After the Bava and Fulci retrospectives we featured, I felt like Sergio Martino was the next logical choice. Please keep in mind that I don’t feel that I’m an expert, like Kat Ellinger who wrote the all-encompassing All the Colors of Sergio Martino.
Sergio Martino, the Italian film director and sometime producer, is mainly known for his early 1970’s run of highly influential giallo films. In fact, I’d compare his five-picture run from The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh to Torso to any giallo creator there ever is, was or will be.
The grandson of director Gennaro Righelli, Sergio began his career as an assistant to his brother of Luciano (who in addition to directing Secret Agent Fireball, producing many of Sergio’s films and writing 94 movies including Delirium, Ironmaster and The Whip and the Body, somehow found the time to be married to Edwige Fenech, earning my eternal respect and jealousy). He was second unit director for the aforementioned Bava film, The Whip and the Body before making his first film, the mondo Wages of Sin.
Martino often worked with the same actors, such as George Hilton (who was married to his cousin), Ivan Rassimov, Fenech and Claudio Cassinelli. They form a little stable, if you will, for some of his best-known giallo. But that’s not all Sergio created.
He also continued to work with Fenech throughout the 1970’s and early 80’s on several sex comedies. But he also dabbled in other genres, from spaghetti westerns to cannibal films, monster movies, crime stories, post-apocalyptic epics, crowd-pleasing sports affairs and even movies that I have no idea how to classify.
When asked about his films, Martino said, “My movies are like a soft drink — sparkling, unaffected products for mass consumption. A soft drink doesn’t have the prestige of champagne, of course, but I’d rather have a good soda pop than watered down wine anytime.” You can hear even more from him on the Color My Nightmare feature on Severin’s new reissue of All the Colors of the Dark and on their incredible All the Colors of Giallo set.
Without further ado, let’s get into it — as always, in no particular order.
1. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971): The first of ensemble giallo films, this one concerns Mrs. Wardh, of course, beyond ably played by Fenech, who must deal with her sexual past and the violent cravings that she yearns for but knows will eventually destroy her. Of course, being a giallo, there’s also plenty of murder, twists and turns. It’s but the start of where Martino would take giallo and a line from the film, “Your vice is a locked door and only I have the key,” would soon the next movie on our list. Get the Shameless all-region blu ray at Diabolik DVD.
2. Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972): Has any movie ever had a better title ever? Nope. Taking a cue from Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, here a rich man treats everyone horribly before running into even more horrible people. There’s also a cat named Satan and Fenech showing up in all manner of amazing outfits. This is perhaps the best example of giallo — to me at least — that I try to share with people interested in the genre. Get the Arrow Video blu ray at https://www.diabolikdvd.com/product/your-vice-is-a-locked-room-and-only-i-have-the-key-arrow-us-blu-ray/Diabolik DVD.
3. All the Colors of the Dark (1972): Martino’s giallo company here starts with Rosemary’s Baby and emerges with a work all their own, as Fenech’s character endures a car crash, the loss of her mother and an unborn child, then learns that her nascent psychic gifts lead to her brain screaming that a vast conspiracy is conspiring to not only murder her, but potentially steal her soul. This movie exists in its own reality, with free love Satanic cults and foggy London atmospheric doom. I strongly recommend purchasing the new Severin rerelease of this film, which is packed with extras including the shorter American version, They’re Coming to Get You.
4. Torso (1973): Martino finds entirely new cast for this giallo that eschews the traditional trappings of the genre and pushes itself toward being proto-slasher. Also known as The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, that title alone should clue you in that this movie is salacious and unsavory in all the best of ways. Every man is scum, every woman is gorgeous and the camerawork is as perverted as the killer. And the final act places Suzy Kendall into the most danger a giallo heroine may have ever faced. Get the Arrow Video blu ray at Diabolik DVD.
5. Sex with a Smile (1976): Proving that Martino was no giallo only one trick pony — although he’d return to the genre again with 1975’s The Suspicious Death of a Minor and 1982’s horror-filled Scorpion with Two Tails, this movie and its sequel, released the same year, are portmanteau comedy films based around sexual hijinks. While its cast was well-known in Europe — Tomas Milan, Fenech, Barbara Bouchet (who along with Edwige is one of the most well-known women of giallo), Dayle Haddon (once Spermula and today, still a L’Oréal model) and Sydne Rome (the Akron, Ohio born model who became a French aerobics instructor sensation in Italy in the 1980’s) — when the film was released in the U.S., the ads mostly concentrated on Young Frankenstein‘s Marty Feldman’s appearance. I love the Italian title for the film, 40 Gradi All’ombra del Lenzuolo, which after translation and converting Celsius to Fahrenheit would mean 104 Degrees Under the Sheets. Martino would spend most of 1979 to 1981 making similar sexy and silly flicks. This is not yet available in the U.S.
6. The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978): This movie has big stars like Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach, but it’s Italian cannibal sleaze when means that Ursula is going to get tortured by two female cannibals and smeared with orange honey before being fed her evil brother and Stacy is going to get killed by a giant waterfall. There’s also animal torture, which is sadly de rigueur for the cannibal genre. Grab this on blu ray from Ronin Flix.
7. The Great Alligator (1979): Martino’s genre-hopping abilities — some would call it chasing whatever trend was hot — are in full evidence here, as this Jaws-style film puts Barbara Bach before she married Ringo Starr, Claudio Cassinelli and Mel Ferrer against the tribal god of a resort area that takes the earthly form of a giant alligator. Oh yeah — this was co-written by George Eastman, so you know that it’s going to be ridiculous. The same waterfall that claimed Stacy Keach’s life in the previous film comes back to challenge our heroes in this flick. You can also get this on blu ray from Ronin Flix.
8. 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983): Remember when everyone went crazy over Children of Men? Martino made pretty much the same idea here 23 years earlier. He also had the sense to cast George Eastman as Big Ape as one of the Hairy Men, which makes this as much a Planet of the Apes pastiche as a Mad Max-inspired film. It’s also packed with non-stop action, little to no sense and a soundtrack by Oliver Onions. I love every minute of this, so much so that I’ve been known to watch this movie several times in a row. Ronin Flix also has this.
9. Hands of Steel (1986): A more ordinary filmmaker would be satisfied with just making a movie inspired by The Terminator. Perhaps I haven’t truly exaulted Martino enough yet. That’s because here, he somehow makes a movie that combines that movie, post-apocalyptic films and the arm wrestling movie, a trend that most think died with Over the Top (not so, as in addition to these two films, there’s also Champion, Pulling John and CLAW: The Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers). It also has John Saxon, Donald O’Brien (Doctor Butcher, M.D. and the M.D. stands for Medical Deviate!), Janet Agren, bikers, punk rockers, George Eastman as an evil trucker, a soundtrack by Claudio Simonetti from Goblin and a hero who is 70% robot and 30% human named Paco Queruak. It’s also sadly the last film of Claudio Cassinelli, who died in a helicopter stunt while making this movie. Guess who has this? Ronin Flix.
10. American Tiger (1990): Chances are, if you ever talk to me in person about movies, this will be the one I bring up. It’s quite honestly the most insane movie that I’ve watched and that says a lot. To wit: A rickshaw driver in Miami — played by U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Mitch Gaylord — is protected by an Asian witch as he becomes involved in a conspiracy that gets him in the shower having sex with a hot redhead — with his jeans still on — and the videotape of that event causing the death of the son of a faith healing televangelist — played by Donald Pleasance — who is also a warthog looking demon. There’s also a magical cat. Yes, this is the movie to top all other movies that make no sense. I’m still shocked that no major company has raced to get this out on blu ray. It is on Amazon Prime.
Of course, I’ve skipped plenty of films in my efforts to show Martino’s range. There’s also:
Arizona Colt Returns: This 1970 sequel was Martino’s first time as a director of a non-documentary film. It also has two amazing alternate titles: Arizona Lets Fly and Kill Everybody and If You Gotta Shoot Someone… Bang! Bang! You can watch this for free on Vudu.
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail: A 1971 giallo all about dead lovers, blackmail, peeping toms, scorpion earrings and plenty of murder. His other giallo are much better, hence it not making the list. You can get this at Diabolik DVD.
Giovannona Long-Thigh: A 1972 sex comedy starring Fenech all about a cheese factory, a bribed monsignor, a judge who likes to sleep with other’s wives and a virginal-looking prostitute.
The Violent Professionals: A 1973 poliziotteschi about a cop going undercover with the mob so he can finally kill the men who killed his father figure, this was the first of several films that Martino would make with star Luc Merenda, like Gambling City and Silent Action. You can get the Code Red blu ray at Diabolik DVD.
La Bellissima Estate: Martino even made dramas, like this 1974 film that has one lasting thing to remember it by: it’s where the theme for Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm comes from.
The Suspicious Death of a Minor: A 1975 giallo that concerns Claudio Cassinelli falling for a girl he doesn’t know is a prostitute, then descending into a shadow world of depravity to find her killers. You can watch this for free on Amazon Prime or order the Arrow Video blu ray at Diabolik DVD.
Mannaja/A Man Called Blade: I’ve just learned of this spaghetti western that stars several veterans of the Italian crime/action genre in Maurizio Merli, John Steiner and Donald O’Brien. I’ve also heard it’s incredibly stylish and is more horror than western, so I’m really looking forward to seeing this. This is free to watch on Tubi.
Island of the Fishmen / Screamers: This 1979 movie promised that “you will see a man turned inside out,” Martino has said in interviews that Guillermo del Toro has told him that he’s watched this movie several times. It nearly rivals American Tiger for sheer madness, as there’s so much going on: voodoo, amphibian humans, Atlantis and cannibals. Martino also directed a sequel to the film in 1995 called Queen of the Fishmen. You can watch Screamers on Amazon Prime.
Scorpion with Two Tails: A 1982 horror film that may have a scorpion in its name, but it has nothing to do with Martino’s previous arachnid-related film. This one has John Saxon being killed by an Etruscan cult and his wife dealing with the bloody fallout.
A Bear Named Arthur: In his interview on Severn’s new rerelease of All the Colors of the Dark, Martno refers to this as one of his movies that he knew would lose money. That said, it has some real star power in George Segal and Carol Alt in a tale of a composer and a secret agent.
L’allenatore Nel Pallone: This 1984 comedy film is unlike anything we’d ever have in America. Both it — and its 2008 sequel — feature multiple cameos by major soccer players, coaches and journalists. The closest equivalent I can come up with is Major League. Martino also made The Opponent, a sport comedy film about boxing.
Casablanca Express: If you can’t get Sean Connery and Anthony Quinn to be in your war movie, get their sons. That’s the Martino way. Donald Pleasence and Glenn Ford are also along for the train ride. I got my copy on the Mill Creek Excellent Eighties box set.
Additionally, Martino has worked extensively in the Italian TV industry, creating TV movies and mini-series like 1993’s Private Crimes, which reunited him with Edwige Fenech and also starred Ray Lovelock (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Murder Rock), who would work with Martino on two other TV movies.
What did I miss? What’s your favorite Sergio Martino movie?