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Plot: ballerinas are stalked by vampire in an old opera house.

The Monster Of the Opera is the last in a very loose ballerina trilogy and was preceded by the kitschy The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960). It was initially conceived as a sequel to the latter with filming beginning in 1961. However as filming progressed and the production ran into budget problems it was made into a stand-alone feature, and only completed several years later. While just as kitschy as the prior two episodes The Monster Of the Opera does occasionally manage to line up an artful shot or two and the Aldo Piga score is sufficiently creaky and brooding when it needs to be. The only real difference (if it can be called that) is that The Monster Of the Opera is a pretty straightforward recombination of both The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) but is enlivened with a light sprinkling of surface elements borrowed from the 1909 Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera. It’s not exactly the second coming of The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962), but there’s something resembling a pulse, at least.

Renato Polselli was a psychology graduate who filmed the usual melodramas and comedies in the fifties before veering towards gothic horror. As someone with his background Polselli’s aim was to constantly push the envelope as far as he could. Horror was his genre of choice, even if that meant having to deal with smaller budgets and casts of secondary players. Polselli sought to confront taboos and to be as transgressive as the medium would allow. He first did so with The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), an erotically-charged potboiler that positioned María Luisa Rolando as a skid row alternative to Barbara Steele. Gothic horror wouldn’t explode into an orgy of blood and boobs until Emilio Vieyra's The Blood Of the Virgins (1967) and the early fantastiques of Jean Rollin. Like several others Polselli brazenly charged forwards during the gothic horror revival of the early 1970s. The Truth According to Satan (1970), Delirium (1972), and Black Magic Rites (1973) all followed on the groundwork that The Monster Of the Opera had lain. Just like Lady Frankenstein (1971) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) they too pushed the erotica and psychotronic excesses as far as they could. No longer restricted by crippling regulations from the censors Polselli found a handful of actresses, and reveled in shooting them from every angle he could. After Mania (1974) he made a few thrillers and a poliziottesco before inevitably descending into the world of hardcore pornography at the dawn of the 1980s.

Centuries ago the vampire Stefano (Giuseppe Addobbati, as John McDouglas) was betrayed by a mortal woman he loved, the medium Laura (Barbara Hawards, as Barbara Howard). Condemned to an eternity of darkness he sought refuge in the underground, and on top of his lair a grand theater was constructed. As the years pass women mysteriously disappear within the whispering walls of the Aquarius Theater. As the theater falls into disrepair and becomes affordable it attracts the attention of young director Sandro (Marco Mariani, as Marc Marian) who chooses it as a rehearsal space for his dance troupe as they prepare for the new show he’s working on. The old caretaker Achille (Alberto Archetti, as Albert Archet) tries to warn him not to go through with his plans as the Aquarius Theater is cursed, but Sandro brushes it off as mere superstition. Giulia (Barbara Hawards, as Barbara Howard), leading lady and Sandro’s fiancée, can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching her and that she’s somehow been there before. When Stefano lays eyes upon Giulia he believes her to be the Laura reincarnated, and vows to kill her.

With rehearsals progressing Carlotta (Milena Vukotic) grows envious of the preferential treatment that Giulia gets, and wants nothing more than to replace her in the show. Aldo (Aldo Nicodemi, as Boris Notarenko) is in love with Rossana (Vittoria Prada) but she’s in no hurry to return his affections. Yvette (Jody Excell) has a love unspoken for Aurora (Carla Cavalli) who wants nothing but to return it, but neither of them seem in any haste to act on their romantic impulses. Lightman Tony (Renato Montalbano), actor Filippo (Fidel Gonzáles, as Fidelio Gonzales), and soundman Giorgio (Walter Brandi) are just happy to be working with a bunch of nubile women. It is learned that Achille is not just a caretaker, but very much Stefano’s prisoner. When Giulia is drawn to Stefano’s cavernous lair she finds not only the vampire, but also a dungeon full of chained earlier victims. As paralyzing hysterics quickly seize the ballerinas, it’s up to brave Sandro to vanquish the evil Stefano once and for all.

As can be surmised from the above synopsis The Monster Of the Opera combines half of The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) with half of The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) with some superficial Gaston Leroux touches for good measure. The Stefano-Lauro opening gambit echoes The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) more than anything else. More importantly, however, on more than a few occasions similarities with Pete Walker’s knickers and knockers classic The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) can be drawn. Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that Walker borrowed, nay stole, all his ideas from this litte Italian gothic, but the similarities between the two are too striking to be mere coincidence. First, there are the characters and setting: there’s the abandoned theater that holds a terrifying secret, the ambitious young director, and the senior citizen that issues a grave warning. Second, the various romantic couplings (same sex and otherwise) are nearly identical and third, both push farther in terms of eroticism following earlier examples. The Monster Of the Opera leans in hard on the implied lesbian histrionics following Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960). The Flesh and Blood Show (1973) adhered to the giallo template of omnivorous hyper-sexuality very much as in Top Sensation (1969) and perfected by Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, and Luciano Ercoli. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Ernesto Gastaldi would become one of the more prolific screenwriters in the giallo boom of the early 1970s. Here he understandably plays second fiddle to Polselli whose vision and voice dominates.

On a more interesting note it has several earlier iterations of character types that Polselli would explore in his eclectic 70s oeuvre with Rita Calderoni. This wouldn’t be a Polselli joint if old Renato didn’t push the envelope as far as he possibly could. In The Monster Of the Opera that manifests itself mostly in one scene of very strong implied lesbianism. First there’s the way Yvette is initially introduced (“born in the city of Lesbo, province of Sappho”) and later Aurora talks about the bonds of friendship between women before sharing a few longing looks with Manuela on a staircase. Then Carlotta descends the stairs and the three fall in a suggestive embrace while breaking out in laughter. Finally, Yvette enters the staircase, sternly sending the two other packing, claims Aurora for her own and the two almost share a kiss. However since it was only 1964 said kiss never materializes, and suggestion is as far as things go. What really drives most dialogues between the couples is the play with consent. Early on Rosanna tells Aldo, “you may kiss me, but don’t take advantage!”. Then later, a dance montage apart from the earlier Rosanna-Aldo exchange, Giulia reverses what Rosanna said and asks Sandro “why don’t you take advantage? Kiss me.” Quite playful and more than a progressive stance in those repressed days before the Summer of Love and Sexual Revolution.

Even on a lesser production composer Aldo Piga and director of photography Ugo Brunelli can be relied upon to deliver something of merit. Barbara Hawards is no María Luisa Rolando, Graziella Granata, or Soledad Miranda – but she does cut a nice figure and Brunelli captures her from her best side every chance he gets. Milena Vukotic and Carla Cavalli probably get the most lines out of the other ballerinas. Vukotic is still acting to this day while the rest never acted anywhere else. Giuseppe Addobbati was a support player for the most part, and it’s good having him as the lead for a change. Addobbati is most remembered around these parts for his role in the Barbara Steele monochrome gothic horror classic Nightmare Castle (1965). Walter Brandi and Dieter Eppler made more threatening vampires but Addobbati does the best with what little he’s given. The rest of the ballerinas act well enough, but their purpose is mainly decorative. The Gaston Leroux elements are superficial at best, and easily ignored since this is a pretty straightforward vampire flick with little actual story. The Monster Of the Opera is very much a product of its time – it’s kitschy, silly, and loaded with babes.

That The Monster Of the Opera is somehow considered the lesser of The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) is a bit puzzling. Polselli’s direction possesses far more flair than Piero Regnoli’s kind of daft The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960). It overflows with the kind of subdued sensuality that the better gothics from the Latin countries (in both Europe and South America) specialized in around this time. Barbara Hawards was a decent enough actress, and she certainly looked the part – but it’s evident that there was no María Luisa Rolando in congress this time around. That Renato Polselli would shoot the giallo Delirium (1972) about a decade later shouldn’t surprise anyone, and that The Monster Of the Opera was co-written by future giallo specialist Ernesto Gastaldi was one of those unavoidable instances of serendipity in Italian exploitation with several talents working in close proximity from each other. Compared to his most remembered work a decade in the future Renato Polselli elegantly pushes the envelope as far as the censors would allow. It would however be in the wild and exuberant 70s when he would indulge his worst excesses.

Plot: alien lifeform rids the Earth of politicians, lawyers, and corporations.

I Am Here…. Now is the second of Neil Breen’s religious-patriotic-jingoistic supernatural thrillers and the one where all beloved Breenisms coagulated into their known form. As a faux-New Age spiritualist interpretation of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) it’s built around a Tuscarora Indian proverb and about as incomprehensible as Double Down (2005) before it. Just like the Robert Wise science fiction classic before it I Am Here…. Now too pushes an environmentalist agenda that promotes renewable energy and sustainability while simultaneously addressing more contemporary social problems as poverty, prostitution, and inner-city violence. Las Vegas’ own Christian geek green-Marxist, as Narnarland has lovingly dubbed him, is at it again and I Am Here…. Now is brilliant for all the wrong reasons. “I’m disappointed in your species,also sprach Neil Breen as he clubs the viewer over the head with heavy-handed, overt Christian symbolism. Where royalty-free stock footage goes, trashy braless women follow…

In the Nevada desert a meteor crashes and when the smoke clears a translucent glass paper weight is revealed. Materializing from the glass orb is The Being (Neil Breen) who takes human form and is clad in virgin white robes. Circuitry protrudes from his arms and chest, he bears stigmata on his hands and occassionally reverts back to his alien form. The Being is omnipotent and omniscient; ageless, and eternal – and he has created the Earth and everything on it as one of his “experiments.” Now, after countless thousands of years, he has returned to observe his creation. In the distance six crosses have been erected. The Being waggles across the desert landscape, passing disembodied doll heads until he comes across a skull. He picks it up saying, “I’m disappointed in your species,” after which he procures civilian clothing from a couple of heroin addicts (Ali Banks, and Tommie Vegas, as Tommie Lee Vasquez). Assuring them that, “it's only temporary,” he zaps them unconscious before imprisoning them in between dimensions. The Being takes the couple’s pick-up and heads for Las Vegas, a den of godlessness and vice. Humanity has fallen for the pursuit of material things and succumbed to greed. Capitalism is on the verge of depleting Earth’s resources and the natural environment is collapsing. The Being is the way, prepare for salvation…

On the sidewalks of Las Vegas Boulevard Cindy (Elizabeth Sekora) and her wild twin sister Amber (Joy Senn) (who looks nothing like her, but who has a similar fashion sense), both environmentalism activists, learn that they have been laid off by the renewable energies company they have been working for. “The poor economy” and “corporate corruption and greed” are to blame. Taking her baby out for a stroll Cindy and Amber discuss what they are to do. Amber suggests Cindy makes a living as a stripper and prostitute. Something which she has been doing all this time, apparently. Meanwhile a corporatist (George Gingerelli), politician (Jason Perrin), and lawyer (Ron Schoenewolf) are conspiring to keep renewable energy such as solar - and wind-turbine power from becoming legislated. On the other end of town Amber’s no-good boyfriend Aron (Med Jast) turns to petty theft and joining the local street gang to make ends meet. En route to their first escort job together Cindy and Amber run into the gang Aron wants to join. The Being helps a cancer-stricken, terminally ill senior citizen (Herbert Allen, as Hebert Allen) in realizing his dying wish: to see the “welcome to Las Vegas” street sign. On his way home wheelchair man runs into Cindy pushing her stroller. This prompts The Being to rejuvenate him so that he (Eduard Osipov) can be a family with a strange woman he met mere seconds before. Aron is summarily killed when he fails to pay his respects to his senior hoodlums.

Somewhere after Cindy’s descent into prostitution and before Aron being killed on the street Amber and The Being engage in a steamy affair. Amber feels that she has found the man that can tame her wild ways and make an honest woman out of her. The Being meanwhile has more pressing business to attend to. Business that doesn’t involve fondling women half his age. The Being has selected six corrupt One-Percenters to crucify in the Nevada desert. The crucified ones will act as a fair and final warning to humanity to redeem itself. The selected six One-Percenters represent the classes in cahoots with the drug cartel running cocaine across the Mexican border. The same cartel that operated a prostitution ring that employed Amber part-time. On his way across the desert The Being returns the two heroin addicts from whom he borrowed the ragged clothes. Amber, realizing that she has known The Being in lives past, desperately chases him across the desert begging to take her with him. Her tearful pleads fall on deaf ears as The Being reverts back to his alien form before returning to his translucent glass orb and departing for the stars from whence he came. If humanity fails to redeem itself now that the political –, corporate -, and financial class have been wiped out he will return to destroy Earth and everything on it once and for all.

When Mainland China pushes their environmentalist agenda of renewable energy they have the wisdom to cast models/hostesses as Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡梦媛) or Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂) in productions as Angel Warriors (2013) or My Magic Girlfriend (2017), respectively. When Neil Breen does it, he casts complete unknowns. Breen is never in the habit of casting the same actress twice and unlike Rene Perez he doesn’t seem to have a muse. Perhaps Neil Breen uses his movies as preamble to meet beautiful women. Who knows? I Am Here…. Now is prescient in the casting of Joy Senn as she’s the embodiment of Breen’s ideal vision of feminine perfection. In that sense Senn is a precursor to Jennifer Autry, Victoria Viveiros, and Sara Meritt. Joy Senn and Elizabeth Sekora are average looking and not nearly as well-endowed as later Breen babes and their wardrobe consists of unbuttoned tank tops with spaghetti straps and short denim shorts exclusively. At one point both strip out of their tiny bikinis but immediately cover themselves up for modesty. Likewise is Tommie Vegas wasted on a glorified cameo appearance. Vegas is no Aria Song or Ginny You but she doesn’t exit without having her blue tank top fully unbuttoned and her breasts nearly falling out first. Of the entire cast only Tommie Vegas and Eduard Osipov have something resembling an actual career. Vegas would probably feel right at home with The Asylum, TomCat Films, or Rene Perez.

Breen’s disdain for the political – and corporate elite is well established by this point. While he’s highlighting a very real problem within global politics, namely corruption and greed, his solutions are usually quite drastic. In Double Down (2005) he caused the death of millions of innocents across a tri-state area by spiking the watersupply with anthrax. He also threatened mass civilian casualties if his character’s demands weren’t met. Here he resorts to similar draconic measures by advocating mass genocide for an entire class. Neil would take a similar stand in his magnum opus Fateful Findings (2013) where his character drove politicians and corporatists to commit mass suicide in public. Notably absent are the rock/mineral lending divine powers, and the lost Lenore that typically is central to driving the plot forward. That his alien resembles Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein from The Misfits is funny enough all by itself. The silicon messiah would resurface again in Pass Thru (2016) (where Breen ascends out of a drug-infested homeless commune) and he would play the titular twins in Twisted Pair (2018). Neil has never hidden his celestial pretensions, and doesn’t so here either. That Breen encounters a pair of heroin addicts in the desert foreshadows Pass Thru (2016).

That Breen is something of a crusader and a defender of the Christian faith was evident as early as Double Down (2005). I Am Here…. Now foregoes what little subtlety (that is to say, none) the past Breen feature had, and is littered with heavy-handed, overt symbolism. To wit, it begins with Breen literally coming off a wooden cross in white robes bearing (one-sided) stigmata; early on there’s a shot of six crosses on a desert stretch, probably meant to resemble mount Calvary; The Being has regenerative powers (he restores at least two clipped roses), and occassionally performs miracles such as healing/rejuvenating the terminally ill man in the wheelchair, which was probably meant to resemble the healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-16). Less subtle (but no less overt) is the fact that Amber has angel wings tattooed on her shoulder-blades; and acts as a sort of Mary Magdalene to Breen’s Christ figure. To really drive home the point I Am Here…. Now closes with a re-enactment of the touching the hand of God from the famous Michelangelo fresco The Creation of Adam. The entire thing is wrapped in oblique Native American and New Age mysticism, and the credits include the Tuscarora Indian proverb, “Man has responsibility, not power.” It’s probably meant to insinuate that Breen is concerned about the plight of America’s indigenous peoples, but there’s no hard evidence to substantiate that assertion.

That I Am Here…. Now was ripe for reimagining and expansion was a foregone conclusion. Breen would do exactly that with the double-whammy that was Pass Thru (2016) and Twisted Pair (2018). With his second feature Neil Breen evidenced that he wasn’t shy about recycling concepts and characters, and his apparent god complex wouldn’t diminish in light of his cult following as a fringe filmmaker. Instead of improving Breen seems to sink ever deeper in the throes of insanity. I Am Here…. Now offers no novel insights into the human condition and while the message it’s pushing is relevant enough, Breen fails to make much of a case for, well, basically anything. Neil Breen embodies some of the worst aspects of independent filmmaking. Neil Johnson he most certainly is not. Breen probably loves cinema judging by what he chooses to imitate, but he has no understanding of either cinematic language or any of its technical aspects. The lesser said about his writing the better. It makes you wonder whether there was even a screenplay. As always Breen’s supernatural thrillers are hardly ever thrilling and not nearly as “controversial” or “thought-provoking” as he probably imagines them to be. Not that Breen is any good at action direction either, as Twisted Pair (2018) would amply evince almost a decade down the line.