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Plot: where Loredana goes, everybody else follows...

Every country has its softcore sex goddess. Holland had Nada van Nie, Germany had the delectable trio of Olivia Pascal, Ursula Buchfellner, and Betty Vergés; Sweden had Christina Lindberg, Solveig Andersson, and Leena Skoog; Denmark had Birte Tove, and in Spain there were Andrea Albani, Sara Mora, and Eva Lyberten. Italy had plenty of Lolitas running around, but for the purview of this review we’ll focus on one in particular: Gloria Guida, Miss Teen Italy 1974. In some circles she’s considered the Italian Marilyn Monroe, and to the rest of the world she’s Italy’s most famous piece of ass (next to Femi Benussi, probably). In 1975 director Michele Massimo Tarantini would create her most enduring character, La Liceale (or The High School Girl, released in North America as The Teasers). La Guida had been dabbling in comedy for a good year by that point, but she hadn’t yet scored a genuine hit. The High School Girl would change all that and launch her to stratospheric heights of success, both domestic and abroad. Suddenly Gloria was not just Italy’s hottest comedy star, but a full-blown international superstar and sex symbol. The world was at Gloria’s feet. For the casual fan there are but two mandatory Gloria Guida romps. Of those two, The High School Girl is the probably the best remembered…

In 1975 la Guida’s conquest of the commedia sexy all’Italiana had barely begun and she already had scored her first major hit. Afer playing a lovably naive teen girl in Silvio Amadio’s The Minor (1974) and Mario Imperoli’s Monika (1974) Gloria suddenly found herself the most in-demand starlet on the domestic comedy scene. At a breakneck pace she appeared in The Novice (1975), Sins Of Youth (1975), The Mammon Cat (1975), That Malicious Age (1975), and Blue Jeans (1975). In her first outing as the school girl la Guida is paired with consummate professionals Mario Carotenuto, Enzo Cannavale, and Giuseppe Pambieri, German soft sex star Alena Penz, Angela Doria, a pre-La Cicciolina Ilona Staller, and perennial buffoon Alvaro Vitali (for once not in tandem with his frequent partner in crime Lino Banfi). Interestingly, sequels only appeared following Gloria’s second career peak with Fernando Di Leo’s scathing satire To Be Twenty (1978). In quick succession The High School Girl in the Class of Repeaters (1978), The High School Girl Seduces the Teachers (1979), and the three-part anthology The High School Girl, the Devil, and the Holy Water (1979) all starring la Guida followed, transforming it into a loose series. Only Marino Girolami’s non-canonical The High School Girl at the Beach with Dad’s Friend (1980) had Sabrina Siani taking over the part from glorious Gloria. Sadly, la Guida retired before a commedia with her as l’insegnante could be produced.

Michele Massimo Tarantini was one of the specialists of the commedia sexy all’Italiana genre. Together with Sergio Martino, Fernando Di Leo, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Marino Girolami and Mario Imperoli he was responsible for some of the genre’s most defining works. He had worked as production secretary, set designer, editor, and assistant director under Sergio Martino, Giuliano Carnimeo, Nando Cicero, and Mariano Laurenti. Tarantini rose to fame with his giallo Seven Hours of Violence (1973) but would find his first commercial success with The High School Girl instead. He helmed a few sequels to Nando Cicero’s The School Teacher (1975) with Edwige Fenech. Fenech would play the raunchy substitute teacher in The School Teacher in the House (1978) and The Schoolteacher Goes to Boys' High (1978) from Mariano Laurenti. After casting Gloria Guida as la liceale he chose her fellow Lolita Lilli Carati for the role as l’insegnante in School Days (1976). Tarantini would cast Fenech in Confessions of a Lady Cop (1976) and its two sequels A Policewoman on the Porno Squad (1979) and A Policewoman in New York (1979). In 1983 Tarantini moved to Brazil and continued his career there. During that time he helmed, among others, The Sword of the Barbarians (1982), the women-in-prison flick Women in Fury (1984), the Cannibal Ferox (1981) cash-in Massacre In Dinosaur Valley (1985), as well as the Cirio H. Santiago styled jungle actioner The Hard Way… The Only Way (1989), often under his Anglo-Saxon alias Michael E. Lemick. Unlike his colleague Marino Girolami, Taranti was versatile enough to be tolerable in non-comedic genres too – which isn’t always a given with directors specializing in comedy.

Loredana D'Amico (Gloria Guida) is stunningly beautiful and incredibly restless, as a result her academic performance is mediocre because she’s bored. To kill the time (and her boredom) Loredana takes great fun in seducing faculty members as a pastime, to help her friends whenever they are in a bind, or whenever her grades need a boost. She doesn’t understand her bored housewife mother Elvira (Gisella Sofio) or her absentee businessman father Comm. D'Amico (Mario Carotenuto) for that matter, and wishes nothing but that they would be strict with her. Her mother is in a tryst with another man and her father has a habit of engaging in office affairs, usually with his young secretary (Alena Penz). Bored in art class one day Loredana looks how far she can go in teasing middle-aged Professor Mancinelli (Renzo Marignano) while he explains the finer anatomical points of the famed Aphrodite of Knidos statue. Mancinelli, profusely sweating in acute ecstasy, is reduced to a madly babbling husk and has to be carted off, supposedly in need of immediate medical attention. The dean brings in substitute teacher Professor Gianni Guidi (Gianfranco D'Angelo), a wild-haired caricature of an educator prone to neurosis and nervous tics, to take over Mancinelli’s scheduled classes. Before long Loredana has set her sights on him too.

Currently Loredana is dating American exchange student Billy (Rodolfo Bigotti), but she isn’t sure whether he loves her for the right reasons. Her classmate Petruccio Sciacca (Alvaro Vitali) has a thing for her too. He will go through great lengths to paint her portrait, preferably in the nude. As such Petruccio is too preoccupied (and oblivious) to the obvious in front of him: studious blonde good girl (and resident tomboy) Lucia (Angela Doria) has been sweet on him for as long as they’ve shared classes, and she’s very willing take her clothes off if he would only ask her. Loredana’s roommate Monica (Ilona Staller) moonlights as an escort for extra money, and will try to seduce her into a sapphic liaison whenever the opportunity arises. Loredana and Billy kill time by engaging in an especially passionate heavy petting session in the abandoned biology classroom, scaring the living daylights out of the janitor (Ennio Colaianni).

Things start to look up when Loredana meets strapping blonde hunk of a man, Marco Salvi (Giuseppe Pambieri) and is immediately smitten. The two engage in a brief, steamy affair and only after she learns that Salvi is an engineer from Turin, and one of her father’s young business associates. One day sharing a car Loredana’s panties somehow end up in Professor Guidi’s briefcase with all the expected results. Guidi is assaulted by Billy and his gang of motorcycle-riding goons, who don’t take kind to the professor being on the receiving end of attention of their leader’s sometime girlfriend, but Guidi valiantly defends himself to great success with chop sockey kung fu moves. A misunderstanding concerning a writ leaves her parents thinking that their 17-year-old daughter has disappeared. Loredana’s affair with Marco, brief and passionate as it was, serves as a catalyst to improve their home situation as her mom and dad reconciliate their marital differences and prioritize each other over their jilted lovers.

If The High School Girl is testament to anything, it’s that Tarantini knew exactly what everybody was there for: to see Gloria Guida in the buff as often and early as humanly possible. Suffice to say, it delivers exactly what it promises, and does so in spades. Plus, it has the added bonus of being not half-bad on its own. It’s as if the stars aligned and every element fell perfectly in place. Credits should probably go to director of photography Giancarlo Ferrando who photographs glorious Gloria beautifully from whatever flattering angle at his disposal. In the years following The High School Girl Ferrando went on to lens everything from Mountain Of the Cannibal God (1978), the Edwige Fenech-Barbara Bouchet romp Wife On Vacation… Lover in the City (1980), Cream Puffs (1981), and 2019 - After the Fall Of New York (1983) to low-budget cannon fodder as Hands Of Steel (1986) and Alfonso Brescia’s Filipino-Dominican Republic trash action classic Cross Mission (1988). That The High School Girl works so well as it does is in no small part thanks to writers Francesco Milizia and Marino Onorati, both of whom were genre specialists. The High School Girl is, above all else, a paean, a valentine to everybody’s favorite Lolita. There were starlets before Guida and there were after, but none quite set the screen alight the way she did. While not as knee-slappingly funny or outright comedic as some of the more stereotypical Italian comedies of the day The High School Girl is, surprisingly, bereft of the usual melodrama and tragedy rife in Guida’s body of work. Sometimes things just work.

By the tall end of 1979 – after having scored two monster hits with The High School Girl and To Be Twenty (1978) – Gloria, at the ripe age of 24, realized that it was high time to retire the beloved character as she grew increasingly unbelievable in the role that made her a superstar. She had posed for Playboy in April 1977 and Playmen in June 1976, May 1978, and November 1979 and all signs were pointing towards her acting career winding down. Like so many of her ilk she took to singing. She was two years away from meeting her future-husband Johnny Dorelli and a year after that she would retire completely. It’s pretty amazing how much of a phenomenon Gloria Guida was able to become despite, or in spite of, only being active for a good five years. Of all the things Gloria lend her name and figure to The High School Girl is probably the only to endure the way that it did. Not even To Be Twenty (1978) (arguably the better and more subtextual of the two) has enjoyed that kind of longevity. And the fact that glorious Gloria was able to carve out such a respectable career for herself probably paved the way for actresses like Sabrina Siani, Luciana Ottaviani, and the like – whose primary sellingpoint were their good looks and willingness to shed clothes when required. It’s a bit strong to call Gloria Guida the Barbara Steele of Italian comedy, but she came damn close….

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.