Umberto Lenzi, 1974
Starring: Robert Hoffmann, Suzy Kendall, Ivan Rassimov
Christian finds a woman’s body on the beach, but she turns out to be alive. He sees her again soon after and learns her name is Barbara. They begin a relationship, though it is fraught with troubles. A man breaks in to Barbara’s hotel room and Christian fights him off, accidentally killing him, and then the body disappears. They hide out at Christian’s friends’ artsy beachside home, which happens to already be inhabited by renters: an old man and his younger girlfriend. The couple claim they want to help Christian uncover the truth, but all is not as it seems.
Spasmo is by far one of Lenzi’s strangest thrillers and there’s nothing else quite like it. This is certainly a film rife with plot holes and confusing twists, but if you like utterly bizarre films – or are familiar enough with Eurotrash that you don’t demand a lot of rationality from the plot – it’s well worth hanging on for the ride. There is little gore or violence and things don’t really get going until the third half of the film, but once they do, there is quite a descent into madness and murder… and mannequins. If you hate movies with mannequins, this is not the movie for you.
I think it was only inevitable that pediophobia – the fear of dolls – and automatonophobia – the fear of humanoid figures – have played a fairly significant role in the horror genre over the years. Freud’s concept of the uncanny, the strangely familiar that both repulses and attracts, can be found everywhere from the monster that appears in human guise (Dracula, The Wolf-Man) to the double (The Student of Prague), the dead brought back to life (Frankenstein), recreations of the human form (Der Golem), and many, many more. Mannequins began to trickle into horror through the ‘30s and ‘40s, growing in popularity: for example, House of Wax (1953), The Twilight Zone episode that terrified me as a child, “The After Hours” (1960), Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), his later Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), and the totally wacko American film Tourist Trap (1979), to name just a few.
Mannequins are used particularly effectively in Spasmo and rest at the heart of the film’s mystery, because you have no idea what the devil they mean until the last five minutes of the film. There are mannequins on the beach, mannequins hanging from trees, punctured by knives, bloodied, scantily clad, and so much more – plus an array of taxidermied animals. The mannequins are an obvious stand-in for female corpses and it soon becomes clear that this is not a story of Christian running from a missing body, but that a maniacal murderer is loose. Lenzi relies solely on the unpredictable and atmospheric, so it’s difficult to discuss the film without giving away its twist ending.
Characters appear and disappear, seemingly at will, and Christian’s girlfriend Barbara (played by adorable giallo regular Suzy Kendall of Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Torso) can’t corroborate his story. Kendall, whose best performances rely on her wide-eyed beauty, is at a loss here as a character who is supposed to seem ambiguous – at some times innocently in love with Christian and at other times as a potentially dangerous femme fatale – and it’s unclear if the weakness stems from the script or Kendall’s performance. It is Barbara’s introduction to the story – as a body washed up on the beach – that launches Christian into a world of paranoia, madness, and murder. Unfortunately, Kendall’s expressions range from confused to carefree, dampening what could have been an interesting role.
Austrian actor Robert Hoffmann (from Massimo Dallamano’s A Black Veil for Lisa and another cult film set on a beach, The Lonely Violent Beach, one of the few directed by giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi) is able to hold his own here, with no help from the script, and makes the best of the “wrong man” scenario he is placed in. Despite some hilarious moments – such as an early scene where he lets Barbara convince him to shave off his beard – he’s able to elicit the necessary sympathy. His brother is played by one of my favorite giallo actors, the sinister-looking Ivan Rassimov (All the Colors of the Dark, A White Dress for Mariale), though he isn’t given nearly enough screen time, but fittingly has the last laugh.
Despite its flaws, Spasmo is an unusual psychological thriller worth checking out, thanks to the nonsensical, go-for-broke plot, mannequins akimbo, stunning shots of the Tuscan coast, and a solid score (as always) from Ennio Morricone. Somewhat like Lenzi’s previous film, Knife of Ice, this has a touch of Gothic style and makes the absolute most of the amazing landscape, shot by Guglielmo Mancori, a veteran of spaghetti westerns, Eurocrime, Lenzi’s earlier So Sweet… So Perverse, and more (including one of my favorites, Wild Beasts). Amazingly, Spasmo has made it to DVD thanks to Shriek Show and it is, at the least, worth a rental.