Cop Target (1990): Lenzi Flair

Dave takes a look at a lesser-known potboiler from a reluctant Italian splatter master.

He’s the director of almost seventy films — yet most genre fans remember him for a handful of gore-drenched horror pictures. With that in mind, Umberto Lenzi’s relationship with his more exploitative work was rarely misty-eyed.

“I made many good movies,” sighed a weary Lenzi in 1997. “Like Il Grand Attaco (1978) with Henry Fonda and John Huston. Why has nobody ever interviewed me about that? Or From Hell To Victory (1979), a very good movie starring George Peppard. But people just keep asking me about Cannibal Ferox (1981) and Eaten Alive (1980). Two small movies without actors. Without anything! It’s very strange.” [1]

Despite the success of Cannibal Ferox — arguably the most lucrative entry in the Italian gut-munching cycle — in its wake Lenzi opted for a much-needed horror sabbatical. Comedy (Daughter of the Jungle (1982)), adventure (Ironmaster (1983)), and war films (Bridge to Hell (1986)) followed, until the deliriously enjoyable Ghosthouse (1988) lured the reluctant fright-meister back to the macabre. However, this Massachusetts shot shocker marked the start of the end in terms of Lenzi’s career, with many of the films he made after it consigned to obscurity.

Commissioned for Italian television, The House of Witchcraft (1989) and The House of Lost Souls (1989) were two of Lenzi’s favourite works but they were snubbed for broadcast, something the helmer blamed on the failure of Lamberto Bava’s small screen outing, Brivido Giallo (1987). Black Demons (1991), meanwhile, a Brazil-based ghost story that Lenzi touted as his masterpiece, failed to get a release in America and most of Europe.

“I’m almost through with filmmaking,” he opined in the pages of Gorezone in early ’92. “I don’t want to end up working on zero-budget productions that no-one will ever see.” [2]

Thankfully, just over three decades on, we’ve been able to ensure that the jewels of Lenzi’s wilderness years have been preserved for people to belatedly enjoy. The excellent Nightmare Beach (1989) and Hitcher in the Dark (1989) have benefitted from pin-sharp Blu-ray releases, but there’s still a handful of Lenzi films from this era that warrant another look — or, in some cases, a first altogether.

COP TARGET, shot in Miami and The Dominican Republic, is one of his most elusive projects. Denied a home entertainment release in America, it snuck into video stores in a handful of territories (like here in the U.K. via Imperial) and, a one-time showing on Channel Ten in Australia in early ’95 aside, it’s even managed to avoid boob tube appearances, too. Granted, it’s not even close to the quality of Almost Human (1974) or The Tough Ones (1976) — but it’s a well-done offering that found Lenzi collaborating with Fabrizio De Angelis again and utilising the very special talent of Robert Ginty. Not that the two saw eye to eye…

“Lenzi didn’t like Ginty. He found him to be a ball breaker,” says Schlock Pit pal and Lenzi chronicler Troy Howarth. “Nothing Lenzi directed got a theatrical release in the U.S. by this stage. It was shot in the summer of 1990 and was part of a group of films he did for Fabrizio De Angelis, with whom he first worked on Violent Naples (1976), where De Angelis was a production manager. At this time, most of what De Angelis was producing was for the video market in Italy and for the theatrical market in South America, where films of this nature still had some viability. De Angelis provided a haven for older filmmakers whose careers were derailed by the collapse of the Italian film industry in the ‘80s. Lenzi wrote several films for him, always using his wife Olga’s name for tax reasons. Lenzi was reasonably happy with the end product and noted that she ‘tidied up the story’, which was written by Raimondo Del Balzo.”

Ginty stars as Farley Wood: a forthright cop with a conscience, who, right off the bat, gives a glimpse into his considerate ways by letting a crossdressing hooker off during a Class A drugs bust. Tasked with providing protection for Deborah Trent (Barbara Bingham), the rich widow of a deceased DEA agent, Wood is ordered to get her to the tropical island of San Cristobal and evade a pursuing group of international terrorists whose presence suggests that her late husband was involved in something sinister. Along the way, Trent’s daughter, Priscilla (Nina Sue Borrel), gets kidnapped and used for leverage, which results in Wood being taken off the case; a decision that he has no plans to pay heed to.

On the cusp of winding down his career, Wood is the kind of character that Ginty could play in his sleep. The ‘90s would see him begin to focus more on campaigning for human rights, theatre, opera, art, and photography, so it’s no surprise that a diverse array of vocations would draw him away from the likes of Cop Target and sharing dialogue scenes with a cat called Arthur. Having said that, these moments are borderline iconic, with Ginty’s character even devising a mechanical moggy feeder that resembles a leftover prop from Forbidden Planet (1956).

Del Balzo’s script is fine. Eschewing the conventional tropes of a hard-nosed cop going it alone, he adds a few instances that hint at a broader conspiracy — one that Wood is powerless to influence. A riff on Bogart’s last line from Casablanca (1942) finishes the film, giving its World War II scholar of a director a symbiotic satisfaction and enabling us to contentedly nod in appreciation.

A fascinating footnote in a fabulous career.

USA/Italy ● 1990 ● Thriller ● 90mins

Robert Ginty, Barbara Bingham, Charles Napier, Nina Sue Borrel ● Dir. Umberto Lenzi (as ‘Humphrey Humbert’) ● Wri. Raimondo Del Balzo

[1] Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors as Seen Through the Eyes of Their Protagonists by Luca M. Palmerini, Gaetano Mistretta, 1996, Fantasma Books.
[2] Umberto Lenzi: Fed Up With People by Loris Curci, Gorezone, No #25, Special 1992.

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