Renzo Russo, 1972
Starring: Farley Granger, Erika Blanc
A disturbed, alcoholic painter, John, is given a female mannequin with a red wig. He spends time fixing it up, paints a face on it, and begins talking to it. Inexplicably, the mannequin soon becomes a real woman. She is silent and subservient, waiting patiently for John to return home. But one day, she has transformed into a sexier manifestation of herself, and becomes talkative, opinionated, and demanding. When John fails to meet her needs for sex and material possessions, she insists that he sell naked paintings of her, which does begin to bring in a fair amount of money – and other suitors, driving John to madness.
Director Renzo Russo’s The Red Headed Corpse is truly a strange beast. An amalgamation of Italian Gothic horror – such as Lust of the Vampire (1956), Mill of the Stone Women (1960), The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1961), and many more – and the giallo film, it overlaps with two small, strange (sub-)subgenres found within horror cinema: films about demented painters and movies that feature disturbing mannequins. There were a few giallo films that dealt with painters spiraling into madness, such as the effective A Quiet Place in the Country (1969), unsettling classics The House with the Laughing Windows (1976), and the absolute bat-shirt crazy Blood Delirium (1988). The Red Headed Corpse uses this character trope to its advantage and it is impossible to tell if John is going mad or if he’s just mad enough to accept the how wildly his reality has transformed.
This insane painter type ties in directly with the second theme of creepy, possibly supernatural mannequins. Found in everything from Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and his Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), these plastic nightmares are also the subject of Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974), El asesino de muñecas aka Killing of the Dolls (1975), and the wacko American film Tourist Trap (1979). Quoting my own Spasmo review seems useful here: “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 more. Mannequins, dolls, and statues began to trickle into horror through the ‘30s and ‘40s, growing in popularity over the years.”
John is an unlikable character, not fascinating or charismatic in his madness like Franco Nero’s character from A Quiet Place in the Country, or frightening in his insanity like painter from House with the Laughing Windows; rather, he seems more grumpy and unpleasant than anything else. It is also thoroughly bizarre to see Farley Granger in a giallo, as I primarily know him from his earlier suspense films. After turns in film noir efforts like They Live By Night (1948) and Edge of Doom (1950), and Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951), he proved he was more than capable in dark roles with emotionally fraught characters. He spent a few years relegated to mostly TV roles before turning to giallo films and Italian horror movies: Something Creeping in the Dark (1971), Amuck (1972), So Sweet, So Dead (1972), and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974).
If Granger’s aloof, detached persona seems odd in The Red Headed Corpse, Eurocult regular Erika Blanc is a welcome presence and is certainly the film’s high point. The prolific Italian actress became known for genre films like Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (1966), So Sweet, So Perverse (1969), The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971), and The Devil’s Nightmare (1971). Her lush sexuality serves her well and she is thoroughly charismatic while manipulating John and the other men that come in to her circle. The film never clarifies why the mannequin turned into a woman, or if this is a supernatural event or one born of mental illness. Even more inexplicably, the mannequin has two incarnations: the first is meek and passive and is depicted by Krista Nell (The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance, 1975). For no apparent reason, she transforms into Blanc’s character, an overripe parody of female sexual excess.
This Italian-Turkish co-production was helmed by director Renzo Russo, who only made 8 films throughout his career – primarily erotica and mondo films like The Kinky Darlings (1964), and Europa: Operation Strip-Tease (1964) – primarily South American productions that are impossible to find today. I would love to know how he was persuaded to make one pseudo-giallo, but very little information is available about this elusive smut peddler. I can’t say that direction is The Red Headed Corpse’s strong point, but it is a compelling film that Russo also penned.
The Red Headed Corpse is really only recommended to films of absolutely bizarre Eurohorror. Amazingly, you can find it on DVD in a collection called Euro Fiends From Beyond the Grave, which also includes The Faceless Monster (1965) and Satanik (1968). It is disorienting and creepy, and despite the fact that it’s a bit short on atmosphere, gore, or much sexual content (a lot is implied, but not shown), I can’t help but have a soft spot for this odd little film.