Monday, June 29, 2015

STAGEFRIGHT aka DELIRIA


Michele Soavi, 1987
Starring: Barbara Cupisti, David Brandon, John Morghen, Robert Gligorov, Ulrike Schwerk

A group of starving actors and dancers are putting on a musical about a serial killer called the Night Owl, who rapes and kills prostitutes while dressed up like a giant owl. Their maniacal director (David Brandon) is an egotistical asshole and fires leading lady Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) when she sneaks off during her break to get medical attention for a sprained ankle. Unfortunately the closest hospital is a psychiatric facility, where she attracts the attention of Irving Wallace, a psychotic serial killer. Unbeknownst to Alicia, he breaks out of the hospital and follows her back to the theatre, brutally killing the wardrobe mistress. The police and reporters show up, inspiring the mad director to lock them in the theatre to finish rehearsal and get the show ready immediately. What they don't know is that Irving Wallace is locked in with them, ready for his breakthrough performance...

Arguably the greatest Italian horror director of the late '80s and early '90s, Michele Soavi's career took off with acting and assistant directing roles in the Italian horror scene. You might recognize him from role in Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and New York Ripper, Argento’s Tenebre, Phenomena, and Opera, and Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark and Demons, among others. As a director, he worked with Argento, Joe D’amato, and Lamberto Bava until his directorial debut Deliria, also known as Stagefright, Stagefright: Aquarius, Bloody Bird, and Sound Stage Massacre. Though he became best known for Cemetery Man or occult horror favorites like The Church and The Sect, I think Stagefright is his best film — it’s certainly my favorite and you should in no way expect this to be a reasonable, unbiased review.

Gory, suspenseful, and cheesy as only a late '80s giallo can be, Stagefright is a ton of fun. None of the characters are particularly likable, thought it’s nice to see familiar faces like the great Giovanni Radice (aka John Morghen), Soavi-regular Barbara Cupisti, and Lamberto Bava-regular David Brandon. Most of the characters are on screen only because, sooner or later, they have spectacular death scenes lined up. Though much of the film errs on the side of ridiculousness, there are some effectively spooky and beautiful sequences. It’s also really difficult for me not to love any film — particularly a giallo, thriller, or horror movie — set up in a pressure cooker type of scenario, implausible though the whole thing may be. There are two doors to the theatre and when they are both locked, there is no way to escape. Really?

I can easily suspend by disbelief for the sheer fact that Stagefright is just so much fun. I mean, how can you argue with a troupe of dancers and actors getting butchered by a man in a giant owl mask? Over the years I’ve made at least a dozen people watch this, all of whom were nervous because it begins as an “intellectual musical” with dancing and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator with a saxophone (take that Lost Boys). There’s a sort of 1980s Times Square aesthetic combined with characters straight out of Flashdance, A Chorus Line, or RENT, who all have various romantic and financial struggles. Soavi skates past this pretty quickly to introduce — I’ll say it again — the serial killer who hides behind a giant owl mask.

This would make a great double feature with Lamberto Bava’s Demons — and maybe even Argento’s Opera — as all are awash with metatextual nods to the horror genre. Soavi has some fantastic scenes, including a great moment where a pretty young dancer — the film’s goody two shoes — is rehearsing a number where she seduces the killer and is then murdered. Except the escaped, real life serial killer actually slaughters her, revealing himself to the rest of the cast, much to their horror. Horror favorite Giovanni Radice is involved in another of the film’s best scenes. He plays Brett, a gay dancer cast as the owl killer, but little does Brett or the cast realize, he’s not the only one walking around with the mask, causing both the audience and the cast to play a suspenseful guessing game.

I won’t spoil the ending, but the concluded set piece — involving the masked killer sitting on a state full of props and corpses — attempts to give Lucio Fulci a run for his money in the weirdness, nonsensical department. It’s fantastic. I’m sorry, maybe it wasn’t clear, but I love this movie. On a final note, I’ll tell you what really blows my mind. This fucking movie was written by George Eastman. If his name isn't ringing a bell it means you haven't seen enough Italian B movies. He stars in Baby Yaga, Rabid Dogs, Anthropophagus, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, The Bronx Warriors, 2019: After the Fall of New York, and so on. He’s also gargantuan, coming in at 6’9”. What can the man not do!? He was in some of the best exploitation films of the ‘70s and '80s and also wrote or co-wrote many of them, including Keoma, The Great Alligator, Terror Express, Anthropophagus, Porno Holocaust, Abusrd, etc. Dreamy.

Stagefright has been passed over too long, probably because of its generic name that is shared by a number of other films (including one by Hitchcock). It’s a true masterpiece and it comes highly recommended — just be sure to check any expectations of logic at the theater door. And get ready for the ridiculous. You really need to own this on Blu-ray and I am endlessly grateful that Blue Underground did it justice last year with this wonderful release. The only way it could be better is with an Eastman-Soavi commentary track.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

DELIRIUM aka LE FOTO DI GIOIA (1987)

Lamberto Bava, 1987
Starring: Serena Grandi, Daria Nicolodi, David Brandon, George Eastman

After her wealthy husband’s death, Gioia, a former model and porn actress, has become the owner of his risqué men’s magazine, Pussycat. But someone begins stalking Gioia and murdering her models — and sending in images of the dead girls with Gioia’s old nude photos as backdrops. While this makes the magazine’s sales skyrocket, she realizes that she is the likely target and is surrounded by potential killers — a bitter rival who wants to buy the business, a sexually frustrated neighbor who torments her, her elusive old flame, and more. The police are little to no help, but Gioia is determined to stay alive.

Written by director Sergio Martino’s brother Luciano (a regular writer and producer on Sergio’s films), this was allegedly intended to be a project for director Dario Argento. Supposedly due to script concerns, Argento bowed out, but nominated Lamberto Bava for the job. Bava was fresh off the success of their film together, Demons, and while Delirium is not the masterpiece of ‘80s filmmaking than Demons is, it’s an entertaining exercise in sleazy Italian horror and is of one of the last films that can properly be called a giallo. There are plenty of stylish, over-the-top death scenes, lots of sex and naked women, and more potential suspects and red herrings than possibly any giallo to come before it.

From Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace, giallo films have frequently been set in the fashion world. Films like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and Strip Nude for Your Killer have capitalized on the more lurid aspects of the industry and Delirium is certainly of the same mold. Gioia (the large-bosomed Serena Grandi of Anthropophagus, The Great Beauty) spends most of her days by the pool in a bikini, drinking champagne with scantily-clad models — that alone would be enough for me to watch this movie. Gioia’s secret (sort of) is that she used to be in porn and there is even a few shots of her in a Nazi-themed sex film (!). And, my god, her outfits. Outside of it following the Playboy/Penthouse example for how to lead a perfect life, this is worth watching for the outrageous ‘80s fashions alone.

Unlike Bava’s A Blade in the Dark or Demons, the violence in Delirium is arguably more stylized than gory and the film’s most noteworthy, unusual element is that some of the murders occur from the killer’s perspective. He hallucinates — which is obvious from the Mario Bava-like colored lighting that suddenly appears — and one model is shown with a giant eyeball in place of her head, while another has an insect head. The killer actually murders one woman with (perfume! and) bees, like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but cheesier. Bava isn’t completely successful with these surreal, hallucinatory elements and I can’t help but feel that he was also aiming for something along the lines of Suspiria or Inferno, and in this case he utterly fails. Regardless, these scenes makes for some good, cheesy fun.

The film is also awash with potential suspects, both male and female. It is intimated that the killer is a blonde woman and both Gioia’s Joan Crawford-like business rival (played with gleeful malice by Capucine of The Pink Panther and Satyricon a few years before her death) and her assistant (Italian horror queen Daria Nicolodi in a role similar to the one she played in Tenebre) have blonde tresses. George Eastman’s tall, dark, handsome, and menacing looks lend themselves well to the part of Gioia’s unreliable boyfriend. One minute, he is dressed up as a barbarian (for a fantasy film) and then is suddenly having sex with her in the bathtub in the next shot. Uncomfortably, her brother walks in and just stands there, staring at them, before eventually muttering, “I didn’t know you had company.” Vanni Corbellini (Drowning by Numbers, The Belly of an Architect) is great as her jealous, playboy brother, though he is frequently outdone by David Brandon (Stage Fright) as the gay photographer. The film implies that his homosexuality might mean that he hates women is therefore killing them.

Delirium is plenty ridiculous, but comes highly recommended. Though I was almost disappointed with the ending (which I won’t ruin for you here), because it borrows from another of Lamberto Bava’s films, it’s balls-to-the-wall insane enough to be very entertaining, despite how ridiculous it is. This will mostly be of interested to giallo fans, as it’s among the last gasp of the genre (with Argento's Opera and Soavi's Stage Fright) and is filled with fun elements, like a horror-themed photo shoot, scantily-clad models everywhere, Dario Nicolodi, and an effective department store sequence where the shit hits the fan and the film rushes, full tilt, through several murders. I’m a firm believer that every ‘80s horror film should have a scene in a mall and this one does not disappoint. It's also — perhaps oddly — an effective picture of ‘80s excess and would make an interesting contrast with something consciously about this period, like American Psycho. Pick it up on DVD.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A BLADE IN THE DARK aka LA CASA CON LA SCALA NEL BUIO

Lamberto Bava, 1983
Starring: Andrea Occhipinti, Anny Papa, Fabiola Toledo, Michele Soavi, Valeria Cavalli

While working on the score for a new horror movie, Bruno is staying in an eerie villa rented for him by Sandra, the director, who wants to be sure the proper mood is invoked. Her film includes scenes of young boys bullying one and daring him to follow a bouncing ball down into a cellar, where something horrible occurs. But Bruno’s daily life begins to mirror the film, as strange women — alleging to be friends with the previous tenant, Linda — show up and then disappear just as quickly. It seems that someone is murdering Bruno’s houseguests and he, his girlfriend Julia, and Sandra struggle to figure out the identity of the killer before they are next.

Lamberto Bava’s second film, A Blade in the Dark, is a marked improvement on his first, Macabre. Written by star giallo screenwriters Elisa Briganti (Zombie, The House by the Cemetery, 1990: The Bronx Warriors) and the prolific Dardano Sacchetti (everything from Bay of Blood to The Psychic, Zombie, City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and so on), this a departure from the slow-burn psychological horror of Macabre and compared to the latter, A Blade in the Dark ups the gore level considerably. There are some effective death scenes, plenty of suspense, and the film is almost surprisingly violent. It’s not as stylized as traditional giallo films, and feels sort of like Dressed to Kill (1980) meets Tenebre (1982).

Like both of those films, this is concerned with ideas of identity, sexuality, and gender. It has a surprising number of female characters and it often feels like Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti from New York Ripper and Conquest) is the stationary male element in a cast of revolving women. Likely a nod back to old dark house films, this takes place mostly in the rented villa, which is large enough to be an effective set piece. Like those old dark house films, there is something unsettling about staying in a borrowed space, a strange house which is only a temporary home. All throughout the film, women have an unnerving habit of just showing up at the house, intruding on his private space.

The former tenant, Linda, haunts the film. Her stuff is still stored in the villa, while her friends Katia (Valeria Cavalli of Double Team) and Angela (Fabiola Toledo of Demons) let themselves in the house with warning or invitation. Katia hides in the closet and surprises Bruno (!) and is later killed for her trouble. Angela, who swims in the pool and randomly uses the shower, is murdered in the bathroom and her death is one of the film’s violent centerpieces. Bava builds on the frightening thought of a murder occurring in your own home with little evidence remaining. Like the beginning of several other giallo films, some of the suspense revolves around the audience knowing that certain characters have been murdered, while the protagonist only guesses at the truth and finds scant evidence — like unexplained blood on his pants leg and pearls in the sink. 

His girlfriend Julia (Lara Naszinsky) is also something of a red herring. She comes and goes as abruptly as the other women and in one scene is found skulking around the house with a knife. She exhibits a lot of suspicious behavior, such as walking around the villa early in the morning, lying about abandoning her job, and so on. The horror director, Sandra, is also surprisingly female and has apparently based her movie on Linda’s mysterious, traumatic past. This has notes of Scream and Berberian Sound Studio, as there are numerous self-referential discussions of the horror genre, not to mention that two of the main characters are a horror director and a score writer. Later, someone is killed by being strangled to death with a strip of film. Both A Blade in the Dark and Demons involve horror films as a main feature of the plot and this is one of A Blade in the Dark’s more enjoyable elements.

SPOILERS: And speaking of other horror films, the killer is ultimately revealed to be a transvestite. Though numerous visual clues promise a female killer (high heels, painted fingernails, some hilarious yet prissy cleaning up after one of the murders), the identity of a tormented, confused male is revealed. This is part of an ongoing tradition in horror with films like Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs, where anxiety about sexuality and identity results in male-female killers. This is also a common trope in giallo films, such as Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Sister of Ursula, and Pensione paura, to name only a few.

A Blade in the Dark is flawed, but it’s well worth watching. Pick it up on DVD. And even though the numerous enjoyable female performances make up the bulk of the film, keep an eye out for genre regulars Stanko Molnar (Macabre) as the creepy groundkeeper, director/actor/extraordinaire Michele Soavi (Stagefright) as the landlord, and Giovanni Frezza (House by the Cemetery) as a child in the film-within-the-film from the opening scene. The film moves at a decent pace, correcting one of Macabre’s faults right there, has well-used suspenseful scenes, moments of the over-the-top violence, and an effective, pleasant little mystery. Plenty of nonsensical things happening could be viewed as silly — and there is frequently plenty to laugh at — but it also opens the film up to a level of unpredictability, which Bava Jr uses to his advantage. And I’m always going to find whispering as part of the plot/soundtrack incredibly disturbing. It’s used very well here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

MACABRE

Lamberto Bava, 1980
Starring: Elisa Kadigia Bove, Bernice Stegers, Stanko Molnar

Jane, a wife and mother living in New Orleans, is secretly renting out an apartment in an old boarding house run by a blind young man and his elderly mother. Her family doesn’t realize that she’s carrying on a passionate affair with Fred, her lover, and her absences take a tragic turn. One day while she and Fred are off having sex, Jane’s daughter drowns her young son in the bathtub. In a rush to get back to the house, she and Fred are in a car accident and he is killed. Jane spends a year in a mental hospital and when she’s released, she returns to the boarding house, now run by the blind man, Robert, after his mother passed away. Robert develops feelings for Jane, but is concerned when he hears moans of pleasure from her room… and she begins screaming Fred’s name.

Written by House with Laughing Windows’ director Pupi Avati and his brother Antonio, this was Lamberto Bava’s first big project as a director. The son of one of horror’s great directors, Mario Bava, Lamberto got his start assistant directing on many of his father’s films — Kill Baby, Kill, Danger: Diabolik, A Bay of Blood, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil, Rabid Dogs — and Argento’s Inferno and Tenebre, as well as Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. Macabre never reaches the heights of his masterpiece, Demons, but is an entertaining glimpse at Bava the Younger’s future promise. It’s also something of a bridge between Avati’s slower-paced, doom-laden films and Lamberto’s own clear style that would more fully emerge throughout the ‘80s.

Oddly convincing and effective at times, it’s a stretch to call this a giallo film, though I’ve included it mainly because of Bava’s connection to the genre. It’s more of a disturbing psychological horror film and one that succeeds in part because of Serbian actor Stanko Molnar as Robert. Molnar would go on to work with Lamberto again in his next film, A Blade in the Dark, and something about him is strange yet compelling (more so here than in that film, where he plays a creepy groundkeeper). I read another review where the writer compared him to a young Anthony Perkins, which is not far off the mark and the tone of Psycho is a not-so-distant cousin to Macabre.

SPOILERS: The overlapping themes include a troubled young man — one who had an odd relationship with his mother — who runs a hotel and becomes fixated on a female guest. But where it was the male character holding on to a female corpse, Lamberto Bava reimagines things so that Jane, far more disturbed than Robert, has been keeping her dead lover’s head in the refrigerator. She keeps it under lock and key but brings it out every night when she has imaginary sex with Fred and makes out with his decaying face. It’s not on the level of Joe D’amato’s Buio Omega, but it’s disturbing thanks to a solid, only occasionally histrionic performance from Bernice Stegers (Fellini’s City of Women and sci-fi horror masterpiece Xtro). There is something about her blend of beauty, sophistication, icy restrained, and perverse madness that reminds me of Clare Higgins’ unforgettable Julie from Hellraiser. Like Clare, she seems to hate children and find them outright disgusting. Her daughter -- remember, the one who killed her own baby brother by drowning him in a bathtub -- is incredibly creepy, so it's easy to see why. Then again it could just be the ‘80s fashion and hairstyles. 

Alternating between thoroughly creepy and ridiculously campy, Macabre has some of the Gothic element found in Avati’s House with Laughing Windows but also reminds me of another film from the same period: The House of the Yellow Carpet (1983). Though I’ve decided not to review the latter, both are descended directly from the giallo films of the ‘60s and ‘70s but put their focus more on psychological decay and sexual obsession. The latter is also focused on a woman who moans all night long — a disturbed housewife who calls out her stepfathers name during obvious sex dreams, driving her husband homicidally mad. He contacts psychiatrist to help him stage an elaborate ruse, where the wife attempts to sell a giant yellow carpet her stepfather to a con artist who holds her captive. She believes she has killed him in self defense, but this is all part of an elaborate psychological game meant to be used as therapy. 

Both films revolve around similar themes of madness and sexual obsession, though Macabre is ultimately the more satisfying entry. Its grand guignol elements help balance out an inconsistent script and slow pacing in the middle section of the film. Giallo and slasher fans may find it light on the gore — except for the famous reveal scene, where Jane has sex with her lover’s rotting, decapitated head — but sleaze fans will enjoy its perverse eroticism. There’s plenty of female nudity and almost constant moaning and groaning, though none of the sleaze that put directors like Fulci on the map. Speaking of the Godfather of Gore, like his classic The Beyond, Macabre is set in New Orleans and suffers from tragically awful fake Southern accents that fade in and out throughout the film. Whether you find these punishing or just part of the film’s charm, it’s well worth checking out. Pick it up on DVD.

Monday, June 22, 2015

GIALLO A VENEZIA

Mario Landi, 1979
Starring: Leonora Fani, Gianni Dei, Jeff Blynn, Michele Renzullo

A murdered married couple — Fabio and Flavia — are discovered on the banks of a canal in Venice and Inspector Angelo De Paul is ordered to find the killer, and fast, because it’s smack in the middle of tourist season. He soon learns from a close female friend, Marzia, and Flavia’s old boyfriend that the couple were into cocaine, as well as some shocking sexual practices. It seems that Fabio forced his wife to submit to his perversions — everything from orgies and anal sex to whippings, rape, prostitution, cuckolding, and exhibitionism — and someone in their circle clearly wanted revenge. But Marzia reveals that a jealous former boyfriend is stalking her, widening the circle of perverse suspects.

Director Mario Landi’s (Patrick Still Lives) only giallo film, Giallo a Venezia, may be difficult to track down, but boy is it worth the search. It’s so delightfully sleazy, ranking somewhere beneath New York Ripper but above What Have You Done to Solange? (and Dallamano’s schoolgirls in peril trilogy in general). Let me summarize the entire film with one sentence: Lengthy soft porn flashback sequences (and by lengthy, I mean this takes up literally half the film) contrasted with shots of a a ridiculously coiffed and mustachioed but knowing detective who constantly eats hardboiled eggs… oh, and jarring moments of extreme violence.

The violence here is about on par with New York Ripper, in the sense that not just one, but two people are stabbed viciously and repeatedly in the crotch, and a man is shot and then set on fire. And if you thought Maria Angela Giordano had it rough in Burial Ground and Patrick Still Lives, here she has one of her legs sawn off. Her body is found crammed in her own refrigerator (the half-size so popular in ‘70s apartments) in a scene that directly rips off Short Night of the Glass Dolls, albeit less effectively. The ridiculous level of violence is contrasted with almost constant nudity — both male and female — and a wider variety of sex acts than arguably any giallo film. Most of them are carried out by the sweet and innocent-looking Leonara Fani (Pensione paura) and Gianni Dei (Patrick Still Lives), who are on screen for much of the film’s running time, despite the fact that it’s a mystery to solve their murder.

Giallo a Venezia really has the flimsiest excuse for a plot — the script constantly comes to a halt for relentlessly sex scenes — though I think it would have worked if it had been more cleverly written, like The Pyjama Girl Case, which is similarly tragic and sex-obsessed. The mystery essentially hinges on two elements. First, the Inspector can’t figure out why Flavia was drowned in the canal, but then pulled from the water and left on the banks. It is this unanswered question that propels the case forward, because them being murdered is apparently not enough. Later, what leads the detective to the truth is a pretty stupid plot reveal — an intrusive neighbor knew the location of two key witnesses all along.

Compared to a number of other giallo films set in Venice — such as Who Saw Her Die?, Don’t Look Now, and The Bloodstained Shadow — this is the seediest Venice has probably every looked. And I don’t mean just because of the sexual content. This is sort of drab and ugly as far as giallo films go and it lacks the hyper stylized elements of early classics like Blood and Black Lace, or the later era atmospheric, oneiric works like Footprints on the Moon or House with Laughing Windows. With that said, there are some likable performances, namely from the two leading ladies and Jeff Blynn (Cliffhanger), who looks like a strange combination of Hall and Oates. The Inspector’s second in command, Eolo Capritti of Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle’s Revenge and Dr. Jekyll Likes Them Hot, is sort of a poor man’s Italian Kojak. Though he’s really likable in Giallo a Venezia, I have a bizarre passion for Telly Savalas, who does appear in a number of giallo and Italian horror films (Death Smiles on a Murderer, Lisa and the Devil). In the beginning of the film, when Capritti is visible from the side only, I though for a second that Savalas was costarring and was nearly crushed when it turned out not to be him.

Giallo a Venezia is either going to be your new favorite movie or you will be completely horrified. It’s not available on DVD, but you can find it online with some digging or through this bootleg site. Really, the best I can do is compare it to New York Ripper, that paragon of filth and misanthropic violence. And unlike unlike basically any other giallo, sexy saxophone music incredulously plays for basically the entire film. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW aka SOLAMENTE NERO

Antonio Bido, 1978
Starring: Lino Capolicchio, Stefania Casini, Craig Hill, Massimo Serato

After having a nervous breakdown, college professor Stefano D’Archangelo travels to his home in Murano (an island that is part of Venice) for a relaxing visit with his brother, the priest Don Paolo. But he learns that the town is full of a number of disreputable people, including a child molester, fraudulent psychic who hold regular seances, and a midwife that performs abortions. And soon after Stefano arrives, Don Paolo witnesses a murder one night during a thunderstorm. The body disappears and no one believes him, but soon the psychic turns up floating in a river and Don Paolo begins receiving menacing notes, presumably from the killer. Stefano tries to get to the bottom of things with the help of a local painter, Sandra.

Not to be confused with The Bloodstained Butterfly, Solamente nero (Only Blackness) is a derivative, though moody and entertaining giallo made at the end of the genre’s relatively short run. Bido excels at creating little pockets of strangeness and gloomy atmosphere — such as a scene where the midwife cheers up her mental disabled adult son by tearing the limbs off of one of his dolls, or another where Sandra becomes paranoid that someone is following her and has a surprise run in with an accordion player — but he is unable to sustain them for extended period of time. The film’s numerous death scenes are effective, such as the opening where a girl is killed in the lush countryside and a later scene where a woman is murdered during a thunderstorm. It turns out that the murder of a teenage girl occurred years ago and the medium was killed in the same way, creating the tenuous mystery that weaves throughout the film.

The Bloodstained Shadow is not the first film to make use of Venice’s eerie canals and narrow, winding corridors. Sadly this film doesn’t quite capture the menace and air of doom found in Don’t Look Now or even Who Saw Her Die? It also apes a number of themes found in some of Argento films, such as a painting that is key to the identity of the murderer (Deep Red), a past crime that haunts the present (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red), and flashbacks of a tormented child (Deep Red). Like most of Argento’s films, one of the central characters (Stefania Casini of Suspiria) is an artist. Strangely, it also foreshadows some of the elements used in Phenomena, such as an opening scene of a girl murdered in the beautiful countryside and a female character who hides a mentally challenged adult son. This is also one of many giallo films — such as Torso and The Sister of Ursula — to have a concluding scene where the murderer falls to their death (likely taken from Vertigo).

SPOILERS: Another obvious element is the use of a priest. By this point, far too many giallo films included a suspicious priest character and general rule of thumb is that he will wind up being the killer, as Craig Hill (Dracula vs Frankenstein, All About Eve) does here. But by 1978, this was already seen in Don’t Torture a Duckling, Who Saw Her Die?, The House with Laughing Windows, and What Have You Done to Solange?, as well as Autopsy, where the priest character is violent, troubled, and acts as a red herring. Hill’s Don Paolo does provide a somewhat obvious complement to the innocent-looking Lino Capolicchio (House with Laughing Windows), though I would like to have seen Capolicchio as a murderer for once. He has flashbacks of a screaming boy — an interesting counterpoint to the film’s underdeveloped subplot of child abuse — but this is underused and it is merely used to explain the twist at the conclusion.

The film’s biggest problem is its pacing, which occasionally slows to a crawl, and director Antonio Bido (The Cat’s Victims) should have generously trimmed the numerous romantic scenes between Stefano and Sandra. With that said, the cast is likable. In addition to Capolicchio, Casini, and Hill, there are a number of familiar faces from cult cinema, including Massimo Serato (Don’t Look Now), Juliette Mayniel (Eyes Without a Face), and celebrated stunt coordinator Sergio Mioni. There’s also some noteworthy gore, including a face set on fire, a skinned animal held left in warning in the church, and someone run through with a sword. Stelvio Cipriani’s score bizarrely (though not unsurprisingly) rips off Goblin. 

The Bloodstained Shadow comes recommended for seasoned giallo fans and anyone interested in Italian horror with a religious angle — which doesn’t happen as often as you would think for such a Catholic country. Despite the frequent use of priest characters, most giallo films don't go much further than that. When Lucio Fulci did with Don't Torture a Duckling and Beatrice Cenci, it nearly ruined his career. You can find it on DVD from Blue Underground with an interesting interview with director Antonio Bido.

Friday, June 19, 2015

RINGS OF FEAR aka ENIGMA ROSSO

Alberto Negrin, 1978
Starring: Fabio Testi, Christine Kaufmann, Ivan Desny, Helga Liné

"I hope you're not used to having your students murdered!"

When a teenage girl’s dead body is found floating in the river, Inspector DiSalvo begins asking questions at a nearby private boarding school, St. Theresa’s. He learns from the girl’s strange younger sister that she was part of a small clique known as “The Inseparables,” and the autopsy report reveals that she was assaulted before death. DiSalvo meets with resistance at seemingly every turn, from the school’s reticent teachers to the other “Inseparables,” who begin receiving menacing letter, possibly from the killer. DiSalvo is determined to use any means necessary to find the murderer’s identity and get to the bottom of goings on at the school.

The third and final film in director and writer Massimo Dallamano’s schoolgirls in peril giallo trilogy, Rings of Fear is entertaining — thanks to the ever wonderful Fabio Testi — but is sadly inferior to the first two films, What Have You Done to Solange? and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? Dallamano died in an accident right after directing poliziotteschi film Colt 38 Special Squad, so Alberto Negrin took over this last film in the series. Negrin primarily director for television, including recent Italian crime series L’isola and WWII-themed fare like Memories of Anne Frank (2009) and Mussolini and I (with Susan Sarandon, Anthony Hopkins, and Bob Hoskins).

Co-written by Dallamano, this covers much of the same ground as the first two films in the trilogy. SPOILERS: The clique of schoolgirls, to no one’s great surprise, is involved in an underage prostitution ring, where they have sex with wealthy, powerful men in exchange for clothes and money. While this film downplays the violence and suspense found in the first two, there are plenty of sleazy scenes, including shots of an orgy, yet another abortion, and some naked shower room games. It’s enough of a stretch to believe that there’s one giallo movie where a woman is attacked with a giant dildo, but between Rings of Fear and The Sister of Ursula (where this is the killer’s murder weapon of choice) there are, quite incredibly, two. At least two, since I haven’t seen ever giallo ever made.

As I’ve already said, the film is so enjoyable primarily because of Fabio Testi’s starring role. He covered an unusual amount of territory throughout his career, including art house classics like The Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s and The Most Important This is to Love, poliziotteschi films such as Gang War in Naples, Revolver, and Contraband, and even a few giallo efforts such as this film and What Have You Done to Solange?, among many other genres. Unlike most of the actors of his generation, he still has an active career and is still ludicrously handsome. Strangely, he’s aged to look more and more like an Italian Sean Connery. 

Here, he must contend with a lot of difficult customers at St. Theresa’s, the girls’ school. The group of teenage “mean girls” known as “the Inseparables” are not only incredibly unhelpful with the investigation, but they seem to be in actual danger at times — one of them is nearly killed on horseback — and someone known as “Nemesis” (an easy to figure out but unidentified figure) is sending them menacing notes. The school has what must be the world’s most untrustworthy teaching staff and his girlfriend is a kleptomaniac who abruptly leaves him halfway through the film. But with the usual charm, he is adept at kicking ass and taking names — even going so far as to interrogate a suspect on a roller coaster. And I think I failed to mention that the only person who helps him out is the first victim’s younger sister, an outsider at the school who is just a little bit creepy.

Also known as Red Rings of Fear, Virgin Terror, and Trauma, this Italian-German-Spanish giallo is really only for giallo completists or Fabio Testi fans. There’s a delightful Riz Ortolani score, a fair number of entertaining scenes, and very sleazy tone, but the script is flawed. There are lots of bizarre subplots that go unresolved and characters that sort of wander off — such as the Inspector’s girlfriend — and it’s very derivative of the two previous films in the trilogy. But where else are you going to see a suspect interrogated — and terrified out of his wits — on a roller coaster? I don’t believe the film is available on DVD for English-speaking audiences, but you can find it floating around online.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

THE SISTER OF URSULA aka LA SORELLA DI URSULA

Enzo Milioni, 1978
Starring: Barbara Magnolfi, Stefania D’Amario, Marc Porel

"Love and horror slip over you without leaving a trace."
Dagmar and her troubled younger sister, Ursula, are traveling through Italy in search of their estranged mother. Their father recently passed away and left them his considerable estate. Ursula believes she has psychic powers and thinks that some doom will befall them at a seaside hotel Dagmar has settled on. Soon enough, bodies begin to pile up around the picturesque resort, which is packed with suspects including the smarmy hotel manager, his over-sexed wife who wants a divorce, a sultry nightclub singer, and her drug-addicted boyfriend, who also seems to be in love with Dagmar.

This later-period giallo from director Enzo Milioni is similar to other sleazy, sexually-explicit films from this period like Pensione paura, Giallo a Venezia, The Killer Must Kill Again, and The Pyjama Girl Case. This blend of sex and death is particularly graphic and includes straight and lesbian sex scenes, masturbation with a gold chain, oral sex, voyeurism, and partner swapping — more sex and nudity than is included in your average giallo, including a graphic, apparently hardcore moment of ass eating. I hate wearing clothes as much as the next person, but the characters in The Sister of Ursula could best be described as defiantly naked, naked for no reason whatsoever and whenever possible. I can’t decide if the film is flagrantly misogynistic or if it’s making fun of the sort of anti-sex, anti-women’s pleasure attitude that obsesses the killer.

This flawed but entertaining film has a murky plot that wanders in a number of directions. The two sisters’ motivations are unclear. Though they discuss being raised in boarding school and not being close with either of their parents, they determinedly search for their absent mother (presumably to share the inheritance with her?). Ursula claims to be very close with their father, though Dagmar’a dialogue repeatedly disputes this, and Ursula insists that he is not dead, but remains a close physical presence. Dagmar later reveals that he killed himself after years of impotency and his actress wife leaving him at the height of her fame.

SPOILERS: It’s not that difficult to figure out the identity of the killer and — amazingly — the murder weapon is a giant wooden dildo (statue?) with a bearded face carved on the end. This film has odd similarities to Pensione paura, in the sense that both films are set at a hotel teeming with sexually frustrated guests and the killer is a young girl who disguises herself as her father… though admittedly the protagonist of Pensione paura doesn’t fuck anyone to death with an oversized wooden dildo. Ursula’s behavior is difficult to understand, as she alternates between seeming mentally ill and just stuck in a phase of juvenile brattiness. But her tirades about leaving the hotel and her criticisms of the sexually promiscuous guests (and her own mother) pretty much gives it all away. 

One of the film’s more bizarre subplots involves Ursula claiming to be psychic. In a hilarious scene, she has yet another fit and collapses and Dagmar for the hotel’s doctor. He examines Ursula and informs Dagmar that childhood trauma frequently leaves young adults with psychic sensitivity and unexplained powers (!). Sadly, this element is not further explored. The film suffers from too many of these different threads: a search for missing parents, a troubled girl with psychic powers, a series of tangled sexual relationships, a murderer on the loose, and a drug smuggling ring at the hotel.

The latter takes form in actor Marc Porel’s character Filippo Andrei. The film presents him — in typical giallo fashion — as both a love interest and as a potential killer, but doesn’t satisfyingly develop either of these and is criminally underused. He’s introduced as the nightclub singer’s boyfriend with a secret drug addiction. He is shown shooting up on camera, but it’s later explained that he’s a narcotics detective on the trail of a drug smugglers. Sadly, this plot element was eerily close to Porel’s own life. He and actress Barbara Magnolfi (Suspiria) were newly weds during filmmaking and he had a fascinating career that included work on Fulci’s The Psychic, Ruggero Deodato's Live like a Cop, Die like a Man, and Luchino Visconti's The Innocent. But he also had an on-going drug problem and died from a drug-related illness in 1983, which was also when Magnolfi essentially retired.

The Sister of Ursula is well-worth seeking out and is fortunately available on DVD. There’s a likable lead performance from Stefania D’Amario (Zombie, Nightmare City) and some nice side performances, including one by Vanni Materassi (The Leopard) as Roberto, the hotel manager. He inadvertently provides some comic relief, as Roberto reacts hilariously to the deaths — and he discovers a few of the bodies himself — by appearing completely nonplussed and unaffected. The Amalfi coast provides a beautiful seaside setting director Milioni makes the most of his set pieces, including abandoned areas of the hotel, which complement the licentious and often deadly goings on in the ornate hotel. The sexually squeamish will probably want to avoid this one, but it’s really a lot of fun.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

HOTEL FEAR AKA PENSIONE PAURA

Francesco Barilli, 1977
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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE aka LA RAGAZZA DAL PIGIAMA GIALLO

Flavio Mogherini, 1977
Starring: Ray Milland, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Michele Placido, Mel Ferrer

When the unidentifiable body of an assaulted young woman wearing yellow pajamas is found burned on a Sydney beach, the police close in on a local pervert and Peeping Tom. But retired Detective Thompson believes there is more to the case and begins his own investigation with the reluctant help of a younger detective. A woman steps forward and claims the body belongs to her missing daughter, Anna, but Thompson doubts her story. Meanwhile, a beautiful, promiscuous young waitress is caught between a rich older benefactor, an Italian waiter she has fallen in love with, and a physically satisfying German lover. Is one of her paramours the killer?

A moody crime thriller that can only loosely be called a giallo, The Pyjama Girl Case takes some confusing twists and turns and it’s only towards the end of the film that you understand what director Flavio Mogherini has done with his clever script. Mogherini developed a career doing design work for directors like Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini (on Accattone), though cult movie fans will probably recognize his colorful art direction on Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968). While I wouldn’t call Pyjama Girl an exceptionally colorful or stylish film — it’s certainly not trying to compete with Bava or Argento — it’s lovely to look at and makes the most of its Australian set. Yes, you read that right: Australia. There have been some ludicrous attempts to set giallo films in the UK — such as What Have You Done to Solange? in London, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye in Scotland, and, hilariously, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire in Ireland — but this is the only giallo I know of that was set (and shot) in Australia.

It actually took me awhile to figure out that the proceedings were set Down Under, because the dubbing includes primarily non-Australian accents, including Milland’s American banter and a number of Italian-accented police officers. This Italian-Spanish coproduction actually centers on a number of immigrants/foreigners to Australia: a retired American detective, a beautiful Dutch woman, and her Italian husband. Based on a famous Australian murder case — the death of Linda Agostini in Australia in 1934 — the film follows its source material surprisingly accurately and dispenses with the string of gory murders so popular in most giallo films and focuses on just one corpse.

In terms of ‘60s and ’70s films, it is actually difficult to describe the dividing line between a giallo film and simply an Italian murder mystery in general, but particularly when it comes to The Pyjama Girl Case. The film plays with some of the genre conventions, but abandons many: there is no black-gloved killer and only one murder instead of a series. However Mogherini does present a fresh spin on a beloved giallo trope — the foreigner vacationing or living in Italy who gets caught up in a crime — and the characters are depicted as being very lonely, isolated people. Other giallo elements appear, including incompetent police, a fairly lewd, gratuitous use of sex, elements of voyeurism, violence, and red herrings. For example, a woman insists that the burned girl is her daughter and provides some evidence, though Thompson soon begins to reveal this as an insurance fraud scheme. Sadly, the film never follows up with the questionable mother and her obviously missing daughter.

Depressing and abundantly morbid, The Pyjama Girl Case is surprisingly not packed with unlikable characters, as many giallo films are, but spends most of its running time breaking down flawed individuals trying to make the best of their lives. It’s really surprising to see Ray Milland here. He emphasizes the grimy one, as he looks exhausted and not overly thrilled about the proceedings. SPOILERS: Taking a page out of Psycho’s book, Milland is abruptly killed halfway through the film, right around the time that he has begun to really follow the killer’s trail. The absolutely beautiful Dalila Di Lazzaro (Flesh for Frankenstein, Phenomena) should have starred in a lot more giallo films, but is in fine form here and delivers some solid acting as Glenda, the film’s loose protagonist. It is unclear why the film follows her and I won’t ruin it for you here. I was expected a typical giallo-style twist, where one of the many men in her life turns out to be the killer, but Mogherini is far more clever than he first seems to be.

Keep your eyes peeled for a roster of genre favorites, including the always suspicious, creepy, and oversexed Howard Ross (New York Ripper, Behind Convent Walls) to Mel Ferrer. After a prolific career in American and British films of the ‘50s and ’60s like Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and Powell and Pressburger’s Oh Rosalinda!, he inexplicably retired to European cult films like The Suspicious Death of a Minor, Eaten Alive!, and Nightmare City. Handsome Italian actor Michele Placido is convincing and sympathetic as Glenda’s jealous husband. Though he was in more mainstream than cult films, you might recognize him from giallo film Plot of Fear and Walerian Borowczyk’s Lulu (1980).

The Pyjama Girl Case is sadly underrated and deserved some renewed attention. Though gore fans will be disappointed, there are some notably unpleasant moments, including a later scene where a destitute Glenda is forced to prostitute herself and reluctantly accepts a particularly nauseating gang bang. And in an absolutely incredulous scene, the naked corpse is displayed in town behind a glass case (with what looks like a cloth bag over her burned, disfigured face) in the hopes that someone will recognize her. Instead of seeming like a sound method of detection and evidence gathering, it feels like a particularly morbid art exhibit or performance installation. Pick it up on DVD from Blue Underground and be sure to listen for an improbably electronic score from Riz Ortolani — with two songs sung by cult figure, model, and artist Amanda Lear (muse of Salvador Dali and Roxy Music). I would love to hear the story of how that collaboration came about.

Monday, June 15, 2015

THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS aka LA CASA DALLE FINESTRE CHE RIDONO

Pupi Avati, 1976
Starring: Lino Capolicchio, Francesca Marciano, Gianni Cavina, Vanna Busoni

“My colors run hot in my veins, they transcend me into darkness, they erase everything else. My colors will paint death clearly.”

An artist and art historian, Stefano, is sent to a rural village to restore the town’s church frescos. These turn out to be disturbing images of a tormented St. Sebastian painted by local legend Bruno Legnani, a mysterious figure who disappeared after some nasty rumors. Stefano attempts to learn more about Legnani, but the town soon turns against him — his friend is killed and Stefano is forced to move out of the hotel he was staying in. He takes lodging in an eerie old villa along with a beautiful new teacher, Francesca, who is helping him get to the bottom of things though it grows more dangerous for them both.

Director Pupi Avati is one of Italian cinema’s more unusual talents. In addition to co-writing the script for Pasolini’s Salo, Avati helmed The House with Laughing Windows and Zeder, something of a cross between thriller, sci-fi, and horror. The House with Laughing Windows was co-written by his brother, Antonio Avati, who also produced, and it is is one of the most unusual and effective horror films in the Italian canon. Though it is usually referred to as a giallo, the normal rules do not apply in this slow burning, dread inducing work, which has more in common with art-horror classics from the period like The Tenant, Mr. Klein, and Don’t Look Now

There are strong performances from most of the actors, particularly the handsome, earnest-looking Lino Capolicchio (The Bloodstained Shadow) in the starring role. The small town of The House with Laughing Windows is populated by inhabitants that belong in Twin Peaks, from the midget businessman to a woman who wanders around town obscured by a mourning veil, and another woman obsessed with collecting Legnani's paintings. Called the “painter of the agonies,” Legnani tortured and killed people (with the help of his two sisters) in order to use them as artistic models. Like several films that came before it — such as A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), Deep Red (1975; Avati allegedly had a hand in its script), and even British film The Asphyx (1973) — this film is the culmination of one of giallo’s major themes: the intersection of death and violence with art. Avati arguably takes this further than even Argento, as Legnani does not just draw on past traumatic memories, fantasies of violence, or stories of real-life horror to inspire his art: he creates the horror himself and his memory lives on to possess the town.

With this eerie space, Avati evokes the memory of Italian fascism. The town is ripe with postwar decay and there is a building air of paranoia and conspiracy that is enhanced by more typical horror tropes like threatening phone calls, creaky old houses, and unexplainable deaths. It seems that wherever Stefano goes, someone unseen is watching him or eavesdropping. While rural settings are less common in giallo films (A Quiet Place in the Country is an early example that would make an excellent double feature with The House with Laughing Windows), pastoral setting is perfectly captured with lovely cinematography from Pasquale Rachini, who excels at poetically framed shots. 

The Gothic feel of the film — foggy streets and crumbling villas that wouldn’t be out of place in some of Mario Bava’s works — is augmented by a minimal, repetitive piano and organ score by Amedeo Tomassi. This music essentially underlines Avati's excellent use of silence and places a visual, aural, and thematic emphasis on absence throughout the film. Avati’s most unsettling element is also aural: a disturbing recording Stefano finds of Legnani discussing his art with an obvious mania. This is repeated throughout the film to great effect. 

Fans of bizarre, unusual horror will love this slow-burning and atmospheric masterpiece. It’s dizzying, disorienting, and may be too much for some viewers expecting a standard giallo. The wonderfully ambiguous, though shocking ending will probably delight fans of Lucio Fulci and it stands as a fitting conclusion to a murky film that examines the uncomfortable intersection between horror, pain, and art. Though it was unavailable or difficult to track down for many years, there's finally a region 1 DVD from Image's wonderful Euroshock collection with a decent print and an Italian language track with optional English subtitles. Avati directed mostly non-genre films, but his few horror contributions should be more enthusiastically explored by fans of European fantasy and horror cinema.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN aka L’ASSASSINO È COSTRETTO AD UCCIDERE ANCORA

Luigi Cozzi, 1975
Starring: George Hilton, Antoine Saint-John, Femi Benussi, Cristina Galbó, Eduardo Fajardo

Giorgio and his wife Nora don’t get along — Giorgio is more interested in his mistress — but he is panicked by her threats of divorce because he’s reliant on her fortune. When he’s out late one night, he happens upon a murderer disposing of a body and makes a deal with the man that he will keep his mouth shut… if he disposes of Giorgio’s wife while Giorgio is out establishing an airtight alibi. Everything goes as planned until a joyriding teenage couple steal the killer’s car when their own runs out of gas. He is forced to chase them to the countryside, hoping to reclaim and hide the body before anyone notices.

For my money, The Killer Must Kill Again is director Luigi Cozzi’s best film, though his roots spread throughout Italian horror. He directed Starcrash (1978) and Contamination (1980), as well as episodes of Dario Argento’s short-lived TV show, Door into Darkness, and the documentary Dario Argento: Master of Horror (1991). He wrote or co-wrote Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and The Five Days of Milan (1973), as well as several of his own films and Lamberto Bava’s Devil Fish (1984). While many of these are schlocky cult efforts, particularly the films directed by Cozzi, The Killer Must Kill Again has some excellent suspense sequences and falls somewhere between giallo, exploitation, and crime film.

The early scenes where Nora is killed are quite effective, even if it is completely implausible that Giorgio would just happen to stumble across a murderer dumping a body and then decide to blackmail the killer into taking care of his own “problem.” Blackmail, spousal murder, and double-crosses are a dime a dozen in giallo films, but The Killer Must Kill Again takes things in something of a new direction when the body, hidden in the trunk of a car, wanders off with some teenagers who have casually stolen it. Laura, a teenage virgin, is going joyriding with her boyfriend to the beach, where it is implied that she’s agreed to have sex with him for the first time. The seaside setting is attractive and gloomy, though the characters are either all unlikable or under-developed.

Laura — played by lovely Spanish horror and giallo regular Cristina Galbo (La residencia, What Have You Done to Solange?) — comes close to being a genuine protagonist, but the plot lags and she is never fully developed. It’s easy to feel sorry for her, as her boyfriend (Alessio Orano of Lisa and the Devil) leaves her alone in an abandoned beach house to get some snacks and picks up a stray blonde along the way. The two soon pull over to have sex, leaving Laura to the eerie-looking, skull-faced killer (Michel Antoine of The Beyond), who graphically rapes her in a nauseating, oddly intimate scene, which is contrasted uncomfortably with her boyfriend and the blonde having sex in a car. 

Several of the later period giallo films dispense with the standard “amateur detective tries to solve a mystery and a find a killer leaving behind a string of bodies” plot, and this is part of what makes The Killer Must Kill Again so successful. It is obvious that the titular killer must catch up with the teens at some point and the film inexorable draws towards that point. The effectiveness of the film’s opening and concluding scenes is almost enough to make up for the dull mid-section. The whole thing is essentially saved by Michel Antoine, who gives a stoic, menacing, and charismatic performance as the killer and I found myself rooting for him. Handsome, charming giallo star George Hilton (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale) is sadly underused, though he’s great in his few scenes and — to no one’s surprise — gets his just desserts at the end of the film. 

Available on DVD from the great Mondo Macabro, The Killer Must Kill Again comes highly recommended. The blend of exploitation elements, sexual violence, and some blatant misogyny may be off-putting to some viewers, but — aside from the rape scene — it’s not really much worse than your average giallo film. It’s worth watching for Michel Antoine’s performance alone. His character is one of giallo’s more underrated villains, sort of a sleazy, despicable evolution of the deadpan, nihilistic assassin in film noir classic This Gun for Hire. And it has some incredible dialogue that must be heard to be believed, like "Aren't you bored of being a virgin?"

Friday, June 12, 2015

RIP Sir Christopher Lee

Yesterday I had a day of silence on my blog in the memory of Sir Christopher Lee, who passed away after 93 amazing years on Earth. I intended to write a memorial yesterday, but simply couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t already being said at an overwhelming pace online — in The Telegraph, The Independent, by a number of stars and directors, and even the Hindustan Times. And take a look at the portrait Mark Gatiss had commissioned of Lee.

Peter Jackson actually summarized Lee’s essence very well: “Christopher spoke seven languages; he was in every sense, a man of the world; well versed in art, politics, literature, history and science. He was scholar, a singer, an extraordinary raconteur and of course, a marvelous actor.” He starred in a James Bond film (The Man with the Golden Gun, one of my favorites) and was the cousin of Bond’s creator, writer Ian Fleming. He served bravely in WWII and hunted Nazis. He was distantly related to Charlemagne, upheld the spirit of old world European aristocracy, was knighted by the Queen, and released metal albums in his 80s. He got into a light saber fight with Yoda at age 79 where he apparently did his own stunts, acted in more than 200 films, modeled for Chanel, and was the only cast member of Lord of the Rings to have met J.R.R. Tolkien. He could even sing opera. And the list goes on.

I’m writing about him because of the deep and lasting impact he had on my childhood and teenage years. Along with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, Lee is part of the unholy trio of gentleman horror idols. They were great friends, all wonderful men, and were collectively responsible for some of the best horror films of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. (Coincidentally, all three men have overlapping birthdays with Cushing on May 26 and Price and Lee on May 27.) While Price passed in 1993 and Cushing died in 1994, Lee has kept the trio’s legacy alive for an additional 20 years.

Unlike Vincent Price, Lee professed a dislike for horror. Over the years he claimed that the horrors he witnessed during WWII numbed him to screen scares and he said that the reason he worked so tirelessly was to support his wife, Danish model Birgit Kroencke (of her, he said that the trick to a happy marriage is to “Marry someone wonderful, as I did”), and daughter. His unusual height of 6’5” and dark, stern if handsome looks are likely responsible for Lee’s frequent casting as villains and monsters. But despite it all, he always had a sense of style, grace, and intelligence.

As I’ve written about in the past, my role models, for whatever reason, tend to be gay or bisexual men. Undoubtedly, Lee ranks high among my heterosexual male role models and in many ways, i grew up thinking of him, Price, and Cushing, as paragons of masculinity. I spent hours watching their films in my youth and, in my early 30s, I continue to revisit their work every month. For example, just in the last two weeks, I’ve watched Lee in The Last Unicorn and Horror Express. Hercules in the Haunted World, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Dracula A.D. 1972 are among the films I watch every year. And, like Lee, I make it a point to re-read Lord of the Rings annually, or at least every two years.

Last July, a few days before my birthday, my grandfather passed away. He raised me and his influence was profound. His sense of manners, belief in human decency, and reliance on intelligence and rationality is something that seems to me to be part of a fading generation. In many ways, the passing of my grandfather, Leonard Nimoy in February of 2015, and now Lee feels like the ultimate dividing line between my youth and adulthood. Their generation is nearly gone and their loss reminds me — this is cliched but true — that time is bitterly limited. 

Not a single one of us is going to be as amazing or badass as Sir Lee, but we can all at least try a little harder to aspire to such towering heights of greatness. And when we miss him, as I do so much these last two days, we can always visit and re-visit his vast body of work. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been planning a comprehensive British horror series for my blog (some 150 films) and I will get started on that sooner, rather than later, to spend a little more time with some of my heroes. Today I’m consoling myself with some gems from his early years — The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Alias John Preston, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Corridors of Blood, and The Hound of the Baskervilles — and I welcome you to watch along with me. If you have cable, follow TCM's upcoming memorial schedule.

Rest in peace, Sir. Your memory is cherished, you're more loved than you knew, and you will be missed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER aka NUDE PER L’ASSASSINO

Andrea Bianchi, 1975
Starring: Solvi Stubing, Nino Castelnuovo, Edwige Fenech

After a young model dies during an illegal abortion, a murderer closes in on the Albatross Modeling Agency and begins picking off models and photographers alike. Carlo and his girlfriend Magda, both agency photographers, try to track down the killer before they become victims themselves. Unfortunately they have to contend with a number of suspicious personalities, including the predatory owner, her lascivious though impotent husband, and backstabbing models — plus it seems that everyone at the agency is having a secret affair. And every time they seem to hone in on a suspect, he or she is immediately killed.

Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude for Your Killer is an overtly sadistic, almost hilariously misogynistic example of a late period giallo film. While critics are generally divided on it, I find it to be a lot of fun. The film doesn’t do much to hide the identity of its killer — though I won’t give it away here — and a murderer disguised by motorcycle attire was also used in What Have They Done to Your Daughters? Strip Nude for Your Killer actually bears a few things in common with director Massimo Dallamano’s schoolgirl trilogy (What Have You Done to Solange?, What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, and Rings of Fear) in the sense that an abortion plays a central role (like Solange) and perverse sexuality oozes throughout the film.

The film’s incredibly sleazy characters include Patrizia, the agency owner, who is married to the pudgy, useless Maurizio for reasons never explained by the script. Both husband and wife aggressively pursue the same models, though Patrizia is more often successful and seems to have her pick of the newer models. The pathetic Maurizio attempts to seduce, cajole, buy off, and then rape a model who he manages to get alone. When she finally consents, mid-rape, he is unable to perform and either can’t sustain an erection or suffers from premature ejaculation. Soon after, he is dispatched by the killer while romancing a blow up doll.

And Carlo, the film’s hero — if he can be called that — is the biggest lout of them all. He brings new models into the business by seducing beautiful women, though he has a relationship with another photographer, Madga (the beautiful Edwige Fenech with uncharacteristically short hair). Carlo’s idea of a job interview is sex with a prospective model, and SPOILER, he is perhaps ironically the one responsible for the dead model’s pregnancy and subsequently lethal abortion. Amazingly, the film ends with Carlo and Magda in bed, speculating on the killer’s motives. In less than 30 seconds, he suggests an incestuous relationship between two of the other characters and then informs Magda that as birth control, they should engage in anal sex — the implied beginning of which closes the film.

The plot of Strip Nude for Your Killer is flimsy at best — it almost doesn’t matter what the murderer’s motivation is — and this is another rare case of a luridly titled giallo that delivers on its promises. There is a lot of nudity from both male and female characters, as well as plenty of depravity — almost so much so that the film borders on the farcical or comical at times. The male and female characters are shown on relatively equal terms, as exploited and exploiters, and the film’s sadism can be seen as a link from giallo films to the slasher that would emerge a few years later with Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). The murders are set up in somewhat of a stalk and slash fashion. Though there aren’t a lot of suspenseful chase sequences, the killer always manages to appear in pre- and post-coital moments when characters are nude or scantily clad.

Director Andrea Bianchi, writer Massimo Felisatti, and cinematographer Franco Delli Colli worked together several times over the years. Bianchi’s greatest film, and certainly is most well known, is the incredible Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981), while Delli Colli is known for everything from The Last Man on the Earth to Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot!, What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, Macabre, Rats: Night of Terror, Ghosthouse, and more. Felisatti penned a handful of giallo films including The Weekend Murders and The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. He allegedly didn’t want to be directly associated with Strip Nude for Your Killer and initial credit went directly to Bianchi.

Strip Nude for Your Killer is likely to offend some more PC film fans, but I found it to be incredibly fun — though admittedly I prefer my giallo films on the sleazy side. Amazingly, it was released on a very affordable Blu-ray from Blue Underground. It comes recommended, though probably not to giallo beginners. Fans of Edwige Fenech will definitely want to check this out; despite her demure bob and her character’s somewhat innocent personality, she spends much of her screen time scantily clad or in flagrante delicto.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

AUTOPSY aka MACCHIE SOLARI

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.