UKHS Does the Nasty! CANNIBAL FEROX (1981)

CF1UKHS Does the Nasty!
CANNIBAL FEROX (1981)

Continuing our terrific run of special Video Nasty features, Dave Wain dissects Umberto Lenzi’s notorious jungle grue-fest CANNIBAL FEROX…

Also known as: Make Them Die Slowly

“There was no need for them. They were unnecessary… And they were evil” – Graham Bright MP

Of all the evidence that filmmakers Marc Morris and Jake West scoured through whilst producing both their Video Nasty documentaries, I think it’s the above quote that really sticks in my throat. Bright was the Conservative MP for Luton East who, in 1983, introduced a Private Members Bill that formed the basis of the Video Recordings Act. He’s also more comically known for a classic piece of television where he states that “research IS taking place, and it WILL show these films not only affect young people, but I believe they affect dogs as well”. The damning thing is it succinctly represented the views of the sneering, Daily Mail reading middle-classes, delivered by the absolute epitome of what they embody: a stuffy segment of society, out and touch and unwilling to escape the utopian island mentality that they immerse themselves in.

CF2This nasty-era level of censorship and outrage has always existed. Take Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (aka Fanny Hill), published in 1748. Considered the first erotic novel in the English language, it saw author John Cleland arrested for obscenity, with the book itself banned, seized and smuggled around countries throughout its history. Sound familiar?

Art exists to connect with our primal feelings. The medium in which it’s presented is irrelevant – paintings, literature or film. It should never be censored as all that represents is the more powerful members of society attempting to control what us commoners are permitted to view, read or watch. Like James Ferman, the BBFC director between 1975 and 1999, said, “It’s alright for you middle-class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker from Manchester happened to see it?”.

Though I disdain censorship of any kind, I have to say that the film I’ve chosen to discuss this week on UKHS is one I find thoroughly grim and disgusting. In fact, after watching it repeatedly over the past few weeks, I really don’t think I could bear to look at it again any time soon. Cannibal Ferox though is a fascinating piece of film-making and is – forgive the cliché – a product of its time.

CF3In 1980, cult Italian auteur Ruggero Deodato released what is perhaps the most infamous nasty of all: Cannibal Holocaust. Its notoriety is the stuff of legend, with classic tales such as its seizure by the Italian courts, and Deodato’s arrest and subsequent charge of murdering several of the actors on camera (!) now a firm part of genre lore. Irrespective of this insanity, such controversy – not to mention such iconic artwork – ensured that the film was a massive success when it hit video worldwide; so much so that Italian film producers immediately requested more of the same.

Director Umberto Lenzi was, at the start of the 1980s, a well-established journeyman whose career had managed to successfully move in time with the various genres that his homeland specialised in. From sword and sandal epics and Euro-spy cheese (Samson and the Slave Queen (1963), 008: Operation Exterminate (1965); to spaghetti westerns and giallo (Pistol for a Hundred Coffins (1968), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972)), Lenzi proved himself adaptable to any style of picture. However, it was with Poliziotteschi – the Italian crime-thriller – where his directorial ability was best showcased, thanks to films like Milano Rovente (1973), Almost Human (1974) and The Manhunt (1975).

“I’m ashamed of this movie. It’s not fantasy; it’s reality. There’s a political side [to it]. It’s a bit fascist, in the deepest sense” – Giovanni Lombardo Radice

CF4By the time Cannibal Ferox came around, Lenzi already had previous form with this niche sub-genre. Some even say that it was he who started the whole Italian cannibal craze with the release of his The Man From Deep River in 1972 – a grisly little flick starring Me Me Lai and Ivan Rassimov which also found itself nasty-fied under its alternate title Deep River Savages. Cannibal Ferox begins in New York City, in the wake of a heroin trafficking scheme gone wrong. We meet Lt. Rizzo (played by Cannibal Holocaust lead Robert Kerman) who is on the lookout for Mike (Radice), the key suspect in this botched drug deal and who appears to have skipped town. Without much in the way of cohesive narrative, we then find ourselves introduced to Gloria (Lorraine de Selle), Rudy (Danile Mattei) and Pat (Zora Kerova); a trio on their way into the jungle for the purpose of completing Gloria’s doctoral thesis about cannibalism. Soon after their arrival in the tropical South American location they run into the fugitive Mike who, along with his friend Joe (Walter Lucchini), claims they have just escaped the clutches of some cannibals. Cue gratuitous mastication!

“The following feature is one of the most violent films ever made. There are at least two dozen scenes of barbaric torture and sadistic cruelty graphically shown. If the presentation of disgusting and repulsive subject matter upsets you, please do not view this film.”

CF5The first thing you see when you watch Cannibal Ferox, I’ve always treat such scaremongering warnings with a great deal of cynicism. However, with Cannibal Ferox it’s frighteningly accurate, the words “disgusting” and “repulsive” being the only suitable ones to describe this grim-natured movie. The animal cruelty present I find far worse than Cannibal Holocaust. There’s a coati being (very slowly) strangled by a snake with the camera staying fixed on it as it squeals in pain. Radice states that the Italian crew stopped and refused to film any more of the scene until the animal was aided to safety. Elsewhere we have a monkey being attacked by a jaguar, an iguana fending off a snake, a live turtle having its head and legs chopped off and a crocodile being killed and eaten by natives.

It’s depressing viewing, and while most the other nasties have seemed to mellow with age as some of their make-up effects become somewhat outdated, these scenes from Ferox retain the same vomit inducing ferocity as back when it was originally released. It’s not just the animal cruelty that repulses either: nightmarish scenes litter the movie, such as a woman being hung up with meat hooks inserted into her breasts, Radice’s Mike having his penis chopped off and then eaten, and also the top of his skull sliced off and his brains scooped out by the natives.

What makes the animal cruelty worse though is Lenzi’s apparent lack of contrition as he looks back on it: “I think a lot of this movie,” he states in the DVD audio commentary. “I wasn’t sure before now, but I find it very professional”. Even during these barbaric scenes, Lenzi seems to view them with an air of nonchalance in direct opposition to Radice, who, in the same commentary, squirms as he watches the picture. “We should have been forbidden to do things like this,” he says, stating how, even during the shoot, he refused to perform certain acts like killing a pig – despite Lenzi’s dogged insistence.

The irony, of course, is that Radice’s Mike is an absolute horror of a man. He’s arrogantly misogynistic, repeatedly referring to women as “twats”; he’s always on coke; he kills a native woman without any remorse – he’s a thoroughly reprehensible individual. Conversely, Radice in real life is a gentleman and he looks back on Ferox as the biggest mistake in his career. A classically trained actor who prefers the stage to the screen, Radice dismisses the film and Lenzi at every opportunity: “What you’re saying is shit, what you’re doing is shit but you have to [play it] serious,” he says, as well as, “These types of Italian directors were not renowned for working with actors.”.

CF6 Pre CertCannibal Ferox was released on VHS in the UK in 1982 by Replay Video in an uncut pre-cert version, running a little over 89 minutes. Listed as a nasty in July 1983, the later cut version had a whopping 6 minutes and 51 seconds removed from it. Resubmitted again to the BBFC in 2001 by Gold’s in the same pre-cut version, Ferox had another six seconds cut due to the sight of a small animal on the end of a rope banging against the side of a jeep. It is this version that haunts the now discontinued British DVD from VIPCO. In America, it was released uncut by Grindhouse Releasing in 2006.

Critically, Cannibal Ferox pales quite starkly in relation to Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, the latter being a far more accomplished production. The fact that Deodato recently prepared a special director’s cut removing all the animal cruelty speaks volumes towards how he views what is contained in his watershed shocker. Cannibal Ferox, meanwhile, remains as vile as always.

Its narrative is haphazardly plotted, while the characters don’t engage you anywhere near as much as their perilous situation needs them to. Perhaps Gloria comes closest to achieving some affinity with the audience but others leave you cold, the aforementioned Mike in particular. Upon its release the horror press condemned it and it’s since fared no better; Cinema Crazed call it “clunky and tedious”, while DVD Talk say it’s “poorly made”.
Personally speaking, I first caught Cannibal Ferox on VHS many years ago as I educated myself about just what video nasties were. At the time – and in its cut form – it seemed fun; it was a badge of honour that this young horror viewer had sat through such a well-known, grisly film.

CF7 VipcoRevisiting it uncut in 2014 it’s striking how rubbish it is. The animal cruelty I had to turn away from – it’s a needless, offensive attempt at basic shock value. In many ways though, Cannibal Ferox has succeeded: thirty-three years after its release we’re still talking about it. And, as a historical document, it certainly has its place within the legacy of envelope pushing horror. It’s not to be celebrated or fawned over, however; instead one should really question if, had it not attracted the attention of the overzealous press and politicians of the period, would anyone really remember it as anything other than a footnote in Italian genre history? Probably not, and that’s the place where it’d be best left abandoned.

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UKHS Does the Nasty! NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN (1981) Part One

NIADB 1UKHS Does the Nasty!
NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN (1981) Part One

It’s day two of our week-long Video Nasty series and, in an exhaustive two part feature, Matty Budrewicz examines director Romano Scavolini’s wonderfully lurid NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN…

Also known as: Nightmares, Blood Splash (US video)

It’s one hell of a story: The Thatcher-led dark-lands of eighties Britain. Home video has revolutionised how we watch movies and a slew of ultra violent horror films are leading the charge. A mixture of eclectic drive-in fillers and assorted Euro-pudding gorefests, they’re ‘Video Nasties’ in the damning eyes of the press and the law – sick filth to be targeted, seized and destroyed. Titles are quickly condemned left and right, blasted by the Director of Public Prosecutions and banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Actually getting jail time because of them though is something else entirely. For David Hamilton Grant however, that’s exactly what happened.

The head of distribution label World of Video 2000, Grant was busted for issuing VHS copies of a low-budget terror pic one whole minute longer than the official BBFC-approved theatrical release. It didn’t matter that it was still a compromised version, the victim of all the same censorious snips as the R-rated US print, and still shorn of just under ten minutes of expository bumf; sixty additional seconds after all was more than enough time to destroy the moral fabric of British society. On February 3rd 1984 Grant was sentenced to eighteen months at her majesty’s pleasure (though later reduced to twelve) for being “in possession of over two-hundred copies of an obscene article for publication for gain”.

NIADB 2Crazy for sure, but it’s worth noting that in the expanded Grant universe it’s barely a footnote; just another part of his sordid mystique. The self-styled King of Sexploitation, entrepreneurial porn don Grant’s personal saga is one strange and convoluted web that – if former sports presenter turned conspiracy theorist David Icke is to be believed anyway – involves Grant’s own faked death at the hands of a contract killing, and his position as a major player in a high-reaching international paedophile ring.

It’s one hell of a story then, one every bit as bizarre and disturbing as the film he was once banged up for: director Romano Scavolini’s 1981 shocker Nightmares In a Damaged Brain.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why Nightmares In a Damaged Brain would land someone in such hot water. Anything promoted with such a ghoulish gimmick as a Guess the Weight of the Brain In the Jar Competition – a human brain no less, procured from somewhere as shady as Grant no doubt – was bound to attract some kind of negative attention. Still, it was an ingenious and appropriate marketing ploy, considering Grant’s tacking on of the latter half of the title: “Well, the film’s real title is simply ‘Nightmare’,” says Lee Christian, the erudite exploitation flick guru who curated the extras for Code Red’s region one DVD release of the film back in 2011. “I’m told by Bill [Olsen, Code Red’s owner] that Scavolini was not even aware of the Nightmares In a Damaged Brain variation – I’m not sure I buy that, but he definitely had nothing to do with that title! It’s interesting that most American fans of the film are very sensitive about which is the proper title though: in the online horror enthusiast community, they all refer to it as Nightmares In a Damaged Brain. That title, in reality, was slapped onto it by your British distributor. Your Video Nasties scandal re-branded the film with a title it was never meant to have!”

Nightmares In a Damaged Brain deals with George Tatum (a terrific performance from Baird Stafford, whose only other screen credit is Scavolini’s 1985 Vietnam war-action pic Dog Tags), a dangerous schizophrenic wrongly deemed cured and released back into the streets of New York City. Plagued by violent recurring dreams, Tatum sets off on a blood-thirsty journey back to his family home in Florida; a house now occupied by single mother Susan (the perfunctory Sharon Smith) and her three children. Edging ever closer, Tatum’s homicidal mania increases, a plot point mirrored by the increasingly worrying penchant Susan’s super-brat young son CJ (blonde moppet CJ Cooke) has for sadistic practical jokes. Soon, all is set for the inevitable confrontation: a suitably frightening and distressing final act in which Tatum and CJ’s past, present and future entwine with claret-soaked consequences…
Of all the Nasties, Scavolini’s film – along with fellow Italian Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – is one of the most genuinely affecting.

NIADB 3Though the likes of Tenebrae (1982), The Burning (1981) and the Lucio Fulci undead double of Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and The House By the Cemetery (1981) all remain potent frighteners, by and large the seventy-two titles under the Nasty label (of which thirty-nine were successfully DPP prosecuted) are more liable to provoke unintentional laughs than spine-scraping frissons. They’re tosh: tawdrily entertaining clag gross-outs, even something as mean-spirited as Cannibal Ferox (1981), which veers dangerously close to camp thanks to the eminently watchable scene chewing of perennial victim John Morghen (or Giovani Lombardo Radice, to give the spaghetti splat regular his real name). Of course, that’s not to say Nightmares In a Damaged Brain isn’t trash because, well, ostensibly it is: “The end result is a film that looks like it was trying to be something a little different,” says Christian, “but it’s really more of a slasher movie.”

Scripted under the title of Dark Game and inspired by a magazine article which alleged to the CIA’s use of mental patients in mind-altering pharmacological experiments, Scavolini’s original vision of the film was, according to Christian, very different: “It wasn’t really the same movie. It’s been a long time since I read [the original script], but as I recall, it was a little more centred around CJ. Also, you got a much better insight as to how the script seemed to be more aware of what would visually make sense. One example of this is the scene towards the end in which Kathy, the babysitter, is murdered. I have to admit, I always found this scene logically very awkward; when she sees Tatum coming towards her and exclaims “CJ!”, thinking he’s just playing another trick on her, even though Tatum is clearly too tall to be confused with him. In the script, this scene takes place in the dark, with Kathy only sensing another presence in the room. It’s more logical but, additionally, more creepy too.”

NIADB 4Though a handful of core ideas remain – the notion of whether Tatum’s pills are helping or making him even worse, most teasingly of all – Scavolini’s more thoughtful intentions are marred somewhat by his over-reliance on clunky slash-horror cliche. Empty false scares and the usual uninspired killer-on-the-loose histrionics plague the narrative; bizarre considering just how vocal – and somewhat arrogant – Scavolini is about his disdain for the genre and its by-the-numbers approach. “I don’t watch horror films; they don’t interest me,” he says in Code Red’s ninety-minute interview with him. “If I do, it’s twice or triple speed because I immediately know everything. I immediately understand what the mechanisms are.”

Beneath such low-end schlock trappings though, there still lurks a provocative and distinctly adult horror movie: a surprisingly striking study of mental disintegration, neglect and the long-term repercussions of extreme violence. Flawed in its execution it may be, but Nightmares In a Damaged Brain is still pretty powerful. As Christian says: “The concept of a masked killer stalking a troubled family… Only to turn out to be the father of the boy who plays cruel tricks on his family is something that could’ve had more resonance. It could’ve made a more subversive statement on the state of mental health treatment in America and the potential for mental illness to translate through blood ties, but yeah: a little of that still comes through.” Certainly, it’s more than your usual dead teenager/body count flick…

Nightmares In a Damaged Brain fits more with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) than Friday the 13th (1980) – a proto Henry: Portrait Of a Serial Killer (1986)-style bracket occupied by the likes of Don’t Go In the House (1980), Visiting Hours (1982) and Maniac (1980). Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s immediate peers, they too are character-based frighteners; grindhouse dissections of the psychological make-up of murder.

NIADB 5Though banned for theatrical release and never a “proper” Nasty itself (unlike Don’t Go In the House and Visiting Hours, which found themselves on the non-prosecuted Nasty heap), it’s with Maniac that the greatest parallel can drawn; from it and Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s joint depiction of an especially grimy New York, to each movies vice-versa-like way of beginning and ending. Just as Bill Lustig’s scuzzy fleapit classic starts with a murder set piece (“Jaws (1975) on land” as Lustig once described it) and closes with a fevered gore-dream, Scavolini bookends his psycho saga the other way round; kicking off with Tatum’s nightmare vision of a bloodied, severed head dumped at the foot of his bed and finishing up with a hyper-real stalk n’ slash sequence.

Alluding to both The Shining (1980) and Halloween (1978), Scavolini’s denouement is thrilling stuff: clad in the same creepy old man mask that CJ had been larking about with earlier in the film – the same creepy old man mask that looks remarkably like Sid Haig – the claw hammer-wielding Tatum pursues CJ through the house. Barricading himself in his mother’s bedroom, CJ desperately begins to search for something – anything – to fight Tatum off; all the while Tatum is smashing the door down from the other side. From under the bed, CJ pulls out a handgun – a revolver – and, without hesitation, begins to fire repeatedly through the door at Tatum. It’s long, lingering and luridly drawn out; Jack Eric Williams’ screeching score peaking as the mortally wounded Tatum hits the floor.
It’s not over, however: proving once again that you can’t keep a good slasher anti-hero down, Tatum slowly begins to rise, his last iota of strength then used for one last-ditch attempt to get CJ and his sisters.

For his troubles, Tatum is quickly shot by CJ again, once with the revolver – “You don’t understand!” screams Tatum as the bullet hits – and then by a double dose of shotgun blasts; tipping events into the same realm of pitch-black comedy as the infamous ED-209 boardroom bloodbath in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987). As Tatum expires at the foot of the stairs, Scavolini finally pieces everything together: Tatum’s visions – his nightmares – are revealed to be the fractured recollections of him brutally murdering his own mother and father as a child. Wielding a ruddy great axe, young Tatum dispatches his folks as they’re in the throes of kinky, S&M passion – a likely nod to the ‘Dark Game’ of the original title and a more full-on re-work of a similar scene in Ulli Lommel’s earlier cult favourite The Boogeyman (1980, and also a Nasty). “You don’t understand!” his father also screams, before the axe smashes down into his head, the old slasher maxim of “you have sex, you die” now taken one step further. In Scavolini’s universe, fucking is no longer just punishable with death by masked maniac; it’s the reason said maniac is loco in the first place. Sex-as-psychosis-catalyst is one of the director’s most fully realised and satisfying concepts, an idea at its most obvious during Tatum’s frothy-mouthed meltdown at a XXX peepshow.

NIADB 6The punchline to Nightmares In a Damaged Brain – as previously mentioned by Christian – is the paternal revelation: dead body unmasked at the crime scene, Tatum is exposed as Susan’s estranged husband, thanks to her cry at a pitch only dogs can hear. Often criticised for its perceived predictability – though, admittedly, more seasoned narrative detectives will see it coming a mile off – it’s more sickeningly inevitable than predictable; the real twist being CJ’s exposure and subsequent reaction to the violence. It’s just as the strapline to Screen Entertainment’s 2002 British video re-release (which ironically features the same print that landed distributor Grant in bother) promises, “One moment of ultra violence that once seen is never forgotten”. CJ’s seen the violence. He’s been complicit in it, and killed his own father just as his father did. And just like dear ol’ Dad before him, he’s doomed to repeat it, as signified by his shocking fourth-wall break at Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s close. It’s just a pity then that, as Christian also noted, its development throughout the rest of the movie wasn’t quite as well fleshed out as it could have been, getting a little muddled somewhere amidst the film’s slightly saggy middle stretch. Nonetheless, it still packs an emotional wallop.

Its status as a Nasty aside, Nightmares In a Damaged Brain is best known for the controversy surrounding its squirty gore effects; “I first sought it out because of the then-notoriety of the Tom Savini credit scandal,” says Christian. “Certainly here in America, it was far more well-known for that scandal than it was – at the time – for having been banned in England.” Long attributed to the Dawn of the Dead (1978) effects man – the grue legend who also supplied the splatty stuff for the aforementioned Maniac, Friday the 13th and The Burning – Savini himself vehemently denies any official involvement; he served only as an adviser to the then-fledgling Ed French (later of Sleepaway Camp (1983), The Stuff (1985) and Rejuvenator (1988), despite Scavolini crediting him as Special Effects Director. As he firmly explained to author Christian Sellers in 2007, “I was not involved in that film in any way I want to talk about. They keep using my name and I did not do the effects on that piece of shit. The guy who did do the effects, Lester Loraine, killed himself. He was a friend and they gave him no credit but tried to steal my name to promote this trash.”*

NIADB 7 SaviniIt’s a claim supported by French too, who also told Sellers, “I recall that the make-up effects guy in charge was a man named Les Loraine or Larraine. I had never heard of him before this movie and I never heard of him again after that… I remember Tom coming in, perhaps twice, to give the crew advice, direction and impetus to finish the preparations on time for the first day of shooting. I have no idea if this was a favour to Les or if he was a paid consultant. Tom didn’t do any hands-on work but he definitely influenced the techniques, style and game plan for staging the blood gags. Obviously, he was the coach. The splatter coach, if you will. Anything else I could tell you would be pure speculation.”*

Understandably, Scavolini’s version of events is grossly different, the bottom line being Savini was a much more active participant in the film’s sangre department than he’d care to admit: he didn’t do the latex, but he sure as hell “pumped the blood”* according to the fiery filmmaker. It’s hard not to deny the similarities between Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s effects work and Savini’s stuff; they may be a little cruder than the watershed, artery-splitting money shots in The Prowler (1980) et al, but they certainly have Savini’s trademark, bright red gush behind them – a little more so than him just simply coaching. What’s more, it’s hard not to deny that Savini was actually pretty hands-on from a production photo readily in circulation showing him giving young actor Scott Praetorius (Young George) a crash course in axe handling. Very odd, considering Savini once stated that, as he was working on George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) at the time, he’d never even set foot on the Nightmares In a Damage Brain set!

Whatever the truth, to paraphrase Sellers, it will most likely never be known; denial, accusations and libel-baiting stories of greed and Savini’s alleged licentiousness unrepeatable here will forever just fill its place. It’s a shame really, as such a mystery overshadows both the contribution of Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’s other effects man on the Florida-lensed leg of the shoot – the wonderful, future Charles Band alum, and star of the short-lived SyFy series Monster Man (2011), Cleve Hall – and actually just how good the film itself is.

NIADB 8 Pre CertStill, who doesn’t love a bit of gossip? And, as Code Red’s Lee Christian alluded to earlier, if it wasn’t for such scandal – especially its reputation as a Nasty for us Brits – Nightmares In a Damaged Brain would probably have just fallen into scare cinema oblivion by now. As it stands, the film is a bonafide classic of sorts: naff in spots and incredibly rough around the edges in others, but with a quiet, unspoken influence on the more introspective strain of extreme skin crawlers that have emerged in the last half-dozen years or so – a legacy of brutality that can be felt in the likes of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) and Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die (2010) – it’s an essential, must-see, cult slab of down and dirty horror. Seek Nightmares In a Damaged Brain out or just pay it another visit: you’ll be glad you did.

For Part II of this feature, in which Matty chats further with Code Red’s Lee Christian, click HERE

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A massive, massive thanks to Lee Christian – an all round good egg.

Code Red DVDs essential limited run blu-ray of the film, under its American title NIGHTMARE, is out now. Get buying it from their store here: http://codereddvd.bigcartel.com/

Find Code Red on Facebook HERE and twitter HERE

* taken from Scavolini vs. Savini: Nightmare In a Damaged Brain by Christian Sellers, originally published on retroslashers.net. Used by permission, with thanks to the author. Read the brilliant full article here: http://retroslashers.net/scavolini-vs-savini-nightmare-in-a-damaged-brain/

To go to part two of this feature, click HERE

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UKHS Does The Nasty! HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980)

House 1UKHS Does the Nasty!

HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980)

Kicking off our very special week of Video Nasty features, Stuart Smith casts his analytical gaze over the sensationally sleazy Italian rape-revenge shocker HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK…

Also known as: La Casa Sperduta Nel Parco, Der Schlitzer, The Ripper on the Edge

“In our societies we don’t believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship.”

Believe it or not, these are the words of one Margaret Thatcher PM shortly before one of the biggest and most insane media frenzies in British history. These words would of course prove both bitterly ironic and completely worthless as politicians from all parties and a tabloid media practically foaming at the mouth went on a crusade that changed the way movies in the UK would be consumed forever, leading to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act 1984 and the Video Packaging Review Committee.

As video made its way into homes across the country, enterprising independent distributors such as VIPCO and GO Video were quick to fill the then unregulated market with lurid sex and horror epics that otherwise had fallen foul of the censor. Marketing the films using ridiculously over the top and gore-drenched cover art, it wasn’t long before they began to draw the wrong kind of attention; a mixture of fear towards this new technology and questionable political grandstanding, with the overt hypocrisies of the ‘free press’ coming to the fore. Films like The Driller Killer (1979), Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and I Spit On Your Grave (1978) were suddenly all scapegoats for every social and political ill that Britain, at the time, was then experiencing: a handy distraction for a government up to no good!

House 2It was a difficult and crazy period, with certain unfortunate distributors landing themselves in jail for stocking certain tapes and for supposedly depraving the minds of the general public. It all sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but in the early eighties the confusion and the constant evolution of the political landscape meant that it was a very real possibility that the police were going to raid your local video store.

After a few years of headlines and assorted prosecutions, a final banned list of thirty-nine titles emerged (whittled down from seventy-two targetable ones). All successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, they became something of a shopping list for a whole generation of horror fans. Hunting them down on often bootlegged video cassettes, it was rebellious, dirty and wrong… But it had to be done if you wanted to be in the club. Some of these Nasties have become acknowledged classics (Last House on the Left, Zombie Flesh Eaters); others have rightly almost vanished into obscurity (Mardi Gras Massacre (1978), Night of the Bloody Apes (1969), and several pushed the boundaries of taste and common sense (The Beast In Heat (1977), SS Experiment Camp (1976); each one though is a curious monstrosity that every British horror fan should still seek out.

One such film is Ruggero Deodato’s La Casa Sperduta Nel Parco, or House on the Edge of the Park as it’s better known. Made in three weeks straight after the directors much more famous Nasty Cannibal Holocaust (1980), it was quickly eclipsed by its bigger, more popular cousin. Whilst Cannibal Holocaust was a sprawling horror epic about the evils of the media, House on the Edge of the Park is a taut, claustrophobic affair that deals with the class system and boasts one very skewed moral compass.

House 3Like Cannibal Holocaust, it’s an extremely confrontational movie but it is arguably much more representative of what it really means to be a ‘Nasty’. Featuring a roll call of Nasty-era talent like David A Hess (Last House On the Left), Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka the most mutilated man in cinema history) and Cannibal Ferox’s (1981) Lorraine DeSelle, it was most obviously conceived as a straight up exploitation film; not surprising given that it was written by Gianfranco Clerici and Vincenzo Mannino of New York Ripper (1982) fame. It was ripe for the fledgling UK video market when it first reared its ugly head in 1983, but – just as its clear inspiration Last House On the Left was – it was made by a director with more smarts than your average exploitation hack. A mixture of social commentary and cynically vicious incident, House on the Edge of the Park is very much a film of two halves but one that must be seen if the impact of these films in their pre-VRA days is to be understood.

Giving the viewer no time to settle in, we’re immediately hit with a Blitzkrieg opening: Alex (Hess), driving through New York, forces a young woman off the road. He then forces himself into her car where he proceeds to assault, rape and strangle her. It’s raw, brutal and unpleasant, and pushes upon the viewer its antagonists mind set. The film then changes gear for a while as Alex and his simple minded friend Ricky (Radice) are invited to a party by a rich young couple whose car they have helped fix. Once at the party sexual tensions and social politics begin to play out and it becomes more and more apparent that the hosts are mocking the two interlopers, seeing them as their lesser. The naïve Ricky in particular is exploited as he just tries to have fun. Alex however is wise to it: sharp and dangerous, he quickly turns the tables on the party goers and an escalating tide of rape, mutilation and violence soon follows.

House 4The first half of House on the Edge of the Park is a brilliantly paced and extremely tense affair, one that could rightly exist alongside other key rape-and-revenge films like the aforementioned Last House on The Left and I Spit on Your Grave. However it differs in one key respect to those films and it is here where it stands apart, becoming something much meaner and crueler in tone: it tells its story almost entirely from the point of view of Alex. From the start we’re inside his head, seeing the world through his eyes. Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave both tell their stories from the point of view of the victims and, despite their obvious exploitation roots, use their atrocities to make some sort of moral point regarding the destructive nature of violence and revenge.

House on the Edge of the Park though wallows in the damaged mind of its antagonist and at times seems to take as much perverse pleasure in all the terror and violations as Alex himself does. Take the film’s opening scene: by starting with such an incredibly brutal opening and showing Alex’s true colours so soon, the film lays its cards unflinchingly out on the table, and leaves everyone watching in one very awkward and edgy position. Knowing who – and what – Alex is and what he is capable of so early in the film means that every scene after that is dripping with his potential for violence. We know it is going to come at some point, but we don’t know when. It’s incredibly tense.
Unfortunately, once Alex’s straight razor comes out and the violence starts, the film spirals out of control and it inevitably becomes the same kind of nasty trash that much of the first half manages to avoid.

House 5 skyline adIt becomes difficult to defend it beyond the fact that it is very well made, its mixture of illogical seductions and sex scenes leading to an utterly ridiculous and painfully patronising twist ending that feels like a desperate last minute add on: a trite justification for all the terrorisation and assault that has preceded it. It also becomes hard not to concede accusations of misogyny as the film hints the women in the film are all ‘asking for it’. This is particularly evident in the introduction of Cindy (Brigitte Petronio). Coming late to the film, she exists solely to be abused and mutilated, offering nothing to the overall action, and the suggestions that she is under age renders the film’s finale all the more obnoxious. Becoming a victim of its own intentions, there is no escaping that despite Deodato’s skill as a filmmaker it’s one deeply unpleasant movie.

House on the Edge of the Park’s part in the Nasties scandal was a little more clandestine than some of the more famous titles. A permanent member of the Director of Public Prosecutions’ obscene list, it was the film used by then BBFC patriarch James Ferman as an example of how difficult his job was becoming: he’d regularly screen the film at various debates to outline the extremity of material which was flooding the country. What is particularly interesting about this is how it exposes the arrogance and hypocrisy of a select few in thinking that they have the right to decide what is and isn’t safe for everyone else to view. Considering the film’s themes of social division and hierarchal contempt too it’s somewhat ironic that Ferman would use it, suggesting instead that he was more scared of the under-classes being able to choose and think for themselves than he was bothered about protecting them.

I can’t in good conscience recommend the film to anyone. It is at times complex, and it indeed hints at a better, more intelligent film under its surface, but it quickly becomes a ruthless and degrading experience that even the most hardened horror fan would struggle to justify. It is though what a good Video Nasty should be: confrontational, morally ambiguous, dirty – even just a little bit dangerous. When Alex remarks to his captives, “No one tells Alex what to do!”, he could easily be speaking for a generation of film fans such as myself that refused to let the law get in the way of our viewing habits.

House 6 vipcoEven thirty years on there’s something wonderfully anarchic about it all and House on the Edge of the Park’s anything-goes attitude is a fitting example. The scandal itself may seem relatively quaint today, with assorted extreme horror now readily available mostly uncut on the high street. But these were game changers and the fine line they walked helped shape the way in which all home entertainment in the UK was packaged, presented and consumed. Video Nasties kicked the door in, invaded your home and gleefully tortured and raped the moral fibres of a nation then-desperately repressed.

 

House at the BBFC:
The Film’s British Censorship History

⦁ 16th March 1981: Rejected outright for cinema release

⦁ 1983: Released UNCUT on video by Skyline in 1983. Subsequently prosecuted and banned

⦁ 1st July 2002: Resubmitted by Protected Ltd. for release by VIPCO. Classified 18 with a whopping 11 mins 43 secs of cuts: “Cuts required to several sequences of sexual violence, humiliating depictions of female nudity and gross violence, in accordance with BBFC policy and guidelines.”

⦁ 26th September 2011: Resubmitted again by Argent Films Ltd. for DVD release by Shameless. Classified 18 with 42 secs of cuts: “ Company required to make cuts to one sequence of sexualised violence in which a razor is traced over a woman’s naked body after which her body is cut with the razor. Cuts required in accordance with BBFC guidelines, policy and the Video Recordings Act 1984.”

Get it uncut: There are multiple uncut editions available from various non-UK sources. It is also readily available on youtube…
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