Color, 1974, 102 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Itan Bannen, Mona Masbourne, Luigi Squarzina, Maxence Mailfort, Maurizio Bonuglia
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Musrti (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
I LIKE BATS
Color, 1986, 80 mins. 40 secs.
Directed by Grzegorz Warchol
Starring Katarzyna Walter, Jonasz Kofta, Malgorzata Lorentowicz, Marek Barbasiewicz
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1)
Color, 1975, 96 mins. 10 secs. / 92 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by Luigi Bazzoni
Starring Florinda Bolkan, Peter McEnery, Lila Kedrova, Nicoletta Elmi, John Karlsen, Evelyn Stewart, Klaus Kinski
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Koch Media (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Shameless (DVD) (UK R0 PAL), Cinekult (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE UNDERNEATH
Color, 1972, 110 mins. 52 secs. / 129 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Jane Arden
Starring Sheila Allen, Susanka Fraey, Liz Danciger, Jane Arden, Ann Lynn, Penny Slinger
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), BFI (DVD & Blu-ray, UK R0 PAL/HD)
A decade ago in 2012, the world of film scholarship took a bold leap with the release of House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, a groundbreaking book by film programmer, scholar, and all-around pop culture magician Kier-La Janisse. Mixing turbulent personal memoir and analysis of related depictions of female psychological disturbance on film, it cast a new light on how to interpret the many films around the world dealing with women perceived as mad. Timed to coincide with the release of an updated and revised version of the book in 2022 is the House of Psychotic Women Rarities Collection, a four-disc Blu-ray set (also available in a deluxe "House Key Bundle") curated by Janisse on the heels of her outstanding folk horror collection from the beginning of the same year, All the Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror. Here you get a far-reaching and fascinating sampler consisting of two superb Italian productions (both shot by Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, who went on to earn Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor, here at the peak of his powers) and more challenging, unexpected offerings from Poland and Great Britain. Anyone expecting horror films will be surprised as none of them comfortably fit entirely within that genre, but they're all unique and unsettling works for the cinematically adventurous.
First up is the most widely released title in the set, 1974's Identikit, which played American theaters and hit VHS as The Driver's Seat (the title of the source novel by Muriel Spark, which this follows quite faithfully). Star Elizabeth Taylor had been embarking on a truly astonishing and audience-dividing cinematic voyage in the wake of her Oscar-winning turn in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, soaring to maniacal heights in films like Reflections in a Golden Eye, Boom!, Secret Ceremony, X, Y and Zee, Night Watch, and Ash Wednesday. All of those films got lukewarm to scathing notices at the time but have gone on to substantial cult followings, and the apex of her string of unstable roles came with Identikit which finds her in full-on neurotic mode within the opening moments. Here she plays Lise, an easily riled London resident first seen picking out a vibrant dress for her planned holiday to Italy. Along the way she reacts unpredictably as she encounters a number of people including grinning macrobiotic diet fiend Bill (Bannen), a fellow British tourist (Washbourne) for a shopping excursion, and a pushy Roman guy named Carlo (Caligula's Mannari). Along the way we repeatedly flash forward to interrogations of each person she encountered by the police (including giallo vet Maurizio Bonuglia with a fake mustache) who are acting on notices from Interpol about Lise's activities. On top of that, Lise is repeatedly trying to find a certain kind of man for a destiny that only becomes completely clear in the closing minutes.
This film's director, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, is rarely discussed among significant Italian filmmakers but he displayed a remarkable visual style threading through films like this one, his underseen masterpiece 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, the swinging Metti, una sera a cena, and the Lucio Fulci-penned Collector's Item. His style works very well here giving it a beautiful but off-kilter tone all the way through, accentuated by Storaro's gorgeous cinematography and an elegant, piano-driven score by Franco Mannino. It's definitely not a film for everyone given the deliberately abrasive nature of Taylor's character, but if you succumb to its jagged elegance, there's a lot to enjoy here including a woozy late-film cameo from none other than Andy Warhol. Any film this unorthodox was a target for ridicule at the time, and of course this one ended up getting a particularly florid write-up in Bad Movies We Love that actually makes this sound like the greatest film ever made.
Avco Embassy picked this one up from the Italian producers for U.S. distribution with its Embassy Home Entertainment imprint handling home video duties on VHS, but for some reason the film seemed to wander off into some kind of quasi-PD netherworld with a few sketchy bootleg labels issuing it on DVD (poorly ripped from that same tape which was already badly cropped to boot). The best-looking option for a while was the Italian DVD, which was presented in the original aspect ratio from a nice transfer; alas, it was only in Italian with no English-friendly options. For the record, the film was entirely shot in English with Taylor, Bannen, and so on providing their own vocal performances, while some of the Italian actors like Bonuglia had to be dubbed. The Severin release is a real life saver, presenting the first visually worthy, English-friendly release of this film in any format; it's also the original European Identikit version, which runs slightly longer (with a bit more dialogue during the Interpol interrogations near the end).
The source for this new 4K restoration by the Cinematheque of Bogona and Severin isn't specified, but apart from some minor on-and-off damage visible during the first reel, it looks spectacular with those intense colors looking as impressive as possible. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio options include the English track and the Italian dub with optional English SDH subtitles. Janisse provides a welcome video intro (5m27s) about Spark (who also wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and her own identification with the main character and overall story, while a new audio commentary by TCM Underground's Millie De Chirico goes further into the novel, Taylor's separation from Richard Burton just before filming, the rewards of multiple viewings, the symbolism of the frequent mirror usage, the prevalence of real-life terrorism that filters into the film, and more. Her comments are very sparse after the 40-minute mark, so be ready to fast forward quite a bit. In "A Lack of Absence" (22m3s), Chandra Mayor takes a deep dive into the themes of Spark's often challenging work, including some footage of the writer herself talking about her process. Also included are the main and end titles from The Driver's Seat version (4m7s) complete with MPAA card, plus a standard def trailer and the closest approximation of it as possible reconstructed from the HD source.
Title number two in our excursion is easily the most obscure: the semi-comedic, oddball 1986 Polish film, I Like Bats. Though it qualifies as a vampire film, it mainly uses the monster tropes to craft a character study about a young woman who feels like an outsider trying to "fix" herself and conform to the life she's been told is normal. Working by day in her aunt's antique shop, Izabela (Walter) shows a strong fondness for bats and occasionally goes out at night to feed on the less reputable male citizens in the area. Deciding she'd rather live life as a normal human, she decides to seek therapy and ends up in a sanitarium under the care of Professor Jung (Barbasiewicz), for whom she starts to form a romantic attachment.
Essentially unknown in English-speaking circles, I Like Bats has an interesting pedigree including director and co-writer Grzegorz Warchol (far better known as an actor including Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: White), composer Zbigniew Preisner (who provided Kieslowski's most important and influential scores including The Double Life of Veronique), and feminist co-writer Krystyna Kofta. It's a peculiar work that tries to mix '80s pop trappings with classic local monster folklore, along with a heavy streak of wry comedy as Izabela juggles her working life with her nocturnal activities slapping on a black wig and going on the prowl. The fact that everyone around here is equally strange (especially at a nightclub where one patron likes to parade around topless) adds to the unpredictable tone, which carries with less potency during the sanitarium sequences where the patients (including poet-songwriter Jonasz Kofta) make her transition to humanity quite a challenge. Ultimately it's more interesting as a study of how women are supposed to change and be "tamed" by the culture at large than as a vampire story, an element that gets largely forgotten at times and culminates in a shrug of a twist ending that was already shopworn when Dracula and Son did it a decade earlier. Just approach it as a dark comedy slice of Polish film fantastique though and you'll find plenty to chew on here, including that Preisner score whose whimsical whistling gets you into the right spirit.
To bring I Like Bats to Blu-ray, the Severin release features a 2K scan cited as being from the only 35mm print known to exist. That means it obviously features the limitations of that source but looks quite striking all the same with rich blacks and some insane color schemes at times including bursts of stylized red lighting. If this is the best it can possibly look, not too shabby! The DTS-HD MA Polish 2.0 track also sounds fine and features optional English subtitles. Janisse provides an insightful intro (10m18s) about the film's use of Slavic monster folklore including the concept of a vampire having two hearts, representing the duality of the character here and the possibility of being born into the undead rather than being turned. A new audio commentary Kamila Wielebska, actor and co-editor of the book A Story Of Sin: Surrealism In Polish Cinema, is really something else and probably the closest thing to commentary performance art you'll come across. She clearly has a ball dramatically elucidating about vampire conventions, the elements of everyday Polish life at the time, the curious aspects of the setting, the depictions of men versus women, and the treatment of insanity. An HD TV spot is also included.
You'd have to look pretty hard to find an Italian thriller more visually stunning than Footprints, the second and final thriller directed by Luigi Bazzoni after his previous success, The Fifth Cord. Storaro, that prior film's cinematographer, returned here and really outdid himself with an eye-popping symphony of light and color that gives it a look unlike any of its peers. As much a mind-bending, dreamy art film as a commercial suspense film, this is one of the strongest vehicles for actress Florinda Bolkan (A Lizard in a Woman's Skin) and remains something of a hidden gem among genre fans, a thoughtful and melancholy alternative when you want to take a break from the more traditional black-gloved killers.
Italian translator Alice Cespi (Bolkan) suffers from eerie, unsettling nightmares about an astronaut abandoned on the moon by his colleagues under orders from their command post headed by Professor Blackmann (Kinski in a glorified cameo). She believes the visions are inspired by a film called Footprints on the Moon that frightened her so much as a child she couldn't make it to the end, but that's nothing compared to an even greater mystery. Alice can't remember anything that happened for the past three days, and the only clue she manages to find is a torn photograph depicting a hotel at a nearby beach resort town, Garma. Unable to glean any other information from her friends (including a brief role by giallo staple Evelyn Stewart, aka Ida Galli), she takes some time off to visit the area and discover what might have happened during her lost time. Upon arriving at the hotel she encounters an odd assortment of characters including a little girl named Paula (Elmi, the redheaded mascot of many '70s Italian horror films) who insists Alice has been there before using the name Nicole. Then there's a soulful young man named Henry (McEnery) and the wealthy widow Mrs. Heim (Kedrova), who all seem to know a little more than they're telling. On top of that, Alice is still plagued by visions of those astronauts, the full meaning of which won't be revealed until the end.
Originally released as Le orme in Italy and sometimes shown as Footprints on the Moon, this was never given a theatrical release in many English-speaking countries including the United States, where it only limped in later on VHS from Force Video in 1986 as Primal Impulse. For some reason the English export version was trimmed by a little over three minutes, jettisoning some minor dialogue and atmospheric moments but not particularly affecting the plot. Even in this compromised form the film still managed to grab a small fan base over the years, at least for those willing to look past the more lurid promises of the cover box and instead enjoy what turned out to be a haunting, beautifully constructed little gem of a psychological thriller. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film's current state is the unavailability of its soundtrack in any format; composer Nicola Piovani (Life Is Beautiful) delivers a simply stunning tapestry of music here, even surpassing his excellent work on Flavia the Heretic and The Perfume of the Lady in Black (either of which would make a good double feature with this one). Hopefully some label will jump on it as this may be the single finest unreleased Italian soundtrack out there at the moment.
The first DVD out of the gate for Footprints came
in 2009 from the U.K. label Shameless, who presented a new transfer of the Italian version with the
entire Italian-language version with optional English subtitles as well as
the original English track with subbed Italian slotted in for the extra footage. The slightly windowboxed transfer looks drab with muted, green-heavy colors and very pale blacks, but it still beats the tape. Extras include a teaser for the U.S. VHS release, an image gallery,
a very lo-res English trailer, and the alternate English-language opening titles from a VHS source.
An imperfect but far superior (albeit pricier) option was the 2015 German Blu-ray and DVD set (five discs!), which is also slightly windowboxed but comes from a vastly superior source with beautiful colors and much deeper, richer blacks. The transfer does a good job conveying the striking contrast between the icy, modern environment of the opening act and the warm but sinister fairy tale wonderland of the rest, and the Italian source used is in good condition. (The print damage during the monochrome moon nightmare footage is intentional and was accidentally scrubbed off of some of the Shameless release.) Unfortunately there's some comparatively restrained scanner noise visible on the transfer that becomes annoying during the brighter scenes in particular. The DTS-HD MA mono options on the Blu-ray include the English, Italian, and German tracks with optional German subtitles. The film was almost entirely shot in English with most of the principals providing their own voices, so that's easily the best way to go. In a nice gesture, the extra Italian footage is also given optional English subtitles, so this is definitely a complete print and 100% English friendly. Extras on the Blu-ray and DVD include the English trailer (still looking rough), the Italian trailer (which looks gorgeous), and a gallery of stills and poster art. So, what's on the other discs? Well, there's also a Blu-ray and DVD for Bazzoni's first feature film, the atmospheric La donna del lago, which is now known on English-speaking Blu-ray as The Possessed; which isn't English-friendly here and includes a number of extras. On the fifth disc is a DVD containing a trio of bonus features for Footprints: "Malen Mit Licht," a 74m45s interview with Storaro in Italian with German subtitles; "Kinderstar," a 50-minute interview with Elmi in Italian with German subs; and a 9-minute breakdown of the film by Dr. Marcus Stiglegger, a familiar face from many Camera Obscura releases, in German. The hefty package also contains a liner notes booklet with a Germany essay by Christian Kessler.
The hefty package also contains a liner notes booklet with a Germany essay by Christian Kessler.
The 2022 Blu-ray edition of Footprints from Severin features two discs, with the first housing the complete 96-minute Italian cut with DTS-HD MA 2.0 Italian and English tracks with English SDH or English translated subtitles (as well as subs popping up for the added bits when necessary as usual for the English track). In terms of color timing and framing this is extremely close to the German release, though in motion it looks significantly better without that gritty scanner noise mucking things up. Storaro's cinematography really shines here, and it's a very satisfying presentation. An audio commentary by Kat Ellinger tackles plenty of material including Bazzoni's minimal output and contributions to the horror genre and giallo subgenre, her personal definition of the giallo, other definition-expanding contributions, the state of postwar European tourism, the stresses of modern life and identity confusion, and the sense of voyeurism running throughout. "Light of the Moon" (77m57s) is a slightly repurposed edit of the chat with Storaro from the German release, finally subtitled here, about his career making films in Italy with a focus on his start in the industry and his work in the mid-'70s, especially his relationship with Bazzoni and his creative inspiration using artificial lights in unusual environments on titles like this and Last Tango in Paris. The English trailer is also included.
The second Footprints Blu-ray features the shorter U.S. cut with English credits and the same language options, looking and sounding comparable. It can also be played with a video intro by Janisse (6m40s), who provides a terrific summation of the film's depiction of losing your psychological footing and the distinctive presence Bolkan offered to Italian cinema. In "To the Moon" (12m3s), Evelyn Stewart a.k.a. Ida Galli gives an account of her approach to acting, her love of doing "these little cameo roles," and how she approached the quick but significant appearance she has here. In the video essay "Nicoletta Elmi: Italian Horror's Imp Ascendant" (11m40s) by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Craig Martin adapted from their essay in the book Kid Power!, we get a survey of highlights from her '70s appearances for directors like Mario Bava, Bazzoni, Luchino Visconti, Massimo Dallamano, and Dario Argento, as well as the traits she brought that differed from standard child performances including the way she's positioned and framed.
The set wraps up on disc five with the U.S. premiere of the one most widely available before on Blu-ray, The Other Side of the Underneath, which first appeared in the U.K. in 2009 as part of three BFI Blu-ray releases dedicated to the works of Jane Arden and frequent collaborator Jack Bond (It Couldn't Happen Here) along with Anti-Clock and Separation. The same excellent restoration is carried over here and it still holds up very well, preserving the gritty and sometimes gorgeous look of this nonlinear descent into insanity. Barely released in 1972, it's more or less based on Arden's stage production from the prior year, A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches, featuring several of the same members from the Holocaust Theatre Company. Shot in Wales under the influence of strong controlled substances, it's an unflinching shriek of a film depicting the progress of a young woman (Fraey) whose attempted suicide by drowning lands her in a therapy group for women held in a gigantic cave by a doctor (Arden herself, uncredited). From there it's an escalating string of intense vignettes depicting the extreme lengths of the human psyche under duress, albeit with a spark of optimism buried in all the pain.
The arduous circumstances behind the making of the film shouldn't come as much of a surprise given the delirious intensity of what ended up on the screen, and while it was promoted at the time as a breakthrough in British cinema, the film still hasn't really gotten its due (especially as a rare British female-directed work from the period). The Severin release offers a very solid roster of extras to give context to this experience, including porting over the interviews with actors Sheila Allen (28m35s) and Natasha Morgan (9m48s) as well as a reel of extended sequences (33m59s). In keeping with the BFI Blu-ray, it also offers an alternate extended workprint version of the film, clocking it at 129 minutes and likely more than many constitutions will be able to bear. A video introduction by Janisse (9m3s) lays out quite a bit of background about Arden and her affiliation with the anti-psychiatry movement, her research into the participants, how she discovered it in the first place, and the circumstances of Arden's work following her suicide in 1982. British surrealist author and artist Penny Slinger, who also appears in the film, gets the most extensive extra here with a 134m19s appearance at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in conversation with Jacqueline Castel. It's chock full of amazing material including coverage of her multimedia artwork, her experiences with other counterculture figures, the tragic aspects of making this film, her written work, the ceremonial aspects of being an artist, and the foundations of surrealist feminism. Also included is a trailer for the 2017 documentary, Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows.
FOOTPRINTS: Severin Blu-ray
FOOTPRINTS: Koch Media Blu-ray
FOOTPRINTS: Shameless DVD
Reviewed on October 11, 2022.