Sunday 31 December 2006

Tutti i colori del buio / All the Colours of the Dark

Following a traumatic car accident in which she lost her unborn child, Jane (Edwige Fenech) and has been plagued by exceptionally vivid – read cinematic – nightmares, invariably featuring a stalker with piercing blue eyes.

Images from the nightmare sequence; note the mechanical doll like qualities of the figure in the third image and the use of "any-space whatevers" without the anchoring points of classical-era / movement-image cinema.

Jane's partner Richard (George Hilton) and sister Barbara (Susan Scott / Nieves Navarro) offer alternative therapies. Barbara favours a therapy and arranges for Jane to see Dr Burton (Jorge Rigaud). Richard, who was driving the car at the time of the accident and thus may have his own issues to contend with, dismisses the psychiatrist as a “quack” and offers Jane medication instead, with Barbara in turn countering by reminding him that he is only a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company and not in any way a qualified professional.

A Suspicion or Notorious style drink?

The Woman in the Window

The sisters; I like the way how Fenech is later done up to look more like Navarro as she decides to visit the sabbat:

On her way home from a visit to Dr Burton, Jane encounters the blue eyed man of her nightmares in the street. Panicked, she bumps into her new next-door neighbour, Mary (Marina Malfatti) and is invited in for a calming cup of tea – a nice touch in terms in making the characters seem as English as the locales – and chat. Jane, however, is keen to get back to prepare Richard's dinner, but does agree to meet up with Mary the next morning.

Jane then receives a phone call from a lawyer, Clay (Luciano Pigozzi), who wishes to see her the following afternoon but fails to provide any other information. Then, glancing outside, Jane thinks she sees her stalker. Cautiously venturing into the stairwell, Jane finds herself locked out, with someone advancing. Thankfully – or suspiciously, depending on your perception of how events are proceeding thus far – Richard emerges from the elevator at just the right moment.

The following morning Jane confides in Mary, who proposed a third, decidedly more unorthodox solution, that Jane should visit a witches sabbat. Despite not knowing what one is nor what it will entail, beyond Mary's explanation that “it's a certain kind of black magic ritual,” Jane is by now desperate enough to try anything and thus agrees to rendezvous with Mary following her visit to the lawyers.

As it turns out, Jane doesn't get very far there anyway: the blue eyed man is there, waiting, and attacks her with an axe. This encounter and the ensuing chase does not, however, prevent Jane meeting Mary (albeit an hour late; “it's not like a cinema when one can walk in any time,” admonishes Mary in a neat little self-reflexive remark) and attending the sabbat thereafter. There is she is disturbed by the animal sacrifice, but nevertheless participates in drinking its blood and in the orgy that ensues as the cultists welcome their new member.

Seamlessly the action shifts back to home, with Jane and Richard in bed:

Darling, no more bad dreams.
Everything's back to normal, isn't it Jane?
Yes, but I feel strange, Richard. I don't feel real

It seems that Mary's cure has indeed worked – after a fashion. But with the neighbour soon thereafter admitting to her own motives for involving Jane with the cult; a book about black magic appearing among Richard's possessions, and an apparent conspiracy between Richard and the blue eyed man, it quickly becomes clear that things are about to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Note the way the fragmentation of Fenech's image signifies that all is decidedly not well, even immediately after her visit to the sabbat seems to have done its job.

True, the old adage says that it is always darkest before the dawn, but in a context where the dark itself has colours – all of them – that might well be devoid of assurance...

Reuniting the main cast and crew of The Strange Vice of Signora Wardh and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, this 1972 giallo blends typical filone themes – a traumatic past event; conspiracy; female neurosis etc. – with more overtly supernatural horror themed Rosemary's Baby styled material, to good overall effect.

The screenplay, co-authored by Ernesto Gastaldi and Sauro Scavolini from a story by Santiago Moncada, provides a solid starting point, keeping the viewer guessing as to the nature of the conspiracy throughout and giving director Sergio Martino and his all-star ensemble enough to work with.

Martino handles the suspense and action sequences with typical aplomb, while the assorted nightmare scenes afford him and his team the chance to experiment with unusual angles, kaleidoscopic lenses and jarring edits. It may not be particularly subtle – there is little ambiguity in what the components of the nightmares mean, for instance, especially in comparison with something like Lucio Fulci's not too dissimilar Lizard in a Woman's Skin – but it is effective and appropriate in the context of Mikel Koven's “vernacular cinema”.

Hilton plays Richard with the right level of creepiness, not sufficient to make him an obvious villain, but enough to induce a degree of uncertainty; as when he and Scott are discussing Jane's condition and apportioning blame to one another.

As was often the case, Rassimov has an inherently less interesting role, though never fails to impart the required aura of menace to his appearances.

Of all the performers, however, this is Fenech's film. Though undoubtedly cast primarily on account of family connections as the then-partner of Sergio Martino's producer brother Luciano and for being a stunning beauty with a willingness to display her assets, her dramatic abilities really shine through as the increasingly paranoid and unstable Jane. Indeed, again one feels sorry for the actress and others like her in the Euro-cult world for never being recognised for anything other than their looks; personally I find her performance here more than equal to that of Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby. (Again, before we dismiss the film as simply ripping-off an – admittedly excellent – original, it is worth remembering that the filmmakers have, as with much filone cinema, introduced their own twists, in that Jane lost her baby before any worries about what it might turn out to be, Rosemary's Baby style, could ever arise.)

Elsewhere, Bruno Nicolai's score is another plus. Suggesting Rosemary's Baby early on via a lullaby theme, he elsewhere offers a winning combination of suspenseful and psychedelic themes, the latter again somewhat reminiscent of his work for Jess Franco at times. Whatever the mood to be set, he gets it; a seemingly incongruous lounge piece immediately after Jane's initial visit to the sabbat explicable in relation to Jane's momentarily lighter mood.

Not, however, that All the Colours of the Dark is an unqualified masterpiece.

For starters, the coven plot fails to really convince. Though Jane is presented as desperate, the ease with which she goes off to a sabbat with a neighbour she's only just met is too convenient, as is the timing of that sabbat the vert next afternoon – no waiting until the stars are right for these cultists!

Martino also fails to play fair with the viewer on one important occasion. Whereas the second time viewer can notice the vital detail protagonist Marc Daly does not in Dario Argento's Deep Red, the director having sufficient confidence in his abilities to misdirect the first time viewer by sleight of hand, here a key signifier is simply concealed from our eyes. Then again, it is worth remembering that neither The Bird with the Crystal Plumage nor Four Flies on Grey Velvet exactly plays a fair game – if Martino was not ahead of his rival cineaste at this time, he was not appreciably far behind either.

Another thing that hurts the film, albeit to a lesser extent, are the voices given some of the supporting characters, which come straight from the Dick Van Dyke / Eliza Doolittle school of Cockney elocution and thus serve to break the otherwise convincing sense of Londonicity – to pretentiously appropriate a concept from Roland Barthes – accomplished elsewhere.

Kenilworth Court, SW15 as it appears in the film

... and today

Still, in the final analysis these are relatively minor issues in what otherwise emerges as an enjoyable, effective blend of giallo and horror that sees everyone concerned – Fenech above all – at or near the top of their respective games.

Cold Eyes of Fear / Gli Occhi freddi della paura

Respectable lawyer Peter Flower (Gianni Garko) picks up Italian prostitute Anna (Giovanna Ralli) at a London nightclub and takes her back to his uncle's town-house. They soon discover the body of butler Hawkings – who was supposed to have left, Peter having telephoned to inform him of wanting to be left alone – and worse. For a gunman, Quill (Julian Mateos), is waiting.

Peter's Uncle, Judge Baddell (Fernando Rey), telephones about a case they are working on, affording the younger man the opportunity to attempt to convey the danger of the situation in a coded form.

When a policeman turns up at the door shortly afterwards with a note, Peter thinks that he and Anna are saved. But the policeman, Welt (Frank Wolff) is in fact, bogus and in league with Quill, whom he has convinced the house contains a safe filled with valuables. Welt himself, meanwhile, is motivated by a desire for revenge on Baddell, whom he blames for his 15-year prison sentence...

Also known as Desperate Moments – a title that (over)emphasises the Desperate Hours like nature of the piece – this Italian-Spanish co-production is the kind of giallo that raises interesting questions of the generic label. While undoubtedly qualifying in the broader, literary sense of the term by virtue of being a thriller, it lacks many of the typical characteristics of the giallo film.

The on-screen title of Desperate Moments

The opening sequence, in which a scantily clad woman is menaced by a knife-wielding attacker, then seems to consent to his advances, then manages to get the knife at stab him, is instructive in this regard, as the camera pulls back to then reveal the presence of an audience and the status of the piece as a nightclub act.

Does the absence of black gloves and white sleeve already indicate that nothing is quite as it seems here?

Be on your guard; do not trust what you are seeing is thus the emphatic message even before characters like the fake cop are introduced as such; this message enhanced by Castellari's distinctively cinematic approach here and elsewhere, with a emphasis upon dramatic angles; jarring edits; zooms; tight close-ups; slow motion; rack focus; cross-cutting and other devices to counterbalance the element of theatricality otherwise inherent to any piece with limited locations and characters.

Is that a J&B I see before me? Early on, Peter comments that his uncle must be Scottish because he hides the whisky. But it soon appears...

Though the production design is generally quite subdued - and thereby perhaps better in conveying the conservative good taste of the judge and his nephew - there does seem a subtle element of yellow running through many of the sets and set-ups.

At the same time a slight over-abundance of fist-fights as the film progresses – most notably an otherwise unrelated gang brawl that prevents a patrol car from calling on the house two-thirds of the way through – also gives the sense that the director would have been more comfortable dealing with straightforward action fare of the western or cop types that make up the majority of his filmography. (Castellari was, after all, also the man first offered directorial duties on Zombie, which he declined in favour of Fulci, at that time just coming off the disappointment of the supernatual giallo Sette note in nero.)

One of Castellari's most striking shots in a film full of them

A reminder that this is the man who did The Big Racket and The Bronx Warriors

"He's just a poor boy, from a poor family" - Julian Mateos in Freddie Mercury mode

Another part of the same psychedelic nightmare sequence

There are also some basic continuity problems with the exteriors, which sometimes switch haphazardly between night and day, as if the filmmakers did not not manage to grab enough location footage on their London sojourn before returning to Cinecittà.

Wolff, Ralli and Garko deliver quality performances. It is harder to evaluate Mateos's contribution on account of the unconvincing Mockney accent his English dubber has saddled him with, while Rey seems a touch underused, being literally allowed to telephone in his lines for much of the film

The cast also benefit from a finely crafted screenplay, credited on screen to Castellari and Tito Carpi but to Leila Buongiorno and José María Nunes's on the IMDB entry. Whoever is responsible - the IMDB can be unreliable with films like this, whose credits in turn are not always to be trusted - they have given the characters more convincing motivations and complex personalities than those found in the typical Italian-Spanish co-production.

Thus, for example, Welt's desire for revenge is overlaid with a strong sense of being made the fall guy on account of his lowly class position, whilst Quill's relationship with his co-conspirator is complicated by his homosexual desires towards him. Consequently, even if the viewer is not necessarily invited to identify with them, he or she at least gets a sense of their reality and complexity. This is all the more so when it comes to Anna, presented as a refreshing antithesis to the conventional tart stereotypes and, arguably, the strongest character in the film.

Here it is also interesting to note some of the parallels between Cold Eyes of Fear and Ruggero Deodato's better-known, nastier - yet ultimately perhaps less effective, precisely because its excesses do not always convince - House on the Edge of the Park. Tracing things through, we find that Buongiorno later collaborated with Park co-writer Gianfranco Clerici on Marino Girolami's Italia a mano armata – Marino being Enzo's father – and was subsequently reunited with both Nunes and Castellari on Sensitività, suggestively retitled in English as The House by the Edge of the Lake and The Last House Near the Lake. (As ever, more information on when the film was released in English under each title and by whom etc. would be instructive.)

Ennio Morricone's partially improvised, free jazz style score is another of Cold Eyes of Fear's plusses. It is not the sort of thing you would necessarily want to listen to for pleasure – tellingly during some early scene setting as Peter and Anna take in the London nightlife the Belinda May theme is used, as the score lacks any lounge or bossa nova cues – but in this context serves to rack up the tension.

Saturday 30 December 2006

The Hardest Working (Wo)man in (Italian 1970s) Showbusiness?

Scanning the credits of many Italian films of the 1970s you are likely to see the name Carla Mancini C.S.C crop up. According to her IMDB entry she appeared in 191 films between 1970 and 77, with no fewer than 51 in 1972 alone.

Yet just try actually identifying who she is, putting a face to the name and initials. It is very difficult, precisely because often as not she is a face in the crowd, or likely appeared in scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor or were never even shot in the first instance.

The key to this lies in those three letters C.S.C. For at the time Italian films were supposed to employ a certain number of centro sperimentale cinematografia graduates and got financial breaks for they did so. If Mancini's credits are anything to go by, it must have been a nice little earner to be in on...

Carla Mancini C.S.C in The Perfume of the Woman in Black, apparently...

Slaughter Hotel

At an isolated clinic in the country, festooned with medieval weaponry and torture implements, a black-clad figure skulks along the corridor before entering the room of a writing, naked patient, Cheryl Hume. But before the figure can strike, she rings the service bell...

Come morning and a new patient is being driven the clinic by her husband. It is for her own good, he assures; a place where she can get the help she needs for her suicidal tendencies.

Meantime, nymphomaniac Anne Palmieri, eyes up the scythe-wielding handyman, while nurse Hilde makes lesbian advances towards the agarophobic Claire and sinister Dr Clay – cynics might say that being played by Klaus Kinski has the effect of making any character sinister – does his daily rounds.

Night falls and Anne sneaks out to a rendezvous with the handyman, narrowly missing a scythe -wielding assassins who then decapitates one of the assassins. Oblivious, Anne takes a shower...

Thus it continues until the presence of a murderer in their midst is belatedly realised and the culprit unmasked shortly afterwards, precipitating a final killing spree that doubles the body count in the space of a few minutes and allowed for some typically opportunistic and tasteless marketing that drew comparisons with the real-life case of Richard Speck.

As a conventional giallo Slaughter Hotel can only be considered a failure. There is not really anyone for the spectator to identify with while the traditional detective element is pretty much non-existent. Indeed the plot synopsis above is instructive in this regard, paradoxically telling you everything yet nothing.

Nor is there any particular motive provided for the crimes. Here it is worth noting that this Slaughter Hotel edit is only one of many, other versions including the English dubbed Asylum Erotica and the French Les Insatisfaites Poupes Erotiques du Docteur Hichcock, suggestive of a line of descent from Spellbound through Freda, perhaps.

Most intriguing, however, is a credit given Heinz Konsalik, a popular German author of medical themed thriller and war novels. While unfortunately I know nothing of his work in general nor Das Schloss der blauen Vögel specifically, they do seem to suggest a stronger raison d'etre for the clinic as a place where rich men can get rid of troublesome wives and a reason for all those implements of death conveniently zuhanden.

What we do get are a procession of sex and murder scenes, interspersed with rather too many flashbacks that singularly fail to advance the narrative but do pad out the running time. The mix-and-match exploitation aspect, meanwhile, is made all the more evident by the way in which the pudenda on display during some of the masturbation inserts here are all too obviously not those of the performers listed in the credits. As Tim Lucas has pointed out Rosalba Neri, who plays the nymphomaniac, has an operation scar visible on her stomach in one scene which is then conspicuously absent from the other lower body on display in the harder material.

Such moments also remind us of how easy it can be to over-analyse the cult films. One could well imagine a reading of this fragmentation of the female body into a succession of parts here as being all about male fetishism, disavowal, castration anxiety and so on, to which a putatively feminist full body erotics would then be contrasted. What such a reading – and I freely admit it has something of the straw (wo|hu)man about it – omits is the purely pragmatic aspect, of filmmakers pre-empting the need to edit material like Neri's body double's antics in or out.

This also makes it all the more difficult to fairly evaluate a Slaughter Hotel, as you do not know what was intended by the film-makers – or, less kindly, whether they even had any aspirations beyond endeavouring to deliver something for everyone.

Nonetheless, I would tend to lean towards the latter position in this case, in accord with director and co-writer Fernando Di Leo's refreshingly candid remarks on the interview contained among the extras on Shriek Show's DVD.

For despite having all that sleaze and splatter and a quality cast going for it, I find the film curiously unengaged and unengaging, especially when compared to something like Renato Poselli's Delirium as a film that occupies the same territory yet nevertheless emerges as something that could only really have emerged from the fervid mind of its unmistakable auteur.

The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave / The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

One of the giallo highlights of the year has to be Noshame's Emilio P. Miraglia box-set, comprising the films The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times; an extensive set of interviews, trailers and other extras; a collectible figurine of the Red Queen; a couple of mini-poster reproductions, and a booklet with informative pieces about the films along with their casts and crews by Chris D. and Richard Harland-Smith.

While the films themselves are not quite enough to convince me that Miraglia is an unheralded master of the form, they come damnably close and certainly make one regret his limited output. Likewise, the close thematic and stylistic similarities between the two films, Red Queen being almost a distaff revisioning of Evelyn at times, would seem to support a broadly auteurist reading; a less charitable interpretation, of course, simply that they showcase a lack of imagination and a lazy reuse of the same formula.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave

Despite psychiatric treatment, Lord Alan Cunningham remains obsessed by the memory of his dead wife, Evelyn. First, he picks up prostitute who reminds him of Evelyn, takes her back to his castle and, after a spot of whipping, kills her.

Cunningham's premeditation in switching the number plates makes him a less sympathetic protagonist

Miraglia likes framing shots through objects

He also likes using "auratic" paintings - Walter Benjamin meets Laura, as it were

Venus in Furs is waiting...

"Great art can have great power" as Alan sees Evelyn

Following an attempt to contact Evelyn's spirit through a séance – Cunningham sees her, but the other members of the circle of family and associates do not – he decides to get away from the estate and spend some time in London instead.

Visiting a club recommended to him by his cousin George, Cunningham sees a stripper – her act begins with her emerging from a coffin, like something out of a Jess Franco film; a sense enhanced by some of Bruno Nicolai's musical cues actually seeming to stem directly from his work for the Spaniard – whose red hair makes her look like Evelyn.

Vampyros Lesbos a la Erica Blanc?

Accordingly he pays the woman to return to the castle with him – the previous scenario looking likely to play itself out again. But as Cunningham chases the woman through the grounds the pursuit takes them to the family tomb, where he is overcome and faints. By the time he comes to the woman is nowhere to be seen...

Femina ridens...

... but not for long

Meeting the beautiful Gladys at a party, Cunningham finds himself able to finally put Evelyn's memory behind him and, following a night of passion, engaged and swiftly married.

Then strange things start happening. Has Evelyn returned?

Another through object composition / association

Whose fashions are worse; and could the symbolism in the centre be much more blatant?

The "Addicted to Love" maids

Is that the Red Queen's cloak in Evelyn?

The same use of red / blue colour associations

Something she threw on, and nearly missed with...

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

As children Kitty and Evelyn Wildenbruck were told the story of the family curse by their elderly grandfather: every century two sisters have re-enacted the story of their rival ancestors; it being easy to see from the girls' contrasting natures which will fulfill the Red Queen's murderous role and the Black Queen's victim one.

Yet more art holding a power...

"Off with her heads" said the Red Queen; note the broken doll imagery once more

But with “wicked sister” Evelyn then dying in an accident it seems that the curse have failed this time.

"Blood, like a crimson highway..." - Kitty's Twist of Cain

Then 100 years to the day since the last appearance of the Red Queen, Grandfather Wildenbruck is found dead in his bed, a manic laugh being heard and a red-cloaked figure sighted fleeing across the castle bridge. Has the Red Queen returned once more? It certainly seems that way as she kills again and Kitty – now a fashion photographer – finds herself being menaced...

Another composition through an object, here abstracted

Again, Marina Malfatti throws on something...

Miraglia also likes using multiple, distorted and dutch-angled images in both films

La Dolce Vita, circa 1973; at times Bouchet and Malfatti seem to be competing to see who can have the most costume changes alloted them

The Red Queen herself?


What we have here, then, are two films that while consciously avoid urban Italian settings for other European locales – Red Queen being set in Austria – otherwise concern themselves with that familiar world of sophisticated, privileged types haunted by past traumas; their family curses and crumbling ancestral piles allowing for a more fantastical Gothic horror atmosphere than can generally prevails within the more familiar Turin or Rome locales.

A key strength or weakness of each – it depends on your perspective – is perhaps their lack of a strong central protagonist with whom one can whole-heartedly sympathise, although Kitty's sustained childhood victimisation and subsequent contrition at her involvement in Evelyn's accidental death certainly make her easier to identify with than the prostitute-killing Cunningham.; of course, the other obvious difference here is that Cunningham is played by Anthony Steffen, again better than many would give him credit for, but still likely not a match for the ever-beautiful Barbara Bouchet as Kitty in the typical fan calculation (Another film that might be considered here is Bava's The Whip and the Body, where Nevenka's complicitly again seems more excusable in terms of stereotypical feminine passivity and victimhood; at times Cunningham seems like a present-day, male revisioning of Daliah Lavi's character.)

Unsurprisingly both films are also better on style – of which, in line with the various image grabs, there is too much to really itemise; both films being a visual treat in both their general design and mise-en-scene, but also crucially showing strong signs of having been genuinely thought through in these regard – atmosphere – Nicolai's multi-faceted scores a real boon here – and set-pieces than in terms of narrative coherence and convincing, well-rounded characters. (Or, as far as conventional narrative goes – there are frequently less linear and straightforward associational relations at play here.)

But, again, to criticise this kind of giallo for using stock characters such as the greedy groundsman and sinister wheelchair-bound aunt in Evelyn or the shady businessman with cashflow problems and a madwoman in the attic (well, asylum) type ex-wife in Red Queen seems besides the point. They are, after all, archetypal figures who are there precisely because audiences can immediately recognise what they mean; the modern-day equivalents of commedia dell'arte figures like Arlecchino, Brighella or Columbina.

Here, it is also worth remembering that another filone broadly contemporaneous with the giallo was the Decamerotic, and that filmmakers such as Sergio Martino and performers like Edwige Fenech made significant contributions to the slightly later sex comedy cycle; plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, indeed...

Similar kinds of argument might be made regarding one area where Evelyn in particular perhaps seems weak when re-viewed in a more analytic frame of mind: trick scenes in which a conspirator acts as if they do not know what is really going on for the audience, despite being diegetically alone and not needing to perform. It comes back, again, to Hitchcock's distinction between “suspense” and “surprise” and the typical giallo filmmaker's different set of priorities. (And, to reiterate a point made elsewhere, assumes that Hitchcock would himself always do as he said.)

With there being little to say about the quality of the DVD transfers – both absoutely stunning, in the original aspect ratio and with the choice of English or Italian audio – it is perhaps worth closing with one minor criticism. This is Noshame's apparent failure to recognise the important contribution made to both films by Marina Malfatti; a performer whose work in the genre and talents – amply on display, if you get my drift – invariably seems to be overshadowed by her co-stars.