There’s a joke formula which, reduced to its essential components goes as follows:
Question: What do you call a man who has done X – something deviant, often of a sexual nature – and A, B, C, D and E – a list of things that are exemplary in every respect?
Answer: an X
Taken back further, I suppose it’s a variant on that line in Julius Caesar, that “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
At this point you may well be wondering what the hell this has to with The Lover of the Monster. The answer is that its director, Sergio Garrone, increasingly appears to me as a victim of what could be described as the Italian filone cinema variant of this formula, which we might tentatively term “Umberto Lenzi Syndrome”.
This would be that, as a filone director, the filmmaker worked on a load of films in different genres, some good and some not so good, but comes to be recognised, if at all, for one or two of the worst and sometimes least representative ones.
With Lenzi it’s the emphasis on the cannibal films like Cannibal Ferox over his gialli and poliziotteschi. With The Lover of the Monster’s writer-director Sergio Garrone it’s the foregrounding of SS Experiment Camp and SS Camp 5 Woman’s Hell over the likes of Django the Bastard and this film.
As in his earlier supernatural horror tinged western, in which we aren’t sure if Anthony Steffen’s eponymous / nameless avenger is alive or dead, Garrone demonstrates a particular facility for conjuring up gothic atmospheres, albeit within a more traditional context.
We begin with the arrival of Anijeska / Anna Nijinsky (Katia Christine) and her husband Alex (Klaus Kinski) at her family's country house, where they intend to stay and to restore to its former glory.
Before long we learn that their marriage, despite both parties' efforts, is not a particularly happy or successful one, with the troubled Alex apparently having suffered an unspecified nervous illness that caused him to give up his own medical practice.
Alex and Anna arrive in characteristically non-communicative mode
Clearly unable to fulfil the dominant masculine role expected of him, the couple sleeping not just in separate beds but also separate rooms, with Alex being assigned Anna's father's old chamber by his wife in a further indication of his impotence and the power dynamics of their relationship, Alex comes to believe that his wife may even have engineered their move to the country house in order that she might be closer to Dr Walensky.
Certainly the young and handsome doctor is quick to pay the couple – or perhaps more specifically Anna – a courtest call, to return and, indeed, to indicate to Anna that his feelings are of an amorous nature and that he has concerns over her husband's mental and physical condition.
Against all this Alex discovers that the late Professor who stayed at the castle was engaged in some mysterious researches, with his well-equipped laboratory still remaining intact.
Alex decides to pick up where the professor left off, first performing some Frankenstein-like experiments with his wife's dog, dead as the result of a fortuitous accident, then moving into more Jekyll and Hyde / Wolfman territory as he becomes afflicted by the same side effects as his predecessor's notes had cryptically alluded via temporary transformation into a half-man, half-beast creature with the overwhelming impulse to kill whomsoever he may come across in the grounds of the house, the woods around it or the village nearby...
While The Lover of the Monster's not totally coherent amalgam of gothic themes could be taken as evidence of the declining relevance of the form, that this was not confined to the Italian gothic is evinced by much of Hammer's output of the time, such as Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde with its equally cut-and-paste mish-mash of Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper and the bodysnatchers Burke and Hare, and the misjudged The Horror of Frankenstein.
Unlike Brian Clemens and Jimmy Sangster, Garrone however avoids the temptation to camp things up or indulge in self-parody, instead playing things commendably straight in inviting his audience to enagage with his scenario in a more traditional way to recall the more romantic and tragic strand represented by the likes of Fisher's The Curse of the Werewolf and Frankenstein Created Woman and Bava's The Whip and the Body.
The setting of the film remains somewhat vague as the late 19th / early 20th century – the book detailing the professor's experiments that Kinski finds is dated 1875 – apparently somewhere in eastern Europe. This dproves to the film's advantage, making us less concerned with the little details and their accuracy or otherwise beyond whether they feel right – though the production designs and uses of colour certainly help convey a verisimilitudinous impression – and concentrating our attention on the more universal aspects of the tale in that once upon a time / fairy tales for adults manner.
Of the film's themes another notable one is the way in which outsiders are treated by the rest of the community, with one man being lynched and another executed for the crimes of Nijinsky's alter-ego. While the treatment of the first victim highlights the attitude of the peasantry – an attitude which could still be represented in a contemporary setting by the likes of Fulci's southern Italian set Don't Torture a Duckling – that of the second is more of a commentary on the supposedly more enlightened authorities, as represented by a Dr Caligari-esque magistrate who quickly forms his own opinion on the facts of the case and will let nothing sway him thereafter. (When the accused pleads his innocence, the magistrate simply says that this is what 'they' always do, reading it as further evidence of the man's guilt in a damned if you do, damned if you don't way.)
Though two wrong accusations might be criticised as poor or lazy writing, especially given the film's already brief running time, I would argue that the variations between them allow Garrone to suggest that both peasantry and burghers alike are prejudiced and unthinking, their natural assumptions being that neither they nor their social superiors could ever have committed such crimes. (This said, however, the film doesn't quite have the same structural elegance of Frankenstein Created Woman, with its guillotining of father and son 15 or so years apart for crimes that they did not commit.)
(in)justice is done
For the 1970s or contemporary century viewer looking back on such representations with a knowledge of 19th century respectable hypocrisy and 20th century genocide – a theme also foregrounded here by the vague positioning of the outsiders as gypsy types and the naming of one as Polanski in an apparent reference to the Polish-Jewish director – the errors in such assumptions are self-evident. (Garrone's self-consious approach to naming his characters is evident elsewhere in the film, with Christine's character's father being called Ivan Rassimov in what appears an in-jokish reference to the star of another of the director's spaghetti westerns, Se vuoi vivere... spara.)
Wonder what the real Ivan Rassimov thought here
As themes these also suggest a degree of continuity with the Nazisploitation entries of a couple years later. Whether intentional or not, it points once more to the near omnipresence of political subtexts in Italian filone films of the period.
Garrone's direction is energetic, perhaps a touch over the top with canted angles, dramatic zooms and handheld work often being the sort of techniques where a more selective deployment proves more telling, but you can at least see he was making the effort and trying to conjure up the appropriate atmospheres. The laboratory and stalking scenes are particularly well realised, with both also making interesting use of sound, the former featuring insane laughter whose source remains unclear and the latter heavy breathing and heartbeats to provide an aural counterpart to the more familiar subjective camera visuals.
Kinski, haunted by visions as usual
Kinski is a natural for Alex thanks to his distictive physiognomy and performance style. Whether or not he actually thought anything much of the role or regarded it as another easy collect-the-paychceck and run job – the latter possibility perhaps more likely on account of his also working on the film's face-transplant themed companion piece, The Hand that Feeds the Dead – is thus something of an irrelevance. More often than not, he just has to be there and deliver one of those looks or expressions that tell us everything we need to know.
Katia Christine likewise impresses, being convincing in a role in which you suspect some actresses would have considered fulfilled by the presence of their beauty alone. There's always the sense of something more to Anna's interactions with Alex and Dr Walensky, that Christine's performance is telling you as much about what's going on as the lines she's delivering.
The film is scored in the old-fashioned orchestral style of composers like Roman Vlad and Carlo Rustichelli, with sweeping themes that do a good job of conveying the characters' passions and torments even if they were again perhaps a touch passe for 1974 audiences.
[This DVI copy of the film, apparently sourced from a TV broadcast and presented in Italian with hard English subtitles was downloaded from Cinemageddon]