Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Young, the Evil and the Savage aka Naked You Die (1968)

Italian title: Nude... si muore 
Working title: Cry Nightmare
UK and US title: The Young, the Evil and the Savage 
German title: Sieben Jungfrauen fur den Teufel (Seven Virgins for the Devil)
Belgium title: De Sadist van het Dertiende Uur (The Sadist of the 13th Hour)
Alternative US titles: School Girl Killer, The Miniskirt Murders & Naked You Die

Director: Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony Dawson) 
Screenplay: Antonio Margheriti & Franco Bottari 
Story: Giovanni Simoneli
Original story and screenplay: Tudor Gates, Brian Degas & Mario Bava (all uncredited)
Production Co: BGA, Super International Pictures, Woolner Brothers Pictures Inc.

Italian Locandina
A beautiful blonde is packing a trunk in her nightgown, listening to the radio. She changes the station to something playing sexy music and starts packing her diaphanous underwear and sleeping attire. With the radio still playing she goes through to the bathroom and runs a bath. After disrobing and slipping in she begins to wash herself the way women only do in movies, one leg pointed high in the air through the bubbles. Meanwhile we see a black-gloved hand reach down and turn up the volume on the radio. This faceless killer walks into the bathroom and strangles the woman in the bath as she struggles helplessly. The killer then drags her lifeless body out of the bath, across the tiles and dumps her into the packing trunk.

US lobby card depicting the pre-credits murder
This could be the opening of any number of giallo movies, but this is still two years before The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dalle piume di cristalo, 1970, Dario Argento, Italy/ West Germany: Central Cinema Company (CCC)/ Glazier/ Seda Spettacoli), considered by some to be the first "proper" giallo, and the genre is still in its infancy. Knowing that this story and script was first developed by Mario Bava, it is not hard to connect this film to Blood and Black Lace (1964, Mario Bava, Italy/ France/ Monaco: Emmepi Cinematografica/ Les Productions Georges de Beauregard/ Monachia Film), with its black leather glove-wearing killer and the one-by-one murders of beautiful women.

The credit plays out over a sequence of the trunk being put on a taxi, a train and eventually being tied to the top of a minibus on its way to St. Hilda College on the French Riviera. Playing over the top is a bass-heavy, brassy number called "Nightmare," sung by Rose Brennan as if she is doing a Bond theme (an appropriate comparison given one of the "twist" endings). The working title of the film was actually "Cry Nightmare," so clearly the song had already been written and recorded before the decision was made to change the title. It's a fun tune, and Tim Lucas in his Bava book All the Colours of the Dark (2007) makes a comparison with the Batman theme. The song sets out the playfulness of the film, letting the audience in on the joke from the beginning.

Alternate US Poster which cuts to the heart of the plot
In the minibus we are introduced to some of the teachers and other staff who are returning from their summer holidays, including the handsome riding instructor Richard (Mark Damon, best known for his Poe films with Roger Corman and presumably cast here because of the arrangement for AIP to distribute the film in the States), the gardner and caretaker La Floret (Luciano Pigozzi, the Italian Peter Lorre), Miss Martin (Ester Masing, an Italian with only a handful of credits) and new teacher, the raven-haired Ms. Clay (Ludmila Lvova, an actress with only two credits and about whom little is known), whose deep voice, serious demeanour and propensity to wear black suggest she did not get the job because she would liven the place up. On arrival at the school, as La Floret struggles to get the heavy trunk down to the cellar, we also meet the head, Miss Transfield (Vivian Stapleton, another actress of whom little is known), a middle-aged woman with greying red hair whose tweed suits, flat shoes and austere disposition mark her out as a repressed lesbian. Why else, the film suggests, would she run a private girl's school? She also has a treat in store for Miss Martin; the new room Miss Transfield has put her in has an adjoining door to her own.

The first time we meet any of the school girls they are sitting around the pool discussing which teachers they fancy, like all school girls do. Probably. Lucille (Eleonora Brown, who first came to fame aged twelve as Sophia Loren's daughter in Two Women (1960, Vittorio De Sica, Italy/ France: Compagnia Cinematografica Champion/ Cocinor/ Les Films Marceau) and for whom this would be her last film) has a real love for Richard, but has a rival in Betty Ann (Caterina Trentini) who uses horse-riding as an opportunity to get close to him. Jill (British actress Sally Smith) on the other hand has a thing for older men, seemingly the older and more silver-haired the better, and suggests that she might want to try her hand with the silver-haired swimming instructor Di Brazzi (Giovanni Di Benedetto).

A promotional image of British actress Sally Smith taken in 1964
Tension builds for the audience as we wait for someone to find the body in the trunk down in the cobweb-strewn cellar, and before long Betty Ann starts looking for her own trunk. After an unhelpful conversation with the odd La Floret she heads down there and finds two identical trunks. Of course the audience is waiting for a naked body to tumble out of one, but before she can even open either trunk a shadowy figure appears at the top of the stairs, blocking the light. A scream and a pair of hands later, ungloved this time, Betty Ann has been strangled to death. And thus it begins as, like the later bodycount slasher films inspired by Italian gialli, the school girls begin to drop like flies. Betty Ann's body is not found at first, so her disappearance is not given a great deal of thought by the staff, despite the large amount of money her parents are probably giving them to keep her safe. Lucille is trying to keep her relationship with Richard a secret, giving her an excuse to prowl around for secret assignations at night, where at one such meeting she sees Betty Ann's body. She screams and runs, but when she comes back, this time with Richard, it is not there and, like all women in sixties horror films, she is presumed to have imagined the whole thing. However she knows that Betty Ann is dead, and Jill, an amateur detective who writes crime novels and reads comics, also believes her and finds the whole thing tremendously exciting.

Jill (Sally Smith) is on the case
There are suspicious characters and red herrings littered through the film, such as the clearly pervy La Floret, who climbs a tree so that he can spy on the girls taking showers. Jill later reveals that all the girls know he does this, so she simply does not shower. Urgh. Why they do not just close the curtains instead is anyone's guess. Regardless, whilst La Floret is watching Lucille as she strips naked and steps into the shower he slips, nearly falling out of the tree. The noise and bustling branches spook Lucille and she runs back to her room. Another girl, Cynthia (Malisa Longo), hears the shower running and comes to investigate. Clearly not wishing to waste hot water she immediately strips off and steps in, much to La Floret's delight and relief. However, his peeping tom antics take a turn for the worst when he see's Cynthia get strangled through the shower curtain. We see her in the shower, the shadowy killer creeping up behind her, but Margheriti resists the urge to go full Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock, US: Shamley Productions/ Universal) and the killer does not bother to draw back the curtain first. The killer is getting careless.

Cynthia (Malisa Longo), a victim of mistaken identity
This is clearly a problem for La Floret. He has witnessed a murder and knows who the killer is, but if he tells the police, who arrive shortly after Jill finds the body, he risks his job, and possibly criminal charges. He runs back to his worksop and burns a collection of photos of naked women. Whether he is an amateur photographer as well, or this is just an illicit collection of under-the-counter glamour snaps is not made clear, but he is determined to destroy them before the police come knocking. Sadly for him, this was a mistake and the killer finds him first. Despite being given ample time to run away, instead he stares directly at the camera crying "No!" as the killer stabs him to death with his own sickle.

Italian VHS release
With the police now at the school, one would assume that the girls are safe, but one would be assuming wrong. This is a crime thriller after all. The police are singularly useless at keeping these girls safe despite seemingly being everywhere. Lead by Inspector Durand (Michael Rennie, a seasoned British actor most likely remembered for playing Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise, USA: Twentieth Century Fox))  and Detective Gabon (Franco De Rosa), the police lock down the school and question all the staff and the girls, yet still people are attacked and killed, or almost killed, under their noses. Ultimately, without wishing to spoil the ending, Lucille is saved and the killer is caught, mainly thanks to Jill and her use of a pair of walkie-talkies given to her by her father. 

Sally Smith at the Palladium, circa 1960. Photo credit Horace Ward
With the case resolved, and the words of praise from Inspector Durand ringing in her ears, Jill declares her love for him, despite the forty year age gap. Thankfully for Durand in quite an awkward situation, an Aston Martin pulls up at the school gate and Jill exclaims "Daddy!" A silver-haired man steps out and Jill jumps into his arms. She smiles back at Durand as her father carries her through the gates. It is not clear as to whether an incestuous subtext was intentional, but it is certainly there in these final moments. It is also of course possible that he is not her father at all, but another older man in her life who she calls daddy in order to maintain a relationship with him. Either that or her constant longing to be with older men is due to the absence of her real father, who we learn is a secret agent. Suddenly we are in a Eurospy film after all, and not a giallo. This final twist comes when Inspector Durand approaches the car just as a radio message comes through with new orders for "009." Durand informs them "009 is busy. He is working on Case Jill." Just exactly what he means by that is anyone's guess. Evidently, according to Tim Lucas' description of the plot, the English dub refers to her father as "007," so English and American audiences would have assumed her father is James Bond. And as he always did in his own movies, the closing scene is Bond with a young, willing female. This is becoming very Freudian and potentially unpleasant. Let's just hope that the father thing is just his cover story.

US DVD release using the title Naked You Die for the first time
Tim Lucas revealed that this film was first developed as a project for Mario Bava with the Woolner Brothers, who had distributed some of his films in the States before relocating to Italy. He worked with the British writers Tudor Gates and Brian Degas, and one can see a connection between this school-bound setting and Tudor Gates later work for Hammer like Lust For a Vampire (1971, Jimmy Sangster, UK: Hammer Films). For some reason not exactly clear, Bava left the project, possibly because he found out the producers had been talking to Antonio Margheriti, whom he regarded as a rival. By all accounts they were not friends. Despite all three men having written and developed the script together Bava, Gates and Degas did not receive credits for Nude... si muore. Gates did have more luck that same year, working on both Danger: Diabolik (1968, Mario Bava, Italy/ France: Dino de Laurentis Cinematografica/ Marianne Productions), the film Bava went made instead following the collapse of this project, and Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim, France/ Italy: Dino de Laurentis Cinematografica/ Marianne Productions).

Nude... si muore was distributed in the US as The Young, the Evil and the Savage in August 1968 by AIP and paired, in some cinemas at least, with The Conqueror Worm, aka Witchfinder General (1968, Michael Reeves, UK: Tigon British Film Productions/ American International Productions), as seen here in this New York Times ad for the Loew's Theatre:

New York Times, 18 Aug 1968: D6
One reviewer seemed more interested in the audience and the quality of the projection than in the films themselves, and had no problem in revealing major spoilers. Reviewing The Conqueror Worm Renata Adler wrote:
Vincent Price has a good time as a materialistic witch-hunter and woman disfigurer and dismemberer, and the audience at the dark, ornate New Amsterdam seemed to have a good time as well. There are lines like, "Take three good men and ride into East Anglia," through which a man behind me snored and a middle-aged couple next to him quarrelled viciously, but people woke up for the action and particularly cheered when Price was hacked to death.
Moving on to the second film on the bill, she was clearly losing interest:

"The Young, the Evil and the Savage" (also produced by AIP) opened with "The Conqueror Worm." It is set in a French boarding school and there is a strangling of a naked girl before the credits start. In the course of the movie, a thin streak of something soapy (which had also been apparent across the screen during "The Conqueror Worm") persisted. It must have been a watermark across the lens in the projection booth. (New York Times, 15 August 1968, p.46)

This review, a poor recommendation for the film in 1968, is fascinating now for its eye-witness account of a double-bill in the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street, a fabulously ornate  Art Nouveau theatre built in 1902, which ran as a cinema from 1937 to 1985, and more recently has been used by Disney for their theatrical productions of The Lion King and Mary Poppins. I wonder if modern audiences have any idea that for years their predecessors were sitting in the dark watching exploitation and porn.

New Amsterdam Theater, 1985. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
The incredible interior of the New Amsterdam.
The Young, the Evil and the Savage was finally released in the UK in 1971 with an 'X' certificate, receiving a disappointed review from David McGillivray in Monthly Film Bulletin:

A succession of lame and predictable murders (one in the cellar, one in the shower, a gory one in the potting shed), investigated with understandable indifference by Michael Rennie. The setting - a girls' finishing school where nobody ever seems actually to be taught anything and Lesbianism stops short at the occasionally smouldering gaze from the headmistress - will come as a grave disappointment to those who recall "Anthony Dawson's" flair for atmospherics in his earlier horror films. (Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1971, p.145)

A few years later McGillivray would write House of Whipcord (1974, Pete Walker, UK: Peter Walker (Heritage) Ltd.), a film featuring the murders of young women in a private institution (albeit a prison rather than a school) and repressed lesbianism from the warden in the form of the occasional smouldering gaze.

Italian Due-Fogli or possibly Quattro-Fogli
Naked You Die is an odd film, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. The tongue-in-cheek tone must have come from Bava's script, something which would come even more to the fore in both Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970, Mario Bava, Italy/ Spain: Pan Latina Films/ Mercury Films/ Peliculas Ibarra y Cia) and 5 Dolls For an August Moon (1970, Mario Bava, Italy: Produzioni Atlas Consorziate). This is also a fairly bloodless film, and if it wasn't for the occasional glimpse of breasts this could have been a great film for kids, with Jill's wide-eyed amateur sleuth effectively channelling Nancy Drew. There's not enough blood and nakedness for genre fans and gorehounds, but there's too much for a young audience, so it falls between the cracks, which is a pity. The film goes to great lengths to appeal to a teenage audience, from the voguish fashions, particularly Jill's boyish haircut and the fabulous orange mini-dress with white tie and belt which appears to be the school uniform, to the comics that the girls read and swap around. An HD restoration of this film might help one to identify the titles of the comics they were reading. Considering they are supposedly rich girls being privately educated, albeit at a school which never seems to have any lessons, one could assume that the comics are read as an act of rebellion. They really ought to be reading classics of Italian and French literature.

Sally Smith in a promotional image from Father Came Too (1964). Sourced from Getty Images
I enjoyed this film a lot more than both Tim Lucas and David McGillivray. Lucas comes at it from the perspective of it not being a Mario Bava film. Naturally, if Bava had done this it would definitely have had far more interesting cinematography and possibly less reliance on the zoom lens. He might have made some of the dialogue less awkward and shot the murders in a more interesting fashion. However, it is not Margheriti's fault that he was given Mario Bava's hand-me-downs. He took the job and made the best of it, in a year when he was also working on romantic drama Lo ti amo (1968, Italy: Genesio Productions) and the western Vengeance (Joko invoca Dio... e muori, 1968, Italy/ West Germany: Arlington International Pictures/ Super International Pictures), which was probably shot in Almeria. He was a busy man. McGillivray was disappointed by this film when comparing it to Margheriti's gothic horrors from a few years earlier. It is a pity that the sex and violence were not ramped up, or else removed completely, so as to not disappoint either intended audience. Regardless, this is still a fun, light-hearted crime thriller packed with beautiful girls (particularly Sally Smith, with whom I am now smitten) and a terrific Carlo Savina score. What's not to like?

Let me know if you have a favourite Antonio Margheriti film you think I should take a look at, particularly if you can tell me what is the best version to track down.

Edit: In my quest to track down Sally Smith I came across this article from a British newspaper when Sally was just 18, revealing her plans to marry. Sadly I don't think it worked out.

Daily Mirror, 16 November 1960, p.9

Friday, 14 July 2017

Killers Are Challenged (1966)

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive

U.S.A. and U.K. release title: Killers Are Challenged
Italian title: A 077, sfida ai killers
Also known as Bob Fleming - Mission Casablanca
Director: Anthony Margheriti (As Anthony Dawson)
Production companies: Zenith Cinematografica/ Flora Film/ Régina
Starring: Richard Harrison

Three scientists have invented an alternative energy source which spells the end for the oil industry. After two of them are murdered the CIA steps in to protect Coleman, the third scientist who has already undergone plastic surgery in order to disguise himself. After smuggling him to Geneva in a coffin, special agent Bob Fleming takes his place in Casablanca, attracting assassins left right and centre. He befriends the real Coleman's wife Terry (Wandisa Guida), not realising that she is in on the murder plot, having been bought by pale, wheelchair-bound Texan oil baron Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi) who is determined not to allow this new invention on to the market. Sturges is paying her a lot of money to betray her husband, and she in turn seems to have employed every European villain residing in Casablanca to help her, including Halima (Janine Reynaud) and Moira (Mitsouko). Bob Fleming has a job on his hands just staying alive - he is frequently shot at, punched in the face or knocked unconscious. Luckily Velka (Susy Anderson), who appears to be some sort of personal assistant to Sturges, saves him on more than one occasion, for reasons which she keeps to herself. Can Bob Fleming solve the mysterious plot, survive these constant attacks and get the girl (any of them would do) before the end of the film? Of course he can, but how he does it is a lot of fun!

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive

Described by Richard Rhys Davies in The International Spy Film Guide (2016) as "Daft sexy fun with groovy sounds," Killers Are Challenged is an entertaining, good-natured Eurospy film with plenty of action and a good sprinkling of comedy, with lines like "I've been kissed better than that by my dachshund," and an extended, over-the-top bar room brawl at the climax which looks like it came straight out of a Three Stooges film. The scene, featuring dozens of sailors, sock-workers and an enthusiastic dwarf, must have employed every available stuntman on the studio lot, and could easily have been taking place in the saloon of a Western. In another comedy moment, what begins as a typical belly-dancing act turns into a swinging sixties pop number as the camera tracks back from the dancer to reveal a room full of dancing teenagers. Moments like this reveal Margheriti's willingness to play with audience expectations. There is also a great visual gag early in the film involving a ballon seller and a large cactus. In the lead role, Richard Harrison is a likeable and believable spy, and he gets plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his athleticism and charm.

Bob (Richard Harrison) meets Velka (Susy Andersen) at the pool side
The Italians tried to market this film as another 077 film, Ken Clark having appeared as the titular agent in three previous films: Mission Bloody Mary/ Agente 077 missione Bloody Mary, From the Orient With Fury/ Agente 077 dall'oriente con furore (both 1965, Sergio Grieco, Italy/ Spain/ France: Fida Cinematografica, Época Films S.A., Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld), and Special Mission Lady Chaplin/ Missione speciale Lady Chaplin (1966, Alberto de Martino/ Sergio Grieco, Italy/ Spain/ France: Sincronía, Fida Cinematografica, Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld). There had clearly been no intention to make this another in the 077 franchise whilst shooting. Although Richard Harrison bears a strong resemblance to Ken Clark, mostly thanks to the hair, his character is called Bob Fleming instead of Dick Malloy, and the moniker 077 is never uttered once in the entire film, so it appears to have been an Italian marketing strategy to tie the films together at home.

Having seen all of those other 077 films, I can safely say that this one is better than all of them. Richard Harrison is much more natural in the role, and Bob Fleming a nicer guy all round. At no point does he slap a woman hard enough to knock her unconscious, which Dick Malloy is happy to do whenever he likes, including with women who are on his side.

The prefix 077 was not used when the film was sold abroad. It was picked up and released as Killers Are Challenged by American International Pictures in the States, perhaps because Richard Harrison had married Loretta Nicholson, James H. Nicholson's daughter, in 1961. It was not released in the UK until 1968, by Planet Films, with an 'A' certificate.

British critics did not appear to be impressed. This was Monthly Film Bulletin's review:

"Some elegant Casablanca settings, a flagellation scene with unconscious lesbian overtones, a pugilistic dwarf who proves indestructible in a bar-room brawl, and an incongruous English taxi-driver who describes himself as "a graduate of Scotland Yard" are the only details that distinguish this tedious Italian spy drama from so many others. Its characters as usual hide their personal inadequacies behind a small armoury of electronic devices, while violent deaths are meted out with alarming and gratuitous frequency. Ian Fleming has a lot to answer for."

The flagellation scene referred to feels like it came straight out of a Jess Franco film, perhaps partly because Franco regular Janine Reynauld is the one wielding the whip.

Moira (Mitsouko) in chains, whilst Halima (Janine Reynaud) (L)
and Terry (Wandisa Guida) (R) look on

This was a busy year for Antonio Margheriti. Like in 1964, in 1966 he released six films. Given he had none released in 1965, one can assume that he was incredibly busy in that year shooting some of these. Famously, 1966 saw him release his Gamma One quadrilogy (The War of the Planets/ I diafanoidi vengono da Marte, Wild, Wild Planet/ I criminali della galassia, War Between the Planets/ Il pianeta errante and The Snow Devils/ La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin, Italy: Merculry Film International/ Southern Corss Feature Film Company), but he also found time for two eurospy thrillers, Lightening Bolt/ Operazione goldman (Italy/ Spain: Seven Film/ Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas/ BGA) and this film, Killers Are Challenged. It is testament not only to the skill of Margheriti but also to the efficiency of the Italian studio system at that time, enabling films to be churned out like cars from a production line. Some of those films may have been more Fiat than Ferrari, but they were proficiently made and always entertaining.

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive

Mitsouko plays a prominent role in this film as a sexy assassin who develops a soft spot for Bob Fleming. Despite having spent most of the film trying to kill him she ultimately saves his life. Most of Mitsouko's film credits in the 1960s are for eurospy films, and she even made it into a genuine James Bond film, appearing as a French agent in the pre-credits sequence of Thunderball (1965, Terence Young, UK/ USA: Eon). During my PhD research on Mission Bloody Mary, a film in which she starred, I tracked down and spoke to her son Sebastien in Paris. He told me that Mitsouko never knew her father, but he was most likely Chinese or Vietnamese. She was born in Tianjin in a French colony. Her mother was half French, half Chinese, and together with her daughter they fled the revolution in 1948 back to France. During the voyage her mother developed amnesia and forgot who she was. On arrival in France Mitsouko, only five years old, was placed in an orphanage and her mother eventually died in a mental hospital. Mitsouko eventually became a model which lead to several film roles in France in the 1960s. She stopped acting after her last film in 1966 and married. Sadly, the traumas of her very difficult childhood clearly never left her, and she killed herself in 1995.

Moira (Mitsouko) creeps up on Bob (Richard Harrison)

Killers Are Challenged is definitely one of the better eurospy films I have seen. It demonstrates the versatility of Antonio Margheriti, who was seemingly up for whatever challenge was thrown at him. Armed with a script by Ernesto Gastaldi, who cut his teeth on horror and sword-and-sandal films before developing a reputation for some of the classic giallo films such as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/ Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972, Sergio Martino, Italy: Lea Film), Margheriti set off for Casablanca and used the local scenery and architecture to full advantage. The score by Carlo Savina, an incredibly prolific composer and arranger, is especially enjoyable. Even if you do not fancy watching the entire film, available on YouTube, I urge you to check out the theme song. You will be singing "Dooby dooby doo, wee wee" all day.

It is a pity that Antonio Margheriti only made two eurospy films, as it was clearly a genre he understood and enjoyed. However, after these and his mad flurry of science fiction films in that same year he jumped straight to horror and spaghetti westerns, leaving the adventures of super spies and spacemen far behind him.

Image from the Kiss Kiss Kill Kill Archive