Starring: Leonora Fani, Luc Merenda, Lidia Biondi
Rosa, a teenage girl, helps her mother manage an isolated hotel while her father is off fighting in WWII. Rosa is lonely, as her mother spends most of her time caring for her lover, Alfredo, who stays holed up in a hotel room. Unfortunately for Rosa, her mother soon passes away, leaving the girl at the beset of perverse, sex-crazed guests all waiting to get their claws into her. But a mysterious figure — maybe Rosa’s father, though he is believed to be dead — begins killing off those who hurt Rosa.
This Italian-Spanish film is one of two giallo/horror movies from director Francesco Barilli and though it’s an obscure entry, it definitely deserves some attention. Pensione paura bears much in common with Barilli’s slightly superior effort, The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974). Both films center on an otherworldly, vulnerable female protagonist and in both entries sex is a source of anxiety, violence, and often outright terror. There are a number of unerotic sex scenes and one horrifying rape sequence, the like of which is implied but not often seen in giallo films. Throughout the first half of the film, Rosa is constantly threatening by the advances of Rudolfo, one of the despicable, horny guests. Pretending to protect her, his middle-aged lover lures Rosa into her bedroom and traps her there with Rudolfo. The older woman looks on while Rudolfo rapes her. It’s captured quite graphically in a shot from above the squirming, sweating, and naked Rudolfo, while Rosa screams horrifically. There are shots of the other guests listening on, but not intervening.
Unsettlingly, the rape seems to make Rosa her more assured and confident, but really it just pushes her closer to insanity and violence — like similar moments in The Perfume of the Lady in Black. More shared elements include troubled parent-child relationships and trauma — in the case of Perfume, past child abuse, and here the rape scene. Other grotesque moments include an orgy being held by some of the guests on the verge of hysteria. Sexual desire, in particularly male lust, is depicted as corrupt, immoral, and perverse. This sense of decadence and sexual frenzy blended with moral repugnancy is present in several other WWII-themed films, particularly in more graphic exploitation fare like The Night Porter, Seven Beauties, Salon Kitty, and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.
I’m not really sure how to label Pensione paura, but it is not quite a giallo film. It’s sort of a coming-of-age teen drama with elements of the giallo and exploitation cinema. There are plenty of unpredictable elements — for instance the rape sequence is countered by a budding teen romance, though the latter ultimately doesn’t go anywhere. It fits loosely between dark, fantasy-fueled coming-of-age films like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, or The Cement Garden, and WWII-themed teen films like The Devil’s Backbone or In a Glass Cage. In Pensione paura, these WWII elements could have been better developed, but still provide an eerie backdrop and a built-in explanation for the sense of claustrophobia and desperation.
Young actress Leonora Fani carries the film and amazingly would go on to appear in the even more perverse Giallo a Venezia. She plays it straight and is thoroughly non-histrionic, even though it becomes clear that fantasy is intruding upon her reality as the film goes on. Rosa is somewhat similar to other unhinged female characters from ‘70s films like The Perfume of the Lady in Black, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, The Stendhal Syndrome, Footprints on the Moon, A White Dress for Marialé, Through the Looking Glass, and even Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Rosa is sympathetic but contradictory. Initially, she is helpless and vulnerable and pursues an innocent relationship with another young boy. Later, she expresses desire for a friend her father sent to protect her — even telling him she loves him. SPOILERS: When he wants to take her away from the hotel, she admits that she dressed up as her father in order to kill the man and woman that attacked her. She applies make up, implying her transition to adulthood is complete, but that she is also violent and perhaps insane. in the ambiguous ending she omit another murder and vows to lock herself up in the hotel until her father returns, despite his friend’s assurance that he died on the battlefield.
Pensione paura comes recommended, particularly for anyone looking for something more unusual than just a run-of-the-mill giallo. As far as I know, it isn’t available on region 1 DVD or Blu-ray, but you can find it on Youtube with English subtitles. It’s flawed, but entertaining and is full of some delightful surprises. The film has a solid cast — poliziotteschi regular Luc Merenda nearly steals the film as the sleazy rapist — and plenty of colorful (if somewhat underused) side characters, such as thieves trying to steal jewels apparently hidden in the hotel and a corrupt priest who refuses to give the recently orphaned Rosa food. If the lovely, rural setting looks familiar, it’s the same area that director Pupi Avati used for his menacing giallo about art, death, and postwar decay, The House with Laughing Windows. The vivid Emilia-Romagna landscape is juxtaposed with the dark, squalid hotel full of dank corners and peepholes, and strangely vibrant tones reminiscent of later-era Mario Bava.