Specializing in exploitation, foreign horror, and the occasional fringe American fright flick, Blue Underground got its start as a front for filmmaker William Lustig. Perhaps best known for such early ‘80s efforts as Maniac and Maniac Cop, the writer/director wanted a way to showcase some specialty items within the standard DVD distribution setting. Eventually taking the company solo, it has been responsible for a resurgence in classic (and some not so classic) genre fare. As a matter of fact, if a film was made by an Italian auteur of questionable commercial considerations, or the title itself has earned an uneven reputation or pure cult following, you can almost guarantee that Lusting and his crew are canvassing the planet, looking for the best prints possible.
In turn, this makes the inevitable conversion of the company’s catalog to Blu-ray all the more exciting. Instead of seeing the works of Dario Argento in poorly mastered and cropped presentations, Blue Underground excels at doing sound and image right. Proof can be found in this quartet of recent releases. From dead fashion models to a lurid, Last House on the Left riff, the four films here - Night Train Murders, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Baba Yaga, and Killer Nun - run the entertainment gamut of such post-grindhouse titles. All are intriguing in their own way, with a couple overcoming their established narrative archetypes to deliver something truly disturbing. While it’s clear that the era in which they were made limits just how horrid they could be, we still recognize their from-the-vault value - and Blue Underground’s penchant for same, starting with:
Lisa and Margaret are on their way to visit the former’s parents for Christmas. Boarding a train for the long journey, they are forced to make a switch because of a bomb scare. This puts them directly in the line of lecherous fire for two unhinged fiends - Curly and Blackie. At first, our heroines are befriended by a rich woman, but then suddenly find themselves tortured and tormented by the two craven criminals. Eventually, fate offers Lisa’s family a chance to extract revenge on the sadistic pair.
While one can easily see the influence of Wes Craven’s seminal shocker Last House on the Left in this victims of violence cautionary tale, the actual differences between the infamous horror movie and this seedy slice of Italian vice are plentiful. First off, director Lado loves to wallow in the wanton excess of his criminals. Rapes are ruthless and far more violent than anything Craven ever committed to celluloid, with the added atrocity of witnesses who decide to join in instead of signal for help. Then there are the murderous duo themselves. Slightly more human that Krug and his clan, they come across as more sympathetic, and therefore more disturbing, than their American brothers in brutality. Finally, Craven can’t compete with Lado when it comes to slickness and style. Last House looks like a low budget exploitation documentary compares to the far more sophisticated style of Night Train. In fact, one can easily see the lingering influence of other Italian visionaries in Lado’s artistic approach
Over at the Albatross Modeling Agency, things are in an uproar. Evelyn, one of the most popular girls, has died of a heart attack after a quickie backstreet abortion, and now the individual who performed the deadly deed has been murdered. Even worse, it looks like the unknown killer is targeting the company and its client list. Between the owners and the staff, including photographers and models, the potential victim pool is large. The suspects, however, seem limited to the aging matron in charge, her portly pervert husband, and a creepy womanizing cameraman named Carlo.
In all of exploitation, it’s perhaps the greatest title of all time. There is just so much to infer from such a declarative statement. Sadly, like The Sinful Dwarf or A Scent of Honey, A Swallow of Brine, nothing could live up to such a label. Still, with its wealth of nudity and acknowledged death count, Strip Nude for Your Killer becomes a sleazoid quasi-classic. Rare is the ridiculous moniker that actually occurs onscreen, but director Andrea Bianchi makes sure that, before they die, these mid-‘70s Mediterranean honeys get good and naked. Like the standard giallos of the era (based on the yellow covered pulp thrillers so popular at the time), we get the masked murderer, the slow burn set-ups, the unusual deaths, and the creaky, slightly too simple-complicated plotting. Before we know it, we’ve lost count of who the fiend could be, awaiting the moment when a weird ancillary plot element steps in to clarify the suspect list.
While trying to save a dog from being hit by a speeding limo, fashion photographer Valentina meets up with a mysterious woman named Baba Yaga. After a strange encounter involving a garter belt pin, the duo end up together again. This time, Yaga puts a spell on Valentina’s camera, making every photo shoot a potential problem…sometimes fatally so. Eventually, a doll in an S&M outfit becomes a conduit to even more surreal, supernatural stuff, all of which points back to Yaga and her oddball practices.
Based on an Italian comic, which itself utilizes some seminal Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is like David Lynch for Dummies. It has all the American auteur’s demented dream logic and ethereal feel wrapped up in a decidedly Eurotrash dynamic. Indeed, when we first see US actress Carroll Baker in the title role, we understand the weird cross-continent motion picture pollination that’s about to occur. It’s just too bad then that there’s not more to the movie. We get the witchcraft angle, the killer camera, and the attempt to exorcise/appease the evil. That’s it. Along the way, director Farina tries to find a way to make it all appear like a heady hallucination. What he manages instead is a head-scratching hoot that has little to do with horror and everything to do with hopped up Playboy pin-ups posing in their birthday suits while the camera lingers over their pre-plastic surgery assets.
After a difficult bout of neurosurgery, Sister Gertrude is convinced that her doctors are lying to her and that she is dying of cancer. While the Mother Superior dismisses her fears, our nutty nun begins to go psycho. She starts a lesbian affair with another Sister, as well as abusing the patients she is put in charge of at a geriatric hospital. Eventually, he hits the city and starts having affairs with men. Then dead bodies start showing up, the suggestion being that Sr. Gertrude has gone from crazy to killer. Of course, it’s also possible that someone is trying to frame her.
For many, the only important image of Anita Eckberg is the lingering long shot of her traipsing through the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. As the ultimate dream girl, she left behind an iconic, almost deadly memory. The reason for such a statement comes when you witness the weirdness that is Killer Nun. As an aging Sister struggling to deal with her pretend mortality, Ms. Eckberg is just plain insane. She mutters to herself, torments the elderly, and generally acts like a guest at her own psycho pity party. Though the main subtext remains her addictions (to morphine/heroin, to the belief that she is dying of cancer, etc), we are supposed to feel a sly sense of revenge on the Church and its holier than thou attitude. As her underling systematically dismantles the Convent’s hospital, the Mother Superior does little except kvetch and then wash her hands of the horror. Even worse, Sr. Gertrude appears to be the most powerful person in her local order. One word, and what she says goes.
// Notes from the Road
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