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Plot: cyborg flees into the desert after ignoring his programming.

Hands Of Steel (released domestically as Vendetta dal Futuro, and in France as Atomic Cyborg) answers the question that nobody asked: what if The Terminator (1984) ignored his programming, fled into the Arizona desert and took up armwrestling in some remote divebar instead? It’s the kind of movie that only the Italians could and would make. Who else could come up with a cross between The Terminator (1984) and Over the Top (1987) on the budget of the average Filipino action movie? Hands Of Steel often feels as if it’s three movies mashed crudely into one. It bounces between a pedestrian sports movie, a dystopian science-fiction thriller low on intelligence and production values, and a brass-knuckles actioner without crunch. It’s emblematic of mid-to-late 1980s Italian action. The concept and ideas are far too ambitious for the meager budget it was alotted. 6 credited screenwriters, a seventh for additional dialog. Not a coherent line anywhere – and Swedish minx Janet Ågren, sadly, keeps her clothes on. Never before were Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) pilfered so expertly. At least not until Bruno Mattei’s craptacular Shocking Dark (1989) and the 2010 Mainland China exploitation boom almost twenty years later.

The Italian shlock movie industry took a heavy blow in the eighties when wide theatrical releases for cheap, imported titles in North America, once their biggest market and sure-fire way to turn a profit, became scarce. The nascent home video market became the new home of exploitation and shlock of various stripe. This unfortunately also meant that belts were tightened and producers/directors no longer were able to commandeer the kind of budgets and resources that they once had in prior decades. Hands Of Steel is not 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), it’s barely above Giuseppe Vari’s post-nuke swansong Urban Warriors (1987), where bit players Bruno Bilotta and Alex Vitale would land their own feature, but that is faint praise. Hands Of Steel wishes it was half as good and action-packed as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983). Unfortunately it is anything but. Not even John Saxon and Janet Ågren can save it from relentless drudgery. Hands Of Steel is painfully glorious and gloriously painful.

Sergio Martino was a director who dabbled in every genre under the sun. Among other things, he launched the career of French model-turned-actress Edwige Fenech through a series of bubbly commedia sexy all’italiana and stylish gialli. Fenech had just completed a string of German comedies, including the bubbly The Sweet Pussycats (1969). Earlier in the year Top Sensation (1969) had launched Edy as the hottest and most in-demand starlet in Italian genre cinema. In his storied four decade career Martino directed offerings as diverse as Arizona Colt, Hired Gun (1970), The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1970), All Colors Of the Dark (1972), Torso (1973), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Cream Puffs (1981), 2019 – After the Fall Of New York (1983), and Beyond Kilimanjaro, Across the River of Blood (1990). Whoever thought it was a good idea to let comedy specialist Martino direct a sci-fi/action romp clearly had no clue what his forté was. It’s probably the same skewed and random decisionmaking that led to Marino Girolami directing Zombie Holocaust (1980). Hands Of Steel isn’t Martino’s finest moment, but it’s more or less on the same level as the action-adventure dross Antonio Margheriti and Enzo G. Castellari were churning out around this time.

In the far-flung future past of 1997 pollution has ravaged the Earth and made it nigh on uninhabitable. Turner Corporation CEO Francis Turner (John Saxon) sees his bottom line threatened by the preachings of blind wheelchair-bound environmentalist guru Reverend Arthur Moseley (Franco Fantasia). He sends out cyborg soldier Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene), the most efficient and reliable in his product line, to quell the rebellion by taking out its leader. Upon reaching his target Queruak is plagued by memories of the past, only wounding the Reverend and fleeing into the nearby Arizona desert. At the local motel he meets Linda (Janet Ågren), who is in need of a handyman. Linda’s abode is the gathering spot for local armwrestlers, truckers and general troublemakers. Linda’s tavern is decorated with pictures from wrestlers Bruno Sammartino, Hillbilly Jim, Magnum TA and Dory Funk, Jr. One day working for Linda, Queruak draws the ire of perrennally sweaty Méxican no-good trucker Raul Morales (Luigi Montefiori, as George Eastman) and Tri-State arm-wrestling champion Anatolo Blanco (Darwyn Swalve). Queruak’s creator Professor Olster (Donald O’Brien) is paid a visit by Turner’s mercenaries Peter Howell (Claudio Cassinelli) and Hunt (Sergio Testori) – and when he fails to stop them, Linda is threatened at gunpoint by cyborg assassins Eddie (Andrea Coppola, as Andrew Louis Coppola) and Susie (Daria Nicolodi). Paco intervenes and things come to a violent, fiery clash. The fate of mankind will not be decided by some apocalyptic nuclear war, but in a fierce close-quarters confrontation.

The main portion of Hands Of Steel concerns itself with Queruak’s travails in and around the desert motel, his conflict with Raul Morales and his relationship with Janet Ågren’s Linda. Janet Ågren had come off Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981) and Red Sonja (1985) and apparently this wasn’t enough to forward her starpower beyond redundant impoverished genre exercises like this. Hands Of Steel also features that other Italian low-budget action star of the 80s, Bruno Bilotta (popularly known as Karl Landgren) as one of the Reverend’s security detail. Other notables include the late, great John Saxon and an uncredited Daria Nicolodi as a rival cyborg assassin. Hands Of Steel is a typical example of the genre were it not that it anticipates Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987), Universal Soldier (1992), and Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) as its conflicted cyborg protagonist struggles with his programming and what is left of his humanity. Likewise does it pre-date the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top (1987) by a single year. Martino films the whole with detached bemused disinterest as this is clearly not his wheelhouse. Hands Of Steel would’ve been blissfully forgotten were it not that Claudio Cassinelli was killed in an on-set helicopter crash during filming, necessitating the third-act disposing of his character. In between there’s enough techno-babble and arm-wrestling for everybody.

The nominal star of Hands Of Steel is Daniel Greene. Greene was an American television actor that somehow ended up in Italian exploitation trash as Hammerhead (1987), Soldier of Fortune (1990), and Condor (1990). In the late nineties he had his scenes deleted in the Farrelly brothers comedy There's Something About Mary (1998). Greene later had parts in other Farrelly brothers comedies as Me, Myself & Irene (2000), Shallow Hall (2001), and Stuck On You (2003). Janet Ågren was a Swedish model whose Nordic beauty sparked a quarter-century long career. Ågren debuted in The Two Crusaders (1968) and was a fixture in commedia sexy all’Italiana for several years. Somehow she escaped the fate that befell Christina Lindberg, Solveig Andersson, and Marie Forså. In the eighties Janet found herself in Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1980) and the considerably more high-profile Red Sonja (1985), but also in a Filipino The Karate Kid (1984) knockoff called The Boy With the Golden Kimono (1987). Suffice to say Ågren was no Gloria Guida, Barbara Bouchet, Sabrina Siani, Mónica Zanchi, or Cinzia Monreale. No, Ågren was far too classy and much too pretty for grubby exploitation and she never allowed herself to suffer the sordid degradation and assorted indignities that some of her contemporaries subjected themselves to.

The odds were certainly stacked against Hands Of Steel. Elisa Briganti (as Elisabeth Parker Jr.), Dardano Sacchetti, and Ernesto Gastaldi all contributed to the script – but 6 writers do not a decent script make. Production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng had worked on Eaten Alive! (1980), City Of the Living Dead (1981), 2019 - After the Fall Of New York (1983), Hercules (1983) and its sequel The Adventures Of Hercules (1985) as well as The Ark Of the Sun God (1984) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994). Clearly Geleng couldn’t make more of what little he had been given. Director of photography Giancarlo Ferrando (as John McFerrand) lensed a lot of commedia sexy all’Italiana and he’s clearly out of his element here. Sadly, he would go on to work with Alfonso Brescia on Cross Mission (1988) where the only ray of light was one-time wonder Brigitte Porsche.

Spaghetti western and peplum monument Franco Fantasia is wasted as Reverend Arthur Moseley, a role that gives him nothing to do. He clearly was a long way from Kriminal (1966), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), Murder Mansion (1972), Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), Zombie (1979), and Eaten Alive! (1980). Decades prior he was in big budget Hollywood peplums as Ben-Hur (1959), and Quo Vadis (1951). Donald O’Brien was a regular in Italian schlock and can be seen in Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977), the original The Inglorious Bastards (1978), Zombie Holocaust (1980), 2020 Texas Gladiators (1983), and Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984). In short, Hands Of Steel is nobody’s finest hour. Except maybe that of George Eastman, whose excursions seldom ventured beyond trash auteur Joe D’Amato and his assorted ilk. Sadly, it never gets quite as absurd as The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983).

Hands Of Steel is one of those cynical pastiches from the once-flourishing Italian exploitation industry that were becoming a dying breed at that point. Over the course of the same decade were birthed Contamination (1980), Nightmare City (1980), and Alien 2: On Earth (1980) to name some of the most infamous. Hands Of Steel dared answer the question that James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) never asked: what if the Terminator struggled with his programming and instead of protecting his target took up menial work and armwrestling instead?

It’s the sort of question that Mainland China would provide plenty of possible answers for in the 2010s, but Italy got there first. Hands Of Steel might not be Sergio Martino’s best work, or anybody's for that matter, really. The Terminator (1984) spawned exactly one good sequel that did not dilute from its original vision. It did begat a slew of canonical sequels that have done irreparable harm to the brand. It’s difficult to hold a grudge against something innocent as this when the Hollywood machine does so much damage all by itself.

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.