Saturday, October 31, 2015

THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA


Paolo Cavara's 1971 giallo THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is one of the finest giallo films ever produced, a multi-layered, complex mix of giallo and poliziotto mechanisms that manages to be both misogynistic and gruesome while still being accessible and entertaining. It boasts one of the most remarkable casts in giallo history and while it never quite reaches the level of visual invention of Argento and Martino, it is a stunning film to behold. This is one of those films that you wouldn't change a single frame of if you were given the chance. It is simply perfect the way it is, a grim, bloody, thrilling murder mystery.

THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA has one of those long-winded giallo plots that don't quite lend themselves to simple plot synopses but I'll give it a go. Maria Zani is found murdered just a few hours after her husband receives a photograph of her with another man. The cop in charge of the case, Inspector Tellini, believes the husband might be to blame. When another woman turns up dead (and a search of the building results in a stash of cocaine) the plot thickens. But Tellini isn't quite convinced that the drugs and the murders are connected, and neither is Maria Zani’s husband, Paolo. He's taken on finding the killer himself. Soon enough, a few more women have been murdered, Paolo is dead and Tellini realizes that everything that has been happening can be traced back to a posh beauty treatment facility run by an enigmatic woman named Laura. Hmm... not a good synopsis but what are you going to do? Saying anymore would ruin the film.

THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA is steeped in sexuality. From its opening scene of Barbara Bouchet getting a naked rubdown to the revelation of the killer's motives, sexuality is of vital importance to the film. Fetishized murder, a tactic used throughout the giallo film, is particularly strong here. The killer uses long acupuncture needles to immobilize his victims, all beautiful women, before taking a large blade to them. The first murder in the film is a mishmash of imagery - a phallic needle, breasts, eyes, a long, sharp knife - all culminating in a shot of a champagne bottle spilling its contents onto the floor. This visualization of deviant sexual impulses through not-so-subtle imagery continues through the whole film and is married with a storyline about infidelity, rage, desire, sexual humiliation and domination. Inspector Tellini is marked as the hero of the film not only by his status as a Police Inspector but also by his relationship with his young wife, the only truly healthy relationship in the entire film, and his desire to make a better life with her.

Probably best known for his work on the MONDO CANE series of films with Jacopetti, Cavara has constructed a film full of striking imagery. The film's standout scene, a chase through a room full of mannequins, is tense and visually masterful. Cavara's use of focus pulls, quick, rapid fire editing and creative mise en scene creates one of the best murder set-pieces the giallo film has to offer. It's only a very brief segment of the film but it is the film's best. Cavara's use of the mannequins in the foreground and background accentuates the feelings of paranoia and helplessness and the final coup de grace delivered by the killer is made all the more disturbing by the victim's blank stare and the subtle touch of having her slump forward slightly as the killer pulls the knife from her stomach. A later chase on a rooftop provides a nice jolt of adrenaline but nothing, not even the final, brutal showdown between Tellini and the killer, tops it.

As you would expect from a film produced by Marcello Danon, all of the talent behind and in front of the camera is top notch. Much is made of the fact that THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA boasts three Bond girls in its cast. While none of the three - Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, and Barbara Bach - were ever really known for their acting chops, all three do fine work here and all three contribute to the combined beauty of the cast. Stefania Sandrelli and Annabella Incontrera round out the eye candy while Rossella Falk, Silvano Tranquilli, and Giancarlo Giannini provide the muscle. Also of utmost importance to the film's success are two behind-the-scenes names. Marcello Gatti's cinematography is crisp and beautiful and Ennio Morricone provides yet another amazingly evocative score. From top to bottom, you won't find a better ensemble of actors and filmmakers and together they have created a true classic of the giallo film, easily one of the best of its kind.

Friday, October 30, 2015

THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US


Where to start with THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US? What is the proper approach to take when faced with such a magnitude of failure? I suppose I could lament the sorry state of affairs that was the giallo film in the 1980s but I've already done that bit before. I could also, if I were so inclined, start by giving you a rundown of all the better films this 1986 effort lifts from. But that would put perhaps a bit too fine an underline on just how remarkably shit this film is. Maybe the best way to begin is by giving you a complete - SPOILER ALERT - rundown of the film's plot.

Christiana is a Criminology student at a local university. She has chosen to write her thesis on the infamous Couples Killer that has been gunning down lovers for the past several months. She meets a handsome doctor named Alex and the two, in typical Italian genre fashion, fall madly in love instantaneously. As Christiana digs deeper into the case, she begins to believe that Alex might very well be the killer. She begins receiving threatening phone calls, the people she turns to for help all begin dying and she is becoming more and more aware that someone will stop at nothing to stop her from writing her paper.

OK, that last bit was a bit of an exaggeration. What really happens is... nothing much.

Christiana begins to think that the killer, a man who tracks down couples sitting in parked cars and then shoots them while they're making love, might be a voyeur. And no sooner than you can say "no shit", she's off hanging around with a bunch of degenerates who spend their time spying on people while they make noisy love in cars. When that turns out to be of absolutely no use to anyone - especially us - she wanders around for half an hour until one of her friends is viciously murdered. Completely out of ideas, she decides to attend a seance. Though the purpose of the seance is to summon the soul of her recently murdered friend in the hopes that she will be able to identify the killer, the psychic instead begins to see a murder taking place - GASP! - at that very moment!

Christiana rushes to the theater where Alex is supposedly watching a Hitchcock film. She wanders through the darkened theater, hopes beginning to crumble, suspicions beginning to be confirmed that Alex really is the murderous madman. And then she finds him. Christiana sits down beside Alex (never mind contacting the police to let them know someone is being murdered in the woods) and the two just watch the film together, happy and content. As the credits begin to roll, a brief statement comes onscreen to inform us that "This film is made as a warning to young people and with the hope that it will be of use to law enforcement to bring these ferocious killers to justice."

Seriously. That's how the film ends.

By now my love for the giallo film should not be in question. I genuinely love the form. I love the arch, convoluted, nonsensical narratives. I love the gaudy fashion. I love the histrionic performances, the melodramatic scores, the splattery asides and implausible explanations. I love it all. The problem is this: this film manages to contain none of what makes a giallo film great. Even Ernesto Gastaldi, perhaps the greatest giallo screenwriter of all time, doesn't seem interested in this mess. His screenplay is devoid of anything even remotely interesting or inventive. It's stuck on auto-pilot, traveling 10 miles an hour down Cliche Avenue.

The only saving grace of this film is that it's unintentionally hilarious. Some of the dialogue seems straight out of another film. Take, for example, the Professor describing the killer's methods. We're told that "his sacrificial way of killing echoes certain ancient Mediterranean and pre-Christian agricultural rituals" even though the killer's "sacrificial way of killing" is simply shooting people to death with a handgun then mutilating their genitalia. Then there's the idea of a psychic being able to summon the spirit of a deceased individual so that they can ID their killer. Now that is hilariously absurd of course, but just think about how many man hours that would save at police stations around the world. Come to think of it, wouldn't that be your first choice? Why bother with all of this running around and digging for clues if you could just pony up some dough to a local psychic?

Read any amount of online reviews for this film and you're likely to hear just how nasty people think it is. It isn't. This isn't THE NEW YORK RIPPER or GIALLO A VENEZIA. Some of the post-shooting stuff is pretty graphic - a woman has her nipple cut off and her pubic area, umm, scalped - but the effects are so poorly done that you're not likely to feel anything close to queasiness. What tends to be left out of most of the reviews I've read is all the stuff I just spelled out for you here. It's tedious, it's dull, it's visually flat and it is painfully contrived. When you add up all the things this film does wrong, you're left with the impression that no one involved in the film actually gave a damn about it.

Just like I don't give a damn about it.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

EYE IN THE LABYRINTH


EYE IN THE LABYRINTH opens with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, "a labyrinth is built to bewilder the mind of man. Its architecture, however rich in symmetries it might be, is subordinate to this end", perhaps the best indication that what we're about to witness is not your usual giallo film. Immediately thrusting us into a disorientating, Caligari-esque series of tunnels with a wounded man running for his life from an unseen assailant, Mario Caiano's 1972 effort is determined to thwart our expectations, mixing an absurdly complicated plot and deft characterization with Freudian psychobabble and shady double crossings.

After the wounded man (later revealed as a doctor named Lucas) is stabbed to death, his girlfriend Julie goes looking for him. At the clinic, she is told he went to a conference only to have a patient approach her and say that Lucas is in Maracudi. When Julea arrives back at her home, she finds a gunman waiting for her. He demands to see Lucas. When Julie tells him that she doesn't know where Lucas is, the gunman smacks her around and leaves, warning her not to tell the police. Julie discovers Maracudi is the name of a small coastal town. Stopping at a cafe in town, a man offers to take her to Lucas. He leads her to a rundown, dilapidated building then leaves her. She is nearly killed when the man pushes a mound of crumbling masonry off of a roof. Running away in a panic, Julie runs into Frank, another man from the cafe.

Frank doesn't believe that someone tried to kill her and he goes back to the scene to retrieve the purse she dropped. Curiously enough, all her belongings are still there. Except, of course, the picture of Lucas she was carrying with her. Frank offers to take her to an orphanage he owns and offers her a piece of advice. She may want to enquire about Lucas at a villa owned by a woman named Gerda. Gerda's village is a resort of sorts, the kind of place eccentrics like to go to get away from the mundane.

When Julie arrives at Gerda's villa, she is disappointed to find that no one knows Lucas. She decides to spend the night. She is introduced to the other guests, which include a couple of actors, a photographer seemingly obsessed with photographing feet, Gerda's lazy, druggie arm candy, a composer who spends a great deal of time making audio recordings of nature sounds, and a slow-witted boy who wanders around and frequently makes passes at our heroine. Julie notices something strange sitting on Gerda's bookshelf. It's a copy of a book she gave to Lucas. She even wrote a little something on the first page. Gerda refuses to let her see it. Later that night, Julie sneaks downstairs and takes the book off of the shelf. The first page is missing. Julie begins to get the idea that these people know something more than they're saying. An attempt on her life only strengthens that position. As she digs deeper into what happened to Lucas, she discovers everyone knows more then they're letting on and Lucas' killer may be closer than she thinks.

Convoluted narratives are the stock-in-trade of the giallo film. A lot of the time, I get the feeling that all the red herrings, double crossing, misdirection, etc. are little more than an acknowledgement of the simplicity of the films central mystery. All of these things must be tossed into the mix or the audience would be able to figure out immediately who is behind the murders or who is committing the crimes (though anyone schooled in the ways of the giallo can usually do this no matter what distractions the screenwriters throw at them). The narrative presented here by Caiano and his co-writers Horst Hachler and Antonio Saguera is packed with seemingly extraneous material, but the final outcome of the film makes all of it necessary. Because the film is so densely plotted, it feels slower than it should. The film is not paced incorrectly, mind you, but the constant onslaught of new faces, new facts and new stories makes the film feel slow and talky. Fans of the Argento-style gialli are likely to be disappointed to find that the film only contains four murders, the most vicious of which occurs in the first five minutes.

But the film has a lot to offer to the more patient viewer. The giallo was an incredibly malleable kind of film and EYE IN THE LABYRINTH provides those looking for a more cerebral minded film something worth watching. Its punctuation marks aren't provided by shocking murder set-pieces but quiet revelations. The films pulse never rises too high and it isn't likely to satisfy those looking for gratuitous thrills, but it tells a complex story well and with enough interest that boredom never becomes a factor. The films story doesn't exactly hold water when you sit and think about it in any kind of depth (it is the kind of story that requires a five minute Freudian explanation, a la PSYCHO, at the films end just to make sure you really "get it"), but it holds up well upon a second viewing and reveals a surprising strength of vision. Caiano and Co. don't cheat at all throughout the film. It might not make much sense outside of the film, but in its own internal diegesis, it all works perfectly.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

WATCH ME WHEN I KILL




Antonio Bido's 1977 giallo is a real mixed bag. Over-plotted and confused, with no clear line of focus, it often weaves between its miscellaneous story lines in a haphazard way, rendering much of the action incomprehensible. That it contains one of the more memorable motives in the history of the giallo is very fortunate. Without it, WATCH ME WHEN I KILL would be just another cut-rate thriller. The final reveal of the film is a complex, highly depressing event. It makes every other motive you've ever seen in a giallo - whether it'd be blackmail, adultery, trying to get life insurance money - seem downright innocuous and petty. For the first time, you just might find yourself feeling the murders are completely justified.

The plot is a standard giallo narrative. A pharmacist named Dezzan is murdered and Mara, a nightclub dancer, finds herself targeted by his killer. She moves in with her boyfriend, Lukas, after the killer breaks into her home. Lukas, a sound engineer (I think; his profession is never named) is helping his neighbor, a loan shark named Bozzi, decipher the meaning behind threatening phone calls he has been receiving. These phone calls consist of sounds - dogs barking, a strange hum like an incinerator, screaming. The killer's activity escalates after the murder of an acquaintance of Bozzi's, a woman named Esmeralda, and Lukas becomes convinced that it is all the work of a recently escaped murderer that Dezzan, Esmeralda, and Bozzi helped convict.

Nothing new here. The first half of the film focuses on Lukas' investigation into Dezzan's murder. He begins to track down the escaped inmate, Ferrante, convinced that he is the guilty party. After all, Dezzan, Esmeralda, and Bozzi were all on the jury that sent him to prison for murder. But Lukas quickly comes to the conclusion that Ferrante cannot be the murderer (through the use of some shaky logic involving coffee cups; something got lost in the translation here). A little more digging turns up an even more likely suspect and a hidden tragedy that Lukas could never have seen coming.

The core story of WATCH ME WHEN I KILL (the film's original title was IL GATTO DAGLI OCCHI DI GIADA, or THE CAT WITH THE JADE EYES) is a good one but it's executed all wrong. It moves in fits and starts, changing its pacing at random. It also suffers from some poor casting. Corrado Pani and Paola Tedesco are both fine actors but, as Lukas and Mara, they have little chemistry together - plus Pani's sole characterization seems to light a cigar at the beginning of every single scene he's in. While Bido offers up some solid direction, highly reminiscent of Argento at times, the film suffers from a lack of interesting locales. A waterfall is the lone highlight in terms of locations. The score is the real highlight, a Goblin-inspired and downright creepy bit of work that provides the film with some much needed atmosphere.

As it is, WATCH ME WHEN I KILL is worth recommending but is nowhere near as good as Bido's follow-up giallo, THE BLOOD STAINED SHADOW. It might disappoint those giallo fans looking for the rough and sexy (the violence is pretty weak and no one takes their clothes off) but those looking for a good Saturday night's entertainment wouldn't be wasting their time here. And there’s that ending. Damn, is it good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SMILE BEFORE DEATH


Discussions of the giallo film tend to contextualize the form within the horror genre. This is a mistake, one I myself sometimes make. While the later films of Dario Argento, as well as the later gialli of Martino, Fulci and Lenzi, do indeed resemble horror films (in particular, the slasher film, a sub-genre the giallo film undoubtedly influenced) the giallo film is not - I repeat, is NOT - a form of horror cinema. If anything, the giallo belongs to the crime genre or suspense genre. The popular horror trappings of the giallo film might seem to argue otherwise, but the films that are generally found on DVD, that is to say, the films casual viewers are most familiar with, do little to represent the giallo as a whole. While Argento popularized a particular form of giallo (the bloody, Freudian nightmare thriller) that type of giallo is outnumbered by films whose primary concern isn't bloody murder.

A cursory look through the astounding array of gialli released in the 1960s and 1970s alone provides evidence for this claim. Films as diverse as FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION, PERVERSION STORY, and DEADLY SWEET were all being released, all of which loosely followed the now familiar genre formula. But the difference was in the presentation of that formula. There is little doubt that the giallo quickly plummeted down the rabbit hole of bloody murder as time wore on, but in these beginning years, the styles and narrative contrivances were vast and varied.

For example, here is Silvio Amadio's 1972 giallo SMILE BEFORE DEATH. It has a deceptively simple story. A woman named Dorothy is believed to have committed suicide. After the funeral has taken place, her daughter from an earlier marriage, Nancy, arrives at the family estate. Her arrival is met with surprise by both Nancy's stepfather, Marco, and her mother's longtime friend, Gianna, a photographer who has taken up residence in the guesthouse, as well as Marco's bedroom. Marco has never met Nancy and expected her to be younger, maybe 9 or 10, instead of a blossoming young woman of 16. It becomes fairly obvious soon enough that Marco and Gianna were the perpetrators of a hideous crime.

They killed Nancy's mother, making it look like a suicide. The only one who suspects them is the housekeeper, Magda, and the only person standing in the way of them inheriting all of Dorothy's money is young Nancy. Their plan is simple. They will befriend Nancy and then bump her off, making it look like an accident. Once she is in the ground, they can finally lay their hands on the loot. Only Nancy is much more than they bargained for. Once she catches wind of the situation from Magda, she begins to play some rather devious mind games. She slowly begins to seduce both Marco and Gianna, turning them against each other, leading them to violence.

That's the basic plot of SMILE BEFORE DEATH. It certainly doesn't fit the mold of the more popular "black-gloved killer" gialli, but it is positively dripping with the same kind of transgressive tone and sharp-edged cynicism. It is relatively bloodless, relying instead on a rather cunning game of cat and mouse instead of wild, pulse-pounding set-pieces. Unlike most gialli, SMILE BEFORE DEATH is a character piece. There are only three main characters in the entire film. The fun comes in watching their allegiances break down, their suspicions rise, their motives and methods turn against them. The love triangle that eventually emerges, with both Marco and Gianna falling for the playfully seductive Nancy, reminded me a great deal of the similar love triangle in Sergio Martino's YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY as did the final, bitter coda that wraps up the film. Usually in gialli, we only have a main character that is expanded upon in any meaningful way. The men in gialli are either lovers or brutes, the females either helpless victims or hopeless whores. SMILE BEFORE DEATH eschews these cliched dichotomies. The characters are more complex, more rich and the interactions between them become more and more complex as the film wears on, giving the film a fascinating psychological edge as we wonder who is playing who at any given time. What emerges is a film as black as night, but as entertaining and interesting as anything the giallo has to offer.

This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, if only to soak up the wonderful compositions and visual clues provided by Silvio Amadio, the film's director. I don't remember being overly impressed with the direction during my first viewing of the film. It was only after the final piece of the puzzle came into place and the narrative was resolved that I began to think back over several scenes in the film. On my second viewing, those scenes took on much deeper meaning. For example, pay close attention to how many scenes feature mirrors or mirror images. Pay close attention to the scenes of modeling and photography. Pay attention to the way Amadio frames his actors, creating interesting three-person compositions and which character appears in the foreground, middle-ground and background of each scene. Amadio is still a mostly unheard of figure in Italian cinema. Films like this (and to a lesser degree, his other giallo film AMUCK) show that he was not simply a hack director out to make a quick buck. The simple story line of SMILE BEFORE DEATH belies the depth of the text.

Also worthy of praise is the film's cast. Jenny Tamburi, Silvano Tranquilli and Rosalba Neri are all wonderful in their roles. They are tricky parts to play, all multifaceted characters operating within a circle of lies. There are very few moments in the film where we see the characters as they truly are. Instead we are watching each and every character vacillate between being devious creatures, passionate lovers and bitter enemies. The constantly shifting narrative piles on the suspicion and the distrust at a fast and furious clip, requiring the actors to slide between sympathetic and loathsome, distinctly unattractive and seductively appealing. All three actors are up to the task and they shine throughout the entire running time. Much like Enzo G. Castellari's COLD EYES OF FEAR (another giallo with a very limited cast and little in the way of violent action) SMILE BEFORE DEATH exemplifies the wonderful elasticity of the giallo film. You don't need a black-gloved killer to produce tension and suspense. SMILE BEFORE DEATH earns them both with nothing more than solid direction, sharp writing and excellent performances.

Monday, October 26, 2015

THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH




The importance of THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH in the history of the giallo film cannot be understated. While Mario Bava had given us the basic narrative elements of the typical murder mystery giallo in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and the instantly recognizable iconography of the same in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (both of which would be later melted into a single formula by Dario Argento in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE), there existed a whole separate strain of the giallo that deviated from Bava's conventions, a branch in which the murder elements took a back seat to more intimate psychosexual and emotional concerns.

Made in 1968, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH came along as the giallo was really starting to take shape. While it's still a little difficult to characterize what is and is not a giallo film, it becomes quite a bit easier when we're discussing the black gloved killer species of gialli. But that is merely one form the giallo film takes. The other is a much quieter, introspective mystery film, one where bloody murder is rarer (or at least a bit more nonessential to the film) and the more classical elements of traditional suspense film take precedence. If we were to draw an evolutionary tree for the giallo film, we would find two distinct branches forming, one that dealt with cold blooded murder and the other that deals with more typical (though no less interesting) forms of crime.

While the seeds for THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH had been planted by earlier giallo films like LIBIDO and DEADLY SWEET, it is the first giallo film to tell this kind of story in a solid, cohesive manner. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi (who was already working in the genre, most notably writing and co-directing the aforementioned LIBIDO), THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH repositions the tension and danger from without to within. It gave birth to a string of films which deal with naive characters in dubious relationships being threatened, often blackmailed for money or sex, always by someone within their social circle. Without THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH, it is unlikely we would have Lucio Fulci's PERVERSION STORY, Umberto Lenzi's Paranoia trilogy of films (A QUIET PLACE TO KILL, SO SWEET... SO PERVERSE and ORGASMO, all featuring Carroll Baker) and Luciano Ercoli's gialli, especially THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Gastaldi, one of the most prolific of giallo writers, would use the story of this film as a template time and time again, especially in his work for director Sergio Martino.

THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH features Jean Sorel and Carroll Baker as Marcel and Deborah, a couple of well-off newlyweds on their honeymoon in Geneva, Marcel's country of birth. One night, Marcel sees an old friend named Philip (played by genre stalwart Luigi Pistilli). Philip isn't exactly happy to see his old friend. Marcel had left Geneva to go to America, determined to no longer be a good-for-nothing. He planned on making something of himself. He left behind his girlfriend Suzanne (the beautiful Ida Galli) and she, desperate and depressed by his absence, killed herself. Philip tells Marcel that he is guilty of murdering Suzanne because had he not left, Suzanne would have never taken her own life. Marcel is wracked with guilt. When he and Deborah visit Suzanne's parents, they find their home deserted. While at the house, the phone rings. Deborah answers it and a man on the other end informs her that she will soon be killed as revenge for Suzanne's death. As they leave the house, they begin to hear a piano playing the same music Suzanne used to play.

The threats don't stop there. Even when Marcel and Deborah pack up and move their honeymoon to Nice, the calls happen again. Someone is following them, taunting them. Marcel thinks he sees Philip at a boxing match, but has he really followed them? And what about the handsome painter (giallo regular George Hilton) staying in a house beside their vacation home who seems to be smitten with Deborah? Could he have something to do with it? And even more interestingly, is Suzanne really dead?

Those who think the giallo only trades in flesh and blood really need to do themselves a favor and explore the side of the sub-genre that exists outside the shadow of Dario Argento. While this film does contain a healthy dose of eroticism, the sex the film contains is understated and exists (outside of a quick, early excursion to a posh night club that provides us with the chance to watch a stripper do her thing on stage) as a part of the story, not something draped on top of it for market appeal. There's nary a violent scene through the whole movie (with only two such scenes occurring in the last half hour) and the action is shifted away from the car chases and fist fights of the usual giallo into the realm of psychological violence and menace. The result is a much tighter mystery narrative with a higher degree of character interaction than (I fear) most giallo fans will be used to.

But the plus side is a narrative that is genuinely involving. Half the fun of watching a giallo film for the first time is trying to figure out who the killer/blackmailer/etc. is. Half the fun of watching a giallo film a second time is seeing how well the build-up holds up to scrutiny. While THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH does contain a few logical flaws, the story is just as satisfying a second and third time as it is the first. The beauty of Gastaldi's writing in this film is probably best appreciated by those of us who have seen more gialli than we care to admit to. For a breed of film that sometimes needlessly complicates their narratives for the sake of hiding the obvious identity of their villains, Gastaldi's writing here is gimmick free and incredibly engaging. The characters are fully formed personalities, the pace and development of the mystery is tuned to perfection and the payoff is wonderfully satisfying.

This was the best film Romolo Guerrieri ever directed (only THE DOUBLE comes close in quality) and it is absolutely stunning to watch. The location shooting is marvelous. From the choice of interiors, all of which exude the kind of pop milieu the giallo film is known for, to the beautiful footage of the hills and country sides of Geneva, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH is perhaps the most visually stunning of the early giallo films (outside of Bava's efforts). Guerrieri clearly cribs a few of Hitchcock's tricks, but his style is never obtrusive or overbearing. He gives us only what we need, never sacrificing the narrative to the scenery. He has also never worked with a better group of actors. While Baker was never known for her acting chops, she creates in Deborah a strange mix of devilish charm and genuine insecurity. Sorel walks the fine line between anger and grief well and no one can do more with a single stare than Pistilli. Hilton and Galli are underused to an extent but both manage to create something meaningful out of their brief roles. Simply put, this is the perfect cast for the material.

Watching THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH again I was struck by how fresh the film felt. For a film made in 1968 (not to mention a film I've seen well over a dozen times), it still feels modern and alive in a way many of the early gialli do not. While this style of giallo would quickly be eclipsed by the more bloodthirsty gialli of Argento, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH remains infinitely more engaging and interesting than 80 percent of the giallo films made during the boom period of 1970 to 1975. If you are a viewer who has immersed himself in the gialli of those five years, this film might feel too slow and talky. Or, as I do, you may find it to be a breath of fresh air. It is suspenseful and effective in a purely Hitchcockian way. A truly underappreciated classic, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH deserves rediscovery. It is one of the finest films the giallo has to offer.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL


For some strange reason, THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL holds the distinction of being one of the lesser examples of Sergio Martino's gialli. The reasoning escapes me. It contains all the Martino trademarks (excessive displays of female flesh; quick, compact editing; heavy melodrama; swift, graphic violence) with none of the campiness that marks his non-giallo films. If it doesn't reach the delirious level of YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY or THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS.WARDH, I most certainly won't hold that against it. Few giallo films do. But THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL is for me one of the best gialli around, a taut, tight, humorless thriller that stands above the vast majority of Argento's prettier, nastier late-era work.

Granted, THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL won't win any awards for narrative originality. Lisa Baumer becomes the beneficiary of one million dollars when the airplane carrying her husband explodes mid-flight. Suspicious, the insurance company sends out an investigator, Peter Linch, to look into the matter. A druggie ex-boyfriend contacts Lisa, threatening to turn over evidence implicating her in her husband's death to the police unless Lisa buys his silence. When she comes to his house to recover the evidence, she discovers him dead, stabbed to death by an unknown assailant. Lisa travels to Greece to collect the insurance money and soon receives a letter containing an address. She arrives at the address only to be confronted by her husband's mistress, Lara, and her "lawyer", Sharif. Lara demands half the money but Lisa refuses. Thankfully, Peter has followed her and the two narrowly escape a beat down. But things become even more complicated when Lisa is found slashed to death in her hotel room soon after, the money missing.
This bit of PSYCHO inspired plotting (main characters rarely get bumped off in the giallo film, although Luciano Ercoli did exactly the same thing in exactly the same year in DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS, another under-appreciated giallo) throws the film forward with Peter now under suspicion by a local police investigator, Stavros, and an Interpol agent, John Stanley. Peter takes a shining to a news reporter, Cleo Dupont, and the two begin a relationship. Their happiness is short-lived however as more people begin to die horrible, violent deaths.

Martino is most often referred to as a hack. Why? Hell if I know. His films are as visually interesting as anything you will get from Argento with the distinct difference being that Martino rarely confuses art with storytelling in the way Argento does. You won't find anything as nauseatingly masturbatory as Argento's massive tracking shot from TENEBRAE in any Martino film. Martino rarely wastes a shot, though his sometimes strange choices in direction (the interrogation scene after the attack on Cleo in this film, for example, is shot entirely from overhead, the actors appearing sideways in the frame, the camera swinging like a pendulum back and forth to cover the action) are sometimes disorientating and frustratingly obtuse. What he lacks in visual verve (and that's not to say he doesn't have any) he makes up for in style. And yes, there is a difference.

In my estimation, no one, not even the mighty Argento, shoots set pieces with the ease and skill of Martino. THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL contains some of the strongest in his career. Brutality is nothing special in the giallo, but several of the murders on display here go above and beyond the call of duty in this regard. They're not necessarily the most graphically violent (you won't find anything here as graphic as say Kitty's slow, painful death in Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER), but they are sudden, violent, and unforgettably nerve wracking. Lara's murder in particular stands out. With its brief flashes of nudity, quick editing, tight close-ups, POV shots and sudden eruptions from just off-screen, it resembles a scene from a slasher film, even culminating in a nasty slit throat that sprays blood all over the place. But the way it's handled (quick, abrupt, very matter-of-fact) that makes it so much more terrifying that anything to ever come out of the 80s. It's a terrific couple of minutes. No cheating, no using heavy metal music to get the audience's blood pounding, nothing false or extraneous, just simply smart, stylish direction and razor-sharp editing. I'll take a simple, frightening set piece over an overly complicated, flashy set piece any day of the week.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

MANIAC


Bill Lustig's 1980 slasher entry, MANIAC, is a seminal film in the slasher film sub-genre. Dirty, gritty and grimy, with a totally out of control lead performance by Joe Spinell, this little film delivered on everything the advertising promised. Lustig used that as a mission statement of sorts (far too many of these films promised outrage but offered only mild discomfort) and he packed his creation with some of the most graphic murders ever committed to celluloid. MANIAC might not be the best slasher film and most certainly not the most original, but the film has an undeniable power to it. It's a rabid dog on a leash about to snap. There's no hope for escape once you've entered its poisonous, soul crushing gravity.

Placed in its proper historical context, it's easy to see how MANIAC could ruffle more than a few feathers during its original release. Coming a brief three years after the Son of Sam murders, MANIAC posits a fat, incredibly unbalanced killer named Frank Zito waging a war against his own demons on the mean streets of New York. In the film's most infamous scene, Zito mounts the hood of a car and viciously kills the two lovers inside, blasting the man in the face with a shotgun. It's not hard to see the connection. Berkowitz, much like Zito, had obvious mother issues. While Zito was abused by his mother in the past, Berkowitz never knew his mother. She had given him up for adoption, triggering a deep sense of rejection that lasted his entire life. Coupled with his feelings of inadequacy - Berkowitz wrote to his father: "The girls call me ugly and they bother me the most" - Berkowitz could find no relief without killing those he felt were responsible for his misery. Zito, similarly, punishes innocent women for his past rejection, his mother simply did not love him the way a mother should love a son. The connection between Zito and Berkowitz must have struck the audience in 1980 hard and left them cold.

MANIAC also has similarities with another 1980 slasher film, Joseph Ellison's DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE. Both feature unbalanced killers dealing with maternal abuse who seek comfort in the cold-hearted murder of various beautiful women. While Zito stabs, throttles, and strangles his victims to death, the killer of DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE, Donnie (played with understated conviction by Dan Grimaldi) chains his victims up in a steel-lined torture chamber in his home, using a flame thrower to burn them to death. Both keep memento moris. In Zito's case, it's the scalps which he places on mannequins. In Donnie's case, it's the charred remains of his victims. Both feature finales in which the victims rise up in imagined retaliation for their murders. Neither is particularly convincing in their psychology but neither has to be. Both exhibit a hatred for women and both feel no remorse for their victims or criminals. DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE is the better of the two films but lacks the psychotic pull of Lustig’s film. Whether or not MANIAC sought inspiration from or was inspired by DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE is unknown to me, but there is more than enough cross-over between the two that is seems like a pretty strong coincidence.

The fact that MANIAC has survived the decades with its reputation intact is a bit perplexing. The Tom Savini-supplied special effects have not aged particularly well, but are still strong enough to leave an impression. All of the performances are b-film caliber. Thinking back, it's hard to pick a single thing that MANIAC does well or, at the very least, something that it does better than its contemporaries. Regardless, something about the film simply will not fade with the years. No matter its faults (and it has a ton of them) MANIAC remains a strong film. Its mix of graphic violence and misogyny is tough to shake and the tone of the film, married with the strength of its imagery, has an uncanny ability to unnerve even the most seasoned horror viewer.

If anything, MANIAC serves as an interesting fossil from a time when movies didn't have to cater to every demographic known to man. This is not a film for mass consumption. It does not want to be loved by the under 25 crowd nor does it play ball to appeal to the over 35 crowd. It simply exists, for better or worse, in a class all by itself, a film so rough and uncompromising that it should have "abandon all hope" scrawled on the poster.

Friday, October 23, 2015

THE NEW YORK RIPPER


Of all the films Lucio Fulci directed in his long career, THE NEW YORK RIPPER remains his most divisive. While some critics (Stephen Thrower, for example) find the film to be positively overflowing with psychological menace and narrative ingenuity, many viewers find the film to be little more than a misogynistic fantasy. It is genuinely a film that resists objectivity. Whether the film succeeds or not depends wholly upon your ability to stomach what it has to offer. This is an exceedingly cruel film, one that is filled with vile, repulsive images and soul-deadening nihilism. Fulci was never shy about showing his audience the depths of human depravity and nor was he above rubbing our noses in it. But with THE NEW YORK RIPPER, Fulci doesn't seem content to make a rough, brittle film. He isn't even just content with simply providing us with a handful of gross-out moments. This film feels like an attack on its audience.

THE NEW YORK RIPPER is perfectly suited to the time of its release. Fulci's transplantation of the Italian giallo to the mean streets of New York feels like the perfectly logical next step for a filmmaker working in a genre that was slowly morphing into its US counterpart, the slasher film. THE NEW YORK RIPPER, perhaps more than any other giallo film, feels like a slasher. Its New York setting fits the material as perfectly as it did Bill Lustig's MANIAC, imbuing the film with a kind of naturalistic grime and verite greasiness. Taking the slasher films code of (im)morality to its extreme, Fulci provides us with a raging attack on female sexual empowerment, providing an excellent round of ammunition for those in the moral majority who feel the slasher film was little more than the masturbatory fantasies of woman haters and sadists. For the first time ever, I think they may have a point. While there is a difference between a misogynistic film and a film about misogyny, Fulci's film feels more like the former. Its extreme, explicit brutality towards women does it no favors, but more damning is its "they were asking for it" attitude.

Fulci brings the issue up front right at the beginning of the film when a young, provocatively dressed woman bumps her bicycle into a man's car while they are waiting to board a ferry. She apologizes, only to be told that "you women should stay home where you belong. You're a menace to the public". She quickly calls him an asshole and moves along. When she decides to do a bit of harmless vandalism to the man's car (scribbling "shit" on the inside of his windshield with lipstick), the Ripper arrives to cut her to ribbons. The implication is clear. Women trespassing in the arena of men, whether it's through the exercising of opinion or through sexuality, are fit for slaughter. The character of Jane, an exhibitionist, is both objectified and humiliated at key points in the film, both to the satisfaction of the films underlying ideology. When she decides to exercise the full extent of her sexual freedom by having a one night stand, that's when the film decides she's taken things a bit too far and, as if to chastise her, sends the Ripper her way. As if to place a nice, bold underline on the narrative preoccupation with punishing women for their sexuality, Fulci decides to provide the killer with a particular propensity to attack his victim's femininity during the murders. Broken bottles are thrust into crotches, breasts are slashed and nipples are bifurcated. It is telling that the films stand-out murder set piece, the slow, painful slashing of a prostitute, begins with the gagged and bound victim looking directly into the camera as the Ripper caresses her body with a razor blade, a moment that seems to invite (if not demand) our compliance with the violence that is about to follow.

Looking at the film objectively, it is flawed on many levels. The screenplay is scattershot and disorganized. At times, the film feels more like a slew of sub-plots strung together with no clear narrative through-line. There is simply no excuse for this. The screenplay boasts writing credits for Gianfranco Clerici (writer of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING), Dardano Sacchetti (who wrote numerous films for Fulci including THE BEYOND and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) and Vincenzo Mannino (writer of VIOLENT NAPLES, SYNDICATE SADISTS and VIOLENT CITY). That's three of the best screenwriters working in Italian genre cinema at the time. You can feel a bit of each at certain moments in the film. The gritty police scenes bear Mannino's mark while the more violent scenes have the flavor of a Sacchetti script. These elements never manage to coalesce into a definite whole through the course of the film so what we're left with is a film that suffers from a major identity crisis. The saving grace of the film is the work of Luigi Kuveiller, the wonderfully talented cinematographer behind Argento's DEEP RED and Fulci's early giallo classic A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN. The film is undeniably good looking, with deep pockets of darkness, expressive lighting and some wonderful on-the-street photography of a New York City now long gone.

Another point of major contention (and no review would be complete without mentioning this) is Fulci's decision to have his Ripper maniacally quack like a duck during the murder sequences and adopt a Donald Duck-esque voice during the scenes in which the Ripper taunts the police. While the duck voice is explained in the fleeting moments of the film, its inclusion throughout is incredibly jarring. I have no idea if Fulci was intending to be subversive, comical or whatever by this choice, but its effect is absolutely absurd. It just feels like a creative choice Fulci made for no other reason than to have a quacking killer. It is stupid beyond words. Thankfully, this absurd point of characterization mitigates some of the disgust generated by the murder set pieces. It's hard to be truly outraged while the Ripper is quacking away.

Fulci does manage a few good moments here (Alexandra Delli Colli's escape from the hotel room while Howard Ross lay asleep next to her is truly suspenseful) but the whole thing is sunk by a depressingly nasty, disorganized script. THE NEW YORK RIPPER is a movie that should have worked. There were many moments when I felt like something was finally going to click and the film would really take off, finally developing a single identity. But it never happened. Not only does Fulci and his writers make the mistake of revealing the Ripper's identity too early on (the attempt to dismiss the reveal as a hallucination just does not work at all), but the film struggles to keep all the sub-plots working together. Eventually, the film just collapses under its own weight, unable to sustain interest or excitement of any kind. Fulci simply drops the ball. Had THE NEW YORK RIPPER tightened up the script a bit, focused more on the suspense and lost the pathetic wife beater mentality, it would have probably been a decent film. As it stands, it is just depressing, hollow, hateful and forgettable.