Thursday, April 30, 2015


Aldo Lado, 1972
Starring: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Nicoletta Elmi

Somewhere in France a young, red-haired girl is murdered in the woods by an old woman dressed all in black. Later, in Venice, a different little red-hared girl goes to visit her father, who is a sculptor. Soon, she is also murdered by the same mysterious lady. Her estranged parents come together to solve her murder at any cost as the body count begins to rise.

Despite director Aldo Lado's previous success with the chilling, excellent Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971), his follow up doesn't live up to its predecessor. It suffers from two major flaws -- firstly, that it falls so short of Short Night of the Glass Dolls' atmosphere of death mingled with sex, mystery, oppression, and paranoia. Secondly, it also pairs in comparison with another, similar film that actually came out a year later, the magnificent Don't Look Now (1973). Obviously this criticism only applies in hindsight, since Lado would have no way of knowing what he was working against, but for anyone who has seen the latter film, this is laughable in comparison. Not to throw another bone of contention against Lado, but it also fails in comparison with his follow up, the brutal Night Train Murders (1975).

Unfortunately I have to admit that Who Saw Her Die? is probably only entertaining only for die-hard giallo fans, or for die-hard James Bond fans who want to see George Lazenby in a more traditional role -- he stars as the forlorn father searching for his daughter's killer and I can't say this film does much to cement his reputation as a talented actor. I could be wrong, but I believe this is his only role in a giallo film. (Also keep your eyes peeled for Adolfo Celi, of Thunderball.) There are also some solid performances from a few genre regulars, including the sexy Anita Strindberg (Lizard in a Woman's Skin) as the little girl's grief-stricken mother and Nicoletta Elmi, the creepy little girl from Deep Red who grew up to be a creepy twenty-something in Demons.

The film's main problem is that, like Short Night of the Glass Dolls, the solution to its central mystery is a conspiracy, rather than a single murderer. While this worked in the former film, thanks to a solid plot and plenty of nightmarish atmosphere, Who Saw Her Die? just can't compare. It squanders the lovely Venice set and attempts to make the proceedings as drab and gray as the Soviet background of Short Night of the Glass Dolls, and relies far too heavily on run-of-the-mill giallo trademarks. I never get tired of seeing those black gloves, but they are not used particularly inventively here.

That's not to say it totally misses the mark. The first half of the film is compelling, but almost as soon as little Roberta dies, Lado unleashes a barrage of red herrings, characters who do some really stupid things, and a host of forgettable side characters who factor into the conclusion in some way that I already don't remember. This is simply a clunky script that can't be rescued by any of the actors, the effects, or the fun score by Ennio Morricone. There are some solid death scenes and child  murder is a risky subject even for a giallo film. Though a few of these popped up over the years, most notably Don't Torture a Duckling, the standard giallo victims are alluring women, or at least adults who have attracted the murderer's attention in some way.

Perhaps the film's most compelling scenes are those leading up to Roberto's death. Lado reveals fairly early on that she is most certainly going to die and agonizingly drags out a suspenseful series of near missing until her inevitable demise -- which of course occurs while she is out of playing and her father is having a tryst with another woman. The weightiness of her death is somewhat ruined by Lazenby's bland acting -- though neither of the parents exhibit a whole lot of grief -- and some ridiculous scenes, like one where he has to play a game of ping pong to get a witness to talk.

Though it is peppered with moments of humor and suspense, Who Saw Her Die? brings little to the genre. It's so frustrating because it shows off occasional glimmers of its potential, and in light of Short Night of the Glass Dolls and Night Train Murders, this could have been an exceptional film. If you still want to see it, there's a serviceable Anchor Bay DVD available.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Luciano Ercoli, 1972
Starring: Nieves Navarro, Simon Andreu, Carlo Gentili, Claudine Lange

Valentina, a model, agrees to be a research subject for her boyfriend Gio, a journalist interested in studying the effects of hallucinogens. She takes the drug (called HDS, perhaps an obvious stand-in for LSD, unless I missed something in translation) and he records and photographs her experience – but is unaware that she has witnessed a man wearing a spiked glove beat a woman to death. Gio doesn’t believe her and publishes the article, not keeping her identity anonymous like her promised, and nearly ruins her career in the process. Meanwhile, Valentina believes that the killer has begun to stalk her, but no one, not even the police, will believe her claims.

A loose follow up to Death Walks on High Heels, Death Walks at Midnight is the third of Luciano Ercoli’s films to involve screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and actors Nieves Navarro (Ercoli’s wife), Simon Andreu, Claudine Lange, and Carlo Gentili. I have to admit that out of the three (including Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion), I enjoyed this last film the most. It avoids the hysterical, panicking heroine of Forbidden Photos and has a more up-to-date sense of style than the ‘60s-included Death Walks on High Heels, which is as much a heist film as it is a giallo. This last entry has plenty of goofy moments, but the script is just wacky enough to be effective.

Unlike the earlier two, this has a lot more of what I would describe as key giallo elements. The protagonist witnesses a murder and is threatened by the killer, has a love interest who assistants (albeit reluctantly) in solving the mystery, and there are artists and models involved. And like Death Walks on High Heels, after a certain point I honestly couldn’t tell you what the hell is going on with the plot, thanks to numerous red herrings, plot twists, and other nonsequitors. The film’s central murder weapon, a grim-looking glove with metal claws, references Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, as well as German krimi films like Creature with the Blue Hand. The early tripping sequence – one of the film’s best scenes – adds a certain amount of sleaze and through Navarro is a model (rather than a stripper, like in Death Walks on High Heels), Ercoli finds plenty of opportunities to showcase her physical assets.

Refreshingly, her Valentina is a good example of a tormented female protagonist who doesn’t become hysterical 10 minutes into the film and holds her own for quite some time – she even throws a rock through the window of her no-good boyfriend as revenge for him possibly ruining her career. Her solid sense of confidence and self-worth leads her to believe that she really has witnessed a murder and that the killer is after her – even though her boyfriend and the police are skeptical. And though she occasionally succumbs to frustration, such as one scene where she is abandoned in on a hostile country estate by a woman she believed was an ally, she doesn’t sink into madness as quickly as some of the other films in this loose genre (such as Ercoli’s own Forbidden Photos). Nearly everyone in the film is selfish and opportunistic, especially Valentina, but she’s somehow likable despite this and even contributes to the film’s welcome sense of humor that keeps the overall tone fairly light.

Death Walks at Midnight also has the most robust conclusion out of all three films, including a knockdown, drag out fight in Valentina’s apartment that extends to the roof of her building. Simon Andreu, who was in his fair share of Italian and Spanish giallo/horror films, would not have been out of place in an Italian crime film. This is perhaps his best role in an Ercoli film and while the film’s first act belongs to Navarro, he manages to steal the concluding scenes. Unfortunately the middle lags a bit, though every conceivable giallo subplot is thrown into the mix, including drug smuggling, a sojourn to a mental hospital, and an unstable boyfriend who is also a talented sculptor. Keep an eye out for some hilariously costumed drug dealers, looking as stereotypical as possible. And speaking of costumes, though Navarro isn’t given anything as zany as what she wears in the first film, she does get to spend a night on the town while wearing what seems to be a metal wig.

Though this certainly isn’t a giallo masterpiece, Death Walks at Midnight is a hell of a lot of fun and manages to break out of some genre stereotypes on one hand, while playing them up on the other. Unfortunately, as of now, it’s hard to get ahold of. A couple of years ago No Shame released a lovely, three-disc box set of both of Ercoli’s “Death Walks” films and a disc of prolific composer Stelvio Cipriani’s music for both films. Right now it’s highly out of print and is quite expensive, but hopefully someone will release a nice Blu-ray box set with these two and Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Luciano Ercoli, 1971
Starring: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu

After a jewel thief is murdered on a train, police believe that his beautiful daughter Nicole, a nightclub dancer, may know the location of some valuable missing gems. She denies this, but a masked man with blue eyes and a strangely altered voice begins harassing her, first over the phone, and then by breaking into her apartment. She meets up with a wealthy man who enjoys her dancing, Dr. Matthews, who takes her out to his country home in England for a few weeks of safety and solitude. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t take long for the man with the blue eyes, and the case of the missing diamonds, to follow her again.

Death Walks on High Heels is the first film in a loose double feature from director Luciano Ercoli along with Death Walks at Midnight (1972). Both of these Italian-Spanish co-productions star Ercoli’s wife, actress Nieves Navarro (listed as Susan Scott), and Simón Andreu, and were penned by famed giallo screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, all of whom had earlier teamed up on Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1971). Like that film, Death Walks on High Heels rotates around a central plot twist and, unlike a conventional giallo, has an air of the heist film about it, as the whole thing is really about a cache of missing diamonds.

This certainly has a more European, jet setting feel so common in giallo films, with shots in Paris and London, and includes some giallo must-haves like a moment of surprising gore and plenty of nudity. Nieves Navarro is scantily clad for most of the film, which opens with her performing two — count ‘em, two — striptease scenes. Navarro was trying to give giallo superstars like Edwige Fenech some competition, but her character type is a welcome addition to the genre. In all three of Ercoli’s films, her characters are sexy, confident, and not easily frightened by the antics of the killer. This is certainly a welcome change from the hysterical, paranoid damsel in distress. Even though Nicole is attacked and harassed — and believes her boyfriend could be the masked man — she still holds her own.

The strangest thing about Death Walks on High Heels is that unlike the other giallo films coming out in the 1971 and 1972 boom, the sense of style is very similar to the swingin’ 60s look for earlier efforts like Deadly Sweet, Death Laid an Egg, Naked You Die, or The Frightened Woman. It’s odd to think that a giallo film would feel dated among its peers, but I think this is part of the film’s charm. It certainly works with Nieves Navarro’s appeals and the camera loves her — she manages to keep its attention despite a series of occasionally hilarious outfits and some lengthy scenes where she tries on different sexy outfits. This also brings a refreshing amount of sleaze to the film that is one of my favorite things about the genre, but is occasionally missing from the more serious entries.

The sleazy elements unfortunately fade away in the third act, when Ercoli ramps up the violence and the plot thickens — in fact it gets so thick that it’s a little dizzying. Carlo Gentili, as the Inspector (a role he would reprise in Death Walks on High Heels), is allowed to really strut his stuff in the second half of the film and brings some much needed comic relief. His style of detective is best described as laid back, though he somehow has remarkable insight and often stumbles across the right answers. And keep your eyes peeled for lots of other genre actors, such as co-star Simón Andreu (The Blood Spattered Bride) and Luciano Rossi (Fulci’s City of the Living Dead).

Death Walks on High Heels is not the greatest giallo, but it’s well worth watching for fans of the genre. Unfortunately, as of now, it’s hard to get ahold of. A couple of years ago No Shame released a lovely, three-disc box set with this film, Death Walks at Midnight, and a disc of composer Stelvio Cipriani’s music for the two films (he also worked on films like The Frightened Woman, Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, Bay of Blood, Baron Blood, and so much more). Right now it’s highly out of print and is quite expensive, but hopefully someone will release a nice Blu-ray box set with these two and Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion.

Monday, April 27, 2015


Duccio Tessari, 1971
Starring: Helmut Berger, Giancarlo Sbragia, Ida Galli

After a young French student is found dead in a park, stabbed to death, police arrest TV personality Allesandro Marchi. He just happened to be seen near the park and has no other alibi, among other evidence against him. He is tried for the crime, but the case unravels when it is revealed that Marchi was visiting with his mistress that day – much to the chagrin of his beautiful wife, who begins having an affair with his attorney. When two other girls are killed with the same M.O. while Marchi is in prison, it seems that the police definitely have the wrong suspect… or do they?

Director Duccio Tessari – known for spaghetti westerns like A Pistol for Ringo (1965) – helmed this surprising giallo, one that is certainly lesser known but is worthy of attention. Deceptively, the first half of the film is presented as a fairly dull courtroom drama and/or police procedural. However, it soon twists itself into a compelling giallo with some surprisingly well-developed characters and moments of genuine sleaze. On the surface level, this is yet another film about beautiful young women being murdered, but The Bloodstained Butterfly shows an unexpected level of sympathy for its victims.

SPOILERS: Though Tessari makes it seem like this is a film about yet another psychopathic killer, murdering while he hides behind a charming mask of gentility, this is merely a well-executed red herring. Though there is no clear protagonist, the film essentially revolves around Helmut Berger’s Giorgio, a spoiled, tormented playboy. The film brilliantly plays with Berger’s reputation from films like Dorian Gray (1970) and The Damned (1970), where he plays characters that are ultimately doomed by their destructive, perverse sexual obsessions. While this seems to be the case here – for instance, he has somewhat violent sex with Sarah (Wendy D’Olive), Marchi’s teenage daughter. Though it is consensual, Sarah admits that she is frightened and Giorgio becomes somewhat unhinged by the encounter. Brilliantly, the film leads us to believe that the increasingly manic, paranoid Giorgio – racing through the labyrinthine streets to flee from onlookers and police – is the killer, but in its final moments reveals that he knows the identity of the real killer and is trying to get revenge for the murder of his girlfriend, the young French girl found rolling down a hill on a rainy day in the park.

The opening sequence – where the mud, grass, and blood-flecked girl is found by two children and their babysitter – is effective and chilling, but also suggests that this is going to be a fairly conventional giallo. The killer is practically revealed to us, as we see everything but his face, and Tessari ensures that a few witnesses spot him, though they are of course later revealed to be unreliable. Tessari somehow manages to be unexpected and unconventional as often as possible, while still sticking to the rough outlines of a giallo film. The Bloodstained Butterfly lacks overt violence or gore, though there are three deaths, and the film seems to work backwards. While many giallo films start off strong and peter out thanks to an ill-structured script, this strong screenplay from Tessari and the talented, if underrated Gianfredo Clerici (of New York Ripper, Cannibal Holocaust, and Don’t Torture a Duckling) takes time to get going, but is well worth the wait.

While not as grim as something like Short Night of the Glass Dolls, this film takes itself more seriously than the average giallo and there are none of the silly psychedelic scenes from earlier films in the genre. Instead, Tessari moves between crime scene, court house, and domestic spaces, showing a fair amount of familial strife for Giorgio and Sarah. After so many entries with journalists, reporters, and both amateur and professional detectives, it’s something of a relief to follow normal people who may be involved in, but are certainly affected by the central murder. The film also lacks the nudity and overt sexuality of many earlier giallo films, though this theme plays an important role as a perverse undercurrent affecting nearly all the relationships between the main players.

The Bloodstained Butterfly is an unexpected delight, but it will only reward patient viewers. It’s worth watching just for the tense, moody concluding sequence where the whopper of a twist is revealed, and of course for Helmut Berger’s lovely, paranoid performance. I am, of course, biased, as I’m a big fan of most of his filmography – one day I’m even going to track down What Did Stalin Do to Women? (1969). The Bloodstained Butterfly, which all giallo fans should check out, is available on DVD, though only as an import, I believe.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Aldo Lado, 1971
Starring: Jean Sorel, Barbara Bach, Mario Adorf, Ingrid Thulin

Gregory, a journalist working in Prague, is found unconscious and is presumed dead… but he’s really just paralyzed, trapped within his body, and determined to figure out how he got that way. He desperately recollects the events of the past few weeks, which include the disappearance of his lovely girlfriend, who he was planning to sneak out of Eastern Europe and to safety in the West. His boss and coworkers include a number of potential suspects and he can only hope that the doctors won’t autopsy him before he remembers the truth.

Director Aldo Lado is certainly underrated alongside better known giallo auteurs like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, but he helmed some excellent films. His first, Short Night of the Glass Dolls, is among his best. It may be the only giallo — certainly the only one that I can think of at this moment — set in Soviet Europe with overtly political themes about repression and state control. Oddly, it would make a better double feature with Polanski’s The Tenant than it would with most giallo films — except perhaps Lado’s own Who Saw Her Die? With its moody, striking blue and gray cinematography and tense, gloomy tone, Short Night of the Glass Dolls is one of the best giallo films and deserves a wider audience.

A co-production between Italy, West Germany, and Yugoslavia, the film was shot in Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic. The film begins with a compelling noir trope — the dead man investigating his own crime — that can be found in classics like Sunset Boulevard and D.O.A.  The Eastern European setting adds to the air of paranoia and surveillance. Though this is a common feature of giallo films, here it is somehow more believable. In addition to the Soviet backdrop, it seems that Gregory can’t trust any of his associates. His boss/colleague Jacques (played by the wonderful Italian-German actor Mario Adorf in everything from Fassbinder films to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) is just smarmy enough that he seems to be obviously guilty.

As does Gregory’s past lover, Jessica (Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin), who bears a grudge against him while still desiring him. She worms her way back into his affections by claiming to help him look for Mira (Bond girl Barbara Bach, looking particularly dazzling here), his beautiful, somewhat mysterious girlfriend who has disappeared. But after a time, she tries to persuade him away from his search in the hope that he will just forget about Mira and fall back in love with her. The love triangle is far from a new theme in the noir or thriller genre, but it becomes especially sinister when Jessica turns on Gregory, because up to that point, it seemed like she was the only one he could trust.

Giallo regular Jean Sorel — from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, A Quiet Place to Kill, One on Top of the Other — is normally a bit on the bland side, but this actually works perfectly here. Like some Hitchcock’s leading men, Gregory is something of a blank slate and he falls somewhere between the (sort of) wholesome private detectives of the pre-noir years and Hitchcock’s wrong man. Because of his love for an enigmatic woman in trouble, he’s thrust into an increasingly menacing world. SPOILERS: I was certainly not expecting the film’s ending, which leads Gregory into a group of the city’s most powerful people engaging in orgies and sacrificing young women. Lado does a surprisingly great job making this incredibly uncomfortable rather than cheesy and, despite the odds, plausible — Gregory has gone down such a tormented rabbit hole that the ending almost wouldn’t have mattered. The orgy scenes are as de-eroticizes as they could possibly be and this makes Eyes Wide Shut seem even sillier than it did to begin with.

Despite the occasionally flimsy or absurd plot elements, there is a disturbing emotional resonance. Unlike most other giallo films, there is a slow burn with little obvious gore. The film is steeped with verbal and visual references to death and these are among the most effective moments — including a scene when Gregory hallucinates a dead Mira shoved in his refrigerator, and another when his body is wheeled into an autopsy room and is shot through a series of eerie specimen jars.

Also known as Malastrana, Short Night of the Glass Dolls comes with the highest recommendation. It’s available on DVD and includes one of Ennio Morricone’s best giallo scores. Though I find the title a little silly and nonsensical, it relates back to the butterfly theme that winds its way through the film. The producers wanted the title to reflect this, but The Bloodstained Butterfly came out around the same time, so for some reason they settled on Short Night of the Glass Dolls instead. Even though this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, you’ll forget about it alongside the film’s unforgettably bleak ending.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Enzo G. Castellari, 1971
Starring: Giovanna Ralli, Frank Wolff, Fernando Rey

After an incredible opening where a young woman is surprised and attacked by a knife wielding maniac and turns the tables on him (no spoilers here), we are introduced to Peter, a young lawyer. He steals a beautiful woman at a strip club away from her date and sneaks her to the house of his uncle, a prominent judge, who is away working late on an important case. Unfortunately before their fun can begin, they discover that the butler is dead and they have an unexpected guest who holds them at gun point. He and his accomplice have a devious plan to kill the judge, but first they have to search the house for an important, hidden file that holds the key to corruption and conspiracy.

Cold Eyes of Fear is an Italian-Spanish co-production from prolific director Enzo G. Castellari, best known for his war films Inglorious Bastards (1978) and Eagles Over London (1969), spaghetti westerns such as Keoma (1976) and Seven Winchesters for a Massacre (1967), crime films like High Crime (1973), and cult movies like 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and Great White (1981), a Jaws ripoff actually sued by Universal for plagiarism. Cold Eyes of Fear is a strange blend of crime film and suspense drama, though has unfortunately been ignored over the years because it is typically marketed as a giallo.

Castellari co-wrote the film along with Leo Anchóriz (an actor from A Bullet for Sandoval) and Tito Carpi, a prolific screenwriter known for a number of Italian westerns and post-apocalyptic films like Escape from the Bronx and New Barbarians. Though the plot doesn’t offer a lot of surprises — home invasion was becoming a pretty standard plot device at this point — there are some nice twists and a lot of topical references to political corruption, which was somewhat of a snarky nod to Italian politics.

There are some giallo-like elements here, but do not be tricked into expecting something along the lines of Dario Argento or Sergio Martino. Though the film is often assumed to be a giallo and Castellari himself participates in this deception with an opening scene that could have been lifted from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin or even New York Ripper, this is really more of a low-key crime/suspense/home invasion blend that takes more than a few nods from the German krimi films that came out during the ‘60s, including its inexplicable London setting. Though interiors were shot in Rome, the London shots were filmed on location, (allegedly without permits), and are well-used in the first half an hour of the film.

Fans of subtle Eurocrime films will find plenty to enjoy here, but giallo purists are likely to be disappointed and bored. Though there are a few murders and a few fight scenes, there is a minimum of either bloodshed or nudity, and certainly no black-gloved killers. The focus is more on suspense, political corruption, and a number of subtle plot twists that are easy to miss if you aren’t playing attention. Anyone who enjoys Hitchcock’s Rope will have an idea of what to expect here, though because this is a Eurocrime film directed by Castellari, there are some way over the top elements, including a bomb assassination plot, death by J&B bottle, a failed seduction shower scene, a random biker brawl, and some outrageously fake British accents. Though the first half is compelling, the second half descends into a strange parody of Italian crime cinema.

There are some lovely visuals and excellent camera work with plenty of unsettling close ups, dizzying zoom shots, and great use of the primary set (the Judge’s home) where much of the film takes place. The restless camera and regularly changing lighting does the film a lot of favors and keeps things moving where dialogue and characterization often screech to a halt. Though this is not one of Castellari’s best films, it is worth a look for fans of the director and anyone with a penchant for Eurocrime.

None of the actors are particularly memorable here and Fernando Rey (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) is unfortunately wasted behind a desk for most of the movie. Giovanna Ralli (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) is absolutely lovely and is given a sassy role as a foreign prostitute in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gianni Garko (The Psychic) is a weak lead, though his character suddenly and inexplicably becomes more interesting during the conclusion. Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West) has some very effective moments as the main antagonist, though Julian Mateos (The Possessed) is simply ridiculous as his confused accomplice with an outlandish wardrobe and terrible accent.

The cinematography from Antonio L. Ballesteros (Sergio Leone’s Colossus of Rhodes) and editing from Vincenzo Tomassi (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Cannibal Holocaust, and most of Fulci’s output from the early ‘80s) absolutely shine here, with some incredibly claustrophobic close-ups and great shots of London in the early ‘70s. Also recommended is Ennio Morricone’s wonderfully bizarre, jazzy score, which sounds fantastic here and is mixed loud enough that any sound flaws are easily ignored. Keep your ears peeled for the odd effects he uses in the beginning of the film that sounds like cats being murdered.

If you enjoy suspense films and home invasion movies, Cold Eyes of Fear has plenty to offer, both in terms of well-crafted surprises and tense moments, as well as some unintentionally funny scenes. The key to being entertained is to resist expecting that the film is a giallo, even though Castellari plays with genre conventions throughout the film. Though there is unlikely to be another Blu-ray edition of such an obscure entry in the Italian crime genre, Kino and Redemption’s release of Cold Eyes of Fear is an average, not exemplary addition to their cult horror catalogue thanks to lackluster special features. With that said, the cleaned up print looks better than it likely ever will.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Riccardo Freda, 1981
Starring: Stefano Patrizi, Laura Gemser, John Richardson, Anita Strindberg

Michael, an actor with a troubled past – he killed his father when he was just a young child – decides to visit his estranged, ill mother in her foreboding country estate. He brings along his girlfriend, who he passes off as his assistant, as well as a small film crew to begin planning their latest movie. But soon, his friends begin falling prey to a mysterious killer. Is it the creepy butler, someone involved with the occult, his unstable mother, or one of his friends? Or, has the house trigged Michael’s repressed murderous impulses and encouraged him to kill again?

A cross between a giallo film, the emerging slasher movie subgenre (just two years old at that point), and the “old dark house” premise of one his previous horror films, Tragic Ceremony (1972), Murder Obsession is Freda’s last movie, but remains surprisingly enjoyable. By 1981 the giallo peak had been past for nearly a decade and Freda lovingly makes fun of its tropes with the film’s opening – a black-gloved killer strangles a woman to death until the camera reveals that it is just a film shoot. This is simply a foreshadowing of the dizzying twists and turns to come and of the violence. The death scenes here aren’t particularly stylish, in the way giallo films are, but they are blunt and surprisingly gory, more like a slasher film (the outdoor deaths add to this sense as well).

Despite a workmanlike pace that keeps things moving and a somewhat brusque attitude about the cinematography, the film is full of strange and atmospheric moments. Freda accomplishes much with flashbacks that may or may not be real, menacing dream sequences (including one that features a giant, fuzzy spider rivaling the spider effects from The Beyond or Nude for Satan), and the odd inclusion of supernatural elements. Like Tragic Ceremony, there is the suggestion that a cult is at work and séances and the possibility of psychic powers become entrenched in the plot by the midway point. Michael’s girlfriend dreams she is being sacrificed during a cult ritual and there is a scene where footprints from an invisible source trail across a dusty floor.

While many giallo films have blackmail, prostitution, or drug ring subplots meant to distract the audience away from the true identity and motivations of the killer, Fredo went a similar route with the supernatural. As in those other films, this fades away with little to no explanation and it becomes clear that the killer is all too human and generally suffers from a diseased mind, a twisted psychology. SPOILERS. In this case, Murder Obsession borrows something from The Mephisto Waltz (1971). In the latter, a man dies in a Satanic ritual and his spirit possesses the body of a young pianist. He uses the pianist’s body to have an affair with his daughter, an accomplished occultist with plenty of her own unwholesome appetites. In Murder Obsession, Michael’s mother has the mistaken belief that in killing her husband, he would reincarnate in Michael. Likely a product of her mania and not an actual supernatural plot, this explains her uncomfortable levels of affection with Michael – as well as the fact that she murdered any of his friends, girlfriends, or sex partners threatening to take his attention from her.

Murder Obsession also has an undeniable connection with Argento’s Deep Red. In the latter, it is implied that a child killed his father and has continued killing as a grown up. SPOILERS: Of course, the child has not killed at all, not even in his adult state, but his mentally unbalanced mother is to blame. Murder Obsession plays with these themes. The plot is upfront in admitting that young Michael killed his father and was sent to a home. But like Deep Red, his mother’s mentally instability is to blame for what was essentially a past misunderstanding and all crimes were committed solely by her.

The film also borrows a lot from Freda’s own work of the ‘70s. In Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, seemingly every character owns a pair of black sunglasses, a critical clue that makes a number of people appear to be suspects. In Murder Obsession, this device is improbably redirected to black leather gloves (one character even goes to bed with them on!), which can be found everywhere despite the casual setting and nice weather.

Despite its obvious budget issues and inane script, there are plenty of enjoyable things about Murder Obsession. Keep your eyes peeled for genre regulars like Laura Gemser (Black Emanuelle), who has some nude scenes like basically every other woman in this film. A somewhat aged Anita Strindberg (Who Saw Her Die?) plays Michael’s mother, while Silvia Dionisio (Live like a Cop, Die like a Man and Naked You Die) appears as his loyal but put upon girlfriend. John Richardson (Black Sunday) has perhaps the best role of all as the sinister butler. I can’t say much about lead Stefan Patrizi (Conversation Piece) who is utterly bland.

I can’t say that Murder Obsession is a must-see, but it is delightfully weird and fans of Eurohorror who like movies with dreamlike, nonsensical moments will find a lot to enjoy. Raro gave it a surprisingly great Blu-ray treatment and it’s almost worth buying just to support the release and restoration of such obscure oddities. Personally, I was sold on the giant spider.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Riccardo Freda, 1971
Starring: Luigi Pistilli, Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring

A murdered young woman with an acid-burned face is found wrapped in plastic in the trunk of a car – unfortunately belonging to the Swiss Ambassador to Ireland, meaning that the police are limited in their ability to question the ambassador and his staff. Still, they believe there is a connection between the victim, a Dutch young lady, and Ambassador Sobieski’s previous assignment. When the Ambassador’s mistress – a sultry nightclub singer – winds up dead, the police unofficially hire a former inspector, John Norton, known for his violent methods. With the help of his curious teen daughter, his elderly, Miss Marple-like mother, and a relationship with the Ambassador’s daughter, Norton begins to trail the murderer…

Director Riccardo Freda helped kick off Italian cult and horror cinema in the ‘50s, but his reputation had begun to fade by the ‘70s giallo boom. Regardless, he turned his attention to the genre with 1969’s A doppia faccia aka Double Face or Liz et Helen, really more of a krimi film edging its way slowly towards giallo. By 1971, he struck a little closer to home with the absolutely dizzying The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, an amalgamation of giallo murder and conspiracy plots – and of course he also used the popular titling conventions that could be found in everything from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.

Freda allegedly wanted to distance himself from the film and is listed as Willy Pareto in the credits. Based on Richard Mann’s novel A Room Without a Door, I don’t quite understand Freda’s dissatisfaction with the film. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s certainly no worse than A doppia faccia, and at least garners the distinction of being perhaps the only giallo film set (and largely shot) in Dublin. Though Freda used the locations to his advantage, star and Eurocult regular Luigi Pistilli (The Great Silence, Bay of Blood) is hilariously given an Irish brogue overdub, which was undoubtedly a mistake.

There are some solid performances from Pistilli as the tough guy ex-cop willing to find the murderer at any cost, giallo-regular Dagmar Lassander (Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) as his love interest, and Anton Diffring (cast as a Nazi in basically everything) as the icy Ambassador. Keep an eye out for Valentina Cortese (Thieves’ Highway, The House on Telegraph Hill) in an unexpectedly boisterous role as his aged, drunken wife. But these pleasant performances can’t really do anything to balance out the plot, which has got to be one of the most winding and convoluted in giallo history.

Overwhelmed by zoom shots, red herrings, and plot points that make little sense, this Italian-French-West German coproduction includes some unintentionally hilarious moments. One particularly shining gem is that in an attempt to secure his alibi, the Ambassador hands over a receipt from a business called Swastika Laundry (!). And the strange presence of Norton’s mother, who fancies herself a sleuth, concludes with a hysterical attack sequence in the family home that has a Dead Alive flavor of comedy in its violence. The conclusion, which is arguably the most ridiculous part of the film, rests on a pair of dark sunglasses – which all the characters in Iguana seem to wear. And last of all, like many of the early giallo films from this period, drug use and blackmail spring up as side plots but peter out into nothingness, as does the film’s overly strenuous attempt to shoe-horn the title into a bit of dialogue.

With that said, there are some successful moments. There’s an overwhelming sense of sleaziness and claustrophobia, as there are any number of questionable characters who could be committing the crimes. Though the effects are very cheaply made, the murders are grisly episodes with acid thrown in the faces of the victims, who also have their throats slashed. Despite a lack of nudity, there is plenty of sexual innuendo and quite a few liaisons, first and foremost from the Ambassador. Though his character is used a bit ridiculously here, ambassadors are (or should be) a likely candidate for crime films, as their diplomatic immunity sets up an automatic indication of guilt that they – or someone in their households – has committed a crime. But no spoilers here.

Iguana with the Tongue of Fire only comes recommended for giallo devotees, Freda fanatics, and anyone with a love of obscure Eurotrash. It’s not available on an official DVD release, but you can track it down on the internet or through Sinister Cinema. And be sure to check out the enjoyable soundtrack from Stelvio Cipriani (Bay of Blood, Nightmare City) and Nora Orlandi (Blade of the Ripper, The Sweet Body of Deborah). It also might be worth watching solely for Anton Diffring’s increasing series of meltdowns.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Riccardo Freda: The Neglected Work of an Italian Genre Pioneer

Obscured by the shadow of his more famous protégé, Mario Bava, director Riccardo Freda (1909-1999) was an innovator of Italian genre cinema. With films like I Vampiri (1957), The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), and The Ghost (1963), he helped plant the seeds of Eurocult and Italian horror. Freda’s contributions to a wide variety of European cult genres are indispensable, including his role as one of the greatest directors of peplum (or sword-and-sandal) films. He was initially ignored by contemporary Italian audiences who felt that genre films could not come from within Italy. Freda and other directors of the period went so far as to adopt English/American sounding pseudonyms to fool Italian theater patrons and get wider releases in the U.K. and U.S. Even now, in a decade where everything is out on DVD, Blu-ray, or at least streaming on Netflix, many of his key films are still only available in bootleg, subpar DVDs, or out-of-print versions, with releases trickling along over the years.

Born in Egypt, educated in Milan, and professionally established in Rome, Freda got his start in the fine arts as a sculptor and art critic – beginning the trend of other artists and writers turned director like Mario Bava and Dario Argento – eventually moving to cinema in the late ‘30s. Within a few years he established himself as an innovative director who rejected the neorealist cinema popular after the war to make lush films in a wide variety of genres, including historical costume dramas, pepla (the plural of peplum), spy films, horror movies, crime, melodrama, some war-action efforts, a spaghetti western, and even a slasher film. 

The Early Years:
Freda’s first film was an action-adventure-comedy, Don Cesare di Bazan (1942), based on a comic French opera about a dueling Spaniard forced to untangle political and romantic turmoil. It was followed by a few comedies at the end of the war before Freda turned to the successful, historical costume dramas he loved to make. Namely Return of the Black Eagle (1946), an adaptation of a Pushkin story, and a well-received version of Hugo’s Les Miserables (1948), which helped establish Freda as a director with visual panache. From there he graduated to action, with such titles as The Mysterious Rider (1948) and The Iron Swordsman (1949), also turning out a few war films.

With 1953’s Spartaco aka The Sins of Rome, he showed his skill for sword-and-sandal epics and stuck with this genre for the next several years. The following year’s Theodora, Slave Empress, details the exploits of the historical Empress Theodora, who allegedly to rose from her position as a slave and courtesan to marry the Emperor Justinian; in this film his mixed peplum and costume drama. Throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s he had a slew of these popular action-adventure films that established his name and brought him acclaim with mainstream Italian filmgoers. His Castle of the Banned Lovers (1956) is based on the same historical story that Fulci would later adapt as Beatrice Cenci (1969) (which nearly ruined Fulci’s career).

1959 brought Sheba and the Gladiator, about a Queen who leads a revolt against the Romans but falls in love with one of their officers. This effectively began his foray into Italian cult cinema, as Sergio Leone was one of the film’s writers and later giallo regular Anita Ekberg starred. This was followed in the same year by The White Warrior, about a Chechen warlord, and The Giants of Thessaly (1960), a different version of the Jason and the Argonauts story filmed a few years before the beloved Harryhausen spectacle.

Most of these films focused on a hero, usually part action star and part romantic lead, who used sword fighting, fisticuffs, and rippling muscles to head a rebellion. Genre fans will find some interest in the “Maciste” films, a series of action-fantasy films that focus on an heroic, Hercules-like character renamed Samson for English speaking audiences. Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan (1961) aka Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World was the first Freda-helmed Maciste film and combines the figure with Freda’s previous Eastern-themed peplums: Maciste has to battle raiding warriors to save a Chinese princess. Maciste all’inferno (1962) aka The Witch’s Curse is the most interesting of these early films and actually garnered a DVD release from Something Weird Video (as a double feature with 1964’s Hercules Against the Moon Men). Maciste travels to Hell to battle a witch to save a beautiful woman. Part witch-burning, inquisition tale and part peplum, this hard to classify film is on the cheesy side, but contains plenty of action, atmosphere, and imagination, even if it does borrow from Bava’s spectacular Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). It is worth seeing for Freda’s colorful imagining of the underworld. 

First Forays into Horror:
A few years before Maciste went to hell, Freda and his then cinematographer Bava took their first journey into horror with I Vampiri (1956), which was ultimately co-directed by both men after Freda stormed off the set and passed the film on to Bava. Though it is debatable how much Bava filmed, or which scenes, this film has a marked visual style that had a definite influence of future European horror. It was produced by the team of Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati, who would go on to make more films with Freda even though I Vampiri wasn’t financially successful. There is a writing credit for Piero Regnoli, who went on to pen such genre classics as Nightmare City (1980) and Burial Ground (1981). Starring Italian beauty queen (and Freda’s wife) Gianna Maria Canale, I Vampiri is one of the first European horror films in a long tradition to be loosely based on Elizabeth Bathory.

A lovely vampire, Giselle, uses a virgin-blood serum to preserve her youth. When she demands more from the crazed scientist who invented it, things begin to get messy and a trail of bodies leads back to the Countess. Also known as The Vampires, The Devil’s Commandment, and Lust of the Vampire, it is available on DVD from Image Entertainment as part of their Mario Bava collection. It gets a certain amount of historical distinction for being the first sound-era Italian horror film. It’s a must-see for its status as the pre-cursor to Eurotrash and giallo films, plus it gives an indication of what to expect stylistically from Bava’s bright future. The atmospheric, but somewhat uneven black and white cinematography is beautiful and even though the plot leaves a little to be desired, Freda was clearly hampered by a small budget, too little shooting time, and a country that didn’t yet take homegrown horror very seriously. 

Freda’s next horror film, Caltiki – The Immortal Monster (1959), aka Caltiki – il mostro immortale, is a bizarre amalgamation of The Blob (1958), British sci-fi classic The Quatermass Experiment (1955), and giant monster movies. Archaeologists at a Mayan ruin discover a blob monster. Unfortunately for them, they try to destroy it and preserve a section to study at the same time. Coincidentally, a comet heads towards earth. With lovely black and white cinematography and effects by Bava, Caltiki will enjoy anyone who loves Godmonster of the Indian Flats as much as I do. It has sadly gone the way of a lot of obscure European horror in the sense that it’s available on a number of incredibly cheap region 1 DVDs, usually split with other neglected films (like the above-linked PR bootleg disc that features Caltiki and Attack of the Monsters). Caltiki, by the way, is the name of a terrifying Mayan goddess who was regularly presented with human sacrifices.

A Gothic Masterpiece:
None of his films have reached the visual splendor or cult acclaim of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962), which is a Hitchcock-influenced Gothic horror tale of necrophilia, hauntings, nuptial horror, and obsession. Horror vixen Barbara Steele stars as the new bride and unwitting victim of her husband, the titular Dr. Hichcock, who is a talented anesthesiologist by day and a necrophiliac by night. He accidentally killed his former wife during their mutually consensual sex games which involved her playing dead. After a long time away from London, he returns, marrying Cynthia (Steele) in the hope that he can use her to resurrect his beloved first wife. 

Cynthia deals with a two-fold of terror, between the Rebecca-like hauntings from Hichcock’s previous wife and the murderous, obsessive passion of her new husband. Though some of the acting seems a bit undirected, the overall powerful performances and creepy psychological subtext make this a film worth seeing for both genre fans and cinephiles. Again produced by the Carpentieri-Donati team, Hichcock was written by Ernesto Gastaldi, who single-handedly penned most of the early giallo and spaghetti western films. It stars the British actor Robert Flemyng and scream queen Barbara Steele. This Italian production features some stunning cinematography by Raffaele Masciocchi who would go on to work with Freda on his next Steele vehicle, The Ghost (1963). 

I had the fortune to see this on 35mm during a late night Italian film festival and I’ll never forget the moment I realized that this obscure, early ‘60s gem seemed more shocking than the blood and guts soaking the screen from the other films on the roster. It’s also visually stunning; Masciocchi’s cinematography perfectly captures the Gothic dread that pervades the film, operating solely on expressionistic blocks of light and dark despite the fact that this is a color film. The film is notable for its early portrayal of a necrophiliac (though it is certainly less graphic than Nekromantik). Hichcock lacks nudity or gore, relying instead on melodramatic techniques to deliver the scares and perversity, which seemed to confound censors. They wanted to cut the film, and did for the U.S. print, but nothing is directly censorship-worthy.

A word on the title: There’s a good chance you may have seen the film referred to as The Terror of Dr. Hichcock and as The Horrible Dr Hichcock, the difference being that Terrible is the longer English print, while Horrible is the U.S. version cut by almost 12 minutes. Its original Italian title is L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock, which translates literally to “The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock.” It was also known by its working title, Raptus. Though it was generally critically well received, particularly by Surrealists, the shocking subject matter seems to have kept it away from audiences at home and overseas. This film, more than any other in the Freda canon, has been written about by cinephiles and cult genre fans alike, namely in webzines like Images, Kino Eye, and DVD Savant.

This masterpiece was immediately followed by The Ghost, another collaboration with Steele. Also known as Lo Spettro del Dr. Hichcock, it is a loose sequel to Hichcock, though in name only. It reunites the same producers, Carpentieri and Donati, as well as cinematographer Masciocchi, and costars British stage actor Peter Baldwin. The Ghost is sort of an inversion of Hichcock’s plot, retaining similar character names and actors. Steele and her lover plan to murder her sick, occult-obsessed husband, Dr. Hichcock, but when they do, everything goes awry. Not only will they not get the bulk of his considerable fortune, but it seems that he is haunting them from beyond the grave. 

With similarly beautiful cinematography and the same rich atmosphere of Hichcock, The Ghost is not as successful as its predecessor, sticking more to genre conventions and not really treading any new ground. It’s also weighed down by an unimaginative, generic title. It does have plenty of weird elements of Gothic horror, particularly Dr. Hichcock’s way of dealing with his illness, though the script also attempts to wander into crime/murder mystery territory, and certainly borrows some elements from Clouzot’s excellent Diabolique (1955). This is worth watching for Steele’s intense performance; indeed, she seems to shine as a romantic villainess, a role she would repeat in other Italian genre films. The Ghost is available on DVD from Alpha Video, though with a poor transfer.

After these two major horror efforts, Freda returned briefly to action, then to a few costume-drama literary adaptations, including Romeo and Juliet in 1964. He made a few films in this period that might interest genre fans, including the crime/spy film Coplan FX 18 casse tout (1965) aka FX 18 Superspy and its sequel Coplan ouvre le feu a Mexico aka Mexican Slayride (1967). Coplan is essentially a French James Bond with less panache and a smaller budget, though these films are interesting for Freda’s visual flair and the entertaining stunt work. In 1967 he also filmed his only spaghetti western, Death Doesn’t Count the Dollars, which is a pretty straight forward revenge film set in Arizona.

Crime, Mystery, and Giallo:
With 1969’s Double Face aka A doppia faccia, Freda ventured into the giallo sub-genre. Based very loosely on an Edgar Wallace novel, The Face in the Night, Wallace was an English novelist whose works were frequently adapted in Germany as krimi or crime/noir films. This West German/Italian co-production is more of a giallo than a krimi, but was advertised as such for the German audience. Double Face is of note for genre fans because it stars the great Klaus Kinski in an uncharacteristic role as the innocent protagonist, and also because a writing credit is given to the Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci, who was just beginning to establish himself as a genre director at that time. 

Kinski stars as John Alexander, a wealthy man whose wife is unfaithful – with her best friend. She soon dies in a strange car accident that seems to be murder and Alexander discovers to his horror that his wife appeared in several porn films. While he is being investigated for her murder he begins to suspect that she may still be alive. Interestingly, the French release in 1976 has hardcore inserts with actress Alice Arno, who had a starring role in Justine de Sade (1972), an uncredited role in Jess Franco’s Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973), and was also in Franco’s Kiss Me Killer (1977). Like many gialli before and after, Double Face has more titles than necessary, including the German title Das Gesicht Im Dunkeln (the name of the Wallace book), Puzzle of Horrors, and Liz et Helen. Fortunately you can find it streaming or on DVD from Sinister Cinema as A Double Face, which is part of their very cheaply made Edgar Wallace series.

Freda followed this up with L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco (1971) aka The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire. It is reminiscent of several other colorful, animal related giallo titles from the same period like Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (1971). Iguana has other similar genre conventions: first-person camera angles during murder scenes, a black-gloved killer, sexual repression, and more violence than any of Freda’s previous films combined. Interestingly, the killer strikes by cutting women’s throats with a razor blade and melting their faces with acid so that they cannot be identified – a particularly gory element even for a giallo film.

A body is found in the truck of a Swiss ambassador (Anton Diffring), who cannot be investigated because of his diplomatic immunity. Soon the police inspector in charge of the case discovers a plot involving blackmail and drug smuggling. Though it is not a stand-out of the genre, Iguana will appeal to giallo fans. For some bizarre reason it is set in Dublin and, as I said earlier, contains an unusual amount of graphic violence. It also has a strange number of twists and red herrings, which will make it confusing for genre-newbies but is otherwise very entertaining. Look for a more in depth review as part of my giallo series.

Tragic Ceremony (1972) aka Estratto degli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea (which literally translated to “Taken from the Secret Police Archives of a European Capital”) has a mind-bogglingly long title and an equally absurd plot, though – spoilers ahead – it is ultimately about a Satanic cult. Some vacationing hippies seek shelter from a storm when their car runs out of gas. It turns out they picked the wrong mansion, because there’s a black mass going on in the basement with a coven of Satan worshippers who happen to be looking for a human sacrifice. Like many of Freda’s earlier films, it allegedly has a British setting, but isn’t fooling anyone.

Starring Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave, What Have You Done to Solange?) and Tony Isbert (Paul Naschy’s Inquisition), the two inexperienced leads soak up screen time while there are a bevy of genre notables in the background, namely Luigi Pistilli (Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly). Part giallo and part Gothic horror, Tragic Ceremony has an interesting premise, but unfortunately plods along and gets overwhelmed by its own attempts at plot twists, including one with a cursed pearl necklace (get your mind out of the gutter). Fans of Jess Franco will likely find this a charming effort, but it lacks the atmosphere or consistency of Freda’s earlier films. Tragic Ceremony should be seen for the satanic mass sequence and an orgy of violence that quickly dissolves into ridiculousness. This Italian/Spanish co-production is one of the few Freda efforts available on DVD in a nice release from Dark Sky Films that features a trailer and an interview with Keaton.

Follia omicida (1981) aka The Murder Syndrome, is Freda’s somewhat unfortunate final film. Featuring the lovely Anita Strindberg (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Case of the Scorpion’s Tale) and Laura Gemser (of the Emmanuelle series), there is more nudity than any of Freda’s other work and this can only really be described as Eurotrash. Borrowing loosely from Argento’s Deep Red (1975), a successful actor has a dark secret – as a child he stabbed his father to death. When he, his girlfriend, and their film production team visit his family mansion for a few days, the killings begin again and he fears the worst. Though enjoyable for its sheer trashiness, there’s some gore, more Satanism, sleazy sexual violence, and a spider scene that makes The Beyond (1981) look like National Geographic. Also known as Murder Obsession, Fear, and The Wailing, I believe this is Freda’s first film to receive a Blu-ray release from the wonderful Raro Video.

It seems inevitable that Freda’s work will eventually find its way to DVD, hopefully with restored prints, original dialogue tracks, and plenty of special features. Though a lot of more mainstream horror fans are ignorant of his Gothic horror spectacles, some more underground genre publications have touted the director over the years, including the much loved Video Watchdog magazine, and webzines like Images and Kino Eye, as well as blogs focusing on Italian horror like Giallo Fever. Do yourself a favor and find a copy of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. It is inconceivable that genre fans, cinephiles, and even lovers of Hitchcock are being deprived of this great example of Gothic horror.