Massimo Pupillo only directed a handful of films, but the 1965 eurotrash classic Bloody Pit of Horror (which was also released under about a dozen different titles) was, without question, his finest. For its sheer use of color alone, it became a hallmark for Italian horror directors for decades to follow.
A photographer drives a carload of models to an abandoned castle, where he plans to shoot some pulp-novel covers. Much to their surprise (but no one else's), they discover that the castle isn't abandoned at all?it's inhabited by the great Mickey Hargitay and his henchmen.
Hargitay (giving the performance of his career), he's gone a little funny in the head, see, and has come to believe that he's the reincarnation of a 17th-century torturer known as the Crimson Executioner. During the Inquisition?up until he fell victim to his own iron maiden?the Crimson Executioner dispatched thousands who were of less than pure mind and body. (As he lets us know time and again, he's awfully proud of his body.)
When Hargitay recognizes his former fiancee among the models, well, that does it, and he begins killing off the group one by one. But being the Crimson Executioner, he's not the type to simply push people down the stairs. His victims are roasted alive, shot with arrows and tied to giant spider webs rigged with mechanical spiders and poison darts.
The overdubbing is typically clunky, the dialogue hilarious and the colors (especially the reds) throughout the film so intense they'll make your head hurt. As far as the picture quality goes, you aren't likely to find a better print anywhere. Not that it's pristine?it's just that you aren't likely to find a better one.
Something Weird, as usual, has packed on the delightful extras (too often the extras on their discs are far more entertaining than the features). Here, along with some trailers, radio spots and a pointless "alternative" opening sequence, you get a long musical number excerpted from Primitive Love, with Hargitay, wife Jayne Mansfield and lots of hula girls. You also get something called Cover Girl Slaughter, which is being sold as a short film about, well, a pulp-novel cover shoot. In reality, the sequence has been lifted from Mondo Cane 2, though no credit is given anywhere, so far as I was able to find.
All in all, though, there's not much to complain about here. I mean, it's Bloody Pit of Horror, for godsakes?you pretty much know what you're getting into from the start. And best of all?it's in Psychovision!
Arthur Dong Collection, Vol. 1 (Deep Focus Productions)
Arthur Dong's documentaries always impressed me as a nifty mix of old-school reserve and new-school activism. He clearly has an agenda?to demonstrate through interviews and research that homophobia has always been a pervasive, destructive force in American life, and still is. But he lets that agenda emerge organically from his subjects, and when facts contradict his preconcieved notions, he builds the contradictions into the movie rather than dismiss or distort them.
With the DVD release of Dong's first video collection, however, it is now possible to see Dong not just as a committed activist filmmaker, but a plain-spoken visionary?Cassandra at the bridge, armed with a camera. The Arthur Dong Collection, Vol. 1 is subtitled "Stories from the War on Homosexuality." It's a stunningly frank admission of Dong's motivating fear?a fear that places him at odds with the more assimilationist elements in the gay media. In America, there's always a desire to proclaim that things are better than they used to be?that whatever obstacles are placed in the path of an ostracized group, things are still better now than they were 10 years ago, or 30 years ago. Dong's films reject that idea, making the same controversial point as some African-American and feminist scholars and activists: Hateful, controlling urges have not been eliminated from American life, but merely driven underground, where they could erupt again without warning.
The three movies collected in this box set are Licensed to Kill, a series of interviews with homophobic murderers; Coming Out Under Fire, about gays in the World War II military, and Family Fundamentals, about gay people raised in fundamentalist homes. Cumulatively, they pack a wallop that far exceeds the already considerable power they attained as standalone movies. Each movie focuses on a different aspect of gay life, but each makes the same basic point: There is now, and always has been, a war on homosexuals, waged by straights who wish to define themselves by attacking people they perceive as their opposites.
The supplements are superb. Each disc contains reading lists, study guides for teachers, lists of research and policy groups, an interview with Dong and up to an hour of deleted scenes and interviews. The set even isolates the musical scores (by Miriam Cutler on Licensed to Kill, and by Mark Adler on the others) on separate tracks. From a filmmaker as thorough as Dong, one would expect no less.
?Matt Zoller Seitz
Alice in Wonderland Directed by Jonathan Miller (Public Media Inc.)
At a New York party back in 1962, Lillian Hellman asked television director Jonathan Miller if he had ever thought of filming Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. That got the young Brit and long-time Carroll devotee thinking. A few years later he produced and directed a BBC production, and now Miller's mad, melancholy take on Carroll's dream-tale is out on DVD, with the bonus of a smart director's commentary. (For archivist nuts, there's also a 1903 version, but it's not much.) This Alice, first on tv in 1966, catches the eerie, insolent and ultimately vicious vibe of the Carroll classic.
Miller plays it straight and poker-faced as a dry, disdainful Alice dreams her way through an ominous, black-and-white world of angular compositions, comical fools and a despot with a fetish for decapitation. This isn't the stuff of Disney, but who needs animation (or phony-looking costumes) when you cast the likes of John Gielgud, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook and so many more?
Miller explains that the book to him is nostalgic, an ode to long-lost fun. This Alice is 11, ready (almost) to grow up, touting Wordsworth quotes about leaving your childhood behind. It may sound like Miller is stealing Alice for his middle-aged musings, but he sticks close to Carroll's text. When the Mock Turtle reminisces of youthful memories, Gielgud gives his lines a wistfully quaint lilt. His scene is sweet-natured and a little sad, while the extravagant Peter Cook steals the show. As the Mad Hatter, he grimaces, raises an octave and, daintily bouncing about, seems to have feet made of Jell-O.
Miller catches the jagged train of non-sequiturs that comes with dreaming: Characters speak illogically as we jump from one scene to the next. Nothing is overwrought. Miller has a keen visual sense, and finds weirdness in the most casual settings. During the Tea Party, he keeps framing from an angle, catching the characters in a sideways slant. Or he interrupts a scene with a cut to a broken window that's both haunting and beautiful. At the heart of this ruckus there's Alice (Anne-Marie Mallik), not so different from a Robert Bresson heroine. In fact, Miller's clever casting coincides with Bresson's pastoral dramas of plain-face, tight-lipped women, lost in a rural rut (think Balthazar, Mouchette). Mallik gives the film balance by playing glum?she's just the right ounce of gravity in a Wonderland of crazies.
The Work of Director Michel Gondry (Palm Pictures)
Michel Gondry is the rare exception to the rule that music- video directors make lousy feature- film directors. (So is Spike Jonze, although last year's overrated Adaptation was a less satisfying movie than Gondry's feature-debut Human Nature.) It's clear from this DVD, one of a new tri-partite series collecting the work of Jonze, Gondry and Chris Cunningham, that Gondry defies categorization. Here, in a bounty, are some amazing concepts by one of the most insistently inventive visual artists of the day.
Of course, the music videos are the core, and from Gondry's pieces for Lucas ("Lucas with the Lid Off"), the White Stripes ("Fell in Love with a Girl"), Cibo Matto ("Sugar Water") to Kylie Minogue ("Come into my World") the sights are varied and startling. Especially impressive are a suite of videos for Bjork, whom critic Nathaniel Carlson rightly identified as Gondry's muse. Gondry follows the tradition of French movie surrealism and absurdism that started with Rene Clair and reached what was thought to be a peak of Abstraction with Jacques Tati. Gondry caps Tati's peaks. The way the images build on top of one another, multiplying yet differentiating in the White Stripes video "The Hardest Button to Button" is technically astonishing and conceptually mystifying.
In "Come into my World," Gondry pursues the issue of identity and space in existential slapstick. Although an homage to Tati's methods of using movement in space, Gondry takes advantage of modern computer-graphics technology. It starts with Kylie Minogue going through her daily routine. Gondry chronicles her life and by doing so describes her world by analyzing its space and its rituals. In the 80s, video pioneer Zbigniew Rybczynski laid the groundwork for this use of multiple imagery. Gondry carries it forward as a way of penetrating the daily routines once but no longer taken for granted. It's a whimsical deconstruction that results, impressively, in wholeness.
Gondry proves there isn't anything an animator/cartoonist can do that cannot also be done with great live-action creativity. Along with the videos are short-story films that show Gondry to be adept at more conventional film narrative. This talent is most evident in The Letter, which suggests an emotional autobiography of a photography-obsessed kid's schoolboy crush. Gondry makes it both fantastic and poignant, reminiscent of a French New Wave film and at the same time a new splash.