasher roots, the shotgun-toting patriarch of a farming family follows the demon into a barn, where he is stabbed in the neck with a shovel, then blows his own foot off in shock.
Scariest Moment: John Cassavetes tells his 18-year-old daughter Jenny, "you are my queen, my morning..."
Weirdest Moment: A scene opens with a cat chilling on a porch, then the paper boy hits it square in the face with the daily news.
Champion Dialogue: "Will you get out of here? I don't have time for idiots."
Body Count: 8
  1. Roy is hit in the face with a board with a nail in it.
  2. Caroline is Incubus'd.
  3. Chip the Dog is impaled with a pitchfork.
  4. Ernie is stabbed in the neck with a shovel.
  5. Jane is Incubus'd.
  6. Jane's Sister in a Wheelchair is killed offscreen.
  7. Concert Girl is Incubus'd.
  8. [Jenny is Incubus'd.]
TL;DR: The Incubus is at least uncompromising, but is both icky and a little bit dull.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1236