Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The Cat o' Nine Tails - some existential questions?

In Cat o' Nine Tails does the killer leave his victims “all cut up” because he is insane or to lead the police into searching for a madman and thereby less likely to connect the break-in at the Terzi institute with his other crimes?

Is the fundamental difference between the killer and the blind investigator how they respond to the hands fate has dealt them, that the former cannot see past his possession of the wrong genetic combination while the latter has never let his becoming blind define his being as blind man and nothing else? (This is something Maitland McDonagh alludes to.)

Is part of the problem that many commentators have with the film, besides the probable influence of Argento's own retrospective dismissals of it, that its emphases, which I would identify as the aural, the tactile and what might be characterised as existential questions, are at odds with those of the dominant theories, which are visual and concerned with the unconscious? When Argento says the film is “too American” is he partly also saying it is too 1940s film noir and too little 1970s giallo in its thematics?

Monday, 26 February 2007

A Bay of Blood

Is it possible to say anything new about A Bay of Blood? Chances are that, if you are reading this you have seen the film, or at least know of its importance: You will know that it was released on a double-bill on the US drive-in and grindhouse circuits with Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham's Last House on the Left, before itself being opportunistically re-released as Last House on the Left: Part II, and that Cunningham drew liberally from it in the first two Friday the 13th films.

And, if you are familiar with both Bava's giallo and Cunningham's slashers, you will also know that the former is by far the superior film, not just at a technical level - with the possible exception of Carlo Rambaldi's make-up effects when set up against those of Tom Savini; not however a criticism of Rambaldi's work as much as a recognition of the massive advances that took place in the area over the course of the 1970s - but also for what it does and, equally importantly, does not do elsewhere.

Take, for example, the ironies of the opening sequences:

Following a series of leisurely shots suggesting the tranquility of the Bay, accompanied by Stelvio Cipriani's elegant yet trashy theme, the camera frenetically follows the flightpath of a buzzing insect on its fatal plunge into the bay. The message seems clear: this place, supposedly a haven for wildlife, is in fact inimical to it as well. There is fundamentally no point to the slaughter that is about to ensue.

Like the swinging sign and telephone receiver that bookend Blood and Black Lace, we have an end (“Gee, they're good at playing dead, aren't they”) that answers the beginning: each scene might be complete in itself, as set piece or little experiment in tone and technique, but they all work together to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Now compare such intricacies to Crazy Ralph warning the kids not to go to “Camp Blood” or the sudden shock re-appearance of Jason Vorhees, supposedly dead all these years, and the difference is clear.

Next consider the introduction of the Countess, whose murder will set the whole chain of events into motion. Cipriani pushes the romantic piano theme to the point of near-parody as the wheelchair-bound woman looks out mournfully on the bay, culminating in a shot of the hut within which, retrospectively, we learn her illegitimate son and legitimate heir Simon lives – an attention to detail that rewards careful and repeat viewing – before she is unceremoniously dispatched by the familiar black gloved hands.

But, wait a minute. Rather than introducing a traditional giallo enigma – who is the assassin? - Bava then pans up to reveal the man's face, before he is then in turn dispatched by a second, this time unidentified, killer. Clearly, we are playing by a different set of generic rules to those Bava had himself earlier established with The Girl Who Saw too Much and Blood and Black Lace.

True, an element of mystery is introduced at this point, as the body of the Count – for it is he – is dumped in the bay and his daughter, wondering what might have happened to him, is amongst those who converge on the slayground, but it always remains secondary to more purely cinematic considerations. Bava, that is, is now visibly less interested in the mechanics of plot and suspense than he is in those of composition and editing.

And here the way he constructs things at the level of shot – racking focus from the abstract streaked blue of the raindrops on the window overlooking the bay to the bay itself here, for example – and sequence, or manages the transitions between them – a sudden cut; zoom out / in on an associative detail or abstracted form; now some inserts of the bay, still utterly indifferent and implacable – that makes all the difference. Though it is the murder set pieces that conventionally get all the attention, in truth almost every moment has that bit more to it. Again, then, the contrast with the typical American slasher film, as something that typically does little more than go through the motions, nothing more, nothing less, is remarkable.

Nevertheless, the most obvious – and commented on – difference between A Bay of Blood, as giallo, and Friday the 13th, as slasher, is of course their respective moral senses. In simple terms, Cunningham's film exhibits a dubious puritanism that is alien to Bava's. Thus, the four party-hearty youths are killed here not because of any particular transgression but rather because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and are in way of “progress”. Morover, their killer is less the self-appointed moral avenger or sexually confused monster – qua two slasher types that are too easy to keep at a safe distance; as safely “other” – but rather normal men and women much like us, whether marked by avarice or simply a desire to have a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Some more giallo trailers to check out

Just a heads up for some more cool giallo trailers over at Prevues of Coming Attractions. Also Django Kill and Grand Slam for those of you with a wider interest in Italian cult stuff :-)

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Death Smiles at Murder / Morte ha sorriso all'assassino

This early directorial outing from Joe D'Amato / Aristide Massaccesi succeeds in terms of imagery and atmosphere, his long apprenticeship as a cinematographer paying dividends, but nevertheless fails to establish the overall consistency of tone it would need to qualify as a minor masterpiece.

At its best Death Smiled at Murder achieves a hallucinatory ambience reminiscent of Mario Bava or Antonio Margheriti. At its worst it is as crude and banal as could be expected from a film-maker who later went on to specialise in sex / horror hybrids and outright porn.

This said, neither the sex nor the gore scenes in Death Smiled at Murder, are as extreme as anything Massaccesi would dish up five or ten years down the line, even if the both – a random pseudo-lesbian encounter; a shotgunning and a multiple slashing to the face etc. – clearly suggest where he was heading.

Regardless, at least it begins as it means to go on, with a confusingly structured opening montage of incidents whose significance will only become (partially) apparent as the main story unfolds.

A hunchbacked figure (the ever-creepy Luciano Rossi) mourns the loss of his sister and “only love” and promises to restore her to life. Clearly, however, she is / was not comfortable with his incestuous attentions, as we then see them fighting, followed by her announcing her desire to be free.

It seems that at some point she did escape, for next we see the young woman running through the woods, her deformed pursuer stopping in his tracks as he sees his beloved in the embrace of another man (Giaocomo Rossi Stuart) whom she obviously knows.

With these enigmas planted, we are introduced to the main characters and story.

Eva and Walter von Ravensbrück (Angela Bo and Sergio Doria) are relaxing in the grounds of their mansion when a coach comes racing through the grounds and spectacularly crashes. Rushing to investigate, they find the coachman dead, impaled on a shaft of wood, and the only passenger – the beautiful young woman who we saw in the opening montage – physically unharmed but unable to remember who she is or where she came from.

Dr Sturges (Klaus Kinski) is called in to make a diagnosis. During the examination he notices a pendant around the girl's neck, with the name Greta, the year 1906 – it is now 1909 – and some strange engravings on the reverse. By a truly bizarre coincidence, Sturges immediately recognises these as an Incan formula for resurrecting the dead; the goal which he has been questing for all these years.

Meanwhile the servant Gertrude observes – Massaccessi loads the film with giallo-style POV shots, sometimes identifying the voyeur, sometimes not – being distressed enough by something she sees to first experience some remarkably vivid nightmares / flashbacks and then announce that she is leaving the household.

Though puzzled by Gertude's sudden decision, coming as it does after three years loyal service, no one seems to particularly mind. Or at least openly, for Gertrude is then mercilessly despatched by the double-barrelled shotgun of an unseen killer despite her pleas that she “never said anything to anyone”

Some time later Dr Sturges and his deaf-mute servant (one can't help thinking it's never a good idea to be a deaf-mute in a horror film) succeed in resurrecting a corpse only to be summarily dispatched along with their freshly revived subject by an unidentified killer.

Time passes and Greta, now more or less recovered, is ready to leave. The Ravensbrück's have taken a liking to her and won't hear of it, encouraging her to stay on and introducing her to their circle at a ball.

Then each, enchanted by Greta's beauty, embarks on a clandestine affair. Apparently somewhat confused by her lesbian feelings, Eva first half-drowns Greta in her bath, then drops her robe and kisses Greta.

Eva's sadism does not augur well for the future and, after discovering Greta in her husband's arms, she decides that if she cannot have Greta all to herself then no one can have her, walling the girl up alive in an unused cellar.

Worried by Greta's disappearance, Walter contacts the police. They find nothing and, with three weeks having passed, the Von Ravensbrücks are getting used to life without Greta once more.

Then, at a masked ball, the narrative takes another Poe-like twist, with Greta appearing before a terrified Eva…

Even it's not quite the case that “None of this makes any sense,” as the Inspector says by way of summary after another 40 minute of mayhem, the inexplicable Carmilla-style coach incident; the unclear story function of servants Gertrude and Simeon (amusingly pronounced as something closer to 'Simian' to my ears), and the sub-plot with Dr Sturges are enough to make one wonder what Massaccessi and his co-scriptwriters were smoking and, indeed, if the film might be better whilst under the influence.

Away from the awkward tone, wayward narrative and occasional moment of cheapness, as when the hunting dogs sniff at the camera in a shot that should have been retaken, the film benefits from a reasonable period feel, the cheap yet credible production design and costuming being hampered only by some rather 70s hairstyles. Having said this, given D'Amato's later specialisation in historical and relatively big-budget porn films, there is perhaps again a line of descent that can be detected here as well.

Berto Pisano's haunting score, with its use of female vocal, mournful flute and muted trumpet lines and sparse piano and percussion, is another asset, even if it again sounds more appropriate to a contemporary giallo than a period / Gothic one. (Contrariwise, one could see the film working very well with Bruno Nicolai's Your Vice is a Locked Room... score, especially given that film's equally free-form approach to Poe.)

The performances are variable. Ewa Aulin excels as the seductive angel of death / succubus character, at first coming across all vulnerable and innocent, then turning playful, then nasty. Angela Bo is good as well, her scenes with Aulin having a genuine erotic charge and making one regret that she did not do more films. Klaus Kinski, top-billed with Aulin, is underused in what really amounts to little more than a cameo, but at least delivers some of those trademark intense, vein-bulging gazes. Rossi-Stuart and the other male performers are less interesting, though this does also provide a useful counterbalance for Aulin to work her seductive / destructive wiles and as such might, if one is being charitable, be ascribed to design.

The Black Cat

Although the works of Edgar Allan Poe have long been a favourite with horror filmmakers, their very nature as short stories and non-narrative mood pieces, makes them something of a challenge to adapt. Thus this 1981 entry from Lucio Fulci wisely follows the approach favoured by Roger Corman and AIP in the 60s, taking a central motif from Poe but otherwise making a free interpretation, as an English village is beset by a sequence of near inexplicable accidents that ultimately prove the work of a supremely malevolent, supernatural black cat.

First a man dies in a car crash, on an otherwise clear road and with near perfect driving conditions. Then another somehow conspires to fall and impale himself. Then two young lovebirds go missing, leading to a call for Inspector Gorley of Scotland Yard (David Warbeck), who speeds into town on his motorbike and is given a ticket by the local constable; hardly the most auspicious of starts.

As Gorley gets his bearings the missing girl's mother (Dagmar Lassander) pays a visit to the local medium and all round oddball Professor Robert Miles (Patrick Magee) who divines that she may be found in a nearby boathouse.

Unfortunately the rescue party arrives too late, with the young couple having suffocated and been picked at by rats. Miles realises that the black cat, with whom he is engaged in a constant battle of wills, must have committed the murders. Accordingly he poisons and hangs the creature, only for it to return from beyond to wreak further havoc, starting a fire that kills Mrs Grayson and compelling Gorley to walk in front of a car…

The Black Cat is a film that divides fans of its director, Lucio Fulci, for its avoidance of the trademark gore seen in his other films of the same period such as Zombie and City of the Living Dead – though as the synopsis above indicates there are still plenty of unpleasant and even wince-inducing incidents – with a greater emphasis on mood and atmosphere.

Regardless of the plusses and minuses here, Fulci's frequent disregard for narrative logic – how did the lovebirds suffocate when the rats could get in but the most obvious example, albeit perhaps as the sort of thing that could have been gotten away with in a more absurdist, quasi-surrealist, horror nightmare like The Beyond – and obsession with close ups of characters' eyes in particular are much in evidence, as is his liking for the rack focus shot that switch our attentions between foreground and background planes of action, cumulatively marking the film out as unmistakably the work of its auteur maudit.

Elsewhere – and again giving the lie to the slumming explanation that Fulci only made the film to keep his hand in or as a favour to a friend – there are some surprisingly elaborate crane shots and inventive POV shots using a distorted lens to simulate the perspective of the cat itself.

Though the solid cast of reliable Euro-Cult regulars – also featuring Fulci's victim of choice Danielle Doria and Al "not all that" Cliver – and many of Fulci's regular crew – Massimo Lentini, Vincenzo Tomasso etc – do sterling work, honours must go to the animal trainer Pasquale Martino who manages, at one point, to get one of his otherwise recalcitrant charges to open a barred door.

Even so, however, the old adage that one should never work with children or animals – see The House by the Cemetery or Manhattan Baby for futher proof of this truism in Fulci's case – is not refuted elsewhere, thanks to the basic difficulty in getting a housecat to be / act other than what it is.

Not top drawer Fulci by any means, then, but still a somewhat unfairly maligned entry that deserves a second look.

Work in Progress / Argento dérive #1

For many years a difficulty for the Anglophone scholar in analysing the giallo film on its own terms was the comparative lack of appropriate theoretical and conceptual vocabulary for doing so. Commentators instead tended to use the framework of the American horror film, especially the so-called “slasher”, “stalker” or “stalk-and-slash” film discussed by the likes of Vera Dika's Games of Terror (1990) and Carol J. Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992). This had the effect, however, of emphasising some aspects of some gialli, such as the famous point-of-view shots from the perspective of the killer, at the expense of others. In general, the murder side of murder-mystery and the horror side of horror-thriller gained disproprortionate amounts of attention.

In the specific case of Argento this difficulty is further compounded by his move into outright horror cinema with Suspiria in 1977, whose international success led to his identification in most English-language works, including the aforementioned Clover, as a “horror” or – worse - “slasher” director.

Though a consideration of the second half of each equation – i.e. mystery and thriller – might seem the obvious answer, the same problem resurfaces in a different form, insofar as the framework then tends to become that of noir and / or Hitchcock.

Though the term “giallo” has similar origins in Italian as the French “noir”, insofar as both refer to the distinctive colours, yellow in the former and black in the latter case, in which a particular genre of Anglophone literature was published in translation, there are as many differences as similarities in other respects. The historical gap between noir literature and noir film is shorter and straight adaptations are more prevalent. The Postman Always Rings Twice (dir: Tay Garnett, 1946) unsurprisingly takes far fewer liberties with James M. Cain's heponymous source novel than Ossessione (dir: Luchino Visconti, 1942) with its operatic overtones and substitution of the Po Valley for Southern California. The Screaming Mimi (dir: Gerd Oswald, 1958) brings Fredric Brown's novel of the same name to the screen, whereas The Bird with the Crystal Plumage draws inspiration from it but then goes in an entirely different direction, as McDonagh (1991: 42-45) demonstrates.

Whereas the term “noir” connotes an obvious visual style to these films, as a kind of naturalised expressionism, that has no “giallo” counterpart. A giallo film is not literally yellow in the way that a film noir is black (i.e. dark, expressionistic), though certain filmmakers, like Luigi Cozzi in The Killer Must Kill Again (1973/75) and Flavio Mogherini in The Girl with the Yellow Pyjamas (1977), have occasionally made use of the colour and its connotations in their mise-en-scene and titles.

Approaching the giallo from the perspective of the Hitchcock thriller is equally problematic. Hitchcock, after all, was famous for expressing a disinterest in the whodunit aspect central to the murder-mystery under which most gialli can be situated and with emphasising “suspense” over “shock” in the dynamics of his films. And while innumerable gialli certainly draw inspiration from his films, they also exhibit other specific and general influences. Thus, for example, while Bava's La Ragazza che sappeva troppo / The Girl Who Saw Too Much announces its debt to Hitchcock through what Genette (1982) refers to as the “architextuality” of its title, as allusion to The Man Who Knew Too Much (dir: Hitchcock, 1934/56), a specific sequence within it can be traced more or less directly to Alfred Vohrer's Edgar Wallace krimi adaptation The Dead Eyes of London (1961) and Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933). While Lang and the krimi are in fact recurring influences throughout the giallo, Bava's later A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969), to use another illustrative example, appears to draw as much inspiration from Luis Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) as Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

It is fortunate, then, that in recent years, a number of English-language scholars, most notably Gary Needham in Playing with Genre: defining the Italian giallo (2004) and Mikel J. Koven in La Dolce Morte: vernacular cinema and the Italian giallo film (2006) have begun to identify the shortcomings in uncritically approaching the giallo through theories developed in relation to other genres and national cinemas and developed our understanding of what it is that is specific to the giallo genre.

Indeed, almost the very first point to be made by both is that the very term genre is problematic in the context of the giallo, with both agreeing that the more specifically Italian term “filone” is a more appropriate designation on a number of counts. As Needham explains:

“[F]ilone [...] is often used to refer to both genres and cycles as well as to currents and trends. This points to the limitations of genre theory built primarily on American film genres, but also to the need for redefinition concerning how other popular film-producing nations understand and relate to their products.”

Koven, meanwhile, draws out the various meanings of the term in both specific contexts – including isolated references to its use in film studies – and everyday speech:

“Although in Italian, the word genere does literally mean “genre,” within the context we are currently discussing genre [i.e. subgenre], the Italian filone may be more appropriate. In literary studies, the giallo, like crime or detective fiction as genre, would be considered genere. Filone, on the other hand, would tend to be used primarily in a more scientific context, like geology (where filone would refer to a vein of mineral in a rock) or geography (as in the main current in a river). However, rather than the more traditional literary approach, filone here tends to be used more idiomatically, as in the phrase “sullo stesso filone” (“in the tradition of”) or “seguire il filone”) (“to follow the tradition of”). Even the geological use of filone has an English equivalent: to be “in the vein of”. Wagstaff defines filone as “formula,” which in reference to cinema is often “dismissed as sottoprodotto (a debased, ersatz product)” (1992: 248). Paul Hoffmann [...] defined filone [...] as “streamlet”, as in a small stream off a main river [...] Putting all these together, if we think of a larger generic pattern as a river, in this context the giallo as genre, several smaller “streamlets” branch off from that genre-river, occasionally reconnecting to the main flow farther “downstream”. Perhaps, in some cases, what we think of a film genre, like the giallo, may be a cluster of concurrent streamlets, veins or traditions – filone.”

While a precise definition thus remains elusive this is precisely the point: the liquid quality of the filone makes it difficult to grasp, without solidifying / reifying it into some once-and-for-all essence, as can all too readily happen with genre if we are not careful (i.e. “the western film is...”) Rather, we are perhaps better proceeding with a “for all practical purposes” understanding of the giallo as filone, that the giallo is (like) this until the inevitable counterfactual surfaces, and forces us to reconsider those assumptions that we had hitertho bracketed off.

Do the fantastical elements of Phenomena, for instance, make it a horror film rather than a giallo? Or does its realism, in seeking after a rational/scientific explanation for events, mean that it is still enough of a giallo? Or – the most intruiging option – that we do not have to make an either / or choice between the two, but can instead ask what it means when we view it now as giallo; now as horror; now as some hybrid of the two, or indeed, introduce some third or further term. Thus, with reference to Phenonomena and other borderline gialli in a similar vein, such as Bava's Kill Baby Kill (1966), we can bring in the fantastical, as with the Kim Newman's notion of the “giallo-fantastico” as cited by Koven (2006: 9-10).

Or, as I would argue, that the combination of giallo, horror and supernatural / fantastical elements in Phenomena is yet another instance of Argento's characterist excess, bringing the question of authorship back into the equation while simultaneously also reminding us that no one frame of reference – genre, filone, auteur or whatever – can ever hope to encompass the totality (or gestalt) of its existence. Rather, each set of concepts foregrounds one aspect, as figure, by simultaneously putting others into the background. What we can aspire to do, however, is move between different positions and perspectives and try to understand how they might interconnect and intersect. In this regard, we might suggest that our ideal experience of the Argento film is being something like a viewing of Salvador Dali's painting The Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940), as our eyes see now two nuns, now the contours of face.

Indeed, I would argue that much of the the value of Argento's films, beyond entertainment and their sheer technical ability, is that at their best they not only explores what is possible within cinema but also reconnects us with our everyday lives outside the cinema afresh, having awoken us to other ways of perceiving / experiencing the world.

[To be continued]

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Another question

I was revisiting The Case of the Bloody Iris earlier this week and noticed the All Move Guide quote on the DVD cover, that it is "One of the few gialli of the time which is as good at mystery as it is at sleaze."

It got me thinking about the various reasons we have for watching gialli and how important the mystery aspect is: does a giallo need a mystery to work or not, or does it all depend on what else is on offer by way of 'attractions' - the beautiful people; the style; the liberal doses of violence and titillation; the sounds.

I suppose at the wider level, I am wondering about the relationship of narrative and spectacle in Italian filone cinema again, and whether a film that goes too far in one or other direction will fail with some sections of the presumed audience - e.g. in Argento-land whether a Suspiria or Inferno is too overloaded with sensations and a Card Player or Do You Like Hitchcock? too restrained and (seemingly) pedestrian.

It is also one of the things that I wonder about in Koven's vernacular cinema hypothesis, where he suggests that the giallo audience in the terza visione cinema was more like the TV audience, using the less attentive glance rather than the focused gaze, such that the announcing of the spectacular set piece via musical cues or the switch to subjective killer's eye view etc., said when the viewer should pay attention.

I do not have any problems with this per se, more with wondering what comes next: if the narrative aspect is not (as) important to this audience then why not concentrate on the spectacular and, in the case of Argento particularly, what happens when your audience is also in the prima visione.

Is it a matter of few, if any, filmmakers being able to sustain the intensity of the set piece for 90-odd minutes (a common criticism of even Suspiria is that after the first double-murder it has nowhere left to really go - a case of cinematic premature ejaculation, as it were); the cost, in terms of both conventional and psychic economics (it costs more and is too draining on the spectator); or the reluctance of many / most spectators to genuinely submit to / subject themselves to the film and filmmakers' demands, and watch in a manner akin to Betty in Opera without averting their eyes.

So, when you watch an giallo or Italian horror film, what do you watch it for and how do you usually watch it?

Nazi Nasties

Over at there is a compilation of music from Italian Nazi exploitation films. Well worth a listen, if you check taste at the door :-)

Friday, 16 February 2007

La Coda dello scorpione / The Case of the Scorpion's Tail

Following her estranged husband's death in an air disaster Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) is surprised – or at gives the impression of surprise – at learning she is the sole beneficiary of a half million pound insurance policy.

The catch is that she must go to Greece to complete the paperwork; the complication that her junkie ex-lover has some potentially incriminating letters and tries a spot of opportunistic blackmail. But when Lisa goes to reluctantly pay him off she discovers that someone else has gotten there first, taking the letter and leaving a dying man.

Minutes in and the first of many J&B bottles makes its appearance

The model plane

Kurt Baumer looks familiar - who is the actor?

Just in case you did not get that the film starts in London

Arriving in Athens, Lisa is called to a clandestine meeting in an empty theatre with her husband's mistress, Lara (Janine Reynaud). She informs Lisa that Kurt Baumer had intended to change his will and that, in exchange for the half-million she will return the incriminating letters that her “lawyer” / henchman Sharif (Luis Barboo) has just obtained. Or Lisa could always meet with an accident of her own...

Fortunately for Lisa, insurance investigator Peter Lynch (George Hilton) has been following her and makes a timely intervention, allowing them to escape the knife-wielding Sharif.

The next day Lisa goes to collect the insurance. Rather than simply having the half-million transferred to her account and returning to London, she instead takes it in cash and books a plane ticket to Toyko.

That evening she is murdered and the money taken.

Suspicion initially falls on Lynch, but the lack of clear motive, an obvious alibi and general willingness to co-operate in doing whatever is needed to bring Lisa's killler to justice means that Inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) can do nothing but confiscate his passport.

Interpol man John Stanley shows up, explaining that he is conducting his own intersecting investigation into the air disaster and ruffling Stavros's feathers somewhat in the process, while journalist Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) allies with Lynch in her search for an exclusive story.

Watching the detectives: Insurance investigator Peter Lynch tails an apparently unwitting Lisa Baumer...

.. while both are the subject of John Stanley of Interpol's gaze

From here on in things get even more complicated as the various parties strive to achieve their incommensurable goals of the truth and the money, leading to the inevitable double-crosses and demises and the explanation of what the titular McGuffin is all about, before the last surviving conspirator provides a convenient and necessary summing up...

A few moments of awkwardness – the unconvincing exploding jet and the wider issue of why the deaths of presumably hundreds of other people in the same explosion provokes no comment, for instance – aside, The Case of the Scorpion's Tale is a quality example of the giallo that once more confirms the position of director Sergio Martino as one of the greatest exponents of the form.

Or perhaps not.

For when we consider the contributions of co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi – to whom I would be tempted to attribute the Hitchcockian stratagem of unexpectedly killing off the apparent protagonist one-third of the way through in the light of films such as the Vertigo meets Rebecca styled The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock – composer Bruno Nicolai; cinematographer Emilio Foriscot; editor Eugenio Alabiso; and that entire ensemble of familiar faces, each performing their respective duties reliably, the sense that emerges is one of the “genius of the system” all'italiana.

To explain: this was a term proposed Andre Bazin in relation to Hollywood cinema of the studio era. Opposing the near exclusive romantic, individualist focus on the auteur, qua man of genius who stood against the system, as promulgated by some of his more impressionable disciples, Bazin instead emphasised instead the way in which the entire edifice worked to produce a reliable quality of output and even, on occasion, the odd anonymous masterpiece.

Or perhaps the true genius in the Martino family is Luciano, who in his capacities as writer and producer – David Selznick, all'italiana perhaps – arguably provided his brother with what he needed. (It was Luciano, after all, who was probably responsible for giving then-partner Edwige Fenech all those starring roles.)

Whatever the case, I suppose the difficulty I have with Sergio Martino is that his films, while competent and enjoyable, just do not seem to present any distinctive personality or worldview in the manner of Fulci or Bava.

Martino always endeavours to do something interesting visually, even if the results frequently come across as empty displays of technique for its own sake

A slight overuse of the zoom lens aside, his technical abilities are not in doubt – witness the plethora of unconventional angles and compositions; dramatic camera movements and lighting effects, or even some judicious slow motion. But what does he actually have to say?

Lisa's drug addicted ex-lover does not lead into a critique of hippy culture akin to that made by Fulci in Lizard in a Woman's Skin.

The mounting body count resulting from the pursuit of the elusive half-million do not amount to a blackly comic critique of the (il)logic of capitalist accumulation like those made by Bava in Five Dolls for an August Moon and A Bay of Blood.

And nor does the enigma represented by the titular scorpions and investigated in a Blow Up-inspired darkroom sequence (here Martino even repeats Antonioni's technical error of having the photographer photographing a detail of the photograph to make it clearer) and the recurring plays upon voyeurism – a repeated configuration of one party watching another, unaware of themselves being the subject of a third gaze – amount to a thoroughgoing interrogation of cinematic epistemology and ontology, as in Argento's masterful Deep Red.

La Dolce vita...

... and la dolce morte...

... and the McGuffin

Maybe this leads us back to auteurism, and the positioning of Martino as “Italian Hawks” to Argento's “Italian Hitchcock”, precisely because of this apparent lack of concern for theoretical and intellectual matters coupled with the expression of a confident, self-effacing professional competence as signature trait. But, then, what about the fact that Argento = Italian Hitchcock is itself a too easy comparison that is reductive of both filmmakers.

In the end, perhaps the only thing that can really be said with any degree of certainty is that The Case of the Scorpion's Tail delivers as suspenseful and thrilling entertainment and, as such, is well worth your time / money.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Esotika, Erotika, Psicotika

This bi-lingual Italian-English book from Glittering Images, named after an AKA for Radley Metzger's sophisticated erotic drama The Lickerish Quartet, offers a “kaleidoscopic” view of “sexy Italia,” 1964-73, exploring the sexual revolution of the period as it was expressed in fumetti, fotoromanzi, books, magazines and cinema.

And as such it is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the subject whether in the general – what the Groovy Age of Horror calls the “groovyverse” – or the specific – such as the giallo, if perhaps not so much Argento, here – precisely because it demonstrates just how far it all connects together, whether it be fotoromanzi of films like The Monster of Venice; film adaptations of fumetti like Satanik and Kriminal; people like Corrado Farina and Erna Schurer moving between the forms, the former writing the Barbarella-like comic Selene, The Girl from the Stars then adapting the inimitable Guido Crepax's Baba Yaga for the screen, the latter moving from the fotoromanzi to the cinema; or just that general overarching aesthetic and sensibility.

Thus, for instance, one learns that the heroine of the fumetti Masokis was a reporter, who “is never one to give up [and will] do anything to get a sensational scoop, even sell her own body and violate the law,” suggestive of a prototypical Laura Gemser Emanuelle Nera figure. Likewise, the protagonist of Hessa, “a racist, sadistic, frigid woman” sounds like she would be at home in the likes of Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire / L' Iguana dalla lingua di fuoco

The body of a young woman is found in the trunk of a car belonging to the Swiss ambassador to Ireland, Sobieski (Anton Diffring). Her throat has been slit and her face melted by acid, making identification all but impossible until an anonymous parcel containing her passport is sent to the police and identifies her by name and as of Dutch origin.

The Iguana strikes with his fiery tongue...

... leaving a victim with a face burned beyond recognition

Close ups and zooms on glasses and cut throat razors are everywhere in the film

Do you think Freda is telling us that that ring means something?

With Sobieski recently having arrived from the Netherlands, suspicion falls upon him. Unfortunately he is also protected by diplomatic immunity and has influential connections, compelling Inspector Lawrence to use what he terms “unorthodox methods”.

These it transpires entail getting former colleague Norton (Luigi Pistilli) AKA “the beast”, who was thrown off the force following the death of a suspect whilst in his care, to see what he can find out through more covert means from the ambassador's wife (Valentina Cortese), daughter (Dagmar Lassander) and the embassy staff.

Sure enough, Norton soon uncovers a web of intrigues, including blackmail and drug smuggling. Meanwhile, the killer is steadily working his or her way through the blackmailers and, as Norton gets too closer to the truth, then targets the ex-cop's own daughter and mother – an eccentric old woman who refuses to wear her glasses and takes her own, Miss Marple-like interest in the case...

A blackmailing Tori Amos-alike gets hers

One suspects that responses to The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire will fall into two distinct camps: those who take it as just another giallo directed by a no-name filmmaker, and those who know that behind the multiple credits to “Willy Pareto” lurks one of the founding fathers of Italian horror and thriller cinema, Riccardo Freda.
Taken as just another giallo, the film delivers pretty much what we would expect – a black gloved killer, sleaze, sadism, stalking, sex and set pieces – and is not really any worse than innumerable others. Taken as a Freda film it is frankly a disappointment. Importantly, however, the use of Pareto rather than his more usual Robert Hampton pseudonym indicates that Freda himself was dissatisfied with the film and effectively disowned it.

Lassander doing what she did best

And as the woman in peril in one of the film's few truly effective and accomplished sequences

The questions that then emerge, seeing that Pareto is listed as co-writer, director and editor, are at what point Freda gave up on the film; itself one of the recurring features of his cinema. A man of independent means, Freda was in the apparently enviable position of not having to really worry about where his next paycheck was coming from. The downside, however, was that if he lost interest in a project there was little anyone could do to force him to redouble his efforts. On I Vampiri and Caltiki the Immortal Monster it had not mattered because of Mario Bava's involvement, precisely because his more precarious financial position meant that he could not afford to turn away work or risk getting a reputation for being difficult to work with.

Indeed, in this regard, a comparison of Iguana with Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon seems instructive: While Bava took over that project at the 11th hour and freely admitted to having no enthusiasm for the script he was given, one gets a sense of real enjoyment when watching it, of a filmmaker having fun playing with technique and the spectator's expectations. Here, however, it almost seems as if Freda had an equally muddled script that he thought could be brought to life in the course of filming, only to fail to find a spark at this point, and thus then endeavoured to save it at the editing stage, with little more success.

Taking the script to begin with, Sobieski is too obviously guilty for the attempted whodunnit aspect to really work. It would have been better, one feels, had be been explicitly identified as the killer at the outset, thus allowing the cat and mouse game to be foregrounded. Unfortunately what we get instead is the introduction of Pistilli and Lassander as suspects, with the former's crude proposition – “Well now me fleet footed filly, are we going to have it off in the bushes or on the bike?” – being greeted with the kind of enthusiasm from the latter that would only really make sense in a porn film.

While we do eventually learn Pistilli's true role and that Lassander is well aware of who he is, it does rob us of any strong points of identification until nearly midway through the film and places a sense of dubiety on both characters that fails to completely vanish. Likewise, the conflict between Norton as caring family man, traumatised by an incident in his past – itself shown in repeatedly flashbacks in that classic “primal scene” way – and as violent brute is never satisfactorily resolved.

In terms of the direction and editing, what we have are a few effective set pieces outweighed by a overall crudeness of approach in which far too many scenes degenerate into shock zooms in on and / or close ups of “significant” details, almost – but, crucially not – to the point of obvious parody.

The excessive violence that some have remarked on as further detracting from the film did not, however, seem that out of place as far as I was concerned. While this could be a reflection of desensitization or simply finding the effects work unconvincing, I would prefer to think it is down to the razor slashings and acid splashings being less a radical departure and more a logical continuation of the kind of thing already present in Barbara Steele's hand-held subjective camera razor attack om Peter Baldwin in The Ghost.

Dressed to kill?

Or, that rather than borrowing from Argento, Freda was merely reclaiming his own – albeit in the context of a black-gloved killer and a soundalike title shoehorned into the dialogue that, for better or worse, served to disguise this. (Reversing things, one further wonders if Argento, who has often proclaimed his admiration for Freda in interview, perhaps borrowed from the film's climax for the sequence in Opera where Betty, her vision similarly impaired, unwittingly invites the disguised killer into her apartment.)

One thing that remains is the performances. Though it could be argued that Pistilli and Diffring are really given little opportunity to do anything other than play to type, as man with issues and cold-eyed villain respectively, they perform these roles so well that it is hard to really be bothered. Valentina Cortese, meanwhile, seems to have been the one person to have genuinely enjoyed herself, playing the Ambassador's wife with a mixture of boredom, flirtatiousness, sardonic wit, hauteur and downright out there-ness. Lassander is eye candy, no more, no less.

Another is Stelvio Cipriani's score. Thought some of the cues are used as diegetic shock effects, lessening their value in their own right, the lush, romantic piano pieces with vocalism by Nora Orlandi – an equally talented composer in her own right – that play in the nightclub scene / scene of the second murder are pleasant compensation.

Database of dubbing voices

Looks like it is more of current dubbers than those from the past and is also more for who dubs voices into Italian than the other way around, but probably something of interest nonetheless - e.g. Massimo Foschi is the voice of Darth Vader in Italy

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Legacy of Blood: A Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies

This 2005 release from cult specialists Headpress, published under their Critical Vision imprint, seeks, as its subtitle indicates, to provide a Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies.

Author Jim Harper begins by establishing where he is coming from: that he first and foremost a fan of the form, happy to recognise its good, bad and ugly examples rather than just acknowledging the odd critically respectable exceptions. He likewise establishes what is missing, crucially arguing that gialli would really warrant a book in their own right but also unfortunately not providing the reader with any pointers in that direction.

Part I of the book, running 22 pages, provides a brisk history of the genre from its origins in the likes of Hitchcock's Psycho and Bava's Blood and Black Lace and Twitch of the Death Nerve as “Slasher Bloodlines,” through Halloween and Friday the 13th (“Genesis”) onto A Nightmare on Elm Street (“The nightmare ends?”) before concluding (“Too young to die”) with the emergence of Scream and company in all their pomo ironic glory.

In other words, all the major bases are covered, though the giallo enthusiast might also note the omission of the likes of Martino's Torso, which also featured a co-eds in peril plot and did good business on the US drive-in circuit in the mid-70s, or indeed that films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Tenebre were doing the self-reflexive thing decades before their American counterparts.

Part II, running 30 pages, focusses on the key themes and motifs of the slasher film, in the form of “the heroine”, “the killer”, “location”, and “parents and authority figures” and was, for me, the best part of the book. Not only summarising the academic commentaries on the genre from the likes of Carol J. Clover, Harper also responds to their assertions. Using a broader sample of films and genre knowledge, distinct from the sometimes over-enthusiastically applied theory, he demonstrates that some of the by now well established dogmas, such as the “have sex and you die” notion, are nowhere near as definitive as many have assumed. Perhaps more importantly, to continue to repeat them and to fail to acknowledge the changes that have taken place in the genre, not just post-Scream – in the 2000 film Cherry Falls, for instance, the killer targets virgins – but also through the course of the 1980s – with a shift to more nudity and less gore as the decade wore on – runs the risk of reifying a continually developing form.

Part III, the largest at over 120 pages, provides reviews of some 190 slasher films, ranging from the well known franchises and series to some genuine obscurities, including a smattering of foreign language entries. Typically combining exposition, critique and background detail, these make for lively reading and give a good idea of whether an individual film will suit the reader's tastes. For example, on Wynorski's Sorority House Massacre II: “To be honest the last half of the film is fairly atmospheric and the ending is pretty cool. Even so, the only real reason to watch it is the excessive nudity – even when they're not naked the cast are running round in their underwear. If you're after a T&A slasher film, then [this] is about the best you can do. You get the added bonus of watching Gail Harris trying to keep up an American accent, before giving up halfway through and slipping into her native Yorkshire lilt.”

On the downside, there are again a few noteworthy omissions: Argento's Trauma, for instance, was made stateside in a bid to break into the American marketplace, with the result that its exclusion when Italian-made slasher imitations like Soavi's Stagefright and Deodato's Body Count are present seems odd.

Likewise, there is also the occasional failure to make a trivia connection, as when in the aforementioned Sorority House Massacre II review Harper notes that Wynorski originally had himself credited as Arch Stanton and that Ennio Morricone's theme music for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly plays over the film's end credits but without recognise that Arch Stanton is the name on the grave next to the one containing the gold in Leone's film.

Still, again the good outweighs the bad here, with the reader likely to pick up some new trivia and a shopping list of obscure slashers to check out.

Part IV contains what are really four appendices: “banned films,” on slashers that fell foul of the Department of Public Prosecutions in the UK's “video nasties” scare of the 80s; “before they were famous,” detailing the slasher film exploits of various A- and B-list actors including George Clooney and Tom Hanks; and brief notes on “international slashers” and “seasonal slashers”; all doing little more than compiling together and highlight material present within the other sections but worth inclusion for this selfsame reason.

A few minor misgivings aside, Legacy of Blood is a worthwhile read for slasher fans, though whether there is enough in it to really warrant going for it in preference to the cheaper Movie Essentials volume is harder to say.

Descartes and the giallo ?!

I started reading Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception today as part of my studies, my intention being to produce a broadly phenomenological reading of Dario Argento inspired by the work of film theorists like Vivian Sobchack and Dudley Andrews. The thing that has struck me most so far, however, has been something Merleau-Ponty cites from Rene Descartes 2nd Meditation:

"I do not fail to say that I see men [...] yet what do I see from the window except hats and coats which may cover ghosts or dummies worked by springs? Yet I judge them to be real men"

This seems, to me, a pretty apt way into how we perceive at the archetypal giallo killer, that anonymous, often masked shape whose flesh cannot be seen but which we nevertheless trust to be there.

The next question, I suppose, is whether men in this context refers to humanity in general or specifically to the male, seeing how many gialli rest on our misrecognitions here...

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Three Mothers Trailers

Just a heads up that over at Prevues of Coming Attractions there are the Suspiria and Inferno trailers to download, along with various gialli in the archives.

Friday, 9 February 2007


Eurocine are not particularly noted for gialli, nor good films for that matter, but they did put out a fair number of Jess Franco's films, including The Awful Dr Orloff.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Death Carries a Cane / Passi di danza su una lama di rasoio

While waiting for her boyfriend Alberto to arrive, Kitty (Susan Scott) witnesses a traditionally attired giallo killer attacking a woman. Unfortunately just as the assailant leaves the building the telescope she was using needs more money and by the time she has fed another coin in the killer has fled. Nevertheless Kitty manages to identify the number of house where the crime occurred – 57 – and other witnesses in the form of a chestnut vendor and a girl.

Typical giallo self-reflexive voyeurism

En route to see inspector Merughi (George / Jorge Martin) Alberto (Robert Hoffmann) starts asking questions – did she see the man's face? can she identify the street? – and acting suspiciously.

This, coupled with other circumstantial evidence – an unexplained limp, just like the killer; a penchant for bizarre performance art involving stabbing mannequins (cf. Spasmo); and Hoffmann's sheer shiftiness – sets him up as obvious suspect as the killer starts covering their tracks, leading to a succession of investigative and murder scenes.

Equally however, this is a giallo. Thus, we also have the sexually impotent Marco (Simon Andreu), partner of scoop seeking Paese Sera journalist Lydia, whose sister Silvia (both played by Anuska Borova) also has a limp and is partner of Luciano Rossi; I did not catch the name of his character, but it is not really important given his sheer presence, look and inter-textual associations.

The De Chirico-esque mannequins

The moment where Death Carries a Cane begins to really lose it can perhaps be pinpointed as the point when Kitty agrees to pose as a prostitute to entrap the killer but instead almost gets picked up by the chief of police, as suspense – we know the killer is there, while the police chief has a cane – dissipates into awkward comedy without developing into the kind of critique of police corruption (cf. What Have You Done to Your Daughters) that might otherwise have compensated.

Fortunately the craftsman who made the distinctive bag – can we say McGuffin – that Kitty was using to identify herself recognises it and calls in at the offices of Paesa Sera. This providing a new avenue of investigation that leads Lydia to arrange a meeting with the only remaning eyewitness. But when the woman arrives, the sight of a photograph causes her to flee in terror – might the killer be among those pictured?

Classic giallo imagery and iconography

Worse the killer is in fact waiting. Again, Predeaux shows a flair for suspense and the set-piece, making a Psycho-style association between the assassin's straight razor and the blade of the windscreen wiper, ironically useless against the spatter of blood left on the inside of the car.

Happily yet another plot contrivance, the realisation that three of the female victims were all dancers or dance students, means that the investigation can continue. This in turn leads to a protracted old dark house showdown in a dance academy – or “school at night,” to cite the title of one of Deep Red's musical themes – that again juxtaposes the effective establishment of mood with its puncturing as Kitty develops the need “to go pee-pee” at the crucial moment.

It is not that comedy and giallo are inherently inimical, as is demonstrated by the Commedia dell'arte supporting characters of the Animal Trilogy and the screwball battle of the sexes in Deep Red. Rather it is that the filmmakers here lack Argento's sense of judgement (and even there many Anglophone viewers may well find the laughing / screaming dynamic a touch strange i.e. unfamiliar). Predeaux and company just do not know when to keep things serious – searching through old records and photo albums for clues to the murderer's identity Kitty even finds the time to take pictures of some “absolutely adorable” costumes!

Looking at things the other way round, it this selfsame Argento-style reflexivity, with lines like “you know Kitty, I think you read too many detective novels” or “The investigation is at a standstill, to use an old cliche” everywhere, supplement the artistic protagonists and recurring themes of mediation and voyeurism, and general sense of psychosexual edginess that prevents Death Carries a Cane from succeeding as trashy fun giallo in the vein of Ercoli's otherwise comparable vehicles for the ever-watchable Scott.

Anuska Borova displays her charms

If the reasons for the film's awkwardness are thus fairly self-evident, the biggest mystery is what happened to Anuska Borova, whose only credit(s) this would appear to be, as on this evidence she had both the goods and the willingess to display them to have made a career in this kind of cinema.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Index to French film magazines

With magazines like Positif and Midi-minuit-fantastique the French were ahead of the game in recognising people like Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava; here is a useful index to all manner of French language film magazines over the decades -

Argento -
Bava -
Fulci -

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Fellini / Fulci

This afternoon I watched the 1955 Fellini film Il Bidone, about a trio of con-men whose speciality is posing as priests in order to con poor farmers. At the end of the film one of the trio, now working with different partners, attempts to swindle his erstwhile colleagues by claiming he did not take the money from their last marks, who had a crippled, near-saintly daughter. The others beat him and leave him half way down a slope, some distance from the road. He manages to finally crawl up to the road, but fails to attract the attention of a passing group and then slump to the ground:

Watching the sequence I could not help think of Maciara's death in Fulci's Non si sevizia un paperino:

Significantly, both films focus on a character defined in terms of his or her problematic relationship to children, Il Bidone's Augosto having attempted to keep the money for himself so he could give it to his estranged daughter and Duckling's Maciara having been unable to live a normal life as part of the community following the death of her child and the other villagers' suspicions around her.