Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday Claudio Cassinelli, Rest In Peace

As a sort of disclaimer, I'm not going to be fair to the four movies I'll be discussing today. Today, September 28th, is Claudio Cassinelli's birthday and I've been minorly obsessed with the late Italian actor since seeing him in Big Alligator River a few years ago. So if I don't give the films the breadth of attention I might ordinarily, its because I'm far more interested in Cassinelli's appearance in these movies (he was the reason I watched them, after all) than how they relate to anything else. In Italian movies, good performances are so rare that even if you saw one you probably wouldn't recognize it (dubbing makes this doubly hard, HA! Please don't leave....). Cassinelli was a special case in that I instantly knew that his performances were the thing I liked best about the second rate films he appeared in. He was always thrilling because he never suffered from the many ailments that plague most performers: crazy eyes, awful dubbing, PROJECTING!!!!, chronic whimpering, and inhuman facial expressions. He was a cool, if put upon, breath of fresh air, which is why most people don't ever draw attention to him. He just disappears, and, like the jungle setting of Mountain of the Cannibal God, he's taken for granted as one of the few things that work. Cassinelli's first film was Marco Bellocchio's little seen China Is Near and after languishing in little parts in little films (he was in Flavia The Heretic and one of Vincente Minnelli's later films, which is about as lofty a name as you'll find on his resume, pre-77) became a favourite of Sergio Martino, who cast him in nearly everything he did after their first collaboration. And while we've already looked at him in Martino's adventure trilogy, we're going to take a look at the few genre films he made before he died in 1986, including the film that claimed his life, in the hopes of alerting you gentle, patient readers to the talents of one of the Italian film industry's few truly underrated talents. The world is full of people willing to scream the praises of Italian filmmakers who never once deserved an ounce of it, but Cassinelli hit his marks everytime and was one of the few people to walk away from terrible movies unscathed. He was a real talent in a world almost completely devoid of it, but he never once rose to brag about it so he goes unappreciated. Let's try and correct that.

The Scorpion With Two Tails
by Sergio Martino
Arthur Barnard (played by John Saxon, wrapping up a stint in Italy that had him star in Cannibal Apocalypse, among others, before returning semi-triumphantly to the states for A Nightmare On Elm Street) is an archeologist who's stumbled upon some ruins he figures ought to bankroll whatever he decides to do next. He wants to ship the artifacts he finds in big crates back to the states and curiously his boss, Mulligan (played by a way over-qualified Van Johnson; aging Americans were something of a vice for Martino; he collected their performances like baseball cards), wants them sent straight to his house. Barnard doesn't have time to puzzle that one out because someone kills him before he can send them anywhere. This is bad news for Mulligan, but even worse news for his daughter Joan, who just so happens to be Arthur's wife. She rushes off to Italy to look for evidence concerning her husband's death and, along with nightmares and hallucinations replete with maggots, finds a plot as convoluted and intriguing as this movie is boring and pointless.

Sergio Martino is by no means my favourite Italian director - either for actual quality or camp value - but you can typically expect professionalism and at least a shred of entertainment value in his movies. The professionalism in this film extends past the performances to Martino's handling of a few setpeices but the only entertaining part is Claudio Cassinelli. This was the first of his films outside the adventure cycle that I'd seen and it took me a minute to recognize him. In Island of the Fishmen he looked a little less assured of his leading man capabilities than in either Mountain of the Cannibal God or Big Alligator River and it looks like he completely abandoned any pretense about his looks in the years between his and Martino's last collaboration. When he walks on for the first time, you're looking at a man who has made one of the most graceful transitions from leading man to side-player in the history of cinema. Cassinelli so owns his performance that I was still looking for him when he was right in front of me. He becomes his character in a way I'd never seen before in an Italian film so it's a little ludicrous that he brought so much to a film that brought him nothing in return. I don't know that I've ever found a positive review of The Scorpion With Two Tails and other than Cassinelli I can think of nothing to recommend it, but as a fan of his, I do recommend it on the strength of his performance, but then not everyone is as wild about about combing through trash to find treasure.
Claudio mostly found himself in crime movies between The Scorpion with Two Tails and our next film and as I have zero interest in watching him play Zeus to Lou Ferrigno's Hercules in a Luigi Cozzi-helmed Conan rip-off, I haven't seen any of them....though I do think I'll be tracking down Grog, a film that pits him against Franco Nero and Letter From Venice, the last of four films written and directed by Susan Sontag. And for anyone who's seen him in the adventure cycle, I don't think it'll come as a surprise to learn he played Jesus Christ in a film by Pasquale Festa Campanile in 1980. Anyway, his new career as a heavy came to the attention of Lucio Fulci, a man for whom I have little time. Yet, the prospect of seeing a misguided Road Warrior knock-off by one of the worst directors ever regarded as great was just too great a chance to pass up. And, much to my surprise, despite its thickheaded treatment it's way ahead of its time.

The New Gladiators
by Lucio Fulci
As the opening voice over helpfully explains, the world has fallen into disrepair and is now largely controlled by two warring TV stations. Intertelevision and The World Broadcasting System have built up a pretty serious rivalry with their shows, which provide a mix of torture porn and reality TV. Problem is no one's watching. Ratings have dropped on their staples, like a show where people are put in VR simulations of their worst fears (one woman thinks she's being taken apart Pit & The Pendulum style, for instance). So all hands are summoned to figure out a sure fire winner. The studios even drop their rivalry for an eleventh hour meeting to figure out how to keep people watching. The solution comes from Cortez (Cassinelli), a ruthless executive who proposes a show where criminals fight to the death like gladiators. The higher-ups like it, but how do you get the public interested in criminals: that's where Drake comes in. Drake is the star of a popular sport called Kill Bike and he's caught the attention of some very important network executives. They think that someone with so many fans could make the ratings for their new show skyrocket: the public loves a hero, eh? So they hire some thugs to kill Drake's wife and then pin the murder on the athlete so that they can put him on TV to fight for his, and the network's, future.

And if this sounds familiar it's because that piece of shit Gamer had exactly the same plot. Granted the story (by veteran screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti) steals liberally from Stephen King's story The Running Man - thus making that story's adaptation seem like a much more expensive remake of this movie. Luckily for me, The New Gladiators spends so much time stealing from other movies (Rollerball, Escape From New York, Blade Runner...actually, come to think of it, the The Road Warrior got off easy) that it only rarely gets around to being something that reminds me of director Lucio Fulci's worst work. His direction makes me nervous because with every clumsy, handheld close-up I expect some poor woman to get stabbed in the face. Sci-fi, especially of the dystopian variety, is not something Italians get right and its about as far from Fulci's comfort zone as you're likely to travel. In fact if it weren't for the ideas driving the script (a few of which have actually become reality, while others have provided the impetus for a slew of dumb blockbusters of the last decade, Gamer chief among them) this movie would be too inept to watch. As it is there's no tension because you don't like anyone and all the action sequences are too muddled and slow to generate excitement. I did notice that the way the film is directed reminded me a lot of Enzo G. Casterllari's Escape 2000, the sequel to 1990: Bronx Warriors. The frenetic (and poor) quality of the action, the ludicrous costuming, the parade of unlikable characters both behind and in front of the guns tie them together neatly. Cassinelli is fine but the stupid costume Fulci's got him in precludes anything he might have brought to the role. As the villain I suppose he does a fine job underplaying it, but he's too often sidelined by subplots involving some kind of mystic programmer, an evil computer, and the gang of interchangeable kill biking death row inmates. Fred Williamson is fun as Abdul, Drake's only real competition, but just like Claudio, he doesn't get nearly enough to do. It's better than Escape 2000, but only just. the script tries to wring interest from a lot of nonsense when really all I wanted from a film that promised me New Gladiators was people tearing each other apart.
While it's not nearly as well thought out as, say, The Beyond, it's still a lot easier to stomach. Now I'm not someone to talk to about the genius of Lucio Fulci, I think I've made my opinions of him perfectly clear...which is why I now need to backpedal and admit that I've just walked right into a trap of my own making. How was I to know that amongst his poorly dubbed, horribly violent, maybe occasionally artistic oeuvre, was a movie that one-ups the first ever giallo by co-opting its premise and handling it with something like restraint (in its quieter moments)? For when it's not dancing itself into a lather, killing any chance of its being regarded as even a minor classic, it is one of the most thoughtful Italian horror films I've ever seen.

Murder Rock
by Lucio Fulci
Instead of Blood & Black Lace's modeling school, Murder Rock takes place in a fictional New York dancing academy where they treat modern dance (read hideous post-disco writhing) as seriously as ballet. Flash Dance was released the year before, Murder Rock's most serious misstep is totally ignoring the film's plot. Murder Rock is most certainly a film meant to exploit Flash Dance's box office performance but my guess is not one of the dozen screenwriters on Fulci's film had paid enough attention to know that you didn't go to the most prestigious school in New York to learn how to learn how to Jazzercise. Anyway, the top class is run by Candice Norman, a woman with a dark past. One night after rehearsals, one of the top dancers, up for a spot as leader of the company, is murdered by someone with a rag full of chloroform and a poisoned hatpin. Suspicions fall on the other members of the company and when the next day, another of the four finalists for the part is murdered in the same way, the police shift into overdrive. Meanwhile Norman and her second-in-command Dick Gibson are beset by other problems. Gibson has a thing for Norman, but gets that she's not into him - a rarity, to say the least. After the first killing Candice has a nightmare where a man in a leather jacket is coming to kill her. In one of the best bits of screenwriting in any Fulci movie, we've never seen the man before either. But one night while Gibson's giving Norman a lift home, they see the man selling scotch on a billboard. A few strategic phone calls gets Candice the man's name and address and in no time at all she's broken into his apartment looking for clues. Unfortunately for her the man, George Webb, stumbles in drunk while she's in there snooping around. She's so surprised that she runs out without her purse and has to call him the next day to ask him to return it to her. Webb is down on his luck and looks like he hasn't had a friend in years so has no problem giving his would-be burglar back the evidence. They get to talking and after Candice learns that George used to be a model and actor she not only puts in a call to an agent she knows with the intention of jump-starting his career, but the two wind up dating soon after.

Now, all this might seem to have nothing to do with an ever-thinning group of dancers, but the more we learn about George Webb, the more we start to think maybe Candice Norman's nightmares are prophetic. He was implicated in the murder of a colleague years ago and when he comes by the school to pick Norman up one day Gloria Weston, one of the dance students also up for the same spot as the dead girl, starts making out with him before he pushes her off. Something's off alright, but everyone in the film has motive enough to be offing the dancers, so just where do we start? The only person we know didn't do it was Willy Stark, the impish male dancer who gives a limp confession when the police arrest him. Between Gibson's jealousy, Webb's hidden past and everything Weston stands to gain the only thing we're certain of is that the police aren't going to stop the killer in time.
I....kinda like this movie...I don't know what to say. It's a Lucio Fulci film that rips off Flash Dance; I should fucking hate this! Yet the editing is crisp, the camera work is almost expressionistic at times, the performances are largely underplayed, the music is either enjoyably terrible or terribly enjoyable, the girls are cute, the murders aren't too horrific to sit through and anchoring it are two excellent performances from two of Italy's best B actors. Cassinelli is in top form as Gibson, the meddling, defeated official and matching him effortlessly is Ray Lovelock as George Webb; Cassinelli was a little like Italy's Sterling Hayden and Lovelock is a little like the country's Christian Bale. Lovelock gives the only decent performance I've ever seen him give (I loved him in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, but he was mostly just a well-dressed presence. Here he's handsome but there's definitely something behind that smile) and played against Cassinelli it's almost like the film has something like internal conflict. Lovelock is a bit more noticeable though he's clearly trying to scale it back and Cassinelli never likes to call attention to himself, so together you have two kinds of quiet intensity that, against all odds, work really well together. In a movie stacked to the rafters with kids fulfilling the Rock of the title, it's good to have lifers like Lovelock and Cassinelli silently giving the movie weight. And though you'd expect this to loaded with sex and gore (it being a Fulci film and all) there is no gore or sex to speak of and the nudity is confined to the studio shower. Granted what the film lacks in the bedroom it sweats out on the dance floor. With all the costumed jiggling that stops the movie dead and lines like "You're here because you're the best!" You wouldn't be wrong to call this movie "Flash Dance but with murder", but a more apt descriptor might be "Flash Dance but with more realistic camel toe". There is a dance scene maybe twenty minutes into the film that shows a woman practically exploding out of her leotard; it's by far the sleaziest thing in the movie, which is a relief because I know how Fulci likes to kill people, but it's still going to catch you off guard. The murders have all the nudity, which is fitting, I think, and they're even handled in a more-artistic-than-usual fashion.

In other words there are moments here that I plainly thought out of Fulci's reach. Moments, like the first dream sequence, that approach Dario Argento's visual sensibility, which is convenient, because Argento had all but discarded it but 1984. Or like when Candice Norman's phone call with her agent reveals that Webb may have killed a girl years ago. When Lovelock grabs her shoulder after the phone call. Oh man...I was really under this ludicrous movie's spell. Tension is something I thought Fulci incapable of, yet here it is. There's Impressive footage of New York that rivals Ruggero Deodato's in House on the Edge of the Park. There are even a few memorable lines, my favourite being: "No, he's not a psycho, he's an asshole!" Though if one thing's going to sweep you off your feet about Murder Rock, it's the astonishing quality of the digitally remastered print. Thanks to recent work, Murder Rock really looks like something Adrian Lyne might have done rather than a mostly forgotten and totally out-of-touch murder mystery from a guy most famous for lurid zombie films. Murder Rock has some of the clearest and most impressive camera work of any Italian film of a similar vintage and it's even weirdly appropriate given it's subject matter. I spent a few minutes thinking that it should have been lit more presentationally or more naturalistically, not the middle ground Fulci and cinematographer Giuseppe Pinori filmed in. But then I realized that Murder Rock is meant to look like the world's most ambitious music video and then I kinda gave in and admired it. I've given Fulci a lot of shit over the years but he knows how to shoot a dance number, even if his costume designer wasn't quite as cooperative as his lighting cameraman. If one thing dates this film (beyond the God awful Pan-disco music that highlights the whole movie) it's the ludicrous costume design. Weirdly it isn't even that this film suffers from the enthusiastic colour blindness of something like Zombie or Nightmare City. The colours are all muted and tasteful, it's the shape of the unitard and the novelty of making an all-dancing Giallo that plants Murder Rock's glittery ass in 1984. The central performances escape the time and display what these guys could do at their best.
Up next for Claudio was mainly miniseries for European television and one final movie for his longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Martino. This time money called the shots more than anything else: what we have here is a late-in-the-game Terminator rip-off with none of that film's steely cool or ambition. As per usual with this sort of thing, Martino just added a whole bunch of extra subplot and baggage that gets in the way of the one thing that works. The conceit of Steel Hands is one that would be repeated with roughly the same success in Terminator: Salvation: a robot who doesn't know he's a robot. It's bullshit here, too, but at least Hands of Steel has the language barrier and an industry known for greedily shoving logic aside to blame for its shortcomings. Terminator: Salvation only has greed to explain it's total fucking failure.

Hands of Steel
by Sergio Martino
Paco Queruak is a cyborg, programmed to receive orders from a powerful organization. For reasons too irrelevant and dumb to get into, he's sent to kill a scientist but can't do it. He goes on the lam to avoid being destroyed by his employers (played by John Saxon, who I think probably agreed because of his relationship with Martino and the fact that it was shot in the Southern United States rather than Italy) and winds up in a shithole cantina run by Linda (Janet Agren, who found herself in another Terminator-related project, Red Sonja, featuring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger). He decides to stay and help her with the local toughs by beating them in an arm wrestling competition, Over The Top-style. He even finds time to fall in love with Linda before the corporation sends Cassinelli's well-dressed hitman out to undo him. The conclusion stops making sense after Paco's confrontation with John Saxon and ends on a note of guitar-themed aggressive ambiguity.

Hands of Steel, technically speaking, is one of Martino's worst films, and worse it's been forgotten so it looks fucking terrible, not that this thing seems like it ever looked good. The effects are terrible (especially the laser guns - by 1986 you'd think someone would have let the Italians know that they couldn't do that), the cinematography is uninspired, the movie itself is largely pretty boring, and the script can't figure out what kind of film it wants to be. To its credit it subverts The Terminator's plot cleverly but does nothing with it. In fact once Paco goes on the lam, the movie becomes a Canon-esque love story broken up by visits with the corporation's attempts to track their rogue cyborg and the law's attempt to figure out who tried to kill the scientist. At the risk of sounding like a sentimental idiot, the love story is the only thing in this movie that worked for me (Cassinelli's role gave him nothing to do but glower). Daniel Greene wasn't much of an actor but his attempts at passing for human mixed with Janet Agren's callous world weariness (and I believe anyone who worked for Umberto Lenzi really is world-weary) worked for me; they truly seemed like two people who need each other. Their romance is pretty cartoonish but I liked it enough to watch until the end, but it all but ruins Martino's best efforts to sell their falling in love. It's like someone leaned over his shoulder in the editing room and whispered "Don't forget this is an action film, pal!" and sabotaged the film's emotional core. And the tragedy doesn't end there.
During an off day during the shooting of Steel Hands, Claudio Cassinelli opted to go up in one of the many helicopters used in the filming, I think because he wanted to see what it was like or something equally harmless. Something went wrong and the helicopter crashed, killing the 46 year old actor instantly. Along with Vic Morrow, Cassinelli was one of the few actors to be killed (by a helicopter, no less) in the line of duty. And though there's a lot I find infuriating about the accident (Martino kept right on making films, Cassinelli's role was too small in Steel Hands, Steel Hands itself is as forgettable as it is forgotten, Cassinelli never got to carry a movie again) I do find it somewhat touching that he died working for someone he seemed to have a great working relationship with, doing what he was best at. Cassinelli is one of the few Italian film personalities to come out of the B horror world that I would loved to have worked with or at the very least met. Like Robert Ryan or Sterling Hayden, he was always great because of his inconspicuous place in any film. He was never too big or too loud, he was always just right for his parts and was frequently the only good thing about a movie. Craftsmen like Cassinelli were something the Italian film industry was short on and it's a shame he's never gotten the respect he deserves.

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