Movie Reviews That'll Put Yer Eye Out, Kid!

The Witch's Mirror

The Witch's Mirror (1960)

First, imagine a film that combines elements of Hitchcock's gothic melodrama Rebecca, Georges Franju's haunting Eyes Without a Face and Karl Freund's fiendish classic Mad Love (just to name three). Next, throw in witchcraft, a burning bride, a sexy ghost on the loose, and enough fog to choke a Londoner with a pipe penchant, and you've got an inkling of what the Mexi-horror classic The Witch's Mirror has in store. Recently resurrected on DVD (alongside The Curse of the Crying Woman) by CasaNegra, The Witch's Mirror is a fun-filled fright film, awash with eerie, shadowy atmosphere, highly detailed, luxuriant set designs, and to top it off, features some supremely beautiful and evocative black and white cinematography.

The film's story is simple but effective, and as mentioned, bears several references to other films. Despite this, or because of this, the combinations tend to create unusual and enjoyable results, not merely through juxtaposition alone, but also because director Chano Urueta brings his distinct style and creativity to the familiar material. The Witch's Mirror revolves around the battle between a mad, femicidal surgeon and a witch seeking revenge for the killing of
her adoptive daughter. It is interesting that the witch operates as the film's moral center, and the surgeon (who was also the husband of the deceased) is the film's primary "monster" - attempting to right one wrong by committing a slew of other atrocities as he works to restore his new wife's former beauty. In many horror films simply using the "witch's revenge" storyline would be sufficient; however, The Witch's Mirror does a nice job of combining its myriad elements to often interesting, but always entertaining, effect.

Complementing the story of The Witch's Mirror are some truly striking visuals. In all, the cinematography fully exploits the vast gradation of light and shadow that can be achieved with black and white film, crea
ting images that have wonderful texture and tactility. Especially memorable is a scene in which a woman swathed in surgical bandages moves like a phantom through a bedroom, while nearby a witch summons her powers in an attempt to raise the dead. The shots of the bandaged woman in the bedroom are a haunting and beautifully realized sequence of images that would make any filmmaker proud. Add to this, clever, low-budget effects that, more often than not, elevate the film rather than make it look cheap or silly, and you have a splendid, visually arresting horror film that's essentially a lot of fun to watch.

As with their release of The Curse of the Crying Woman, CasaNegra has done a spectacular job bringing The Witch's Mirror to DVD. The newly restored print looks fantastic and it's unlikely that the film has ever looked quite this good before. The remastered sound is presented in Dolby Digital Mono, and for those who don't speak Spanish optional English subtitles are included. The DVD also features a handful of nice extras including, audio commentary with Frank Coleman (founder of IVTV), another one of those neat CasaNegra Loteria game cards, an essay entitled Chanovision: The Films of Mexican Cult Moviemaker, Chano Urueta, cast bios, and a poster and stills gallery.

Suffice it to say, for fans of classic horror films The Witch's Mirror and Curse of the Crying Woman are easily two of the best DVDs to be released in 2006 thus far, and are well-worth adding to your collection. Enjoy!

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Roma Citta Libera

Roma Citta' Libera (1946)

Marcello Pagliero's little-seen Roma Citta Libera is a film that is rather difficult to classify. Made in an era of Italian cinema characterized by neorealism, Pagliero's film has elements which are recognizably Italian neorealist (desperate, impoverished working class characters, a story dealing with the hardships of life in postwar Italy, an overriding sense of hopelessness) and yet, the film does not fit snuggly into this categorization. Instead, Roma Citta Libera integrates these neorealist details into a story that has more in common with Rene Clair's Le Million than with Roberto Rosselini's Rome, Open City.

The harsh realities of life in Italy following the war are integral to Roma Citta Libera, both visually and narratively. However, throughout the film what begins as pessimism fed by day to day hardships, is eventually tempered by a prevailing sense of hope which often arrives by mere chance or folly. For example a man, who is both broke and brokenhearted, decides to commit suicide, but is saved at the last moment by a petty thief who happens to be in the wrong place at the right time.

The element of chance also ties the various characters and storylines together by way of a valuable pearl necklace that repeatedly changes hands - eluding the criminals and policemen who realize the necklace's true value, but falling into the hands of penniless characters who believe the pearls are fake and the necklace of little value.

The film's story is fueled with these little ironies. In fact the trajectory of the two main characters is very much in keeping with this central concept of chance happenings and ironic, hopeful, and somewhat playful conclusions. In the beginning the film's main characters are both neighbors who have never met; however, while separately searching for the same thing, money, they find each other, and in the process, something much more rare and valuable.

Several talented people were involved with the making of Roma Citta Libera. The cast features Valentina Cortese who appeared in such films as Mario Bava's The Evil Eye, Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway and Federico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits. In Roma Citta Libera Cortese plays a typist who is unable to pay her rent, and facing eviction, believes prostitution her last resort. Her character is complex and well written, and Cortese gives a quietly powerful and expressive performance. In addition the film features Andrea Checchi (also of Mario Bava fame) as a suicidal ex-soldier who returns from the war to find that he has lost everything, and Nando Bruno as the thief who takes the ex-soldier under his wing after saving his life. Also in a smaller, but no less memorable role, is Vittorio De Sica who does a wonderful job playing a wandering amnesiac, who may or may not actually be an important and powerful individual.

The director of Roma Citta Libera, Marcello Pagliero, wrote the script with several screenwriters who went on to work with some of Italy's most prominent directors - writing films like The Bicycle Thief, Nights of Cabiria, The Leopard and 8 1/2. The cinematography for Pagliero's film was ably handled by the talented Aldo Tonti, who worked as the cinematographer on many movies, including Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and Sergio Sollima's Violent City. Lastly, the score for Roma Citta Libera was composed (and later reused in Fellini's excellent I Vitelloni) by the great Nino Rota, best known for his work with Fellini and for his indelible score to The Godfather, and The Godfather: Part II.

NoShame Films brings Roma Citta Libera to DVD with an excellent transfer derived from "the original 35mm vault elements." There is some very slight wear visible during a couple of shots, but apart from this the film looks absolutely outstanding. The mono audio track, which is clear and sounds good, is accompanied by optional English subtitles. The disc's extras include an introduction to the film by screenwriter and assistant director Luigi Filippo D'Amico, who also returns for an interview entitled, A Life in Movies. There is a second interview with film historian Oresto De Fornari, in addition to the original theatrical trailer, and a collectable booklet with biographical information and liner notes. Overall it's a nice presentation for a lovely film that I'm sure many viewers will be happy to discover and revisit.

Curse of the Crying Woman

Curse of the Crying Woman (1961)

A rickety carriage rattles its three passengers through a desolate, fog-swept woodland populated with shadowy, skeletal trees resembling ragged claws thrust from ancient graves. In the distance a spectral figure dressed in black awaits the arrival of said carriage - a meeting that does not bode well for the weary, and increasingly wary, travellers.

Not all travellers in the region fare so poorly however. A lovely and charming young lady named Amelia arrives safely at the lonesome, fog-sequestered gothic mansion of her widowed Aunt Selma, with whom Amelia plans to celebrate her birthday. Despite her plans however, shortly after crossing the mansion's threshold Amelia enters into an unfurling, phantasmagoria-filled mystery replete with witchcraft, diabolical discoveries, murder most foul and the ghastliest of birthday surprises.

Mexican filmmaker Rafael Baledon's Curse of the Crying Woman is gothic horror at its most deliriously melodramatic, visually arresting and entertainingly spectacular. The film is a sheer pleasure to watch - with its sensational black and white cinematography, and rich, detailed sets - nearly every frame of the film is lavished with the type of lush textural visuals that fans of gothic horror will be quite happy to luxuriate in.

Fans of Roger Corman's classy, fun-filled Poe cycle, or Mario Bava's gothic chillers The Whip and the Body and Black Sunday - a quintessential horror film which Baledon gladly tips his hat to with this movie - will surely have a great time delving into Curse of the Crying Woman. Despite its familiarity however, Curse of the Crying Woman is never trying or tedious, and includes an eerily effective flashback sequence that was printed in negative (think of E. Elias Merhige's Begotten as an example) that really stands out as a touch of originality. It could be argued that in some ways this flashback recalls the "fantasy sequences" that were a hallmark of many of Corman's Poe films, yet Baledon's hallucinatory, nightmarish montage has a decidedly distinct character that genuinely sets it apart.

Again like Corman and Bava's films, Curse of the Crying Woman is also a low budget endeavor that, at times, exceeds its budgetary limitations with some low-tech movie magic that is both imaginative and ingenious. There is the occasional hokey effect, but the movie is most successful when it employs tried and true Meliesian trickery. The movie's makeup effects are also quite good - although black and white film is rather forgiving in this regard - and Baledon doesn't shy away from violence which at the time must have been considered quite graphic.

The film's story and plot are engaging throughout, with archetypal gothic elements piled higher than a stack of dusty rubber bats in a cobweb-strewn, rat-ridden torture chamber set. The Curse of the Crying Woman is also highlighted by a riveting, if slightly protracted, finale that's more fight-filled than fright-filled. Nevertheless, it's a fitting end to an excellent film that has long been championed by a small group of admirers, and fully deserves to find a new legion of fans with this recently released DVD.

CasaNegra, which is an offshoot of Panik House that focuses on Mexican cinema, has re-mastered the uncut version of Curse of the Crying Woman using "restored vault elements" and the film looks absolutely wonderful. Curse of the Crying Woman is such a treasure to look at, so it's great to have a DVD with pristine image quality that allows viewers the opportunity to fully appreciate the film's exceptional visual splendor. Thankfully the DVD presents the film with the original Spanish audio track with optional English subtitles. However, those who might want extra cheese with their gothic horror can listen to the K. Gordan Murray English dub, which CasaNegra has been kind enough to include.

Special features include, bilingual menus in both English and Spanish - the DVD sleeve is also reversible with the English title, Curse of the Crying Woman on one side, and the film's Spanish title, La Maledicion de La Llorona, on the other - commentary with authority on Mexican cinema/vice president of Panik House and CasaNegra, Michael Liuzza, an illustrated color booklet about the legend of La Llorona (minor elements of which are incorporated into Curse of the Crying Woman) written by Entertainment Weekly writer Peter Landau, an essay about director Rafael Baledon written by film historian David Wilt, cast bios, a poster and stills gallery, and a really cool "loteria game card" that features paneled artwork from Mexican horror film posters. With the generous extras and the high quality restoration, this is an exceptional DVD release for this classy, cult horror film which I gladly recommend.

Originally published at

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Electric Dragon 80000V

Electric Dragon 80000V (2001)

A young boy perched near the top of an electrical tower gets electrocuted, receiving a high voltage zap that damages the "reptilian" area of the brain controlling emotions and desires, thus awakening the dragon lying dormant within. This initially exhibits itself via some pulverizing electro knock-out punches that the kid delivers to the chins of would-be bullies at various stages of his childhood. After this the inevitable career in boxing quickly ensues, and just as quickly ends, with one electrifying punch in the ring (which KOs his opponent) and several outside the ring aimed at any and all within range of Dragon Eye Morrison's (as he is now called) high-powered punches.

(click images for larger view)

Due to his fury of flying fists and lack of self control, things don't look to be going too well for Dragon Eye Morrison; that is, until he discovers his savior... the electric guitar! Now able to pour his superabundance of energy and emotion (not to mention a few thousand volts) into the musical instrument, things quickly start to take shape. Using his newfound ability to communicate with reptiles, Dragon Eye Morrison thereafter transforms himself into a rock n' roll reptile investigator, helping people locate their lost lizards in the jumble of modern Tokyo (who more qualified than one who has rediscovered his inner dragon?). However, little does Dragon Eye Morrison know, he has an archenemy! An electrician in a metal suit going under the name Thunderbolt Buddha sets out to destroy everything Dragon Eye Morrison holds dearest, as a means of luring our hero in for a super battle to the death, and, for ultimate electrical supremacy!

With his film Electric Dragon 80,000V, director Sogo Ishii returned to the hyperkinetic style of cinema he launched his filmmaking career with, and which would prove so influential to contemporary Japanese filmmaking and many of its most talented modern day practitioners. Like Ishii's punk rock movie Burst City, Electric Dragon 80,000V is another high voltage, eye-bursting movie with flurries of indelible imagery set to hard edged musical dissonance, and plenty of cinematic style and flair to spare.

The movie was shot in beautiful black and white and it is really visually mesmerizing - featuring crisp, detailed close-ups, dynamic/high-contrast cinematography, time lapse photography, super impositions, febrile camerawork, animated intertitles and credits, and great editing - with Ishii's hyper-stylized aesthetic sensibilities electrifying every frame. The film's visual strengths elevate what is again a rather scant story (the film clocks in at a mere 55 minutes); however, it's filmmaking at its most pure, relying heavily on visuals to tell the story rather than an abundance of dialogue.

Actors Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer) and Masatoshi Nagase (Suicide Circle) play the super hero-like duo of Dragon Eye Morrison and Thunderbolt Buddha, respectively, and both prove to be very game for their over-the-top roles, turning in a couple of fun and entertaining performances. Like the performances, the film is also quite playful and rather funny, proving to be a very approachable and entertaining piece of experimental cinema that fans of the Sogo Ishii and newcomers alike should enjoy.

Discotek's limited edition double-disc release of Electric Dragon 80,000V features an excellent anamorphic widescreen print of the film presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (with optional subtitles) and the DVD is loaded with extras. They include a feature that isolates the film's finale (allowing for instant access), the Electric Dragon 80,000V theatrical trailer, staff and cast profiles, press conference footage covering four days and featuring stars Tadanobu Asano, Masatoshi Nagase and director Sogo Ishii (all of whom discuss the film and its making), special effects footage (with commentary), an insert written by Tom Mes, a sequence with illustrations and information regarding the dragon tattoo used in the film, filming snapshots, title designs, and best of all, a second disc featuring the film's soundtrack by Mach 1.67. In all another exemplary DVD release by Discotek for another little-seen Sogo Ishii film.

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Convoy Busters

Convoy Busters (1978)

In Convoy Busters, Maurizio Merli (Mannaja, Violent Naples) pours all of his trademark tough-guy charisma into the role of Inspector Olmi, a cop who'
s anything but by-the-book, preferring to doll out expeditious, draconian punishment to any scumbag criminal that happens to find themselves caught in Olmi's unwavering gunsight - or at the very least, within range of one of his jaw-shattering man slaps. Olmi's excessive police tactics garner him some unwanted attention, but with corruption and well-connected crooks stanching the flow of justice, Olmi has to break a few rules, and a few noses, in an effort to ensure that punishments are meted out and that justice is served (often in a pool of blood).

Even so, as Olmi works his way up the criminal food chain, he gets too close to a "big fish" at the t
op, is subsequently demoted, and must resume his crime-busting, body-littering ways working for "Rome's emergency squad." Determined to bring in his man, Olmi is once again stymied by a crooked judge, and makes a terrible judgement of his own when he mistakenly shoots at someone he believes to be a hit-man, but who is really just an old-man, who rides a bicycle, and is therefore not a hit-man (I guess). Olmi requests a reassignment to a police unit outside of Rome, in a small, quiet town near the ocean where there is less crime, and perhaps fewer old men with bicycles. He receives his wish, but his hopes of solitude (and a surprise seaside rendezvous with a schoolteacher) are quickly quashed when Olmi discovers that the port is actually being used to harbor more than just boats!

Director Stelvio Massi's Convoy Busters is a fun little Italian crime movie that uses some familiar archetypes (as opposed to the unfamiliar variety of archetype) and well-worn police-procedural rigmarole to altogether satisfactory and entertaining results. Unlike its protagonist, the film is rather by-the-book in most respects; however, its story structure (also known as plot in some circles) is somewhat atypical. The film is really broken into two stories, one set in Rome for roughly the first half of the film, and the latter half taking place along the Adriatic coast. The shift is initially somewhat jarring as the film and story seem to be heading in a definite direction. And yet, for this same reason it is a rather refreshing alteration, as the direction in which the film and story were headed seemed a bit stale. So, while it might not be an entirely successful story-telling device, ultimately it worked and made Convoy Busters a little more interesting.

ing with the film's plot, visually Convoy Busters is more straightforward and, for this reason, less impressive than NoShame's other recently released Italian crime film, Colt 38 Special Squad. With a few exceptions, the compositions are second-rate - capturing the action, sure, but oft-times the movie features cinematography that is not very dynamic or interesting to look at. Also, the movie is not bursting with a lot of dazzling action, but there is enough going on to keep the movie from becoming stagnate - one standout sequence being a nicely photographed and edited shootout between Olmi, in a helicopter, and some escaped criminals on the ground.

As mentioned, Maurizio Merli's performance showcases his charismatic screen presence and the role of Inspector Olmi requires an abundance of no-nonsense toughness, which Merli certainly exudes. However, his role as Olmi, like his performance, is not merely one-note. Merli does a good job of revealing his character's "lighter" side, specifically in the scenes he shares with Olga Karlatos, as the schoolteacher/love interest, and with his fellow police officers. Overall Olmi is an interesting and likeable protagonist, and Maurizio Merli displays enough variation in his performance to make him more than just merely watchable.

For their rel
ease of Convoy Busters, NoShame has once again done an outstanding job bringing this film to DVD, and have packed it with plenty of in-depth extras. The film's transfer looks good, without any damage or noticeable problems, even if the movie's visual merits are not abundant. There are two audio tracks, one in Italian and the other in English, and optional English subtitles are included. The bulk of the extras come in the form of five separate interviews with family (Merli's son), friends (journalist Eolo Capacci and actor Enio Girolami) and colleagues (directors Enzo G. Castellari and Ruggero Deodato), all of which shed light on Maurizio Merli's life, both on and off-screen, and will be of great interest to fans and admirers of Merli and his films.

Next, a trailer for an upcoming Italian crime film titled Cop On Fire (which didn't spark my interest) starring Merli's son, Maurizio Matteo Merli, is included, along with the original trailer for Convoy Busters, and a poster and still gallery. Last, and my favorite of all the extras, is a sixteen-page comic book entitled Milano Criminale: The De Falco Solution, written and drawn by two popular Italian comic book artists, Diego Cajelli and Maurizio Rosenzweig, that is inspired by the Italian crime films of the '70s and is also designed in the style of Italian comic books from the '70s. It's a cool addition that rounds out this excellent NoShame release quite nicely.

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