Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Morituris (2011): Don’t Even Bother Reading This Review.

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Quid hac re fieri inpudentius, quid stultius potest?

Seneca, Ep. 120: 17

The closing credits of Morituris (Latin, meaning “for those who must die”) include a dedication: “In Memory of Humanity”. OK, OK, I get it: horror films at their most serious are uniquely positioned to reveal uncomfortable truths about the way we live, and the emptiness of the values to which we pretend to adhere. They should occasionally deal with genuinely horrific images, instead of the typical monster-movie nonsense: there’s room in the genre for both Michael Hanneke and Michael Myers. But in the case of Morituris — whose credits go on to thank both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Uwe Boll — I don’t buy the moral argument. This is a thoroughly reprehensible movie that’s trying to hide behind a veneer of high-minded social commentary. I call Bullshit.

Morituris makes two strong claims in its advertising: it says it’s a return to the Old School of gory Italian horror, and it takes pride in basing its story on a genuine and bloody part of Italy’s ancient history. Of course, when you mention Old School Italian gore and archaeology in the same breath, the first thing that comes to my mind is Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground. In Burial Ground, the zombies were Etruscans — revenents from that death-haunted pre-Roman civilization. Bianchi’s film was cheap, badly scripted and shoddily produced; it even ripped off scenes from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, which had been a huge hit the year before. The highlight of the movie was man-child Peter Bark chewing off his “mother”‘s breast. Sick shit, in other words… but relatively harmless. Burial Ground is the poster child for everything that was gloriously wrong with Italian exploitation horror in the 80’s, and the fact that it’s now available in Hi-Definition on Blu-Ray fills me with a perverted sort of joy.

When I first heard of Morituris, I was actually hoping for something like a Burial Ground for the 21st century. After all, it was Bianchi’s Etruscans who invented gladiatorial combat. But Burial Ground, sleazy and grotesque though it is, is good clean fun compared to Morituris, and if Morituris is remembered as fondly in 30 years as Bianchi’s appalling little film is, I hope I’m safely dead by then.

After a brief introductory credit (about which more, later) we’re given a prologue: a family consisting of a man, a woman, their two children (a boy and a very young girl) and the kids’ uncle are going for a picnic in the woods. The scene looks like it was shot on an old Super-8 home movie camera, though it’s immediately clear that no one could possibly be filming these scenes in real life.

As the mother, father and son get settled for their picnic, the uncle — a fat, greasy fellow who couldn’t look shiftier if he had the words SEXUAL PREDATOR tattooed on his forehead — surreptitiously leads the daughter off into the woods. When he thinks the two of them are alone, he circles her, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (because all child molesters model themselves after Peter Lorre in M… didn’t you know that? Believe it or not, Edvard Grieg actually gets a music credit for this).

Just as Uncle Creepy is reaching for his zipper, something comes up behind him.

We don’t see who or what it could be, but our relief at the interruption is short-lived: the next thing we see, after a brief cut-away of the parents wondering where the little girl has gone, is uncle and niece lying side by side in pools of their own blood. The rest of the family ends up slaughtered in the same way. All we see of the killer (or killers) is a glimpse of a brawny arm. The camera pans across some overgrown Roman ruins, until it comes to rest on an inscription carved into a stone plaque: HIC SUNT LEONES (“here are lions”).

It isn’t often that a prologue is followed by yet another prologue, but that’s what happens next: the title credits take us back an extra 2,000 years by way of partially-animated comics illustrations. It seems there were five gladiators… prisoners of the Roman colonies who were forced into the arena against their will. Rather than fight for the amusement of their captors, these gladiators broke their chains and escaped. Pledging themselves to Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and patroness of gladiators, the five men immediately began raping and slaughtering the ordinary citizens of Rome… impaling children, sodomizing women, generally behaving like the barbarians the Romans considered them to be. Eventually the soldiers caught up with them under a statue of Nemesis and killed them all. The five bodies were hurled into a pit, and over them was placed the stone bearing the words HIC SUNT LEONES… which I’m guessing was intended ironically: the Romans had nothing but contempt for gladiators who violated the rules of the arena. No matter how well the five may have fought, their actions would not have earned them any respect.

Fast-forward to the present-day. Two Eastern European girls have been picked up hitch-hiking by a trio of Italian men. The girls and the boys have hit it off, and are enjoying a leisurely car trip across country to a rave the Italians say they’re going to. Though the girls don’t speak Italian very well, they feel very safe and relaxed around the men; noticeable sparks seem to be flying between two of them in particular. For about a half-hour of screen time, we might almost believe we’re watching a movie about young people having a good time…

… except for the fact that we already know what the men are planning. The whole situation is being stage-managed via cellphone by a man known as “Jacques” back in Rome. Jacques and his acolytes consider themselves the heirs to the decadent Roman nobles. Being young and strong, and coming from wealthy and powerful families, they think the world exists for their amusement. And nothing amuses them more than to abduct, torture and kill young women.

Since we know this, the innocent banter in the car makes us profoundly uncomfortable. The slow pace of the car ride grates on our nerves, as we wait for the inevitable. We cringe as we see one of the girls growing ever more interested in the young mam sitting next to her.

When we get to the site of the supposed rave — which, of course, doesn’t exist and never did — we can only marvel and the smoothness of the boys’ plans. They manage a clever ruse that gets them possession of the girls’ only cell phone. Then they manage to get them drunk, and high… and separated just far enough from each other that neither realizes what’s happening until it’s too late.

And then the brutality starts.

What follows is very difficult to watch. Remember the girl who was flirting so sweetly with the boy beside her? After a tender moment, the young man bludgeons her to the ground, irrumates her, and then kicks her until she vomits up his semen. The other girl is held down and raped with a pair of scissors. And that’s just the beginning. I will say this for the film: what is shown in very convincing and ghastly, and what is not shown is even worse. The two actresses in particular are very good at conveying their agony, not only during the attack but for the remainder of the film. How they managed to maintain this intensity without damaging their psyches, I don’t know (the men are utterly believable, too; but somehow I think they had a much easier time of it).

Now, me? I do not find sexual violence entertaining. Even so, I might have kept the tiniest amount of respect for the film as a misguided and failed experiment — provided it had stayed with the course it had plotted for itself through scenes like this, and followed through with them. It doesn’t. Because just at the moment when the girls manage to effect a miraculous escape from certain death, the movie remembers it’s supposed to be a flick about undead gladiators.

From this point on, Morituris becomes a typical stalk-and-slash.

The gladiators themselves (once they show up) aren’t terribly interesting. There’s a Thraex — a “Thracian”, armed in the style of one of Rome’s many enemies (early on in the history of gladiatorial combat, these fighters probably were Thracian prisoners of war); a Murmillo, also known as a “Gaul”, traditional ring-rival of the Thraex; a Retiarius, who fought mostly without armor using a spear and a net; a Secutor, a heavily-armored sword-fighter; and, umm… umm… a fat guy with a hammer whose type I’ve never heard of. They’re imposing enough, I suppose: they’re played by very large actors, and their skin and armor are all painted a dead, dusty grey that blends them in eerily with the darkness of the forest. But it’s obvious that they’re just guys in makeup. Even the crappily-applied, wildly uneven makeup of Burial Ground was more ambitious than this. OK, sure, they have spooky teeth… but is that enough for walking corpses who’ve been dead for two centuries? When we finally get a look under their helmets, and we see that they’re just normal men, the effect is dispiriting.

But at least the gladiators are given their own listings in the credits. They may only be types, but their types are duly noted. That’s more than can be said of the living characters. Both the rapists and their victims are mixed up and credited as Moriturus 1 through Moriturus 5… as though there were no need to differentiate between them, or to dignify the women with names (and maybe it’s just my lousy Latin, but… masculine nouns for the women? Really?).

Effects master Sergio Stivaletti does a much better job with realistic bodily damage than with the makeup for his gladiators. But in spite of the cringe-inducing gore effects, the last part of the film is a tremendous disappointment. The gladiators fall into the usual Supernatural Menace clichés: they teleport; they get distracted at odd moments, just to pad out the chase… after the horrific scenes we’ve just witnessed, this empty-headed slasher film conclusion is completely unacceptable. And that’s particularly galling, considering Morituris was marketed as a movie about undead gladiators.

The opening credits of Morituris — as opposed to the title credits; this is a film with a lot of credits — begin with a quotation from the Roman philosopher Seneca, from his Moral Letters to Lucilius:

Nihil satis est morituris, immo morientibus; cotidie enim propius ab ultimo stamus, et illo unde nobiscadendum est hora nos omnis inpellit.

Seneca, Ep. 120: 17

That is, loosely translated: “Nothing is enough for those who know they must die — indeed, who are dying even now; every day we stand closer to the edge, and our every hour urges us on to our downfall.” It’s certainly possible to see how this quote, taken out of context, might apply to a horror movie in which the bloodthirsty living come up against the bloodthirsty dead. But it seems as though the makers of Morituris failed to read the rest of the epistle, because the real meaning of Seneca’s words comes as a stinging indictment of the movie they actually made.

In his very opening sentences, Seneca gets to his point: “…nihil nobis videri bonum quo quis et male uti potest” (we can regard nothing as “good” which can be put to bad use); then, later, he says, “Maximum indicium est malae mentis fluctuatio et inter simulationem virtutum amoremque vitiorum adsidua iactatio.” (the strongest indication of an evil mind is the fluctuation and conflict between feigned virtue and a love of vice). That’s really what we have here: a movie that tries to disguise its delight over sexual brutality with a moralistic wag of the finger.

I have the same sort of problem with Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, to which Morituris is heavily indebted. As repellent as I find Last House…‘s middle section — the humiliation, rape and murder of the two girls — I would understand it, and even admire it for its unflinching view of real horror — if I thought that the last section of the movie fit what came before. Instead, I’ve always felt that the end of the movie was scripted and shot without a true understanding of how powerful that middle section was. Some of it rings solid and true — for example, the father’s growing realization that he must become a murderer, and the inept first steps he takes to assuming that role. But (for example) the fellatio-castration scene, grotesque and memorable though it might be, seems jarringly out-of-place to me. In particular, the final freeze-frame and closing-credits song seem to suggest the movie still has a grudging, thoroughly-misplaced respect for Krug, the rapist/murderer, as a free-spirited anti-hero.

Yet I’m willing to concede that Last House on the Left is mostly successful, and still defensible. I have no such feeling about Morituris. There was no need for yet another quasi-remake Last House… There was certainly no need to use it as a template for a pseudo-zombie flick, especially one that skimps on the “zombie” part.

“In Memory Of Humanity”? The film-makers are invited to re-examine their own. To put it in terms our undead gladiators might understand: Thumbs down.

The Dong Show: Libidomania (1979)

Monday, November 12th, 2012

A quotation at the end of Libidomania, ostensibly from an ancient Chinese philosopher, claims that sex unites us with the mysteries of the cosmos. You’d never guess this was true from the preceding 80 minutes. This 1979 Bruno Mattei pseudo-documentary is supposed to be about “sexual aberration” and the endless variety of human perversion. Instead, it’s a series of tacky vignettes that make the deviant imagination seem very, very limited.

Like most “documentaries” of this kind, Libidomania pretends to be serious. It shows us scenes of lewd behavior, while insisting they’re informative rather than titillating… like the illustrations in a medical textbook. That’s an age-old dodge, but you have to give Mattei his due: the illustrations certainly aren’t titillating.

The movie consists of a series of interviews with some dubious “psychologists”, followed by little vignettes showing us dubious psychology, dubious history and extremely dubious anthropology. Some of these vignettes — probably fewer than I realize — were shot specifically for this movie, and most of them are mercifully short. None of them allow for much skill in film-making, and none of them show any. Frequently they consist of little more than glimpses of the perversions being illustrated, with a voice-over telling us what we should be seeing. This is particularly true of the section introducing body fetishes, which goes by at lightning speed and gives us only hints of what’s going on in each tableau (lights up! A guy in a diaper sucks at the breast of a girl in peasant garb! Lights back down again! NEXT!). The music that accompanies these brief scenes often seems inappropriate, especially the twangy Jew’s-harp in the background of a scene about a man who’s turned on by running sores.

Of course, some of the sequences are appalling at any length… particularly three in a row that deal with bodily functions. The first skit, about urine — in which a woman squatting on a man’s chest apparently pees into a glass, which the man then drinks from and empties onto himself — is neither sexy nor shocking, and in fact brings only one word to mind: proteinuria. Urine should not fizz… and it certainly shouldn’t develop a foamy head. What’s more, whatever that liquid is, it appears to come out of the girl so rapidly and in such quantity that she starts to resemble a Human Keg.

Admittedly, given the choice between certain beers and urine, I’d be hard-pressed to even tell the difference, let alone choose between them. But the urine scene is just risible. It’s the next two scat sequences that go over the line.

The setup of the coprophilia scene is almost the same as that of the Golden Showers bit, but the, er… substance involved is much more convincing. Even though the whole thing goes by in a matter of seconds, and perhaps because it goes by so quickly that we can’t gauge for ourselves how fake it is, it’s enough to leave the viewer thoroughly nauseated.

That brings us to the sequence involving réniflage, sexual arousal from inhaling the odor of somebody else’s excrement… a sequence that unites the absurdity of the piss vignette with the sheer discomfort of the poop scene. It starts as though it’s just a bit of harmless voyeurism: a weedy old man pretends to wash his hands in a public toilet as a woman goes into a stall to relieve herself. As soon as she’s shut the door, the old man hastily runs to the door and peers through the keyhole. So far, nothing outlandish. But then the woman leaves the stall — and the old man, delirious with ecstasy, runs into the toilet… the woman has forgotten to flush! In typical Bruno style, the scene goes straight to hell: the man plunges both hands into the doughy, tan substance in the bowl, pulling it apart as he raises it to his nose. Ahh! The sweet smell of Mattei! It doesn’t matter that the stuff he fondles doesn’t look like real shit (or at any rate, if it is her shit, that woman needs to see a doctor post haste); the idea is more than enough to disgust.

That should give you some idea about the scenes shot specifically for this movie. But those who know Bruno from his later films, like Hell of the Living Dead or Cruel Jaws, will not be surprised that a large chunk of Libidomania is made up of footage from other people’s movies. For instance, one of the examples whose source I’ve been able to verify is the footage that (for some reason) accompanies a lecture on aphrodisiacs: it’s a hallucinatory “beauty and the beast” sequence that’s been desaturated, tinted sepia, and transplanted from a German sex film called The Devil in Miss Jonas (thanks, IMDb!). There are plenty of other scenes, particularly those illustrating Satanism and sexual magic, that have clearly been robbed from feature films. But what might surprise the seasoned Mattei veteran is how much of the rest of the stolen footage in Libidomania is familiar: specifically, the parts of the movie that deal with that dubious anthropology I mentioned.

Most of the infamous New Guinea footage that popped up in Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead — including the doctored shots of a woman appearing to eat maggots out of a human skull — also show up here. As offensive and condescending as those inserts were in a zombie movie, in this context they actually seem worse. For Libidomania uses the New Guinea footage to pad out scenes supposedly taking place not just in New Guinea, but in the old Guinea, in West Africa, as well as in two different parts of Central Africa. The documentary footage is then supplemented by newly-shot scenes featuring black extras (wearing the same or similar costumes in each scene), supposedly enacting some “native” sex ritual. New Guinea, Old Guinea, Cameroon… it’s all the same thing, right? Apparently all dark-skinned people, including extras in Cinecittà, are thoroughly interchangeable.

Now, if you’re hoping for any penetration scenes in this sexploitation movie (well, human penetration scenes, anyway…), then the closest you’re going to get is some of that stolen documentary footage: in one scene, a New Guinean man assaults his own nostrils with a wad of reeds in order to get some of his blood to flow. The excuse given for including this scene is that the man is supposedly purifying himself for a fertility ritual that we never see (in fact, the movie goes from the man’s bleeding nostrils to a very bizarre lecture on fetal sexuality, of all things). Like the bulk of the rest of the stolen documentary footage — especially the maggot-eating paste-up, but also including the scenes of mourners smearing themselves with mud and effluvium from an actual corpse — the connection to anything sexual is remote at best, and the movie’s attempts to establish a connection to Western sexual practice is laughable. Gee — on the one side, we have New Guinea religious ritual, and on the other side… a middle-aged man who likes to expose himself to young girls. It’s all the same thing, right?


All this would be unpleasant enough, but there’s more: the movie is a hopeless jumble. There’s no sense of progression from one set of sexual shenanigans to another. Just as nasal self-abuse passes into a discussion of embryonic sexual development, so too does the discussion of body-part fetishism turn unexpectedly into brief moments of BDSM and necrophilia. Sex murder comes up unexpectedly only about 45 minutes into the movie; and having touched on it ever-so-briefly, the movie passes on to a look at… aphrodisiacs! A rather tame bit on necrophilia is followed immediately by a look at bestiality. Now, I’m no fan of bestiality — I don’t think that civilized human beings should participate in any behavior they can’t spell — but I don’t see how you can use it to follow up corpse-fucking without a real sense of (pardon the expression) anticlimax.

And while we’re on the subject of Sodomy, I should point out that (this being a movie of the Seventies) male homosexuality is included in the list of sexual deviations… but it’s crowded in at the very last minute, and it is not given an accompanying vignette. Bruno knows his audience. But for all Libidomania‘s reticence on gay sex, you’ve probably never see so many various dongs on display in a movie presumably aimed at heterosexual men. There are real ones, and there are prosthetic ones — ranging from French dildos designed to ejaculate, to well-endowed statues and paintings, to the plasticine penis dangling from the nethers of the “transsexual” who has “accepted her condition” (NB: most transsexuals are happy with their altered condition; it’s the “trans” part of being a transsexual. What the movie seems to mean is “hermaphrodite”). Most of these are human wangs, but there’s a horsey one, too, in the movie’s most explicit scene (don’t worry: both participants are horses). There are even two schlongs that get cut off in the course of the film: one is reduced to pulp in a bloody but simulated sex-change operation, and the other — a familiar-looking plasticine pecker — is chopped off an “African” adulterer in one of the scenes illustrating “primitive” behavior. Wall-to-wall weenies, that’s Libidomania.

Mattei made two other “sexy” pseudo-documentaries like this one: Le Notti porno nel mondo (a.k.a. Mondo Erotico, 1977) and Emanuelle e le porno notti nel mondo no. 2 (1978). Both starred Laura Gemser, “Black Emanuelle” (“black” here meaning “dark brunette”), as narrator, who at least gave the audience something beautiful to look at in between tawdry strip-show sequences.

The first of the films is a fairly tame affair. It starts off with a tacky stage act, in which a woman dressed as an explorer (complete with pith helmet) is attacked by a guy in a terrible gorilla suit. Later, it shows us a magician who first makes his assistant’s clothes disappear — she was wearing so little that this is hardly a feat — and then makes her grow a penis (you know, if you rearrange the letters of “grow a penis”, you come up with “Spiro Agnew”, so there may be a political aspect to this scene I overlooked). The audience goes wild. The movie also shows us Dutch mothers who rent their underaged daughters out to dirty old businessmen. Gemser’s narration seems less upset at the exploitation of the girls than at the unattractiveness of the men. We’re also taken off to exotic Hong Kong for a look at a club that caters to (gasp!) lesbians! That’s right: Bruno’s idea of shocking Asia is a lesbian strip club. Le notti porno also claims to show us forbidden footage from the Arab world… where apparently they have multi-armed gods, Hindu dancers and sitars.

The second film gives us ever-so-slightly raunchier stuff. It starts with a vignette about sex and devil worship, probably taken from a feature film (though as familiar as it seems, I can’t place it: it’s got a sexy seance interrupted by a burly Xiro Pappas look-alike with a painted face, who takes the participants down to the cellars for some Satanic rituals. Mattei may have shot this [in which case it’s surprisingly competent compared to the rest of the movie], but it seems too elaborate to have been intended only for a vignette). That’s followed by a brief look at a sex carnival; and then comes a surprisingly innocent nudie-cutie episode featuring Armand, the Sex Magician. Armand big trick is making his audience’s clothes disappear. His act is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a naked dwarf with an enormous prosthetic erection… he chases the dwarf away with a flying dildo.

Other segments include:

  • …a stripper whose Lady Godiva act involves much more than just riding her horse;
  • …a sequence about (gasp!) lesbians co-hosted by Ajita Wilson;
  • …a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of a porn film (and no, the guy playing the director is not Bruno Mattei). One scene of this movie-within-the-movie has the director berating his male actor for flopping around “like a dead eel” — all together now, that’s a moray! — while on a similar note, a later scene involves a girl and her very close relationship with a snake;
  • …a (simulated, but graphic & bloody) Japanese penis transplant operation;
  • …a version of Snow White that Disney would rather you didn’t see. The scene is three dwarves short of a full set — and so, I think, was Bruno for including it;

…and, of course, some drearily familiar footage from New Guinea, including the notorious scenes of stone-age style piglet slaughter. I’d explain how that last bit relates to sex, but I’m too busy vomiting.

The only truly interesting thing about these Mondo movies of Bruno’s is how they relate to his later work. In the Laura Gemser movies, Mattei did for the first time what he would do regularly throughout his career: that is, make two very similar films either simultaneously or back-to-back. In making the Mondos, he’s also relied rather heavily on footage from other movies… not an uncommon thing for a pulled-together Mondo flick to do, but also another hallmark of Mattei’s later style.

And as we’ve seen, by the time we get to Libidomania, it’s not just the technique of scavenging things from other films that will seem familiar to us. It’s the actual footage itself.

Libidomania is Janus-faced in this respect. Looking backward, it recycles a lot of footage from the earlier two Mondo films; but Mattei takes the material presented fairly straightforwardly in the originals — the Dutch sex school in the first movie, for instance, and the penis operation, the New Guinea stock footage and the concluding nudist athletic event from the second — cuts it up, and then shoehorns it into a new movie without regard for continuity or context. Even if it made sense the first time… once Bruno’s finished with it, it will have lost most of its meaning. And if that doesn’t sum up a large part of Mattei’s film-making over the years, what does?

And this brings us back to Libidomania‘s forward-looking face — which has a bone through its nose. Liz Kingsley (brave, brave woman) has identified the sources for the New Guinea material that’s used in Notti No. 2 and Libidomania, and that recurs (and recurs, and recurs) in Hell of the Living Dead. Good for her: now I know which other films to avoid. Funny thing, though: there are bits of Libidomania that seem awfully familiar, even though they are not literally repeated in Mattei’s later movies. For instance, the explicit horse-fucking scene may not be the exact same one used in 1980’s The True Story of the Nun of Monza — in fact, the one in Libidomania is slightly less graphic — but it’s close enough.

Aside from its historical interest as a glimpse into Bruno Mattei’s development as a film-maker, there’s not much to interest a modern viewer in Libidomania — or, really, in any of the three Mattei Mondos. Their subject matter is practically quaint by comparison to what we’re used to in either popular entertainment (or porn) these days; and their approach to that subject matter is extremely uninteresting and uninvolving.

You’d think movies about the spectrum of human sexuality would have some kind of narrative flow… you know, a thrust… a gradual build over a series of smaller peaks to one solid climax, followed by a brief, quiet coda that allows us to gather our thoughts and put it all in perspective; almost like… like… well, I’m sure a simile will occur to me eventually. But that’s not the way Mondo movies in general, and Libidomania in particular, seem to be constructed.

Rather than give a structured, meaningful glimpse into the variety of sexual practices, Libidomania seems to suggest that most kinds of sex are brief, furtive, embarrassing and badly-lit — which, come to think of it, is probably how most of the movie’s target audience knew it. Bruno managed to promise his weary wankers a lusty escape from the dreariness they knew, only to give them back that same dreariness on a world-wide scope. Congratulations, Bruno! What a perfect way to embark on a thirty-year career of disappointment and frustration!