Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006)

Born in 1923 in western Poland, director Walerian Borowczyk made more than 40 films between 1946 and 1988. Like fellow directors Roman Polanski, Andrzej Zuławski, and Jerzy Skolimowski, Borowczyk was forced to relocate in 1959 — moving to Paris, where he made most of his films — and can thus be considered more of an international talent than a strictly Polish one. Borowczyk got his training as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and produced some celebrated work as a designer, perhaps ironically, of film posters, essentially founding a whole movement of Polish poster art. This painterly sensibility is evident throughout his work and his training as an artist led to some innovative techniques in his short films, including animation, stop-motion (and reverse stop-motion), and cut up photographs.

By and large, Borowczyk’s films fall into three categories: his experimental work, namely his short films and first animated feature, Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theater; his tragic melodramas with social and political themes including Goto, Island of Love, Blanche, The Story of Sin, The Streetwalker, and Lulu; and his irreverent erotic works like Immoral Tales, The Beast, Behind Convent Walls, Immoral Women, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, Art of Love, and Love Rites.

His body of work includes common themes. For instance, he was fond of historical settings, ranging from Ancient Rome to the Middle Ages and the 16th and 19th centuries — only a handful of his films were set in present day, such as The Streetwalker. He also used a wealth of literary adaptions from Guy de Maupassant to Stendhal, Prosper Mérimée, and Frank Wedekind, though he most faithfully returned to the work of contemporary French novelist and Surrealist André Pieyre de Mandiargues, who provided the source material for episodes of Immoral Tales and Immoral Women, as well as The Streetwalker and Love Rites.

While I wouldn’t directly call Borowczyk a Surrealist, his use of Dadaism, unexpected humor, social criticism, and a disdain for cultural conventions at least places him in the same church, in a nearby pew. His early films like Goto, Blanche, and The Streetwalker appealed to art house crowds and cinema snobs, while his luxuriant, often unconventional use of eroticism soon scared them away. Some of his films do feature extreme subject matter, such as incest, bestiality, rape, and murder, but above all he used sexual abandon as the symbol for ultimate freedom, albeit chaotic, potentially destructive freedom. As in the works of the Marquis de Sade, desire and its fulfillment often leads to torment and violence, a constant theme present in nearly every single one of Borowczyk’s feature films. Again like Sade, sex and death are inextricably linked with Borowczyk’s anti-bourgeois sentiment and his characters are often liberated from social mores and restrictions through death.

But this sense of tragedy and often outright nihilism is also redeemed by his use of humor, whimsy, and fantasy, and —above all — his celebration of the female form. Like fellow cult director Jess Franco, Borowczyk’s erotic films are often lumped in with other, lesser exploitation fare. But there is little about his work that is mean-spirited, judgmental, or openly exploitative of women. Instead, his protagonists and heroes are generally female, frequently played by his muses: first, his wife, Polish beauty Ligia Branice, and later fiery Italian actress Marina Pierro. Women’s passion and pleasure is often the name of the game in his films and there are occasionally anti-erotic moments where pleasure is denied the male characters — and the male gaze of the audience. Women are definitely exploited in his films, but only because they are inherently exploited by society. Many of his characters subvert this and/or use it to their advantage.

Though Borowczyk passed away in Paris in 2006, at the not quite ripe age of 82, his work has thankfully seen a revival in recent years. When I first discovered The Beast and Behind Convent Walls as a teen, it was difficult to find legitimate releases of his films with quality prints and legible subtitles. In part, this series was made possible by the tireless (and recent) work of some devoted Borowczyk scholars, and this month I’ll have the pleasure of interviewing writers and curators Daniel Bird and Michael Brooke. 

Arrow Films, with the help of Bird and Brooke, released a fantastic box set comprised of shorts and early films late last year, the woefully out-of-print (though the individual films are available in single-disc editions) Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection. This year they’ve put out an award-winning release of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, and hopefully more titles will follow. And in April of this year, I had the pleasure of attending much of the Lincoln Center’s New York Borowczyk retrospective, Obscure Pleasures: The Films of Walerian Borowczyk.

This much deserved celebration is the culmination of gradual attention and critical acclaim that has grown steadily since the ‘90s. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs first wrote about Borowczyk in the excellent Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, which was followed by mentions in other books and magazines. His films began to trickle onto DVD in the mid-2000s and, perhaps unsurprisingly, filmmakers like Terry Gilliam have discussed him as an influence. I’m just delighted that this beloved director is getting some more recognition and that almost his complete body of work is now available to fans. I hope, if you’re not already watching his films obsessively, that this series will inspire you to do so.

The Short Films:
If you’ve ever wondered where Gilliam got his hilarious, often brilliant mix of cut and paste, animation, and stop motion used in Monty Python, look no further. Borowczyk’s surreal, experimental early works are full of brief glimpses of his genius. Shorts like Dom, made with the collaboration of Polish artist Jan Lenica, Les Astronautes with the alleged collaboration (and at least support) of Chris Marker, and the devastating, WWII-themed Les jeux des anges are must-see works. While not all Borowczyk’s shorts, commercials, and later TV episodes are yet available, Arrow has included most of them in their fabulous box set.

Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal aka Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre (1967)
Strange, surreal, and often hilarious, Borowczyk’s first feature was this deeply personal and experimental animated tale. Though there is only a loose story structure, it follows the life of seeming opposites Mr. and Mrs. Kabal — and a whole lot of butterflies — in their very chaotic house and through a series of adventures to the beach, the movies, and a concert hall. Though all his features going forward were narrative-driven, live action works, Kabal’s themes of sexuality, the grotesque, and the difficulties of love would reappear again and again.

Goto, l'île d’amour aka Goto, Island of Love (1969)
Borowczyk’s first live-action feature is this tale of doomed love and tragic passion. Goto, the dictator of a small island, is obsessed with his beautiful wife (played by Borowczyk’s own wife, Ligia Branice). But tragedy strikes when he discovers she is being unfaithful to him with an officer of the court who manages Goto’s horses and gives his wife riding lessons. This is set in motion by Grozo, a worker on the terrifying, Kafkaesque island, who has his own designs on seizes power. It is no wonder Borowczyk relocated to France to make his films, as this grotesque, comic treatise on the evils of absolute power and totalitarian regimes would surely have gotten him sent to prison in communist Poland.

Blanche (1972)
This beautiful yet melancholic medieval tragedy was the director’s third feature film and the second to star his wife, Ligia Branice, as an elderly lord's innocent young wife  and prized possession. She becomes the object of amorous attentions when the visiting King and the King’s wily servant set their designs on her. But Blanche truly loves the lord’s son — an honorable man close to her own age — but tragedy strikes after a series of miscommunications and unfortunate events. This poetic tale lacks the eroticism or violence of Borowczyk’s future films, but this poetic melodrama garnered him critical acclaim with the art house crowd.

Contes immoraux aka Immoral Tales (1974)
Borowczyk’s breakout erotic hit was this lush, gorgeous anthology film that relates the sexually explicit stories of four women in different historical periods. In “The Tide,” set in modern day France, two teenage cousins take an amorous trip to the beach. “Therese Philosophe” follows a Belle Epoque-era teen who discovers her sexually while locked in her bedroom with some old books. The final two, “Erzsebet Bathory” and “Lucrezia Borgia,” are sexually-focused adaptations of the two controversial historical women. While Borowczyk was critically panned for this release, it did well in the box office — the only other erotic film to outrank it during the period was Emmanuelle — and set the tone for several of his future films.

La bête aka The Beast (1975)
The film that nearly ruined Borowczyk but also put him on the cult film map is this irreverent, humorous, and unabashedly sexual classic. A young heiress agrees to marry the son of a failing aristocratic family, unaware that he is a poor match. She is determined to proceed if only to gain freedom from her restrictive family and she fantasizes about tales of a menacing beast that ravishes ladies in the countryside. A subversive, modern fairytale, it is similar to Immortal Tales, if far more daring, and remains his most iconic film thanks to lush shots of the French countryside, elaborate period costumes, and shots of a hairy beast with an enormous prosthetic penis having its way with a fresh-faced, nude young woman who resists at first, but soon gives in to her own desires and conquers the beast.

Dzieje grzechu aka The Story of Sin (1975)
Borowczyk returned to Poland to make this unexpected masterpiece that was nominated for a Palme d’Or (but lost to Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire). Based on a novel by Stefan Żeromski, this film about a young woman’s forbidden love for her parents’ married boarder — which leads her to run away from home, wander Europe, and turn to prostitution and infanticide — touches many of the director’s major themes. This beautifully shot period piece is a tragic exploration of unfettered passion, the female drive for personal and sexual freedom, and the violent reprisal of an unforgiving world.

La marge aka The Streetwalker (1976)
The themes of The Story of Sin are continued in this little seen masterpiece. Andy Warhol protege and cult icon Joe Dallesandro (Blood for Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein) stars as a family man on a business trip in Paris who falls for a prostitute — played by the glorious Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame — before events descend into tragedy. Thanks to a fantastic soundtrack that includes songs from 10CC, Elton John, and Pink Floyd, I’m sure it won’t see the light of day on region 1 or 2 DVD or Blu-ray anytime soon, which is a real crime, as this is my new favorite of Borowczyk’s films.

Interno di un convento aka Behind Convent Walls (1978)
A personal favorite, Borowczyk’s nunsploitation film is among his most beautiful — and his most banned. Based on Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome (aka Roman Walks), the film follows the goings on at an Italian convent. A bevy of often naked, horny nuns enact their inevitable desires to the chagrin of the controlling Mother Superior, while political intrigue brews and a poisoner is afoot. Fascinatingly, this marks the last performance of Borowczyk’s stunning wife and muse, Ligia Branice, and the first performance (for Borowczyk) of his second and final muse, Marina Pierro. 

Les héroïnes du mal aka Immoral Women (1979)
This film is the second of Borowczyk’s erotic anthologies and includes three somewhat uneven tales of women throughout history. In Renaissance-era Rome, the painter Raphael’s muse sets in motion a Machiavellian and ultimately violent plot to gain her freedom. The second story, set in 18th century France, follows a teenager and her pet rabbit. When her parents permanently separate her from the beloved creature, she gets her revenge. Finally, in a modern day city, a woman is kidnapped and held for ransom. When her husband does little to save her, her dog springs into action. Unlike Immoral Tales, this trio is concerned with more than just sex, as each woman enacts bloody revenge at the end of her particular story.

Lulu (1980)
This largely ignored film is an adaptation of a two-part play from German writer Frank Wedekind, Erdgeist (1895, aka Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904, aka Pandora’s Box), more famously adapted by Pabst as Pandora’s Box (1929). The central character, known as Lulu, makes her way through husbands and romantic partners, falling from the heights of German society to the gutter, where she has a fateful meeting with Jack the Ripper. Though not one of Borowczyk’s classics — and hard to find for English-speaking audiences — this film has some enjoyable surprises, such as the appearance of Udo Kier as Saucy Jack. And frankly I'm just delighted that there's another Wedekind adaptation out there in the world, let alone one from one of my favorite directors.

Docteur Jekyll et les femmes aka The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)
Borowczyk’s last masterpiece and one of his best films is this loose adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s classic horror novel. Udo Kier stars as the young, handsome Dr. Jekyll, who is celebrating his recent engagement to Miss Osbourne (Marina Pierro). But he keeps disappearing from the party to tend to his recent experiments, where he transforms into a violent, sex-crazed being that leaves behind a rising toll of victims. And instead of succumbing to the horror, Miss Osbourne is determined to join in on the fun herself in this poetic celebration of unrestrained lust and human perversion.

Ars amandi aka Art of Love (1983)
In ancient Rome, the poet Ovid teaches a class on love and seduction. One of his students, Cornelius, has his eye on Claudia, the bored young wife of a centurion. While the soldier is away at war, she and Cornelius begin an affair with the assistant of her housemaid, though things take a tragic turn. I really wanted to love this film, but it is admittedly a bit of a clunker, particularly after the heights reached by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne.

Emmanuelle 5 (1987)
And speaking of clunkers, this Emmanuelle sequel is easily the worst thing with Borowczyk’s name attached to it, though it would be a stretch to really call it his film at all; he only directed a few sequences before wisely abandoning ship. Absolutely terrible actress Monique Gabrielle stars as Emmanuelle. She is chased — and stripped nude — by adoring fans at the Cannes film festival, and is rescued by the chance intervention of a billionaire aboard a yacht. They begin a passionate affair, but Emmanuelle follows her whims to a third world country, where a totalitarian dictator promises to further her career. Cue the same dated sex scene over and over and over again. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Cérémonie d’amour aka Love Rites (1987)
The director’s final film is this interesting tale of a vain man who aggressively pursues a beautiful woman (Marina Pierro in her final role in a feature, though she has recently begun directing short films) on the subway. They soon begin a sexual relationship, but it is far more than the man bargained for. This surreal, dreamy, S&M-fueled film is fortunately in line with Lulu and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. It’s a solid note for the end of a great career and includes many of Borowczyk’s themes about female agency, social repression, and the freedom — and violence — that comes with abandoning all restraint.

In my opinion, the writer who best sums up Borowczyk's works -- though he's not actually writing about the director at all -- is literary critic, novelist, and philosopher Georges Bataille. I'll leave you with a quotes from Eroticism: Death and Sensuality:

“In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation. Not only do we find in the uneasy transitions of organisms engaged in reproduction the same basic violence which in physical eroticism leaves us gasping, but we also catch the inner meaning of that violence. What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? — a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?” --Georges Bataille

Monday, June 29, 2015

STAGEFRIGHT aka DELIRIA


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


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.