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We're happy to report that at least one sub-genre of exploitation filmmaking was not invented in America: The sensationalistic pseudo-documentaries known as "Mondo" movies originated directly from Italy. Continental film fare became more sexually explicit after World War II when producers realized that movies purporting to expose social problems had a better chance of slipping raw themes and nudity past the censors. German producers, for instance, claimed that their films educated the public on the important subjects of prostitution and drug crimes. This allowed them to flood movie screens with sordid melodramas offering otherwise forbidden content.
The Italian producer Gualtiero Jacopetti took the equation one step further with his sensationally successful Mondo Cane (1962), which uses a cynical narration to unite a series of unrelated docu episodes filmed around the globe. The theme is that the world isn't fit for dogs, a notion illustrated by things as innocuous as bizarre menu choices served in exotic Eastern restaurants. The claim of documentary status gave Jacopetti latitude to show questionable content such as native nudity and primitive rites. Better yet, with no stars and no set story to tell, the film was relatively cheap to make.
Mondo Cane's most controversial sequence shows a sea turtle on a Pacific atoll lost and dying in the sand, supposedly unable to find its way back to the sea because atomic radiation has scrambled its natural compass. The traumatic (and quite possibly phony) sequence raised a number of still-debated questions about media responsibility: Did the filmmakers simply torture a turtle and watch it die? Do news people have a moral obligation to intervene in their subjects, or are they professionally obliged to remain aloof? The movie's credibility was argued in Haskell Wexler's 1969 political film Medium Cool.
Mondo Cane spawned dozens of copycat productions purporting to bring the world's shocking and scandalous secrets to neighborhood screens. The films frequently misrepresented existing docu footage and cheated by claiming that hidden cameras had captured obviously staged events. Something Weird's Savage Double Feature gives us two Mondo titles on the quality downgrade, the fairly well-known Ecco and the obscure American imitation Mondo The Forbidden.
1963 / 2:35 flat letterboxed / 99 min. / Mondo di notte numero 3, This Shocking World
Narrated by George Sanders
Cinematography Emanuele Di Cola, Baldi Schwarze
Film Editor Roberto Cinquini, R.L. Frost (English cut)
Original Music Riz Ortolani
Written by R.W. Cresse (English cut)
Produced by A.J. Lech, Francesco Mazzei, Dick Randall, Mario Russo
Directed by Gianni Proia
Ecco retains many of the production qualities of the previous year's Mondo Cane, including a dramatic music score from Riz Ortolani. Relatively classy English narration by actor George Sanders helped to earn Ecco a wide American release. Sanders' bemused voice lends credibility to the film's stated aim of showing us the extremes of behavior that make up the human race. The Italian word ecco means "look here," or "behold."
Filmed in color and widescreen, Ecco features a couple of intriguing subjects among a long list of phony, staged events. In Japan, a ritual festival called Saidachi involves hundreds of loin-clothed men rushing from freezing water to jam into an open-air pagoda and struggle for possession of a piece of paper. The crush of men is truly eye opening. Ecco's complete lack of contextual information undercuts any understanding of what we're seeing. Are the Japanese men college students, and is Saidachi the equivalent of a fraternity rite?
A demonstration in Lapland of a traditionally garbed maiden castrating an adult reindeer with her teeth is equally baffling. We don't know if the reindeer ritual is still being done this way or if we're seeing some wild stunt; the rest of the Lapp footage shows several photogenic couples pairing off in staged make-out sessions amid the beautiful northern scenery. The savagery of the castration ritual fires their passions, we're told.
The English narration written by the notorious exploitation producer Bob Cresse simply lines up prejudiced and racist statements for Sanders to read in his bored tones. The Lapps are sex-obsessed Scandinavians and the Japanese segment can't be finished without a reference to treachery at Pearl Harbor. Another segment showing the activities of a German dueling society assures us that the young fencers are overjoyed to be given disfiguring facial scars and then wrongly equates the Prussian dueling tradition with Nazi tendencies. A staged dirty party game in a 'private club' shows some inebriated Frenchmen (including actor Michel Simon) voting on a procession of nude derrières. The Frenchmen are decadent, and housewives gawking at an exhibition of musclemen are sexually frustrated ... the list of generalized insults goes on.
The notion that the Mondo movies are the cinematic equivalent of a carny sideshow is borne out by a sequence featuring a 'psychic wizard' who proves to be a geek-like professional body piercer. A karate exhibition was surely more exotic in 1963 than it is now. The "last performance" of the Parisian Theater of the Grand Guignol offers only a glimpse of action on the stage, but does show the theater's famous interior with its carved wooden angels.
Director Gianni Proia ends his show with a phony contrast of the sacred and the profane. A patently faked English Black Mass ends with a shower of chicken blood splattered onto a reclining nude, dramatically lit for the camera. Then we're shown an unconvincingly staged sequence of a devout Italian bride climbing a long stone church stairway on her knees. The ritual is said to have the power to enhance fertility, but the visuals make for a limp conclusion. It takes Riz Ortolani's rising music and George Sanders' patronizing narration to let us know that the movie has ended.
Ecco is presented in a reasonably good flat-letterboxed transfer of a surviving color print. Colors are variable. The audio quality is also acceptable. The only language is the English dub.
1966 / 1:33 flat full frame / B&W and Color / 65 min.
Starring Bob Cresse
Cinematography Guy Gunderson
Film Editor Eric Bentley
Produced by William Eldridge (Olympic International)
Directed by Benjamin Andrews, R. Lee Frost
We hit the lower depths of Mondo moviemaking with R. Lee Frost and Bob Cresse's The Forbidden, a mind-numbing exercise in tastelessness that appears to have been created by appending new color scenes to some existing European material. A relentless narration lectures on society and morals while the amateur images never rise above peepshow prurience. Most of the material is about women stripping, while the obnoxious voiceover claims a Redeeming Social Message.
An extended opening scene of two topless women fretting over a possible rapist (they simply open the door for him) eventually becomes a phony ad for a self-defense karate school. Most of the other sequences 'filmed all over the world' involve strippers: Nazi strippers, virgin strippers, etc. Everything about the film is faked. The same faces pop up in a Hollywood club and a supposed Swiss hangout for lesbians. A few shots of abandoned junk in the desert are offered as proof of the existence of a mobile topless bar that follows workers from jobsite to jobsite.
In between shaky shots of the Los Angeles skyline, a B&W fragment filmed in France depicts a 'shocking murder story' about a woman who kills her young friends so that she can see the man she loves when he returns to attend the funerals. It appears to be a failed short subject incorporated into The Forbidden to pad out the running time.
The film's overall crudity makes Ecco seem accomplished by comparison. This trashy 60s picture could not have played anywhere except in grind-house fleapits. Frost and Cresse were also behind the Mondo films Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo. When hardcore pornography was finally deemed acceptable in the late 1960s, the Mondo movies were replaced by phony sex documentaries.
A few of the color sections of The Forbidden look acceptable in the flat transfer. B&W segments tend to be on the murky side. Something Weird's extras include several trailers, a montage of sleazy ad art and what look like a reel or two of unused fragments from the Frost/Cresse cutting room floor ... failed narration takes and inept episodes filmed around Los Angeles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,