ECCO (1963)/THE FORBIDDEN (1966)
Directors: Gianni Proia, Benjamin Andrews and Lee Frost
Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment

Other than the cannibal subgenre which grew to large popularity in the late 1970s-early 1980s, the most polarizing exploitation subgenre has to be that of the Mondo film. 1962 saw the release of MONDO CANE, literally translated as “A Dog’s World”, and filmmakers the world over jumped on the bandwagon, capturing strange human (and sometimes) animal behavior. Where MONDO CANE was a thought-provoking work interested in the various customs of the world and celebrating the strange side of humanity, the ensuing Mondo films aimed to gross-out the audience, many succeeding. Such repulsive entries as MONDO MAGIC and the FACES OF DEATH video series are evidence of this. With the success of these shockumentaries, it was only natural that the late sadistic distributor Bob Cresse latched onto the box office appeal of these theatrical freak shows by unleashing two imports to eager U.S. audiences, both of which are finally released on DVD on this incredible double feature. ECCO in particular is a long time coming!

ECCO, or translated from its original Italian, “Look!” And how could you not follow this demand with such a wild film unfolding before your eyes? After shrill opening credits following people on the streets of Rome set to an Alvin-the-Chipmunk-in-Italian theme song courtesy of the wonderful Riz Ortolani, we shift to Germany, where behind the Berlin Wall, a secret sect of students hold bizarre duels, wielding swords while sitting across from each other in chairs. Real bloodshed ensues, including one poor fellow spurting blood from his ear! A Japanese natal clinic plays recitation tapes for sleeping babies to teach them behavioral patterns, segueing into a karate demonstration with Japanese grown-ups breaking wood and piles of bricks with their hands and heads! Rich beautiful debutantes are bedecked in jewels for their coming out ball in Paris, while in the French Alps, a villager rides a motorcycle and lifts skiers on a one-inch cable above the streets. Visit a Greek monastery in a dark mountain range far separated from civilization, and secretly peek in on a “genuine”, chicken-blood-splattered Black Mass in a woodland castle outside of London! Watch Pele display his fancy footwork during a soccer game in Rio de Janeiro before the city comes alive for Mardi Gras! A Nairobi nightclub offers a native ritual dance for visiting American and European tourists, performed not by topless tribe women, but topless showgirls who are then shown later on that evening dancing at a jazz juke joint. Further south on the Dark Continent we find more white tourists at a luxury resort intent on hunting wild game such as lions and elephants.

Now a little something for the ladies (and some gentlemen): a bodybuilder contest in Reno, with applauding housewives getting their sexy kicks. A San Francisco bar showcases an exotic female impersonator bending iron bars and ripping phone books in half while performing a breathy song. On the shores of a Portuguese fishing village, a dark-haired woman sings a soulful song as villagers venture into the ocean in small rowboats to hunt for whales…by hand!! Stockholm is the place for young love as young men cruise the streets in their cars, picking up the ladies that strike their fancy for rides, as Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” blares on the soundtrack (copyrights be damned!). Like American teens, things get pretty wild as some young ladies strip in convertibles with the top down, speeding down the road, have sex on top of a car as snow falls and crowds gather, and gangs of ruffians wreak havoc at a carnival, tearing apart prize stands and throwing around innocent bystanders. We learn that Sweden has the highest teen alcoholism rates and instances of teen violence in the world. Who knew? Halfway across the world, in Osaka, Japan, the ritual of Saidachi takes place, in which young men in their underwear split into teams and trample each other in order to receive a year of good luck. Sheer pandemonium!! If that wasn’t strange enough, stay tuned for the final performance of the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris, the precursor to the infamous BLOODSUCKING FREAKS stage shows and equally as perverse and violent. But not all of Parisian culture centers around violence; witness a barroom Best Butt Contest, equally as strange as any Grand Guignol show. In this extended Parisian vacation, enjoy a tour of the grand outdoor city market, with hundreds of sellers of fruits, vegetables, and other goods, and a very sultry, talented exotic dancer entertaining patrons of a club.

Like roller derby queens? Of course you do, and here is early footage of two Los Angeles teams battling it out several years before the sport would take off and spawn a few films of its own. Freakshow time: a French human pincushion performs his “talent” for a disbelieving group of scientists and journalists, using psychic powers to suppress any pain as he injects pins through his breast and neck, and has an assistant shove a rapier sword through his waist! If that wasn’t enough, prepare yourself for the most shocking moment of the whole film: amidst the roundup of reindeer in Lapland, a young farm girl castrates one of them…with her mouth!! When you recover from that scene, rejoice in the romantic custom of Lapland men roping their chosen women for mating in the spring. It appears that the filmmakers really found their most valuable footage in Paris, as we visit a lesbian bar in the City of Lights populated by all manner of Sapphic sisters. An Argentinian singing star performs for a leering male audience in a skimpy, glittery bikini outfit, as her spectators grope for a feel as she comes near them. For our finale, we are reminded that a new life is born every day, as a London scientist performs artificial insemination on a mystery woman whose face is blocked with a black strip to ensure her anonymity, and a barren woman in Rome climbs a steep flight of steps so that a saint will bless her with a child.

As a Mondo movie, ECCO is one of the less exploitive genre entries, much like the original MONDO CANE, in presenting odd rituals and customs around the world, as well as observing human behavior and providing comparisons between cultures that aren’t as different as one would imagine. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its share of shocking and disturbing moments, including instances of real animal violence and carnival freakshow setpieces (the human pincushion, the castration scene), but ECCO has a more sensitive and interesting approach than most of its brethren, and like renowned filmmakers Jacopetti and Prosperi, director Gianni Proia seems genuinely fascinated with people and their place in the world. ECCO is actually the second sequel to the film WORLD BY NIGHT, an early documentary (not a Mondo film) that was basically a showcase of entertainment around the world. WORLD BY NIGHT 2 followed, with basically the same premise of visiting international nightclubs. By the time ECCO came around, MONDO CANE had broke on the scene and the influence of that hit is felt throughout the film as Proia focuses on social customs and human behavior, not just the typical series standby of exotic dancers and stage performances. Surprisingly, the influence of U.S. distributor Bob Cresse (who is credited with scripting the English version) and his partner-in-crime Lee Frost (credited as R.L. Frost, and with re-editing the U.S. version) isn’t apparent here, as ECCO seems to have been released in its entirety with no major changes. They didn’t even release the film under their Olympic-International banner, instead attaching the obviously fake Cresa Roma name to the film, perhaps in a bid for acceptability. In any case, this is one of the best Mondo films you’re likely to see that isn’t made by the original genre pioneers Jacopetti and Prosperi, and presents a suitable mix of education, wonder, and shock to keep audiences entertained.

George Sanders, known for his smarmy characters such as his Oscar-winning performance as ‘Addison DeWitt’ in 1950’s ALL ABOUT EVE, is the perfect condescending narrator for the on-screen proceedings. Considering he’s never seen on-screen, this is still one of his best performances of the 1960s (compare this to the boring THE BODY STEALERS and tell me differently). Instead of walking into the studio and reading his script in a phoned-in performance (think Boris Karloff narrating MONDO BALARDO), Sanders seems to be having a ball, melodrama clashing with tongue-in-cheek humor. While the moving score is credited to Riz Ortolani, there are some classical compositions I recognized from the Findlays’ THE ULTIMATE DEGENERATE!! In an interesting twist, before he became known for cheap trash in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, producer Dick Randall contributed money to this project.

Where ECCO is one of the most straight-forward and classy films in the Mondo genre, THE FORBIDDEN is in the same vein as Cresse’s MONDO FREUDO and MONDO BIZARRO: cheap, faked, and a hell of a lot of fun. Any film that opens with the Olympic-International logo should be a warning to the audience this is an exploitation film through and through. THE FORBIDDEN is no exception! We begin in Hollywood, California, sneaking a peek at a Melody Records store from a birds’-eye view of a busy street. Hollywood is a jungle of sexual violence, as we are shown glaring newspaper headlines of rape and murder. A lengthy sequence of two beautiful women (including a redhead familiar from several California skinflicks) falling victim to a rapist intruder is, according to the narrator, an advertisement for a karate self-defense school. Yeah right! I’m sure the plentiful nudity, shoddy camerawork and editing, and even a shower scene (!), in a film reported to only be shown to women, would make business boom for this school! The narrator even interviews the female owner of the school (ha!) about the intentions of the film. Hilariously, the script claims that the “crude appearance has been calculated to heighten the documentary effectiveness” and is “one of the finest examples of slickly subtle persuasion”. In the film, a brutish bald intruder breaks into the house and stalks the two nude female inhabitants as they wander in the dark (?), then run upstairs to be cornered and assaulted before one of the women stabs the sadist in the forehead with a knife stuck in a block of cheese by her bedside. Quite an opening to the film! We then cut to the karate school in question, where tiny Japanese owner Naomi has a host of handsome male instructors to teach her female housewife clients the art of self-defense. This sequence is quite hilarious, as little Naomi actually seems to know karate, throwing the giant instructors around in demonstrations for her pupils.

A black-and-white sequence exposes a “floating club”, a portable topless bar set up in isolated areas near state borders specifically for lonely men in isolated areas throughout the U.S. Female bartenders rapidly shoot drinks down the bar while a girl in a glittery ass-less costume go-go dances in front of a rock group. Imagine Coyote Ugly in the 60s. Fun! The floating club is presented as a respectable business offering a service, but local prostitutes and their mugger pimps who entrap the patrons into having sex in rundown shacks nearby are described as “parasites” and “black widow spiders”. In Paris, a legitimate nightclub presents dancers in expensive costumes of their own creation, including a bizarre mix of sequins and feathers. An interesting twist here: scenes lifted from a French feature film import are passed off as a “recreation” of a famous case of jealousy; an elderly woman is divorced by her slimy husband for a younger woman, so causes a head-on collision between the two parties’ cars, killing all three of them. A visit to Brussels, Belgium, finds an exotic Asian dancer performing as the narrator rambles about pornography shops and code names for hardcore material. In Geneva, Switzerland, we switch back to color to sneak into an exclusive lesbian club, where two blondes (“femmes”) perform a sexy stage routine for “butches”. Sunday morning on the Sunset Strip: the narrator waxes poetic about the good old days of classy restaurants and movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, all replaced by “the long-haired, unwashed, rebellious”. The Los Angeles Conservatory of Music has been transformed into the Whiskey a Go Go! Enjoy the plentiful time capsule footage of marquees advertising various 60s soul acts and psychedelic sex films. One twin bill features John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed! A protest of a 10:00 curfew by young hippie kids is filmed outside of teen night club Pandora’s Box! One billboard advertises a commuter flight to San Francisco for $13.50!! Where have the years gone??

A London stripclub claims to only feature “virgins”; all of the girls are personally inspected by the owner!! Yech! Skid Row in “a large Eastern city” (most likely New York) is the location of a stripper school held in a converted theater by a busty, talented stripper named Rose who teaches high society socialites how to titillate their husbands. The pupil filmed here has her eyes scratched out on the film to protect her identity! In another random “re-enactment” courtesy of an unidentified French film, a stern-looking man hops back and forth from Mexico to France to attend the funerals of his best friends (quite hilarious, using lots of stock footage of planes landing and taking off), only to learn that they were all murdered by a wife of one of them just so she could see him!! Huh?? Would you believe there was a stripping world behind the Berlin Wall in East Berlin during the Cold War? Skeptics be damned! According to Cresse and Frost, here is a German stripper performing in a stiff, Third Reich-style as Hitler’s mistress! On the other side of the Wall a more exotic dancer performs as the narrator beckons the viewer, in his closing argument, to “leave forever forbidden those pleasures which are ruled objectionable by the societies in which we live”.

It’s hard to believe THE FORBIDDEN can pack so much whacky entertainment into 65 minutes, but Cresse and Frost proved to be masters of the fake Mondo film with their many classicks, including MONDO FREUDO, MONDO BIZARRO, and HOLLYWOOD’S WORLD OF FLESH. THE FORBIDDEN is a great introduction point to their particular brand of fake documentaries, but if you haven’t picked up the double feature of FREUDO and BIZARRO, grab it immediately for even more incredible shenanigans! As with their other Mondo’s, Cresse’s script is vicious and biting and Frost’s direction voyeuristic and enticing, creating a mishmash of footage that provides one wild scenario after another. THE FORBIDDEN is an exploitation classic, and seems to be unfortunately lost in the excitement created by FREUDO and BIZARRO. Rediscover this bizarre, non-stop rollercoaster ride for yourself!

ECCO is presented in 2.35:1 from the original U.S. negative, and while colors aren’t as bold or gleaming as one would expect from a negative, the image remains clear and bright for the most part. Some scenes are darker than others, as a result of the original cinematography. THE FORBIDDEN is presented in 1.66:1 from a rare 35mm print, and color is generally good, with some light color wavering and the usual lines and grain.

A brief trailer collection kicks off the extras with the original trailer for ECCO, throwing many random, strange, and interesting scenes in-between hyperbole-driven title cards. Some fans find MONDO BIZARRO and MONDO FREUDO to be impossible to differentiate, but remember that BIZARRO is the film with the cheesy spinning paper mache globe, and includes an excellent opening sequence of various women undressing in front of a dressing room’s hidden camera as the soundtrack blares memorable library music and the secret photographing of a slave auction in the Middle East. You also get housewives painting a nude black male model, a Vietnam protest, a spastic photographer of topless girls in leopard-skin bikini underwear, and much, much more! FREUDO opens with hidden-camera footage of people relaxing on a California beach, and you will also witness a Japanese torture ritual performed in a nightclub, girls mud wrestling, white slavery sales in Tijuana, a sex advertisement billboard in London, a bloody Black Mass, and various strippers and prostitutes selling their goodies. As Cresse himself claims in the trailer narration, “MONDO FREUDO will disgust you!” TABU! looks to be quite obscure, opening with a possibly dead African native girl lying on the road and proceeding to reveal vultures eating dead carcasses, Scandinavian hunters drinking reindeer blood, and other shocking scenes. Where did this one disappear to?

A 32-minute abbreviated version of the 70-minute sexploitation expose feature I WANT MORE is included here, and is an interesting curio and one of the stranger fake Mondo films. A snide on-screen commentator claims that “those people” in Hollywood want more, “More of what? More of everything! And it can be had for 15 cents, by picking up one of these underground newspapers”. Apparently these sexual deviants had no problem being filmed, as the cameras probe into various bedrooms to film the activities advertised and discussed in these newspapers: a young couple performs sex shows for paying audiences in motel rooms; a motorcycle gang lives in an abandoned villa, painting the walls with psychedelic paintings and riding through the hallways on their bikes as lesbians make out on a couch (this house would later turn up in Roger Corman’s THE TRIP); a French artist makes a living shaving pubic hair into various shapes and designs (!); a wild swingers’ party is “photographed from the ventilator shaft”; a group of couples make out and shampoo each other in the large shower room of a mansion before heading down to the ballroom for a swingers’ ball. It would be nice to see the finished film on DVD someday, but what is presented here is great fun. To conclude this glance at the whacky world and the people who live in it, enjoy an exhaustive gallery of Mondo Movie Art, including many posters and pressbooks.

This is one of Something Weird’s best double features of the year, and a highly recommended purchase!! You get one tried-and-true Mondo film, and a monumentally entertaining fake Mondo film, creating an incredible twin bill that will provide plenty of entertainment value at your next party! Hoo-rah! (Casey Scott)