Umberto Lenzi, 1971
Starring: Irene Papas, Ornella Muti, Ray Lovelock
Two British teens fund a European vacation by selling pornography, until they come across some obstacles: they are arrested for peddling their wares and have a sizable chunk of their profits stolen by a motorcycle-riding folk singer. With no funds, food, or gas for their obnoxious yellow convertible with flowers painted all over it, they stumble across a village that appears to be abandoned. They break into the garage to steal gas from the car, but they meet the outraged woman of the house, Barbara. At first threatening to call the police, she soon invites them to stay the night. What begins as a fun evening – including dinner, champagne, and a dance party – soon becomes more sinister when it seems that Barbara is trying to frame the two youngsters.
Also known as An Ideal Place for Murder and Dirty Pictures, this takes Umberto Lenzi’s favorite giallo conceit – the threesome gone horribly wrong – and adds a sense of anarchistic fun and some clever twists and turns. This is essentially an inversion of his previous film, Orgasmo (1969), where two teens (or possibly twenty-somethings) prey upon a wealthy woman alone in a country mansion. Here, the stately Irene Papas (Z, The Guns of Navarone) brooks far less nonsense than the blonde, susceptible Carrol Baker and it’s immediately clear that not only does she have something to hide, but she isn’t really in danger when the kids decide to take her hostage… she’s just biding her time.
Apparently Lenzi originally wanted this to be his own take on something like Easy Rider and the first act does establish a sort of swingin’ ‘60s amour fou flavor. The beautiful Ornella Muti (Flash Gordon) looks nothing like an English schoolgirl, but is delightful in her role as a kittenish, if naïve teen who refuses to play by the rules. The Italian-English Ray Lovelock is slightly more believable if less likable than Muti in one of his first starring roles. Something of a legend in Italian B-cinema, he would return to horror in a few years with Autopsy and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and make an even bigger name for himself in Eurocrime films like Almost Human and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man.
The potential for criminal activity – and silliness – established in the first half is upended when the teens invade Barbara’s home, but Lenzi is unable to pull off the effective sense of dread and suspense found in Orgasmo. There is one scene that stands above the rest, when Barbara flees into what she calls a “bird house” on the property, a dark, foreboding dwelling filled with panicking birds. She lunges madly at Lovelock with a knife while an owl screeches over their heads and wings flap incessantly. But much of the remainder of the action comes to a halt when they play cat and mouse in Barbara’s home and Lenzi wavers far too long over who is predator and who is prey.
SPOILERS: Oasis of Fear includes the four key elements found in Lenzi’s giallo trilogy with Carroll Baker, namely a ménage-à-trois gone wrong, a very dated dance sequence, spousal murder, and vehicular death. That’s no exaggeration – in each of these films, someone gets into a fatal automobile accident, usually because they’re driving like an asshole, and it is used as a sort of deus-ex-machina, for the guilty to get their just desserts. Except, of course, for Oasis of Fear, where he finally retires this formula and in a cynical twist has the innocent parties die in a crash so that the guilty can get away. His more well-known giallo films, Eyeball and the superior Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, don’t fixate on these themes in quite the same way. And while I can understand how it’s easy to see these early four – Orgasmo, So Sweet… So Perverse, Paranoia, and Oasis of Fear – as dull and repetitive, it’s still fascinating to watch a director work through common themes in different ways.
Oasis of Fear is available on a PAL DVD from Shameless, and though it’s far from a must-see, it’s still an entertaining entry in Lenzi’s giallo series. The style is pleasantly dated and will please fans of Eurotrash – in particular, keep your ears peeled for Bruno Lauzi’s outrageous score, with some vocal stylings from Lovelock -- though giallo purists are likely to be disappointed at how long it takes things to get going. And I don’t know if Lenzi was trying to poke fun at “giallo” (meaning “yellow” in Italian), but so much of the set design is a particularly obnoxious shade of the color. While some of the genre’s most prominent directors, such as Bava and Argento, were known for their lurid, candy-colored lighting and set design, Oasis of Fear ties with Naked You Die for the most obnoxiously-designed early giallo.