Sergio Martino - Italy's Unsung Exploitation King

The prolific and versatile career of Sergio Martino spans many movie genres; sci-fi, horror, action, documentary, comedy, war and westerns. With titles such as The Mountain of the Cannibal God, The River of the Great Alligator, The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, Naked and Violent, A Man Called Blade and Vendetta from the Future, it’s obvious Martino had a penchant for exploitative fare laden with copious amounts of sex and violence. It therefore comes as no surprise, given that Martino was most prolific in the Seventies and Eighties and not afraid to experiment or dabble with different genres, that he is perhaps most famed for his work in the horror/thriller arena; specifically his violent and stylish gialli. Produced throughout the Seventies – arguably the Golden Era of the exclusively Italian genre - several of these films featured memorable collaborations with prolific actress, Edwige Fenech.

Perhaps because of Martino’s willingness to experiment and work in different genres, not really allowing himself to be associated with one kind of film in particular, he doesn’t really receive the recognition that he should for his contributions to Italian genre cinema. Regardless of whether he was directing a giallo or a gun-ho sci-fi action flick, Martino still directed with flair, style and the desire to give his audiences what they wanted – namely, thrills, chills and cleavage.

Below are several of his most memorable genre titles – while they should certainly not be considered to be his best work – they are nonetheless an indication of his versatility as a director.

Torso (1973). The brutal murders of several college students plunge the campus into paranoia and terror. Four friends (including Suzy Kendall – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) decide to leave town for a few days until the killer is apprehended. They head for the safety of a secluded country villa – little do they realise though, that the crazed maniac has followed them to the retreat and fully intends to off them one, by one, by one. One of Martino’s later gialli, Torso is a lean exercise in atmosphere, sustained tension and elaborately stylish murder sequences. A proto-slasher flick, it strips the formula right back to basics and enables Martino to do away with such hindrances as plot, characterisation and story. In their place we have a simple tale of a group of women and the twisted psycho who is stalking them. Scenes of nudity and exposition gradually bleed away once the friends reach their villa and the killer starts offing them. One stand out scene features one of the friends stranded in the woods, high on drugs, being startled as a mysterious figure emerges menacingly from the mist. The taut third act, as Kendall evades the killer around the villa, is immensely taut and stressful.

Island of the Fish Men (1979). Lieutenant Claude de Ross (Claudio Cassinelli) and several escaped convicts are shipwrecked on a mysterious island. After encountering Amanda (Barbara Bach – Short Night of Glass Dolls), Claude is introduced to her scientist father, Professor Ernest Marvin. It soon transpires that Marvin has discovered the lost city of Atlantis and is transforming the island’s indigenous people into amphibious deep-sea diving creatures in order to retrieve the treasures of Atlantis. Amanda has a psychic link with the creatures and often swims with them at night. Loosely based on HG Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, Island of the Fish Men was released several times under several different monikers. Initially released uncut as Island of the Fish Men, the rights of Sergio’s aquatic-horror were then bought by American distributor United Pictures Organization. Re-released as Something Waits in the Dark, the new cut featured a brand new opening scene featuring Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace) and boasted effects by Chris Walas, as well as a new score and 15 minutes slashed from the running time, by order of Roger Corman. In 1980, the film was re-cut and released again, under the title of Screamers – with a trailer featuring a man being turned inside out – even though no such image was ever featured in any cuts of the film. The mind boggles.

The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978). When her husband goes missing during an anthropology expedition through the jungles of New Guinea, Susan (Ursula Andress) and her brother Arthur enlist the services of Professor Foster to help them track him down. They head for the mountain Ra Ra Me as they believe Susan’s husband has been captured by a tribe of cannibals. As they venture further into the inhospitable jungle, it becomes obvious they all have ulterior motives for being there – and before they know it they’ve also been added to the menu of the local tribe of cannibals who want Susan as their new Goddess. Upon its release, The Mountain of the Cannibal God caused quite a stir as it featured several scenes of actual cruelty to animals. Martino claimed that the only reason he slotted these shots into the film was because he caved from the pressure of his distributors to ‘spice’ things up a little. The film remained banned in the UK until 2001. With this flick, its obvious Martino just took the money and ran, dropping any semblance of moral decency on the way.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). A very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’, Your Vice… is the morbid tale of alcoholic writer Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli – Bay of Blood) and his long-suffering wife Irina (Anita Strindberg – A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) who live a mutually-destructive and claustrophobic existence in their crumbling mansion, often throwing wild bacchanalian parties. When Oliviero’s mistress is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect – and when his wayward niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech) suddenly arrives for a visit, things become increasingly fraught with tension and paranoia. Irina finds comfort in Floriana’s arms – and bed – and the two decide to find a way to deal with Oliviero and his mounting violence and paranoia, once and for all.
Boasting prowling camera work that might make even Argento a little envious, Martino utilises his location here to great effect, creating spooky spaces and thrilling set pieces from the sparse interior of the mansion – the air of which hangs heavy with a stifling sexual maelstrom. Throw in a few lesbian sex scenes, a mysterious black cat and several vicious murders and you have a gloriously vintage, sexy and moody giallo that rates right up there with the best of ‘em.

2019, After the Fall of New York (1983). A disgraced former military hero heads into war-torn New York to rescue the last fertile woman alive. Martino’s answer to John Carpenter’s vastly superior Escape from New York, 2019 is a post-apocalyptic spaghetti sci-fi horror set in the aftermath of a nuclear war that has caused the world’s population to become infertile. No babies have been born for over 15 years and mankind is on the brink of extinction. Society has broken down into two groups – the evil Euraks who hide out in and control New York City, and the rebel Federation, who ride around on white horses a lot. Parsifal is hired by the Federation to infiltrate New York City to rescue the only fertile woman left on Earth. Laser guns, dominatrix cyborgs and car jousting; with 2019 Martino went all out to give audiences a thrilling exploitation ride and in doing so, perfectly encapsulates why B-movies can be so bloody great, as he directs the increasingly energetic tale with aplomb. The explosions, violence and OTT special effects manage to surpass those featured in Carpenter’s movie, ensuring 2019 unspools as a trashy and deliriously fun flick.

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