Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia Blu-ray Review: Killer Queens?

Arrow Video places two more (partly) forgotten gialli on the map in a box set that some folks will kill for.
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Following in on the high, blood-stained heels of their previously-released gialli box set, Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli, Arrow Video has once again assembled a mini ensemble to two dissimilarly similar titles from a somewhat forgotten Italian genre filmmaker. This time, we are allotted the opportunity to discern (and maybe even dissect) two unique thrillers from the realm of movies fueled by sex, violence, funky fashions, even funkier music, and J&B Scotch aplenty, both of which were helmed and brought to fruition by one Emilio P. Miraglia. Much like Ercoli ‒ whose films were made and distributed around roughly the same time) ‒ Mr. Miraglia only dabbled briefly in the giallo field, before (just like Mr. Ercoil) vanishing from the public scene altogether immediately thereafter.

That said, Emilio's efforts are set far apart from Luciano's lot due to one particular element of suspense: that of good ol' fashioned gothic horror itself. Whereas every other giallo ever produced usually kept their (heeled) feet planted as firmly onto the ground as possible (and that's really saying something, especially if you compare earlier entries to the type of output we saw once the mid '80s reared its head about and gory horror flicks quickly took over as Italy's Number One filmic export), Emilio P. Miraglia's two and only contributions to the Italian murder mystery movie machine ‒ The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times ‒ feature certain supernatural aspects which would only become incorporated into the fray as the years went by and the well ran dry.

Though Mr. Miraglia's endeavors weren't widely remembered (or even widely distributed) upon their creation, the first film in the set ‒ the aforementioned The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave ‒ has become something of an icon, due mostly in part to a memorable, extremely lurid ad campaign dreamt up by a fly-by-night American distributor known as Phase One Films for the film's American debut in 1972. Their advertising scheme (which included theaters issuing red-colored popcorn, dubbed "bloodcorn!") was highlighted by artwork depicting a woman dressed in revealing lingerie, which isn't anything out of the ordinary right off the bat, except that this lady sports a skull for a face, and is holding a man's blood-dripping severed head (itself sporting one ridiculous facial expression) out towards the viewer.

In fact, said artwork has become somewhat legendary over time, winding up on videocassette and DVD covers left and right, the numbers of which grew steadily as the film was (believed to be) in the Public Domain. The movie itself has never been entirely unknown to me (it was one of those titles you probably would have found lurking away in the depths of Woolworth's five-dollar bargain bin during the late '80s, as put out by some bottom-of-the-barrel budget label), but the reality of the situation is that I never actually saw the film then. Ultimately, I think that was a good call ‒ as several sources claim there have been as many as nine different cuts of the movie (including TV cuts) assembled, each re-edited into its own special hot mess which I'm sure didn't help establish the actual original movie's theme (or reputation).

Story-wise, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is about a special hot mess of its own. Here, Anthony Steffen, the late Italian/Brazilian star of many an illegitimate Django sequel (and who resembles bastard offspring of William Smith and Robert Hays), stars as Lord Alan Cunningham, wealthy jet-set heir of a vast European fortune replete with a creepy old gothic castle in the country. But don't judge this playboy by his riches, fine-as-funk '70 fashions and hairstyles, or carefree lifestyle alone: the recently released mental institution grubstaker has personal demons to combat. Actually, anyone who enters his world unwittingly signs up to battle said evil spirits ‒ be they real or imaginary ‒ as our antagonistic protagonist harbors extreme guilt over the death of his wife, Evelyn.

Like most people who carry the weight of another's death on their conscious, Alan exorcises the bad juju by luring red-headed prostitutes and strippers to his lair and murdering them amid delusional psychotic episodes. These less-than-savory indulgences may stem from his beloved Evelyn's scarlet-colored follicles. And, OK, maybe even that recurring vision of Evelyn stripping off all of her clothing to meet her nekkid doughy secret lover under the big tree in the even bigger yard shortly before both parties undoubtedly met their demise may have something to do with Alan's precarious way with women. Frankly, the slaughtering is getting so out of hand, it has prompted Evelyn's idiot game/groundskeeper brother (Roberto Maldera, The Night of the Devils) to blackmail his brother-in-law/employer.

Why, even Alan's best friend and shrink Dr. Richard (Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Hornets' Nest) has grown concerned with the mass murders and subsequent impromptu funeral pyres up in the estate's gigantic tower. Following a failed seance to contact Evelyn, Dr. Richard, Alan's barrister/cousin Farley (giallo regular Umberto Raho of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage fame, who inexplicably vanishes somewhere before the third act here), and Alan's only living heir George (Enzo Tarascio) somehow convince our demented Lord to get out of the lonely country and check out swingin' London for a bit. Naturally, he instantly picks up and kills another redhead, following one heck of a groovy nightclub scene that makes the most out of Bruno Nicolai's incredible funky music score.

Eventually, Alan's killing urge stops when he meets and marries young Gladys (the late Marina Malfatti): a tall skinny blonde goddess who catches his eye and captures what remains of his heart, despite having a name that would seem most at home in an appropriately short-lived '70s sitcom starring Jerry Stiller. But just because Alan appears to have retired his murderer's hat and gloves doesn't necessarily mean the murders are going to stop. Truth be told, the addition to Gladys to the Cunningham Family brings with it another assortment of death, perpetuated by an unknown assailant with one hell of an imagination. Soon, the estate is besieged by not only killer snakes and eviscerations by hungry foxes (a precursor to Italy's zombie and cannibal movies?), but by the zombified apparition of Evelyn herself!

Cult actress Erika Blanc lends her name and body to the production via a glorified killer cameo here in this wild story from Fabio Pittorru (The Weekend Murders) and Massimo Felisatti (Strip Nude for Your Killer). Having initially seen the proper respect the title deserves from the now-defunct video distributor NoShame Films in 2006, Arrow Video's new transfer presents us with a new 2k scan of original materials. Viewers are given the option of watching the movie with either Italian or English credits and audio track (with optional English subtitles available for the Italian version) in DTS-HD MA Mono. My personal preference is the English dubbing, mainly because I have a weird aural fetish for the European-based voice actors of the '60s, '70s, and '80s (Nick Alexander, you were a god among men).

As far as extras are concerned, Arrow Video has justly honored NoShame's previous efforts by including their exclusive bonus materials as "Archival Special Features" here, and consist of an introduction by Erika Blanc and retrospective looks at the film by the aforementioned European actress and production designer Lorenzo Baraldi. Ms. Blanc returns for this 2016 release, once again introducing the film and taking part in another (new) interview. Giallo/horror enthusiast and historian Troy Howarth lends his love for the film via an audio commentary; English author Stephen Thrower hosts a new featurette; and psychedelic trailers for the film (which are essentially the same: one is for the Italian market, while the other is the international English export version) are also served up to savor.

Shortly before the somewhat enigmatic Emilio P. Miraglia (and Luciano Ercoli, too) all but withdrew from the world (something Anthony Steffen also did ‒ although he occasionally popped in for a cameo all the way up until the early '90s, when he retired from film altogether), he ventured forth into the untested waters of the semi-supernatural giallo one last time. The result was 1972's The Red Queen Kills Seven Times ‒ which is about as "giallo" of a title as you can possibly get without straying into stranger waters ‒ starring the beautiful Barbara Bouchet. Here, the European-born Bouchet (who has been in everything from the original Star Trek to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) stars as a young woman haunted by the death of ‒ wait for it ‒ someone named Evelyn!

I think it's already safe to say originality isn't the founding block for this Italian/West German co-production. And although the movie never saw a release in Germany until it hit home video in 1984, and was recut and limited to a brief 1976 run in America by Cannon Films under the silly alias Feast of Flesh (appearing on a double-bill with Joel M. Reed's Blood Bath; no relation to the great big confusing Roger Corman production I previously covered), I cannot say these oversights were because of the film's quality itself. Sure, the budget was pretty limited (note how half of the characters drive the same Volkswagen bug, or the fact the same brick wall is used as both the office of a fashion magazine headquarters and police station!). Yes, the story would have benefited from some extensive ironing out.

But it is what it is: flawed, funky, fantastic fun. There were far worse gialli produced and released near and far both before and after The Red Queen Kills Seven Times; it just so happened that this title didn't make the cut in a couple of countries for whatever reason(s) ‒ most likely bad distributors (if only Cannon Films had hired the same genius behind The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave's advertising campaign...). But whatever. Our story begins with a case of potentially hazardous sibling rivalry between young Kitty and Evelyn. Their wheelchair-bound grandfather (Rudolf Schündler, who appeared as Ellen Burstyn's overly sensitive house servant Karl in The Exorcist a year later) settles the match by relaying a grisly family legend about murderous siblings (how German of him!).

Heck, grandpa even keeps an eerie painting in his study depicting the deadly struggle betwixt the family's legendary sister act, the Black Queen and the Red Queen; something he uses as a reference to the girls shortly before ordering the maid to destroy. Years then pass as the opening credits roll (the movie only lets us in on the latter), to wit we are soon introduced to an all-growed up Kitty (Bouchet) and her previously unmentioned sister Franziska (Marina Malfatti again). Evelyn? Well, she died somewhere in-between those credits, accidentally struck down in the prime of her manipulative life in yet another clash with Kitty. Not wishing to upset grandpa, the women have created an illusionary existence for the deceased, claiming she is in America (it is where dreams go to die, after all!).

Even though feeble old grandpa ordered that ghastly portrait destroyed before the opening credit sequence, it pops up again ‒ this time in his bedroom (again, how very German of him) ‒ during the first of several (OK, seven) killings as our film's executioner makes their less-than-nuanced debut within the confines of a fairly confusing storyline. Miraglia's supernatural element sticks its foot in the door here, as it becomes quite clear to our confused, haunted Kitty that her dead sister (whom no one else save for Franziska knows is dead) may have "come out of the grave" to fullfil some crazy folklore in the lineage of a family whose only valid option as to the ultimate benefit of mankind at this point is involuntary sterilization ‒ especially once our ghostly Red Queen (or is she merely a Red Herring?) starts living up to the movie's title.

Maniacally maligned to the point where you may have to watch the ending several times just to catch all of the explanatory write-offs for characters or gaping plotholes, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times benefits from a number of grisly murders (one of which bears a striking resemblance to the climax of Dario Argento's Deep Red, which wasn't made for another three years) and, of course, nudity. Interestingly enough, the two actresses who shed their clothes and inhibitions in this film are the only non-Italian starlets out of the lot: Ms. Bouchet and the lovely Sybil Danning, who makes one of her earliest appearances here. The great Bruno Nicolai once again provides us with a funky music score, which was recently given a vinyl release from specialty soundtrack label Dagored Records.

Also cast in this oddity undoubtedly dreamt up after "idea" man Fabio Pittorru ate too many Calabrian peppers the night before are Ugo Pagliai as our unbelievably bland hero with zero taste in interior decorating, and Fabrizio Moresco, who was evidently on-leave from the two Luciano Ercoli movies he was in at the same time. Nino Korda is cast as the proverbial guy with the big '70s 'stache, while the great Marino Masé (Contamination, L'attrazione) ‒ also sporting a hefty caterpillar on his upper lip ‒ is the lazy, cynical police detective in a familiar-looking office who does little more than interview people whilst a red-caped lunatic hops about Würzburg killing people. Arrow Video's lovely new 2k scan is presented with Italian and English credits and DTS-HD MA Mono audio (with optional English subs available).

Like with the previous film, Arrow has rescued the bonus materials from the old 2006 NoShame disc, and the "Archival Special Features" for this title include a continuation of production designer Lorenzo Baraldi's reflections on the piece, two chats with Marino Masé, and a brief (barely minute long) clip of Barbara Bouchet mentioning the film (and I mean mention). In terms of new goodies, Signori Baraldi returns for a new introduction, English horror critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman are on-hand for the audio commentary, Stephen Thrower pops in for a featurette, and Ms. Sybil Danning shows us how amazing one can look at 64 in a new interview. Lastly, there's a unique little alternate pre-credit opening used in some countries, and two more psychedelic trailers akin to what we saw with the previous picture.

Like their Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli set, Arrow Video's four-disc (2 BD/2 DVD) release of Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia is housed in a sturdy cardboard case with an accompanying booklet featuring essays on each film from James Blackford, Kat Ellinger, Leonard Jacobs, and Rachael Nisbet. Both titles include reversible covers, too: one side features newly-commissioned (contemporary) designs by artist Gilles Vranckx, while the reverse side is privy to some of that classic original '70s poster art. And yes, that hilarious ol' Phase One Films poster is used in the instance of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. I mean, why wouldn't it be? All you have to do is pop up some "bloodcorn" and enjoy.

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