If one was to tender a few reasons why, in an age where streaming reigns supreme, physical media remains vital for cinephiles, one would undoubtedly be the mere existence of the aptly-named DVD label, Mondo Macabro. Spearheaded by genre aficionados Andrew Starke and Pete Tombs (co-author of “Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956 – 1984”; essential reading for any self-respecting genre buff), the label initially dished out a delectable slate of releases exclusively for UK collectors prior to branching out stateside in 2003.
For nearly fifteen years, Mondo Macabro has been at the forefront in bringing audiences totems of, as their tagline reads, “the Wild Side of Cinema.” From a Pakistani version of Dracula to a Bollywood riff on A Nightmare on Elm Street, Tombs and Starke scrounge the world over, relinquishing previously ignored psychotronic pearls from cinema’s graveyard for audiences to discover and cherish. Furthermore, they’re committed to granting these titles top-notch releases, replete with well-researched supplements (including in-depth interviews with the creators and documentaries on specific trends of exploitation cinema) and, pending the state of given materials, the best possible transfers.
Rather than perform the impossible and draft a definitive “Top Five,” what follows is a sampling of some of the standout titles Mondo has to offer, which can be conveniently purchased for a price on Amazon or rented from Ardmore’s Viva Video, where an entire section is devoted to the label! To be thoroughly honest, Mondo Macabro has proffered so many glorious gems for us cineastes to consume that it’d only be fitting to draft a “Part Two” sometime down the road.
Alucarda (dir. Juan López Moctezuma, 1977)
A curious blend of religious skepticism, Mexican folklore, nunsploitation, and shrieking Satanica, Alucarda — aptly described in Michael Weldon’s “Psychotronic Video Guide” as possessing “more blood, loud screaming and nudity than any horror film I can think of,” is nothing if not sui generis; perhaps the only possible pretexts springing to mind are Ken Russell’s The Devils and Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Produced on a shoestring, utilizing authentic rural locales and a few curiously surreal sets, Moctezuma’s folk odyssey concerns the close bond between convent members Justine and Alucarda, and the ensuing havoc they wreak upon liberating a Satanic force. Everything in the movie, even amid the quiet, early scenes, feels more than a little off: from adult actors being cast as adolescents to the (sometimes bloodied) bandage-style garments worn by members of the convent, Alucarda occupies a netherworld straddling pure fantasy and surreal reality; even the convent’s place of worship is visualized as cavelike and hardly a site one would deem holy. Little, however, prepares one for the show-stopping, blood-drenched finale, which, in its relentless intensity, tests the limits of the human sensory system. By no means a great movie and most certainly not a “so-bad-it’s-good” outing — a label and mindset this writer detests with every fiber of his being — Alucarda’s chief pleasure is its nonstop delivery (read: assault) of purely demented and distinctly personal imagination. No film like it is created solely for profit.
The Blood Rose (dir. Claude Mulot, 1970)
If Psycho’s boy-next-door serial killer ushered modernity into the American Horror Film, the incorporation of modern surgical medicine, courtesy of Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, generated a comparable influence on Horror Cinema in Europe. Claude Mulot’s The Blood Rose, one of the many 60s/70s entries in the Mad Surgeon sweepstakes, distinguishes itself by harking back to some of the poetry in Eyes, in addition to serving up a healthy dose of lurid eroticism and surreal imagery. In The Blood Rose, painter/botanist Frédéric (Philippe Lemaire) seeks to restore his scarred wife’s (Anny Duperey!) beauty by blackmailing a disreputable surgeon (Euro-Horror stalwart Howard Vernon) into performing skin grafts, utilizing the skin of unwilling, nubile belles. While not the best gateway drug for newcomers to this strain of Euro-Horror — try Franco’s The Diabolical Dr. Z (another Mondo Macabro release) on for size — The Blood Rose hardly deserves its obscurity. Even with the excellent release and the tantalizing tagline proclaiming it “The First Sex-Horror Movie,” Mulot’s film has, lamentably, been relegated to footnote status. It’s hardly original and the self-conscious poetry lacks Franju’s perversity, but it makes up with truckloads of oneiric atmosphere and a curious chapter structure, starting in “The Past,” before moving on to “the Present,” and finishing in “The Future.” It’s a fun riff on a well-worn idea, blending traditional Euro-Gothic tropes with modern settings and a fairy-tale ethos. Jean-Pierre Dorsay’s musical score is a romantic ear worm which only heightens the dreamlike aura; you really have to work to get those choral passages out of your mind.
Der Fan (dir. Eckhart Schmidt, 1982)
Post-Fascist anxieties were a mainstay for much of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, but the 1980s German Shock cinema interrogated the country’s troubled history in an even more unflinching, if not-so-subtle, light. Der Fan, which investigates these concerns through a study of pernicious pop-culture idolatry, might not be as well known as the cycle’s more notorious offerings, namely Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik, but it’s certainly one of the trend’s more thoughtful entries. Focusing on obsessed teen Simone’s pilgrimage to Berlin in hopes of connecting with pop-star R, director Eckhart Schmidt’s clinical exploration of psychologically destructive hero-worship straddles the line between art film and genre exercise. It might be too perverse for the Downtown Arthouse crowd, as it essentially takes its conceit as far as it can logically go. Sporting an ace Rheingold score, which drones on the soundtrack from beginning to end, Der Fan’s potency lies in its immaculate formal technique and tunnel-visioned subjectivity, the latter aided by Désirée Nosbusch’s performance, chilling in its credibility and occupying a middle ground between deranged and sorrowful. The film’s shocking final half-hour will hit you in the moment, but it’s the haunting, melancholic lead-up that’ll linger in memory. If Nicolas Winding Refn didn’t have this rolling around in his noggin while making The Neon Demon, I’ll happily accept a piping hot plate of crow.
Lady Terminator (dir. H. Tjut Djalil, 1989)
Read this closely, and heed the warning: this movie exists! It’s out there, it will find you, be it today, tomorrow, next week, or next month….I can’t be sure. This is the kind of movie in which everyday cops have easy access to Panzer tanks, and think nothing of keeping the peace or protecting innocent bystanders. Women fall for the beleaguered cop hero simply because they must, even after being subjected to hilariously demeaning insults and some of the worst police work to ever grace the silver screen. Furthermore, this sucker isn’t content with merely being a gender-reversal of Cameron’s Terminator; it aims to melt your brain by deploying Indonesian folklore as the secret Trojan horse. Most lethal of all? The titular lady, natch! Whether she’s riddling bodies with bullets or castrating amorous males, you can be sure her ruthless determination won’t be undercut. She’s on the prowl and you’re her next target. The tagline doesn’t lie: “first she mates, then she terminates!” Make no mistake: this movie is coming for you, and you won’t stand a chance. It’ll melt off your face without batting an eye. Afterward, it’ll simply seek out its next victim. All hail Jalil Jackson! I’m still waiting for Lady Terminator 2.
Symptoms (dir. José Ramón Larraz, 1974
Shades of Repulsion, Persona, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death abound in this 1974 British gothic chiller by José Ramón Larraz (best known for his lesbian vampire jam, Vampyres), rescued from obscurity through Mondo Macabro’s collaborative efforts with the British Film Institute. One of the more subdued titles in the catalog, Symptoms, the tale of an eccentric woman who invites her girlfriend to stay at her countryside manor, whereafter psychological distress and eerie happenings pervade, might not grace the heights of the films which inspired it, but it’s a superior effort which earns its climactic histrionics after seriously considering the repercussions of trauma, loss, pining, and repression. Other writers, such as Samm Deighan and Kier-La Janisse, have expertly examined this movie’s underpinnings, but it’s worth making a case for Trevor Wrenn’s exquisite, autumnal cinematography. Wrenn and director Larraz complement the antiquarian locales with a classical visual style, wherein stately compositions are punctuated by prowling, sometimes predatory camerabatics hinting at unseen threats. The movie’s most startling effect, however, is a human one: Angela Pleasence (daughter of Donald), with her kewpie doll face and piercing orbs, effectively injects our psychologically damaged protagonist with a forced naiveté, evoking the demons that lie beneath.