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DVD SAVANT
Savant Guest Reviews:

Matalo!
and
Blindman

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

The Spaghetti Western genre was always well known for its ability to absorb and reconfigure all manner of novel ideas and influences: stiff competition in a congested market place prompted a good number of weird Western tales to wing their way out of Italy during the 1960s. Earnest attempts to put a new spin on the Italo-Western continued into the 1970s, as is evidenced by the content of both Cesare Canevari's Matalo! and Ferdinando Baldi's Blindman.

Cesare Canevari's The Nude Princess was a low budget but stylish and intriguing romp that defied generic classification and the same could be said of Matalo!. Matalo! is a Spaghetti Western and it is set in the Spaghetti West but conventions from a whole host of different genres collide here in a psychedelic maelstrom that utilizes filmmaking techniques associated with both art house and popular cinema. Ferdinando Baldi's Blindman seemingly takes its primary influence from Japanese action cinema but it too puts something of a sub-psychedelic spin on its subject matter. Boasting a big budget, superb art direction, incredible costume design and the presence of a former Beatle, Blindman is an ultra-stylish oddity that does the genre proud.


Matalo!
Wild East
1970 / Colour / 1.77:1 flat letter-boxed / NTSC / 90 m.
Starring Corradi Pani, Lou Castel, Antonio Salines, Luis Davila, Claudia Gravy, Ana Maria Noe, Ana Maria Mendoza, Miguel Del Castillo, Diana Sorel, Mirella Pamphili, Joaquin Parra, Bruno Boschetti
Cinematography Julio Ortas
Production Designers Francesco De Stefano, Jose Luis Galicia and Jaime Perez Cubero
Film Editor Antonio Gimeno
Original Music Mario Migliardi
Written by Nico Ducci, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero and Mino Roli
Produced by Eduardo Manzanos Brochero
Directed by Cesare Canevari

Synopsis:

Bart (Corradi Pani) is saved from the hangman's noose by a gang of hired Mexican bandits but, rather than pay them for a job well done, he shoots them in the back as they head for home. He meets up with his outlaw partners, Phil (Luis Davila) and Ted (Antonio Salines), and the trio relocate to a hideout in a remote ghost town. When the hippie-like gang's fourth member Mary (Claudia Gravy) shows up with supplies, the quartet begins plotting a brutal army payroll robbery. The robbery is a success but when the gang return to their hideout they are surprised to discover that the ghost town has a secret resident, Gertrude Benson (Ana Maria Mendoza). When two seriously dehydrated travellers, Ray (Lou Castel) and Bridget (Ana Maria Noe), stagger into the ghost town, the paranoid gang embark upon an orgy of psychological abuse and extreme physical violence. Ray is ready to fight back if he gets the chance but he doesn't know how to use a gun: his weapon of choice is a bag of boomerangs.

Matalo! enjoys a reputation for being one of the strangest Spaghetti Westerns ever made and it certainly lives up to its reputation: a curious but heady mash-up of elements from a number of different genres, Matalo! should be of interest to a quite disparate cross-section of cult cinema fans. On one level, the film plays like a crazed late-Sixties'-style psychedelic art film. There are some great camera angles and dizziness-inducing camera moves on display here, not to mention some pretty whacked-out editing, camera focus and camera speed tricks too (notably some very effective, dream-like montages that feature some impressive slow-motion effects). Mario Migliardi's superb soundtrack score heaps further art film oriented gravitas onto the show. Dubbed as 'special electro-acoustic music effects' in the film's credits, a good part of Migliardi's score is made up of fairly avant-garde sounds. There is effective use of organs, harps, guitars, audio-generators, echo chambers, electronically treated moans, groans, whistles and cries, crazy percussion, amplified/treated natural sounds, etc, here. Some of Migliardi's more unconventional pieces are a little reminiscent of Basil Kirchin's experiments with music and found sound.

The remainder of Migliardi's soundtrack score here is comprised of some really powerful Acid Rock numbers that feature some magnificent fuzz guitar work. This side of Migliardi's music highlights another aspect of the show's fractured generic personality, namely its radical hippie-cum-counter-culture movie vibe. The surprising appearance of a brief first-person narration near the start of the show allows Bart to impart his personal philosophy on life, society, money and criminality. Corradi Pani's (Rocco and his Brothers) Bart looks like a Peter Stormare bad guy who is going to a fancy dress party as a blonde Sonny Bono circa 1965. He sports a fringed, sleeveless duster, a striped headband and bell-bottom trousers that are held up by a belt that features a giant psychedelic butterfly buckle. Similarly, Claudia Gravy's (Jess Franco's Justine) cute but psychotic Mary looks like a slender Mariah Carey caught in the grip of a severe Cher fixation. She sports American Indian-inspired outfits, including one that fuses hotpants with some kind of tasselled skirt that does a fine job of not covering her shapely legs. Antonio Salines' completely deranged Ted looks like a member of the original Mothers of Invention line-up, particularly when he starts messing around with Mrs Benson's dresses. With his fringed jacket and beads, Luis Davila's Phil looks like a hippie-fied version of one of Ralph Waite's Western bad guys.

Ray and Bridget get some noteworthy costumes too: Ray's unusual jacket features a neat paisley pattern while Bridget sports a fur-trimmed coat that is essentially a psychedelic patchwork job. The appearance of Ray, Bridget and Mrs Benson ultimately sees the film lurching into proto-Seventies' exploitation cinema territory: the criminal cowboy hippies featured here are a decidedly nasty bunch. When they discover Mrs Benson's home, they take pleasure in wrecking the place and psychologically abusing their terrified host. When they get their hands on Ray and Bridget, they delight in putting the pair through all manner of physical abuses and tortures. It's pretty disturbing and upsetting stuff, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Matalo! had had some influence on the early work of Wes Craven.

The show also possesses something of a Euro-Horror vibe too. The significance of a strange subplot featuring the Widow (Mirella Pamphili), that takes place in the town where Bart was to hang, is never explained. A funeral is taking place amidst a welter of Jess Franco-esque out of focus shots but a woman in mourning is preoccupied by the hanging instead. When Bart escapes, she makes to shoot him but winds up kissing him and then lamenting his subsequent departure. When Bart and company first approach the ghost town they cut through a cemetery, which allows Canevari's camera to roam over row after row of tombstones, picking out particular headstones for more detailed exploration. The cinema of Jean Rollin comes to mind for a split second here. In an unsettling sequence in the ghost town itself, a genuine, naturally occurring dust devil actually threatens to morph into a bona-fide spectral shape right in front of the camera! Canevari even manages to cook up a bizarre little homage to The Pit and the Pendulum at one point. Added to this is the fact that the ghost town, at different times, is targeted by two secret stalkers who wish to harm the town's inhabitants: and so we also have the inclusion of a number of effectively played out thriller genre motifs included here too. Seen as shadows on walls after dark, half glimpsed shapes in shadows or represented by weapons eerily protruding through open windows, the stalkers have a penchant for playing spooky tricks on the bad guys: setting a child's squeaking swing in motion after midnight, etc. The stalkers' actions, when combined with Migliardi's unsettling music, generate plenty in the way of suspense and tension.

Some sections of the show also possess a crazed sense of over-the-top drama and sexual tension that brings to mind the films of Russ Meyer. Bart and Ted both lust after Mary - and it's indicated that they have both been actively involved with her in the past - but she's currently coupled up with Phil. Like many a Meyer heroine, Mary feeds off Bart and Ted's open expressions of lust and delights in turning steamy bouts of flirtation into teases and taunts that drive her admirers to distraction. Mary's propensity for violence would also make her right at home in a Meyer film but it's her final scenes that really bring Meyer's filmmaking to mind. In a mad free-for-all of a finale, most of the film's interested parties wind up in a crazed circular gunfight in the centre of the ghost town just as a dust storm is starting up. Canevari simply puts his camera on a roundabout in the centre of the action and allows it to spin continuously. The camera's spinning point of view shot is inter-cut with a number of campily dramatic shots of Mary firing rifle rounds into the chaos of the gunfight and desperately calling out the name of her lover. Once the big gunfight is out of the way, it's time for Ray to do his stuff with the boomerangs. Ray represents another interesting genre character for Lou Castel (Kill and Pray, A Bullet for the General). The son of a preacher, Ray is a pacifist who doesn't know how to use a gun and his genuine lack of interest in material goods and money means that the $200,000 worth of stolen military gold so coveted by the gang means absolutely nothing to him. In the interview present here, Castel expresses some doubts about the effectiveness of the boomerang play but I reckon that it works just fine.

One other aspect of Matalo! that should be noted is the film's quite low budget. After the extras-packed opening ten minutes, much of the film's action revolves around the characters at the ghost town location. Two excursions from the ghost town set are provided by the army stagecoach robbery and a trip to see Baxter (Miguel Del Castillo), the criminal Mr Big who set the job up. There's a lot of hand-held camera work here (which is very effective) and a fair amount of the kind of zoom lens work that goes with the territory too. The mad art film feel of the bulk of the film is sometimes offset by the occasional sequence that is blocked and framed more like a camp contemporary television show like Batman. Presumably in an attempt to generate a claustrophobic atmosphere, Canevari employed a fair number of quite tight close-ups and tightly framed medium shots. The show's trailer indicates that the film was probably shot with an aspect ratio of around 1.85:1, so the DVD's 1.77:1 presentation possibly adds ever so slightly to the feeling of 'tightness' found in a number of shots here. Given the film's low budget, the acting here is pretty good and it's clear that Canevari and his team were constantly striving to produce something that was both decidedly off-kilter and, in terms of the genre, really quite unique. I would say that they succeeded.


Wild East have issued another good quality genre release here. The print used is in pretty good condition for the most part. Picture quality fluctuates slightly from time to time - the colour in some sections of the film appears to be a tad faded when compared to other sections. Likewise some sections of the film play with a really sharp quality while others feature some mild video artefacting. The soft-focus and out-of-focus shots that appear at the start of the film are aesthetic effects that were both conceived and intended by the director. The sound quality here is generally very good too. Mario Migliardi looped much of his music, and some of the show's natural sounds, through an assortment of electronic effects boxes but the residual background noise that such effects often generate has been kept to a minimum. The Lou Castel interview presented here is the same one that appeared on Wild East's Kill and Pray DVD.


Blindman
Koch Media (Germany)
1971 / Colour / 2.35:1 anamorphic 16:9 / PAL REGION 0 / 102 m. / Blindman der vollstrecker
Starring Tony Anthony, Ringo Starr, Lloyd Battista, Agneta Eckemyr, Magda Konopka, Raf Baldassarre, Marisa Solinas, Franz Treuberg, David Dreyer, Gaetano Scala
Cinematography Riccardo Pallottini
Production Designer Gastone Carsetti
Film Editor Roberto Perpignani
Original Music Stelvio Cipriani
Written by Tony Anthony, Vincenzo Cerami and Piero Anchisi
Produced by Tony Anthony and Saul Swimmer
Directed by Ferdinando Baldi

Synopsis:

Blindman (Tony Anthony) has a $50,000 contract to deliver fifty mail-order brides to the miners of Lost Creek, Texas but his double-crossing partner Skunk (Renato Romano) has secretly sold the women to two vicious Mexican bandit brothers, Domingo (Lloyd Battista) and Candy (Ringo Starr). The brothers have arranged to sell the women to a troop of Mexican Federales but the deal is just a ruse: they intend kidnapping and holding for ransom the Federale General (Raf Baldassarre) who calls to collect the women. Blindman's contract is a cash-on-delivery job and he needs to get the women back if wants to get paid. Unfortunately, Domingo, Candy and their gang-cum-community of murderous underlings aren't about to give the women up without a fight.

Tony Anthony made a name for himself in Spaghetti Western circles when he became the titular hero in the Stranger series (A Stranger in Town (1966), The Stranger Returns (1967), The Stranger in Japan AKA The Silent Stranger (1968/1976)  1 and Get Mean (1975)). The Stranger was a slothful, seemingly poverty-stricken Man With No Name dress-alike and Anthony imbued the character with the morals of a scuzzy New York street punk-cum-hustler: the Stranger actually possessed the kind of seriously cynical and amoral outlook and attitude that film critics had previously enjoyed erroneously crediting Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name character with. Latter-day Beatles' manager Allen Klein acted as the producer on some of the Stranger films and former Beatle Ringo Starr was a co-producer on Anthony's 1971 film Cometogether, a road movie in which Anthony's Spaghetti Western stuntman character meets up with two American girls played by Rosemary Dexter (For a Few Dollars More and The Dirty Outlaws) and Luciana Paluzzi (Carlton-Browne of the F.O.). Blindman's co-producer, Saul Swimmer, had previously co-produced The Beatles' Let It Be film as well as co-directing Cometogether with Anthony. Swimmer went on to direct the film of George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. Presumably some combination of these circumstances led to Anthony being granted a big budget for Blindman (Anthony wrote the original story as well as starring in and co-producing the film) and Ringo Starr being granted a choice starring role.

It seems logical to assume that the Zatoichi films had a big influence here: indeed, while Blindman doesn't dress like Zatoichi, the angular cut of his threadbare patchwork duster and his oddly shaped cowboy hat appear to follow the design lines of an Imperial Samurai Guardsman's uniform. Blindman actually gets around without too many problems on the open plains: the use of a special map and compass, a horse that is trained to follow the linear directions indicated by the pointing arms of those who Blindman asks for directions and Blindman's tenacious and pragmatic attitude all help to get him from A to B. But Blindman isn't pitched as another Spaghetti Western super man. Indeed, Anthony makes it clear on a number of occasions that Blindman is perhaps the genre's most vulnerable hero. But, early on in the show, information is provided that makes Blindman's motivation, and his reckless and fearless actions, plausible and understandable. Blindman doesn't have a friend in the world and he's forced to keep the company of scum like his partner Skunk through necessity. When Skunk is no longer around to guide him, tasks like checking into a hotel and getting used to the lay out of a new hotel room are major trials for Blindman. And electing to use a rifle with a bayonet attached as a guide stick doesn't endear him to strangers. The Spaghetti West is an unforgiving place and if Blindman wants to survive into something approaching a comfortable old age he needs the $50,000 in order to secure a place to settle down permanently and maybe take on some hired help. The deal to deliver the mail-order brides is Blindman's once in a lifetime chance to score big and he knows that his payment should secure his future to some extent: without the $50,000, he's as good as finished. Hence his complete lack of regard for his own personal safety when executing his plans to get the women back from Domingo and Candy. He's on an all or nothing mission from the moment that Skunk runs out on him.

Blindman employs a number of different approaches when he has to face his adversaries. When he hunts down Skunk and two other associates (played by Allen Klein and former Beatles' roadie Mal Evans), circumstances dictate that he simply dynamites the hotel room that they are holed up in. On another occasion he purposefully riles a group of Candy's men in order to get a fix on where they are positioned: they think that they are simply amusing themselves when they roughly push him from one to the other before callously throwing him to the ground but their actions also reveal where they are standing. Armed with this mental information, Blindman simply uses his repeat-action rifle to unleash as many shots as possible in their general direction. The sound of their cries and their attempts to cock their pistols allows him to then aurally fix an even more accurate aim. In a one-on-one un-armed fight, Blindman can scrap with the best of them if he can get his opponent on the floor and tied into some close quarter's grappling. Luckily Blindman also finds three individuals who are willing to guide him and his gun hand at crucial points in the film. Pilar (Agneta Eckemyr, The Island at the Top of the World) is a gringo girl that an obsessed Candy has been routinely forcing himself upon. Blindman uses Candy's weakness for Pilar as a lever that eventually makes Candy get careless. Keen to finally hit back at Candy and Domingo, Pilar's elderly father (Franz Treuberg, Lisa and the Devil) also plays a willing part in Blindman's plans. Blindman's third ally is Raf Baldassarre's (The Great Silence, Between God, the Devil and a Winchester) captured Federale General.

Most Spaghetti Western heroes find themselves operating within narrative arcs that lead to a situation where their chances of overcoming the odds that they face seem impossible. Blindman is facing those impossible odds from the very moment that he first appears on screen and this leads to some really well executed, tension and suspense-filled, set pieces. It's clear that Tony Anthony had a huge amount of affection for the Blindman character and the project as a whole. Such was the nature of the Stranger films that Anthony wasn't really called upon to fully test his acting talents. In Blindman Anthony is acting his socks off throughout, albeit in a purposefully understated way, and he turns in a really quite superb and sympathetic performance. Consequently, Blindman is one of the genre's best-drawn and most rounded characters: he possesses a sly if sometimes wry sense of humour but he's also both pragmatically philosophical and self-deprecating at times. During the moments where Blindman is alone and disorientated (in a new hotel room, in Domingo's dungeon, etc) Anthony does a fine job of subtly projecting the character's feelings of inner loneliness and isolation. Parts of Anthony's performance here bring to mind Charles Bronson's turn as Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. In keeping with the show's radical hippie vibe, the film's only authority figures, the Federale officers and troops, are presented as grotesque and abusive pleasure-seekers. Genre stalwart Raf Baldassarre gives a spirited performance as the noisy and uncouth Federale General.

Spaghetti Western villains tend to have a propensity for underestimating the abilities of those that they choose to bully and Blindman is initially able to take advantage of Domingo's cocky and condescending attitude. At their first meeting, Blindman advises Domingo to kill him there and then but the Mexican foolishly thinks that a brutal beating and the destruction of the delivery contract will be enough to discourage Blindman and send him packing for good. Lloyd Battista is on fine form as the totally reprehensible Domingo. Battista and Anthony were close friends and collaborators off-screen (Battista was an un-credited writer on Blindman and some of the Stranger films) and this perhaps accounts for the unrestrained enthusiasm that Battista was able to muster for the scenes where Domingo viciously assaults Blindman.

Ringo Starr fares very well too as Candy and it's simply great to have a pop culture icon of Ringo's stature participating in a Spaghetti Western. Ringo as Candy might well be one of the most bizarre casting decisions of the Seventies but it certainly paid off. Then again, Blindman's sense of the bizarre is also one of the show's strengths. Domingo and Candy's clan all live within the walls of a huge castle-cum-fortress and the majority of them appear to be longhaired radical hippie-types. There's some really excellent and stylized costume design in Blindman and Domingo and Candy's men get some of the more outlandish outfits. One of their crew comes on like a heavy metal, rock barbarian: he's got wild bushy hair and he sports a Derek Smalls-style leather haltered top, a studded belt and leather trousers. (... Spoiler begins) When Candy is killed, Domingo orders that the whole fortress be painted black and he insists that Candy's marriage to Pilar must still take place. The ensuing ritual is an absolutely huge and extras-packed sequence and its mystical nature makes it feel like something from an Alejandro Jodorowsky film (... spoiler ends).

As with Matalo!, this show features a murderously psychotic female character in the form of the vicious Sweet Mama (Magda Konopka, Satanik). Sweet Mama is Candy and Domingo's highly resourceful sister and the architect of most of their criminal operations. And, like Matalo!, parts of this show veer close to Seventies'-style exploitation cinema too. There's nudity present in a few sequences here, most notably the sequence where the mail order brides are forced to wash before the arrival of the visiting Federales. But if this is exploitation cinema, it's exploitation cinema as Sergio Leone might have shot it. Blindman's big budget is reflected in the show's great set designs and Baldi's thoughtful and stylish framing and blocking. The huge washroom set here would have fit perfectly into Once Upon a Time in the West such is the feeling of apparent historical authenticity and realism that it exudes. Middle-aged Mexican women from Candy and Domingo's community use huge wooden water containers placed in the centre of the room to fill their own little wooden buckets, the contents of which they then tip over the brides. Things turn nastier for the brides when they are caught trying to stage an escape attempt: a pretty disturbing and upsetting sequence follows when Domingo orders his men to brutally assault them. Blindman also finds himself on the receiving end of some vicious beatings. He undergoes some particularly nasty tortures when Candy discovers that he has hidden Pilar away in a safe location. When the regiment of Federale soldiers visits Domingo's place to examine the brides, what starts like a satire of the Miss World competition ends in violent bloodshed when Domingo's men unleash a machine gun attack on the unsuspecting troops.

With the bulk of the genre focussing on less satisfying comedic themes during the 1970s, Blindman remains one of the best Spaghetti Westerns to have been made during that decade. Cinematographer Riccardo Pallottini (Django Shoots First) turns in some fine camera work that adds to this show's stylish edge. A number of Pallottini's ultra-wide shots make great use of some of Almeria's best locations. In keeping with the macabre sub-plot surrounding Candy and Pilar's marriage, the show's big finale takes place within a huge cemetery. The presence of some very convincing squib effects adds a particularly violent edge to the film's action sequences. The wonderfully noisy soundtrack score by Stelvio Cipriani is an absolute delight. It's largely Ennio Morricone-inspired stuff and there are some great cues here: the wild vocal chants and screams sound like they were arranged and scored by Frank Zappa for the vocal frontline of the early Seventies' version of the Mothers of Invention. And there are some superb sitar-inspired pieces present here too. The mail-order brides include Shirley Corrigan (Dr Jekyll Versus the Werewolf) and Janine Reynaud (Sadisterotica and Kiss Me, Monster) amongst their number.


Germany's Koch Media present a fully restored version of Blindman here which has been mastered from the film's original negative and the picture quality is near excellent throughout. English language versions of the film have nearly always been edited, with the most common English language version clocking in at around 84 minutes. Koch Media's restored 102 minutes version of the film does include an English language audio track for all but around 50 seconds of the film. The audio reverts to Italian for a 45 second sequence where Blindman talks to his horse (I don't know what he says here) and a five second sequence where he asks Pilar how many gunmen are following them. Sound quality on the English language track is generally very good. The disc also features German and Italian language audio tracks, which I didn't test as there are no English language subtitles to support them. Sadly there are no English language subtitles present on the lengthy Ferdinando Baldi documentary that is included here either. As ever, mention must be made of Koch Media's deluxe packaging: the disc sits in a gatefold card digi-pack, which is in turn housed in a sturdy card sleeve.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Matalo! rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good - (NTSC)
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: trailer, an image gallery and a Lou Castel interview

Blindman rates:
Movie: Excellent -
Video: Excellent - (PAL REGION 0)
Sound: Very Good +
Supplements: three trailers, an image gallery, a documentary on Ferdinando Baldi (in Italian with German subtitles only) and a booklet (in German only)


Packaging: Separate releases in keep case (Matalo!) and deluxe packaging (Blindman)
Reviewed: December 30, 2006

Footnote:

1. Shot in 1968, The Stranger in Japan was the first 'East meets West' Spaghetti Western. However, a dispute between Allen Klein and MGM reportedly resulted in the studio refusing to release the film. In 1976 the studio decided to re-edit and release the film as The Silent Stranger. In an interview with Tom Betts and William Connolly, Tony Anthony expressed disappointment with the studio's re-edited version of the film, claiming that the original 1968 cut of The Stranger in Japan was probably the best Spaghetti Western he ever made. A Stranger series DVD box set (including the 1968 cut of The Stranger in Japan) is hopefully/surely getting near to the top of somebody's 'things to do' list?
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