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Retro Review: PAGANINI HORROR (1989)

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PAGANINI HORROR
(Italy - 1989)

Directed by Lewis Coates (Luigi Cozzi). Written by Luigi Cozzi and Daria Nicolodi. Cast: Daria Nicolodi, Jasmine Main (Jasmine Maimone), Pascal Persiano, Donald Pleasence, Maria Cristina Mastrangeli, Michele Klippstein, Pietro Genuardi, Luana Ravagnini, Roberto Giannini, Giada Cozzi, Elena Pompei, Perla Agostini. (Unrated, 83 mins)

In the tradition of SHOCKING DARK, ROBOWAR, NIGHT KILLER, and KILLER CROCODILE, films that only seemed to exist in the pages of the Midnight Video bootleg VHS catalog back in the day, Severin unveils another never-released-in-the-US, late-period Italian horror obscurity in an impressive Blu-ray presentation, because physical media is dead. This time, it's Luigi Cozzi's ludicrous PAGANINI HORROR, a film that serves as a virtual case study for why--with the exception of Dario Argento and his protege Michele Soavi--Italian horror was on life support by 1989. Using his trusty pseudonym "Lewis Coates" as if we couldn't tell an Italian genre flick when we saw one, Cozzi, best known for the 1979 STAR WARS ripoff STARCRASH, the gut-busting 1980 ALIEN knockoff CONTAMINATION, and Cannon's 1983 CONAN-inspired HERCULES with Lou Ferrigno, had been planning a departure project in the form of a biopic of legendary Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini as far back as 1984, with the intention of nabbing GREYSTOKE star Christopher Lambert for the lead. As explained by Cozzi in the Blu-ray's bonus features, the serious Paganini film fell apart in pre-production, prompting the director to abandon his artistic ambitions and return to his genre comfort zone, reconvening with Ferrigno for the 1985 sequel THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES.






Cozzi was then one of five (!) directors cycled through 1988's extremely-troubled, never-released-in-the-US NOSFERATU IN VENICE (six if you count volatile star Klaus Kinski, who also logged time behind the camera), an unofficial sequel to Werner Herzog's 1979 film NOSFERATU, THE VAMPYRE, with only producer Augusto Caminito receiving directing credit. The subject of Paganini came up again for Cozzi a year later when Kinski wrote, directed, and starred in the humbly-titled KINSKI PAGANINI, a self-indulgent vanity project that consisted of little else but Kinski's Paganini bedding a series of beautiful women. Kinski wanted Herzog to direct it, but the legendary German auteur refused, calling the actor's script "unfilmable." The story essentially used Paganini's sexual exploits as more Kinski braggadocio, as the mercurial actor had just taken a deep dive into the locker room with his notorious and probably very embellished X-rated, fuck-and-tell memoir All I Need is Love. An 81-minute Klaus Kinski home movie, the disastrous KINSKI PAGANINI was met with derisive scorn and was apparently only released in Germany. Yet there was a feeling during its production that it would ignite a Paganiniassaince of sorts, as Cozzi quickly began work on the intended cash-in PAGANINI HORROR, which was built around the enduring myth that Paganini acquired his virtuoso skills and violin mastery via a deal with the devil.


Written by Cozzi and co-star Daria Nicolodi, who had recently split with Dario Argento after a long relationship (she's Asia Argento's mother) and many collaborations (DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, TENEBRE, PHENOMENA, OPERA), PAGANINI HORROR opens with a Venice-set prologue where a young violin prodigy (Cozzi's daughter Giada) electrocutes her bathing mother (Elena Pompei) by tossing a hair dryer into the tub. Cut to a recording studio, where pop star Kate (Kate McKinnon lookalike Jasmine Maimone) and her band--guitarist Elena (Michele Klippstein), bassist Rita (Luana Ravegnini), and drummer Daniel (Pascal Persiano)--are busy working on their latest single "Stay the Night," which sounds suspiciously like Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name." Bitchy producer Lavinia (Maria Cristina Mastrangeli) isn't feeling it and refuses to sugarcoat it, telling Kate and the band "There's nothing original about it!" (she's not wrong) and exhorting them to get their shit together. This prompts Daniel to arrange a clandestine meeting where he makes a pact with the mysterious Mr. Pickett (Donald Pleasence, in an ill-fitting trenchcoat and dubbed by someone trying to sound like HELLRAISER's Pinhead) where he's granted a sealed parchment that contains a long-buried, never-heard-or-performed Paganini piece called "Paganini Horror." Daniel helps Kate arrange the piece into the rocker "The Winds of Time," which sounds more than a little similar to Electric Light Orchestra's "Twilight." The band is rejuvenated, and Lavinia hires famed horror movie director Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) to film a music video for the song ("No one has ever done anything remotely like this before, except for Michael Jackson and his fantastic 'Thriller' video clip!" exclaims Kate in a way that no rational adult human ever would) at a creepy, long-abandoned villa owned by Sylvia (Nicolodi), supposedly the very location of Paganini's deal with the devil. They get more than they bargained for when playing their new song resurrects the masked specter of Paganini, who roams the premises like a Dipshit Phantom of the Opera, offing everyone one by one in a variety of gruesome ways, usually with a violin that has a retractable blade at the chin rest.










You almost have to begrudgingly admire the shameless chutzpah of the PAGANINI HORROR songs composed by Vince Tempera, formerly of Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera (THE PSYCHIC). Additionally, there's a certain garish style that makes it an interesting companion piece to Cozzi's next film, THE BLACK CAT, which was shot immediately after PAGANINI HORROR, shares co-star Maimone, and also involves evil goings-on in the entertainment industry. Shot as DE PROFUNDIS but retitled to cash in on the ill-fated Poesploitation craze of 1989-91, THE BLACK CAT was written by Cozzi and Nicolodi and intended to be an unofficial final entry in Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy (following SUSPIRIA and INFERNO), but Nicolodi left the project over the usual "artistic differences" and took her name off the finished film (Argento would eventually complete the trilogy in an official capacity with 2007's MOTHER OF TEARS, which really isn't any better or worse than Cozzi's fake Three Mothers opus). With PAGANINI HORROR, Cozzi takes some of the cosmic bullshit he would use in THE BLACK CAT for a third-act, deus ex machina test spin, with Nicolodi's Sylvia babbling about "the harmony of the spheres," and "enormous radio telescopes," and "the stars making music," and other assorted batshittery that sounds more at home in a Marianne Williamson campaign speech. It makes as much sense as anything else in PAGANINI HORROR, whether it's Cozzi's recurring shout-outs to Argento (Lavinia crawling through a blue-lit, PHENOMENA-inspired tunnel or someone else finding a room with an illuminated hourglass that bathes the whole thing in a SUSPIRIA red glow), the endless, time-killing shots of people walking around, Elena being found covered in a strange mold that Lavinia recognizes as the same kind of unique fungus used in violin construction in the 18th century, and Pleasence standing on top of St. Mark's Campanile in Venice, throwing wads of US cash out of a bag and yelling "Fly away, little demons!" Obviously enticed by a free trip to Venice, Pleasence only has a few scenes and was paid $20,000 for three days' work on the film (was that his own money in the bag?), and at least one of those days had to be devoted to the extended gondola ride his character enjoys, if the actor's goofy grin is any indication.










Produced by Fabrizio De Angelis, who shepherded the work of Lucio Fulci during most of his incredible 1979-1982 run of greatness, PAGANINI HORROR quickly vanished from Italian theaters in the summer of 1989, and didn't get much of a release anywhere else in the world aside from Japan. It never even made it to US home video until Severin's recent Blu-ray release, which gives it an edge over THE BLACK CAT, which also skipped US theaters and VHS before debuting on the old-school Sci-Fi Channel in 1993. THE BLACK CAT has been available on streaming services and frequently runs on Comet, but remains MIA on North American DVD and Blu-ray. Both of these endearingly terrible films are flip sides of the same coin (at least THE BLACK CAT gets some real jams, relying heavily on Bang Tango's barnburner "Someone Like You") and represented the last narrative work of Cozzi's career until his little-seen 2016 mockumentary BLOOD ON MELIES' MOON. For the nearly 30 years in between, the now-72-year-old Cozzi directed a couple of documentaries about Dario Argento, has stayed busy managing the Italian horror memorabilia store and museum Profondo Rosso in Rome, and regularly appears at fan conventions.






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