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Retro Review: THE CHOSEN (1978)

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THE CHOSEN
aka HOLOCAUST 2000
aka RAIN OF FIRE
(Italy/UK - 1977; US release 1978)

Directed by Alberto De Martino. Written by Sergio Donati, Alberto De Martino and Michael Robson. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Simon Ward, Agostina Belli, Anthony Quayle, Romolo Valli, Adolfo Celi, Virginia McKenna, Alexander Knox, Ivo Garrani, Spiros Focas, Massimo Foschi, Geoffrey Keen, Alan Hendricks, Peter Cellier, John Carlin, Penelope Horner, Caroline Horner, Vittorio Fanfoni, Teresa Rossi Passante, Andrea Esterhazy. (R, 102 mins)

The Italian ripoff is one of the most enjoyably rewarding aspects of being a fan of '70s and '80s exploitation and Eurocult cinema. If there was a game-changing American blockbuster (THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, JAWS, STAR WARS), an immensely popular genre effort (DAWN OF THE DEAD, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II), or even an influential film that wasn't necessarily American-made but was a worldwide hit (THE ROAD WARRIOR), it was guaranteed that at least a dozen shameless Italian ripoffs would follow in its wake. These often starred slumming, past-their-prime American and sometimes British actors who weren't getting lead roles at home and often had to resort to TV guest spots, considered at the time to be a step down. By contrast, European producers were offering starring roles, top billing, treated them like royalty, gave them an all-expenses-paid Italian vacation, and all they had to do was put in the bare minimum for the biggest paycheck, or in many cases, a suitcase full of tax-free cash. In the annals of Italian ripoffs, the 1978 OMEN knockoff THE CHOSEN stands out from the crowd, not just because it's unusually ambitious, has a much bigger budget than most of its Eurotrash imitation brethren, and a distinguished supporting cast, but because it stars a surprisingly engaged Kirk Douglas. Already a Hollywood legend by this point and not exactly hurting for work (he had Brian De Palma's THE FURY in theaters at the same time), Douglas had enough clout and his name enough value that he could've gotten away with doing as little as possible, shot his close-ups, and gone sight-seeing while his stand-in did the heavy lifting and competent editors could create the illusion that he was there the whole time, but he approaches this with all the gravitas and teeth-clenched, lock-jawed intensity of SPARTACUS.






THE CHOSEN works largely because Kirk clearly believes in it. In an era when aging leading men who stayed in Hollywood were often begrudgingly starring in glossy, big-budget horror movies that they never would've made in their heyday--Gregory Peck wasn't that enthused about being in THE OMEN, and William Holden did DAMIEN: OMEN II because he turned THE OMEN down only to see it become a huge phenomenon--Douglas passionately brings his A-game to THE CHOSEN and busts his ass like his reputation and the future of his career depended on it. We're obviously not talking Henry Fonda literally phoning in his performance from his living room in the 1977 Italian JAWS ripoff TENTACLES or Richard Harris turning up, presumably at gunpoint, in Bruno Mattei's 1988 RAMBO knockoff STRIKE COMMANDO 2, but it's always fascinating to find someone of Douglas' stature in a movie like THE CHOSEN, and usually, it's for the wrong reasons, especially in those occasional instances where they don't even stick around to dub themselves. But THE CHOSEN isn't a run-of-the-mill, quickie Italian ripoff, and perhaps Douglas recognized that. It deals with the same core ideas as THE OMEN and has some very OMEN-esque cues in Ennio Morricone's score, but also has the political and corporate plot elements that would eventually turn up in subsequent OMEN sequels as well as other Italian ripoffs like the insane THE VISITOR. It's a rare case of an Italian ripoff inadvertently influencing the later sequels to the movie it was ripping off in the first place, including a disturbing sequence in a maternity ward that foreshadows the third OMEN film, 1981's THE FINAL CONFLICT.





Douglas stars as Robert Caine, a successful London-based American industrialist whose Caine Enterprises is about to break ground on a nuclear power plant in the Middle East. The first red flag appears when Caine's wife Eva (Virginia McKenna), who opposes the construction of the plant, is killed by a fanatical protester (Massimo Foschi) in a botched assassination attempt on Caine. Then the Prime Minister (Ivo Garrani) who approved the plant is defeated in an election by military hardliner Harbin (Spiros Focas) who sternly informs Caine that his project is too dangerous and will never come to pass. One by one, everyone who opposes the construction of the plant is killed in a variety of OMEN-inspired freak accidents (including a bisection that would be copied in a much gorier fashion in DAMIEN: OMEN II, which opened two months later) as Caine, over the objections of his son Angel (Simon Ward), starts to question whether the plant should be built. A chance meeting with a priest (Romolo Valli), who may as well be named Father Exposition, leads to Caine's realization that the design and layout of the power plant is an atomic-era recreation of a Biblical prophecy of the apocalypse brought about by the Antichrist (and to further hammer it home, Father Obvious emphatically declares "The dragon of the apocalypse...is your atomic plant!"). The priest tells him that the Antichrist is a mirror image of Jesus, and with the help of Caine Enterprises chief computer programmer Griffith (Anthony Quayle), Caine discovers that a nonsense mathematical equation is really the revelation that he has "generated something that is not human." This is just before Sara (Agostina Belli), the much-younger anti-nuke journalist with whom has been having a fling, announces that she's pregnant with his child.







Directed and co-written by Alberto De Martino, best known for the blasphemous, goat-rimming 1974 Italian EXORCIST ripoff THE ANTICHRIST (belatedly released in the US in the fall of 1978 as THE TEMPTER) and whose next film was the MST3K favorite THE PUMAMAN, THE CHOSEN is endlessly entertaining despite boasting the most awkwardly-cadenced protest chant you'll ever hear ("What do our children...want to be...when they grow up...ALIVE!") and its inability to play its cards close to the vest. This makes some of Belli's performance as Sara a little baffling, since by the time she's acting strange and refusing to enter a church, we already know who the Antichrist is thanks to De Martino using no subtlety in his direction of Ward, making him look sinister from his first moment onscreen (and he's named "Angel," for Christ's sake). The screenplay has some intriguing ideas that lead to arresting images, like Caine holding a meeting of his 12-member board of directors that's staged exactly like The Last Supper. The sight of the inscription "IESVS" carved into a cave wall near the plant site and the use of the equation "2√231" to illustrate the priest's assertion that the Antichrist is a mirror image of Jesus and Griffith reminding Caine that digital numbers can form words won't fool anyone who's ever looked at the Dio logo upside-down or keyed "80085" into a calculator when they were in third grade, but like the De Martino's THE ANTICHRIST using sexual frustration as the impetus for demonic possession, THE CHOSEN is film that tries harder than it needs to and has ambitions beyond presenting a rote (yet memorable) series of splattery kill scenes.





Originally titled HOLOCAUST 2000 for its European release in late 1977, the film was rechristened THE CHOSEN when it arrived in the US in the spring of 1978 in an altered version with a different ending. The HOLOCAUST 2000 ending is more open-ended and suggests that Caine and Sara's child is the Second Coming and will battle its evil, mirror image older brother. But the cobbled-together US ending features newly-shot footage of a bearded Douglas walking through an airport, intercut with Angel vowing to complete the nuclear power plant by his 33rd birthday in a meeting with the board of directors, which he's just increased from 12 to 21 members. This goes on while an unseen figure--Caine, played by a pair of hands probably not belonging to Douglas--blows up the Caine Enterprises headquarters to ensure Angel's evil plan never comes to fruition. It isn't known whether De Martino shot this new footage commissioned by US distributor American International (ABBY and FOOD OF THE GODS editor Corky Ehlers is credited with "additional editing" in the US credits), but that was the version I remember seeing when CBS aired this in prime time in summer 1983 under its HOLOCAUST 2000 title. The film has undergone a number of title changes over the years, which hasn't been easy to keep straight given the two different versions. Despite being retitled THE CHOSEN for the US, the title reverted back to HOLOCAUST 2000 for TV and on Vestron Video's 1985-issued VHS, even though it has the CHOSEN version's "Kirk blows shit up" ending, and when it finally appeared on DVD from Lionsgate in 2008, it was retitled RAIN OF FIRE, but was the original HOLOCAUST 2000 European version without the explosion. Confused yet?





Scream Factory's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead) contains both the HOLOCAUST 2000 and THE CHOSEN cuts, albeit in different aspect ratios (HOLOCAUST 2000 is 2.35:1, while THE CHOSEN is 1.78:1). There are minor tweaks to both versions aside from their endings (the conclusion to an early confrontation in an asylum between Caine and his wife's killer plays a bit more smoothly in the US cut), with both clocking in at 102 minutes, THE CHOSEN running a few seconds longer. Oddly, a Douglas-Belli sex scene is slightly more explicit in the US version, with some additional Belli nudity and a few extra Kirk thrusts. In a display of Douglas' absolute commitment to the project, which includes doing his own stunts like being thrown off a hospital gurney and into the air by asylum inmates while strait-jacketed, both versions showcase full-frontal Kirk in an insane dream sequence where he envisions the end of the world while running and flailing around a desert in his birthday suit. Whether it's a sense of professional dedication or just Douglas showing off his still-sterling 61-year-old physique (which he would also be happy to do in 1980's ridiculous SATURN 3, possibly influencing the future exhibitionism of co-star Harvey Keitel), his willingness to throw himself into his role helps sell the hell out of THE CHOSEN, a gem among '70s Italian genre ripoffs that deserves to be better known.


THE CHOSEN airing on CBS as HOLOCAUST 2000 on 7/30/1983


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