Friday, May 22, 2015

Sergio Martino

Slightly more obscure than the big names of Italian horror like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci, writer, director, and producer Sergio Martino is a name that all genre film fans should know. Born in 1938, Martino made a bloody splash in the ‘70s with a number of fantastic giallo films like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, All the Colors of the Dark, and Torso. His career, which spans more than forty years, covers a wide range of genres, including horror, exploitation, adventure, spaghetti westerns, sci-fi, crime drama, war films, and erotic comedies. Martino’s versatile and prolific career is worthy of celebration, particularly for fans of cult and B-movies.

Martino got his start assistant directing on films like Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963) and Brunello Rondi’s The Demon (1963). His own early films include mondo “documentaries” America un giorno (1970), America così nuda, America così violent (1970) aka Naked and Violent (1970), and Mille peccati… Nessuna virtù (1971) aka Wages of Sin aka Mondo Sex. Mondo film were exploitative pseudo-documentaries that became popular in Italy in the ‘60s and focused on taboo subjects like sex, death, drug use, counter culture, and foreign societies, all from an extremely conservative point of view with a mean-spirited, sensationalist spin.

Martino’s first fictional feature was Arizona si scatenò… e li fece fuori tutti (1970) aka Arizona Cult Returns, a western penned by prolific genre writer Ernesto Gastaldi. This was the beginning of a long, fruitful collaboration between the two. This typical spaghetti western follows Arizona (Anthony Steffen), a lazy bounty hunter out to clear his name with the help of his sidekick, Double Whiskey, when they are set up for a robbery. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Martino stuck primarily to common Italian cult subgenres, including spaghetti westerns, giallo films, animals attack movies, and post-apocalyptic road movies, though he gave each film his own unique spin.

His first giallo film, Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh (1971) aka The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, is also one of his best. It includes an ensemble Martino would work with regularly throughout his career: writer Ernesto Gastaldi, dashing giallo regular George Hilton, sexpot Edwige Fenech, and the wonderfully villainous Ivan Rassimov, who was discovered by Mario Bava for Planet of the Vampires. With no shortage of nudity, perversion, and blood, the film follows a new bride’s complicated love life, which is somehow connected with the activities of a serial killer.

La code dello scorpione (1971) aka The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, marked the return of George Hilton for a winding tale about a business man who dies in a plane crash. His unfaithful wife Lisa (giallo regular Ida Galli) is targeted as a suspect because she’s going to inherit a million dollars. She’s blackmailed by a heroin-addicted ex-lover and pursued by the insurance company’s private detective (played by Hilton). Like The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, this contains themes of marital infidelity and sexual betrayal, blackmail,  jet-setting around Europe, layers of red herrings, and a black-gloved killer murdering those in his path.

Edwige Fenech’s role in Mrs. Wardh — a beautiful woman with a traumatic past, dark secrets, and an inability to keep her clothes on — was essentially reprised for Tutti i colori del buio (1972) aka All the Colors of the Dark aka They’re Coming to Get You. Here she is pushed to the brink of insanity as she’s stalked by a mysterious man who turns up in her dreams. Again using the writing talent of Ernesto Gastaldi, All the Colors of the Dark treads similar territory as Mrs. Wardh, but pushes it to Satanic, psychedelic extremes. This giallo by way of Rosemary’s Baby is an excellent blend of suspense, gore, the occult, and a very sexy woman’s descent into madness. 

Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972) aka Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is loosely based on Poe’s story “The Black Cat” and teams up Fenech, giallo-regular Anita Strindberg, and Ivan Rassimov. Chock full of psychosexual activity, incest, hidden corpses, murder, abuse, lesbianism, red herrings, and a black cat named Satan, this might be hard to watch for giallo newcomers because of the complete absence of any likable characters. Like Martino’s earlier works, it is full of paranoia, betrayal, and sexual obsession, though this time the sex and nudity far outweigh the gore.

Martino’s next film, I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (1973) aka Torso is perhaps his most famous. Again written by Ernesto Gastaldi, a man obviously incapable of using brevity with film titles, the film’s literal translation is The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence. A mysterious killer is strangling students in Rome and the only clue is a red and black scarf. After some of her friends are murdered, an American exchange student named Jane flees to an isolated country villa with some of her friends. Unfortunately for them, the killer has come along for the trip. Sleazy, violent and mildly gory, Torso starts slow, but builds to violent, suspenseful finale. 

Martino followed his giallo films with a number of commercial sex comedies, which were very popular in Italy in the early ‘70s — in films like Giovannona Long-Thigh (1973), High School Girl (1974), La bellissima estate (1974), Spogliamoci così senza pudor (1976), and Sex with a Smile (1976). He also began to focus on police procedurals (known as poliziotteschi) during this period. These combine of crime and action, often with police or investigators as the central characters. Inspired by films like Dirty Harry, they are usually full of tough cops, mobsters, car chases, gunfights, and plenty of violence.

His first, Milano Treme: La polizia vole giustizia (1973) aka The Violent Professionals was written by Ernesto Gastaldi and concerns Lieutenant Giorgio Caneparo (Luc Merenda), who has vowed to get vengeance for his boss’s death at the hands of an organized crime gang. He goes undercover in a pimping ring until he works his way up to the inner circle, where he is determined to take down the whole organization. Martino followed this with La città gioca d’azzardo (1975) aka Gambling City, and La polizia accusa: Il servizio segreto uccide (1975) aka Silent Auction, both with Luc Merenda.

A cross between poliziotteschi and giallo, Morte sospetta di una minorenne (1975) aka The Suspicious Death of a Minor was written by Gastaldi and Martino and, in my opinion, is the beginning of the end in terms of Martino’s golden period of horror/crime films. A detective meets a mysterious, beautiful woman who is carrying a dark secret — she has been forced into prostitution. Their worlds collide when she turns up dead and he begins investigating, only to uncover more corpses and a ring of intrigue. Part giallo, part police procedural, and, inexplicably, part comedy, this film feels the most like a poliziotteschi, but may be of interest to giallo completists.

The late ‘70s brought films in a wider array of genres, including the spaghetti western A Man Called Blade (1977), about a bounty hunter’s search for a missing girl, and more sex comedies like anthology Saturday, Sunday, and Friday (1979), La moglie in vacanza… L’amante in città (1980), Sugar, Honey, and Pepper (1980), Spaghetti a mezzanotte (1981), and several more. Most of these starred Fenech and/or Barbara Bouchet.

Martino also made some cult/horror films in this period, including the enjoyable La montanga del rio cannibale (1978) aka The Mountain of the Cannibal God. Bond girl Ursula Andress perhaps surprisingly stars in this movie that is best grouped with the other sleazy, violent cannibal films of the period like Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, Jungle Holocaust, Zombie Holocaust, and Man from Deep River — nearly all of which have graphic animal cruelty, nudity, exploitation, racism, and bad taste, though I think Martino’s entry is slightly tamer than it’s mean-spirited brethren. A woman travels to the jungles of New Guinea to search for her missing anthropologist husband, but her team gets kidnapped by cannibals. 

Partly famous because of its star and partly because of its ranking as a video nasty in the UK, where it was banned, The Mountain of the Cannibal God is a decent, if average example of the genre. It suffers from the standard poor acting and plodding middle section, though it is a beautiful film with some great set design, namely the cannibals’ altar. I think it is impossible for Martino to make a film, even a mediocre one, that doesn’t have some degree of visual flair. This was the beginning of Martino’s loose trilogy of jungle adventure films, which includes L’isola deli uomini pesce (1979) aka Island of the Fishmen and Il fiume del grande caimano (1970) aka The Great Alligator.

Island of the Fishmen is a confusing yet entertaining attempt at sci-fi, horror, and adventure rolled into one big fishy, mutated film. Barbara Bach (yet another Bond girl) appears in this film about a ship of prisoners stranded on a mysterious island. When they begin disappearing, the ship’s doctor figures out that a mad scientist is creating and experimenting on fish-human hybrids. This acquired taste includes monsters, voodoo priestess, booby traps, castaways, convicts, and a mad scientist (a startling appearance by Joseph Cotten), but it is definitely campy and cheesy with bad acting galore. This Italian riff on The Island of Dr. Moreau was supposedly filmed on the same set as Fulci’s Zombie and also shares actor Richard Johnson (who thought it was OK to name a child Dick Johnson?). 

Barbara Bach returned for The Great Alligator, an absolutely mess of a film about a man-eating croc on the loose in an African (I think) tourist resort/theme park, gulping down rich white people like it’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The locals believe the croc is the manifestation of a god reacting to the invasion of tourists and rise up to drive them from the area once and for all. It is unlikely they will survive the combination of bloodthirsty locals and ravenous crocodilian. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi and the amazing George Eastman, The Great Alligator feels like one of the many flawed Italian Jaws rip-offs, this time with a croc instead of a shark. Like so many other monster movies, it is ridiculous and unintentionally funny: for instance, the mix of “natives” and animals that are obviously in no way from the African jungle or, for that matter, from the same part of the planet whatsoever. 

Martino followed these up with Assassinio al cimitero Etrusco (1982) aka The Scorpion with Two Tales, sort of an occult horror film. An archaeologist's wife begins having strange dreams about the past goings-on at an Etruscan temple, one that her husband coincidentally recently discovered. When he is violently murdered, it is up to her to travel to the temple and uncover the truth. Zzzzz. Despite an appearance by (my favorite) John Saxon, this is a consistently dull film with a leading cast that is barely going through the motions. This belongs in a double feature with Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, which is basically the meanest thing I could ever say about a movie — though the constant showers of maggots somewhat redeem the film.

The next genre Martino tackled was the post-apocalyptic film with 2019: Dopo la caduta di New York (1983) aka 2019: After the Fall of New York. Parsifal, a mercenary, sets out on a mission to rescue the last fertile woman on earth. Along with some bad-ass sidekicks, he hops on a motorcycle and heads to New York to find her. Like so much other Italian cinema of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, 2019 is ripe with borrowed scenes — some of the best moments from Mad Max 2, Escape from New York, and even Bronx Warriors — combined with some themes from a few US sci-fi blockbusters. It also shares cast and crew members with Endgame, The New Barbarians, and Bronx Warriors

In the mid-‘80s Martino churned out a bunch of random, mediocre films that will unlikely be of interest to horror or cult cinema fans. There are comedies like Se tutto va bene siamo rovinati (1983), fantasy film Occhio, malocchio, prezzemolo e finocchio (1983), and football comedy L’allenatore nel pallaone (1984), among others. Martino also began working in television with made-for-TV films like Doppio misto (1986) and episodes of crime drama series Caccia al ladro d’autore

His final cult film of the ‘80s was Vendetta dal futuro (1986) aka Hands of Steel, another successfully entertaining post-apoc mash up. A cyborg killing machine, Paco, is sent to bump off a scientist, but fails to do so when his human emotions unexpectedly kick in. Instead, he moves into a motel owned by the sexy Linda and begins a career as a champion arm-wrestler. Yes, you read that right. Then John Saxon, in a cameo as the evil industrialist who hired Paco in the first place, hunts him down to make him finish the job (or just finish him). This companion piece to 2019 is ludicrous but enjoyable and is unashamed to throw in as much action and as little sense as possible, particularly in the explosive second half. 

Here Martino is billed as Martin Dolman and though he co-wrote the film with Ernesto Gastaldi, the screenwriting credits reads like a phone book of Italian horror writers. In addition to Martino, Gastaldi and a few random names, you will unexpectedly find Elisa Briganti (A Blade in the Dark, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, House by the Cemetery, Zombie) and the great Dardano Sacchetti, who has penned too many Italian horror films for me to even bother listing any. You should know who he is. Also unexpectedly, there’s a score by Argento regular Claudio Simonetti. 

In the late ‘80s, Martino did a lot of TV work, comedies, and dramas, including made-for-TV movie Un’australiana a Roma (1987), featuring a very young Nicole Kidman, The Opponent (1988), a boxing comedy with a cameo by Ernest Borgnine, and Casablanca Express (1989), a WWII action flick with Donald Pleasance. Martino’s career began to wind down in the ‘90s, including erotic thrillers like Spiando Marina (1992), about a hit-man’s affair with a prostitute. He finally reunited with Edwige Fenech — as well as giallo regulars Alida Valli and Ray Lovelock — with mystery/suspense TV mini-series Delitti privati (1993), which has been favorably described as a less-surreal, gialloesque Italian Twin Peaks. He also made a final, giallo-like film, Mozart è un assassino (1999), where a violinist is murdered, unleashing a string of mysterious deaths in a conservatory. The police inspector has his eye on a music professor, but all is not as it seems. A black gloved killer is roaming the halls, picking the students off one at a time. I can’t say that I actually recommend it, but as far as final films go, it is far cry from, say, the final years of Lucio Fulci.

Though his output has slowed in the last decade, he has continued to direct TV movies — primarily crime films — as well as crime drama Carabinieri, a TV series based on the famed Italian national police force. Many of his films have fortunately found their way to DVD and have been celebrated by cult movie fans and critics around the globe. I’m still waiting on a book solely devoted to Martino or a special edition Blu-ray box set of his giallo or exploitation films, but hopefully a company like Arrow will come along and give him the celebration he’s due.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT’S EYE aka LA MORTE NEGLI OCCHI DEL GATTO

Antonio Margheriti, 1973
Starring: Jane Birkin, Kiram Keller, Serge Gainsbourg, Anton Diffring, Françoise Christophe

“Are you excited by all the blood that’s been flowing around here?”

Corringa, a beautiful young schoolgirl, has returned to her family’s Scottish castle to visit her mother during the holidays. Unbeknownst to her, her arrival is being watched from a tall window by a gorilla, which marks the beginning of a series of strange, increasingly violent events. Her mother and her aunt, Lady Mary, try to keep her from meeting her cousin, Lord James, who is allegedly insane. But he and Corringa develop a fascination for one another, which leads to a sexual relationship. Meanwhile, someone is slashing throats in the castle and Aunt Mary is trying to maneuver Corringa’s inheritance away from her. Will Corringa be the next victim?

This absolutely fun and unabashedly ridiculous film was written and directed by Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony Dawson), one of the forerunners of Italian horror alongside Mario Bava. Margheriti made a number of well-regarded Gothic horror films in the ‘60s, such as Horror Castle, Castle of Blood, and The Long Hair of Death before turning to peplum and then every conceivable genre of cult film (sci-fi, cannibal, animals attack, crime, sword and sorcery, etc.). He also joined Bava in releasing a Gothic pseudo-giallo at the tail end of the genre’s 1971 and 1972 boom. While Bava’s Baron Blood (1972) deals with overtly occult themes, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye shares its castle setting, bold colors, ‘70s fashions, and patently silly dialogue.

A particularly fluffy cat watches all the murders and even engages in some corpse-eating action – it’s also implied for much of the film that the cat is somehow responsible for the deaths. Now, it would be extreme to say that I hate cats, but I’m simply not a cat person and I really can’t figure out why Margheriti thought that this device would be a good idea within a horror film. It’s also difficult for me to see fluffy, grumpy-looking cats without thinking of Blofeld and his absurd feline friend in the early James Bond films. On the other hand, it could be that Margheriti is introducing an element of parody, as in the film he depicts violence committed by bats, rats, the aforementioned cat, and an ape – named James, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be a gorilla or an orangutan. The latter is an obvious nod to Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” where an ape murders people with a straight razor, the weapon of choice here. I really think Margheriti is just mocking the flood of animal-themed titles like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Black Belly of the Tarantula, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, and so on. At least I hope he is.

The best thing about the film is the appearance of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Pop icon, model, and sort-of-actress Jane Birkin (she was also interestingly in Antonioni’s giallo predecessor, Blow-Up) was in a long-time relationship with French musical genius Serge Gainsbourg – their union produces a number of great songs, the wonderful anal sex drama Je t’aime moi non plus (1976) that Gainsbourg directed, and actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. While Jane pleasantly phones her way through the film, Gainsbourg is the real gem. Serge has a dubbed Scottish accent for the few scenes he appears in as the head police inspector, which nearly made me fall out of my chair. He’s just incredible. He doesn’t even need to try.

There are some other welcome performances. Doris Kunstmann (Funny Games) appears as a saucy a French teacher was hired to seduce Lord James (Fellini Satyricon’s Hiram Keller), but is really shacking up with the castle’s doctor/psychiatrist – who in turn is somewhat reluctantly having an affair with Aunt Mary. The doctor is played by Anton Diffring, so if you’re tired of seeing him cast as a Nazi, here he’s actually got some ambiguity and even – gasp – some sex scenes. In a fun twist on Victorian mores, the castle’s inhabitants gradually reveal their dirty secrets and perversions. The larger subplot about a destitute Aunt Mary, the castle’s heir, trying to marry her insane, inbred son off to his wealthy cousin reminded me a lot of Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975), though sadly Birkin does not have sexual relations with James the Gorilla.

The worst I can really say about Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye is that the conclusion is dissatisfying and doesn’t do justice to the rest of the proceedings. While some other giallo films use the supernatural as a cover for a human killer, such as The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye uses its Gothic trappings as something of a red herring. Instead of a ghost, the family curse – vampirism – is potentially to blame for all the murders, but this is sadly cast aside in the final act. 

Regardless, there’s still plenty to look forward to: accidental bible burning, nightmares, potential vampirism, a missing corpse, a dank crypt, a pleasant soundtrack from Riz Ortolani, and some lovely, stylish set pieces. Though this was clearly not filmed in Scotland, Marghariti makes the best of the packed Gothic set dressings inside the castle. All in all, it has the best elements of Gothic literary bodice rippers and Margheriti’s earlier Italian Gothic horror films, a dash of Edgar Allen Poe, Serge Gainsbourg, and just enough giallo elements to land this in the genre. Available on DVD, it comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER aka LA MORTE HA SORRISO ALL’ASSASSINO

Joe D'Amato, 1973
Starring: Ewa Aulin, Klaus Kinski, Angela Bo

After an accident that kills her driver, a lost young woman named Greta arrives at a mansion in the countryside. The married couple living in the house takes her in and become somewhat obsessed with her. Eva, the woman of the house, becomes enraged when she learns that her husband is cheating on her with Greta. She tries to kill Greta, but they begin an affair. When Greta won’t be faithful to her, Eva bricks her up in a catacomb below the house, but then sees Greta at a masquerade party. Meanwhile, a doctor who lives nearby performs disturbing experiments and discovers a formula that will awaken the dead and bring them shuffling back to life.

There is nothing quite like director Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles on a Murderer, which I absolutely adore. I would say that this film is certainly worthy of repeat viewings – just because I like it so much -- but in actuality multiple screenings are probably necessary just for you to figure out what the hell is going on with the plot. At times, the story is incredibly hard to follow, but somehow that doesn’t take away from the film. While any number of giallo films are described as dreamlike – which is basically cinephile code for a movie’s lack of narrative logic and/or an insistence on style over substance – Death Smiles on a Murderer probably takes the cake in this department.

This surprisingly bleak, serious meditation on sex and death can only loosely be called a giallo film. SPOILERS: What I believe is happening with the plot is that Greta is reanimated from the dead with an Incan formula on a necklace she’s wearing – which was given to her by her brother, with whom she was also having an affair. She wants to get revenge on a former lover and plans the proceedings to get back at him, meanwhile the doctor simply copies the magic formula off her necklace and uses it himself, which backfires and results in his death. Greta, however, is successful and kills off pretty much every single other character in the film.

With its supernatural and Gothic elements, a mad scientist, and the undead – and also some incest – this is sort of an “everything and the kitchen sink” take on the giallo film, which is exactly what you should expect from a director like D’Amato. I say “like D’Amato,” but really he’s one of a kind. This film’s directorial credit went to Aristide Massaccesi, his real name, though he often used pseudonyms (of which Joe D’Amato is the most famous). Along with Beyond the Darkness, this is some of his best work – though I also love some of his Emanuelle films, including Emanuelle in America and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, as well as Porno Holocaust, and Ator the Fighting Eagle. I have a deep and abiding love for this misunderstood director who was basically relegated to porn-for-hire work for much of his prolific career.

Death Smiles on a Murderer benefits from some solid casting, namely the appearance of blonde bombshell Eva Aulin (Death Laid an Egg) as the protagonist. There’s plenty of nudity on her end (literally) and though there isn’t a lot of violence, it’s used very well. For example, there’s an early scene where a maniacal doctor – played by Klaus Kinski -- sticks a needle through Greta’s eye, which is likely to please Fulci devotees and gross the hell out everyone else. For some reason I particularly love when Kinski appears as a doctor or scientist, though unfortunately Dr. Klaus is not in this film for very long – though just long enough to redeem his shockingly bland role as a psychiatrist in Slaughter Hotel and it sort of looks forward to the brilliant insanity of Crawlspace.

Even though it’s not perfect, I can’t bring myself to say anything bad about Death Smiles on a Murderer. It’s simply delightful. Pick it up on DVD to have your brains thoroughly scrambled by Joe D’Amato, who, as I said, includes as much as he possibly can in this dreamy, quick moving film that also contains my favorite cult cinema trope of all time – incest – which is not used nearly enough as a giallo plot twist or red herring. And D’Amato may be the only person to have made a film about an incestuous affair between a brother and a sister where the sister dies and is brought back to life – by the brother – with Incan magic.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

AMUCK! aka ALLA RICERCA DEL PIACERE

Silvio Amadio, 1972
Starring: Farley Granger, Barbara Bouchet, Rosalba Neri

A new secretary arrives at the home of famed writer Richard Stuart, who is holed up with his kinky wife, Eleanora, on a lavish estate somewhere near Venice. Greta, the lovely blonde new hire, is a replacement for Sally, his former lovely blonde secretary, who mysteriously disappeared a few months earlier. What Richard and Eleanora don’t realize is that Greta and Sally were lovers and Greta is there to investigate what she believes is Sally’s murder. She soon gets swept in Richard and Eleanora’s perverse, hedonistic lifestyle, and the couple begins playing some very complicated mind games with her.

The film’s tagline – “An explosion of sexual frenzy!” – is not quite accurate, but there is plenty of steamy content in Amuck, Silvio Amadio’s penultimate giallo film and certainly his masterpiece. The Italian title, which translated to In Search of Pleasure – a title that’s far more honest about the proceedings – was inexplicably changed to Amuck. Richard and Eleanora, the film’s antagonists, appear to be on an epic search for pleasure and embrace every form of hedonism they can, thanks to Richard’s success as a writer. They engage in a semi-nude party, with the implication that it will result in an orgy, drug use, drinking, swinging, and even shoot their own sex tapes.

The two leading ladies are giallo regulars Barbara Bouchet (Don’t Torture a Duckling) and – perhaps the sexiest woman in giallo history – Rosalba Neri (The French Sex Murders). Not only do these two women give solid performances, but they’re not afraid to take their clothes off and have a very long, slow motion sex scene together that happens before the film’s 15-minute mark. While both women appeared in The French Sex Murders together, they are on top of their collective game (and a few other things) in Amuck. In general, the film doesn’t skimp on nudity and there are several beautifully shot sex scenes, including a flashback sequence showing Greta and Sally kissing naked under a waterfall (no, I didn’t make that up).

Bouchet and Neri are partnered with Strangers on a Train’s Farley Granger, who was fresh off of So Sweet, So Dead (1972) and is possibly at his best here as a truly manipulative bastard. Granger – who I always found to be oddly sexless – appears briefly in one sex scene, but is the ring leader of the increasingly confusing, bizarre events. He and Eleanora play a series of mind games with Greta that are partly fueled by seduction and there is certainly an alluring sadomasochistic bent to the film. It’s easy to get the sense that Richard and Eleanora’s relationship is consummated through these twisted games, as their relationship seems oddly platonic.

This strangely melancholic film has plenty of eerie moments, including flashbacks, potential hallucinations, and the constant entanglement of fiction and reality. The script’s finest element is its use of narrative and story to further the above themes. Greta works as a secretary, transcribing Richard’s latest novel, which turns out to be a mystery/horror tale about a young woman who has taken the job her missing friend once held. He seems to be shaping Greta’s fate as her weaves what is essentially her tale and her active imagination fleshes out the bits of Sally’s story that he does tell her. There is also a bit of a Gothic influence, such as a scene where a storm that knocks the lights out and another where Eleanora’s faints, has some sort of seizure, and begins channeling Sally’s ghost. Nonplussed, Richard explains that she sometimes has psychic episodes (!). Greta’s nighttime wanderings around the old mansion – where she is of course clad in a see-through negligée – feel like an improvement on Umberto Lenzi’s exploration of this theme in earlier films like Orgasmo, So Sweet… So Perverse, A Quiet Place to Kill, and An Ideal Place to Kill.

There is not much blood, gore, or violence, but it is used very effectively. The horror and suspense are primarily a psychological, as Richard and Eleanora’s games are a total mindfuck for Greta, who is refreshingly not as innocent as she’s first made out to be. Keep an eye out for Umberto Raho (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage) as the supremely creepy butler, who is responsible for some of the film’s sense of unease. As far as the violence goes, this is maybe the only giallo film where duck hunting plays a surprisingly serious role. Though it seems ridiculous, this idea is actually easy to swallow as soon as Rosalba Neri confidently begins handling a shotgun – which is oddly rather sexy – it’s easy to believe that she a crack-shot and could convincingly pose a threat to the clueless Greta.

Amuck comes highly recommended and is one of the more sadly under-rated efforts. It’s a fantastic blend of sexual intrigue, competent murder mystery, and giallo film that has nary a wasted moment. Amuck deserves its own fancy-pants special edition release, but instead, there’s only a basic DVD available for now. Hopefully it will get picked up on Blu-ray sometime this year.

Monday, May 18, 2015

SO SWEET, SO DEAD aka RIVELAZIONI DI UN MANIACO SESSUALE AL CAPO DELLA SQUADRA MOBILE

Roberto Bianchi Montero, 1972
Starring: Farley Granger, Sylva Koscina, Silvano Tranquilli

In a small town in southern Italy, a maniac begins killing local women, all wives unfaithful to their husbands. After mutilating them, he leaves them fully or partially nude with pictures of their indiscretions on top of their bodies. Stressed out Inspector Capuana is new to the area and was hoping for a more relaxing assignment, but he’s put on the case. Though he has few leads, he realizes that all of the victims are married to prominent members of society – businessmen and politicians. The killer is seeking to expose corruption within Italian society and he soon begins taunting Capuana directly, determined to put every obstacle in the Inspector’s way.

Director Roberto Bianchi Montero’s lurid example of giallo, which literally translates to Revelations of a Sex Maniac to the Head of the Police Squad aka The Slasher is the Sex Maniac, opens with a scene that sets the tone for the whole film: a naked, bleeding, and mutilated woman is examined by police, who swarm around the scene. The camera lingers luridly over her nudity and if you’re squeamish about such things, So Sweet, So Deadly is not the film for you. This film is certainly in the running for “Most Sex and Nudity in a Giallo,” along with Ferdinando di Leo’s Slaughter Hotel from the same year. There is actually another, hard to find version of the film titled Penetration, which includes hardcore porn inserts (!!!). Montero actually went on to helm porn and erotica (Caligula’s Hot Nights, anyone?), but star Farley Granger was so enraged by the admittedly misleading publicity – he does not appear in any of these added hardcore sequences (but look out for Harry Reems) – that he sued and had Penetration removed from U.S. distribution.

I still find it a little dizzying that Farley Granger – who I associate with ‘40s and ‘50s American thrillers like They Live By Night (1948), Rope (1948), and Strangers on a Train (1951) – actually had a career in Eurocult films like this, Visconti’s Senso (1954) and totally bonkers giallo films The Red Headed Corpse (1972) and Amuck (1972). Granger is seriously, stately, surprisingly mustachioed, and grim alongside the faintly ridiculous black-gloved, black facial stocking and fedora-wearing killer, with whom he develops an adversarial relationship. It takes him outside of the bounds of by-the-books police work and provides for a wonderful twist ending and a bleak final note.

The film is packed with likely suspects, including a perverted morgue attendant who gropes the female corpses and giggles wildly while on the job. In a somewhat tragic scene, he admits to Capuana that he lives alone and doesn’t have a girlfriend, because no women will stick around when they learn about his profession. Others include a high-priced lawyer, a shady politician, and more. The murders themselves are not overtly stylized, but they are rather misogynistic, as the killer happens to catch the women when they are in a state of undress, awaiting their lovers, and he viciously (if repetitively) slashes their throats and breasts and stabs them in the abdomen. Unlike many other giallo films, the kill scenes are shown on camera rather than implied, and a few are quite graphic.

While it’s easy to read So Sweet, So Dead simply as another misogynistic horror film, the real vitriol is directed at political corruption, hypocrisy, and media manipulation. The killer is punishing powerful men – and seemingly the institution of upper class marriage – by killing the unfaithful wives. There is not a single happy, loving relationship depicted on screen and sexual coercion, infidelity, voyeurism, and malicious gossip are practiced all the way through the town’s different economic classes. This sort of uncomfortable mean-spirited flavor is reminiscent of the nastier giallo films of Lucio Fulci, like Don’t Torture a Duckling and New York Ripper, where no one can be trusted and everyone has a base motivation.

Available uncut on region 2 DVD from Camera Obscura, So Sweet, So Dead comes highly recommended. This exceptionally trashy film is not for everyone, but I think it’s delightful. Granger gives a solid, if exhausted performance and while he seems out of sync with the film’s fast-paced, sleazy first half, it soon catches up to his grim mood and offers up a number of surprises that elevate this film to near-classic giallo status.

Friday, May 15, 2015

DELIRIUM aka DELIRIO CALDO

Renato Polselli, 1972
Starring: Mickey Hargitay, Rita Calderoni, Raul Lovecchio

Dr. Herbert Lyutak has a dark secret. He likes to pick up nubile young women and murder them, because it’s the only way he can get a sexual charge. His beautiful, devoted wife – who is willing to put up with a good amount of pain and sadism – finds a bloody shirt in the wash, but keeps it a secret. Herbert is able to remain at large for some time – possibly because he works as a criminal psychologist consulting the police on complex murder cases – but he is eventually recognized by a witness and turns himself in. He is imprisoned, but the murders continue and the police – and Herbert himself – are at a complete loss. Did he really commit the crimes?

That synopsis is only just a taste of the pleasures to come in Renato Polselli’s (The Vampire and the Ballerina, The Reincarnation of Isabel) Delirium, possible the only giallo title to accurately reflect what the film is about. I can only loosely call this a giallo film, but it’s so spectacular that I would be remiss not to include it in my current series. At its heart, this is basically an utterly perverse, demented love story – sort of amour fou meets giallo and Eurocult. It’s basically impossible to discuss this element without giving away some SPOILERS. Marcia -- expertly played by Rita Calderoni (The Reincarnation of Isabel) – is not the typical giallo wife, as she is hopelessly devoted to her husband despite his faults. It is Marcia who begins killing after Herbert’s arrest in order to clear his name. But she is not a calculating killer. She’s descending rapidly into madness during – and perhaps because of – these sequences.

Though it is rare, some giallo films do resolve the central mystery by fingering two killers (I think it would be rude to cite examples), Delirium makes a surprising move by revealing the film’s killer moments into the film – and then also revealing that Herbert is a police department consultant. The fact that he works for the police is a nice early twist and was fairly uncommon back in the early ‘70s – though now, thanks to Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, Dexter, and an endless stream of serial killer-obsessed crime dramas, it’s common knowledge that some killers feed off a connection to the investigation of their own murders.

This marks a rare performance from the handsome, Hungarian-American former Mr. Universe and ex-Mr. Jayne Mansfield (and father of Law & Order SVU’s Olivia Benson), Mickey Hargitay. He had a short film career, appearing in a few B-movies with Mansfield, as well as some horror movies like The Bloody Pit of Horror and Lady Frankenstein. Personally, I would have liked to see him in more of these and he really gives it his all in Delirium. He’s not the greatest actor, but there’s something about him that hovers between likable and unsettling, which works perfectly here as Herbert is a thoroughly sympathetic murderer. He wants to stop killing and willingly turns himself into the police.

While the first half of the film follows Herbert very closely, Marcia becomes the central figure of the film’s second half and Polselli brilliantly follows her into madness. He makes it clear that unfulfilled desire at the root of both Herbert and Marcia’s varying forms on insanity. Their close, deeply romantic relationship can never be consummated, which drives them both to obsession and murder. Wracked with guilt and repressed lust, Marcia has sex-fueled visions that are among the film’s visual high points. She and Herbert also engage in some effectively hot S&M scenes and these become increasingly more hysterical and hallucinatory as the film progresses.

Delirium comes very highly recommended. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s my favorite kind of movie. Not only does it live up to its title and include a lot of scantily-clad women, but it is particularly leg-friendly and basically everyone except Herbert sports a miniskirt of some kind. There’s also a wonderful array of wacked-out side characters, including the typically inane, useless police inspectors, a maid who follows Herbert around and masturbates, and Christa Barrymore in a role that must be seen to be believed. It’s sad that she only appeared in two films (this and Polselli’s follow up, The Reincarnation of Isabel, which reunites much of the cast of Delirium).

Available on DVD, there are actually two versions of the film, the international release – which has more sexual content – and the American version, which includes a weird subplot about how Hargitay is a Vietnam vet and the trauma drives him to kill. It completely nixes the masturbating maid. While it’s fairly standard for European horror films of this period to have a different cut for American audiences, the two version of Delirium are so different that it’s impossible to really say which is the definitive version, though I obviously prefer the European cut.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

THE RED QUEEN KILLS SEVEN TIMES aka LA DAMA ROSSA UCCIDE SETTE VOLTE

Emilio Miraglia, 1972
Starring: Barbara Bouchet, Ugo Pagliai, Marina Malfatti, Sybil Danning

Two young sisters, Kitty and Evelyn, are seen fighting over a doll when a family heirloom – a painting of two women known as the Red Queen and the Black Queen – possesses Evelyn and she violently stabs the doll, decapitating it. Their grandfather explains that the two girls are part of a family curse, where every 100 years the Red Queen will possess one sister who is destined to kill seven people, ending with her other sister. As adults, Kitty and her other sister, Franziska, become alarmed when a murderer stalks their family mansion. Kitty, who accidentally killed Evelyn in a fight months before, becomes convinced that her sister has risen from the grave to get the Red Queen’s vengeance once and for all.

Director Emilio Miraglia’s two giallo films – The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (also known as The Lady in Red Kills Seven Times) and The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave – may not be the most coherent entries in the giallo canon, but they are admittedly two of my favorites. Miraglia reuses the same themes for both films: a mix of colorful ‘70s giallo style blended with more traditional Gothic elements – for instance, most giallo films don’t take place in castles or ancestral mansions – and a hint of the supernatural when he suggests the possibility that the murderer is actually a ghost. I don’t know if there was an Evelyn in Miraglia’s life, but both of these films center around a love/hate obsession with a woman by that name.

While both films have plenty of lovely, scantily clad ladies, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is certainly more female-centric and the male characters more or less fade to the background (or are rapidly killed off). Bond girl and giallo regular Barbara Bouchet (Don’t Torture a Duckling, Caliber 9) shines as the appealing protagonist haunted by guilt and stalked by a killer. While many giallo films focus on helpless heroines trying to stay a step ahead of a black-gloved killer, I tend to prefer the more complex characters to the outright damsels in distress (a la films like Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion). Bouchet’s Kitty falls somewhere between these defenseless characters and the ball-busters often played by Nieves Navarro. For much of the film she’s wracked with guilt about having killed her sister, but she also seems relieved that Evelyn is gone.

Her relationship with her two sisters is complicated and it’s never explained why they were raised by their grandfather instead of their parents. Kitty works as a photographer at a fashion agency and the atmosphere there – full of beautiful, competitive women – somehow mirrors her childhood and home life. The use of models and fashion was popular throughout giallo (thanks to Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace), as it allows for numerous built-in scenarios where attractive women are half-nude, nude, or wear a variety out absolutely outrageous outfits. The film makes Kitty less of a sexualized object than her peers because she is a photographer, rather than a model, though this is also used in other ‘70s films like Baba Yaga and Eyes of Laura Mars.

Despite the film’s frequent ridiculous moments, Miraglia effectively conveys the suspenseful atmosphere and keeps us guessing about Evelyn’s identity. There are some great kill sequences, including one where a woman is impaled on a wrought iron fence, and somewhere the visual of a red-caped figure running through tombs and around dark corners is effective. Though this is something of a spoiler, it becomes quickly apparent that even though some people seem to recognize Evelyn in a sketch of the killer – Miraglia even shows a few glimpses of the killer’s face – the killer is wearing an effective and creepy mask. Miraglia also includes a dream sequence, eerie flashbacks, and an excellent chase sequence through the family castle, which is rapidly transformed into a palace of claustrophobic horrors.

Most giallo films have a cast of wholly unlikable characters, something The Red Queen Kills Seven Times fortunately doesn’t succumb to. There are certainly lots of moral gray areas: Kitty herself is a murderer and her sister Franziska (icy giallo regular Marina Malfatti, who is quite entertaining here) comes across as some sort of lazy opportunist waiting for her share of the fortune, while the agency’s models are eager to stab each other in the back. Fascinatingly, the male characters are almost all hamstrung by physical or mental obstacles. Kitty’s grandfather is in a wheelchair, her boyfriend is in financial and romantic limbo thanks to his insane wife, who is kept in an asylum, Franziska’s husband has a pronounced limp, a former agency boss is impeded by a notorious sexual fetish, and Evelyn’s old boyfriend is a pale, sweaty drug addict blackmailing Kitty for money.

It’s hard for me to list The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ faults, though I know they exist. Miraglia makes a mess of a the plot, as with The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, but the film is just so much fun that it comes highly recommended. Between a likable cast, some great style that veers dramatic from Gothic splendor to swinging ‘60s/’70s, and some truly delightful sequences, there’s a great score from Bruno Nicolai ties the whole thing together. It’s on DVD, but out of print, and I’m really, really hoping for a blu-ray box set of Miraglia’s two films plus plenty of exciting special features.

P.S. The Red Queen does not actually kill seven times, but I will leave you wondering whether it's more or less.