Forgotten Gialli: Volume 4

Forgotten Gialli: Volume 4 (1978/1986/1989)
Vinegar Syndrome
Cast: Tinì Cansino, Francesco Casale, Valentina Visconti, Mariangela D'Abbraccio, Giovanni Visentin, Riccardo Parisio Perrotti, Luigi Mezzanotte, Stefania D'Amario, Barbara Magnolfi, Marc Porel, Vanni Materassi, Anna Zinnemann
Extras: Trailers, Featurettes, Interviews

Vinegar Syndrome’s “Forgotten Gialli” box sets have been one of my giallo guilty pleasures for the past few years. I would constantly keep my eyes out for a potentially new set to be announced, eager to get my hands on it. And late as I may be to the party of actually reviewing any of their sets, I suppose it’s better than never, especially now that the studio has released a fourth volume just recently.

To give you a bit of context, the “Forgotten Gialli” series is exactly what it sounds like: A compilation of smaller, lesser-known Giallo titles, each one lovingly restored in high definition. Given the rather obscure nature of many of these films, it is a huge step up from their previous releases. The majority of them have never even seen a DVD release, let alone a release outside of their native countries. Being the huge Italian horror buff that I am, I just gotta have them all!

With this latest installment in the series, this time around, Vinegar Syndrome is presenting us with a particularly sleazy package, offering up brand new restorations of “Arabella: Black Angel,” “The Killer Is Still Among Us” and “The Sister Of Ursula.”

Stelvio Massi’s 1989 creation, “Arabella: Black Angel” is a movie about a young woman named Arabella, who could be aptly summed up as a meek housewife by day and a beast in the sheets at night. After getting caught up in an unfortunate, sudden police raid at one of her dive spots, she quickly gets wrapped up in a blackmailing scheme. To make matters worse, she gets caught in flagranti by her handicapped husband—who has a bit of a Jack Torrance predisposition going on. With no other alternative apparent to her, she murders the corrupt officer before her husband’s eyes and they agree to hide the body together. With her nymphomaniac tendencies laid bare, rather than a display of dismay over her unfaithfulness, her husband begins to show an unhealthy obsession over her night crawls and asks for her to continue. Curiously, though, from that moment onward, seemingly everyone she comes in contact with is soon found dead and castrated. Things begin to come to a head when a generational family trauma is exposed in the morning papers. While this may sound like a major spoiler, trust me, it is not because the mystery elements are rather thin and I correctly guessed the killer within the film’s first half-hour.

Arabella: Black Angel” is a movie that I simultaneously enjoy and loathe. On the one hand, out of all of the movies in this particular box set, I think it has the most interesting potential with its attempt at twisting its sexploitation values into something with actual narrative substance. I really like the idea of Black Angel’s plot as sleazy as it is, but it just doesn’t ever go anywhere. The movie quickly prioritizes sex to the point that it becomes very hard to appreciate it as a giallo when hardly anything else occurs. And the unfortunate thing is, that I find the giallo aspects hard to appreciate, even in their distilled form, because for the majority of its runtime, the film is nothing but pornography. I mean, seriously, you can’t tell me someone would enjoy this movie in “that” way when the steamier scenes are usually really awkwardly shot oral sex, followed by someone getting brutally stabbed by a pair of scissors in their “hoo-hah” immediately afterward.

On the upside, I will say that the movie does usually look nice enough, likely due to the director’s past experiences primarily as a cinematographer. Nonetheless, it doesn’t ever seem to escape that cheapo look most Italian movies exhibited around this time period. The soundtrack is solid with its decidedly 80s use of synth-rock in some sequences. The original Italian mono track creates a decent presentation, but the inclusion of a rather awful English dub is a blessing in disguise—because if I can’t enjoy this movie seriously, at least I can do so ironically. 

The only extra for this movie is an audio essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas that analyzes the movie’s focus on the “male gaze” and “sexual control” which isn’t bad if a bit academic. Funny enough, it does contain spoilers for the movie “Five Women for the Killer” as Heller-Nicholas appears to labor under the impression that everyone has seen the film. The reality of it is, that it has never been available to audiences since its last VHS release some 30 years ago and therefore has not been widely viewed.

Up next is “The Killer Is Still Among Us,” from 1986, directed by Camillo Teti—yes, that Camillo Teti who brought us the accursed animation “Titanic: The Legend Goes On.” Amidst the reign of terror of the real-life Italian serial killer “The Monster Of Florence,” the movie follows Christiana, a young undergraduate criminologist, as she is studying and researching the vicious killings as the subject of her dissertation. She struggles to balance her day-to-day life with personal investigations into the sleazy underworld of voyeurism as part of her thesis. Soon, things turn grim as acquaintances of hers begin to turn up dead. With tensions mounting, strange coincidences and ominous threats begin to stack up. Christiana becomes increasingly paranoid that perhaps the killer is someone close to her, perhaps even right under her own roof.

This was the movie that had me most piqued when I first heard about this box set, in part due to its sheer infamy. It rather immorally exploits the grip “The Monster Of Florence” had over Italy at the time and makes use of the killer’s visage in a sleazy thriller at a time when the real murders were still unsolved and ongoing. It is not something I condone, and I do not believe as the end credits pretentiously claim that the movie was “made as a warning to young people and with the hope, it will help police catching these brutal murderers.” After sitting through the whole box though, I would argue that it is probably the weakest movie of the three presented here. The film itself starts off with a strong premise and a tone not too dissimilar to a watered-down Thomas Harris novel as Christiana attempts to assume the mind of the killer. However, around the halfway mark things just come to an absolute standstill and the plot never manages to regain its initial momentum.

While I applaud the movie for piecing together some absolutely shocking murder sequences that had me on my toes in these segments, everything else just feels underwhelming. In fact, despite its reputation as being a rather nasty giallo, visually and narratively the movie really just feels like a made-for-television program for the majority of its runtime. Only the climax, if you can call it that, ever really rightly warrants that notoriety as it suddenly enters into Lucio Fulci’s “New York Ripper” territory when it recreates the September 1985 double-homicide in grizzly detail.

Aside from that, the movie is fairly forgettable with hardly anything noteworthy aside from a small handful of unintended but humorously bad acting—often resulting from throwaway red herrings. There’s a notable lack of style throughout which may be attributed to its low budget, presumably, which underscores the production’s made-for-TV feel. The soundtrack on the other hand is interesting, featuring rather ominous soundscapes of 80s samplers. It is filled heavily with distorted vocals and chimes in a rather bizarre ostinato that I can’t quite figure out whether to like or not. The Italian mono track is serviceable but noticeably cheap-sounding, often filled with a lot of shrill and echoey mixing. As an extra, there is the nice bonus of an original trailer scan included on the disc, complete with subtitles, but nothing else, unfortunately.

The last giallo in the set is Enzo Milioni’s 1978 film, “The Sister Of Ursula.” Bogged down by a convoluted plot a bit, this one, the basic premise revolves around two sisters, the titular Ursula and her sister Dagmar. After their father’s death, they spend time at a beachside resort in order to locate their estranged mother to handle the matter of their inheritance. Naturally, they also plan to squeeze in some R&R on the side. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that some shady business is going on at this resort. With patrons suddenly succumbing to violent deaths, it soon begins to dawn on everyone that nobody is safe and that nobody can be trusted. I am keeping the plot particularly vague for this film because it is the only movie in the set that ever really felt like a true and proper giallo with all. It contains all the overly-contrived plot elements you’d expect for the viewer to unravel, so all I’ll reveal from this point on are: Overlapping affairs, voyeurism, drug-pushers, perfume samples, spiritual mediumship, severe daddy issues, and phallic weaponry.

While I would argue that this conglomeration makes for a notably entertaining movie that easily ranks it the best of the presented three in the box set, it’s still not exactly a high-rate giallo. For one, as a direct result of its branching plot, it’s easy to forget that this movie is called “The Sister Of Ursula” when neither titular character is on screen for any notable length of time. Over its runtime, the movie jumps around to follow three different plotlines, each with its own fair share of issues. It’s not awful an awful film and it never got boring, though it does start to drag on a little towards the end. It does eventually reach a point where you ask yourself what this movie was really about, as the initial premise quickly becomes a sideshow. In fact, by the time I got to writing up this review, I had to skim through the first act again, just to make sure that the whole inheritance subplot was even a thing and not just a figment of my imagination.

What does take center stage very quickly, though, aside from the seemingly unrelated character drama were a number of erotic scenes that serve no real purpose and suffer nearly the exact same issue as “Arabella: Black Angel.” Although the smut was shot more “tenderly” than in the preceding film, it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of these scenes end with someone getting presumably pegged to death. Yes, you read that correctly, and I’m very glad the movie doesn’t ever actually show us those moments on-camera. And for those scenes that don’t end like this, you’ll very likely be taken aback by other notably strange actions that’ll kill the mood—like, she did what with a gold chain?

Visually, this movie is absolutely gorgeous when it wants to be, making use of some of the prettiest locales I’ve seen in the genre—as far as beachside settings go. A lot of the cinematography reminds me of what I’ve come to expect from Umberto Lenzi movies. It is perhaps not as overtly flashy as his work, so don’t expect kaleidoscope lens filters anywhere. 

The soundtrack is great too and has a really nice main theme, which I’ll presume is called “Your Eyes” judging by the lyrics. It is reused all throughout, however, creating a problem in its own right as you begin to notice the rather rough and choppy audio editing. In typical 70s fashion, the exact same cues are recycled over and over again, cutting in and out of existence on their very own terms. It’s all par for the course though, and it becomes rather funny that you’re able to predict the next few minutes of smut, simply by the saxophone alone. Also par for the course is the included mono Italian track. To my surprise, no English dub was provided for this one. 

The extras for this title are marginally more plentiful, as we’re presented with another Alexandra Heller-Nicholas commentary, an interview with director Enzo Milioni and a theatrical trailer scan. Let me forewarn you, though, that these latter two bits were sourced from the previous Severin DVD release and are of rather low quality as a result. The “Father Of Ursula” interview is easily the best bonus here as it goes over some of the production’s behind-the-scenes materials. It genuinely makes you wonder just how horny the producers were when they went behind the director’s back to splice together a hardcore cut of the movie that the director himself labels as “brothel-styled.” Part of me wishes that cut had been preserved as part of this restoration, yet another part of me doesn’t, considering that it’s been outcast for a reason.

As far as specific restoration details go for these movies, each of these brand new HD masters have been stemmed from their original camera negatives in brand new 2K and 4K transfers. Naturally, they are huge upgrades over their VHS-tape standard-definition counterparts that were the only previously available source for most of the films. But even the previously available overseas Blu-ray versions of “Sister Of Ursula” all look very weak by comparison to these new presentations. The new masters are not perfect though. As like with all other Vinegar Syndrome Forgotten Gialli restorations, the scans could have used some clean-up as they exhibit a lot of speckling throughout—especially during the title sequences. It’s not overtly distracting, though, and at least looks organic. A lot of the color grading work feels inconsistent at times, often pushing blue lighting into a noticeably garish tone, bordering on purple sometimes. I feel hard-pressed to believe that these shots appeared that way in original theatrical prints. On a similar note, the lighting in all of the movies tends to shift between shots, oftentimes from a gelled blue to a neutral, dull gray. I feel that historically this was probably addressed on a photochemical timing level for prints, but was left as is in these transfers, creating a notably inconsistent look.

As a whole, this particular set is a bit of a tough sell for most audiences, I would wager. I don’t regret having seen all three of the titles, but I personally found this volume being amongst the weakest of the four. Perhaps not the weakest, as I stand by my opinion that the first volume was a pretty bad start with movies that were absolutely boring for the most part. I will say, though, that the movies in this set were nowhere near as good nor as fun as the ones presented in the previous two sets. Small blessing though, because while none of these titles are good enough to warrant a blind standalone purchase, I’d say that as a set, they are not a bad deal—supposing you’re no prude. With that in mind, I would probably recommend this release to only the following niched categories: Someone who’s a hardcore giallo fan, someone who’s an Italo-softcore fan, someone who wants a companion piece to Cesare Ferrario’s “The Monster Of Florence,” or someone who wants something other than “Suspiria” for Barabara Magnolfi to autograph the next time she ends up appearing at a local convention.