Monday, November 29, 2010

The Paul Naschy Blogathon: A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (1974)

***Here is my contribution for Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies Paul Naschy Blogathon. I was thrilled to be asked to submit a piece and it was my pleasure to put this together. I chose to focus on a fairly obscure one starring and written by Naschy and I hope it proves interesting for other fans. Thanks again to Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies for hosting such an inspired event honoring a true original.***




A crazed killer, who leaves a bloodied plastic dragonfly as their calling card, is on the loose in Milan wiping out prostitutes, dealers and junkies. A well-meaning, if not always effective, Police inspector named Paolo is assigned to the case and, with the help of his wife Silvana, attempts to get the person or persons behind the brutal dragonfly killings.




An extremely entertaining, if low-rent, Spanish-Italian co-production from 1974, Una libélula para cada muerto (A Dragonfly for Each Corpse) is a relatively obscure Giallo from director León Klimovsky written by and starring the great Paul Naschy. Featuring a truly wonderful cast, including gorgeous Erika Blanc, veteran Angel Aranda and genre-favorite Maria Kosty, A Dragonfly for Each Corpse is a bloody and often overlooked entry in the Giallo canon and a film more than deserving of a decent DVD release.




Argentine filmmaker León Klimovsky was born in early October of 1906 and had worked in the film industry since the twenties. Already in his late sixties by the time he shot A Dragonfly for Each Corpse, Klimovsky was an assured if professionally disappointed man who had hoped to become more than just a commercial filmmaker. A Dragonfly for Each Corpse came at the tail-end of Klimovsky’s most successful run as a director, a run that had carried him through the sixties with a number of Spaghetti Westerns and some Spanish Horror films including the legendary La Noche de Walpurgis (Werewolf Shadow), a jewel from 1971 written by and starring one Paul Naschy.




Considering how wildly popular Werewolf Shadow proved to be it was no surprise to see several films featuring the collaborative powers of Klimovsky and Naschy. These include Dr. Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo (1972), Vengeance of the Zombies (1973), Devil's Possessed (1974), Muerte de un quinqui (1975) and Secuestro (1976). It was a fruitful partnership that yielded some truly splendid genre films and A Dragonfly for Each Corpse is one of the most interesting for a number of reasons.



Due to the worldwide success of Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” and works by such distinct directors as Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi, the Giallo was one of the most popular genres of the early seventies, so it was a natural one for the team of Klimovsky and Naschy to attempt. With a number of surprisingly brutal murders throughout, the presence of the unforgettable beauty Blanc and a number of past Giallo soundtrack ques from the mighty Cam music Library used for the soundtrack, A Dragonfly for Each Corpse might seem like a major lost classic from just the description alone but it is finally a bit less than the sum of its parts.



If a Dragonfly for Each Corpse is mostly an aping of the classic Giallo, then it is a pretty damn good one. Naschy’s script and story of a killer attempting to wipe out the morally corrupt isn’t necessarily fresh but it’s handled fairly well, even if as a murder mystery though it is finally just functional. A Dragonfly for Each Corpse really comes alive though in the sections involving Naschy and Blanc, who play husband and wife in the film.




Taking a cue from the astonishing Black Belly of the Tarantula (specifically the sections concerning Giancarlo Giannini and Stefania Sandrelli), A Dragonfly for Each Corpse is at its most suprising in how it handles the relationship between the Naschy’s just the facts Police inspector Paolo and his intuitive and very sharp bride Blanc’s Silvana. The two would have made a great crime fighting duo in another film and their interactions while trying to figure out who the murderer is provides the film with its most interesting and, at times, humorous moments. What is most invigorating about the relationship is the way that Naschy and Klimovsky allow Blanc’s character to ultimately be the sharper of the two and seemingly always a step of the head of the macho, if well-meaning, Paolo. It’s a cool little twist that’s refreshing in a genre often accused of misogyny and Naschy and Blanc have a wonderful chemistry together.




Behind the camera Klimovsky doesn’t attempt to out-stylize the Giallo’s most celebrated auteurs and instead just brings to the film an confident and steady visual touch that keeps it moving at a steady pace. He also delivers the film’s more violent and shocking scenes in an almost casual, but never dull, way. A Dragonfly for Each Corpse isn’t a terribly dynamic film but it’s never pedestrian. Klimovsky is a clearly competent director attempting to make an entertaining thriller with enough bloodshed and skin to satisfy fans and he captures the essence of the classic Giallo throughout.







Of course the skin was still a problem in early seventies Spain and two versions of A Dragonfly for Each Corpse had to be filmed. Knowing it would be subjected to the harsh eye of the censors Klimovsky simultaneously filmed a clothed and more explicit version. The version I watched, from an import Spanish DVD, is uncut as far as the violence goes but is the alternate ‘clothed’ print. That, coupled with the sometimes awkward recycled score (a particular bit from Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve threw me out of the story every time it played), gives A Dragonfly for Each Corpse a slightly generic and undercooked feel at times.







While the lack of skin in the more available version will prove frustrating to fans used to more permissive and freewheeling Giallo’s from the time like Torso and A Lizard in Woman’s Skin, they won’t have much to complain about when it comes to the steady supply of blood and mayhem Klimovsky and Naschy deliver. A whopping dozen or so killings are spread throughout the under ninety minute A Dragonfly for Each Corpse, a fact that makes it one of the higher body count films of the period. The gore effects are fairly crude but the vibrant cinematography of the great Miguel Fernández Mila, as usual, make great use of the color red, and the look of the film elevates it at every turn.





As for Paul Naschy's performance, fans will get a real kick of the cigar-chomping machismo he brings to his role as Inspector Paolo Scaporella. Klimovsky clearly loved filming Naschy and his scene-stealing close-ups are everywhere in the film, as is his humor which provides a much needed lightness often at the expense of his own character, who isn't quite as badass as he pictures himself te be.




Ultimately A Dragonfly for Each Corpse perhaps isn’t one of the strongest films that the team of Klimovsky and Naschy delivered in their time together but it's a terrific minor work and will please their fans as well as Giallo-enthusiasts. Why it still hasn't found a wider release is beyond me.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"You're a dangerous man, Mr. Dodd": Remembering True Believer


Eddie Dodd is having trouble looking in the mirror these days. Once a dedicated activist and civil-rights attorney who believed in change and progression through the sixties and seventies, Dodd has spent the best part of the eighties defending drug-dealers and pushers in exchange for whatever cash he can get, and he only sees a shadow of what he used to be each time he catches his reflection. With only a ponytail he refuses to cut connecting him to his youth, Dodd finds a shot at redemption when an idealistic young law student interns at his office and brings him a case that will either change or end his life.

A searing work from 1989 fuelled by a magnificent performance by James Woods, True Believer is one of the great under-the-radar American films from the last few decades. Directed with flair and intelligence by Joseph Ruben from an absolutely killer script from Wesley Strick, True Believer is a stirring film that has haunted me since I first saw it as a teen more than twenty years ago.





True Believer had its origins in a series of articles Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist K.W. Lee had written on a controversial 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gangland killing. Lee’s writing and the notoriety surrounding the event eventually led to the release of a prisoner on San Quintin’s Death Row, and it inspired the young screenwriter Strick to fashion a passionate and inspired fictionalized screenplay set in nineteen-eighties New York.





New York born and Berkely graduate Wesley Strick was just past his 36th birthday when True Believer briefly played theaters in February of 1989. It was the first major script that the former Rock-Journalist had seen brought to the screen and it would land him an Edgar Award nomination. It also remains the crowning achievement of his career, as none of his subsequent work (as a screen-writer and script-doctor) has come close to matching its intelligence, style and depth.
While True Believer’s storyline had been inspired by that Chinatown slaying from the early seventies, Strick’s inspiration for the burned-out and disillusioned Eddie Dodd was Tony Serra, the famed lawyer who had successfully gotten the acquittal for wrongly accused Chol Soo Lee in the case. Strick’s highly fictionalized version of Serra was a man who had lost his way through the eighties, a dreamer who had been eaten up by a system that simply just didn’t give a damn the way that he had. An actor of limitless talent had to be brought on board to play Eddie Dodd for True Believer, otherwise the film wouldn’t have worked. Lucky for Strick and director Ruben, that very special actor was available in 1988 when the film was shot mostly on location in New York City.



James Woods had been delivering knock-out work since the mid seventies on stage and screen. His career seemed close to exploding in 1986 due to his unbelievably intense Oscar-nominated performance in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, but the films that followed that masterful work had been mostly disappointing. The film that proceeded True Believer, 1988’s The Boost, had gotten Woods back on the right track though and it led the way to, what I think, is his career best performance as Eddie Dodd.




Joining Woods for True Believer in the pivotal role as legal clerk Roger Baron was Robert Downey Jr., one of the most gifted actors that had came out of the eighties. Downey, like Woods, was also suffering a bit of a dry-creative run when he shot True Believer in 1988, but he delivers a typically hypnotic and engaging performance as Baron and elevates what could have been a stock-character in lesser hands.




As far as the film's director went, Joseph Ruben probably seemed an unlikely choice to bring Strick's script for True Believer to life but he turned out to be an inspired choice as well. The New York born filmmaker had been working, mostly in exploitation films, since the seventies and had delivered a future cult-classic in 1987 with The Stepfather. True Believer is Rubin’s best work as a director though, and he manages to make it work as both first-class entertainment, as well as an incredibly provocative indictment of a generation that had sold out its beliefs and values for a luxury swimming pool in their backyard. Everything from his framing to his ability to hold a shot when it needed to be held in True Believer marked Rubin as major-talent in the making. It’s a shame he hasn't been given a script of such quality since.



The late eighties were a tricky time in American cinema. Lightweight crowd pleasing films like Rain Man and Driving Miss Daisy were crowding theaters and picking up awards, but it was a slew of cynical and thought-provoking works like True Believer, Running on Empty and Tequila Sunrise that were really telling the story of the day, each focusing in their own specific way on the failings of the eighties as an answer to the strives made in the sixties and seventies (culturally, politically and cinematically).





I first saw True Believer when I was a junior in High School and it had a pretty profound effect on me and I don’t think I have let a year slip by without giving it another look. Certainly one thing that I found so inspiring about the film was Wood’s haunting performance, Roger Ebert spent nearly the entirety of his original three-star review of the film praising it. Technically the film is quite dazzling as well if not at all showy (watch the still breathtaking and wonderfully edited sequence where Dodd and Baron recreate the murder they are investigating), but there was something in the film’s spirit that really moved me more than anything else. It was something about being a teen in the eighties suffering through Reagan, AIDS, The Religious-Right and conformity all the while with the knowledge that the liberal attitudes of the late sixties and seventies were so close and yet so far away. True Believer is one of those pivotal films from the eighties that is working against the decade…it’s not flashy, it doesn’t owe anything to MTV, and it has a real individualistic spirit that goes against the complacent nature of so many films of the time. Brad Fiedel’s score and James Woods' haircut are about the only things that place True Believer as a 'typical eighties film'. It’s a raging, if subtle, work that is a simultaneous throwback and flash-forward.




Not surprisingly True Believer failed when it hit theaters that cold winter of ’89. While it captivated a number of critics who were exhausted with the increasingly sappy and condescending turn American film had made in the mid-eighties audiences didn’t turn out for True Believer upon its release, and it’s never really gotten the fan-base it deserves. Woods astonishing performance alone should have guaranteed a cult around this film but it’s just never happened.




True Believer has always, thankfully, been a fairly easy film to see thanks to home video (and it even inspired a short-lived series called Eddie Dodd starring Treat Williams) and it is currently available on a bare-bones widescreen DVD from Columbia.



Joseph Ruben’s daring and expertly realized film remains one of my favorites from the eighties, and I hope some more folks might seek it out for the first time or give it another look. Re-watching the film recently I was struck with a certain sadness that I, like Eddie Dodd, didn’t fulfill a lot of my early promise, but as the end credits rolled and Lou Reed’s stunning “Busload of Faith” kicked in I was at least happy that I haven’t sold out my core beliefs and attitudes as I am nearing my fortieth year on the planet. True Believer, like Reed's song that was written for it, is just as relevant today as it was more than two decades ago...a reminder that everything, and nothing, has changed.