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A Quartet of Blue Blus

Celebrating the Blu-ray release of Night Train Murders, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Baba Yaga, and Killer Nun

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:

Night Train Murders (dir. Aldo Lado, 1975)

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

Still, this is a hard experience to stomach. There is an undercurrent of degradation which is never easy to watch, and our heroines comes across as flawed but definitely not worth the horrific events that befall them. Also, it seems to take forever before the eventual denouement and the death of our baddies. It's as if Lado wanted us to think these toughs would get away with it before bringing on the payback. With decent acting and a performance pedigree more or less lifted from early period Dario Argento (many in the cast have a link to the Italian Master of Suspense), there is a lot of curiosity factor with this film. Still, all interest aside, Night Train Murders is a dour, depressing entertainment. Unless you are the kind of person who gets a perverse pleasure out of seeing others suffering without motive or mercy, the overall effect will be numbing...and perhaps nauseating.

Strip Nude for Your Killer (dir. Andrea Bianchi, 1975)

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.

Of course, being slick and schlocky doesn't necessarily equal wildly entertaining. There is a lot of repetition in Strip Nude for Your Killer, moments that mimic each other for no other reason than to increase the body and breast count. On the pro side, this means that anyone looking for the baser elements of the genre will be more than satisfied with this effort. On the other end of the spectrum, there is something disquieting, in 2012, about seeing women victimized and brutalized in such a cinematically chauvinistic manner. The '70s were rife with films that turned the female into a fiction, rendering her nothing more than flesh fodder for whatever demented designs the film villains had to offer. At least Bianchi's direction and the Me Decade decadence of Italy come through, delivering a time capsule as corrupt epic. One thing is certain - you will remember the title of this movie long after the plot and particulars have faded away.

Baba Yaga (dir. Corrado Farina, 1973)

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.

For the most part, the performances are fairly decent. Ms. Baker, who traveled over to Italy near the end of the '60s to make some questionable career choices, may not be the first person you envision when you consider a mythic wiccan from the past, but the way Farina frames and captures her, we don't really mind. Instead, Baba Yaga is all about atmosphere and allure, the notion of soft focus naughtiness trumping any attempt at terror. After all, someone like Isabelle De Funes is not hired because she can sell the shivers. Instead, we are witness to the kind of carnal craziness that came out of Italy during the '70s and '80s. Attempting to bypass the censors while showing everything they can possible could, these novelties retain much of their fascination - if not all of their entertainment value. There are moments here that really captivate us. There are other times when all the Nazi imagery and spoiled symbolism just doesn't work.

Killer Nun (dir. Giulio Berruti, 1979)

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.

Of course, the real draw here is the notion of seeing a nun do very un-sacred like things. Yes, there is lesbianism, but it's the tormenting of the patients that provides most of the unhealthy nunsploitation entertainment. You just haven't lived until you've seen Eckberg stomping a woman's false teeth to bits, or forcing the sick into humiliating calisthenics. As things spin wildly out of control, we wonder if anyone can stop this insane Sister. Unfortunately, the mystery element steps in to muck things up. There is a feeling that Eckberg's character is being framed by someone, perhaps as punishment or unwarranted persecution. Whatever the case, instead of going the route of Bad Lieutenant and letting Sr. Gertrude live and die on her own sleazoid sword, the film sort of hedges its bets and seeks out its own sense of redemption. As long as we're in the realm of sinners, Killer Nun is fun. Otherwise, it's inert.

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