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Plot: you are what you eat… or what he puts into his sausages.

Lo strangolatore di Vienna (or The Strangler Of Vienna, released internationally as the more sensational sounding The Mad Butcher Of Vienna - or simply The Mad Butcher - and in North America as Meat Is Meat) is an Italian horror curio that isn’t as talked about as much as it probably deserves. Despite being headlined by American character actor Victor Buono, Euroshlock pillar Brad Harris, and the lesser of the Linder twins this remains something of a relative obscurity. Perhaps because it wasn’t directed by one of the more colorful exploitation greats of the era… or because it never ascends beyond being a mere sum of its parts. Regardless of its place in the pantheon of Italian horror The Mad Butcher Of Vienna truly offers the best of both worlds as it combines Italian insanity with German-Austrian gemütlichkeit. Jawohl, Liebe Freunde – this one has something for everyone: slapstick, nudity, and gore.

The Mad Butcher Of Vienna is another in a long line of movies based on (or taking inspiration from) the hideous crimes of Ed Gein or the Butcher of Plainfield in the same way that Psycho (1960) from more than a decade before and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Deranged (1974) would do three years later. For Buono this wasn’t even the first time he had played this sort of role with maniacal glee. In fact he had played the role of Albert DeSalvo (or the Boston Strangler) in the biopic The Strangler (1964). His role here is largely similar but obviously more comedic. With some minor adjustments this is the sort of role that could have been played by Lando Buzzanca or Lino Banfi. To make everything even better, The Mad Butcher Of Vienna was contemporaneous to the then-ongoing (and still unsolved) Fritz Honka murder case. Honka would kill four prostitutes in Hamburg’s red light district between 1971 and 1974. A fire in his apartment building in the second half of 1975 eventually led to the discovery of the multiple decomposed bodies scattered around the apartment. Herr Honka was quickly caught, tried, and sentenced. While The Strangler (1964) was a serious examination of a serial killer The Mad Butcher Of Vienna has no intention of ever being serious. What is this if not a darkly humourous (and very Italian take) on the drive-in classic The Undertaker and His Pals (1966) or a semi-comedic riff on the first half of Ted V. Mikels' equally demented The Corpse Grinders (1971)? “Buono appetito,” indeed!

After having been institutionalized for three years butcher Otto Lehman (Victor Buono) is released into the care of his estranged wife Hanna (Karin Field, as Karen Field). Otto's brother-in-law Karl Brunner (Luca Sportelli, as Carl Stearns) has stewarded his business since his incarceration in the mental ward and Otto finds the place not up to his liking and specifications. Lehman plans to uphold his reputation as, “the best butcher in Vienna.” Otto worships fine meat. Whether that is the meat he cuts in his shop or his next door neighbor Berta Hensel (Franca Polesello). His wife Hanna is more concerned with keeping up appearances and Otto’s morbid obesity and after being harangued for the umpteenth time in a moment of frustration he strangles her. Now having to dispose of a body Lehman decides that the best place for Hanna to go is into his grinder and as filling in his world-famous bratwurst und knackwurst. Otto is interrogated by Inspector Klaus (Dario Michaelis) but he considers him not a person of interest. There being no body, evidence nor witnesses to interview the Inspector sees it as a pretty clear open-and-shut case and Lehman is free to go. Mike Lawrence (Brad Harris) is a reporter who has been following up on the sudden disappearance and he has taken to staking out the butchery. Meanwhile, Karl has become involved in an affair with prostitute Frieda Ulm (Hansi Linder) and Mike makes advances towards Berta. When Berta suddenly finds herself unemployed, without a roof over her head Otto offers her a place to stay until she gets on her feet. One day Mike discovers a ring among the sausages and meatproducts he connects the dot between Otto’s release, Hanna’s mysterious disappearance, and Berta vanishing into thin ear near the butcher shop. Will it be enough and will he be able to stop Otto?

Victor Buono and Hansi Linder

The star here is Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominee Victor Buono and his career was clearly on the downslope. Buono had a small (uncredited) role in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and rose to prominence with the Robert Aldrich thrillers What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) (where he starred opposite of Hollywood Golden Age leading ladies Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the former and Davis and Olivia de Havilland in the latter). From there he parlayed his fame into a television career and, among others, was villain King Tut in the Batman (1966–1968) series. Spaghetti western fans might recognize him from the Bud Spencer and Terence Hill western Boot Hill (1969). His most famous role was probably as one of the Telepaths in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). A year later he was in the rare giallo The Man With Icy Eyes (1971) (with Barbara Bouchet).

Brad Harris was another American actor who found steady employment in Europe and he commuted a lot between German and Italy. In Italy he was a regular in peplum and spaghetti western appearing in, among others, The Fury Of Hercules (1962), the James Bond imitation Our Man In Jamaica (1965), The Warm Nights of Poppea (1969), The Kommissar X films of the 1970s, The British Freaks! (1932) ripoff The Mutations (1974), the giallo The Girl In Room 2A (1974), the gothic horror spoof Lady Dracula (1977), the il sadiconazista The Beast In Heat (1977), and Luigi Cozzi’s Hercules (1983). Hansi Linder was the older sister of Miss Austria 1962 Christa Linder and while the Linder twins briefly were a flash in the pan of Euroshlock both didn’t have much a career worth remembering. Karin Field was a regular in German exploitation and is mostly known around these parts for the feelgood Heimatfilm Heintje - Ein Herz geht auf Reisen (1969) (with Dutch heartthrob and then-teen crooner Hein Simons) and the Jesús Franco nunsploitationer The Demons (1973). Two Americans, two Germans, and some Italians. It could be the beginning of a very unfunny joke.

And what about director Guido Zurli? Well, of all the colorful and flamboyant exploitation creatives that Italy housed back in the wicked and wild 1970 he’s easily the least remarkable. The most charitable thing to say about his modest filmography is to describe it as disposable. He made one or two spaghetti westerns, a Zorro ripoff, a few Eurospy romps (of which the Bond imitation Mister Ten Percent - Kitties and Money (1968) is probably the best), The Virgin Of Bali (1972) and even an underwhelming poliziottesco called Target (1979). For whatever reason Zurli’s latter day effort all seem to be Turkish co-productions. Then there’s the sex comedy The Boy In Bed (1980) about which Gabriella Giorgelli was probably the best thing. As the swansong effort for director of photography Augusto Tiezzi it’s clear that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. Tiezzi is known around these parts for the jungle goddess romps Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (1967) (with Kitty Swan) and Samoa, Queen Of the Jungle (1968) (with Edwige Fenech). The best way to describe The Mad Butcher Of Vienna (by far Zurli’s most, and only, well-remembered feature) is routinous and, well, a bit flat.

While The Mad Butcher Of Vienna is hardly bad it isn’t exactly oozing with style. It’s decent enough but Zurli doesn’t have a figment of visual flair and swagger to make this stand out from the competition in both his native Italy and Germany. If it weren’t for Victor Buono nobody would be talking about The Mad Butcher Of Vienna today. Which is a bit puzzling because it certainly was in time for the surge in North American and British terror and suspense movies at the dawn of the 1970s. Perhaps this would have benefitted from a German director offer their perspective on what in the end is a fairly standard proto-slasher model. While this is typically described as a horror comedy this is neither scary nor gory. Rather it lacks the kitsch of a German production of this time, and it severe lacks in the style and sleaze that characterize the best Italian productions from this decade. Not that The Mad Butcher Of Vienna isn’t crazy, it’s just not as insane as it probably could have been. Imagine what Walter Boos, Erwin C. Dietrich, or even Franz Josef Gottlieb could have done with this had it played up to German cultural sensibilities more than the Italian.

Plot: busload of tourists is forced to stay overnight in a creepy castle.

Compared to the rest of Europe, Belgium has always been something of a silent force within the cinematic landscape of cult and exploitation. Often overlooked and forgotten in favor of other countries in the Old World that had a more established reputation in the industry of cinema. That isn’t to say that Belgium hasn’t contributed in its own way. The country famously hosts the Flanders International Film Festival Ghent and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film (BIFFF) as well as co-producing the annual traveling extravaganza The Night Of Bad Taste terrorizing cinemas and cultural complexes all around Belgium and the Netherlands. Having never established a cinematic industry quite in the same way the neighboring France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy did for many years the country’s contributions to the cinematic arts were minimal but not insignificant. Belgian filmmakers concerned themselves mostly with culturally important bigger and smaller literary adaptations, rural dramas, prestigious biopics, the occassional action-thriller and comedies (sports and otherwise) there’s plenty to like in Belgian cinema.

Flanders has brought forth a number of important directors, most prominent among them Marc Didden, Robbe De Hert and Stijn Coninx. Didden revolutioned the Belgian cinematic landscape with the gritty drama Brussels by Night (1983), De Hert is mostly remembered for his Ernest Claes adaptation Whitey (1980) whereas Coninx reigned supreme in the eighties and nineties with the Urbanus comedies Hector (1987) and Koko Flanel (1990) as well as the Louis Paul Boon adaptation Daens (1992). Dominique Deruddere became an overnight sensation with the drama Everybody Famous! (2000). Jan Verheyen, a cult/exploitation cinema aficionado and co-organiser of The Night Of Bad Taste, helmed a string of dramas and thrillers with the likes of Team Spirit (2000), Alias (2002) and Dossier K. (2009). Erik Van Looy briefly became a Hollywood hopeful thanks to The Alzheimer Case (2003) (released internationally as The Memory Of A Killer) and Loft (2008).

Felix Van Groeningen established himself with the dramas The Misfortunates (2009) and The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012). In the French part of the country Jaco Van Dormael helmed the drama Toto the Hero (1991) and a student-film-turned-feature Man Bites Dog (1992) from Rémy Belvaux became an international cult favorite shooting Benoît Poelvoorde to superstardom. At the dawn of the new millennium Walloon filmmaker Fabrice du Welz quickly amassed a modest but respectable resumé including, among others, Calvaire (2004) and Vinyan (2008). The oeuvre of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, darlings of critics and audience alike, are internationally renowned for a reason. The same rings true for the beloved animated feature The Triplets of Belleville (2003) from Sylvain Chomet. These titles and directors you might have actually heard of or read about, but Belgium has a something of a miniscule but not unimportant history in fringe horror cinema too.

Unlike France, Germany, Spain and Italy, Belgium was never able to spin a cottage industry from whatever trends or movements happened in European cinema. Neither does the country have, or ever had, a grand tradition in horror or genre cinema - a few notable exceptions notwithstanding. In the early seventies documentary maker Harry Kümel helmed the haunted house movie Malpertuis (1971) as well as the erotic vampire fantastique Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Belgium helped co-produce Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973), a valentine to Lina Romay. By the mid-to-late 1980 and early 1990s Kortrijk-based writer/producer/director Johan Vandewoestijne (as James Desert) singlehandedly put the country on the map with deranged shlock as Rabid Grannies (1988) and State of Mind (1994) (co-produced by that other The Night Of Bad Taste co-organiser, Jan Doense). After a long break Vandewoestijne returned to writing/directing in 2014 and has been unstoppable since. The most famous Belgian co-production, of course, is the ill-fated Dutch slasher disasterpiece Intensive Care (1991), a horror exercise so inept that not even a briefly topless Nada van Nie could save it. In more years Jonas Govaerts delivered the excellent Cub (2014) and Julia Ducournau debuted with the coming-of-age horror allegory Grave (2016).

1971 was a banner year for the European fantastique and vampire movie. That year offerings as diverse as Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire (1971) and Twins Of Evil (1971), Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971), that other famous Belgian co-production Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), and Girl Slaves Of Morgana LeFay (1971) were released in cineplexes. This offered motivation enough for producers Pierre-Claude Garnier and Zeljko Kunkera to put together their own gothic horror revival production. Chosen to direct was Jean Brismée, a mathematician by trade, who worked as an instructor at the prestigious INSAS (Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des techniques de diffusion) in Brussels. Brismée was a specialist in short features and contemporary art documentaries. The screenplay for The Devil’s Nightmare was written by Patrice Rhomm and Brismée based on an original treatment by producer Garnier (as Charles Lecocq). For location shooting Garnier was able to secure the Chateau d'Antoing in Hainault, Belgium and a cast consisting of local talent (Jean Servais, Lucien Raimbourg, Daniel Emilfork, Jacques Monseau) with international name stars as Erika Blanc, Lorenzo Terzon, Shirley Corrigan and Ivana Novak and Alessandro Alessandroni providing the score. The Devil’s Nightmare (released back at home in Belgium as La plus longue nuit du diable or The Devil's Longest Night) was Corrigan’s big-screen debut after a number of decorative roles and she wasn’t informed of the snake scene until her arrival in Belgium. Whereas much of the talent on the production was Italian, The Devil’s Nightmare is a decidedly Belgian affair.

Berlin, 1945. Somewhere in Germany a Nazi general is witness to the passing of his wife during childbirth. The general is informed that long-desired kin is a girl, forcing him to do the unthinkable. He takes the freshly-born infant girl somewhere out of sight and stabs her with his bayonet. A quarter of a century passes and a group of seven tourists traveling in their single-deck 1952 Opel Blitz bus are forced to make an overnight stop in the environs of the Black Forest in southwest Germany. The road to their intended destination appears to be blocked and night is swiftly descending. The group – driver Mr. Ducha (Christian Maillet), cranky senior citizen Mason (Lucien Raimbourg), bickering married couple Howard and Nancy Foster (Lorenzo Terzon and Colette Emmanuelle), libertine adolescent minxes Regine (Shirley Corrigan), the ditzy go-go boot wearing platinum blonde and her firm-bosomed brunette friend Corinne (Ivana Novak) as well as seminarist Father Alvin Sorel (Jacques Monseau, as Jacques Monseu) – is lucky to happen into a strange looking local farmer who points them to the nearby castle Von Rhoneberg. Seeing no other option they head to the castle to seek lodging for the night.

At château Von Rhoneberg they are welcomed by butler Hans (Maurice De Groote, as Maurice Degroot) and the housekeeper (Frédérique Hender) who tell them they were expecting them. The butler escorts every guest to their respective room informing them of the sordid history of murder and death that comes with each. A few hours later they are invited to join the Baron (Jean Servais) at a bacchanalian banquet where he details the curse that has been looming over his bloodline for several decades. At the very last minute a mysterious eighth guest arrives in the form of Lisa Müller (Erika Blanc) who, despite protests from the housekeeper, manages to talk her way into the château. In no time Lisa worms her way into the hearts of each guest by indulging their every desire. Ducha is treated to more food than he’ll ever be able to consume. Regine treats herself to a warm, foamy bath before Corinne comes on to her strongly and the two soon find themselves in the throes of sapphic passion. Corinne has caught the eye of frustrated middle-aged Howard and before long they are in a tryst too. Nancy is informed about the alleged buried treasure in the vault, quenching her thirst for riches. As convention would dictate the Baron engages in alchemic - and occult experiments deep in the bowels of the château. What nobody seems to notice is that wherever Lisa goes death inevitably follows. As the guests one by one fall victim to Lisa’s considerable charms only the righteous and celibate Father Alvin Sorel can repel and cast out the unholy forces of evil at work in the château. Which only leaves the question: is Sorel’s faith strong enough to stop Lisa the succubus and Satan (Daniel Emilfork), her master?

What has given The Devil’s Nightmare its longevity is not only Erika Blanc’s fantastic performance but the screenplay's 7 deadly sins motif. Each of the seven visitors is given a creative death scene directly related to the sin they represent. While the premise is deceptively simple and the castle locations as brooding and atmospheric as any gothic horror worth its stripe is ought to be, the real star of The Devil’s Nightmare is Erika Blanc. What a difference a little black lipstick, nail polish and some minimal old-age make-up makes. Blanc does more with minimal make-up and a revealing evening dress than others do with every tool at their disposal. Blanc was a fixture in spaghetti westerns, Eurospy, commedia sexy all’Italiana and gothic horror whose claim to fame was that portrayed Emmanuelle in I, Emanuelle (1969) half a decade before Sylvia Kristel, Laura Gemser, Chai Lee and Dik Boh-Laai. While perhaps not nearly as famous as some of her contemporaries Blanc had that same regal demeanour as Helga Liné, Luciana Paluzzi, Dagmar Lassander and Silvia Tortosa. Among her most memorable appearances are her turns in Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), Spies Kill Silently (1966), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), The Red Headed Corpse (1971), and The Night Evelyn Came Out Of the Grave (1971). As soon as Lisa Müller takes on her deadly succubus form, she transforms from an alluring ginger seductress into an ashen, decrepit looking killer. Blanc sells it with some great facial contortions and silent cinema body language. Had The Devil’s Nightmare been made a decade later it would have probably starred Cinzia Monreale instead.

Almost all of the gothic horror plotpoints are accounted as there’s a dreaded family curse, buried treasure, mad science and conveniently blocked roads. The only thing amiss are rubber bats on strings, an ominous portrait of a deceased ancestor and a hidden monster. Testament to its efficiency is that Johan Vandewoestijne would recycle pretty much the main plot in its entirety for his Rabid Grannies (1988) set in a castle in Kortrijk. The Devil’s Nightmare never quite reaches Italian levels of surrealism nor is it as erotic as a Spanish or French productions of the day. It might not have commanded the sort of budget that the prime Italian gothic horrors of the decade prior did but that doesn’t stop The Devil’s Nightmare from transcending its budgetary limitations frequently. While Shirley Corrigan and Ivana Novak steam up the few scenes they’re in, it is Erika Blanc who truly is the pulsating black heart of the feature. There never was a tradition in gothic horror in Belgium making The Devil’s Nightmare and Daughters Of Darkness (1971) pretty much the only titles able to measure themselves with the finest that Mediterranean cult – and exploitation cinema of the day had to offer. If there’s anywhere to start exploring Belgian horror cinema The Devil’s Nightmare is a good starting point.