Valentina Vs. Baba Yaga: Director's Cuts, Italian Comics, Lost Films and More!

When I first encountered Valentina, I had no idea about the source material, previous film adaptations or anything.  I caught it on late night cable, and for all I knew, it was just another softcore "erotica" flick, like an 80s Emmanuelle knock-off.  Admittedly, I noticed something was a bit unusual as soon as Valentina was shot to death in the opening credits and the directors' names flew out of her bullet wound.  But, hey, some of those Emmanuelle movies went to some pretty weird places, too.
It's full of creative uses of scrims, too
And in a way, 1989's Valentina is softcore erotica coming in the wake of Emmanuelle.  Valentina, played by American gymnast turned model turned actress Demetra Hampton, spends a lot of time undressing and making love.  She's even got a catchy theme song named after her, like Emmanuelle.  But as many times as this film starts a sex or general nude scene, it cuts quickly away, over and over.  I used to think this was just a soft, censored cut of the film, but no, that's just how it is.  Because this film has a lot more interesting ground to cover.  Like, just try and follow this brief synopsis:
Valentina is a fashion photographer/ detective/ international woman of mystery who's working on a photo exhibit on cellos when she discovers she has a famous cellist for a stalker.  She's walking home with her boyfriend Rembrandt when a sexy witch almost runs her over with her car.  Taken with Valentina's beauty, the witch gives her a doll, which secretly comes to life and puts a spell on Valentina.  It causes her to sleepwalk to the witch's mansion, where she has a giant pit in the floor leading to a secret torture dungeon, where she gets locked in a cage.  Rembrandt figures it out and rescues her, at which point Valentina decides she can no longer resist the temptation of that cellist stalker and starts an affair with him.  But he turns out to be a dangerous knife-wielding psychopath, so she leaves town and goes on holiday to some old European city where a secret cult of people who cannot age steal her camera for an immortality ritual.  Meanwhile, dejected Rembrandt buys some antique art pieces from a street vendor, and a coven of witches haunt him to get them back.  Valentina escapes the cult, Rembrandt defeats the witches, and they reunite in a beach bungalow, where a Lady Terminator-type walks out of the ocean and starts blowing the entire town up with her laser eye-beams!  The whole movie is interspersed with pop reggae songs, dream sequences and artsy photo shoots, making very little sense, but boy is it entertaining!
featuring authentic Robocop vision!
Years later, when I'd put all the pieces of this bizarro-puzzle together, it's just as fascinating, if not moreso.  It's co-directed by Gianfranco Giagni, who also made the terrific, still unreleased Italian horror flick Spider Labyrinth; and it's based on the celebrated adult/art comic books by Guido Crepax.  Originally, the Rembrandt character was the star, known by his super-hero name Neutron; but his fiance Valentina became more popular and took over as the star of her own book for decades.  And the reason the movie has such a convoluted, episodic feel is because it's actually a mash-up of an Italian Valentina TV series, so we're seeing about six or seven half-hour episodes edited into a single movie.  And the most famous issue of the Valentina comics had actually been made into a movie over a decade earlier, Corrado Farina's Baba Yaga.
1973's Baba Yaga stars Carroll Baker as that sexy witch who almost runs over Valentina (this time played by Isabelle De Funès), and just focuses on this one particular story.  George Eastman co-stars as Arno, who's basically a stand-in for the Rembrandt character, and it has the same stand-out imagery: the pit in the witch's house, the cursed doll, and even some of the same dream sequences, like Valentina fighting her boyfriend in a boxing ring, which both films are taking right out of the comics.  Farina has a frankly annoying free-form jazz soundtrack, but is otherwise pretty cool, turning shots of the film into black & white stills to mirror the comic panels, and making other stylistic choices to merge film and comics, well before Creepshow and Ang Lee's Hulk tried it.  And because it's a feature film devoted to a single story, as opposed to Valentina, which smushes in everything and the kitchen sink, it has time to develop the characters and restore plot points, like the witch cursing Valentina's camera.  I still prefer Valentina, and Hampton captures the character in spades over De Funès, who looks like someone pressed a wig down on her head and never told her what was going on, but both adaptations definitely have their strengths, so fortunately we don't have to choose.
Or perhaps more accurately, we can't choose.  Because the movie Valentina has never been released on DVD or blu in any region around the world.  Or VHS even!  There's just a very rare Japanese laserdisc, and that's pretty much it.  Except happily, I was able to find a grey market copy from the now defunct Video Search of Miami.  Oh, and yes, the entire Valentina television series was released on DVD in Italy from MHE Ideal Entertainment (you can bet I've got that, too), but while the show is made up entirely of footage from the series, and Valentina fans should definitely seek it out as it features plenty more adventures, including a vampire, gangsters and one episode that's a homage to Argento and giallos in general.  But the series loses the madcap energy of the spliced together film, which is frankly kind of amazing.  Plus, as a die-hard fan, I tried re-editing the film out of the DVD series to have it in good quality, and there are lines of dialogue and music clips that are unique to the film, so it can't even be reconstructed (though I pulled it off by cleaning up the audio on the VSoM DVDR).  Like, I'd recommend the series to fans of cult Italian stuff and of course the Crepax comics, but the Valentina movie is a unique experience even non-fans would get a pretty good kick out of.
VSoM DVR on top; 2008 MHE DVD below.
So yeah, the VSoM disc is a grimy, old VHS-recording-sourced transfer.  It's washed out, soft, full of video noise, etc.  I mean, just look at it.  The MHE DVD, on the other hand, is just alright for an old television show on DVD.  But by comparison, it's a friggen' revelation.  You can actually tell what colors things are supposed to be!  Unfortunately, it's got a little bit of an interlacing issue, but otherwise it's no better or worse than you'd expect.  It's fullscreen, which is surely correct for a television project.  They include all thirteen episodes over three discs, and include the complete English and Italian audio in nice, clean stereo tracks.  Zero extras, but it's nicely packaged in a fold-out digibook and external slip-box.  And it's probably the best we'll ever get of the series or the film, as I believe its the copious amount of famous pop songs used throughout (Boy George, Buster Poindexter's "Hot Hot Hot," etc) that are preventing out favorite cult labels from tackling it.
A deleted/ restored scene from Shameless's director's cut of Baba Yaga.
So no Valentina for us, but there's no problem with Baba Yaga.  Diamond originally released it under the title Kiss Me, Kill Me in 2001; and then Blue Underground released it in 2003 with a bunch of cool deleted scenes (and plenty of other extras we'll get to).  In 2009 in the UK, Shameless teamed up with Farina to re-edit those back into the film, because the producers removed them against his will in the first place.  "Finally, after 35 years, you can see my film as it was before the producers hacked it to pieces - Corrado Farina" is printed on the actual DVD label itself!  So that's definitely the DVD version I recommend.  Blue Underground released it again in HD as a 2013 blu-ray, but disappointingly, they didn't release the director's cut.  I imagine the reason is that the deleted scenes were in lesser quality, and they couldn't (or didn't want to pay to) restore that footage to HD, too, to reintegrate back into the film.  But come on, if Baba Yaga were an Argento film, you know we'd at least have a composite cut on blu.  Oh well.  So I never got the blu-ray, but here's a comparison of the two DVD versions.
2003 Blue Underground DVD on top; 2009 Shameless DVD below.
Both discs are slightly windowboxed to 1.83 and 1.76, respectively.  The transfers are virtually identical apart from this framing issue, with BU showing a bit more on each side.  But the inserted deleted scenes on the Shameless disc are interlaced, faded and distinctly lower quality (as above).   In terms of pure PQ, I'd give it to BU for the extra width, but the Shameless version of the film is a more fun, wild film, as it's mostly edgier dream sequence content that was cut, not boring exposition.  Shameless also includes both the English and Italian tracks with English subtitles, whereas BU only includes the English and no subs (though that is something they did fix with their blu, which has both audio tracks and subs).
Shameless and BU both feature substantial interviews with Farina (they'[re different, but as you can imagine, he says a lot of the same things in both of them) and a cool featurette on Crepax's comics called Freud in Color, plus the trailer and a gallery.  Blue Underground also has a neat easter egg, with a (very brief) Tinto Brass interview, where he talks about Crepax's influence on his own work.  And they include an insert with some additional comic and poster art.  Shameless, on the other hand, has a new introduction by Farina, a text commentary/ trivia track and most impressively, a rare short film Farina directed in 1973 called Fumettophobia, about Italian comic books like Crepax's.  Shameless also throws in a bunch of bonus trailers and some cool, reversible artwork.
So I still hold out hope that one day Shameless will release their cut of Baba Yaga to blu-ray, to at least give us a definitive version of that film.  But sadly, what I really want the most, the biggest hole in all our collections, will probably never be filled: the Valentina movie.  But, as with all my M.I.A. posts, I write it with hope alive - I mean, hey, who could've anticipated a German label creating an exclusive special edition of The Resurrected, or Lions Gate developing the Vestron line?  Plus, I can at least let you guys know about the superior Shameless DVD of Baba Yaga and the Italian set of the Valentina TV series.  It's just... not the movie.

Oh!  And if you haven't seen it (or even if you have), I've created a brand new index for the site, so you can search posts by filmmaker, genre, format, etc.  It's still growing, but everything that's there works, and I've just added a new keyword tag to go along with posts like this one: comic book-related.   💪

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