My first experience with Italian horror and science fiction has two rocky but excellent starts. The horror came in the form of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and House By The Cemetery (Thanks so much Mick, for recommending and loaning them to me). Watching them on the brand new DVD format (Wave of the future!), I loved Beyond and couldn’t finish House as I was too scared of it (Thanks so much Mick, for recommending and loaning them to me!). Watching them, I could understand their appeal: they were quickly edited, well paced and had decent actors in them who just tackled the work and nothing more.
NOTE: Trailer contains gore and blood so NSFW
While I’ve never wanted to own them on home video in any major way, I did understand why they had their fans. On the other hand, my first proper intro to Italian science fiction was the redoubtable Starcrash (thanks to Jeff Tatarek for the assist). A bombastic, insane, ineptly conceived mess, it has that Bond girl from Spy Who Loved Me as the lead and David Hasselhoff wears a Zardoz mask which fires lasers out of its eyes and he has Christopher Plummer as his God Emperor of the Galaxy father. It has the worst special effects I’ve ever seen and none of its cast could act and Plummer didn’t look like he wanted to be there. That being said, it was a fun ride and I always remember the director was an Italian who had his name credited as Lewis Coates. So when Arrow announced that they would be releasing Lewis Coates’ Contamination on disc, I wanted to see if he was a one trick pony.
Luigi Cozzi as he’s normally credited directs this rip off (sorry, homage) of Alien which is more in common with the old Quatermass films from the 60’s than Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Cozzi even states as much in the disc extras. But while other films absolutely take the Alien story and run with it, here Contamination works to build a more earthbound tell of horror rather than flinging us into the stars. It doesn’t always work, especially in the setting up of the third act and some of the initial setup makes no sense but it doesn’t take itself seriously and after watching and reading about some of the behind the scenes info, most of the weaker elements are more a result of compensation for production issues than anything else.
Following the arrival of the ship Caribbean Lady into New York harbour, Lt. Tony Arris (Marino Masé) is called into investigate the claim that there’s no one aboard the freighter. Once aboard with some police help and a medical examiner, Arris finds that the crew are actually on board, just that they are no longer alive. Finding the crew literally exploded from the inside out, Arris make their way down below and are draw to some material coming out of the cargo bay. Inside are boxes marked as imported coffee but that contain eggs about the size of large Easter eggs. They, however, are green and covered in a viscous liquid. One of the eggs, near a heating pipe is glowing and when a police member picks it up, it explodes covering he and the medical examiner in the green fluid. They almost immediately bleed from their orifices and promptly explode from the inside out, catching another team member who also goes the same way. Arris who had the good sense to shield the unprotected part of his Hazmat suit from the liquid, quickly leaves to find help. Being detained for questioning by Special Section Five (or was it Nine, I don’t remember), Arris comes in contact with Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) who is leading the investigation into the incident. Soon, the two team up to track down the origin of the eggs and why they were on the ship in the first place.
OK, so if you’ve never seen an Italian horror or sci-fi, there are a few things you should know. They will contain all or most of the following: are low grade productions which make good use of locations, have an easy to get into plot, dizzyingly complex camera work, ropey special effects and have at least one out of work American or English actor to put on the marquee to sell to foreign investors who didn’t want to take a risk on a nobody cast. In the grandest sense of the phrase, Contamination has all of this and more. The film is a sectioned chest of different genres as Cozzi works toward his ending. We have the police procedural of Arris investigating the Marie Celeste case of the ship, moving into a government conspiracy with Col. Holmes and Section Five tracking down the company that brought in the eggs, the space horror and introduction of our other hero Hubbard (Ian McCulloch), an astronaut who came back from Mars haunted by what he saw, the James Bond intrigue of the Colombian location of the villains lair and finally the almost Dario Argento ending involving a mind controlling alien cyclops. This presents a problem as you’re never sure as to which genre the film is supposed to be. If it’s a sci-fi, it’s not very good at it. If it’s a horror, it’s not that horrific. Contamination is not sure what it is, but it’s not dire at doing it. Cozzi is a competent director who probably had a great idea on his hands originally. But two things fatally hamstring the whole film: the actors don’t seem to know how to play their characters and secondly, the film gives us no stakes to work for. The two main English speaking actors don’t seem to be able to get comfortable in their skins. Marleau tries her best to make Stella seem interesting but when she’s facing off against dialogue she’s forced to say like “It’s quite obvious you couldn’t get it up, even if you used a crane.” building her up is an exercise in futility. She seems to be trying to project herself as tough, confident, vulnerable, squeamish and sassy all at once. After spending most of the film sparring with McCulloch’s Hubbard, she bizarrely falls in love with Arris. Literally, in the space of one whole scene. But when you consider that Marleau didn’t really gel with the Italian method of filmmaking and that Cozzi wanted his old Starcrash actor Caroline Munro as Stella, then her lack of energy becomes apparent. McCulloch, bless him, works so hard to convince us that he’s a tortured soul that you almost feel sorry for him when Stella (who was the one to sealed his fate declaring him a nut after coming back from Mars with these crazy egg stories) hammers him senseless with line after line which amounts to: Pull yourself up, man! Yes, I know I ended your career and made you a laughing stock but we have this crisis on our hands, and I won’t have you feeling sorry for yourself! Oh, brother.
The people trying to stop this evil spawn from reaching civilization are not much better than the dialogue. Stella tells us that these eggs, if they get out, will kill millions of people. If something like that turned up on the streets and started exploding people, there’d be a panic for sure. But Stella’s Section Five don’t help out in any way except shooting at a bunch of brainwashed dock workers who successfully carry out Section Five’s job by shooting one of the glowy eggs and well, you can pretty much guess what happens next. After that, they are never seen again and I mean that. From here on in, Stella, Tony and Hubbard are totally without support. If it comes as a surprise that the evil forces of Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch) and his brainwashed corps capture them even without his psychic powers, then you are more trusting than I am. Hamilton is Hubbard’s fellow astronaut but he came back from Mars…different. Different here is wearing Blofeld’s costume from You Only Live Twice and being in pain every time he thinks about our heroes or the eggs exploding. I never said the villain was any good, I just said their lair had some James Bond intrigue to it. All in all, the plot is ultimately a salve to the characters and they are slaves to the plot. And yes, I spelled salve correctly.
The camera work goes from night time backlit street shots to the studio and into the streets of Colombia with some documentary shots thrown in for good measure. Cinematographer Giuseppe Pinori’s shots of the New York harbour and the ship’s interiors (excluding the cargo hold studio set) where our adventure begins are very moody and atmospheric and sell this as an international film very well (despite the film not spending much production time in New York). Where it doesn’t work so well are the interior scenes. The film looks flat and lifeless. When we’re on location in Colombia or New York or in a real building, the film takes a step up. On actual sets (especially the Section Five base), it looks so flat despite the excellent restoration by Arrow for its blu ray release. Having said that, the film itself has a fantastic score by Dario Argento collaborators Goblin (credited here as THE Goblin) which is weird and full of stings for each death. That, mixed in with the sounds of the eggs pulsating and the Cyclops sounds design, makes for a solid wall that Cozzi and the film can use to get their second wind when the second act starts to drag. By the time we get to the secret base in a Colombian coffee factory that houses the alien Cyclops (it’s given a credit in the opening reel so not a spoiler really), things have improved and even learning about how crap the Cyclops model was and how Cozzi had to shot over 140 setups to cover it up, the ending has a surprising end for one of our leads while McCulloch gets to machine gun the sh%t out of some faceless evil workers. Innards explode, nordic type girls are shot in the chest and the story ends with a “it’s over….for now!” flourish. Cozzi might not have been successful at selling us this movie in terms of horror or science fiction, but he directs it competently and keeps things moving nicely enough. There’s just enough bad lines, cheesy overacting, buckets of red nail polish standing in for human blood, chests exploding and Ian McCulloch to say the film did its duty.
Arrow really have done an amazing job giving us the ultimate Contamination release. The film looks great and the audio includes both of the English and Italian dubs (Both were recorded after the film was shot so they both have their strengths and weaknesses) and yes, the subtitles follow the Italian dub not the English one. There’s a great commentary track from Chris Alexander, the writer/director and EIC of Fangoria Magazine who absolutely enthuses about the film even while acknowledging its limitations. There’s a great extended interview with Luigi Cozzi as he discusses his life and career from the very beginning to the present day. It’s clear he really loves sci-fi and while I felt that with Contamination, his ambition exceeded his grasp, his heart’s in the right place. There’s a vintage interview with Cozzi from the time the film came out and here he explains the process of making the film. The music is explored with an interview with Maurizio Guarini, part of the Goblin music group who composed the score. We also get a video piece about the Italian rip off industry in the 70’s and 80’s and also a Q&A from a screening of the film last year with Cozzi and McCulloch talking about the film, their careers and taking questions from the audience. Finishing it off are the usual liner notes from Arrow written by Chris Alexander again with some comments from Cozzi.
A film that doesn’t make a lick of sense, Contamination is nevertheless entertaining enough for a new viewer of Italian horror to get into.
Not had enough Contamination goodness/gooeyness? Check out the (now sadly retired) Video Nasties Podcast with my mate Christopher Brown talking it up or…er, down? Yes, this film was laughably put on the Video Nasties list in the 1980’s