Sunday, May 9, 2021
Arts + Culture Movies Screen Grabs: '80s Italian exploitation hunk George Eastman rides...

Screen Grabs: ’80s Italian exploitation hunk George Eastman rides again

From caveman to Blastfighter, he did it all. Plus: a bounty of horror movies including 'Honeydew' and 'Jakob's Wife'

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The recently published Because Horror (Dirty Looks/Semiotext(e)) assembles a dozen essays by sometime 48hills contributor Johnny Huston and Bradford Nordeen, plus an afterward by Hedi El Kholti. Its genre musings focus upon a couple famous movies (the Japanese Pulse, recent ultimate Nic Cage Goes Boom opus Mandy), but more often give love to the cult relative-obscurity, such as Messiah of Evil (released the same year as American Graffiti, which its directors co-wrote), The Killing Kind (also from 1973), the next year’s Deathdream, Sixties grade-Z camp classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, or Reagan Era conspicuous consumption ode Blood Diner. (Read an exclusive except from the book here.)

It’s not all red, red roses: Nordeen pens a Ketamine-fueled rant about the emptiness of underwhelming 2011 franchise revival Scream 4, proving that some movies remain just as bad in just the same way when you watch them on drugs. It’s typical of the collection’s idiosyncrasy that the cover photo is from a movie that goes unmentioned inside.

Still, it’s the thought that counts, and I’ll take any thoughts of Italian exploitation legend George Eastman, aka Luigi Montefiori, any time. 

A 6’7” beardo (usually) who trained as an advertising illustrator, he drifted into movies during the spaghetti western era, where his imposing physicality, unconventional good looks, and game acting quickly made him a popular not-quite-star in both heroic and villainous roles. It was the latter for which he’d be mostly remembered, as he threw himself with great, crazy-eyed gusto into playing various monsters, sadists and sleazebags: The Minotaur in Fellini Satyricon, a skeevy criminal horndog in Lucio Fulci’s alarming Rabid Dogs (which went unreleased for a quarter-century until its bankruptcy-related legal issues were resolved), a deteriorating cannibalistic cretin in Joe D’Amato’s gory 1980 Anthropophagus, and another maniac in its next-year followup Absurd

It is Absurd—in which his rabid shepherd at one point grills a screaming nanny’s face in an oven—from which Eastman’s blinded, bloodied image on the Beyond Horror cover comes, and those last two titles were among many whose writing he contributed to even at the height of his acting career. Apart from the late, highly regarded spag western Keoma (1976), those early screenplays generally ran towards the lurid likes of Terror Express, Porno Holocaust, and the even more flavorfully titled Dog Lay Afternoon. But in the ’80s he grew less interested in performing, getting too few offers for good roles in good movies, like the suave gay man who hosts a high-stakes poker game for untrustworthy friends in Pupi Avati’s clever Sting-like caper Regalo di Natale. (His only 21st-century on-camera credit is in its 2004 sequel, Christmas Rematch.) So he turned entirely towards writing, primarily for Italian TV movies and series. 

Kino Lorber has just released on Blu-ray a couple George Eastman films from the early 1980s, and while neither are among his best vehicles, they’ll give you some idea of his gonzo appeal. At the time the Italian exploitation-movie industry (which had flourished making cheap genre exports for over a quarter century) was beginning to die out. But it was still up to its old tricks, in that both these fun-if-dumb flicks played it safe by copying prior hits. The 1983 Ironmaster was less a knockoff of the prior year’s Conan the Barbarian (though Italians sure made a lot of those) than of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 attempt to seriously portray Paleolithic Era life, Quest for Fire

Of course this film is a lot cheesier, with a glam-metal-wigged, steroided-out hero (the hapless Sam Pasco, whose only other screen credits seem to be in U.S. gay porn) as prehistoric Good Guy to Eastman’s baddie, Vood. As tribal elders put it, “Vood wants to be head man, but he’s unable to control himself! A woman has more discipline than Vood!” Ooh burn. Nonetheless, it’s Vood who finds a lava-sculpted iron spear, then figures out how to smelt other metal weapons. This gives him means to tyrannize the entire valley of buffed cavemen, plus cavechicks in fringed bikinis with teased hair and lip gloss. Umberto Lenzi’s film is guilty-pleasure stuff, with Eastman’s zesty villainy a good cut above the acting median here, as was often the case.

He has less to do in a slightly better film, the next year’s Blastfighter, directed by Bava’s son Lamberto (Demons). This one is less the Rambo knockoff Italians were also making in bulk at the time than it is a mixture of Walking Tall and Deliverance, duly shot in the US South. Michael Sopkiw, a handsome American actor whose career somehow never progressed beyond the four Italian-produced exploitation movies he starred in, plays an ex-con ex-cop (it’s complicated) who moves back to his Georgia hometown. Unfortunately, he immediately runs afoul of redneck youth running amuck thereabouts, notably the awful younger brother of his comparatively upstanding old frenemy Eastman. Soon our hero (and his long-lost daughter) are fleeing a virtual army of trigger-happy yahoos, though those angry hicks turn into cannon fodder pretty fast. 

Blastfighter (a title meant for a sci-fi movie whose funding fell through, but whose presales the producer kept by retaining the name) is derivative, ridiculous, and packed with unintentionally funny ESL dialogue. But it is not dull—as trashy action goes, it delivers. However, Eastman, who’s interviewed in the extras for both films, is notably scorching in his latterday appraisal: He calls Bava (who is quite complementary about him) a “half man” and “idiot” whom he “never liked,” further opining that “Cinema attracts the worst people, like flies.” 

He’s a tad kinder recalling Ironmaster, beyond noting that star Pasco’s “face looked like an old lady…he was a taciturn guy.” But reflecting on his career’s exploitation era in general, he shrugs “Most of the movies I did [back then] are atrocious…just enormous bullshit…extremely banal and stupid.” Ouch. We love him in them anyway. He sure looks great at seventy-something, by the way. 

There is plenty of new horror to be had in current streaming releases:

The Banishing 

In substance and tenor, this costume piece fits nicely into the general category of Brit period ghost stories, like The Woman in Black and The Others. Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay, an early Downton Abbey cast member) and daughter Addy (Anya McKenna-Bruce) arrive in the late 1930s English countryside to join husband Harry (Sean Harris) in his new vicarage. He seems to shrink from the physical aspects of their marriage, scanning the Bible for excuses to duck out on “lustful passion,” to his wife’s exasperation. But soon she has worse things to worry about: The vast house they’ve moved into has a shady history, and it seems to work malign influences on the family, particularly Addy and Harry. Something occult is going on, and as with Europe across the pond, it seems to be shadowed by creeping fascism.

This latest from director Christopher Smith (Severance, Black Death) isn’t quite a slam-dunk. But it manages to cull elements from Amityville Horror, Burnt Offerings, and The Shining in intelligent fashion, without seeming too second-hand. It’s a handsomely produced film with almost no explicit violence, yet some truly unsettling moments—most of them involving sinister monks, and mirrors that do not work like mirrors are supposed to. The Banishing begins streaming on genre platform Shudder Thurs/15.

Jakob’s Wife 

The second directorial feature from producer Travis Stephens (whose first was another horror, the modest but pleasing Girl on the Third Floor) is, coincidentally, also a tale of a more open-minded spouse stuck in marriage to a very stuffy small-town minister. But otherwise this is a very different joint. Anne (Barbara Crampton) has long been hitched to pastor Jakob (Larry Fessenden), who preaches conjugal devotion, yet is a boring and neglectful husband. Unfortunately Marianne is about to get rather more more excitement than she’d bargained for when a Nosferatu-like creature mysteriously turns up, sinking its fangs into her middle-aged flesh. Suddenly she’s got a whole new look, attitude, and appetite, to Jakob’s considerable alarm—as well as his peril.

Not quite a flat-out horror comedy, this nonetheless takes its story less-than-seriously, eking much humor from Marianne’s metamorphosis from suburban housewife to reborn wild thang. Crampton (a genre favorite since 1985’s Re-Animator) clearly enjoys the leeway that role offers her, and the fun she has with it is infectious. There’s nothing wildly original about Jakob’s Wife, but it’s an amusing, well-crafted spin on some familiar ideas. It’s available in limited theaters as well as On Demand and Digital formats as of Fri/16. 

Held

Yet another marriage gone wrong is at the center of this thriller directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofting, whose prior features were routine found-footage horrors The Gallows and its sequel. Their latest begins more promisingly, as Emma (Jill Awbrey) gets driven way, way out to a gated country rental house where she’ll spend the weekend with later-arriving husband Henry (Bart Johnson). Once he arrives, we quickly suss that their relationship needs some work. But then the high-security building seems to develop a mind of its own, sealing them in, surveilling their every move, and in a disembodied robo-voice ordering them to obey its every command. It seems interested in improving their marriage, too—even if they die trying.

This may sound satirical, but the mashup of Demon Seed and Saw is pretty humorless, even more so when it begins to add heavy-handed elements from The Stepford Wives and The Handmaid’s Tale. Emma’s liberation, so to speak, is rendered in considerably more on-the-nose terms than the heroines’ trajectories in Banishing and Jakob’s Wife. That would be easier to take if Awbrey were better equipped to carry the film, or if her own screenplay weren’t obviously designed to hand her that star opportunity. Unlike those other films, Held doesn’t transcend its influences—indeed, it gradually sinks into a bog of borrowed ideas, taking itself ever more seriously while growing yet more imitative and implausible. 

Honeydew

Still, I’d watch Held again rather than suffer through five minutes of this insanely pretentious first feature by music video director Devereux Milburn. It’s the kind of movie that’s announced it’s going to be gratuitously flashy and mannered in every possible way even before you get to the opening credits. Yuppie couple Sam (Sawyer Spielberg) and Rylie (Malin Barr) are camping in a field when they’re rousted by the purported landowner, only to discover their car is disabled. They walk to a seeming kindly old lady’s (Barbara Kingley) farmhouse to call for a tow. But she claims not to have a phone, and things get weird in a hurry.

There is absolutely nothing to this very simple story that you haven’t seen many times before (going back at least to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and its elements of grotesque humor and surrealism are also very familiar from much better movies. But Honeydew exasperates because as void of original (or practically any) ideas as it is, the thing really thinks it’s High Art. Milburn is so confident in his ready-for-framing compositions and other laborious stylistic mannerisms that nothing happens for 70 minutes. He’s sure he’s got us spellbound; dumbfounded is more like it. 

Because the movie is both grandiloquent and (eventually) icky, it’s gotten some raves from genre-press reviewers who are pretty easy to impress because they watch nothing but horror films. Hence, they tend to go “Like, wow” when one attempts something/anything “different.” But this dull-witted, tedious film isn’t “deep”—only self-conscious enough to appear that way to the gullible. 

For the Sake of Vicious

Mercifully lacking any pretensions whatsoever, though merciless in every other respect, is this down-and-extremely-dirty thriller by Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen, whose prior films as solo directors I’m unfamiliar with. They certainly waste no time here cranking the Crisis Meter to 11, as a single-mother nurse (Lora Burke) arrives home on Halloween night to find it occupied by one stranger (Nick Smyth) standing over an unconscious second one (Colin Paradine) who turns out to be her landlord. 

After an initial panicked scuffle, our heroine has the situation explained to her—Man #2 did something very, very bad, according to Man #1—so she does not call the cops. But eventually their now-mutual captive manages to call some “friends” for help. But those friends aren’t exactly helpful: Soon the already-distressed trio are being besieged on Halloween night by a shitload of masked, murderous, seemingly neo-Nazi types. 

This movie is so violent, if you edited out the violence, there would be almost nothing left. But that violence is messy, not movie-heroic, with particular emphasis on how the cramped confines of this cheap little house exacerbate hostile struggles—I mean, here you can punch somebody across the room and they’re still just a couple feet away. I was a little unclear on a couple plot points; the film gets a bit slack/repetitive in the middle (before it rebounds with a vengeance); and at the fadeout, you might wonder if there wasn’t much “there there” beyond sheer, visceral kinetic energy. 

But Vicious crackles with that energy, in ways that action movies seldom do, let alone sustain at this intensity for even an hour and a quarter. If you’re fond of no-budget little dynamos like those by cult director Jim Van Bebber or Evil Dead-era Sam Raimi, this bucket of splat will be just your cup of tea. It’s releasing to limited theaters Fri/16, On Demand April 20, and Blu-Ray May 4. 

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