Friday, 26 June 2009

La bella e la bestia (1977)

Title La bella e la bestia
Origin Italy, 1977
Genre Erotic: Decamerotica
Director Luigi Russo
Starring Lisbeth Hummel, Brigitte Petronio
Music Piero Umiliani
Blurb -

From Italy comes this collection of four short sensual stories. I know almost nothing about the director Luigi Russo. The only other work of his I've seen is Blue Island, a lightweight and extremely silly take on the Blue Lagoon theme which did not lead me to expect anything special from this title.

These period dramas could be loosely termed "Decamerotica", but it's not a very accurate term. It brings to mind the sort of words used in no other circumstances, such as "buxom" and "ribald". Russo does not favour "buxom" but rather the opposite - slim, delicate, pert and youthful blondes. As for ribaldry, the nearest he comes to cracking a joke is a schoolmaster with a nervous tic. And woe betide any boy who laughs!

The common theme is masochism. But that need not mean commonplace images of leather-clad dominatrices wielding whips. Things are much more subtle, with the purest pleasure coming from the self-inflicted torture of the mind rather than the body. And though the focus may at first be on an individual sufferer, an atmosphere builds where every single character seems to live and breathe their own gentle perversion. Events unfold so tantalisingly slowly that watching is a whole new delicious kind of torture all of its own.

Against expectations this turned out to be a truly first-rate film that can be enjoyed many times in many different ways. In a genre that rarely produces more than unappetising tripe, in a very distinctive style Luigi Russo has served up a sumptuous and delicious banquet of sensuality and erotica.

La Schiava The Queen sends for the King's harem of naked slavegirls.

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La Schiava (The Slave)

The first story is set in late mediaeval times. Beginning conventionally enough, the camera finds Tsar Vladimir of Russia as he surveys his castle from the battlements, then retires to the intimacy of his harem.

Tonight the King anticipates the conquest of the most beautiful slavegirl ever to grace his chambers. Yet insolently, majestically, the woman (Lisbeth Hummel) defies him! Bewitched, the King begs her to let him offer her anything her heart desires. Condescending to accept, the slave wills that she be crowned his Queen for a single day.

In a compelling sequence of vignettes the Queen occupies the throneroom and issues a series of decrees that bring about the exquisite abasement and ruination of every last person involved.

Russo here lays out his style of building atmosphere with attractive soft-focus photography and light ethereal music. He glories in nudity for its own sake. And as much nudity as it takes, a single woman might be enough, or a whole roomful. But he does not need (or want) to depict explicit sex. The pleasure is in the anticipation, and even more so in the repeated delaying of the consummation. A notable quirk is his use of extreme, strangely framed close-ups which seem to fetishise eyes, nose, lips, and even teeth.

Zooerastia The unfaithful wife is locked in a dungeon with some very special companions.

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Zooerastia (Venus of the Animals)

A counterpart to the first story, also starring Lisbeth Hummel and still set in Russia, but taking place (as does the next) around the turn of the last century. I've freely translated the title. Shame on those who didn't have to look it up! Certainly the theme is controversial, but we will not be confronted by scenes as utterly foul as might have been feared.

An ageing nobleman, the richest man in Russia, has a stunningly beautiful young wife. Discovering her infidelity he locks her naked in a dungeon beneath the stables. There she makes her tortuously slow descent into the ultimate reaches of squalour and degradation.

Something to admire about Russo is the attention he pays to scenes that do not involve sex or nudity. Conventionally these are just a necessary evil to be got through in order to set up the next pair of breasts, but Russo esteems images of fully clothed women as highly as the most explicit nudes. Here we find some wonderful scenes of Lisbeth simply riding her black stallion through the palace gardens. Not only do they establish setting and character, but they provide as much pure enjoyment as anything else in the film.

La Fustigazione A boy and his curious cousin spy on his mother in her room.

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La Fustigazione (The Whipping)

A callow, slow-witted youth suffers beatings from an uncompromising schoolmaster. The feelings of pain and humiliation are only matched in intensity by those that come from spying on his mother (Piera Maria Caretto) with her lover. But when she catches Peeping Tom in the act and, still half-naked, thrashes him with a riding crop the two sets of emotions become inextricably entangled.

At night the boy yearns for games which cannot be enjoyed alone. The arrival of his delicate and pretty young cousin (Brigitte Petronio) is to make his perverse erotic dreams come true.

As usual Russo does not overburden us with explanations as to who everyone is and what exactly is going on. We are left to make of it what we will, and the result is intensely atmospheric and otherworldly. The most loving care is taken over elements that in lesser hands would be skimmed over as entirely subsidiary to the main theme. In particular the vignettes in the schoolroom, with the autocratic Master and frock-coated, stiff-mannered boys (who as usual look a little old to be still at school) are superb, reminiscent of scenes in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.

This tale was resolved in a manner rather contrary to that for which I had hoped. But as this collection is intended to be about, and for, masochists I suppose I ought to be grateful for that.

La Promessa Remixed to Riz Ortolani - Giovanna's appointment with the dressmaker, and nude in her bedroom suite.

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La Promessa (The Promise)

A contemporary tale, the shortest, slightest, and most perplexing in the collection. Giovanna, a virgin on the eve of her wedding, reminds her cousin that it is his last chance to fulfill a promise he made to her years ago. It's an ordinary (not to say banal) theme, but Russo tackles it in the same distinctive and eccentric style as before.

The story opens with a strange vignette, equally ordinary and exotic. Giovanna (Francoise Gerardine I believe) is free of her bossy mother for an hour while the dressmaker fits her wedding gown. Filmed like a physical seduction, the dressmaker runs her hands sensually over the fabric covering the body of the golden-haired girl, biting at the loose threads, struggling to hold back her excitement. Images of the innocent girl caressing and kissing her pet white dove are interwoven.

The rest of the story simply cannot live up to the opening. Cousin Eric finally carries out his promise in a manner which, while not in the class of the perversions of the previous stories, is nevertheless rather odd. It's hardly very romantic (or innocent), and only leaves one scratching one's head over the scene's intentions.

The way the story (and thus the entire film) concludes is baffling too. A slow lingering pan takes us away from the lovers in the house, and across the chilly and autumnal gardens as the wedding guests gather and greet each other. A conventional enough scene, but why here and why now? There is an inescapable feeling that a message is being conveyed here, but one that I have no hope of even beginning to decipher.


Quality: 8/10   Fun: 9/10

Review copy

Publisher Unlicensed
Format DVD Region 0, NTSC 4:3 (1.85:1 letterbox)
Certificate -
Image Sub-VHS, badly letterboxed partly cropping subtitles at 16:9

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A Man Shouldn't Be Alone (1973)

Title No es bueno que el hombre esté solo
Origin Spain, 1973
Genre Drama: Black comedy
Director Pedro Olea
Starring José Luis López Vázquez, Carmen Sevilla, Helga Liné
Music Alfonso G. Santisteban
Blurb -

Kissing his wife goodbye, a smartly dressed man of middle years carefully bolts the door of his fine but shuttered-windowed shoreside house and makes his way to work. He is a successful manager at a ship-breaking yard, but from his demeanour not a happy one. In the office he fields awkward enquiries about the health of his wife from his attractive young secretary, and distractedly runs his eyes over her elaborately stockinged legs. It's another cold, melancholy morning for Martin Friere.

Are we seeing the symptoms of just another mid-life crisis? Perhaps we are to witness the eccentric breakdown and other "very odd" behaviour of a counterpart to Reginald Iolanthe Perrin? It's true that Don Martin has a secret, and no ordinary secret either.

This mordant black comedy is very much in the mainstream of cinema and a cut above the other sleazy offerings reviewed here. It stars one of Spain's leading comic actors José Luis López Vázquez, best remembered in the English-speaking world for his imprisonment inside a phone box in the legendary short La cabina. And he's got himself into a pretty bad fix in this title too.

Back to Martin's secret. His beloved wife Elena is in fact nothing more than a life-sized doll. Which is not necessarily a problem, as long as he keeps that part of his life to himself. But a man of Don Martin's standing can't afford to ignore the social side of things. His superiors at work are anxious to have the couple around for dinner, and there are only so many excuses a man can make.

And at home Martin can never quite get the peace he craves. He is kept awake at night by that rowdy slut next door Lina (Carmen Sevilla), and her sadly neglected daughter Cati (Lolita Merino) is forever nosing around the place looking for attention. When to Martin's horror Cati stumbles upon his "wife" Elena he discovers he has more in common with little girls than he suspected, because she is delighted and impressed by such a beautiful big doll! But can the little horror keep a secret? Because if her unscrupulous mother finds out there's no knowing what trouble she could make for him...

This is a moving story of loss and loneliness. Martin has become a rebel with his perverse romance, but an unwilling and unhappy one. If the world cannot approve of what he does, why can't it at least leave him be? And sometimes life just seems plain unfair. At a grand company ceremony the boss plays a tape with a message from the founder, his own dead father. When you think about it, it's a mildly strange and morbid thing to do, yet one man is respected and the other scorned.

Incidentally, Alone almost certainly influenced Joe D'Amato's classic of tastelessness and squalour Beyond the Darkness, with one line being particularly telling. In the similarly-themed Italian film the subject was an embalmed body rather than a doll, but the mortification of having the most precious object of one's desire contemptuously dismissed as "that other one" must have been equally intense in either case.

Montage Martin and Elena, with Lina and Cati.

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Vázquez is, as you would expect, brilliant in the lead. His hangdog features perfectly express his character's sadness, anger, reproachment, grief, and bewilderment. The rest of the cast are rather unappealing, especially Carmen Sevilla whose performance as Lina is bland. A remarkable exception is Lolita Merino as little Cati. She is the very essence of the mysterious and terrifyingly unpredictable child. Just Vázquez and her together could have made this succeed as a two-hander.

Visually the style is mostly steady and restrained. The wintry landscapes and especially the funereal setting of the breakers-yard are used to great effect to build a melancholy atmosphere. But occasionally it lashes out to hit you right between the eyes with a spectacular visual flourish. The score is strong too, with a very florid and memorable main theme.

Beautiful, funny, romantic, touching but never mawkish, A Man Shouldn't Be Alone is a masterpiece.


Quality: 9/10   Fun: 9/10

Review copy

Publisher Unlicensed
Format DVD Region 0, NTSC 4:3 (2.35:1 letterbox)
Image Sub-VHS, bad vertical hold problem early on

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Scream Bloody Murder (1973)

Title Scream Bloody Murder
Origin USA, 1973
Genre Thriller: Psycho / Slasher
Director Marc B. Ray
Starring Fred Holbert, Leigh Mitchell
Music Don Bagley
Blurb A psycho murderer on the rampage...

Here we have a low-budget vintage American slasher that's been doing the rounds of the bargain-bin labels. You never know what you're getting with these things. Surprisingly often you'll find a real gem buried amongst the refuse.

Filmed in 1971 Scream Bloody Murder is from an era mid way between the Sixties Psycho derived suspense chillers which explored the twisted motivations of their psychopathic killers, and the Seventies slasher genre which focussed on the stalking and demise of their victims and little else. It's a long shot, but maybe this title could offer the best of both worlds?

The pre-title sequence gets straight down to business. Young farmboy Matthew flattens his father with a bulldozer as soon as he is big enough to climb on it all by himself. The obviously mentally troubled boy is sent off to the special hospital to live with the nice nuns until he's better. Returning home supposedly aged seventeen or so (though he looks about thirty) and disfigured by a claw for a hand (the bulldozer incident did not leave him unscathed) Matthew (Fred Holbert) eagerly anticipates the warmest of welcomes from his beloved widowed mother.

In the circumstances it was insensitive timing indeed of Mama to be getting re-married at that precise hour! But very welcome timing for the audience - it means we won't be wasting precious minutes with boring scenes of plot exposition whose only point is to make the story look remotely plausible.

Mother and Father Matthew lays down the law to his parents.

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Matthew is dismayed to find he has a new (spit) "father", and very disappointed with Mama. With her Victorian demeanour and dress sense (she wears a shawl - and means it!) he thought she was the very ideal of loving, sexless maternity. You know, the sort of mother who would throw herself out of the house for getting pregnant. The situation is clearly intolerable.

One blood-bath later Matthew is on the run. Hitching a lift with a bright young couple he starts to relax and make friends. Passing a sparkling mountain stream they suggest a swim. If only they had brought their bathing costumes! There follows the worst skinny-dipping scene in cinema history. The cheeky couple splash around in ankle-deep water after only taking their socks off. But for Matthew that's enough to make them Wicked People who have to die.

The body count rising impressively, Matthew, haunted by guilt-driven psychedelic visions of his murdered mother, arrives at a small coastal town. Probably somewhere in California, but definitely the sort of place where hippies congregate. Matthew meets attractive artist Vera (Leigh Mitchell) outside her shack/hovel type place and impresses her with his insanely bloodthirsty interpretation of an abstract painting she's working on.

Here we come to the crux of the story. Matthew seems to be hitting it off with Vera. She even allows him to call her Daisy, his mother's name. Has he found his ideal woman, the one who will allow him to finally grow up, forget his mother, and banish his Oedipal demons?

"Daisy" puts her foot down (and in it). She's an independent woman and won't have anyone else telling her what to do. If she wants to sleep with every drunken sailor that comes along she bloody well will do and there's nothing he or anyone else can do to stop her. In an ideal world Matthew would decide then and there that she was a Wicked Person who had to die, then just get on with the rest of his life.

House-hunting The kitchen maid, the most brutal and effective of the killings.

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Against his better judgement Matthew tries to win the heart of this self-indulgent slut and save her from herself. Which, applying his usual methods, means finding an opulent mansion, killing the occupants, stealing their Rolls-Royce, and chauffeuring Daisy back there in it where he can keep her tied up like some kind of pet. To Matthew's anguish Daisy does not enjoy a single minute of his attempts to bring her happiness and security. At especially bad moments she even starts to cry.

Matthew is clearly the worst type of psychopath, not a sadist but the kind that ends up torturing his victims to make them happy. One thing about him is making me curious: that hook for a hand. I wonder why he doesn't get rid of it and get by with just the stump. He seems slightly embarrassed by it, trying to hide it sometimes, and he never uses it for anything, not even his murders. Though it seems custom made for ripping flesh from bone, he chooses to kill with entirely unsuitable objects instead (eg. an artist's palette knife). It's almost as if so long as he doesn't resort to using the hook it's not a real murder. What a peculiar young man.

Pleasing Miss Daisy Threats and silly lines are the way to deal with this ungrateful woman.

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(1:38 min, 320 x 240, 6.0MB)

Leigh Mitchell plays the role of "Daisy" rather well. She looks good from a distance, but then we get a close-up of her face and realise that like Fred Holbert she's really too old for the role. But never mind, her escape attempt is classic. Tied hand and foot she bounds around like a kangaroo, dials a telephone with her tongue, and frantically manipulates a doorknob with her naked feet. It excites a whole bunch of kinks I never even knew I had.

Like every other action sequence, this escape scene presses the right buttons but ends up looking utterly ridiculous. Though not ridiculous in a contemptible way. Just a sort of bizarre other-worldly ridiculous. Dealing with the incongruity of the comic elements is the key to being able to enjoy a film like this. The embarrassment of feeling you're laughing at the wrong times can bring on yet more laughter. Is Matthew swinging an axe and shouting "I'll be right there Mama!" supposed to be funny? There is obviously much deliberate black humour, but I doubt this was intended to be a comedy any more than was Hitchcock's Psycho.

Judged on appropriate standards this film is a great success. It makes up for a lack of budget with inspired choice of locations and intense (if a little cliched) photography. The acting is marred by some very wooden delivery of the lines, but the physical interaction between the stars is mostly very good. Pacing is excellent, director Marc B. Ray taking his time where necessary over individual scenes, but making sure that overall the telling of the story is rapid and tight. Scream Bloody Murder is terrific entertainment for those with a black sense of humour and a better than average capacity for suspension of disbelief.


Quality: 5/10   Fun: 9/10

Review copy

Publisher Boulevard Entertainment
Format DVD Region 0, NTSC 4:3
Certificate 15 (UK) (cut)
Image Poor, slightly sidecropped, also squeezed making things a little tall and thin

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Madeleine, Study of a Nightmare (1974)

Title Madeleine, anatomia di un incubo
Origin Italy, 1974
Genre Drama: Psychodrama
Director Roberto Mauri
Starring Camille Keaton, Riccardo Salvino, Paola Senatore
Music Maurizio Vandelli
Blurb -

My favourite horror babe Camille Keaton stars in this psychological drama from Italy. Not a lot is known about this title, but the fact that Camille is in it and it has something to do with witches was more than enough to pique my interest.

Entrusted with the lead role of Madeleine, Camille is going to have to change her trademark sleepwalking style and actually do some acting to sustain this one. It simply won't do to just stand there while everyone around her wonders whether she's fallen unconscious or not.

We find Madeleine alone in the countryside sitting by a quiet pond. Is she awake? It would appear so as she seems to be doing some sewing but the picture is so poor it's hard to tell. As it is soon revealed that Madeleine is pregnant it's a safe bet that she's sewing (or knitting) baby clothes.

A promising beginning? Certainly it's a tranquil one, but how is the story to develop? Will Madeleine fall in that murky pond full of weeds and get a drenching? That would be horrendous - think of the laundry bills! But that's hardly going to be enough to sustain an hour and a half of drama. Though there could be a sub-plot where Madeleine removes her damp dress and underwear to dry, only to have them stolen by a clothes thief. Madeleine gives chase - completely in the nude!

But such sleazy speculation has no place here, for with director Roberto Mauri we are in the hands of a sophisticate. No cheap exploitation for him, this is psychodrama. Featuring the wealthiest Italian jet-setters, wearing the latest fashions in clothes, drinking the finest wines, and smoking the most expensive brands of fags. But don't worry if slumped there in your boxers with a bottle of White Lightning and packet of Rizlas you're feeling out of place. This is cinema, and everyone is welcome.

It turns out Mauri didn't use my suggestion about Madeleine's soaking wet clothes after all. He thought of something better! What's that cackling she can hear in the reeds? Madeleine is in the bad-books of a menacing pack of witches! Soon she's running for her life through the dark and misty woods. This sequence is rather silly but atmospheric and quite well done overall. They're an odd bunch of witches, with dayglo perms and costumes that appear to have been sewn together out of binliners. Certain clues lead us to suspect that this is only a dream (slow-motion, "nightmare" in the title, there's no such thing as witches etc.). If we accept the strict Freudian interpretation that dream imagery, no matter how terrifying and unwelcome, always represents the actual repressed desires of the dreamer, then it must be that Madeleine wants to hit people with sticks and set them on fire. Can't wait!

Madeleine wakes up screaming. Shall we call the ambulance for the mental hospital right now? Better play it safe and give it five minutes because at this point to my frustration the screenwriter decided to forget everything that just happened and have the story be about something else entirely. Or at least that's how it seems. At first nothing in the dream relates to Madeleine's real life. She's not pregnant for a start, and has no children. She is lying on a sun-lounger by the swimming pool of a hyper-modern (and hyper-expensive I'll bet) villa. There is a man of about forty years of age lying beside her. He raises his head a few degrees and expresses mild interest in the fact that Madeleine has just screamed the place down.

Who is this man? I can tell you he is played by Silvano Tranquilli and his character's name is Franz Schuman. He likes to read weighty tracts obviously of a psychological nature (cf. Sexual Aberrations in the Criminal Female in Hitchcock's Marnie). His body language conveys authority and proprietorship. Displease him and he looks absolute daggers at you (as if he was about to draw a stiletto - I was quite intimidated). Franz likes to observe, but is taciturn and distant. So distant that at one point he even blinks instantaneously out of existence, leading us to ask questions such as "what the bloody hell was that all about then??"

But what of his relationship to Madeleine? Is he husband, lover, father or boss? I've got to admit here that I do not speak Italian and a lack of subtitles meant I did not quite understand what was going on. Though this is often a serious drawback, in the right circumstances a lack of comprehensibility can make a story and its characters all the more fascinating.

Meanwhile, it appears that Madeleine is free to do absolutely whatever she wants. She drives into town in her nifty British roadster, and picks up a hitch-hiking hippy along the way. His name is Tomas, he's from Switzerland, and he stares at Madeleine's legs. The pair arrive back at the villa without incident (I'm amazed Camille could get insurance to drive that thing).

Madeleine proves herself the purest of playgirls by inviting Tomas for a swim - all in the nude! Or could this just be a ruse to make sure the hippy took a bath before allowing him indoors? (The swimming pool by the way would surely be the star of the show if Camille wasn't in it. It's massive, and the water the deepest of blues. The villa is splendid too, part traditional-style African grass huts, part Seventies steel and glass modernism.) But what is Franz going to think of all this carrying-on? Hmm.

Now we know a little more about her I'm going to advance the theory that Madeleine is an international jewel thief, and Franz is a retired Mafioso who blackmailed her into a loveless marriage. As good a theory as any, and I'm going to keep with it until definitive evidence turns up against it.

Madeleine gets herself another boyfriend called Luis (Riccardo Salvino). He's a racing driver (a dangerous sport that). He's also a lot of fun. But if he insists on games of badminton so close to the pool he's going to end up playing with a very damp shuttlecock! So how about horse riding along the beach without any shirts on? I wasn't quite ready to watch that game, but it was spectacular! But hang on, Luis seems to be involved with Franz in some way, presumably his son. So according to my theory he is messing around with his own step-mother, who is younger than he is. The jewel thief / marriage hypothesis is beginning to look shaky already.

So basically not an awful lot is happening here, and to be honest it is a bit boring. I filled in the time just wondering what mode of transportation pampered playgirl Madeleine would utilise next, and whether or not she would do it topless (eg. Speedboat: Yes).

On to the only real event of the film, the formal party at the villa. This is very swish, very sophisticated. The absolute epitome of jet-set. (The only slight faux pas in the arrangements is the cheap joke of leaving around saucers of burning cooking fat in the hope that some hippy will brush its flares against them and set them on fire.) But the more exclusive the gathering the greater the opportunity for social disgrace. And, in a certain type of film, social disgrace is the sole reason for staging these parties in the first place. So which of the ladies is up for the drunken striptease? Or will she go one better and urinate standing up where everyone can see?

At the party Madeleine, the playgirl now in the social glare turning to something of a wallflower, meets a beautiful young woman (Paola Senatore). The way these two first encounter each other is classic, exchanging silent glances as the couples weave towards and away from each other on the dancefloor. For me this is the most haunting and memorable scene in the film. Things are beginning to fit together in a subtle and mysterious way. And so we leave the story to slowly make its way to a resolution that is satisfying and suitably surprising. Or at least I get the impression it would be if only you could understand what people are saying.

It's difficult to evaluate a work like Madeleine. It has pretentions to be more than a typical genre drama, and the scenes of gratuitous nudity stop comfortably short of soft porn. I enjoyed the atmosphere of mystery and the way that events unfolded so subtly. Obviously not a lot of money was available to spend on it (and most of it went on entertaining the director's friends at that party scene by the looks of it). The sun-drenched photography often looks lovely even on my degraded copy. The modernistic score by Maurizio Vandelli sounds like it could have been recycled from Ennio Morricone's wastepaper basket. It follows the traditional Italian style of repeating the same couple of themes ad nauseum, but serves its function of establishing and maintaining a consistent dreamlike mood. And as for Camille Keaton's acting in the leading role - well, she doesn't need to act, she just is.

Overall Madeleine is almost a piece of social archaeology, recovering the most uninhibited dreams and aspirations of people from a distant time and place. I was strangely fascinated and very glad I took this trip backwards in time.


Madeleine the Playgirl
A Camille Keaton collection.

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(2:31 min, 384 x 288, 17.2MB)


Paola at the Party
Good-time girls getting it on.

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(3:23 min, 384 x 288, 23.6MB)



Quality: 5/10   Fun: 7/10

Review copy

Publisher Unlicensed
Format DVD Region 0, PAL 4:3 (1.85:1 letterbox, sidecropped from 2.35:1)
Certificate -
Image Very poor sub-VHS