Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Red-Stained Lawn (1973): or, The Days of Wine and Robots

How do you know when it's love?

Is it that first surreptitious glance across the room, eyes meeting over swirls of cigarette smoke and strains of Wagner thumping in your ears? Is it those first furtive, fleshy fumblings in the alley behind the bar, all hands and lips and straps with complicated fasteners? Or does it come later, reclining comfortably on the couch in a shared apartment, sharing a bottle of wine and your last cigarette as you wait patiently for the next episode of Cupcake Wars to roll?

It's a mystery, parishioners.

But even though I can't say exactly when or how it happens, I know that love is real. I know because I've found it, a love that asks for nothing and gives everything. I've found it in
Riccardo Ghione's 1973 hippie-abducting, mad science-spouting, blood-bottling, ultra-groovy mad movie bonanza, The Red-Stained Lawn (Il Prato Macchiato di Rosso).

Let me tell you a little something about that girl o'mine.

Really. I insist.
We open with a hard-boiled UNESCO agent (Nino Castelnuovo) investigating what appears to be a wine-smuggling operation on the Mediterranean coast. Easily swiping a crate of contraband from a couple of very task-focused smugglers, he makes a disturbing discovery: the bottles in the box are not your run-of-the-mill Chianti, but are instead filled to the cork-line with human blood! Duly alerted, he scuttles off to headquarters to inform his superiors about this unprecedented threat to the reputation of Italian wines worldwide.

Meanwhile, in Piacenza, good Samaritan and Daniel Craig-lookalike Alfiero (Claudio Biava) travels every highway and byway in his BOSS powder-blue sports car, searching for walkabouts who look as though they might fancy a lift. He has no trouble, as the northern Italian town is apparently crawling with automotively challenged individuals of every stripe. Within moments he's picked up a flower-selling Gypsy (Barbara Marzano), a Drunken Tramp (Lucio Dalla), a modestly priced Hooker (Dominique Boschero), and young hippie couple Max and "Max's Companion" (George Willing and a stunningly afro'd Daniela Caroli). Being the accomodating sort, he invites each passenger to come back to his sister's palatial estate, to drink their wine, eat their food, and set a spell. All for free! Now just what kind of paranoid, ungrateful monster would turn down an offer like that? 

At the mansion, the guests are introduced to the lady of the house, Nina Genovese (Marina Malfatti), and her eccentric, science-enthusiast husband, Antonio (Enzo Tarascio). Through a series of rapid-fire and not-at-all suspicious questions, Nina quickly determines that none of her visitors have any friends, family, or employers who will be looking for them, nor have they informed any outside parties as to their current whereabouts. Which simplifies things, of course--I mean, you wouldn't want to set the table for eight and then have a dozen show up, would you? Particularly if any of the extras were police. Not that they would be, for any reason. Hey, did you check out our freaky robot statue in the corner over there?

"Pericolo, Guglielmo Robinson!"
It doesn't take long for the quintet to make themselves at quite at home. The Tramp displays his frankly amazing wine-drinking skills: not only does he down bottle after bottle with no apparent ill effects, he makes it interesting for the viewer by balancing one canister on his head between gulps, carrying on a conversation with his beverage, and at one point getting the alcohol into his system faster by pouring the wine directly into his eye! That's more than alcoholism, that's showmanship!

The Hooker, meanwhile, splays herself languidly on every available piece of furniture, regaling the group with unashamed tales of tricks gone by. The Gypsy steals a few unguarded knick-knacks, as is the custom of her people, and Max and his Hot Mama drape their bedroom with scarves and burn some incense before lighting up a truly monstrous spliff. The Genovese Estate is thus a hedonistic oasis, a sort of "Pleasure Island" where everyone does what he wants and there's never any price to be paid. Or...IS THERE?!?!*

*Nota bene: there is.

He never takes "no" for an answer.
Unfortunately it's true that nothing good lasts forever (q.v., parachute pants, jelly shoes, Slim Whitman's career), and before long some strange, slightly sinister things are happening in Chez Boom-Boom. First, the Tramp and Max discover the Gypsy girl tied naked to her bed with her mouth duct-taped shut--a circumstance that does not inspire quite the sense of alarm in them that you might expect. Later the hippies, going against type and availing themselves of a hot shower, are moderately surprised when the water suddenly changes to a torrent of wine--though again, not so much as you'd imagine. Even when Max and Maxine rake the coals in the estate's furnace and find a nearly complete human skull, their only reaction is to come back inside and have a bit of "the sex." Which normally I'd agree is a fine solution for any problem, but this is looking to be a special case.

The only guest who keeps his wits about him is, paradoxically, the Drunken Tramp, who eventually confronts the master of the house with his suspicions. Turns out, Antonio Genovese is more than just an eccentric benefactor to the Italian unwashed--he's a MAD SCIENTIST! And it has to be said, one of the most fabulous mad scientists in cinematic history. Don't believe me? Just take a look at this selection of dominant, scientific neckwear:

"To do: buy more wine..."

"No no, I'm sorry...but you may not touch the cravat."

"What? Have I got something on my face?"

"This one's actually a Steinkirk, only tied like a cravat. See the difference?"

It takes a lot to draw the attention away from his wife's boobs, but I think Antonio has nailed it.

If that's not a man who's getting ready to take over the world, then I've never seen one.

So yes, there's evil-doings afoot in the mansion, and as the guest list grows smaller and smaller, Max & Co. grow more and more troubled. Actually, scratch that--they're not troubled at all! The Gypsy's disappearance merits barely a nod, and when even his best friend the Tramp vanishes, all Max can deduce is that the Genoveses are kinky voyeurs who like to watch smelly hippies getting it on. Though to be fair, it's clear that the hosts are more than a little freaky-deaky. Leaving aside Nina Genovese's more-than-fraternal closeness with Alfiero and her show-stopping psychedelic outfits (which are AMAZING--in fact the flick is worth seeing for the fashions alone), there's still the little matter of the doctor's...shall we say, interesting architectural choices.

"And this, my fwiends, is the Wumpus Womb!"
In case your eyes have refused to accept what they're seeing and have replaced the image above with one depicting My Little Ponies™ prancing around a daisy-strewn field, let me confirm that yes, that IS a giant vagina portal on the wall. (Because lord knows I'd hate for you to miss out on the subtlety and nuance of that image.) Leaping through the labia like Lilliputian lust-puppets, they find themselves in a huge mirrored room, where the Hooker immediately deduces she's been brought to perform the service for which she's been hired.

"Still, it beats diggin' ditches."
Alfiero breaks out a couple of bottles of champagne and Nina puts on some super-groovy music, encouraging the Hippy/Hooker trio to agitate that with which their Mamas equipped them upon the occasion of their births. This they do, downing the booze and shucking off their clothes with admirable efficiency. This scene goes on for some time, and is in fact one of the grooviest things I've witnessed in quite a while: psychedelic music, frenetic hippy dancing, Laugh-In-style zooms, and warped, distorted reflections in which the director and crew don't even bother to hide themselves--it's a gas gas gas, truly.

Eventually the trio drop to the floor, their bodies shutting down due to sheer grooviness overload. Meanwhile the UNESCO agent is tracking down the source of those suspicious bottles, and no points for guessing where the trail leads. Sub-meanwhile, Dr. Genovese and Nina are arguing over the relative values of science and business, which ends with Nina filling the doctor's Super Robot full of lead...well, more lead. Max and AfroGirl FINALLY get suspicious and decide to investigate the basement, where they find a freezer full of dead, naked, bloodless bodies in a genuinely chilling scene. (What I did there--you see it?) The purpose of Antonio's robot is finally revealed, as is the reason behind the whole operation; the Hooker succumbs to the dictates of the Robot's silly but deadly prime directive, and the Hippies are next on the slab. Will UNESCO reach them in time, or will they be riding out in the next delivery truck, in 750 milliliter-increments?

Love Machine
It's hard to imagine The Red-Stained Lawn being made at any time other than the 1970s--in fact, it's hard to imagine it being made even then. But made it was, and I for one couldn't be happier about it. I loved the relentlessly groovy fashions, the broad-strokes characterizations, the repetitive and intrusive score, and even the overly earnest folk-rock title song (written and performed by the Drunken Tramp himself, Lucio Dalla, who was apparently a pretty big deal recording artist at the time--I will pay you for a translation! :) ). But most of all I love the unabashed weirdness of the flick, the sci-fi mixed with crime-thriller mixed with hippie drug culture and stirred up with mad science to create a hallucinatory souffle that Mad Movie fans will love getting between their molars.

The acting is all pretty good for a picture of this sort--Dalla steals the show as the comical Tramp, and both Malfatti and Tarascio as the dueling Genoveses are a delight--the missus with her Ice Queen gorgeousness and ruthless amorality, and the doctor with his kooky visionary ramblings and stunning neckties. (Both actors worked together a couple of years earlier in The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, a movie I really want to revisit now.) The rest of the cast is serviceable, and despite a few rather endearing flubs (equipment shadows in the shot, blinking "corpses," the director's pant-leg cameo in the Mirror Room sequence), the film is rather expertly and beautifully shot--the colors and compositions are often quite stunning, a testament to Ghione's eye.

And I think to myself...what a wonderful world!

In short, for fans of the weird, this is a little-known treasure. 2.75 thumbs.

A few more images from The Red-Stained Lawn (1973):

Anal Sex: Not For Everyone

"Now...where did I put that last bottle of wine?"

Blowout Patch


Sure it is.

"Please, just try to relax."



Friday, December 7, 2012

Night of the Bloody Apes (1969): or, My Heart Belongs to Bonzo

In 1960s Mexico, female luchador Lucy Ossorio (Norma Lazareno) is an athlete at the top of her game. Resplendent in her Red Devil mask and form-fitting crimson jumpsuit, every night she wrestles to a packed house of adoring, sweaty male fans, tossing her hapless opponents around the ring like lumpy bags of week-old laundry. She's young(ish), sexy, strong and beautiful, and on top of that, she's dating Lt. Arturo Martinez (Armando Silvestre), a hotshot homicide cop with the brains of Hercule Poirot and the good looks and charm of a young Tony Orlando. Sure, it's a rough game, but this is one luchadora who really has the world by the tail.

But into the Happy Picnic of Life, the Swarming Ants of Tragedy are likely to crawl, determined to carry away the Pie of Contentment on their evil little chitinous backs. This is exactly what happens one evening when, drunk on her own in-ring indominatability, La Demonita Roja tosses her opponent, the unfortunate Gata Negra ( Noelia Noel) through the ropes and into the crowd. The girl takes a bad hop and lands on her noggin, pushing a splinter of bone into her brain and inducing immediate coma. Guilt-stricken, Lucy drops a couple of matches and then decides it's time to hang up the boots for good.

"Venir a mí, bro!"
Meanwhile, local brain surgeon and organ-transplant specialist Dr. Krallman (José Elías Moreno) has a problem. His angel-faced son Julio (Agustín Martínez Solares) is bed-ridden with terminal leukemia, and all the specialists at his hospital have given the boy up for dead. But like any devoted father, the good doctor is not about to take that lying down. In an astonishing feat of scientific reasoning, Krallman deduces that the blood of a more powerful creature--say, a gorilla, for example--might be able to fight off the cancer where puny human blood has failed. But since gorilla-juice is clearly too potent for the human circulatory system, he figures he'll need to swap out Julio's heart for an organ of the simian persuasion. Then bang! Roberto es su tío! 

It's true what they say: sometimes the simplest answer is the best.

With the assistance of his slavishly devoted manservant Goyo (Carlos López Moctezuma), the doctor sets about putting his plan into action. Sneaking into the Federal District's most un-security-conscious zoo, the two old men easily purloin a primate and plop its pumper into Papa's poor pestilential progeny, post-haste. In a few hours, the boy is on the mend, the doctor's hypothesis is proved, and the overcrowded monkey house at the zoo has some much-needed extra space. Everybody wins!

Well, almost everybody.
Of course near-death experiences are almost always transformative. People come back from the brink with a newfound desire to live life to the fullest, to help their fellow man, or to cash in and go on a book tour with John Edward. In Julio's case, however, the transformation is less spiritual--instead, his new ticker turns him into a rampaging half-ape monstrosity! (Actually, more like 1/8-ape...he only seems affected from the jawline up.) I guess everybody copes in his own way.

Soon the Bloody Ape (singular, despite the film's title) is out on the town, leaving a trail of mauled, broken bodies in his wake. Realizing his mistake, Dr. Krallman reasons that putting a human heart back in his boy's chest is the best way to correct things, and thanks to Lucy's earlier reasonless brutality, he has just the perfect subject in his hospital. Goya and the doctor remove the girl back to his basement lab (again with astonishing ease), and after recapturing Julio, perform the second transplant in as many days, again leaving Julio none the worse for wear.

"I can haz nanner puddin?"

The missing girl and the string of brutal murders finally alert the police to something amiss, and Arturo gets on the case. Most are blaming the "escaped" gorilla for the crimes, but when Arturo sees the fingerprints and notices they are "half-ape, and also half-human!" (Ed. note: Whaaaa?), he knows they're dealing with something a bit more sinister. Worse, Julio's condition isn't cured by his new ticker, and soon he's ripped Goya's head from his body and gone out to wreak yet more bloody havoc. Can Arturo stop him before he kills half the nubile women in the city? Can Dr. Krallman save his son from his own scientific hubris? Will Lucy ever wrestle again?

Night of the Bloody Apes (1969) is not a movie that pulls out all the stops--it's a movie that doesn't even acknowledge there are stops to be pulled. The ape-man's attacks are surprisingly gory, ina late-60s tempera-paint way: we have scalps being pulled off, throats being torn open, eyes being gouged out, and multiple vicious maulings, often perpetrated upon the unclad torsos of energetically screaming senoritas. In addition, director René Cardona also treats us to actual footage of real open-heart surgery--a circumstance that landed this film on the famous British "Video Nasties" list, and kept it unseen in that country for years.

"This really brings out your eyes."

There's an awful lot of nudity too. Lucy--who seems to gain about 30 pounds every time she steps into the ring, only to drop the weight when the mask comes off--thinks nothing of chatting on the telephone in the altogether, fortunately for us. Also, in keeping with the long-standing cinematic tradition of "rapey half-mans-half-monkeys" (further reading here), Julio frequently rips the clothing from his female prey before proceeding to rip at their flesh. Even the comatose Noel shows all pre-surgery, in the interest of medical accuracy, no doubt.

The film is badly paced--there are many, many scenes of a character walking slowly from one end of the set to the other, that could have been profitably trimmed--and most of the acting is expectedly terrible. The lone exception is Moreno as Krallman, who imbues his laughable lines with a certain genuine gravitas, and manages to be emotionally effecting as a father desperate to save his son. It should also be mentioned that this wouldn't be the last time the hunky Solares (Julio) portrayed a man-beast: he also appeared as the lycantrhopic Rufus Rex in the brilliant luchador epic Santo y Blue Demon vs Drácula y el Hombre Lobo (1973, reviewed on MMMMMovies here).

With nothing to do but lie in bed all day, Julio had time to make some interesting personal discoveries.

This film is deservedly one of the more popular subjects of the MST3K crew's derision, but in my opinion you don't need Joel (or Mike?) and the Bots to facilitate your viewing enjoyment. You can watch it for the xenotransplantation and pseudoscience, or for the hard-hitting wrasslin' action, for the blood or the boobs or the rather ridiculous beast. You can count the flubs--for instance, Cardona conveniently ignores the discrepancy between the number of medical personnel in Krallman's lab (two) and the number of hands working in the chest cavity (six); also, while Julio wrestles with a particularly spirited victim in a local park, her thrashing limbs displace the grass clippings standing in for a meadow, revealing the bare concrete beneath! Or you can just sit back and let the madness wash over you in waves. That's my suggestion.

2.25 thumbs

A few more images from Night of the Bloody Apes (1969):

"And you should see what I gave him from the elephant! Woohoo!"

"What are these fuckin' iguanas doing on my coffee table?!"

Waste of a Perfectly Good Monkey Suit

Splendor in the Grass...Clippings

Separated at birth? (reference)

"Now that I've got my framed portrait of the Duke of DVD, I really do have it all!"


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