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Caligula: The Untold Story (DVD)

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Actors: David Brandon, Laura Gemser, Luciano Bartoli, Oliver Finch, Charles Borromel / Directors: Joe D'Amato / Language: English, Italian / Subtitles: Italian / Number of discs: 1 / Studio: Stormovie / Run Time: 227.00 minutes

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      05.08.2013 09:36
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      A dreary and sleazy low-budget Roman epic

      !!!Please note. This film is basically smut. Certainly it pretends to be an historical epic, at least for a while, and it has too much plot to be a 'proper' porno. But it is pretty filthy. In order to review it honestly, I am going to have to resort to descriptions of things that might cause offence. If you'd rather not read about an orgy scene featuring a threesome with a dwarf, you'd probably better bail-out now!!!

      A film-only review. Various releases of this are available, the cheapest being an Italian DVD for a little less than £10. I'm not sure how censored that version is; you almost certainly don't want to see the completely uncut version, though.

      The Italian exploitation industry jumped on any bandwagon that seemed good for a couple of crappy rip-offs. When Tinto Brass's bloated porn epic Caligula was released in 1979, it was inevitable that Italian directors further down the food chain would crank out some cheap imitations. And Italian directors didn't get much cheaper or lower than the legendary Joe D'Amato, who made this 1982 effort.

      It's difficult to summarise the work of D'Amato without sounding like a complete sleazebag myself; his grottiness rubs off on anyone who watches his films. He made soft and hard porn flicks with strong horror elements. While directors like Spaniard Jesus Franco and Frenchman Jean Rollin churned out their fair share of mucky horror, neither sank to D'Amato's clammy depths.

      What D'Amato has over his rivals is a willingness to go the extra, unpleasant mile. He got his filthy paws on the 'Black Emanuelle' series in the late 70s. This had started out as an innocuous (if faintly racist) Italian rip-off of the French soft porn hit Emmanuelle. Under D'Amato's control, Black Emanuelle's softcore fumbling was interspersed with some of the grimmest horror scenes put on film, all to a series of innocuously cheesy soundtracks by Nico Fidenco. D'Amato also made a series of hardcore sex-and-horror flicks in the Dominican Republic starring the least appealing porn star ever (more on whom later).

      The appeal of D'Amato is the sense of danger. You genuinely never quite know what you might stumble across next. It's the horror movie equivalent of poking a sleeping tiger with a stick. You kind of want it to wake up, but equally, you know you might regret it if it does. Under Joe's grubby tutelage I've been the horrified witness to many things I had no idea that I didn't want to see.

      I've seen all the D'Amato films that are likely to be of interest now. Like Rollin and Franco, he was forced into proper, unadulterated porn in the 80s, and I've no appetite for that. I note with both sadness and relief that this was probably the last time I get to see a D'Amato film for the first time.

      In this movie, the Emperor Caligula is repeatedly troubled by bad dreams in which he is murdered on a beach (want to guess what happens at the end of the film?). In his waking life he does the usual humping and tyrannising stuff. He becomes enchanted by a black girl, Miriam, but she's out for revenge because Caligula raped her friend. Also, there are senators who don't like Caligula much, what with him being a murderous lunatic.

      The main problem with this film is that it's boring - most D'Amato films are. Usually when they've lulled you into a false sense of tedium, they hit you with something really unpleasant. This film drags on for an almost unbearable two hours. We get far too much of Caligula's dreams, which are meant to look arty but just end up annoying everyone.

      I'm dubious about many of the historical details - were there really aristocratic Christians in Rome at the time of Caligula, with fish badges? Were there really Anubis cultists? Well, I guess there could have been. But where's Caligula's wife? His sisters? One of the busts in the palace looks a lot like Vespasian, who was emperor about 30 years after Caligula. I guess I shouldn't dwell on these details. After all, this is 'the untold story'.

      Caligula is probably the perfect exploitation film subject, as he combines sex and bloodlust and didn't rule long enough to get boring and middle-aged. There's not a great deal of violence here by D'Amato's usual standard. There's a nasty gladiatorial fight, and a few stabbings. One guy gets tortured quite unpleasantly in a subplot that drags on for ages. Only one sequence goes above and beyond, when some of Caligula's enemies are killed by being impaled on long spikes. That doesn't really last long enough, so the horror content is pretty minimal.

      Sex-wise, though, this goes much further than one might have wanted. Tinto Brass's Caligula famously had a lot of hard-core scenes edited in by the producers, allegedly without the knowledge of the cast or director. D'Amato's film has one, very long hardcore orgy scene, and I doubt anyone could claim they weren't expecting it. (In some cuts of the film, this sequence contains an act of bestiality, but happily the version I saw had removed that bit.) It's a rather dull orgy, with its centrepiece being an interminable threesome involving a dwarf (who has a certain amount of trouble, it must be said. I guess this was some years before viagra).

      Aside from the orgy there are plenty of softcore scenes, including a bit of bisexual action from Caligula himself, and a ludicrous scene shot in an obviously-modern swimming pool in which he deflowers vestal virgins with a dildo. I won't bother to explain how utterly inaccurate the film's portrayal of the vestal virgins is.

      The thing is, as with all D'Amato's movies, you never quite feel like the sex scenes and nudity are meant to be erotic. They always feel as if they're there for the sake of it rather than because anyone involved expects us to be aroused. (I really don't think I'd like to meet the man who could actually get turned on by a D'Amato film.) As far as the violence goes, it generally feels like he's going for shock effect, rather than aiming for any kind of artistic or moral point. I can't help but feel that that's how he uses sex in his films as well - as a bit of shocking spectacle, rather than as something that's meant to genuinely titillate.

      The crushingly unerotic nature of the porny bits is the least of the film's problems. It's flatly shot and looks dark and muddy throughout (there might be better-looking prints available than the one I saw). Although there are some fairly good locations, it all-too often looks cramped and meagre. Some of the costumes look like they belong in a cheap superhero comic. And the pacing is wretchedly unimpressive, allowing any energy to dissipate and leaving us yearning for the end. Even the music is terrible.

      And then there's the cast. Caligula himself is played by David Brandon, a British actor, and he at least looks the part. He doesn't manage to do much with his role, but he puts on a decent show. Another cast member looks a bit like Ernie Wise, and yet another looks like the fat one from Peep Show. Minor Italian horror director Michele Soavi has a small part as a torture victim.

      Top billing goes to Miriam, played by D'Amato regular Laura Gemser, a Javanese model who also played Black Emanuelle. She always - always - looks miserable (perhaps unsurprising given the type of films she was in). She looks especially grudging during sex scenes. Although she was very attractive in her younger years, by the early 80s she was uncomfortably thin - as a model she was probably very careful about what she ate, but she doesn't look entirely healthy. She gives her usual, apathetic performance. Gemser's husband, Gabriele Tinti, was almost always in her films. Perhaps he wanted to keep an eye on her. Here he plays a senator. As always, his obviously dyed hair and odd body hair are a distraction. Tinti and Gemser are like old friends, though, as they're in most of the D'Amato films I've seen, plus plenty more besides (including Love Camp, a film so brilliant it defies description).

      A less welcome D'Amato regular is the uniquely unappealing porn star Mark Shannon. He's the lead actor in some of D'Amato's more specialised films, like Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust (two of the most misguided movies I've ever seen). Here he plays a senator, and gets some proper acting to do... until the orgy scene, at which point he whips out the old fella and gets stuck in. He has bouffant hair and has to wear long-sleeves so we can't see his tattoos. His body is just bizarre - weird toast-rack abdominal muscles and unnaturally tiny buttocks. Worst of all, he has a very visible collection of warts on his, uh, nether regions - once seen, they can never be forgotten. Approach with caution.

      The film is obviously rubbish - almost unwatchably bad, and with a few moments that are likely to prove offensive to the majority of people. There are better and safer D'Amato films out there. I watched it more out of a sense of misguided completeness than anything (an excuse that's led me on a pretty unpleasant cinematic odyssey over the last few years). It's most unlikely that this will ever be released uncut in this country anyway, but on the off-chance that it is, or even if it isn't, you won't thank yourself for seeing it.

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