Armando Crispino, 1974
Starring: Mimsy Farmer, Barry Primus, Ray Lovelock, Carlo Cattaneo
Simona, a reserved young pathologist, is working on a thesis about suicide victims during a rash of apparent suicides in Rome. Though they are attributes to the intense heat waves beating down on the city, Simona suspects otherwise. A young girl believed to have committed suicide is brought in, but Simona proves that she was murdered. She inadvertently teams up with the girl’s brother, a troubled priest, to investigate the suicide/murders, but risks her own life when the killer comes close. Suspects loom around her, including a lascivious morgue attendant, her distant playboy father, her photographer boyfriend, and even Paul, the priest with a violent past.
Macchie solari — aka Sunspots — is a rare giallo from Armando Crispino, also known for cult horror film The Etruscan Kills Again. This is surely his best film and is one of the finest works to appear at the end of the giallo canon. Along with films like Footprints on the Moon and The House with Laughing Windows, this is an example of the genre taking a decidedly weird spin. But unlike the former two films, Autopsy’s conclusion is unable to match its brilliant first half, which opens with a dizzying suicide montage cut in with shots of solar flares. The cinematography from Carlo Cantini is absolutely beautiful and transforms sunny Rome into a place of oppressive heat, claustrophobia, paranoia, and madness.
The picturesque landscape is contrasted with images of corpses, naked bodies ready for autopsy. Simona has disturbing visions of the corpses coming to life and engaging in sex, an early hint to a deep sexual repression that borders on a psychosis. She’s an unusual female protagonist for a giallo and is powerfully sexual despite the script’s attempts to make her plain, somewhat alien, and even threatening. Like Florinda Bolkan’s character from Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, she’s almost a cypher, a blank canvas that reflects the psychosis around her. She has issues with her father that hint at abuse or an incestuous relationship, and her inherent morbidity draws her to the film’s other male characters: the priest, Paul (Barry Primus), and the artist, Edgar (Ray Lovelock).
Mimsy Farmer is nearly unparalleled as an actress in ‘70s cult cinema able to portray a genuine creepiness normally only found in male actors. Her roles in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), and Autopsy (1975), among other films, are eerily similar. Though blonde and lovely, there is something almost alien and asexual about Farmer. Crispino uses her more disturbing qualities to his advantage and she practically oozes a sexual frustration that soaks through the entire film and seems to be connected to the mystery with her father and the unexplained murder-suicides.
Farmer’s Simona is countered by two contrasting giallo types: the angst-ridden priest and the playboy. SPOILERS: While previous giallo films like Lizard in a Woman’s Skin or Four Flies on Grey Velvet revealed the disturbed female protagonist as the killer, Autopsy makes it clear early on that the killer is one of Simona’s two paramours. The priest character is seen frequently throughout giallo films and usually turns out to be the murderer, thanks to a heft dose of sexual repression turned into perversion and violence. Ray Lovelock (Living Dead at Manchester Morgue), on the other hand, plays the sort of smarmy, handsome, and charming male lead so often depicted by George Hilton — another character type who turns out to be bad. He remains ambiguous for much of the film. Though he is clearly popular with the ladies, he stubbornly pursues Simona and perseveres through her sexual neurosis, leading her to something like a moment of liberation. His collection of pornography — unusual but not totally unheard of in giallo films — is reflected by Simona’s much darker collection of crime scene photographs and grisly images of autopsies and death, possibly foreshadowing what is to come.
Available on DVD, Autopsy comes highly recommended, particularly for anyone who enjoys unusual thrillers. Unfortunately its incredible plot is dumbed down to be about old fashioned greed and the dispute over a will — though this is balanced by plenty of successful elements, such as Farmer’s starring role, the grim, eerie tone, and unsettling images of death repeated through the film. The scone from Ennio Morricone is one of the best things about an already excellent film and his use of layered voices and whispering adds a disorienting element. Alongside his work on Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, it represents some of the best soundtrack work in any giallo film.