Sunday 30 December 2007

Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style and Politics


The cover and title are somewhat misleading, insofar as there is no detailed discussion of Satan's Cheerleaders and the tone of the pieces is academic rather tha sleazy. No doubt Sconce would contend that this is an ironic reflection of the kind of films featured within the volume, insofar as in his own essay he notes how our mental picture of a Nude for Satan was one that the films themselves could never hope to live up to.

Yet it also, to me, speaks of a certain lack of reflexivity about the academic game itself, that one wants to know about its conventions here in terms, fundamentally, of what sells best in its marketplaces and of a continuing gulf between the fan and academic discourses when, for instance, Kevin Heffernan's article on the changing status of Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil and House of Exorcism arguably does little more than recast the work of a Tim Lucas in more theoretical guise or where Something Weird's Blue Book catalog has as much to tell us about the history of 60s and 70s sexploitation and porn as Eric Schaeffer's admittedly impressively researched essay.

Ranting aside, the essays are the usual mixed bag, with much of interest for fans and scholars of European horror cinema.

Schaeffer's essay 'Framing the Sexploitation Audience' indicates how the marketing of sexploitation films contributed to the discourse of the raincoat audience as deviant, thus ironically creating a situation in which the films could no longer be advertised in the mainstream media thereby further contributing to their ghettoisation – unanticipated consequences strike again.

Tania Modleski's 'Women's Cinema as Counterphobic cinema' takes Doris Wishman as her test case and performs the usual feminist detournements and deconstructions to end with the slogan “bad girls unite”; as such one eagerly awaits a follow-up piece defending Lizzie Borden's Cocktails. Unless, of course, not every sister is in fact a sister...

Harry Benshoff's 'Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-military' film is self-explanatory and does what it says on the tin.

A similar predictability limits Chuck Kleinhans 'Pornography and Documentary,' insofar as exposing the base material realities of mondo and white coater films is hardly the most challenging of tasks. Late capitalism, the cash nexus, blah blah blah. Tell us the same thing as it relates to academic publishing in late capitalism...

Colin Gunckel's 'Origins and Anatomy of the Aztec Horror Film' brings out what he terms “additional, even provocative explanations for the existence of this curious subgenre,” in the form of the way it engaged with the historical and cultural specificities of Mexican identity in a way that Hollywood product could not. It makes sense but there's the rub: wouldn't it in many respects be more surprising to find a national popular cinema cycle that did not connect with a national population? But while I didn't get too much out of this essay, perhaps this is because of having read Doyle Green and David Wilt's work on much the same subject...

Kay Dickinson's Troubling Synthesis looks at the place of music in five Italian video nasties – Cannibals Holocaust and Ferox, Inferno, Tenebrae and The Beyond, arguing that the detached nature of the music, in its lack of obvious engagement with the on-screen action and use of the synthesiser, could have contributed to the negative readings afforded these films in the early 1980s. It's a piece that I think has the right ideas, in countering the dominant vision-centred approach to the film experience that stems from psychoanalytic theory in particular, but whose reading of the semiotics of the synthesiser as “cold” and “inhuman” seems somewhat essentialising. As I understand it, analog synthesisers of the sort used in these films are now commonly referred to as having “warm” sounds in comparison with the later digital synthesisers, while she also fails to discuss Frizzi's use of the Mellotron, which I've seen described as an instrument with a very distinctive personality to it (Robert Fripp: “Tuning a mellotron doesn't”) in The Beyond's score. Maybe I'm being pedantic, but pedantry is what being a cult fan is all about...

Joan Hawkins's 'The Sleazy Pedigree of Todd Haynes' does a Cutting-Edge type reading on the director's work, seeking to bring out its low culture aspects (i.e. Meyer rather than Sirk and Fassbinder) and made me wonder when / if someone will ever do straight readings of queer films that bring out their repressed heterosexuality...

Matt Hills's 'Para-Paracinema' is, for me, the most useful and challenging essay in the collection. Looking at the characterisation of the Friday the 13th films amongst both the academic and cult film audiences, he identifies them as an object which both groups can unite in their hostility towards as lacking in subversive potential for the former and too mainstream for the latter, with this failure to engage being seen in frequent factual errors in the discussion of them. While I can't say that I particularly want to look at the films again – perhaps because there's no cultural or subcultural capital to really be gained thereby now that Hills has made the point – it does suggest that a more honest way for the enterprise to proceed could, in effect, be for films to be assigned to us whose value and interest we then have to make a case for, rather than choosing the films that we like in part on the basis of our pre-existing theories about them. (Yes, I'm currently in a what if Argento has been all played out and I'm just a johnny come lately; should I have made my investment in, say, Italian cop films instead and pushed them as the next big thing. Or more broadly, when territorialisation and careerism come in, where does the fun go?)

Chris Fujiwara's 'Bordedom, Spasmo and the Italian System' is one of those challenging intellectual exercises that brings Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Lenzi together. Those who have read Michael Grant's essay on T. S Eliot's The Wasteland and Lucio Fulci's The Beyond will find it right up their street, while others might consider it intellectual masturbation of the worst sort. (On the subject of Spasmo, am I alone in thinking that it would make for an interesting comparison piece to David Fincher's The Game?)

Greg Taylor's 'Pure Quidditas or Geek Chic?' examines US television show Beat the Geeks and the discoures around geekdom it explores. I haven't seen the show, but imagine it would make for an interesting comparison to the likes of Mastermind or a Radio 4 quiz programme here in the UK, insofar as they're each dealing with trivia, albeit of different sorts – i.e. my trivia is pointless shit, whereas yours is culturally validated as valuable knowledge. Of course, once civilisation breaks down we'll both be equally fucked compared to the aborigine who couldn't care less about Deodato or Derrida...

Jeffrey Sconce's Movies: A Century of Failure diagnoses the current crisis but has a predictably more difficult time finding any solutions. For my part, I was more interested to discover that the Rape of Frankenstein story Andrea narrates in Four Flies on Grey Velvet would seem to have been a borrowing from a 1971 novel by Jacques Sternberg, Toi, Ma Nuit / Sexualis '95...

Sometimes it is that chance encounter that makes it all worthwhile...


Thursday 20 December 2007

Four Flies on Grey Velvet AVI

Presumably ripped from the German DVD; certainly looks better than the previously existing releases - you can actually see what's going on in all of the screenshots!

Nice Italian horror site

Self-explanatory really; the site is in Italian but doesn't just look at Italian horror films:

Wednesday 19 December 2007

CSI: Giallo

In his review of The Card Player Alan Jones raises the idea of CSI: Rome. An amusing coincidence, then, when the CSI: Miami episode 'Born to Kill' has a XYY-chromosome serial killer a la The Cat o' Nine Tails...

Monday 17 December 2007

Edwige Fenech clips

I'm sure I've posted some of these before: various clips of Edwige Fenech in various states of undress from various films.

Madame Bovary

Asso - 5.7 Mb - 5.2 Mb

Cornetti alla crema - 1.8 Mb - 1.9 Mb

Tais-toi quand tu parles! - 4.7 Mb - 2.1 Mb

Il Ficcanaso - 4.4 Mb - 2.9 Mb - 3.0 Mb - 3.3 Mb

Io e Caterina - 7.0 Mb

La Moglie in vacanza... l'amante in citta - 3.9 Mb

Il Ladrone - 7.7 Mb - 1.8 Mb - 2.5 Mb

La Poliziotta della squadra del buoncostume - 3.8 Mb - 5.9 Mb - 6.4 Mb - 4.6 Mb

L' Insegnante va in collegio - 1.5 Mb

La Soldatessa alla visita militare - 2.0 Mb - 4.0 Mb - 5.3 Mb

Taxi Girl - 2.4 Mb - 4.6 Mb - 3.6 Mb - 4.9 Mb - 3.5 Mb - 4.4 Mb - 2.9 Mb

La Vergine, il toro e il capricorno - 2.5 Mb - 3.9 Mb - 4.0 Mb - 5.5 Mb - 7.8 Mb - 5.6 Mb - 1.7 Mb - 6.4 Mb - 7.7 Mb

Cattivi pensieri - 1.8 Mb - 3.1 Mb - 6.5 Mb - 4.3 Mb - 1.8 Mb - 2.5 Mb - 3.8 Mb - 0.8 Mb - 6.9 Mb

La Dottoressa del distretto militare - 6.2 Mb - 5.9 Mb - 6.4 Mb - 3.0 Mb

La Pretora - 6.8 Mb - 5.3 Mb - 7.5 Mb - 9.4 Mb - 2.0 Mb - 2.4 Mb - 5.8 Mb - 8.1 Mb

Sex with a Smile - 2.4 Mb - 2.2 Mb

Grazie nonna - 3.5 Mb - 0.9 Mb

L' Insegnante - 3.7 Mb - 7.0 Mb - 1.7 Mb - 2.6 Mb

La Moglie vergine - 5.6 Mb - 1.7 Mb - 2.0 Mb - 7.8 Mb - 4.5 Mb - 1.4 Mb

Nude per l'assassino - 3.2 Mb - 7.1 Mb - 1.2 Mb

La Poliziotta fa carriera - 3.8 Mb - 3.3 Mb - 5.3 Mb

La Signora gioca bene a scopa? - 6.6 Mb - 6.7 Mb - 7.7 Mb - 3.9 Mb - 6.6 Mb - 8.3 Mb - 6.3 Mb

La Vedova inconsolabile ringrazia quanti la consolarono - 2.1 Mb - 2.9 Mb - 1.8 Mb - 6.6 Mb - 2.4 Mb - 3.3 Mb - 0.6 Mb - 5.8 Mb

Escape from Death Row - 5.8 Mb

Giovannona Long-Thigh - 9.8 Mb - 1.6 Mb

Secrets of a Call Girl - 8.6 Mb - 1.2 Mb - 5.1 Mb - 4.9 Mb

La Bella Antonia, prima Monica e poi Dimonia - 6.4 Mb - 2.9 Mb - 6.9 Mb - 1.5 Mb - 2.3 Mb

Quando le donne si chiamavano 'Madonne' - 3.6 Mb - 6.5 Mb - 2.3 Mb - 4.8 Mb

Ubalda, All Naked and Warm - 7.9 Mb - 8.0 Mb - 9.8 Mb - 6.0 Mb - 3.0 Mb

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh - 4.3 Mb - 3.2 Mb - 6.7 Mb - 6.3 Mb - 3.7 Mb

The Blonde and the Black Pussycat - 6.6 Mb

Frau Wirtin hat auch eine Nichte - 5.0 Mb - 3.7 Mb - 2.4 Mb

There were a few others, but they didn't copy and paste with the paths to the files.

Enjoy :-)

After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality

“Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the most famous director to have ever made a film. Almost single-handedly he turned the suspense thriller into one of the most popular film genres of all time, while his Psycho updated the horror film and inspired two generations of directors to imitate and adapt this most Hitchcockian of movies. Yet while much scholarly and popular attention has focused on the director's oeuvre, until now there has been no extensive study of how Alfred Hitchcock's films and methods have affected and transformed the history of the film medium.

In this book, thirteen original essays by leading film scholars reveal the richness and variety of Alfred Hitchcock's legacy as they trace his shaping influence on particular films, filmmakers, genres, and even on film criticism. Some essays concentrate on films that imitate Hitchcock in diverse ways, including the movies of Brian de Palma and thrillers such as True Lies, The Silence of the Lambs, and Dead Again. Other essays look at genres that have been influenced by Hitchcock's work, including the 1970s paranoid thriller, the Italian giallo film, and the post-Psycho horror film. The remaining essays investigate developments within film culture and academic film study, including the enthusiasm of French New Wave filmmakers for Hitchcock's work, his influence on the filmic representation of violence in the post-studio Hollywood era, and the ways in which his films have become central texts for film theorists.”

Anyone read or know of this book, particularly who wrote the Hitchcock and the giallo chapter and whether it's any good?

Saturday 15 December 2007

A Doppia faccia / Double Face / Liz et Helen / Das Gesicht im Dunkeln

“This is how it all ended. Tragically. And to think it was all planned out, down to the smallest detail.”

John Alexander looks in on his wife Helen and her 'friend' Liz and doesn't like what he sees.

Thus proclaims John Alexander (Klaus Kinski) in voice-off on arrival at the burning wreckage of the car he has been chasing, which has just been smashed to bits in a collision with a train.

It's a powerful opening that immediately sets you wondering and easily overcomes any qualms about the dodgy model work.

The credits, featuring various pseudonyms roll over the wreckage and we are plunged back in time. John continues:

“I met Helen Brown over the Holidays. I immediately fell in love with her. And we got married. The minute we got back to London Helen's attitude changed quickly.”

The problem is that Helen (Margaret Lee) has become a bit too close to her friend Liz (Annabella Incontrerra), with further insult to masculine pride stemming from the fact that it is Helen who is the wealthy one, owning 90 per cent of the shares in the company and employing both her husband and father, Mr Brown (Sydney Chaplin).

Classic giallo and krimi imageryblack gloves, tape recorder, woman with knife where not all may be as it seems

At night someone plants a small device in Helen's sports car.

The 'split' screen and the mirror image

The next day she drives off at high speed, with the news later coming through that she has been in an accident. The body in the vehicle is burned beyond recognition, but there seems little doubt it was Helen.

Husband and father at the accident scene

Unfortunately for whoever planted the bomb, the police have their suspicions of foul play – especially seeing as they have learned of Helen's will, in which she was to leave everything to John and the issue of a divorce likely leading to a change in it.

Finally returning to the family home, John is surprised to hear Helen's favourite piece of music playing upstairs. Investigating, he finds Christine, 18 “and with no inhibitions,” in Helen's room taking a shower.

Is this Helen?

Rather than calling the police, however, John takes Christine home but winds up at a hippie happening instead. Iin a backroom, a smaller group has assembled to watch a new porn film featuring Christine and another woman. Her face is obscured, but a distinctive ring and scar on her neck suggest she could be Helen, as do the fragments of information that Christine can tell him. The woman, known only as the Countess, showed up a week or so ago and admitted to being the husband of a businessman...

In the late 1960s the dominant type of giallo film would seem to have been the sexed-up Hitchcock style thriller, most obviously represented by the likes of Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo and Paranoia.

It's perhaps no surprise that Riccardo Freda should also make a foray into this subgenre, given that he had already produced the Hitchcockian gothic The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock earlier in the decade, while for co-writer Lucio Fulci the appeal of the form seems likewise evident when we consider his own take on very similar material in Perversion Story.

But, if Doppia Faccia can be read at yet another revisioning of Vertigo in particular, it also has its own distinctive identity with one remaining unsure as to John Alexander's role in the proceedings right up until the end. Is he the victim of a conspiracy or a conspirator, the Scottie Ferguson or Gavin Elster figure?

The role is one that Klaus Kinski is ideally suited for, his innumerable forays into the German krimi film having previously established him as both the perfect villain and victim / red herring, most obviously in the case of Die Blaue Hand, where he actually plays both in the form of identical brothers.

As far as the krimi connection more generally goes, meanwhile, it's worth noting the characteristically askew British settings; the obligatory Scotland Yard investigator, here played by Gunther Stoll; and the fact that the film was marketed in Germany to play up the Edgar Wallace connection.

Yet, equally, the film is very much a late krimi where the tensions between the 1920s and the 1960s were becoming ever more apparent, with blue movies rather than white slavers in a colour rather than monochrome film.

But if the film's true authorship and generic position are debatable – one is almost tempted to say that the title A Doppia Faccia / Double Face could equally refer to the ambiguities here as within its own narrative – its effectiveness, bar some unconvincing modelwork of the sort that often comes with the territory, is far less so.

A hand-held, overlit sequence in the pornographers' studio sees Freda use the same subjective you-are-there camera as he did in The Ghost.

Freda goes predictably over the top in the hippie happening – or is that happening hippie – sequence, with the usual quota of psychedelic lights, zooms, whip pans and frenetic hand-held work. But while likewise obviously foregrounding the important clues such as John's black gloves, Helen's scar, ring and lighter for a first time or sensation seeking viewer, he also incorporates enough subtle details to reward an attentive or subsequent viewing when in full possession of the facts, be it the roses that recur throughout alongside the more familiar visual motifs of the mirror and the face half in shadow, or the seemingly casual line of dialogue.

The cast are uniformly good, Gabor Pogany's cinematography intruiging in its slightly shakiness, and Nora Orlandi's score beautifully excessive in a way which suits the mood of the piece – Liz calls Helen's favourite piece “stupid” at one point, while Helen responds that its precisely because it is “silly” that she so loves it.

Which, when you come down to it, is perhaps a perfect summation for A Doppia Faccia itself: if there are aspects which are hard to take seriously, you get the impression that more often than not the filmmakers were perfectly aware of this and knew that, in the scheme of things, this didn't really matter a bit...

The film is available on DVD from Alfa Digital in the US and as part of the Edgar Wallace krimi collection in Germany; these screenshots come from the old Luminous release. Advice on which DVD to upgrade to is welcomed.

During the hippie sequence an alternate version of one of the cues with vocals on top of it plays, which isn't included in the Lucertola soundtrack CD with The Devil's Nightmare; does anyone know if this cue has appeared elsewhere.

The Art of Italian Film Posters

This attractive coffee-table type book does as it says, looking at The Art of Italian Film Posters, from the silent era through to the end of the 1970s – a point author Mel Bagshaw identifies as the end for the best years of Italian cinema itself and the imaginative posters that advertised it.

Devoting equal attention to neo-realism and the genre cinema of the 60s and 70s, with the peplum, spaghetti western and horror / giallo each getting a chapter to their credit, the text is largely introductory with the selections of films whose art is featured rarely including anything too obscure.

Even so the broad scope of the book means that genre and arthouse focused readers alike are likely to encounter some films new to them, be it The White Sheik or Django the Bastard respectively, while it is always welcome to see the poster artists of any country be given their dues.

The analyses of the compositions of specific images are also fresh, even if sometimes they may give one cause for dispute. Might Giorgio Olivetti's artwork on the poster for Una Pistola per Ringo be “rather soft-edged” compared to the “gritty portrayals of the west” found elsewhere because Giuliano Gemma's Angel Face character is more like a classic American western hero than most of his counterparts, for example?

The best bit of trivia was that poster artist Rodolfo Gasparri – the western specialist – was the son of Franco Gasparri, the ill-fated star of the Marc the Narc films, which he also painted the posters for.

I would still say that the genre fan is better served by the poster selections in the Western ill'italiana and Horror all'italiana collections from Glittering Images or the various books by FAB and others increasingly devoted to single directors, while the best general books on the subject for me remain Maurizio Barino's Platea in piedi series – if, that is, you can find them...

Thursday 13 December 2007

Corleone da Brooklyn / From Corleone to Brookyln / The Sicilian Boss

Having secretly relocated from Palermo to New York under a false identity and passport, mafia boss Michele Barresi (Mario Barola) is intent on settling old scores back in the old country.

Meanwhile, Rome cop Lieutenant Berni (Maurizio Merli) is investigating one of the resulting hits and, suspecting a Sicilian connection, has arrived in Palermo.

The two men's paths intersect in the form of another mafioso, Salvatore Scalia (Biagio Pelligra).

All Berni has to do is bring Scalia to New York so that he can testify against Baressi, so that he can be extradited back to Italy.

All that stands between him and his goal are countless other mafioso and a long journey across unfamiliar territory, along with the quesion of whether Scalia won't try to escape, seek to extract his own justice upon Barresi, or simply refuse to testify...

Men with guns

Released in 1979, Corleone da Brooklyn / From Corleone to Brooklyn / The Sicilian Boss was to prove the last of Umberto Lenzi's cop films and his final collaboration with the iconic Merli, essaying a character different from Inspector Leonardo Tanzi in name only.

While the film delivers most of what fans will expect, it's telling that a follow-up hinted at by the closing exchange, which would have charted the return journey from Brooklyn to Corleone, never materialised as Lenzi turned his attention to more horror-oriented fare.

Maurizio Merli

The Rome / Palermo / New York culture clash aspect is a good idea in principle, but tends to be negated, at least in the English dub, by the fact that everyone is speaking the same language. A discussion of the Sicilian dialect term cosche, referring to the tightly-wrapped leaves of the artichoke and representing an ironic ideal model for the relationship amongst members of a mafia family, is thus robbed of of much of its potential significance, for example.

The more familiar material - the obligatory chases, fights and shoot outs - is well enough handled as might be expected, but also tends to suffer from overfamiliarity if you've seen the any of the earlier films.

I could almost predict the moment when that driving Franco Micalizzi music - I don't know if I've actually heard it before, or if it just seemed that way - was going to kick in and a car chase ensue. This time, however, it just seemed that bit perfunctory and by the motions, such that the pedestrians stepping out of the way of the onrushing vehicles at high speed are that bit more noticeable and less forgivable than their counterparts were a few years and films back.

On the plus side, the developing relationship between Berni and Scalia is interesting and works surprisingly well given one's image of Merli as an action rather than a dramatic lead, while the tension is rarely allowed to flag, helping cover over some narrative shortcomings - wouldn't a Brooklyn gang, even of none-too-smart and somewhat desperate junkie types, know that it was probably not wise to antagonise the two heavies who just happen to be the only customers in an Italian restaurant?

Trash film heaven, circa 1979

Lenzi fans will also enjoy playing spot the cameo appearance, even if the confinement of the likes of Gianfranco Cianfriglia to these roles is a touch sad. Trash cinema enthusiasts will likewise appreciate the images of pre-clean up New York, with a theatre marquee proudly proclaming porno features Fiona on Fire and Barbara Broadcast.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Colossus Projects

Just a "for your information" post:

Colossus, the Finnish progressive music association, has done a number of projects where contemporary progressive bands do new theme suites for films like Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good the Bad and the Ugly. They also have projects based on The Great Silence and Profondo Rosso in the works. Check them out if prog rock is your thing:,0,0,1,0,0

Tuesday 11 December 2007

A quick question

Recently I watched Sergio Martino's Arizona si scatenò... e li fece fuori tutti in which Gildo Di Marco, who plays Garullo the pimp in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, has a more prominent role as a character nicknamed Filthy Bottle.

He also seems at times to have a stutter or tic, just like Garullo. So, I'm wondering: is this just a coincidence, that the one actor happened to have two roles with this trait, or was it something he specialised in, or really had himself? The last possibility would seem odd, but not impossible in the crazy world of Italian genre cinema we all know and love.

Looking at Gildo Di Marco's credits, I was also surprised to discover he plays the hapless postman in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, though the absence of a good print of it makes it hard to see what he's saying there...

Sunday 9 December 2007

L' Infermiera / The Sensuous Nurse

The Bottacins – Benito, Iole (Luciana Paluzzi), Italia and Gustavo – have a problem. They want the family winery to go into partnership with the American Mr Kitch (Jack Palance), but need the approval of family patriarch Uncle Leonida, which is not forthcoming.

Leonida then suffers a seizure whilst making love to his mistress. Unfortunately for the rest of the family he doesn’t die, although the doctor’s prognosis gives them hope. Any shock or stimulation could easily trigger another, unquestionably fatal, attack.

The family thus hire sexy nurse Anna (Ursula Andress) in the hope that her ministrations will speed Leonida on his way.

The first problem is that Leonida proves rather more resilient than had been diagnosed.

The second is that Anna starts to have qualms about her appointed mission.

The third is that Adone, Iole’s teenage son, starts to have suspicions that something is up...

Yet another self-referential moments

Given the scenario and the presence of frequent giallo scribe Roberto Gianviti amongst its authors, one could well imagine this 1975 sex comedy being made five years earlier as a giallo. All that would really be needed would be a change in tone, with more double-crosses or an unidentified assassin or three who took a more direct route towards neutralising those whose interventions threatened their inheritance in the manner of, say, Bay of Blood or Five Dolls for an August Moon.

In this regard, it’s worth nothing how Adone actually pointedly reads a Mondadori giallo, Strategia del delitto, at one point, or ex-military man Gustavo’s kink of getting aroused whenever he hears the sounds of battle, as macabre yet played for laughs take on eros and thanatos.

Appealing beautifully to the lowest common denominator ;-)

As a sex comedy the film pushes all the right buttons, delivering what the male viewer wants from its female cast members, most notably in the form of Andress’s slow-motion naked swim, even as it also mocks his on-screen surrogates to create that space for critical distance and reflection for those who need or desire such.

But in the end it is the honest crassness of approach, of knowing exactly what the target audience – not the critics, theorists or the chattering classes in general – want and happily giving them it, that shines through and presents the most appealing aspect of The Sensuous Nurse.

The film is available on Region 0 NTSC DVD from Noshame, with a choice of English or Italian audio and optional subtitles.

Saturday 8 December 2007

La Casa dalle finestre che ridondo / The House with Laughing Windows

“My colours, my colours. They run hot in my veins, Sweet, my colours, so sweet. My colours are soft like the fall. Hot like fresh blood. The liquid falls down my arms. They enter people's minds. My colours they transcend me into darkness. My colours take me so far away, so far. My colours, they flow through my veins. My colours, my colours, they erase everything else. Purity, purity, my colours. My colours will paint death clearly. Death, I can tell. Death is coming. Death is here. Finally – Purification. Holding me at their mercy. Purify me. Death. My colours. I'm dying! I'm dying. Purify me! Purity.”

So proclaims an unidentified, manic voice-off over a slow-motion, sepia-tone image of a man slowly being tortured to death in a ritualistic manner.

The art of torture?

It's a powerful image that raises a number of questions for the subsequent narrative to resolve. Who is speaking? What is the relationship between their monologue and the image? What is the ontological status of all this - dream, memory, reality or some in-between state?

Whichever the case, the screen goes black and we cut to the more 'solid' and 'readable' arrival of a ferry across a flat, uniform landscape that would recall the Holland of Mill of the Stone Women (as another Italian horror film exploring the nexus of madness, art and death) were it not for the absence of iconic windmills. We soon learn that our location is the Po Valley in northern Italy and that the timeframe is not the early 20th century but its midpoint, some years after the end of the war and the fall of fascism.

The mayor, Solmi, and his drunken chauffer, Coppola.

On board the ferry is a young picture restorer, Stefano (Lino Capoliccihio), who has been brought to the village by its mayor, Solmi, to work on the fresco of St. Sebastian's martrydom that adorns one of the walls of its church in the hope that the restored piece, by the mysterious artist Legnani, might prove a tourist attraction.

A detail of the fresco; note that St Sebastian has been pierced with swords rather than the usual arrows

The fresco immediately strikes Stefano: “What an artist! To illustrate death so well!” The priest is, by contrast, somewhat more cynical, opining that the piece is too macabre and an unwanted distraction from the restoration of the church itself. “I discovered this crap was painted by the great Legnani. He left it unfinished, it needs to be restored. So now I have to start all over again. No peace for me!”

Another cut takes us to the village hotel, where Stefano has a room. By now the distinct rhythm of the editing is also becoming evident: we will abruptly cut from one scene to another without an establishing shot or after holding for an extra beat or two on some detail. It's a device that puts one on edge, and works well. The room opposite his is occupied by a woman, another outsider, whom the maid dismisses. “She should stay in her room, doing what she does.”

Some of the locals

Stefano receives a phone call, the first of many which always seem to reach him regardless of where he might be in the village at any given moment. The distinctive voice, perhaps the same one as we heard in the credits sequence, warns him to go away and not to touch the fresco.

Stefano goes to the village trattoria, populated by yet more of the local grotesques, for a meal. The woman from his hotel is also there. She makes a move to sit with him, but is intercepted by Stefano's friend Antonio, another outsider in the village and the one who got him the job.

Antonio is clearly still somewhat troubled but says that he is over his breakdown and that the change of air in the village has been beneficial. He also tells Stefano who the woman is, the local schoolteacher, and that she's a woman of questionable morals who's “been fucked by everyone,” putting an ambiguous slant on the maid's remarks earlier. If Stefano has any designs this way he had better be quick though, in case the woman is expelled.

Turning serious, Antonio asks if Stefano has seen the fresco and states his wish that his friend had waited to go see it with him instead. “I think I've discovered the strangest story ever.” Something stops Antonio from elaborating further, however, possibly the gaze of another of the locals. This prompts Stefano to voice his concerns once more. Antonio attempts to reassure him and indicates that he will call on Stefano later.

Back at the hotel, the schoolteacher and Stefano have tea before going to bed together, although the editing makes it unclear who initiated things and how far they went before concluding with the teacher's “If you feel lonely come back. You know the way.”

The next morning, Stefano meets Antonio as arranged. He starts to tell him about the “house with the laughing windows,” and elaborate further on the Langani's reputation as the “painter of agony,” intimating that the disturbing realism of his work may have been down to murder. The arrival of Solmi stops Antonio from explaining further.

En route to the church in Solmi's chauffered car, Stefano asks him about the painter. Solmi dismisses Antonio's account as bizarre notions, not to be taken seriously. The restorer is not reassured, however, also asking church handyman Lidio, a creepy Luciano Rossi junior type, who might have left the flowers by the fresco (having seen a woman on the opposite bank picking some identical looking ones as he and Antonio were talking) and if he knows anything about the threatening phone call.

We cut to the trattoria where Coppola (Gianni Cavina), Solmi's chauffer, being thrown out for drunkenness yet again threatens or rants: “You know that, if I wanted to... You know what I could do!”, prompting the owner, Poppi to come over to Stefano's table and reassure him:

“You are here for the painting?”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, everybody knows everything here. And thanks to Solmi, things improved a lot here. He's a brave man. Thought he's not tall, he's big. He has led the village to unity and prosperity.”

Poppi invites Stefano to see some of Legnani's paintings, all in the same distinctive style. One in particular catches the young man's attention: a female nude with a male head. According to Poppi his wife, who passes in the background and is the same one as Stefano saw picking flowers earlier, was the model, although he then contradicts himself by indicating that the artist, dominated by and afraid of women, never managed to find one to be his model.

A soft-focus scene, depicting the tortured artist at work ensues, followed by yet another phone call for Stefano. The caller is Antonio, needing to speak with him: “Don't mention my name. I need to speak with you. I must tell you the rest of the horrible story. I'm at the hotel, in your room.”

Stefano goes to meet his friend, but arrives to see him take a fatal dive out the hotel window. Looking up, a shadowy figure is apparent behind the curtain, while another unseen witness remarks that “someone pushed him from upstairs.” As a small crowd gathers, however, an old woman we see voices a different opinion: “Oh God! He took his own life! I knew it!!”

It is this view that prevails the next morning as Stefano talks with the local carabinieri, earlier seen helping expel Coppola from the trattoria. There is no motive for murder, and no evidence either, he explains. “Soon you'll understand. This is no place for a young man,” with all the young women of the village having left for the city...

A shot from early in the film and the concluding images, as another figure stops by the tree in front of the church

Perhaps the best route into La Casa dalle finestre che ridondo / The House with Laughing Windows is as the giallo equivalent of The Wicker Man, as films which are somewhat tangential to their genres and which will probably appeal to the kind of arthouse audience for whom a straight Argento or Hammer film is a touch low-class.

The problem that the genre aficionado may have, meanwhile, is the sense that Pupi Avati's 'superiority' to his material prevents him from fully embracing it; that he doesn't really believe in what he's doing except for at the level of an exercise in making a low-budget genre-type film.

Though technically the film is accomplished, and certainly far better directed than its British counterpart, the plotting is awkward.

The relationship of the locals to their shared secret and the outsiders in their midst simply doesn't convince. In The Wicker Man, we come to understand the islanders' logic: their crops have failed, they need a special sacrifice to appease the gods and the whole situation is contrived and orchestrated to achieve this end. Here, however, there's no comparable overriding sense of community, with too many outsiders - Coppola, the teacher - whose presence you feel would surely have become problematic long before Stefano arrives. Moreover, the mostri were/are themselves seemingly as prone to preying upon members of the community as anyone else.

With a more overtly fantastique approach this wouldn't itself matter, insofar as a cinematic logic of effect would take over from narrative logic of plausibility. Intriguingly, however, cinematic logic wasn't entirely the province of genre filmmakers, with Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs - from who I draw the notion - tellingly citing Alain Robe-Grillet's notion of literary generators in their formulation. Or, to put it another way, Avati's problem is again that his House is neither arthouse or grindhouse enough, too constrained by a safe, bourgeois notion of good taste.

Stefano finds the titular house

In this regard, one also notes his decidedly coy rather than exploitation- or art-film handling of the love scenes (i.e. Jess Franco = trash = pornography, Robe-Grillet = art = eroticism, as far as dominant assumptions go). While this is a trait that the film shares with Argento's early gialli, it cannot be readily explained away by reference to characters and situations as it can in, for example, the Giordani / Anna Terzi interlude in Cat o' Nine Tails. Fundamentally there's something wrong if Stefano's activities with the purportedly loose woman and her respectable replacement are depicted in exactly the same discrete, let's draw a veil over this manner. (It would be different if the two encounters had been given the same more explicit treatment, as a means of showing that, contrary to appearances, the behaviour of both women was identical.)

Yet another giallo tape recorder

Approaching the film as a giallo - here we can note the importance of a tape recorded aural fragment, a diary and a photograph as the story progresses, along with the McGuffin of the titular house itself - and looking for clues to the identity of the murderer(s) there really aren't that many suspects. Other aspects of the same character(s) presentation cheat a little too much, again suggesting that awkward in-between position, in this case between our full knowledge of the facts, suggesting suspense, and deliberately misleading us, suggesting shock.

Then again as the example of Psycho shows, even Hitchcock didn't always practice what he preached here, sometimes finding it necessary to reverse the implicit hierarchy of suspense as superior to shock. It's also to the filmmakers credit here that, in retrospect, the concluding revelation is somewhat foreshadowed if one looks and listens closely. One just wishes, however, they had had the courage to use this approach throughout and not, for instance, deployed a crude musical stinger as Lidio hands over a jerry can to an unidentified arm, instead letting his vague reply to Stefano's earlier question about its contents and a now you see it now you don't approach make the audience work through its potential significance that bit more.

All this probably makes it sound as though I didn't like The House with Laughing Windows. On the contrary, it has a lot of plus points: It's well directed, acted, shot, scored and edited, and has a strong atmosphere and sense of place. I think it's that because of all these plus points and the sense that it almost achieves greatless which made me that bit more aware of its arthouse and exploitation fence-sitting and, in the end, that overall impression of disingenuousness, of trading in genre cinema without honestly being committed to it in itself.

All the colours of the dark - Stefano enters a mysterious space

With a little bit more conviction, this could have been up there with Deep Red - a film where everything does come together, the non-sequiturs adding to the overriding impression of a shadowy world behind the everyday one - as one of the masterpieces of the giallo. As is, it's perhaps more a Don't Torture a Duckling for those who have a problem with Fulci's purportedly stereotypical, reactionary attitudes to southern Italians, or who are just uncomfortable admitting to themselves that the presence of a naked Barbara Bouchet or a gruesome spectacle of a priest having his face smashed in are a major part of the reason for watching...

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Cinici, infami e violenti

The first volume to be published by Bloodbuster, Cinici, infami e violenti – also the title of an Umberto Lenzi film, released in English as singular rather than plural The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist – provides a comprehensive guide to the Italian crime film circa 1971 to 1980.

The well-presented book, illustrated throughout with box cover and poster art, splits into four main parts: an introductory essay; an A-Z listing of productions; a gallery of 240 polizieschi performers; and listings of films by director, along with selected bibliography and discography.

The essay usefully highlights some of the main trends, film-makers and films, noting at the end the apparent omission of Fernando Di Leo from the preceding discussion on account of his preference for the term noir.

The A-Z listing represents the bulk of the volume. With the exception of a few rare titles unavailable on video or DVD each film is given a rating ranging between four bombs and a skull. Cast and crew information are also provided, along with a useful to-the-point review placing the individual film and noting points of interest. J&B spotters might care to note, for instance, that the excess of the product in Mario Bianchi's La Banda Vallanzasca is such, even by the standards of 1970s Italian cinema, that the authors describe it as “il vero protagonista del film”

For the more committed poliziesco viewer, the A-Z represents a useful checklist of obscurities to track down and see, while for the comparative newcomer it is useful simply to be able to work out what you've actually seen amongst the mass of sound-alike entries – nearly every major Italian city had its Violenta or Rovente entries it seems – and, by picking out the four-bomb titles and checking their DVD availability, what you still need to see.

Even if your Italian, like mine, isn't up to much – one hopes that there might in time be sufficient interest for an English translation, which might also note the language and subtitle options on the ever-growing range of DVD's – the mug shots of the performers and the listings by director will still prove useful. On the latter count, however, one also wishes that the authors had done the same for some of the main performers such as Tomas Milian, Henry Silva and Luc Merenda, and composers, such as Stelvio Cipriani and Franco Micalizzi.

Then again, armed with the information in the book, the IMDB and Google, new vistas of Eurotrash are opened up to be explored...

Bloody Moon / Die Säge des Todes

"Miguel, don't look at me that way. I'm your sister. Go back to the dance."

Halloween Franco style

There, watching the others enjoying themselves and deciding he wouldn’t mind a piece of the action the deformed young man dons a Mickey Mouse mask to hide his features and decides to pose as one of the dancers’ boyfriends.

The ruse works, up to a point. But as Miguel comes on too strong, the girl realizes something is up and pulls off his mask, her reaction one of predictable horror. In response Miguel grabs a handy pair of scissors and proceeds to stab her to death.

There has to be a porn film in this; the air pirates fly again

The credits roll.

Five years later and Manuela arrives to collect Miguel from the clinic where has been being treated for his homicidal tendencies. The doctor opines that Miguel is more or less cured, but also warns that the young man should not be subjected to any trauma, lest he relapse.

One of the usual suspects the mute handyman

Indeed, on the train to there is a tense moment as for one moment Manuela fears Miguel has relapsed and killed a student, Angela, though it turns out that she had simply dropped out of sight momentarily. More importantly, however, is the fact that Angela, en route to the language school that forms part of the resort complex, does not immediately recoil in fear or disgust at the sight of Miguel’s deformity, thus establishing a potential beauty and the beast scenario.

The Countessa

Soon thereafter, someone murders the wheelchair-bound Countessa. Perhaps it is Manuela, displeased that the old woman disinherited her in favour of her brother. Perhaps Miguel learned he was to inherit and decided to speed the process along. Or maybe it’s Alvaro, whose language school is in dire need of a cash injection...

Whoever they may be, the killer then starts to work his or her way through the students at the school. Angela, by this point singled out as our point of identification, finds her friend Inga’s body with a knife through it, but Inga’s body vanishes before she can show it to anyone else.

Classic slasher / splatter imagery; with Franco the 180-degree rule is entirely optional

Maybe Inga did just go off on a boat trip with Angelo, the resort’s resident lady killer. But, if so, why would Angela also hear a threatening message on her language tape before narrowly avoiding being crushed by a falling boulder…

Given the popularity of the slasher film in the early 1980s the question was less whether prolific Spanish trash auteur Jesus Franco would make one as what he would make of it.

On my first viewing of Bloody Moon four or so years ago my impression was not much: the film seemed to be a relatively impersonal one in which most of Franco’s idiosyncrasies were subordinated to delivering the generic goods in the form of suspense, shocks and splatter and sleaze.

Revisiting the film, however, I’m no longer so sure. Certainly Franco had done his homework, as the Halloween-esque pre-credits incident attests to in particular.

Yet already there seems that characteristic hint of subversion through Miguel’s donning of the frankly ludicrous looking Mickey Mouse mask. It’s the kind of thing which an American director wouldn’t think of or wouldn’t have been able to get away with.

It’s also apparent in the way he references Bava’s Bay of Blood and Five Dolls for an August Moon – as two previous films which took the giallo and worked it into black comedy – through the figure of the Countess and the eventual re-appearance of Inga’s corpse in a wardrobe, suspended on a coat hanger and wrapped in clear plastic.

Wrapped in plastic

In this regard, it’s notable that for every slasher trope there also seems to be a giallo one. One wonders, for instance, whether Miguel is the Michael Myers figure his forename would suggest, the unknowable monster whose overriding impulse is to kill, or a too-obvious red herring more like Claudio Volonte's character in Bay of Blood.

Likewise, if the film is replete with voyeuristic scenario, these are shared out amongst the characters regardless of gender, as when some of the girls – many of whom are soon to die, admittedly – look in on another of their number as she feigns a sexual encounter.

A dummy torso that looks like a masked killer from Torso

Even more interesting in this regard is the child who almost saves one of the girls from being decapitated by the circular saw from which the film presumably gains its German title. Though the scenario here relies heavily upon the idiot plot, with the girl consenting to being tied up on the board by the unidentified, black glove wearing figure, and features some not entirely convincing make-up effects – though, as ever with Franco this sense of artifice could be intentional, in sharp contrast to the unfortunately all too real killing of a snake which appears to threaten Angela at another point – the tension generated and ensuing shock set piece are undeniably effective.

So too is the climax of the sequence as the killer, having dealt with Angela, then unceremoniously runs over the child, as the eye-witness. Again, it’s the sort of thing that only a director like Franco would have the audacity to do. (Carpenter, of course, also had a child character unceremoniously killed in Assault on Precinct 13, eliciting shocked 'I can't believe they did that' reactions.)

The saw of death

Stylistically the film is less interesting. Though Franco’s characteristic zooms and peripatetic camerawork are there, both come across as devices motivated more by economy than formal experimentation, in sharp contrast to Five Dolls for an August Moon.

Gerhard Heinz’s score is frankly dire.