Many of us are too young to have stood on line for La Dolce Vita or talked over the finer points of Bergman’s latest in a beatnik coffee shop, but European sensibilities we surely cultivated for having supped at continental banquet tables of import genre pics --- reviled then, celebrated now. DVD has confirmed good impressions we formed over forty years ago. Who is Mario Bava but the more accessible and visually stimulating counterpart to a for-years dominant Fellini? You couldn’t have sold Sight and Sound on the bolder initiatives of Euro strongman pics, but we surely knew Hercules In The Haunted World was something special, even if such high-minded publications did not. Imports gleefully defiled formulas we’d grown tired of. Those they created for themselves flaunted domestic protocol and whetted bloodlusts peculiarly satisfied by widescreen tableaux of men tied to, then torn asunder, by stallions whipped toward opposite directions. Muscles and monsters, then later arriving Italo westerners announced they were capable of anything by crudely dubbed word, if not gesture. We’d been put on notice by German-made frontier sagas with recognizable homegrown names (Lex Barker, Elke Sommer, etc.), their genteel content given stature by Panavistas our westerns seemed to have lately abandoned. These tended to play tandem with Hammer Films at the Liberty, intended double-bills being split by Colonel Forehand in the interests of presenting a "balanced" program (after all, would I have gone to see Old Shatterhand westerns without the inducement of a Plague Of The Zombies on the same program?). By the time those first Spaghettis landed ashore, we matinee continentals were aesthetic equals for any Manhattan art-house habitué, our palettes evolved thanks to genre helpings we can now recognize as among the finest work Europeans were doing in those years.
Fresh Italian milk had to curdle eventually. It didn’t take Spaghetti merchants long to begin biting hands that were feeding them. Imitators we expected. Eastwood was supplanted on the marquee by Tony Anthony (who he?), John Philip Law and lesser lights available to us by virtue of major studio’s willingness to distribute second –tier westerns where lips moved at odds with dialogue. The Big Gundown seemed good at the time, but I haven’t seen it since ’68. Another from that year surfaced on DVD after decades in obscurity. We never got The Great Silence on these shores, and maybe it’s as well for viewer trauma thus avoided. How could rivers of Spaghetti profits have made such nihilists out of Italian directors? The Great Silence has a likeable hero shot dead at the finish, sympathetic townfolk he’d pledged to protect similarly executed by reptilian Klaus Kinski (his presence always a guarantor of queasing nastiness). I guess I admire the audacity of it, but how did sane investors imagine they’d get worldwide circulation with content like this? Pics of a Great Silence sort, atmospheric to a fault, amounted to death wishes for a cycle still aborning. Other late sixties Euro packagings didn’t need bummer westerns to self-destruct. TV scavengers realized there were (seeming) hundreds of sword-and-sandal features available to fatten up color groups for economy syndication --- thus currency, and respect, for these died quickly. Those of us who'd paid to watch Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott fight the Duel Of The Titans were now confronted with rubber-stamped Sunday afternoons watching Sons Of Hercules Against Maciste In The Valley Of The Medusa Head (take your pick from among kooky monikers these went by). Italian horror films were as dire. For every Black Sabbath, there’d be several like The Embalmer. I’d hear of Christopher Lee turning up in some of them, but if even AIP shrunk in the face of US distribution, you knew bets were off. By the seventies, we were back to buying American (save dreadful kung-fus, which made Spaghettis seem like models of sophistication). After so long a deprivation, I’m thrilled to see flocks of worthy Euros finally gaining passage to domestic shelves. So many are happy surprises --- I’ve never heard of shows I’m now enjoying. A Mario Bava DVD set is just out --- the deluxe career tome from Tim Lucas is imminent. Treasure hunts among these, plus the westerns, hold promise of many a pleasurable viewing hour. All we need now is someone to rescue and revive some of the better sword-and-sandals!