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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: girls in a Parisian brothel are brutally murdered by unseen assailant.

Even for those in the know of such things director Ferdinando Merighi is a nobody. Judging from the company he kept it’s not exactly a surprise. His association as assistant director to legendary hack Alfonso Brescia is enough to kill anybody’s prospect of a career. Was he responsible for making Kill Rommel! (1969) as halfway tolerable as it was? If it wasn’t for The French Sex Murders (released back at home in Italy as Casa d'appuntamento or Appointment House, a euphemism for brothel, and under a similar title in France) nobody would even remember Merighi today. Over the years The French Sex Murders has garnered a something of a reputation. Mostly for being a poor man’s giallo, one that has the propensity to lose itself in psychedelic diversions whenever the screenplay experiences a lull. What is certain is that it has become retroactively famous (or infamous) for the sheer concentration of talent, both on-screen and off. The French Sex Murders manages the daunting task of being both unequivocally wretched and terminally boring no matter how many starlets take their clothes off generously. To its credit, what this stylish but ultimately hollow aberration does feature is an exploitation ensemble cast that has remained unsurpassed, before or since. Some were on the way up, others were on the way down, and the rest was probably content just to be there no matter how impoverished the production.

In a Parisian bordello run by Madame Colette (Anita Ekberg) jewel thief Antoine Gottvalles (Pietro Martellanza, as Peter Martell) gets into an argument with his prostitute girlfriend Francine Boulert (Barbara Bouchet) and ends up murdering her in a fit of rage before fleeing the premises. In short order Gottvalles is tried, sentenced and convicted in what appears to be a very open-and-shut case. The thief insists that he’s being wrongfully imprisoned and vows to have his revenge, in this life or the next. He manages to force an escape but is accidently decapitated by a tractor-trailer during his improvised getaway. Law enforcement and authorities consider the case closed until another of Madame Colette’s prostitutes, Tina (Piera Viotti), ends up gruesomely murdered. There are plenty of shady figures who could all have motives for murder. First there’s author Randall (Renato Romano) who is in the midst of writing an exposé on prostitution in Paris, then there’s prostitute-lounge singer Marianne (Rosalba Neri), Gottvalle’s former paramour, who is currently having a relationship with nightclub owner Pepe (Rolf Eden). There’s magistrate George (William Alexander) who convicted Gottvalles for the first homicide. George is in a tryst with Eleonora (Evelyne Kraft, as Evelyne Elgar), the former lover of professor Theodore Waldemar (Howard Vernon), much against the latter’s will. Who are the mysterious hooded figures that frequent the house of appointments? Is Gottvalles’ curse really happening – or is there another murderer in their midst? Inspector Fontaine (Robert Sacchi) is here to crack the case.

Where else are you going to see Anita Ekberg, Rosalba Neri, Barbara Bouchet, Evelyne Kraft, Piera Viotti, and Flavia Keyt together? For good measure Humphrey Bogart imitator Robert Sacchi and Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon are also on hand. By the time Anita Ekberg came to do The French Sex Murders she was a long way from La Dolce Vita (1960), the pulpy excess of the Terence Young Arabian Nights romp Zarak (1956) (wherein she performed a tantalizing bellydance) and the grimey, decaying atmosphere from Amando de Ossorio’s superb Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969). Former peplum and spaghetti western fixture Rosalba Neri was reinventing herself as a sex kitten with roles in Top Sensation (1969), Lady Frankenstein (1971), The Beast Kills In Cold Blood (1971), and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). German-born Barbara Bouchet started out as a model and tried to break into Hollywood for a few years. After playing Miss Moneypenny in the Val Guest James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and appearing in the Star Trek (1966-1969) season two episode “By Any Other Name” in 1968 Bouchet moved to Italy. There she became a fixture in commedia sexy all’Italiana, giallo murder mysteries and poliziotteschi. In that capacity she appeared in diverse offerings as The Man with Icy Eyes (1971), Black Belly Of the Tarantula (1971), Amuck (1972) (with Neri), The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972) and Wife on Vacation… Lover in Town (1980).

In the new millennium Bouchet appeared in the Martin Scorsese crime epic Gangs of New York (2002). East-European import Evelyne Kraft debuted in The French Sex Murders and from there would move on to the West German The Love Bug (1968) knockoff Superbug, the Wild One (1973), the Shaw Bros giant monster extravaganza The Mighty Peking Man (1977) and the Franz Josef Gottlieb made-for-TV horror comedy Lady Dracula (1977) (which, admittedly, is very funny). Flavia Keyt might not command the same kind of notoriety as German softsex superstar Ulrike Butz but by 1972 she had starred in three Graf Porno (1969-1970) romps, The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried (1971) (with Sybil Danning) and would figure into Joe Sarno’s gothic horror throwback Vampire Ecstasy (1973) as well as a West German Emmanuelle (1974) knockoff from Hubert Frank called Vanessa (1977) (with Olivia Pascal). Keyt’s bid with the mainstream came with the season 3 episode “Kalkutta” of Derrick (1974-1998) in 1976. Robert Sacchi appeared in a bit part in Die Hard 2 (1990). Eva Astor and Piera Viotti were relative nobodies compared to the rest of the cast. Piera was the sister of Patricia Viotti from The Night Of the Damned (1971) and Eva Astor was to become a minor star in the German Lederhosen sex comedy cycle. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from trash pillar Gordon Mitchell as a drunk patron that harasses Piera Viotti in the nightclub where Neri moonlights as a lounge singer.

Behind the camera there’s legendary American shlock producer Dick Randall contributing to the screenplay. Randall co-wrote the screenplay to Lady Frankenstein (1971) and produced The Mad Butcher Of Vienna (1971), Supersonic Man (1979), and Pieces (1982), among others. The film was edited by Bruno Mattei and co-produced by none other than Daniel and Marius Lesoeur from Eurociné! Mattei edited a great many Jess Franco films in the sixties and who just two years prior had made his directorial debut. In 1980 Mattei would partner with director/writer Claudio Fragasso and for the next two decades the dynamic duo would expell some of the absolute worst of Italian exploitation from their creative colon. On his own (usually with Fragasso writing) Mattei unleashed The Other Hell (1980), Rats: Night of Terror (1984), Strike Commando (1987), Zombi 3 (1988) (which he took over from an ailing Lucio Fulci), the Predator (1987) imitation Robowar (1988), The Terminator (1984) cash-in Shocking Dark (1989), and Desideri (1990) with a pre-Melrose Place (1992-1999) and the made-for-TV thriller Mikey (1992) Josie Bissett. Bruno Nicolai was another Franco regular who scored a few gialli and his talents can be heard in Eugenie (1970), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), She Killed In Ecstasy (1971), All Colors Of the Dark (1972), Nightmares Come at Night (1972), The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), and Eugenie de Sade (1973), among many others. Nicolai’s score for The French Sex Murders recycles cues and stings from All Colors Of the Dark (1972). Is there an unspoken convention in Italian cinema that all madames in fictional brothels are to be called Colette? There was also one in Tinto Brass’ Paprika (1991).

Special effects artisan Carlo Rambaldi had worked (albeit uncredited) on Mario Bava’s Planet Of the Vampires (1965) and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) as well as the gialli A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Deep Red (1975). The turning point for Rambaldi came with the Dino de Laurentiis production King Kong (1976) which led him to Hollywood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Dune (1984). Everybody has to start somewhere and Carlo Rambaldi managed to transcend his humble roots. Given the budgetary constraints Rambaldi is able to lend an air of legitimacy to what is otherwise a dreary and convoluted exercise in the giallo genre. Suffice to say The French Sex Murders shows Rambaldi’s handiwork in its rough, embryonal stages. Ferdinando Merighi hasn’t much in way of an individual style and manifests no creativity to speak of. The French Sex Murders is technically sound and prone to engage in psychotronic diversions whenever the screenplay hits a wall, which is often enough. Merighi makes Andrea Bianchi, Claudio Fragasso, Umberto Lenzi, Luigi Cozzi, Ciro Ippolito, and Alfonso Brescia look competent in comparison. Since this was an international co-production (between Italy, France and West Germany) each country had a cut highlighting its domestic stars. Retroactively this meant that there was no possibility of a director’s cut and most restored editions are composites cobbled together from whatever footage was on hand from each regional cut.

The French Sex Murders is what happens when the marginally talented are given a production that requires a degree of finesse. Under the auspices of a better director a movie becomes more than a mere sum of its parts. The French Sex Murders somehow manages to be terminally boring and completely deranged in equal measure. It has an early example of the eye gouging that would become de rigeur in Italian exploitation, its women are either undressed, dying or both at once and the plot is sufficiently labyrinthine and convoluted as per the known giallo genre standard. A typical giallo is a highly stylized murder mystery with high end fashion, beautiful women, groovy music and over-the-top murder setpieces. None of which The French Sex Murders really has, except for the beautiful women. The French Sex Murders never comes within the proximity of Argento’s best and couldn’t hold a candle to Mario Bava’s worst. It is and was an opportunistic cheapie thrown together quickly to capitalize on the giallo cycle. Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri were in a much better giallo in 1972 and that was Amuck from director Silvio Amadio, he who famously directed (and courted) his muse Gloria Guida in commedia sexy all’italiana offerings as That Malicious Age (1975).